Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
"People in the neighborhood would probably not mind seeing it used for something different."
For the last 41 years, the historic Apex Theatre in Baltimore has shown only adult films, putting it in rare company: The number of pornographic movie theaters still in operation in the U.S. has been dwindling rapidly since the 1980s.
As the Upper Fells Point neighborhood around the Apex has transitioned and gone more and more upscale, its continued existence is remarkable. More recent changes in movie theater technology makes its longevity downright astonishing.
So it wasn't exactly a shock when news broke earlier this month that the Apex is set to be auctioned off today. Despite its memorable marquee and historic building, tourism officials and city boosters have understandably been less than eager to promote it as a cultural asset.
Except for John Waters, of course. Baltimore's go-to sage for all things offbeat thinks fondly of the Apex. He screened his 2000 film, Cecil B. DeMented, there and received a miniature model of the place as a Christmas gift. "I think it's a landmark that I'll miss," he told the Baltimore Sun last week, adding, "every time I drove past it I felt a little bit better."
The theater was converted from a bowling alley in 1942. Andrew Billig of A.J. Billig and Co. Auctioneers is overseeing today's auction, one that will likely result in the Apex becoming something different yet again. "People in the neighborhood would probably not mind seeing it used for something different," says Billing. So far, he's gotten inquiries from developers hoping to turn it into anything from an art house cinema specializing in Hispanic films, a venue for live theater, a warehouse space, housing, and even a church.
Adult theaters first gained popularity in the U.S. in the 1960s, spreading rapidly around the country even as traditional cinemas struggled to keep up with the convenience of television and the emergence of new, state-of-the-art mulitplexes in the suburbs. Many small theater owners chose to convert to adult-only films.
But as the VCR emerged in the 1980s, pornography consumers could suddenly avoid having to watch alongside strangers, or worse yet, be seen exiting a theater and stepping back onto the same sidewalks shared by friends, co-workers, and family. Today of course, the internet's wide array of free pornography makes the idea of frequenting an adult theater seem not only uncomfortable, but a waste of time and money.
"Right now it seems anachronistic, like a throwback to a different time," says Jeff May, president of the Upper Fells Point Improvement Association. In recent years the Apex has been a source of complaints from business owners and residents, unimpressed with the people who hang around the theater and the 7-Eleven next door. "It seems like it is out of place for a family-oriented community," May says.
In his interview with the Sun, Waters argues that "the Apex lived in peace with its community for decades." Perhaps it will again — just not as an adult movie theater.
Top image of Apex Theatre courtesy Flickr user defekto