Theater of Pain
John Grant’s dream of a renovated Parkway Theatre is coming true—so why is he so unhappy about it?
Published: July 3, 2013
For more than a decade, John Grant has had a singular vision: rehabbing the Parkway Theatre at the corner of North Avenue and North Charles Street, and turning the old movie house into a premier performing arts venue.
His interest took hold almost as soon as he moved from Prince George’s County to Baltimore in 1999. During a morning walk for breakfast at the McDonald’s on North Avenue, a “For Sale” sign on the tera cotta theater caught his eye, and he decided to call the realtor.
Touring the interior set something off in him.
“Once I was able to see what was inside—the remnants, so to speak—of the theater and what I thought it could be, it just—everything kind of fell into place in my mind about how I conceived of the place being restored.”
After conducting some research and coming across old photos of the Parkway dating back to the ’20s, the restoration plan became fully formed and precise, so much so that he can still vividly rattle off the details many years later, sitting down at the dining room table of his East 21st Street apartment.
The theater would be restored to its 1926 condition, just before the Loews theater chain purchased the property and added more seats and made changes to the decorative plaster, which downgraded the vistas, in Grant’s view. The house at 1820 N. Charles St., which Grant eventually bought, would be partially knocked down so that the back wall of the Parkway could be extended by 25 feet, allowing for the expansion of the stage to accommodate off-Broadway productions. In the front room of the remains of 1820 would be a gift shop. On top of that, rooms for out-of-town performers to stay in.
At 1 W. North Ave., the property next door to the theater’s east side, which used to house a fried chicken restaurant, there would be an expanded lobby space, similar to the one built for the Hippodrome. On the second floor, an upscale restaurant. Above that, administrative offices.
The new Parkway would have concerts, movie revivals, stage shows, organ recitals, and more. Grant seemed sure a venue of its size would fill a hole in the Baltimore arts scene. He put in a contract he knew he couldn’t act on, figuring there would be no problem lining up other financial partners once they saw the potential. It never materialized.
But he pushed on anyway, advocating for the theater’s rebirth a few years before Station North officially became an arts district and well before the area saw an influx of development dollars. He wrote people with deep pockets, civic leaders, and the heads of community associations to try and draw attention to what he called “the big gray elephant” nobody seemed to want to talk about. He built a spartan website outlining his vision and telling the story of the Parkway’s history and why he thought it was worth adding a new chapter. He attended public meetings to present his case for saving the Parkway. People would surely see the value in breathing life into this space, he thought.
Around 2003, he traveled to Canada and bought an old Wurlitzer organ, two serial numbers off from the organ housed in the Parkway until the ’60s, had it disassembled and packed into the back of a U-Haul, and drove it back to Baltimore at a total cost of about $20,000.
Over the next several years, as the theater changed hands and Grant continued trying to spur action while the neighborhood around the theater morphed into a hotbed for artists and businesses, the organ sat in pieces, still waiting to be installed in the Parkway’s chambers. It still sits in storage, just a few doors down from Grant’s apartment.
Now that Johns Hopkins University, Maryland Institute College of Art, and the Maryland Film Festival are stepping up to invest nearly $17 million to build the Parkway back up and turn it into a three-screen film center and performance complex, it would seem Grant’s calls for action have finally been answered, that he would be overjoyed to see a plan put forth to have the theater up and running once again.
Instead, he hears of the plans to reinforce the building, clean up the exterior, and rehab the auditorium without fully bringing it back to its 1920s elegance and feels the project won’t let the Parkway be as great as it could be, that the vision that came to him so clearly and inspired him to take up his cause will slip away.
“I think it could be so much more,” he says. “I think if they were to broaden the funding aspects of it that they could well come up with enough money to [complete]—if not my plan, at least a much more comprehensive plan that would be a true restoration of the place, as opposed to encapsulat[ing] what’s there in its semi-decrepit state.”
The plan devised by Hopkins, MICA, and the film festival is still very much in the concept stages, but the differences are clear.
“Our idea is to honor the history of the building and modernize it so that you see both things, you see the 100-year-old, great movie theater and you’re aware of it and see that it has history. It isn’t just a fully restored thing that could be a movie set, but you understand that it was a living, breathing theater,” says Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival.
Grant readily acknowledges he is not an expert and that the ones holding the power and the purse strings are by no means obligated to talk to him because, well, he is just a guy with a website and a theater organ.
But the former engineer still has what he calls “pride of authorship,” a confidence that his plan could work. Some could even say it’s a stubbornness; Grant admits to being a “bur under the saddle” of those who hold sway over the Parkway’s fate.
At times, the years of tilting at windmills show their wear on Grant, his plain-spoken manner and Southern-tinged accent showing brief moments of disappointment. “It’s just kind of discouraging, I guess, that I can’t seem to get anybody to talk about the place, at least in a public way, that would get to the people with the money that could really do the first-rate job,” he says.
With handshakes made, offers settled, and blueprints being drawn up, there is the realization that the sands of time are running out.
“Well, at 68, I guess I have not yet left my mark on the world, and even though I have no credentials in this field, I really think that my vision for the place, were it to be done, would be a legacy for the city and it would be nice to be able to say that some of my ideas were used,” he says.
“Proving ownership of those ideas, of course, is problematical. I put ’em out there on the website,” he continues. “You can’t patent an idea, so people are free to say, ‘Oh yeah, we thought of that,’ if they do anything remotely connected with the vision I had. It would be nice to be recognized if they had that courtesy.”
At this point, Grant will settle for even a small aspect of his vision. “The overriding factor is the desire to see the organ go back in there and become the entertainment vehicle that it’s capable of being.”
Nobody has contacted him about it yet.
The page Grant built online displays the following message: “This web site has reached the point of maximum apathy and minimum influence and will be going off-line shortly. Enjoy it while you can.”
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