The 8000 Ton Elephant in the Middle of the Block
Copyright 2013 by John R. Grant who reserves all rights herein.
There it sits: Big (65’ x 115‘ x 50’ tall), gray (mostly), in the middle of the unit block of West North Avenue (South side), and, like the proverbial pachyderm, virtually invisible to, and seemingly ignored by anyone and everyone with the power to do anything meaningful with it or for it. It is the Station North Arts and Entertainment District’s best kept secret and it is at once, the District’s most hopeful dream and its worst nightmare: It is the Parkway Theatre, the elegant gray elephant that just turned 96 years young last October, and now molders in stealthy oblivion, just that close to recovering its former splendor, if only…. The Time Machine lurches to a halt and I open its door to find myself in Roanoke, Virginia, 1953, standing in the midst of a monstrous pile of bricks and plaster that had only recently been the Academy of Music. Built in 1892 as a grand opera house in a region of the country not particularly well-known for its cultural progressiveness, the Academy’s resemblance to Philadelphia’s more famous edifice of the same name, (and both to Milan’s La Scala opera house), was not unintentional.
The Academy of Music, Roanoke, VA, c. 1950 Pianist Jose Iturbi performs at the Academy (undated photo). (Photos courtes of History Museum of Western Virginia.)
But after 60 years as a performance venue for opera, vaudeville, burlesque and silent movies, it was no longer "fashionable" or efficient, and now its gilded plaster cherubs and column capitals bore mute witnesses to the architectural rape that had just been carried out by the wrecking ball in the name of “progress”. Nearby stands a tall, thin young man with finely chiseled features, nearly in tears, a former US Army photographer in World War II where he had been obligated to document some of the War’s most horrific scenes of battle, from the “D” Day invasion to the obscene dénouement of the Holocaust, surveying now a different, but no less disturbing carnage. Upon his return from War, in an effort to distance himself from those frightful images, he attended and received a B.F.A. degree from the Richmond Professional Institute, where he honed the artistic skills of painting and photography which would be his primary avocations throughout life. Upon returning to his family in Roanoke, he threw himself into all things artistic in the Roanoke Valley. One of his favorite activities was working with a local summer stock and live drama troupe called “The Patchwork Players”. The Academy of Music was a frequent venue for them and served as their artistic “home”. When it was announced that the hall was to be demolished, he spearheaded a brave, but unsuccessful effort to save it from the fate that had befallen so many similar spaces. With great sorrow, he and a few members of the troupe picked through the rubble, salvaging a few artifacts of decorative plaster that had not been reduced to unrecognizable dust. These he would use to decorate and serve as conversation pieces in the several homes he would have in the Roanoke Valley until his death in 1994. That man was John Will Creasy, and along with numerous cousins, I called him Uncle Jack.
Re-entering the Time Machine, I set the dial for early 2000. I emerge on a sunny day at Baltimore’s geographic center: the intersection of North Avenue and Charles Street. It’s lunchtime and I head for a quick bite to eat at the McDonalds just a few blocks from my residence on 21st Street. Walking home, I casually notice the “For Sale” sign attached to the corner of a large hulk of a building, silently sulking in its own shadow. Gazing upward, I see the words “PARKWAY THEATRE” incised into the stone cornice. Curious, I jot down the Real Estate agent’s number and later make a call. I convey my interest and arrange to be shown the property. We enter, and I am immediately propelled backward to the one time I can remember being in Roanoke’s Academy before its destruction; I would have been about seven or eight years old, visiting with my uncle, and the “bug” I caught then would not germinate for another 50 years. But today’s excursion would turn out to be a disappointment. While nowhere near as grandiose as the Academy, neither is the Parkway any slouch when it comes to ornate plaster decoration. Originally designed by architect Oliver Birkhead Wight (frequently misspelled as “Wright”) in the “Adam” style, it was built in 1915, patterned closely after the West End Theatre (which later became known as the Rialto) near Leicester Square in London.
London’s West End (Rialto) Cinema. The Parkway house prior to the 1926 remodeling. (Undated photo courtesy of www.cinematreasures.org) (Photo courtesy UMBC)
The Parkway opened in October of that year with a screening of the silent movie “Zaza” starring Pauline Frederick, accompanied by a two-manual Moller theatre organ. Wight’s original plans apparently envisioned the space as a live performance house for vaudeville and similar productions, and did not anticipate the need for a separate room for projection equipment. That limitation must have been realized very early on, perhaps even before construction was finished, for in what appears to have been an afterthought, observation windows and portals through which the projector’s light streams were beamed appear to have been crudely hacked through the decorative plaster motifs at the upper rear end of the balcony, with no serious attempt to have them blend in cosmetically with the existing décor.
Three interior photos of the Parkway auditorium, prior to the 1926 remodeling. (Photos courtesy of UMBC.)
