Baltimore's Heritage Shadows of the Silver Screen Cinema, a showplace for African-American films since its opening in 2000, is packing its bags and moving to the suburbs.
Set for a May opening, the new two-screen Towson location, on Taylor Avenue in the old Hillendale theater, will allow for more and better films than the current single-screen facility on North Avenue, just east of Charles Street, says Heritage founder Michael Johnson. He also hopes the new location will entice those who may have been put off by the parking problems that afflict the North Avenue site, as well as by the location, in one of the city's grittier areas.
"We did the best we could, given the location we were at," Johnson says. "We might have had some pretty decent crowds over the past couple years, but I noticed that people weren't coming back. About six months ago, we sent out about 1,000 e-mails, asking two questions, 'What do you like about Heritage?' and 'What don't you like?' People talked about the lack of parking, the location and that we weren't in a position to show new, commercial films."
The move to Baltimore County should alleviate all three of those concerns, Johnson says. The theater is in a shopping center, which will make parking more convenient. Having two screens will enable Heritage to operate as both an arthouse cinema, showing small-scale independent as well as classic films, and a first-run theater.
As for location, "We have a large, moderate, upper-middle-class African-American community east of us," Johnson says, "and west of us, we have a great mixed community."
In another effort to expand Heritage's fan base, Johnson says, Heritage will not limit its offerings to films dealing with or made by African-Americans. "Every now and then, we will show some Bette Davises and other classic films," he says. "We went door-to-door in the neighborhood, we must have knocked on 150 doors, and asked people what they would like to see there. That's what they told us they'd like to see."
One screen, the 255-seat Howard Rollins Cinema I (named for the late, Oscar-nominated Baltimore actor), will be devoted to repertory and revival offerings, much like the current Heritage. Johnson hopes to book first-run films into the larger, 461-seat theater, which he's christened the Grand Oscar Micheaux Cinema II. Micheaux was a pioneering black filmmaker, one of the most prolific and respected directors of what were then known as "race" films.
"We're going to be economically a little smarter this time," Johnson says. "We want to bring the romance back to theaters."
Johnson plans to open his CinemaPlex May 1 with a four-day, 30-film festival dubbed "The Heritage Black Films and Black Filmmakers Showcase." For opening night, he hopes to present a 60th-anniversary screening of Cabin in the Sky, a 1943 MGM musical (the first film directed by the great Vincente Minnelli) that showcased many of the greatest black actors of its day. The cast includes Ethel Waters, Eddie Anderson, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong and Rex Ingram.