Theater's last hurrah

Tucked away in Federal Hill - and in the minds of many an old-timer - is a shell of a grand movie theater built in 1917 during the heyday of silent movies when tickets cost 10 cents.

The cavernous McHenry Theatre quickly became the center of the neighborhood social scene and was the last of the area's golden-era movie houses when it closed in 1971.


After being dark for three decades, the McHenry Theatre is making a comeback with one last picture show, for one night only.

The theater - which opened May 26, 1917, with The Undying Flame starring Olga Petrova - will be converted into technology offices by early next year.


On Tuesday, the new developer will open the doors to the public for The Last Performance of the McHenry Theatre, complete with uniformed ushers, silent movies, refreshments and live classical music.

The free event begins at 7 p.m. in the theater, at Light and Poultney streets, next to Cross Street Market.

The program includes silent movies The Black Pirate, The Extra Girl and a series of short comedies.

"This is the last time people will see this dramatic theater in this way," said Patrick Turner, the developer who is spending between $5,000 and $8,000 for the McHenry's last hurrah before converting the 12,000-square-foot building.

Key Technologies, a firm with offices on Key Highway, is expected to move into half of the building at the end of the year. The other half has not been leased.

The theater, largely invisible from the street, once held as many as 1,100 patrons and was decorated with a domed ceiling and double columns down the wall.

For many in Baltimore, it was the only way to see Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and other starlets of the silver screen.

"Everybody in South Baltimore must have gone to the McHenry," said Robert Headley, author of the book Exit, a history of Baltimore's movie houses. "The McHenry was at the top of the heap."


According to Headley's book, movie houses became such a craze in the city that by 1914 the city had 113 theaters. Many were get-rich-quick schemes, and few survived.

Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator Theatre, which was built in 1939 and still operates as a movie house, said the McHenry was the "jewel of South Baltimore."

Kiefaber's family, which bought 40 single-screen movie houses in Baltimore, owned the McHenry from 1925 until it closed in 1971.

He said movie houses were gathering places where people went for entertainment and news before the invention of television.

Several efforts were made to return the theater to a working movie house, including a bid in the 1980s by Nancy Morstein Boltz, sister of Sonny Morstein, president of the South Baltimore/Federal Hill Marketplace Business Association.

"It's a little sad it didn't come to fruition, but down here office space is important, and there is a need for it," Sonny Morstein said.


"If I had a choice, I'd take a theater," he added, "but being realistic, I know offices will bring jobs and customers to the neighborhood."

The new office space will be in what was the theater's seating and stage area.

Since it closed in 1971, the building has housed a restaurant, convenience store, warehouse and Goodwill thrift store.

The space was most recently used as an arcade with batting cages but has been vacant for more than two years.

The Blue Agave Mexican restaurant, which opened last year, occupies the former box office. The developer has said the restaurant will remain in the building.

Jim Norton, 58, who lives on South Charles Street, said he spent so much time at the McHenry as a boy that he feels odd every time he walks into the Blue Agave, though he likes the food.


"I saw one of the last movies at the McHenry before it closed," Norton said. "When it closed, it was the end of a really nice era. I had a feeling of emptiness for a while."