Remembering South Baltimore’s Deluxe Theatre

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“The movies are the only business where you can go out front and applaud yourself.”

— Will Rogers

I grew up during World War II in the neighborhood of Locust Point. It’s a peninsula that juts out into Baltimore harbor. At its cutting edge, lies Fort McHenry, (formerly Whetstone Point), the birthplace of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The road that leads you to all of that splendid history is Fort Avenue. It runs east and west and literally splits Locust Point in half. On its farthest edges were the piers and terminals, then owned and maintained by either the B&O (north side), or (south side) the Western Maryland railroads.

In my day, Locust Point, in the heart of South Baltimore, had a fire house; a bakery; a seafood market; a funeral parlor; two dry goods outlets, one of which was then owned by the parents of the now-Fifth District City Councilwoman, Rikki Spector; four ILA union halls; Public School #76; Our Lady of Good Counsel RC school; 22 taverns; a Coca-Cola plant; a Procter & Gamble facility; three mainstream Christian churches, plus one for the “Holy Rollers; an abandoned and supposedly haunted library and warehouse; a drug store; assorted Mom & Pop shops, including my favorite, “Sticky Buns Baumann”; a blacksmith; and–one movie theatre–the Deluxe!

The Deluxe was at 1318 E. Fort Avenue where it intersects with Lowman Street.[1] Robert K. Headley’s book, “Motion Picture Exhibition in Baltimore: An Illustrated History and Directory of Theatres,” has some details on the year it was built, its owner and more.[2] When I was growing up at 1237 Haubert Street, during the 40s and early 50s, the Deluxe was already there! It was the place to be, especially on Saturday! I’m not sure when it was abandoned as a theatre. Check out what the Deluxe looks like today after having being converted to business-office use. You can still make out the “Deluxe” logo on the side of the building.[3]

I recall going regularly to the Deluxe before television made its appearance and began to dominate the culture. It cost twenty-five cents to get in. The Deluxe was only four blocks from our home. On the bill, there was generally a full feast of cowboy movies with headliners, such as: Roy Rogers, Gene Autry or William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy), galloping to the rescue.

The cowboy films were then very sanitized. Very few of the bad guys ever got killed. Although, I didn’t keep count, I think every gun fired about 50 bullets each, even though it was only suppose to be “a six shooter!” Gene Autry was one of my favorites, not only because he was one of the good guys on a white horse, but because he could sing. Many a time, I watched Autry ride off into a lovely Western sunset belting out a tune.

Then, there were, of course, the war flicks with John Wayne; and also the gangster movies. James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart stood out in that genre. Robinson mostly talked with a cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth. The actors all smoked in the gangster films. It fit their tough guy images.

Richard Widmark played one of those tough guys–think psychopath! His name was “Tommy Udo.” It was in a 1947 movie, called, appropriately, “Kiss of Death.” I don’t think I’ll ever forget the scene where Udo (Widmark) ties this elderly woman up with an electrical cord. She’s in a wheelchair begging for her life. He then, with a devilish grin on his mug, pushs her down the stairs killing the poor creature. There were a lot of big stars in the film, but that one sadistic moment shocked the bejesus out of me.

In the realm of comedy, Abbott and Costello received the top billing. They were by far the most popular in that era. For jungle films, Johnny Weissmuller as “Tarzan,” was my favorite.

Weissmuller did that famous “Call” in his Tarzan flicks.[4] Sometime, he would do it more than once in a film. It was big part of his Tarzan persona. Well, one of my buddies, “Spanky” Ridgeway, could imitate that mega yell, much to the irritation of our neighbors. In fact, I think Ridgeway, whom you could hear coming blocks away, had more lung power than the mighty Weissmuller.

The special treat at the Deluxe wasn’t the feature movies. It was the “Serials!” These were short subjects shown after the main presentations. They would run for ten weeks in a row and then end with a cliffhanger episode. Buster Crabbe as “Flash Gordon,” was huge. It had sci-fi effects. For me, however, the best was Clayton Moore, as “The Lone Ranger.” It had a catchy tune and this refrain: “Hi Ho Silver, away! The Lone Ranger rides again!”

I can’t remember the reason why, but I once got “barred” from the Deluxe! In any event, my problem was this: How was I going to get back into the movie to see the finale of the serials? This was a crisis! I decided to wait till after 6 PM, when they changed ticket sellers to pull it off. The woman who worked during the day (she was a “dirty” blonde) had my number. I was on her “keep-the-hell-out list.” Eventually, I was taken off that silly “barred” list.

On another occasion, I was walking on Fort Avenue, and I had to go to the bathroom in a hurry. I was about ten or eleven years old then. So, I ran behind the Deluxe to relieve myself. Damn it! A Baltimore Police Sergeant showed up and threaten to arrest me! Holy crap! And, for what? This was an emergency for me, plus I was doing it in a relatively private place. The cop was unimpressed by my plea. The only thing that saved my a.. was that he knew my father, who was a boss on the docks.

(That policeman, a strict law and order type, was the legendary Frank J. Battaglia, now deceased. He later rose through the ranks to become the Police Commissioner of Baltimore City.) [5]

In summary, the Deluxe Theatre–a gem of a movie house–will always have a special place in my memory.

Notes:

[1]. http://www.kilduffs.com/DAA_DeluxeTheatre.html

[2]. http://www.amazon.com/Motion-Picture-Exhibition
-Baltimore-Illustrated/dp/0786422904

[3]. Photo of the Deluxe theatre, Summer, 2010.

[4]. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NL7nP61-hk

[5]. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Battaglia

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