ArtsEntertainment

Baltimore’s new Parkway unites cinema history with the future of film

For 40 years, one of the oldest movie theaters in the country sat empty on Baltimore’s North Avenue, languishing behind the grocery store that had moved into its lobby area. Behind a wall erected by the store’s owner, the theater’s domed ceiling, grand balcony and elaborate, decorative molding lay unseen and largely forgotten.

Now after a multi-year campaign to raise the money, the Parkway Theatre has been resurrected as the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway to serve as both a permanent home for the Maryland Film Festival and new, year-round destination for film and arts programming in Baltimore.

“We have a team of programmers that can really provide thoughtful, innovative programming that isn’t seen in Baltimore,” said Adrienne Peres, director of development and marketing for the 19-year-old film festival, which runs from May 3 through May 7. “We have a lot of initiatives that we’re launching this year in terms of community programming. That’s something that is a huge area of focus for us.”

An early example will occur at a lot across North Avenue from the theater, which will become a free, pop-up venue showing student films from the greater Baltimore area on May 6 and May 7. Regular screenings and events at the theater itself will continue after the festival concludes, and film students from Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute College of Art will be able to use the building to screen and discuss their work.

Baltimore Parkway Theater“[Baltimore] is such an under-served film community, as a city,” Peres said. More than 900 films are reviewed each year by The New York Times, but only about 300 of them come to Baltimore, she said. “There is a real appetite in Baltimore to have access to those films that we’re now going to be able to show here.”

Originally built in 1915, the Parkway hails from an era when motion pictures were still in their infancy and cinemas were often designed like other theaters; as a result the Parkway feels a bit more like an opera house than a modern multiplex. The balcony, for example, curls forward at each end so some seats seem to hover over the audience below.

The Parkway hasn’t undergone a typical restoration, in which the old is made to look brand-new again. While there are new elements – new seats in the main theater, for example, as well as a lounge area where craft beer will be served, and two smaller screening rooms – the architects have left many of the cinema’s original design components just as they were found.

This means that when you sit in the main theater you can still see both the wear and tear on the walls as well as evidence of previous renovations and modifications made to the building over the course of the last 102 years.

Some of the paint is faded and discolored, for example, some of it has been scratched away to reveal the older colors underneath, some of the decorative elements are chipped or cracked. The result is beautiful but also mysterious – the Parkway is simultaneously old and new, a place unstuck in time.

“Since filmmaking is storytelling, we wanted to make sure the building told its stories through our approach to the design, which let the walls speak for themselves,” said Steve Ziger of Ziger/Snead, the Baltimore architecture firm that oversaw the latest renovation. “It speaks to the history of movie-going and filmmaking in this amazing location.”

Funding for the new theater was provided by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the State of Maryland, and dozens of other donors.

Baltimore Parkway Theater Donors

The theater’s location is also symbolic of its new mission. As Peres points out, the Parkway is located at the geographic center of Baltimore and can serve as a resource for the entire city.

“Film, as an art form, is one of the most affordable, most democratic, most accessible art forms,” Peres said. “The mission of the film festival has always been ‘Film for Everyone.’ Now, with the Parkway, we’re able to expand that and have “Film for Everyone. Every Day.”

For more information about the Parkway and Maryland Film Festival, including a guide to this year’s festival selections and ticketing information, please visit mdfilmfest.com.

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Daniel Leaderman

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