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The Centre Theatre opened on a February evening in 1939 with a Hollywood-style opening. Crowds poured in to the theatre and turned to the circular proscenium covered with gold leaf and illuminated by hundreds of lights for a preview showing of “Tail Spin.”
The $400,000 building (a transformation of an earlier auto dealership) was not just a theatre but included a whole complex with the WFBR radio station and studios, a branch bank office for the Equitable Trust Company, and a garage. Owner Morris A. Mechanic was born in Poland on December 21, 1904 and emigrated to Baltimore with his parents as a child. In 1929, Mechanic worked as the principal at a Hebrew School on West North Avenue and owned a chocolate shop downtown, when he decided to purchase the New Theatre as a real estate investment. The New Theatre’s “box-office bonanza” success during a showing of “Sunny Side Up” encouraged him to stick with the theatre business for the rest of his life, owning dozens of theaters over the years before his death of a heart attack in July 1966.
The interior of the Centre Theatre featured a mural symbolizing entertainment and captioned, “Man works by day; night is for romance.” by R. McGill Mackall, a MICA-trained Baltimore native who painted 53 large public murals in the city over his career. The design by Philadelphia architect Armand Carroll, described by the Sun as “conservatively modern” with decoration “intended to soothe rather than startle the spectator,” won an award for “architectural attainment” from the Baltimore Association of Commerce as the best “Retail Commercial Building” built in 1939. When the theatre opened, Mechanic had an office on the second floor with a window “fitted with special glass... invisible from the theatre, the window permits anyone in the office to see the picture on the screen.”
Morris Mechanic closed the theatre, later known as the Film Centre Theatre, on April 16, 1959, after the Equitable Trust Company announced plans to enlarge the complex and move their operations department into the building early in 1960. The bank planned to add a third story and “special dust-free areas... to create the exact atmospheric conditions required for the most efficient use of highly sensitive automated electronic equipment.” One example offered for this new equipment included a $55,000 sorting machine that sorted checks and other documents at a rate of 1,000 a minute guided by “magnetic ink” rather than “the familiar punch card holes.” The radio station and the bank remained through the 1990s before the theater was turned into a church. Unfortunately, without the resources for essential maintenance the building deteriorated significantly and was mostly abandoned for a decade.
In 2011, Jubilee Baltimore acquired the building at auction for $93,000 and started working to redevelop the sadly neglected site. In partnership with Johns Hopkins University and Maryland Institution College of Art (MICA), along with support from the American Communities Trust and TRF, Jubilee Baltimore restored the exterior back to its original appearance, lit up the marquee, and transformed the interior into offices and community space for film screenings, music, classrooms, galleries, and more. The Centre Theater reopened to the public in 2015.
Text from Eli Pousson. Cover photo from Baltimore Heritage via Flickr.