LAST PICTURE SHOW
Developer Patrick Turner craned his neck as he pointed to the 30-foot dome of the McHenry Theater and then turned quickly toward a barren wall.
Upon completion of his $1.8 million conversion of the 84-year-old Federal Hill landmark into office space, that nondescript wall will become a wall of glass, lighting up the restored dome and exposing it to passersby, he said.
"It's going to make such cool office space for someone. I don't know how anybody could not like it," said Turner, pushing back his longish disheveled hair, during an interview last week at the theater.
It might seem that someone like Turner - who has a hard time containing his excitement for the project - might forget the community's sympathetic ties to the historical structure at 1032 S. Light St., which saw the transition from silent pictures to talkies and entertained moviegoers until it closed in 1971.
But that's not the case.
The president of Henrietta Corp. has halted demolition work and coughed up about $5,000 to organize "The Last Performance" for the community tomorrow evening - a tribute to the theater's past that will feature - at no charge - a silent film, stand-up comedian, classical ensemble, popcorn, beer, candy and hotdogs.
"It kind of started as a joke," he said, adding that the event is not a result of pressure from the community. "It will get everybody a chance to see it one last time. Nobody in this community has really seen it in 30 years."
The feature, "Undying Flame," starring Olga Petrova, is a 1917 film donated by one of Baltimore's four remaining operating theaters - The Senator Theatre. Turner also has found sponsors to provide the refreshments and is working on obtaining kegs of Clipper City's McHenry beer. He will lay a red carpet and shine a spotlight on the entranceway.
The in-progress portions of the theater will be covered with giant curtains and seating for about 1,100 will be provided. A portable air-conditioning unit will cool the 12,000-square-foot space, which eventually will be divided to create space for two office tenants. The wall behind the stage - which is to be removed to create a giant window for the office tenants - has been painted white to serve as a movie screen.
Of course, this is not the first time Turner has taken money and time out of his development projects for the community. Last year the South Baltimore community opposed his proposal to turn the 62-year-old Southway Bowling Center into nine luxury loft apartments. At a cost of about $100,000 Turner donated the 22 wooden bowling lanes and pin machines to neighborhood activists and delayed the project five weeks to allow for the equipment's removal.
His McHenry Theater project has not sparked such controversy. The property has been vacant for more than two years and has had myriad occupants since the 1970s, including a 7-Eleven, a Goodwill thrift store, a Gino's fast-food restaurant, a shoe store and, most recently, an arcade with batting cages.
"Nobody could figure out what to do with it," Turner said.
The Federal Hill and South Baltimore community applauded Turner for giving the theater back to the community one last time.
"Personally I think it's doggone nice for Pat to do anything. He has shown more than enough tolerance for people down here. He doesn't have to reach out at all," said Gilda Johnson, vice president of the South Baltimore Improvement Association Inc. and the leader of the movement to save the Southway Bowling Center and its lanes.
"That has cost them money. To my way of thinking, it's been smart money spent," she said.
Robert K. Headley, a theater historian who has written a book, "Exit," about Baltimore's theaters, said the "Last Performance" is a graceful way for the McHenry Theater to go. "I think it's a terrific idea. It's a nice way for it to go out. You can't save everything."
Jules E. "Sonny" Morstein, president of the South Baltimore/Federal Hill Business Association, agreed. "I think it's a great PR move. It's the right thing to do," he said, adding that he spent many weekends at the theater as a young boy.
Restoring the theater as a movie house would have been preferable, he said. His sister, Nancy Morstein Boltz, led an attempt in the early 1980s to revive it as a movie house.
"I would have loved to have it as a theater, a live theater, any theater. It just has to make economic sense and it really didn't," Morstein said.
Turner said his plan makes perfect sense.
He already has signed on a tenant, Key Technologies, which will turn the stage into a conference room and build mezzanines connected by catwalks. Turner plans to divide the room with a glass-topped wall that will allow all occupants to view the ornate ceiling domes, columns and archways. He is punching out 16 windows between columns to brighten the space.
The office buildouts will not touch the original walls or 30-foot-tall ceiling. "You don't lose the integrity of the architecture," he said, adding that he is applying for state tax credits for historic buildings.
And although this "Last Performance" will put his project on hold for a few days, Turner said, amid the din of nail guns and hammers: "It's worth it."
Back to Top