- 2426 Pennsylvania Avenue | Baltimore, MD 21217
Today’s Arch Social Club headquarters began as an elegant silent movie theatre, dance hall and vaudeville playhouse.It was called The Schanze (Schan•ze ) Theatre.
The Schanze Theatre was erected before Pennsylvania Avenue became a hub of Black cultural life. The street bustled from the 1920s through the 1950s, the era of Baltimore’s African-American Renaissance. It was a major retail artery and the center of entertainment. The African-American population’s famous Easter parade swarmed down Pennsylvania. Other parades and festivals were staged by such societies as the Elks and Masons. Pennsylvania was a jazz Mecca. Its night clubs such as The Sphinx, Ganbee’s and the Ritz Cafe featured major performers. Its Royal Theatre rivaled Harlem’s famed Apollo.
Baltimore was a city known for having an active movie-going population. It has been estimated that in 1920, 150,000 people out of a population of approximately 850,000 attended at least one movie per week, with the big vaudeville houses apparently drawing the largest crowds.
Not surprising, the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor hosted seven movie theaters by the 1930s, providing a critical facet to the neighborhood’s social life.
The years 1908 to 1914 were a boom time for the construction of movie theaters. The earliest were built in Baltimore by 1908, including eight in that year alone, the number increasing to a total of 113 theater buildings by 1914.
Most theaters were small, seating only about 300 people. Architectural style and decoration could be plain or quite elaborate; many early theaters had lavish classical ornamentation, while others were built in existing structures. Because theatres did not have a respectable reputation—after all, they required that the viewer sit in the dark among total strangers– their owners tried to create a comforting, homey atmosphere.
The program at the theaters typically consisted of a feature movie and two shorts; this was usually accompanied by live entertainment on piano, organ or drums, and the larger theaters sometimes had entire orchestras. Slide shows previewed movies or illustrated songs, and short skits followed the movie.
Frank H. Durkee, C.W. Pacy, and Charles E. Nolte were early entrepreneurs in the Baltimore movie business. They began their partnership, Durkee Enterprises, around 1916, and owned or operated over a dozen Baltimore movie theaters by the late 1920s. They acquired the Schanze Theatre by 1926.
The City Directory of 1930 lists the following tenants at 2426 Pennsylvania Avenue:
- Schanze, the Motion Pictures;
- Schanze’s Hall; and
- the Bangert & Petticord Dancing School.
The Schanze Theatre, opened in 1912, is an exceptionally fine building evocative of early twentieth-century recreational tastes, a time when attending the motion pictures was a special social occasion. Its grand facade, featuring a giant, two-story aedicule motif, celebrates the importance of the building in the life of the neighborhood. The Schanze was built by Frederick Schanze, the owner of a successful nearby pharmacy/apartment house. The cost of construction at the time was $26,000 ($630,505 in current dollar value).
Silent movies were shown in the first-floor theater, while the second floor functioned as a dance hall.
A Yiddish movie theater known as the Cinema2 opened at the Schanze Theater in January of 1941. It apparently closed less than a year later.
Between 1941 and 1970, the site went through various uses, including serving as a penny arcade. In the early 1970s the Schanze was used as a dining room for Wilson’s Restaurant, ironically one of the last segregationist business hold outs in Baltimore.
But in 1972, the building was purchased by the Arch Social Club. Arch Social Club, founded in 1905 and incorporated in 1912, which has refurbished and maintained the property as a performance space and open meeting hall for the last 45 years.
The Arch Social Club (Schanze Theatre) is an unique historical structure because:
- It has continuously functioned as a cultural venue for 105 years
- Its architecture speaks to the infant age of movie-viewing culture in the U.S.
- Of the myriad of theatre spaces, night clubs, restaurants and other cultural attractions that are associated with the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor during its heyday as a Black metropolis, the Arch Social Club is the very last standing and operating structure.
- It houses the Arch Social Club, founded in 1905, a leading civil societal institution that played a significant role in the mid-century political struggle to overthrow Jim Crow segregation in Baltimore and beyond. Arch Social Club is the second oldest African American men’s club in the United States.
- The Schanze/Arch Social Club is currently recognized as a landmark by the City of Baltimore. It is also featured in the Pennsylvania Avenue Heritage Trail within the Baltimore National Heritage Area, administered by the National Parks Service.
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See history in the making!
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