Charles Theater’s fate: a Baltimorean story.

The Charles Theater, often simply called the Charles, is the oldest movie theater in Baltimore. It is located in a Beaux-Arts building, originally both a cable car barn (north side) and a powerhouse (south side) designed in 1892 by Jackson Coale Gott, a Baltimorean architect.[1] At this time, the city was thriving – 3rd largest city in the United States – thanks to its harbor and industry (railroad, steel industry, metal-can industry…), and meanwhile row houses were expanding northward and connected to downtown with modern public transportation.[2]

View of The Charles Theater

View of The Charles Theater

After being transformed into a bus barn, a library for the blind, and later a ballroom, the site was transformed into Baltimore’s first all-newsreel movie house, named the Times Theatre. The building was renamed the Charles in 1959 for its location on Charles Street, and became a calendar revival house in 1979 while operated by the Washingtonian David Levy. As the same time, it became Baltimore’s more renowned premiere art movie venue. John Waters became a regular customer of the theater and also frequently used the Charles for his film’s premieres. In an interview given to The Baltimore Sun in 1993, when the theater was in dire, he recalled, “I spend some of the best nights of my life at the Charles.”[3] The Charles knew some bad times in the 1990s when fewer people went to the theatre, notably because of the rising criminality in the neighborhood as in the city in general.

In 1999, new investments led to a major expansion transforming the single-screen theater into a five-screen theater, offering 1,150 seats on a 23,000 square-foot area. The original main auditorium remains the principal theater of the complex, which now can be considered as an arthouse multiplex, showing “first-run specialty films in addition to Hollywood movies, foreign films and cinema classics.”[4] The theater also occasionally hosts live concerts performance. Therefore, the Charles can be considered as an important site for Baltimore’s artistic scene and movie-goers, practically located at a walking distance of Penn Station and some of Baltimore’s universities and art institutes.

Maryland Film Festival 2011 Poster

Maryland Film Festival 2011 Poster

Every year since its launch in 1999, the theater complex hosts the Maryland Film Festival, “an essential stop in the festival circuit” according to David Simon, creator and executive producer of the famous Baltimore-based sitcom, The Wire.[5] This is a major event for Baltimore’s city since the festival screens, during for days, around 50 feature films and 75 short films of all sorts (narrative, documentary, animation, experimental and so on) viewed by tens of thousands of viewers. In addition, the festival offers the opportunity for the audience to meet filmmakers who present their work and interact with the viewers. John Waters takes part to the festival by selecting each year a movie to present to the audience. Ultimately, the Maryland Film Festival and its location in the Charles participate in the renown of Baltimore as a thriving center of film culture and filmmaking, and bring to Baltimore international visitors and filmmakers.
As a conclusion, the Charles Theater is a symbol of Baltimore’s film scene and its rich life is intimately connected to Baltimore’s history. And with the success of the Maryland Film Festival, this position will hopefully last for many more years.

Pierre

[1] The Charles Theater Website, accessed April 18th, 2012, at http://www.thecharles.com/info.

Baltimore Architecture Foundation website, accessed April 18th, 2012, at http://baltimorearchitecture.org/biographies/jackson-c-gott/.

[2] Notes from “Architectural History of Baltimore” class, taught by Martin Perschler at Johns Hopkins University, fall 2011.

[3] Stephen Hunter, “Charles Theater to close while operator is sought,” in The Baltimore Sun, 12/09/1993, accessed online April 18t, 2012, at http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1993-12-09/news/1993343001_1_david-levy-charles-theater-concubine.

[4] The Charles Theater Website, accessed April 18th, 1012, at http://www.thecharles.com/info.

[5] Maryland Film Festival website, accessed April 18th, 2012, at http://www.md-filmfest.com/index.cfm.

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