ANYONE pondering why Michael Johnson would move the Heritage Cineplex from the Baltimore area to another location should have been there Sunday evening for what might have been the Heritage's last show in these parts.
All of five people were on hand to view Up Against the 8 Ball, a fine comedy-drama about two black college co-eds who enter a pool tournament to earn money for their last year of school. Well-written and well-acted, the movie was enough to make me forget, for a moment, that travesty called Soul Plane that stank out movie theaters not long ago. I've personally sent the Noogie Squad after anyone who had anything remotely to do with Soul Plane.
Up Against the 8 Ball was different fare. Johnson frequently brought such to the Heritage, which he opened to run classic black films and to give novice African-American directors a place to show their movies. But this is his 14th month at 1045 Taylor Ave. in Towson. And while he put bodies in those seats for first-run films like Bad Boys 2, S.W.A.T., Barbershop 2, The Fighting Temptations and The Passion of the Christ, the numbers weren't what he hoped for.
The lack of bodies, according to Johnson, hasn't put the Heritage in any financial trouble. That's not why he's thinking of making a move.
"We aren't leaving because of financial strife," Johnson said Sunday just before the 6:30 p.m. show. "We're actually being recruited."
Black directors in Philadelphia, Johnson said, have pleaded with him to move the Heritage there.
"They tell me black folks would be lined up around the corner for something like this," Johnson said. Folks in Riverdale in Prince George's County and in Atlantic City, N.J., have also expressed interest in having the Heritage move to those places, Johnson said.
Compare that to the audiences Johnson has gotten here, which weren't bad for first-run movies but weren't lined up around the corner either. But Johnson isn't disappointed in the lack of customer support. It's the lack of support from black organizations and institutions that he laments.
"I'm still disappointed with the local branch of the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus for having their events in other theaters," Johnson said. He was referring to the local NAACP branch holding its Image Awards show at the Charles, while the black caucus, led by Rep. Elijah Cummings, elected to sponsor a showing of the HBO film Something the Lord Made at the Senator.
A couple of black church groups saw The Passion of the Christ at the Heritage - a film that "did better in the black community than any black film in the history of black films," Johnson said. But larger black groups opted to see the film at the Senator.
Johnson is quick to praise those who supported the Heritage. Baltimore County Executive James Smith was chief among them, along with elected officials who made it their business to support his theater house. Johnson mentioned Baltimore City Council members Lisa Stancil, Cathy Pugh, Keiffer Mitchell, Melvin Stukes and Kenneth Harris and Baltimore County Councilman Ken Oliver as folks who have been by the Heritage and plunked down some cold hard cash to see movies.
They stood in sharp contrast, Johnson noted, to those black elected officials Johnson said he saw coming out of other theaters showing the same films he did. And they never made it to the Heritage. No wonder the guy's thinking about moving.
Those who passed on making that trip to the Heritage, Johnson said, should know that they passed on an independent movie house (which means, among other things, Johnson didn't insult his customers by showing commercials before films). The Heritage ran 17 independent films in 18 months, 20 or 21 classic black films, 11 first-run films, two film festivals totaling 60 movies and had $2 nights for college students on Tuesdays. Throw in the talent shows, summer movie camps and youngsters Johnson trained in the business, and you have some idea of what we're losing.
Joe Bahar, 16, learned how to be a projectionist at the Heritage. He also directed a talent show and helps manage the place.
"That's a good opportunity," Bahar said. "I don't know how many 16-year-old managers there are."
Keon Lambert, also 16, works the projector and behind the concession stand. Chris LaMartina, 19, is a projectionist and manager who, as the lone white guy in the group, found he didn't know much about the history of black films. But, Johnson said, LaMartina learned fast.
LaMartina, a Towson University student, said his experience at Heritage convinced him that a lot of film "instruments and technology are slowly going the way of the buffalo."
Thanks to the apathy of black Baltimoreans, we will probably be saying the same thing about the Heritage's stay in Baltimore.