Doris Wishman, director of the 1962 “Nudie on the Moon,” strikes a pose in the Charles Theatre lobby at the inaugural Maryland Film Festival. (Larry C. Price, Baltimore Sun photo, April 24, 1999)

The expanded five-screen Charles Theatre and the Maryland Film Festival made their debut almost simultaneously back in May 1999. It was a joyous day for Baltimore cinephiles.

Both represented something old and new in the history of movie-going in these parts. The Charles had been showing movies since 1939 (in the early days it showed primarily newsreels), and for years had been the city’s primary repertory moviehouse.

Hard times and a change of ownership had forced it to close for a few months, but new owners James “Buzz” Cusack and his nephew, long-time Charles projectionist John Standiford, had brought the theater back from the brink. The crowds had returned, and adding four screens was seen as a way to both enlarge its audience capabilities and ensure its continued success.


With work progressing on the Charles Theatre expansion, Maryland Film Festival organizers held a press conference to announce details of the first festival. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun photo, Feb. 18, 1999)

Likewise, the Maryland Film Festival was in many ways a second act, an annual gathering of movie faithful that would, hopefully, capture and enlarge on the audience that had kept the venerable Baltimore Film Forum, organizers of the annual Baltimore Film Festival, going for 27 years.

Like The Charles, the BFF, too, had fallen on hard times, closing operations forever after a January 1996 screening of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” that was hosted by former Baltimore Sun film critic (and future Pulitzer Prize winner for the Washington Post) Stephen Hunter.

In April 1999, both the expanded Charles and the MFF made their debuts.


Opening night of the inaugural Maryland Film Festival, at The Senator. Kneeling, from left: Steve Yeager, Barry Levinson, Doris Wishman, Jed Dietz, Dan Rosen, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, John Waters. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun photo, April 22, 1999)

The expanded Charles actually debuted on a Wednesday night, with a gala opening that ended with a handful of screenings, including Alexander Mackendrick’s “Sweet Smell of Success.”

The festival had its inaugural opening the following night at the Senator, with a screening of Barry Levinson’s documentary on the real-life inspirations for his “Diner” characters, “Diner Guys.”

Only a handful of people showed up for the very first festival screening at the Charles, an 11:30 a.m. Friday showing of Ray Boulting’s rarely seen 1940 concentration-camp drama “Pastor Hall.” But crowds picked up steadily throughout the day, and by the time John Waters hosted an 8 p.m. screening of bad-movie legend “Boom!” the festival was playing to a packed house.


At the inaugural Maryland Film Festival at The Charles, festival director Jed Dietz, left,  joined Mayor Kurt Schmoke, at right, before the mayor introduced his favorite movie, “The Godfather.” (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun photo, April 23, 1999)

Fifteen years later, both The Charles and the MFF are going strong – although, sadly, no longer as a couple. Saying they could make more money showing their regular film schedule than renting out the theater for four days, the Charles’ current operators – Cusack and his daughter, Kathleen Cusack Lyon – forced festival organizers to find a new location for this year.

The 16th Maryland Film Festival kicks off Wednesday night, and will be showing movies in seven different venues, in the area of the Station North Arts District and at the Maryland Institute College of Art, University of Baltimore and Walters Art Museum.