Sunday, March 09, 2014

The Curse of the Stanley

All things must pass.

      The Stanley Theatre in Baltimore, MD had its inaugural screening of the Billie Dove film The Stolen Bride on September 23rd, 1927. For 38 years, the opulent single screen Medieval Romanesque cinema palace existed at 516 North Howard Street, until its last showing of the Lionel Bart stage musical Oliver! on April 17th, 1965.

Built by the Philadelphia based Hoffman-Henon Company on the site of the old Academy of Music, Baltimore's Stanley was once the city's largest theatre. The Stanley Corporation was a major theatre chain that was acquired by Warner Bros. after the success of their first string of talkies, including the enormously popular Al Jolson film The Jazz Singer in 1927.

The front of the theatre featured six white marble columns and arched windows. The lobby was said to look like something from the Hapsburg dynasty with only the finest imported Italian marble (including brass inlays) and a 100 foot ceiling. The mezzanine featured a lounge with all the accoutrements a royal Hapsburg would expect. At one time, The Stanley was ranked 60th largest movie/vaudeville theatre in the United States.

The buff, gray and pale blue auditorium featured maroon tapestries and a massive crystal bejeweled Tiffany chandelier that was serviced yearly. Seating capacity was 3,287. The stage itself was 50 foot wide and 38 foot high. In addition to convenient restrooms, The Stanley also boasted cosmetics rooms for ladies and smoking rooms for gentlemen. Orchestra rehearsal rooms flanked the projection booth and backstage were enough dressing rooms for a dozen acts.

Perhaps the most significant feature was a huge W. W. Kimball organ and piano, one of the largest in the country, only the console of which survives today. The original organ was reportedly restored in time for the local premiere of The Music Man (1962) starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones. The theatre also hosted the world premiere of Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan the Ape Man on March 11, 1932. Weissmuller, along with costars Maureen O'Sullivan and Sir C. Aubrey Smith attended. Judy Garland even brought her traveling stage show in April and May of 1959 (when it was known as the Stanley Opera House).

The theatre was purchased by Morris A. Mechanic (a Baltimore theatre mogul) in 1958 and renamed the Stanton Theatre a year later. Mechanic eventually decided to tear down the Stanley/Stanton and build a brand new theatre in downtown Baltimore City bearing his own name on North Charles Street. A modernist monstrosity (in the once popular architectural style known as brutalism) the theatre opened on January 16, 1967. The now derelict Morris A. Mechanic Theatre topped the 2009 list of the top 10 ugliest buildings in the world.

Mechanic, who allegedly leveled the old Stanley Theatre to eliminate competition with his new one, died before its completion.

The Stanley/Stanton was demolished in July of 1965 and turned into a parking lot. The organ blower remains buried underneath. Finally, this brings me to the "Curse" of the Stanley. Though that moniker may soon seem a little misleading. After all, how can a parking lot be cursed?

Back in 1957, Hammer Film Productions made their first foray into the realm of Gothic fantasy, based on Mary Shelley's seminal work Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus first published anonymously in 1818. The revolutionary genre film, which ushered in a new era of modern horror, was renamed The Curse of Frankenstein so not to incur a lawsuit from Universal Pictures who still owned the rights to the property following their classic 1931 adaptation starring Boris Karloff.

The Curse of Frankenstein, with its mordant realism and distinctive use of color, was heavy stuff for audiences in 1957. The film, featuring the first on screen pairing of horror icons Peter Cushing (as the mad doctor) and Christopher Lee (as the monster) may seem incredibly tame by today's standards (even juvenile), but back then, faintings were not out of the ordinary. Radio features did their best to encourage people to come out and see the blood-curdling terror for themselves, if they dared.

In a bold publicity stunt, the Stanley Theatre in Baltimore challenged a young woman to watch the film alone in their 3,000+ seat auditorium; to test whether she could endure the English fright fest without running in terror for her own safety and to then relay the horrors she endured on a local radio broadcast. Warners, having launched a successful Nationwide exploitation campaign for the film, was not above these types of tawdry showmanship tactics.

It's stories like this one that make sentimental fools like me pine for the glories of yesteryear. I was fortunate enough to catch Hammer's Dracula (1958), their followup to The Curse of Frankenstein, at Baltimore's rundown Senator Theatre (first opened in 1939) just before it closed under original management. It's one thing to enjoy these classics in the comfort of your Star Wars pajama bottoms and bunny slippers at home on Blu-ray, but to see them as they were originally intended is something else altogether.

To learn more about the history of the Stanley and old movie theatres in Baltimore, please check out: Cinema Treasures (especially the comments section); Exit: a History of Movies in Baltimore (1974) by Robert K. Headley; and Kilduffs fantastic website.

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