On a frigid Friday night in January, so much foot traffic crowds the 1700 block of Charles St. that the feel of a block party prevails, even though the revelers wear smart winter coats and hats instead of Hawaiian shirts, and little clouds of breath plume from their mouths. The ticket line at the Charles Theatre runs halfway down the block. Patrons squeezing into the adjacent Tapas Teatro Café pack it to the bursting point.
Tight flocks of pedestrians cross the street to the Club Charles lounge and the Zodiac restaurant, and, at the north end of the block, people are pouring into the Everyman Theatre to see the August Wilson play “Fences.” Cars line up to enter the block’s single parking garage only to discover it’s full, and drivers are forced to hunt for far-flung spots or chance onto one of the odd makeshift neighborhood “lots” that don’t exactly scream “security.”
It’s a big night for the movie theater — the opening of the critically acclaimed Robert Altman film “Gosford Park”— but the frenetic energy isn’t that unusual. It’s becoming the norm, in fact, in this block where through-traffic has been blocked because of construction on the Charles Street bridge; a block where steps away in almost every direction crime and vagrancy persist; and where a few years ago the streetscape was more Pottersville than Bedford Falls.
So, what’s going on here?
There is a chemistry to commerce. Some neighborhoods get a coffee shop here, a bistro or a bookstore there, but they never ferment. They lack an ingredient, the elusive one-more-thing that by its simple addition suddenly gilds the rest of the shops on the block. Such had been the case along the 1700 block of Charles St.
The single-screen Charles Theatre had been showing movies since it opened in 1939 as the Times Theater. Club Charles, the crimson-drenched hipster hangout, had first opened its doors in 1951 as the Wigwam. The Everyman Theatre premiered its first play on the block in 1994. People patronized all three establishments, but the block wasn’t exactly buzzing.
“When we came into this block it was 60 percent vacant,” says Vincent Lancisi, artistic director of the Everyman. “There was no Zodiac or Tapas Teatro. The old Chesapeake Restaurant was closed. There was very little lighting up the street.”
Worse yet, bankruptcy was closing the doors of the Charles Theatre.
John Standiford, 37, a devoted cinephile who had been working at the Charles as a projectionist, and his uncle, James “Buzz” Cusack, began talking about buying the theater. “We talked about what it would take to reopen it, and it wasn’t much,” says Cusack, 60. “I saw the theater as a great asset, with a lot of revenue attached to it.”
He and Standiford began speaking with area investors, and they sparked enough interest to reopen the theater. But business, Standiford recalls, was weak. “We weren’t doing well as a single-source for the same reasons [the previous owner] wasn’t doing well,” he says of the limitations of having one screen.
Cusack, a bearded, laconic, straight-shooting contractor who renovates old buildings, quickly began eyeing the turn-of-the-century, 11,000-square-foot property next door to the theater. It had started out as a cable car terminal but had also been a streetcar station, a bowling alley, offices and a ballroom. He leased the space, installed four new movie theaters with stadium seating, hired architect Alex Castro to create artful industrial spaces, and hired a former Charles Theatre employee, Baltimore interior designer Jonathan Maxwell, to craft an arresting art deco style for the lobby. They also carved out space for a restaurant in the process.
Business accelerated immediately after the renovated Charles opened in 1999. Tapas Teatro moved into the theater building last May. And now, with the sidewalks crowded and the parking garage filling up, Cusack can wax sanguine about the future of the area. “There is a reluctance to come into the city, and a reluctance to come to this neighborhood,” he says. “That’s slowly breaking down.”
Jed Dietz, the director of the Maryland Film Festival, is effusive about the merits of what Cusack, Standiford and their investors have created. “No city in America has anything quite like the Charles,” he says. “It’s the filmmakers’ Camden Yards. They got it right. It’s the total package, from the look and feel of the place to the sound and picture quality. We’ve hosted filmmakers from all over the world, and they love to show their films there,” adds Dietz, who opens his fourth annual festival May 2 (for information, see http://www.mdfilmfest.com).
On Sunday mornings, the theater holds previews of upcoming films, complete with lectures, bagels and coffee. And in December, it started hosting Saturday afternoon screenings of revival Hollywood and European films. Standiford chooses the revivals, such as the 1949 Orson Welles film “The Third Man,” which played in February. He’s willing to keep running the revivals for as long as they at least break-even. “We’re going into it with the attitude that we’ll play what we feel like playing,” he says.
A professional booking agent selects the films the theater normally runs, which Standiford describes as “specialty films— documentary, foreign and limited-release works. It’s rare that we’d show a wide-release film,” he adds.
The Charles’ business really took off this summer, when the movie-theater conglomerate Loews Cineplex Entertainment declared bankruptcy and the corporation’s theater in the Rotunda shopping center in Hampden went dark. “We’re doing well because we are playing movies that people want to see, and we can do that because we aren’t competing with a chain,” says Standiford. Now, Senator Theatre owner Tom Kiefaber is completely overhauling the Rotunda theaters and at press time planned to have the two screens opened by March, running art films and more mainstream movies.
