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Occupying a busy corner at Charles and North, the magnificent Parkway Theater entertained audiences in Central Baltimore for decades with everything from vaudeville and silent movies to nightly live radio productions. Although abandoned for over a decade, the Parkway Theater is poised for renewal as developers vie for the chance to remake the handsome Italian Renaissance building for new crowds of Baltimore theater-goers.
Built in 1915, the Parkway was closely modeled on London’s West End Theatre, later known as the Rialto, located near Leicester Square with shared features like the interior’s rich ornamental plasterwork in a Louis XIV style. The architect, Oliver Birkhead Wight, was born in Baltimore County and designed a number of theaters around the city: the New Theater (now demolished) on Lexington Street, the Howard Theater around the corner on Howard Street, and the McHenry Theater on Light Street in Federal Hill.
Originally envisioned by owner Henry Webb’s Northern Amusement Company as a 1100-seat vaudeville house, the theater added a movie projector even before they opened, screening “Zaza” starring leading Broadway actress Pauline Frederick for opening night on October 23, 1915.
Loew’s Theatres Incorporated bought the business in 1926, one of the scores of theaters across the Midwest and East Coast purchased by entrepreneur Marcus Loew as he grew his Cincinnati-based chain across the country. The new owners extensively remodeled the theater and replaced the original Moller Organ (Op. 1962, II/32) with a Wurlitzer theater organ. Loew’s staged a grand re-opening along with the downtown Century Theater that they acquired and re-opened at the same time as the Parkway.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, a group produced a nightly live radio program at the Parkway entitled “Nocturne” featuring poetry readings interspersed with musical selections on the organ. Morris Mechanic, a local theater operator who opened the Center Theater down the street in 1939, purchased the Parkway and closed the doors in 1952. Many thought that this might be the end of the Parkway, by then one of the oldest theaters in Baltimore City, and Morris Mechanic suggested that the building might be turned into offices.
Fortunately, the theater changed hands a few more times, spending a season or two as a live theater, before finally reopening with a new name — “5 West” — in 1956. With an eclectic mix of old movies, foreign films, and live performances, 5 West continued through the mid-1970s when it closed for good. Despite a handful of attempts to reuse the building in the 1980s and 1990s, the Parkway was closed from 1998 through 2017. In 2017, the Parkway reopened as The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway—a complex of three theaters and the headquarters for the Maryland Film Festival.
Text from Elise Hoffman and Eli Pousson. Cover photo from GuyDeckerStudio via Flickr.