The Parkway has stood at the corner of Charles and North for over a century, and served Baltimore cinema-lovers thousands of films from the silent era into the 1970s. Baltimore boasted many fine theaters built to present motion pictures prior to The Parkway, but for its size and beauty it has always been a rare gem.
On October 23, 1915, The Parkway opened its doors for the very first time with feature attraction Zaza, starring Pauline Frederick and directed by Hugh Ford and Edwin S. Porter. During this era, The Parkway seated 1100 patrons, screened Paramount titles, and boasted an organ, an orchestra, and a devoted cameraman capturing local news.
A remodeled Parkway seating 950 reopened as a Loew’s theater on October 4, 1926 with Aloma of the South Seas, starring Gilda Gray and directed by Maurice Tourneur. Vitaphone and Movietone sound systems were installed in 1928, and The Parkway continued as a Loew’s theater until closing in the summer of 1952. Under the ownership of Morris Mechanic, The Parkway had a brief life as a live theater in the following seasons.
The next major chapter in this theater’s life began on May 24th, 1956, when The Parkway re-opened as the 435-seat 5 West. The 5 West was an early Baltimore example of movie theaters rebranding as art-house cinemas, offering as its first attraction The Ladykillers, starring Alec Guinness and directed by Alexander Mackendrick. For many years, the 5 West joined such neighboring theaters as The Charles on North Charles Street, the 7 East on North Avenue, and The Playhouse on 25th Street in delivering an exciting mix of New Hollywood, international, independent, cult, and repertory films.
In the late 1970s the 5 West struggled, and by January of 1978 it had closed its doors for good. In the decades that followed, portions of the Parkway were occasionally used as commercial or office spaces, with several exciting plans to return the theater to cultural purposes proving either short-lived or unrealized.
After decades of falling into disrepair, The Parkway was acquired from the city by Maryland Film Festival. In the months that followed, MdFF began implementing their proposal to make The Parkway a year-round film center by restoring the original auditorium and building two additional new screens on an adjacent property. On May 3, 2017 these plans will come to fruition, as the three-screen MdFF Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway hosts its very first screening, the Opening Night Gala of the 19th annual Maryland Film Festival.
For further reading, MdFF suggests Motion Picture Exhibition in Baltimore by Robert K. Headley.
The Parkway was designed by Baltimore architect Oliver B. Wight, modeled after the West End Theater in London and the Strand Theater in New York. The permit to build the Parkway was issued in December 1914, and four existing buildings on the lot were razed in February 1915. Henry W. Webb’s Northern Amusement Company built The Parkway for approximately $120,000, and this grand theater opened to the public for the first time on October 23, 1915.
The Parkway’s facade reflected an Italian Renaissance influence with its light-gray terra cotta tiles and multi-hued brick. The interior boasted an impressive and ornately decorated dome with a large gold sunburst as its centerpiece.
The theater’s original seating configuration included an ambitious 1100 seats (800 orchestra and 300 balcony). The interior was decorated in Louis XIV style with matching furniture, and an elaborate tea room overlooking North Avenue was housed in the mezzanine area. The walls were dressed in gray and gold, with draperies and upholstery of old rose velour. The marquee was a canopy of brass and iron.
Following a 1926 remodel under new owners Loew’s by architect John Eberson, The Parkway’s seating capacity was reduced by about 150, and some of the more ornate original details were removed or modified. Loew’s also enlarged The Parkway’s lobby and replaced the original Moller organ with a Wurlitzer. On the exterior, a more grandiose marquee with changeable lettering and a large illuminated vertical sign were added. In 1928, the auditorium was modified to accommodate sound equipment. Loew’s again replaced the marquee and remodeled the mezzanine in 1939.
In 1956 the Schwaber organization remodeled and rebranded the Parkway as an art-house theater under the name 5 West. Schwaber reduced seating capacity to 435, adding Airflo rocking theater chairs and much more spacious rows. The foyer was enlarged, and a coffee bar added. The new interior decoration consisted of a brown, beige, and green color scheme with gold draperies and hunter green carpet throughout.
After the 5 West ceased film operations in the late 1970s, the Parkway sat dormant for many years. In February of 2016, construction and renovation began on the MdFF Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway, with project management from Seawall Development, construction by Southway Builders, and a design honoring the Parkway’s many layers of history by architects Ziger/Snead. The SNF Parkway was made possible through a generous $5 million lead gift from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, key support from the State of Maryland, additional important donations from foundations, corporations and individuals, and the special partnership in place with both Johns Hopkins University and MICA. The revitalized Parkway and newly constructed adjacent buildings, together comprising a 3-screen film complex, opened to the public on May 3, 2017.
For further reading, MdFF suggests Motion Picture Exhibit