Fond memories of a legendary black theater; Recalling Black History


THE RECENT funeral of a friend stirred up nostalgic feelings for many of us baby boomers in attendance because the setting was the old Harlem theater, now the Harlem Park Community Baptist Church on North Gilmor Street in West Baltimore.

My friends and I grew up in a Baltimore with neighborhoods rigidly defined by race, class and movie theaters. Yes, the cultural significance of those now-vanished showplaces may be overlooked by the general public, but their names still resonate with those old enough to remember the Bridge, the Lafayette, the Biddle, the Regent, the Met, the Roosevelt, the Carey, the New Albert, the Capitol and many others. At one time Baltimore had some 90 movie theaters.

By trappings and location, the Harlem was a cut above the rest. It had a cavernous three-story high ceiling, a balcony, carpeted floors and thick cushioned seats.

Besides the movies, its main attraction was a celestial ceiling with twinkling electrical stars and projected clouds that floated over movie-goers' heads. Across the street, there was a public square that was perfectly suited for re-enacting the latest action movies.

A meal, too

Then there was that singular attraction for which the Harlem had no rivals: hot dogs. To be sure, other theaters sold hot dogs, but only the Harlem's were memorable. They were big, steam-cooked kosher hotdogs served on hot, chewy buns.

For pocket change, an entire Saturday afternoon could be spent in air-conditioned comfort, enjoying a tasty meal, cheering heroes, scorning villains, laughing uproariously or cowering in fright.

The only emotional expression not permitted a boy by his peers was crying. Inasmuch as the statute of limitations has no doubt expired, I plead guilty to one count of crying in the Harlem. It happened at a showing of "Imitation of Life."

The movie, a classic tragic mulatto story of a black woman passing for white then returning to the fold of the black community, is a tear-jerker. Others were forgettable. I sometimes accompanied my aunts to the Harlem and was bored stiff by movie themes for which I had no frame of reference: romantic love. Giggling girls armed with boxes of tissues notwithstanding, I returned with my aunts again and again. Why did I go? Hot dogs.

One last confession, I didn't really lose the money to buy a card for Nick's seventh birthday party. The Harlem made me do it.

Alas, like all juvenile pleasures, the neighborhood movie house experience was fleeting. Those theater houses existed as an appendage to enforced racial segregation and were therefore doomed by the mid-'60s. Racial segregation was horse-and-buggy public policy.

Medium and the message

Moreover, film-making was on the cutting edge of a mass communications revolution that would supplant traditional sources of information. Baby boomers would come to disown old stereotypes of all kinds. Modern popular culture came of age with the movies.

Racial segregation decreased as the generation gap increased. Our generation would not be distinguished by what we knew so much as how we came to know it. As Marshall McLuhan observed, the medium became the message.

It is ironic that showing the same motion pictures in segregated theaters had the effect of helping to undermine segregation as public policy. Whether you were a kid sitting in a theater in Upton or Highlandtown, your thinking was shaped by what you saw on the screen.

The overlooked significance of those by-gone neighborhood theaters is obvious to everyone who remembers them. The words of Ralph Waldo Emerson apply: "We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience and verifying them here. All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography."

The Harlem operated as a theater longer than most of the others. I last went there to see a film in the early '70s. The feature was "Ben," the story of a heroic rat, with a theme song by Michael Jackson.

Gregory L. Lewis is a Baltimore lawyer.

Pub Date: 2/15/99

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