What is certain is that the projection room was clearly in its present location as of 1926 when the Loews theatre chain acquired the Parkway, retaining world-renowned “atmospheric style” movie palace architect John Eberson to oversee a major restyling. The full extent of his contributions to this effort have thus far escaped documentation, however, a remarkable series of photographs showing the “before” and “after” appearances from several vantage points around the auditorium could allow an architecturally faithful restoration of the Parkway to its original configuration. Some of the decorative changes would be, in this writer’s opinion, regrettable. The elegant “royal” loge box seats on either side of the balcony edge were removed, the balcony’s curves were re-contoured and simplified in keeping with the boxes’ removal, and the original seats were exchanged for less attractive (and probably less comfortable) ones, the original organ, made by M.P. Moller, was replaced with one having more name recognition from the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, their Opus #1421.
The Parkway’s auditorium and upper lounge area following the 1926 remodeling. (Photos courtesy of UMBC.)
The Parkway would remain a favorite of Baltimore audiences, particularly wealthy patrons in North Baltimore who were, after all, its logical demographic. Movies remained popular, but declining until the theatre was acquired by the Morris Mechanic organization in 1952 and briefly leased to a theatrical group called the Hilltop Players, but then remained vacant from 1953 to 1956 when it was sold to the Milton Schwaber organization. Thankfully, unlike other Baltimore movie houses that Mechanic bought and demolished as threats to more profitable houses in the chain, the Parkway was spared the ball. Schwaber again extensively remodeled the space, reopening in 1956 under the name “5 West Theatre”, concentrating on “art” films. This incarnation would prevail until September 1974 when it again closed, and remained so until July 1976, only to open again as a showcase for the then-popular “blaxploitation” films. The movie screen finally went dark in September 1989 when the theatre was sold to a group of Korean businessmen who tried to develop some commercial office space in the rear orchestra level. That use never really materialized, and the space has remained essentially vacant since 1998. So, who am I and why do I care? First, what I am not: I am not an architect or architectural historian. I am not a developer. I am far from wealthy. What I am, vintage 1944, is an intensely curious, still learning engineer with a passion for older technologies, classic beauty, and music, and I have a mission: It is to help influence, to the extent I am able, the full, comprehensive restoration of the Parkway to its original splendor. My mechanical aptitude, music and older technology interests are manifest in the avocation of restoring vintage automatic musical instruments such as player pianos and the like. Not possessing the “talent” to produce music on my own (other than through singing barbershop harmony), the ability to return these mechanical marvels to operating condition allows me to enjoy the music they produce without that pesky “talent”. Running close to the audible pleasure of listening to and producing barbershop harmony is the “ear candy” produced by that distinctive hallmark of classic movie palaces, the theatre organ. The “disappointment” mentioned earlier came about this way: After being shown the theatre by the selling agent, I submitted, and had accepted, a purchase contract for it and the row house immediately to its east which was being offered by the sellers as a “package”. I did this with the full knowledge that I did not have the financial resources to actually perform on the contract. I figured, probably naively, that I would be able to find some artistically inclined backers or investors that I could enlist to partner with me on the purchase and eventual restoration. Little did I know, being a relative newcomer to Baltimore, of the “baggage” carried in the year 2000 by a North Avenue address. The Station North Arts and Entertainment District was still several years away, and needless to say, no partners could be found, despite the efforts of my fledgling website for the Parkway to raise consciousness about it. While the purchase contract ran its course (with two time extensions) I was able to spelunk through the nooks and crannies of the cavernous space, from flooded abbreviated basement, to the steel girders worthy of a railroad trestle which support the balcony, to the asbestos laden attic. In doing so, I developed some ideas about how this place could be turned into a really unique arts and entertainment venue. Just some of the activities that could utilize the space are as a showcase for silent, repertory and “art” films, one-person shows (comedy sketches, magicians, etc.), children’s educational productions, revues, live bands, dance, lectures, variety shows, “vanity” recitals, and film festivals. Hell, why not just reinvent Vaudeville while we’re at it? And that brings me to the REAL reason behind my vision for what happens to the Parkway: the theatre organ. I was presented with an opportunity I could not bring myself to pass up: A genuine WurliTzer theatre organ (originally from a New York City theatre), almost exactly the same size and only two “opus” (or serial) numbers before the one removed from the Parkway in the 1960s, came on the market at a price I was (barely) able to afford. I thought, if I can’t own the theatre, at least maybe I can facilitate the return of an organ so closely matched to the one installed in 1926. A trip to Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, a 28’ rental truck and a long drive home resulted in Opus #1419 now being in storage here in Baltimore, awaiting a triumphant return to its rightful purpose. The novelty and entertainment potential of this most common element of all classic movie palaces should be a powerful lure for the many, and diverse activities to be conducted there. Now, if only my Time Machine worked for future events (it’s an Economy Model lacking that feature), perhaps I could find out sooner than later what happens with the Parkway.
So, the elephant sits. And waits. Patiently for now, but its patience is not unlimited. The time remaining for me to leave my mark on the world is slipping by quickly. Maybe I can have at least some influence on the Parkway’s rebirth, a sort of fulfillment of Uncle Jack’s valiant effort, by proxy. I hope he will be proud of me.
“It is what it is. It becomes what you make it.”
Epilog: On January 25th, the Parkway was opened by the Baltimore Development Corporation to admit interested parties (developers, architects, contractors, and innocent bystanders [raises hand] for a look around its bones in preparation for receiving bids to a “Request for Proposals” (RFP) issued to finally give some visibility and purpose to this lumbering leviathan.
-John R. Grant