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A city of neighborhoods and forgotten movie theaters

Baltimore calls itself a city of neighborhoods, sectioned off into communities of churches, corner stores, barbershops and, once upon a time, movie theaters, that Amy Davis calls “Flickering Treasures” in a book of the same name, a photographic love letter to Baltimore’s mostly lost movie palaces.

“It’s an homage to Baltimore,” says Amy Davis, a veteran photojournalist for the Baltimore Sun, whose book, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, is now in its second printing.

The first place to show motion pictures in Baltimore – and the state of Maryland – was the Electric Park, a small amusement park which screened moving pictures using a Vitascope projector in 1896. Over the next century, movie theaters would come and go across Baltimore communities, changing the neighborhood landscape and leaving nothing but lasting memories in their wake.

Of course, some of the more popular ones remain in business, like the Senator Theatre on York Road, and still others have been converted into churches or, in one case, a mosque. Their almost-permanent presence in the minds of those yearning for Baltimore’s Golden Age has led to a 300-page portrait of the city from the Electric Park to the Parkway, a historic theater which only just reopened in 2017 after being closed for 39 years.

Davis, who is 62 and a native of New York, began the project when the Senator Theatre faced foreclosure in 2007. She recalls being upset when she first heard the news, as she had found her own neighborhood movie theater in the Senator, just three blocks from her home.

“I never experienced having that classic neighborhood theater [in New York],” Davis said. “Baltimore was this whole different world.”

The flavor of a neighborhood

The impending Senator foreclosure sparked a question: What happened to Baltimore’s other movie theaters? And so Davis began an almost decade-long search for the forgotten theaters, photographing the street corners and residential areas where they used to stand – or still do.

Originally, she thought she might find 50 theaters that people remembered, but by the end of her search she found 86 theaters, and countless memories, enough that “Flickering Treasures,” which is now in its second printing, had to be cut down to include only 72 theaters. “It was painful to eliminate them,” Davis says.

Davis set out to take modern day photographs of these historic sites, but never tried to take replica pictures. The problem with then-and-now pictures is that the old ones are more compelling, she said. She would rather have color photographs that could stand on their own, testimonies to life now.

Davis is no stranger to the camera. A photojournalist for the Baltimore Sun for 31 years, Davis has been honored for her work on coverage of the death of Freddie Gray. She received a B.F.A. in Fine Art and Design at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, where she was a member of the National Press Photographers Association. After working in New Jersey for seven years, she found a job at the Sun and has been living in Baltimore ever since.

Her work at the Sun has taken her all over the area, but her research for “Flickering Treasures” took her to many of the region’s retirement homes. “It was a wonderful way for me to learn [about the movie theaters],” Davis said. “I liked when the residents digressed into the flavor of the neighborhood.”

Davis personally recalled Charles Parrish, a Baltimore real estate investor, who remembers nights spent at the Gayety Theater, where his mother worked as a stripper in burlesque shows. Or Robert K Headley, a Baltimore native and author of “Exit: A History of Movies in Baltimore,” who saved all his ticket stubs from his trips to the theater as a child and who let Davis photograph them for the inside cover of “Flickering Treasures.”

Davis also noticed that a common thread throughout her interviews were comments about segregation, particularly in regards to the Northwood movie theater. African American college students, mostly from Morgan State College, formed the Civic Interest Group, which protested outside Northwood for several years before the movement picked up in 1963. As more students from neighboring colleges, like Goucher and even Johns Hopkins, took up the cause, the Northwood was forced to desegregate. Many of the other segregated theaters in Baltimore also opened their doors to African Americans not soon after.

A walking encyclopedia

In the foreword to “Flickering Treasures,” Barry Levinson writes about leaving the theater after watching “On the Waterfront” as a young adult: “From that moment on, I no longer just watched a film as sheer entertainment. I always wanted to know who wrote it, who directed it, who did the music, who was the cinematographer … who made it all happen. I didn’t know it then, but that was perhaps step one to my future.” Like Levinson, Davis has been interested in those who “‘made it all happen,’” but from the other side of the screen – the audience.

Since the book’s release, Davis has been visiting libraries and universities – she will speak at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County on April 11 – but most importantly, she has been re-visiting the retirement homes where she originally interviewed, reporting back to the people who hold her research most dear. This past Wednesday, she found herself in the auditorium of Edenwald Continuing Care Retirement Community in Towson (“Exceptional Neighborhood, Extraordinary Living”) speaking to a half-filled room of people who very likely would not describe themselves as elderly.

Davis, who is quite tall in person, with red-brown curly hair cropped close to her head, stopped to talk with some of the residents before her presentation – some she knew personally, and others, well, they just wanted the chance to share their memories too.

Evelyn Krohn, a resident of Edenwald, remembered the joy Saturday matinees used to bring her as a young girl, when she would pack a lunch and make the short walk to the theater to re-watch movies for the entire afternoon. “If you started in the middle, you just waited until the middle came around again,” she laughed. “You didn’t care what time the movies played, you just went.”

Davis now acts as a walking encyclopedia of information pertaining to Baltimore’s movie theaters. During the question and comment section of her presentation at Edenwald, she often interjects resident’s stories with anecdotes of her own and stories she has heard from her interviews.

Residents are often surprised at her knowledge, but she does not like to take all the credit.

“They’re still the real experts here,” she said.