THE OTHER NIGHT I heard that some classic movies would be exhibited at the Hippodrome next week before The King and I opens. Hmm, I thought, it's about time projectors were being turned on there.
Cleopatra will be shown at 8 p.m. Thursday. It is a spectacle whose arrival in Baltimore I well remember, for reasons that have nothing to do with cinema art. (By the way, if you haven't been to the Hipp, a $7 movie ticket for Cleopatra or some of the other attractions sounds like a classic Baltimore bargain.)
In its day, that summer of 1963, the Queen of the Nile's arrival here was a big story. At $44 million the most expensive film made to date, it was a huge Hippodrome attraction, sold with reserved seats and a dump truck full of fanfare.
Baltimore was subjected to a major publicity campaign, much focused at the Hippodrome, which even 40-some years ago was viewed as a venerable house in a downtown where fewer people shopped each year. Newer suburban theaters had only to open their doors and be crowded. Downtown had to make a good case for patronage. It was trying; the Kingston Trio played the old Civic Center about the time the film opened.
I think the side of every Baltimore Transit Co. bus and streetcar was plastered with a lateral sign reading "Cleopatra."
The owners of the Hippodrome banked so much on the promise of the film's draw that they had the theater's interior walls draped in a rosy-peach fabric, which critic R.H. Gardner said suggested "the inside of a casket." His assessment aside, that cloth endured, with dust, until the Hipp was recently renovated.
While the Hippodrome received a new pink dress, all the department stores were selling a nail polish, Cleopatra Red.
How do I recall this product? A vial of the enamel landed in my bedroom under unexpected circumstances.
Bertha Hollander, a wonderful family friend, came to Baltimore for an event, perhaps a wedding, and stayed with us several days. Somehow, my room was selected as the guest suite, and I moved elsewhere.
After she returned to Philadelphia, I returned to my quarters and found she had left her nail polish, the much-discussed Cleopatra Red, on my dresser. It became quite a family story. At age 12, I think I used the remainder of the nail paint to cover the wings of a model airplane.
There were sordid stories circulating in the press about the hot romance between Cleopatra stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. These tales would be tame supermarket tabloid stuff today, but back then, for some reason, they caught on enough to have my grandfather, E.J. Monaghan, denounce the film on moral principles. I also recall how he pronounced its name, Cle-o-PAY-tra.
Pop Monaghan was an old man, very near the end of his life. He didn't need a cheap thrill, especially one concocted by a press agent. He reflected back to the Baltimore he knew of 1915, when he first arrived here from Pennsylvania. The Hippodrome was then new and he liked nothing better than a classic vaudeville performance of live comedians, singers, animal acts and assorted entertainers.
Not long before he died in 1963, he took me to one of the downtown theaters. He stood by the brass rail at the orchestra pit, pointed to the stage, and in reverential tones, explained that up there he had watched W.C. Fields juggle.