Reflecting on the renovated Parkway Theater

By RENEE SCAVONE | November 2, 2017


COURTESY OF RENEE SCAVONE The old facade of the theater was replaced with a bright, white exterior.

If you are at all into the arts scene in Baltimore, or if you’ve ever spoken to a film major here, you’ve probably heard about the Parkway Theatre.

Or maybe you’ve only seen it through the windows of the JHMI on the way to Peabody or the med campus. Either way, since the Theatre’s 2017 grand reopening, it has quickly become a visual monument, not least because it is literally a bright white box.

The sleek-looking building is architecturally out of place in its Station North narrative and seems like it belongs more in the Inner Harbor than Baltimore’s historic cultural district.

On the one hand, this visual dissonance is surely purposeful: It’s new, it’s exciting, and it seems to boast the rather ambitious and perhaps unnecessary goal of reinvigorating the Baltimore film scene.

But then again, there’s a distinct otherness about the building in comparison to the brown brick and stone buildings surrounding it. Something about it — be its color, its boxiness, the electric ticker running along the facade — just screams gentrification.

But that very ticker often proclaims that the Parkway is a place where there is “Film for Everyone!”

When a 2 p.m. screening on a Sunday afternoon will set you back $8 without popcorn or soda, a cinema runs the risk of being labeled a little bit inaccessible.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that the Parkway is a fine theater. It’s an historic theater and I’m glad that it’s been revived.

And yet I cannot deny that there’s a certain arrogance in its redundancy: If you’re looking for someplace to watch an indie film, the mom-and-pop owned Charles Theatre is literally right down the street. What makes the Parkway so special?

The films are good. I won’t deny it. The Parkway opened with the Maryland Film Festival, and the Theatre has continued to bring in really wonderful stuff. I’ve seen foreign shorts, indie comedies and LGBTQ dramas. A lot of films I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to see otherwise.

Despite the pricey-ness of some of their features, the Parkway has a number of free film screenings. Next Tuesday you can check out Swagger, a documentary about 11 children growing up in the banlieues of Paris, as part of their Young French Film Series.

Of course, it’s only fair to note that this particular free screening is happening in conjunction with Hopkins. Due in part to its proximity to the JHU-MICA Film Centre, the University’s Film and Media Studies department has a relationship with the Theatre.

If you’re like me and are a little skeeved out by the way that Hopkins seems to seep into every aspect of Baltimore, this might be a deal-breaker. That being said, if you’re going to pick and choose your battles with the many-tentacled beast that is Hopkins, the Film department is probably the least of your worries.

The Theatre itself is almost viciously tidy: Every time I step into their big, open lobby space, I immediately feel the urge to whisper. It’s definitely a big change from my hometown cinema-plex — no butter stains on this impossibly clean floor.

Most of the hallways have an inexplicable odor: kind of a mix of tires and also an over-heated hairdryer. When I first started going to the Parkway, I assumed it was just that new theater smell. Now, I believe it may be a permanent fixture.

The actual theaters themselves, however, are pretty nice. The seats are cushy and the screens adjust based on the aspect ratio of whatever you’re watching. That is to say: They’re very fancy.

On the flip side, two of the three theaters are impossibly tiny. Back in its original 1910s glory, when it was still showing Paramount features and “blockbusters” weren’t even a thing yet, the Parkway could comfortably sit over a thousand people. There was an orchestra pit, for heaven’s sake.

It’s hard to imagine that now, when I’m sitting in a theater that might fit 50 people tops.

I am personally not a big fan of tiny theaters. I like to be crammed in with as many other human beings as possible. If I’m watching a horror film and I can’t feel the sweat and tears of my neighbor, what’s the point? In these two smaller theaters, that kind of physicality is just not happening.

The two main counterpoints to this are the fact that some moviegoers may prefer a more intimate experience and that, especially for some of the more avant-garde showings, there aren’t necessarily the audience numbers to fill a full-sized theater.

And it’s worth mentioning that there is a larger space: The biggest screening room fits 414 people. Far from an orchestra pit, but certainly nothing to scoff at.

Overall, despite my wariness of its logo, I like the Parkway. It’s hard to be critical of something that celebrates an art form I love and really does try to bring a variety of content to its viewers. It’s also very hard to be critical of a place that’s hosting a double screening of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Trading Places.

So, whether you’re a true indie film buff who’s already bought your tickets to the 6th Annual Sweaty Eyeballs Animation Invitational or just want to see Clueless on the big screen (one night only next Monday!), I’ll probably see you there.

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