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Baltimore poorer for lack of silver screens


THE MOVIE directory section of The Sun lists only two movie theaters in Baltimore city, together showing a total of six films.

Five movies are shown at the Charles Theater downtown on Charles Street and one is shown at the Senator on York Road. Earlier this year, the Rotunda, a movie theater on 40th Street, closed.

Baltimore's population, according to the 2000 Census, is 651,154, so if there is a hit in town a lot of people are going to stand in line or go to one of the counties. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone just opened at the Senator and should pack them in.

A dearth of movie theaters is an odd statistic for a city that has a symphony, opera, theaters, museums, professional teams and some snappy restaurants and wants to appear sophisticated and inviting.

When I was a teen-ager in the 1950s, there were at least a dozen movie theaters in Baltimore to which my friends and I either could take the bus or walk. (Yes, those were pleasant times when it was safe for kids over about 12 to take the bus or hike around a lot of the city.)

I lived several blocks north of Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus and could get to the Boulevard, Senator, Parkway, Century or Valencia, the Hampden or Ideal, the Little, Keiths, New, Stanley, Town or Hippodrome.

There was also the Rex on York Road that showed Westerns and later what were quaintly called "blue" movies, to which I wasn't permitted to go.

Until the 1960s, Maryland actually had a state censor who judged which movies were fit for civilized, fairly chaste consumption.

Of course, before cable and video, there was only one way to see a recent movie -- at the theater.

Only the Senator remains from that list of theaters now, although the Hippodrome is being renovated. In the 1950s and 1960s, Baltimore, with over 900,000 people, was the sixth-largest city in the nation; now it's the 17th.

There weren't many movie theaters in the counties 40 or 50 years ago; suburban sprawl hadn't gotten started. In Baltimore County, I remember just the Pikes and Towson. Now there are 10 movie multiplexes in the county, some showing as many as 10 or 12 films.

Less is certainly not more in the motion picture business.

Small theaters show movies only in the evening during the week, but the revered Senator shows its one film in its large 62-year-old Art Deco theater, often from 1 p.m. on.

The lack of movie theaters in the city signals more loss of community, like the demise of small retail stores in favor of impersonal malls, like the reduced number of private pharmacies and like how videos and the Internet keep us home alone.

We are less likely to sigh or laugh or cry or cheer (or jeer) together in a movie theater than in years past because they're hard for us to get to and expensive (often $7 a ticket), and because we can watch them at home a year or so after they're released.

Easy access to the movies has been lost, and the city is the poorer for it.

Today's writer

Ann Egerton is a free-lance writer and Baltimore native who lives about 100 yards over the Baltimore City line.

City Diary provides a forum for examing issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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