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Screen Plays

Resurrections of Orpheum, Grand Might Be in Offing

Sam Holden
This Old Art House: Orpheum owner George Figgs hopes to turn the Fells Point cinema into a nonprofit film co-op.

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 8/18/1999

This has been a busy summer for cinema, both nationally and locally. Despite widespread critical disdain, George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode 1 is approaching the needed ticket sales to take the title of biggest grossing film of all time away from Titanic. Closer to home, the critically acclaimed indie horror film The Blair Witch Project, shot in two Maryland state parks, has raked in more than $100 million (not a bad haul for a film that cost about $60,000 to complete), and the Julie Roberts/Richard Gere vehicle Runaway Bride, shot on the Eastern Shore, has grossed nearly as much.

Still closer to home, there’s plenty of Baltimore cinema news pending in the coming months, but it will likely have less to do with what’s on-screen than with the screens themselves, with potential dividends for local movie-house mavens.

In April, while the expanded Charles Theatre was making its successful debut, Fells Point’s cozy 85-seat Orpheum Cinema went dark, the victim of a series of financial setbacks (chief among them a costly film-projector repair bill). But George Figgs, who for nine years ran the Orpheum as an art cinema and revival house, says it might reopen by early fall, albeit in a somewhat different form.

“What we’re going to do is make the Orpheum a nonprofit film co-op and archive that will offer film series, seminars, and workshops,” Figgs says. “We’ll offer programs by subscription, just like the symphony or the opera.”

Figgs envisions his first program as a presentation on the early history of cinema, going back to 1896. Among the landmark films he hopes to show are D.W. Griffith’s infamous Birth of a Nation (1915)—a work as reviled for its virulent racism as it is celebrated for its cinematic advancements—and The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920) by pioneer African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, which functions as a response of sorts to the Griffith film’s heroic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan.

“There are some incredible early films that will blow your mind when you see them in their entirety,” Figgs says. “Take Georges Mélèies’ A Trip to the Moon [1902]. People have seen the clip of the rocket ship going into the moon’s eye, but few have ever seen the whole film.”

Like the Charles, the new Orpheum will work both the indie and Hollywood sides of the cinema fence. Figgs envisions the venue providing a permanent site for local do-it-yourself filmmakers to discuss and show their work—in effect taking on a role formerly filled by the defunct Mansion Theater in Govans. Additionally, through workshops on such subjects as selling screenplays and getting work on a film crew, and lectures by visiting Hollywood filmmakers and film workers, the theater will help artisans and laborers enter mainstream moviedom. (Figgs is a union film-production projectionist and will soon work on John Waters’ latest, Cecil B. Demented.)

Figgs is busy seeking grants and donations to support his new nonprofit venture, and the Charles Theatre will host a Sept. 12 fund-raiser at which several regional filmmakers are slated to discuss their work. “We need more cool places to go [see film], not fewer,” Charles Theatre manager Chris Toll says. “The more the merrier.”

Figgs has not yet secured nonprofit status for his archive/co-op project. One idea he’s floated is to link up with the Fells Point Creative Alliance (FPCA) and fit the rejuvenated Orpheum under its nonprofit umbrella.

“[Figgs] has some great ideas and we’ve been having discussions with him,” the alliance’s director, Margaret Footner, says. “But we have no formal relationship with him at this time.”

A much more ambitious and long-term cinema project is the potential reopening of Highlandtown’s Grand Theater. This long-defunct South Conklin Street house, which opened in 1917 and closed in 1985, was bought in March by the Southeast Development Initiative Corp. (SDI) for $210,000.

“It needs some major renovation inside,” SDI Comptroller Ron Edwards says of the 1,000-plus-seat theater. “It doesn’t need major structural rehabilitation, but the ceiling has fallen in from water damage and the interior is not in real good shape.”

Figgs assembled a development team to study the feasibility of reopening the Grand as a three-screen art-house theater. “There is room for another theater in town,” he contends. “Baltimore is underscreened for art films.”

The team has presented a plan to SDI that calls for a 400-seat theater on the Grand’s main floor and two smaller venues upstairs where the balcony was located. One of the balcony screens would be programmed with what Figgs call “nonart” international films. “There are huge [ethnic] populations in town that don’t have anywhere to go to see their culture’s films,” he says. “And not the art films, but the films that regular working Joes want to see.”

A price tag for the Grand renovation has not been set, but the cost of rehabbing such a large, aging theater would likely run into the millions. Undaunted, Figgs hopes to start “kicking dirt around” on the project soon, though it is up to SDI’s board to approve the three-screen proposal. If that plan is rejected, SDI could begin soliciting other proposals for the building, including some that are not film-related.

“The overall theater business is real competitive now,” Edwards says. “We’re not yet sure a theater is the best use for the building.”

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