The Closing of the Rotunda Movie Theaters

by Jesse Fask
Where’s a city kid going to go to catch a movie, without first cajoling a ride from some adult?
       Growing up in the eighties in Mount Washington, there were three movie options, close enough to ask a parent or friend’s older sibling to give you a ride to, or walk or ride a bike to on a nice day.

       The first option was the old theaters at the Greenspring Shopping Center, which replaced a bowling alley when I was seven years old and shut down a few years ago. On a warm Saturday, I could walk with my neighborhood friends to the movies and get pizza and ice cream. We never had to ask our parents for rides (just allowance money).

       The second option was the Reisterstown Road Plaza, just a few blocks from my middle school, which became a prime weekend hang-out. The plaza had seven screens—incredible back then, just a dozen or so years ago—and I remember waiting in line to see the movies there as often as possible. When you’re eleven or twelve, going to the movies with friends and no adults is mind-blowing, and the Plaza is where I most often experienced these feelings.

       By 1990, as my middle school graduation approached, Mount Washington parents became more and more concerned with their children seeing movies alone at the Plaza, especially at night. Some kids were not allowed to go. The fact that the neighborhood around the Plaza was seen as a bit suspect just added to my excitement. Then came the night my friends and I went to see “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” on the big screen there.

       I was actually eagerly anticipating this movie. As a last gasp to hold on to childhood before entering the for-the-most-part cartoonless world of high school, I had been watching the cartoon ninja turtles every day after school. I used to draw them in my notebook when I was bored in class, and was pretty elated to see the live action version of these sewer-dwelling amphibian fighting heroes.

       As I sat next to my friends with a giant box of popcorn, I was giddy with anticipation. Then, as the movie was about to begin, a group of loud teenagers twice my size and with an intimidating street presence sat behind me and my friends. They were talking so loud I could not hear the movie, but I was way too afraid to say anything.

       Then something strange happened. The first funny part of the movie occurred. I don’t remember what, maybe Michelangelo, the clown of the turtles, slipped and fell on a pizza he wanted to devour, and then the guy behind me rocked back in his seat, let out this raucous laugh, brought his hand back behind his head and, in one violent, chuckling motion, he swung his open hand around and slapped me hard in the back of my head, making a loud smacking sound that concluded his laugh attack.

       But that wasn’t the end of it. Anytime something funny would happen, this guy would bellow heartily, rock back in his seat, and hit me with his heavy hand on the back of my head. And I had one of those long-on-top, shaved-in-the-back late eighties cuts, and this junk hurt. After about four of these, I told my friends. and we decided to move.

       It was not until ten years later that I went back to the Plaza for a movie, when it was briefly open as a second-run theater. I went with my sister to see “The Matrix.” Then the movie theaters at the Plaza closed a few months later.

       The Rotunda was the last of my childhood theaters to close, and that happened last month. It had been open the longest and had changed from a two-cinema theater showing blockbuster films such as “Ghostbusters” and “Back to the Future” into a place where you could see more independent and less-well-known art and foreign films. It felt like a more sophisticated crowd even when I was in middle school—in that crucial period of movie enjoyment and social development. I remember having an important discussion about the film my friends and I had just seen, waiting for our ride to pick us up from “Jungle Fever.”

       After I moved back to Baltimore and then to Hampden, the Rotunda was one of our town’s little treasures. The majestic clock tower, the underwhelming but familiar shopping area. The TCBY where a girl I used to have a crush on worked over a decade ago. The cheap slices of pizza. But the movie theater was the centerpiece, the reason I went, where I saw important films like “Life is Beautiful” and underrated forgotten films of last year like “Requiem for a Dream” and “You Can Count On Me.”

       Now there are only two theaters in the city that don’t show exclusively pornography. The Senator is of course a wonderful place to see a film, but they tend to get mediocre movies these days and keep them there for excruciatingly long time periods. That’s not a good policy for a theater with only one screen, no matter how big that screen may be. Thank God for the Charles Theater, a god-send for me now, with five screens of usually the best and most interesting movies from all over the world.

       But if I was a kid growing up in Mount Washington right now, I would have no theaters to walk or bike to—except the rare occasion when the Senator is showing something that would interest a pubescent boy. The Charles shows mostly films of a grown-up variety. So I’d have to get a ride all the way out to Towson, where the theaters aren’t so great and probably can’t compete with the multi-multi-plex airport-style stadium-seating pseudo-small-town setting, where each neighbor is a cute chain store where you can buy pretzels or something else you don’t need out in White Marsh or the new one in Anne Arundel County.

       The movies are a thing I cherish, and settings are important and romantic to me, which is part of the reason I stay in Baltimore. It is too bad that the old Rotunda theaters of this world don’t seem to be able to make it anymore.


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This story was published on May 2, 2001.