A conversation with Jed Dietz, Founding Director of the MD Film Festival, discussing the soon-to-be Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Film Center
By Cara Ober
Baltimore’s Parkway Theatre transports you exactly one hundred years back in time.
The tall, slim cinema was built before movies had sound; it has an orchestra pit for live musical accompaniment. Its balcony boasts voluptuous curves, ornately laced with bits of remaining molding featuring dramatic masks and laurels of flowers. Four stories up, the projection booth is still equipped with a giant carbon arc projector and a catwalk above a grand, domed ceiling.
Its second floor tearoom looks across North Avenue through giant windows to the YNot Lot, the site of its upcoming 100th Birthday Celebration on Friday, October 23. This free event also marks the launch of the public portion of the fundraising campaign for its renovation into a state-of-the-art movie house by 2017.
Jed Dietz, Founding Director of the Maryland Film Festival, leads my tour through the building. The non-profit organization purchased it in 2013 from the city and will spend $18.2 million dollars over the next two years to transform it into a fully operational year-round film venue (they have raised $14.9 million so far). Like a proud parent, Dietz gestures excitedly with his flashlight, pointing out the past and future features of the theater.
“October 23, 1915 was the exact date this theater first opened,” he says. “They showed Zara starring Pauline Frederick. Feature film was just starting then and nobody knew what to expect.”
Initially, the Parkway was centered in the wealthiest of Baltimore neighborhoods and its elegant white-on-white color scheme with gold detail was noted in the national press of the day. It was the first theater in America to feature lights in the risers on the stairs and its elite customers filled its 1100 seats and private viewing boxes. “Back then the Parkway’s patrons arrived by limousine. They assumed the cinema would just be for wealthy people,” says Dietz. “They really didn’t know what movies would become in this country. For the new Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Film Center, we’re predicting bicycles and skateboards.” Dietz notes that the theater is still located in the geographic center of Baltimore.
Although the Parkway is one of the country’s oldest remaining theaters, it’s in surprisingly good condition. It was originally modeled after the Strand Theater in New York and the West End Theater near Leicester Square in London and then remodeled in the 1920s and 30s. The building went through several owners and iterations, including a time as Five West Art Theater, screening classic and foreign films from 1956 until it closed in the mid-1970s. After that, the space became a grocery store in the 1980’s, and the owner simply walled off the screen and theater seating, so much of that is still intact.
The Maryland Film Festival has hired architects Ziger/Snead to lead the renovation and is working with Seawall Development Corporation and Southway Builders. The building still features much of its original detail inspired by Italian Renaissance and Beaux-Arts architecture and, according to Dietz, they will attempt to preserve as much as possible.
“We’re talking about rescuing, not restoring,” explains Dietz. “It might not look too different than it does right now. The colors might be different, but the theater will be stabilized. When it’s finished, you may see a movie house that shows its 100 years and all the movie history since then. You know, there aren’t many theaters left in America like this.”
In the space for a tall, narrow screen, a curtain still hangs, but Dietz acknowledges it’s much too small for a modern film. “We’ll float a screen over the proscenium to double the width,” he says, if it is possible to keep the architectural elements already there. When finished, the main theater will be joined with three additional buildings, including the Chicken Box on the corner, to provide one large 420-seat theater and two smaller 100-seat theaters, as well as a concession area, lounge, and offices and seminar spaces for JHU and MICA film students.
Unlike the current Maryland Film Festival, The SNF Parkway Film Center will be open year round, screening independent and foreign films to the general public. In addition, there are options for live music, interdisciplinary film series, and for talks with directors, actors, and filmmakers. The Parkway will operate like other area theaters in that it will sell tickets to the general public, but will screen films that are currently unavailable in Baltimore.
According to Dietz, only 350 of the 950 films reviewed by the New York Times last year were screened in Baltimore. “What we show at the festival does really well, but you can’t see most of it in a theater outside of that, so that is a core gap we will fill,” says Dietz. “We will show completely different films than the Charles and other commercial movie houses. Our focus will be emerging independent films from all over the planet, smaller releases and markets.” They plan to attract 60,000 moviegoers annually to the Parkway and Station North.
“Our plan is to bring filmmakers here for public talks and lectures,” says Dietz. “We have done this a lot over the years, but we’ve been trying to fit ourselves into someone else’s theater.” Dietz explains that an opportunity to ask questions to the filmmaker after a screening is quite different than just seeing a film. “Unlike so many art forms film is such a communal experience. A filmmaker can learn a lot from the audience, too.”
Going forward, the Maryland Film Festival has created a coalition with MICA and Johns Hopkins University (both college presidents are board members) to share responsibilities and spaces, and to create opportunities for young filmmakers to interact with a national film community. Dietz says they will be working with other area colleges as well, including Morgan State University and Stevenson University, noting the Parkway’s proximity to The Centre, which already hosts classrooms and labs for film students.
“The thing that excites me about these new graduate programs in film [at MICA and JHU] is that they are connecting with each other,” says Dietz. “There are distinct personalities in each school but this space will offer different ways for students to connect to filmmakers from around the world.”
Looking forward to an opening date in early 2017, Dietz says that the new theater seems like a perfect fit with the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. “This neighborhood was developing around art even before it was designated an arts district,” he says. “There were lots of artists here, who were part of an organic revitalization of the neighborhood. The Maryland Film Festival is ready now to take that next step – with these two academic institutions.”
Gesturing down North Avenue from the front of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Film Center, Dietz continues. “I love that MICA’s grad center is now facing the street. We have the Motor House, The Centre, Red Emma’s, Windup, The Crown, Liam Flynn’s, and Joe Squared is expanding. There is so much here. Its very clear that the neighborhood is taking another step forward and the path that this neighborhood is on is about artists and audiences.”
Author Cara Ober is Founding Editor at BmoreArt.