The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. The Jungle Book. Batman. The Love Bug. Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Blazing Saddles. Rocky. It’s Alive. Car Wash. Stir Crazy. Saturday Night Fever.
Those are just some of the movies I remember seeing at the Avalon Theater in Easton, Maryland, when I was a kid.
When I was little we’d go to the Avalon’s Saturday matinees. Mom would drop me and a friend off for a couple hours while she shopped. The Avalon would run Woody Woodpecker cartoons and old movies that you could also sometimes catch on Sunday morning if you happened to be watching Channel 13 instead of attending Sunday school like a good boy.
As a young teen, friend’s older siblings got us into see schlocky R-rated horror movies and comedies, while my parents took me to see adult themed films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Sting, and Shampoo. Neither my mom nor dad ever had a sense of anything being “too mature” for me – too scary or too sexy maybe – but never too mature. Sometimes mom would cover my eyes for a minute or two if there was prolonged nudity or if anything that might provoke nightmares hogged too much screen time.
When I got old enough to drive and date, my friends and I started making more trips across the Bay Bridge, to the suburban malls around Severna Park and Glen Burnie, or the old theater on State Circle in Annapolis. I saw some of all-time my favorite movies, like Star Wars and Animal House away from home base.
Yet, in my last couple years of high school,there were a still a few times we went to the Avalon, but that was mainly because the balcony was a place teenagers could, pretty much undisturbed, kiss and pet and make out. You know, young romance away from any prying eyes – except for, perhaps, the ghosts of the past.
It was “The Showplace of the Eastern Shore!”
Built in 1921, at the cost of $100,000, with leaded glass doors, an 18 foot dome, a 300 pipe organ, an electric player piano, and a ballroom on the second floor, The Avalon was an architectural and cultural gem which hosted silent films and traveling vaudeville acts.
The Schine Chain Theatres, who bought the Avalon in 1934, closed the ballroom and renovated the theatre in a modern art deco theme, which has stood the test of time.
Over eighty years later, much of that redesign is still evident today.
The grand movie palace that was the Avalon hosted three world premieres including 1928’s The First Kiss, a drama starring a young Gary Cooper and King Kong’s future love interest, Fay Rae. The First Kiss was filmed in both Easton and nearby St. Michael’s, and is about a Chesapeake Bay fisherman whose romance with a society girl is complicated by his family responsibilities, his personal dreams, and his criminal alias as a bay-faring buccaneer. Ads for The First Kiss promised “Suspense of river piracy! Bold deeds on dark nights! Action! Mystery! Melodrama!”
While shooting the film, director Rowland V. Lee set up a casting office in the cabin of a St. Michael’s oyster boat, hired 18 “grizzled watermen,” and put the town’s entire work fleet under a movie contract. When twenty year old Fay Wray married writer John Mark Saunders at the Easton courthouse on June 15, 1928, their wedding reception was held aboard one of those St. Michael’s workboats.
Suffering from protracted deferred maintenance, the Avalon closed in 1985, a once proud and lovely star reduced to a sad and dejected flicker of its long lost elegance.
Under the leadership of then-Mayor George Murphy, who was supported by other enthusiastic and hard-working visionaries, as well as the community at large, renovations to restore the Avalon to its former glory began in late 1987, and in 1989 the 1.36 million dollar project was unveiled to the public.
After a bumpy start as a renewed center for the performing arts, the town of Easton purchased the Avalon in 1992, and in 1994, turned the theatre’s operation over to a non-profit corporation, The Avalon Foundation.
A star was reborn.
Under the guidance of The Avalon Foundation, and with state of the art sound and lighting, video projectors, and television production facilities, the Avalon attracts performers from both near and far, and is considered one of the premier performing arts venues on the Eastern Shore
In 2003, the Avalon Foundation purchased part of the building’s second floor, the location of the original ballroom. In 2009, this space was transformed into the Stoltz Listening Room, a cabaret style performance space.
In recent years, I’ve had the great pleasure to attend such performances at the Avalon as Grammy–award winning Blues master Keb’ Mo’, traveling hippie folk singer Todd Snider, and the very, very funky legend known as Bootsy Collins.
I saw a play there called The Santa Diaries that was written by my friends, Laura Ambler and Mala Burt.
The Nutcracker – A New Musical will be featured at the Avalon over this Christmas season and upcoming programs include the very popular Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast series, as well as such prominent musical artists as The Deanna Bogart Band, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and The Kingston Trio.
You should go see something there. It really is an awesome place to catch a show.
Just don’t try making out in the balcony like teenagers from the 1970’s.
That’s what they make the backseats of cars for.