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The Self-Made Man: Frank Durkee

Baltimore’s Super Bowl victory (and the post-game interview with a very drunk Mayor Rawlings-Blake) has filled me with unusual amounts of civic pride, so I thought I’d take this week’s Self Made Men column to talk about a local entrepreneur: Durkee Enterprises founder Frank Durkee.

I doubt many people outside of Baltimore have heard of him, but his company owned a large and successful chain of movie theaters all around the city, as well as a few locations in Annapolis and Richmond, VA. The most famous one was The Senator, a North Baltimore mainstay that was prominently displayed in John Waters’ Cecil B. Demented, and which is currently being remodeled (at least, in theory) under new ownership.

But back to Frank and his accomplishments. His movie empire began around 1908, when he eked out a living projecting silent films in bars and public halls, carrying his equipment on his back from gig to gig. After understandably getting sick of that, he opened a movie house called the Paradise, which promised bigger profits than hoofing it around Baltimore. As the Paradise’s owner, he not only projected movies, but also took tickets and accompanied the films by playing piano and singing behind the screen.

Despite a youth spent signing in church choir, Frank’s voice must have stunk, because while he was greeting patrons as they left the theater (which he did on a regular basis), an old lady told him that ?the movie was wonderful, but you ought to do something about that terrible singer.? Durkee assured her that the singer would be fired immediately. Poor guy.

Frank kept on going with the Paradise, though, and eventually partnered up with fellow movie house owners Charles Nolte and C. W. Pacy. Their partnership was fruitful, and they opened up a ton of movie houses in Baltimore. Back in the day (we’re talking about the 1930s and 40s here), individual neighborhoods had their own movie theaters. Some of them were second-run theaters that showed B-movies and films near the end of their theatrical runs, but still, it was relatively stress-free to go to the movies. Plus, between the Depression and WWII, people really needed some of that Hollywood escapism, so Frank and his partners found themselves in the odd position of getting rich when most people were going broke, especially since the Durkee organization owned most of the theaters in their circuit.

Frank died in 1955, and his company gradually removed itself from the theater business throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but a lot of people around Baltimore have fond memories of seeing movies in one of his theaters, and some of those buildings are still around. They stand as a testament to Frank’s work ethic; I can’t think of many people who would shlep a film projector around on their backs and pass the hat around between screenings for a living, but he was patient and industrious enough to do it until it led him somewhere better. And because of his determination, and some luck, it did.

Here’s a list of the theaters owned by Durkee Enterprises in their heyday, just in case you’re curious.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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