Flickering Treasures

11 Photos

Photos Amy Davis, Text by Chris Kaltenbach

With her book “Flickering Treasures,” Baltimore Sun photojournalist Amy Davis invokes the ghosts of dozens of Baltimore movie theaters past.

Through archival photographs of 72 theaters, dating back to the early years of the 20th century, Davis’ book shines a spotlight on architectural ghosts the city has long forgotten. And each historic picture serves as a preface to the real meat of the book: Davis’ own photographs, revealing the modern uses for these glorious structures. Some have been razed, a few are still showing movies. Most have been re-purposed — into churches, warehouses, food stores, even, in one case, a community college. Many sit vacant, crumbling and sad, waiting for a savior.

We asked Davis, who has been shooting photographs for The Sun since 1987, to talk about her book, the inspiration for it and some of the revelations she experienced during the near-decade she spent putting it together.

Why movie theaters?
My interest was sparked by the Senator Theatre, which is near my home. When that was facing foreclosure [in 2007], I was upset. I had an attachment to that theater. Later on, I realized a lot of people had attachments to their neighborhood theaters. That got me curious about what happened to all the other theaters.

Why do you think people have that kind of attachment?
The experience of going to your neighborhood theater was entwined with your sense of neighborhood, and the sense of identity that you get from your neighborhood. That’s one of the reasons people really love them.

The neighborhood theaters were also where people spent their entire Saturdays when they were children growing up. So those are indelible memories.

I think in general, the movie theater experience leaves deep impressions upon you. For everybody. It’s a different film, a different experience that happened at the movie theater, your first kiss, something else exciting … you don’t forget that stuff.

Since you began this project, 11 of the buildings you photographed have been razed. Is there a surviving building you’re especially concerned about?
I’m really worried about the Ambassador [in Park Heights]. I think the Ambassador is the most beautiful art deco building in Baltimore, certainly the most beautiful art deco theater. And it’s criminal what’s happened to that. The facade is still salvageable, but I’m not sure what will become of it.

Does the city lose something, by not having theaters like these anymore.
The question really is, what happens to the health of the city when you have neighborhoods that aren’t healthy. Theaters are just endemic of a neighborhood that’s not healthy.

So many of the theaters that are in neighborhoods, they are on commercial strips that were once bustling, and now they’re commercial strips filled with bail bondsmen and liquor stores and dollar stores, and they’re not doing well. And the neighborhoods are not doing well overall. That’s a bigger issue than that particular building that happened to be a theater at one time.

Want to learn more? Watch a Facebook chat with Amy Davis.