The Parkway Theatre on North Avenue has seen better days.
But behind the chipped paint and neglect remains a remarkably solid structure for a theater built in 1915 and hailed at the time of its opening for tasteful design.
Because the theater opened just after the controversial “Birth of a Nation” proved films could be a profitable art form, it was unknown what class of customers movies would attract. So the building included flourishes, such as a tea room that provided newspapers, and was decorated with fresh flowers.
In fact, when the theater opened in what was then a wealthier Baltimore neighborhood, patrons arrived by limousine, and it was compared to taking in a show at a Broadway theater.
“Its beauty was talked about a lot … it wasn’t glitzy it was elegant,” Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival, said during a recent tour of the building.
On Oct. 23, the Maryland Film Festival will host Parkway 100: The Parkway Theatre’s Birthday Celebration at the Ynot Lot in the Station North Arts & Entertainment District. The event will serve as the official kickoff of the public portion of a fundraising effort to transform The Parkway Theatre, along with three other adjacent buildings, into the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Film Center.
The Maryland Film Festival is now the owner-developer of the properties after closing on the buildings this summer, following the city’s process for acquiring publicly-owned property. The Parkway was used as a theater through the late 1970s, then became a Korean grocery store and eventually sat vacant before the city accepted the festival’s proposal and sold it for $1.
So far the festival, along with Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute College of Art, have raised $14.9 million in pledges for the project. The campaign aims to raise a total of $18.2 million.
Between the Charles Theatre, the $19 million renovation of The Centre, which is now home to the Maryland Institute College of Art and Johns Hopkins University’s film centers, and the Parkway, located at 5 W. North Ave., Station North is fast becoming Baltimore’s film hub.
Plans to rehab the Parkway, with assistance from firms such as Ziger/Snead Architects and Seawall Development Co., call for restoring the theater to its 1915 glory. Dietz said officials will stop short of trying to recreate missing historic features and will instead update the building with modern touches.
“Our goal is to rehab this building … but in a way that honors its 100-year history,” he said.
Construction is set to begin in November, and it’s hoped the theater will be ready to open by early 2017. Once completed, the property will serve as a permanent home for the festival offices and provide a significantly increased revenue stream through showing movies and hosting other events.
Plans for the theater involve a single screen in the Parkway and two more screens in adjacent properties. The theaters will have a combined seating capacity of about 600 with somewhere between 420 and 480 seats in the 29,000-square-foot Parkway. Plans also include a lounge where moviegoers will be able to grab food and drink, but the full scope of what it will offer hasn’t been determined.
The theater will specialize in films outside the mainstream fare that can be found at Landmark’s Harbor East Cinema or the Senator Theatre. Often the films will be even smaller than some of the indie films shown at the nearby Charles Theatre to avoid overlap.
Dietz believes the theater can fill a gap in the films being displayed in the city. He points out that the New York Times reviewed 950 films last year, and only 350 of those were shown in theaters in Baltimore. He also believes that there’s still room for growth in the film industry, saying that more Americans went to the movies last year than attended all major sports events combined.
“It will be beyond the normal moviegoing experience,” Dietz said.