I grew up without a TV. Instead, my dad would take me to Humphrey Bogart and Marx Brothers double features at theaters like The Charles. While it’s still doing well, you can't help but notice the decaying old neighborhood theaters all over town. Some have been repurposed into drug stores or churches, some are vacant.
As the director for the Maryland Film Festival (MdFF), seeing these abandoned cinemas made me curious about what Baltimore’s movie landscape looked like before television, when our map was dotted with well over a hundred movie houses.
About five years ago, the city announced a call for projects to restore the Parkway Theatre, a 102-year-old movie theater at the corner of Charles and North, largely vacant for decades. MdFF, which has been around for 19 years, needed a year-round home. The city selected our proposal — which was fantastic news, but suddenly, we had to raise roughly $18 million to restore the original auditorium and build two adjacent cinemas from scratch. Thanks in large part a generous naming gift, we succeeded.
We opened the three-screen Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway in May with the Maryland Film Festival 2017. A major highlight for me was our 35mm screening of Agnès Varda’s “Vagabond,” curated and introduced by the band Beach House. It was the first 35mm screening in this historic theater in almost 40 years; 300 people came.
Now that the lights are back on at the Parkway, which will operate year round, there’s a lot of attention paid to it. Station North is the neighborhood where the city comes together for live music of all genres and talks at Red Emma’s. I’ve been going out on the corner, meeting people, handing out our calendars and getting feedback.
Baltimore is proudly iconoclastic, and sadly a city where a destructive drug war is being waged, but it’s also so many other things. Music and the visual arts are thriving. Exciting filmmakers like Theo Anthony, Karen Yasinsky, and Ramona S. Diaz are living and working here, making intriguing and challenging movies from distinct personal viewpoints.
Baltimore is the city that raised John Waters. MdFF is a festival where the transgressive Greek dark comedy “Dogtooth” ranks among our all-time best-selling films. People here are hungry for movies that are different and have some bite. On a very simple level, you make sure you’re not just putting work by straight white men up on the screen.
The first week at the Parkway, we did a calendar of ‘60s and ‘70s movies: films like “Daisies,” “Portrait of Jason,” and “Touki Bouki”; some very challenging but culturally essential titles. The next week, we had '80s comedies. It felt great handing out our calendar that week because it just clicked for everyone, refocusing me on how much of a need there is for a repertory cinema that's not just highbrow cinema and strikes a wide variety of notes.
Every day I'm trying to meet people, to underscore that this is a friendly place with a specific cultural mission, but also that its mission is written broadly enough that it can appeal to every person. Because I don’t want the Parkway to only be a destination theater for people outside the neighborhood. It needs to speak to the people who pass by every day.
Baltimore now feels similar to how I imagine New York in the 1970s felt — alive. The danger is that Baltimore could turn into New York in the 2000s, however: a sanitized city where people get priced out.
Eric Hatch (email@example.com) is the director of programming for MdFF. A longer version of this piece, distilled from an interview between Eric Hatch and Chandler Levack, digital editor and staff writer at TIFF, originally appeared in Toronto International Film Festival's newsletter The Review.