History of the Embassy Theatre
The historic Embassy Theatre opened its doors to the public on November 18, 1931. Another splendid ‘sister’ movie palace with the same name began business that night in New York City on 48th Street and 7th Avenue, a strictly black tie and gown affair with klieg lights and all the glamour accorded to a Hollywood opening in both locations. Two auspicious new Embassy Theatres, each with a glittering neon marquee, hoped to attract patrons.
It was 1931, the height of the Depression after the Stock Market Crash of ’29. Although breadlines and lack of work offered less than good fortune for many, the need for entertainment to take people for a few hours into fantasy realms the movies could provide, gave the Jacob Kauffman family an incentive to build the Embassy Theatre on Cumberland’s Baltimore Street. Grace M. Fisher, manager of the Capitol Theatre, one of Cumberland’s twelve film theatres, leased the Embassy, and gave every attention to detail to ensure the luxury and comfort her patrons would expect.
From then mayor Thomas W. Koon to the everyday guy on Main Street, everyone was welcome to witness the new Art Deco visual splendor, first-rate silver screen technology and perfect acoustics of the Embassy, built in the rectangular shape so necessary for film showing, with an orchestra section, loge and second balcony to accommodate over 400 customers. For the stay-all-day price of 50 cents, viewers could purchase a ticket at the box office, enjoy the marble water fountains in the lobby and vestibule, or go upstairs for snacks to delight even the most disgruntled patron before settling into comfortable leather seats to enjoy the first-run bill of fare.
Once inside, the lights went down during a live musical interlude played on the Wurlitzer pipe organ, the cartoons, previews of coming attractions, a newsreel, a serial and the main feature were shown, and the Embassy in all its glory could be witnessed, echoing the cultures of Egyptian and Mayan antiquity in the ceiling’s stenciled jungle motifs and wall borders, along with the proscenium arches reminiscent of popular designer Frank Lloyd Wright.
A jackpot prize of a new set of dishes was offered the third Saturday of every month, and every so often special live presentations by film luminaries like Rin Tin Tin or cowboy star Ken Maynard and his horse were featured on the Embassy forestage. In the early Fifties, the Embassy’s popularity dwindled, due to progress and the advent of a phenomenon called television.
In 1959, the Embassy closed its doors, and the premises were altered to create an annex for the adjacent Cumberland Cloak and Suit Store. By erecting a false ceiling to separate the rest of the theatre from the main orchestra floor, and by pouring a concrete and terrazzo floor perpendicular with the walls, a retail commercial structure was created. A.C. Warhaft bought the Embassy in 1981 to house his custom drapery shop, which remained until his death in 1992. Health South Recuperative Therapies then leased the space for four years, and the Maryland Theatre Arts Company occupied the space for its children’s theatre from April 1997 to May 1998.
The New Embassy Theatre, Inc., a nonprofit corporation, was formed in December 1997 to revivify this shining example of Thirties Art Deco for use as a multi-purpose arts facility for Cumberland denizens. Since then, the retail ceiling has been removed to once again expose the gloriously colorful stenciled proscenium and ceiling to the orchestra floor. A stage has been built and the movie screen rehung. The glass and aluminum retail frontage which had been installed after the theatre closed has been razed and replaced by the original exterior doors, and a box office has been rebuilt to match the original. An interior wall was built to separate the lobby from the theatre proper, again hung with original interior doors.
During the decades when the building was used as a retail space, water damage had caused great chunks of the stenciled ceiling to fall in the back of the upper balcony. This past summer the ceiling was repaired by Irene Foose, a New York artist who originally came from Cumberland. She managed to match the original stencil, colors and textures so precisely that one cannot now even distinguish where the damage was originally.
In addition to work which was intended to bring back the building to close to its original form, we’ve been pressed by modern exigencies (not to mention codes) to add two handicapped accessible bathrooms to the first floor and have had a fire sprinkler system installed. Another non-original addition of note is the wonderful faux finishes painted by local artist John Alderton in the lobby of the second floor.
Meanwhile, we continue to raise funds as best we can for future renovations while keeping the public involved with film showings, theatrical events and performances of music and dance.