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Arts and Entertainment

Cinema Paradiso

Why I Love the Charles Theatre

Premiere: The Charles, in its original incarnation as the Times Theatre

By Mark Evans | Posted 9/18/1996

I didn’t realize how much I loved Baltimore—my birthplace— until I moved from it to San Francisco several years ago. Sure, I missed my friends and family here, but it was more than that. I missed the quirkiness of my neighborhood, and the odd assortment of characters I saw on the streets as I went about my daily business. In San Francisco, everyone tried so hard to be noticed, with their piercings, goatees, and endless prattle about politics or the environment. In Baltimore, people begged attention without being aware of it. There were people I had given nicknames to, and when I saw them I would smile to myself and think Oh, there are the old twins, or There’s the catatonic-acting lady with the monkey baby, or There’s the 300-pound drag queen in the check-out line at Eddie’s. Living in Mount Vernon was like living in a Fellini movie.

I saw my first Fellini movie at Baltimore’s Charles Theatre. I loved going to see a movie at the Charles. Besides showing great flicks the suburban theaters wouldn’t touch, it was within walking distance from my apartment in Mount Vernon, it was never crowded, and the screen was big. I felt the kind of affinity for the place that I felt for my neighborhood. The Charles was kind of seedy and kind of cool, and where else could you see a Fassbinder film with a short of William S. Burroughs reading his Thanksgiving poem, or a John Waters retrospective, or a French movie in which Catherine Deneuve sings her lines? Not in Timonium, thank you. (Every time I try to go to the theaters in Timonium, I get lost or have a car accident.) And when the flick finishes you can just roll out of your seat into the Club Charles to finish the night with a cocktail.

Thank God Baltimore’s “Renaissance” hasn’t leeched up Charles Street and killed off authentic places like the Charles Theatre. I think we should declare the place a historic site. The building itself has a strange history. It once housed a steam-fed generator that powered Baltimore’s short-lived cable-car system. The Blue Line ran for 2.2 miles from downtown to old Oriole Park (the reverse of the present situation, in which suburbanites take the light rail to downtown’s Camden Yards), where the National League Orioles played. The cars ran out of a building at 1717 North Charles Street, which later became a bowling alley and then the Famous Ballroom, a popular dance club that featured the likes of the Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller orchestras. In the late 30s, the old cable-car powerhouse became the Times Theatre, which ran second-run films starring Charlie Chan and the Dead End Kids; the place stayed open until 4 a.m. for workers on the late shift. In 1962, new management altered the facade of the building , changed the name to the Charles, and began showing first-run films. Ten years later, the destitute theater was taken over by an exhibitor from Washington, D.C., who initiated the current format of foreign and art-house films, although the theater is now managed by Baltimoreans.

So, on my first day back from San Francisco, I wandered the streets of Baltimore, smiling at the freaks. I ate a crab cake, bought some candlesticks at my favorite thrift shop, and settled down in a seat at the Charles for a matinée. I don’t remember what movie I watched, but I have never been happier than I was that day, sitting alone in the theater with a full stomach, clutching my thrift-store score. I had arrived, again.

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