Another boost to the moviehouse has been the 45-seat tapas café and bar whose side door opens right into the lobby. “We’ve been trying to figure something out,” says Mary Ellen Earley-Massi, the co-owner of Tapas Teatro. “Are people coming here to see the movies, or to eat tapas?”
At first, she says, most patrons said they came to see a movie, saw Tapas Teatro, and decided to grab a bite. But now the tables are turning, with people coming to the neighborhood to eat, and then deciding to catch a film, too.
Earley-Massi opened the restaurant with her business partner, Qayum Karzai, the owner of the popular Afghan restaurant The Helmand, which is nine blocks south, at 806 N. Charles St. (Karzai spent big chunks of December and January in Afghanistan with his brother, Hamid Karzai, the new interim leader of Afghanistan.) Cusack had contacted Karzai at the urging of Joy Martin, who owns the Club Charles and the Zodiac. Karzai, in turn, asked Earley-Massi, a former Helmand employee, to partner with him.
Cusack invited them to the space in August of 2000. Earley-Massi knew right away that the room and the location were perfect. “I knew I wanted to do tapas,” says the restaurateur, who traveled to Portugal and Spain to get menu and décor ideas. “I love the whole tapas idea, and I believed Baltimore was ready for it.”
Now, parking and the persistence of crime— mostly car break-ins and muggings— are her main concerns for the area. The theaters and restaurants have hired a security guard to patrol the area and they subsidize the parking garage across the street so patrons have to pay only $2 for a night of parking.
The police commander in charge of the district that encompasses the 1700 block of Charles St. says the area is actually quite safe now. The 2001 statistics for crime in the 1700 and 1800 blocks of N. Charles and the adjoining blocks of Lanvale and Lafayette streets showed a total of three street robberies and six car break-ins for the year. “I’d love it to be none,” says Maj. Carl Gutberlet, commander for the Central District, which starts at the Inner Harbor and reaches to North Avenue. “But it’s one of the safest areas in the district.”
Most neighborhood activists are quick to add one more problem to their list: The long-shuttered Chesapeake Restaurant, which dominates a prized corner of the block. Robert Sapero, a Baltimore attorney, bought the property in 1986, and it hasn’t supported a commercial enterprise since. Now, it looms like an angry reminder of what the rest of the block once was, a desolate poster child for urban decay.
Sapero says he’s been waiting for the “right organization” to move into the space. “The place will not open until something significant occurs, meaning that there has to be quality and appeal to the neighborhood and the city,” he says, adding, “There are people who are talking [about the space], but it’s the same old story. It’s just a matter of money.”
But the simple matter of money, says Martin, the Club Charles owner, is really a story about greed. “There are so many people who are interested in [the Chesapeake],” says Martin, who plans to open an old-fashioned diner at the other end of the block, at Charles and Lafayette streets, later this year. “One minute [Sapero] tells people it’s half a million dollars to lease it for a year, then he wants to sell it for $2 million. He’s a speculator, and we don’t need speculators in this neighborhood. We need people to put things in these buildings.”
Sapero says he’s paid a lot of taxes on the space and wants to fill it with the right tenant. He’s certainly noticed the block’s sudden burst of energy. “The Charles Theatre has demonstrated quality, which is appealing to educated and sophisticated people in the community, and the Everyman Theatre is dynamic,” he says. “It’s bringing additional people of the same quality.”
When will the building hum with life again? “I think the time is here,” he says.
Whether or not the surrounding area gets catapulted from edgy urban frontier to thriving arts district remains, of course, an open question. For now, the smattering of businesses in the Charles Street cul-de-sac feed off of one another.
“There is a real feeling of urban excitement,” says Everyman’s Lancisi. “People are seeking artistic alternatives and artistic entertainment downtown.”
Adds Martin: “Little by little we’ve really pulled together. Hard work is how we did it, because Lord knows we didn’t get it from the city.”
The block’s recent commercial success did help convince Mayor Martin O’Malley to ax the long-planned Greyhound bus station that was slated to rise from the fenced parking lot adjacent to Penn Station. Back when the neighborhood was known more for its boarded-up buildings than its night life, area activists actually lobbied to get the bus station onto the block, because, the reasoning went, a bus station was better than nothing.
“It’s a crazy idea. Whoever heard of a bus station being good for a neighborhood?” asks Cusack. Among other things, the station would have doubled the bus traffic roaring up Charles Street — not a pleasant prospect for a theater, where sound quality is an important piece of the ambience puzzle.
Plus, the fumes would have curdled the popular warm-weather al fresco dining at Tapas Teatro, where patrons luxuriate over grilled lamb chops and aromatic glasses of wine a few feet from the street.
More good news came in January, when the state designated the area encompassing the block as the “Station North Arts and Entertainment District,” providing tax breaks to artists and to developers catering to them.
For the Charles Theatre and Tapas Teatro, that one-more-thing behind the vibrant commercial rebirth of the long-neglected block, the picture looks bright.
“We hope that in five years the theater will still be going strong and we’ll still be able to play what we want to play, and the neighborhood around us will have a lot more activity than now,” says Standiford. “It looks like that’s going to be happening.”
Doug Brown is a free-lance writer who lives in Charles Village.