Cinema Paradiso


Bucket of popcorn with a admit one movie ticket, isolated on white
Drive across the city and ponder the shells of the old movie theaters that used to be, the little neighborhood dream palaces, the Cinema Paradisos, where Baltimoreans of long ago (and not so long ago) went to escape. Summer is an especially good time to reflect on this—for, in the old days, going to the movies was also about cooling off. Movie theaters pioneered air conditioning in public spaces! They used to advertise how “chill” it was inside with images of polar bears and icicles and Eskimos.

Baltimore was like Calcutta once upon a time (if you believe the stories) and the heat was insufferable. People really did sleep outdoors in the parks. I have met such people, although I’m not advocating that sort of activity now.

The heat was not the only thing that Americans went to the movies to escape. It takes little imagination to see what the movie theater offered during the Depression or World War II. The ghosts of that glorious past are all about us. I often pass the old Horn on West Pratt Street—now doing business in another form of escapism as the Holy Temple Holiness Church of Deliverance. Then there’s the poor old Fulton, burned down a few years ago after a second life in the fields of the Lord as the Gateway Church of Christ. That happens to a lot of old movie theaters, perfect venues for
another sort of illusion. It could be worse. The old Howard was for a time a Dunkin’ Donuts if memory serves.

But some ancient movie houses find salvation, so to speak. Happily, plans are now in the works to reopen the once opulent Parkway Theater on North Avenue. The grand old Hippodrome already has been reincarnated as a real theater. The venerable Patterson on Eastern Avenue has a fine new life as headquarters for the Creative Alliance. The refurbished Senator is up and running and The Charles, owned by the same family, still screens good movies.

My favorite film last year was called “Ida” about a young Polish nun and her drunken aunt. Shot in black and white. No special effects (other than vodka). It had subtitles (I do not speak Polish). It was 82 minutes long and was made for about two million euros. That’s practically a home-movie budget these days.

I regularly pass what remains of the old Boulevard at 33rd and Greenmount with its grand bas-relief exterior. The Waverly was just down the way, and there was the Ideal on The Avenue in Hampden. The Apex on Broadway closed up a couple of years ago, the last dirty picture show in the City of Charm.

Baltimore never wanted for places where people went to dream, whatever those dreams might have involved.

The ruins of the old movie palaces are all about us; melancholic reminders of the world Fred Allen called “only yesterday.” It would take a heart of stone to look at the hulking remains of the once spectacular Mayfair on Howard Street and not sigh. Even with its roof caved in it has a grandeur that you won’t ever find at a suburban multiplex. They just don’t make them like that anymore.
The Mayfair, around the corner from the old Congress Hotel (Marble Bar), is said to date from 1870—that’s five years after the Civil War ended. What will become of it? Its old neighbors are gone now, too. The Stanley. The Little.

I grew up in a grim New England mill town where we sorely needed dream palaces. The movie theaters were the State, Haines and Opera House—and I could walk to all of them. There I studied the works of Edgar Allan Poe under the tutelage of Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, radical departures from the source material but instructive nonetheless. And the Three Stooges. I have a Talmudic familiarity with their work (a thing my wife and daughter disapprove of). These theaters screened double features and triple features—often for as little as 25 cents. Mostly horror films to help us escape from the real horror of living in a grim mill town. Long-ago summer days filled with of Milk Duds, Charleston Chews and Sno-Caps.

Kids snuck into the movies back then. One bad boy would buy a ticket and then run to the back of the theater and open the fire door and a dozen wicked children would stream into the theater while the asthmatic usher, who wore a uniform right out of the Grand Budapest Hotel, chased them. This happened every Saturday. If you’ve never snuck into a movie, you’ve missed part of having an American childhood. In Baltimore, it’s not too late.

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