By Laura Weiss, Marketing & Press Manager
Everyman Theatre is not the first troupe of performers to inhabit the four walls of 315 West Fayette Street. Long before the familiar faces of Resident Company Members such as Carl Schurr and Bruce Nelson took to the boards of our new stage, Vaudeville performers from the turn of the 20th century performed for enthusiastic audiences at what was then known as the Empire Theatre.
Built in 1911, the Empire was a staple in the then booming theatre district of Baltimore. The venerable Ford’s Theatre was located across the street, where the Atrium Parking Garage now stands. The Empire Theatre opened on Christmas Day, 1911 and featured a beautiful neoclassical terra cotta and granite facade.
Vaudeville performers graced the Beaux Arts style theatre from 1911 to 1913. The theatre even hosted Yiddish theatre, boxing and bingo parties. The Empire was transformed into the Palace Theatre, a Burlesque house whose advertising slogan was “Better Burlesque” and even featured its own soda fountain and billiard parlor. The theatre was eventually shut down by the City – rumored to have been a little “too” burlesque! – and became an indoor parking garage known as the Palace Parking Garage in 1937.
After World War II, the building was once again redesigned, this time by architect John Zinc, well known to many Baltimore natives for his work on the Senator Theatre. On Christmas Day, 1947, the theatre was re-opened as the Town Theatre with the premiere of the now classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life, complete with Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra in attendance. The new theatre now boasted an Art Moderne style with swirling circular decor, and featured a concession stand that sold the very popular orange-coated ice cream treat known as Dreamsicles.
Over ten years after its opening, the Town became Baltimore’s only “Cinerama” movie house. This was a special film technique where multiple film strips were shown on a single projector. Eventually the movies at the Town became second-run films and B-movies, and it closed in 1990.
In a twist of fate, Vincent Lancisi moved to Baltimore in 1990, right after he graduated from Catholic University’s MFA program, and founded Everyman Theatre. As Everyman established itself across town on Charles Street, the former Vaudeville house lay empty, waiting for our arrival.
Today the neoclassical façade has been restored to mimic as closely as possible the appearance of the theatre from photos dating back to its opening in 1911. A marquee has been incorporated into the design in keeping with the period significance of the building.
During restoration of the facade, the construction and design team were even surprised to find an “E” hiding all the way at the top of the façade. It was discovered that this once stood for “Empire” and now it has been proudly restored to stand for “Everyman.”