News: A Vintage Theater Inspires a New Generation

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A Treasure from the Past

Druid Theater, Damascus, MD, circa 1970s. Photo courtesy of Cinema Treasures (Granola); http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/4792/photos/138339; Creative Commons Licensing.

Damascus, Maryland is tucked away among more well-known towns in Montgomery, Howard, Carroll, and Frederick counties. It’s easy to overlook, but you won’t soon forget it after you’ve spent some time there. It’s part of Montgomery County, but you’ll find residents of several neighboring counties who have memories of hanging out in Damascus—many of them at the Druid Theater.

The theater has been standing since Druid Clodfelter built it next door to his home on Main Street in 1947 in an art deco style copied from the Apex Theater in Washington, DC (built in 1940), and even made from the same stone.

Apex Theater, Washington, DC, circa 1970s. Photo courtesy of Cinema Treasures (evieemee); http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/3032/photos/97345; Creative Commons Licensing.

The Apex was torn down in 1977, but the Druid operated as a theater until 1990. In 1947, Main Street was bustling, and the business drew from the same communities Damascus still attracts today for the atmosphere preserved in its friendly shops, restaurants, and green spaces.

The Druid was cutting edge for its time with the best projectors available and backup systems to prevent any failing of picture or sound. There was a “crying room” upstairs for fussy babies. There was candy and popcorn for sale in the lobby, and a restaurant for pre-show dinners. Two curtains, one of velvet and one of silk, adorned the screen. The velvet one opened, and the name of the movie was projected onto the silk one. When that second curtain lifted, the magic began. Mr. Clodfelter was proud of the theater, and rightly so. The Druid regularly saw 2500 patrons a week in the almost-500-seat theater. There was a different movie every night for a long time, but that wasn’t all! The Druid also featured live performances of the day’s popular acts—Patsy Cline, Jimmy Dean, and Roy Clark have all been guests at the Druid.

But times change. The Druid was sold to Donald and Grindella Crate in the late 1970s, who continued to operate it as a theater and live entertainment space for 12 years and continued the tradition of fun nights out in Damascus until Donald’s death. Eventually a Rite-Aid drug store moved into the bottom of the building, where the theater used to be, and the top has remained empty for many years. Every once in a while, a group gets motivated to re-energize the space, but nothing has worked so far.

Never say never. Things are changing at the Druid for the better, and there will again be a list of showtimes on Main Street—but it’s live theater that’s coming back to Damascus, and you’re in for a treat!

The Druid Theater/Rite-Aid, circa 2012. Photograph courtesy of Robert Dyer.

From the Basement…

Songs from Oz performance by the Empower Theater Group at the American School of Inspiration’s black box theater, July 14–16, 2017.

For four years, Mr. Aly Cardinalli has been the Dean of the American School of Inspiration (https://www.americanschoolofinspiration.com/), housed in a basement studio behind the Fast Fuels gas station on Main Street. Talk about a best-kept secret—honestly, the place is hard to find even if you know it’s there. Despite the challenges of getting word out to potential students for lessons and the small surrounding communities so they could see the shows, the studio has grown in incredible ways. Mr. Cardinalli started with four students and now teaches 65. They have outgrown their space “below Damascus” several times over, but once there, the students are likely to hang out for hours even when not actively taking a class. There’s just something about the place that draws everybody in and creates a tight-knit, supportive community.

Besides the rehearsal space, they’ve also squeezed in a 50-seat black box theater that fills up several times a year so the community can watch performances of all kinds. It’s kitschy and comfortable (sort of), and the shows are always impressive. From revues to full productions with elaborate costumes, there’s always something interesting going on. Of course, that stage can’t hold all the talent at this school. For larger shows, the Carroll Arts Center in Westminster (another renovated art deco former movie theater, built in 1937) offers their marquee stage, and these performers can fill it!

The year-round school offers classes in all kinds of dance. From ballet to hula (Mr. Aly, as the kids call him, is from Hawaii) and everything in between, there is always somebody dancing when the doors are open. When they’re not dancing, you’ll find many of those same students taking acting classes, voice lessons, piano or guitar lessons, or participating in group rehearsals for the next show. And it’s not just kids. Plenty of adults come to learn from Mr. Aly, too. If you ask any of his students why, you’ll hear, “Because he’s awesome.” But, really, it’s because he’s an award-winning professional performer, director, performing arts consultant, and master choreographer who just happens to be enjoying his retirement by teaching the next generation of performers right here in Damascus. Mr. Aly has performed in, choreographed, and directed shows from New York to Maui, from ballet to musical theater. There’s very little he cannot do—and teach.

 

To the Penthouse

Dress rehearsal for Giselle in the new rehearsal space at the Druid Theater.

From the time he found the original space for his school, Mr. Aly dreamed of bringing it to the Druid. The historic monument was built for the arts, and the spacious upstairs will allow the school to double in size almost immediately. There is a waiting list for classes, which the old space just could not accommodate. Even though construction is still ongoing in some of the classrooms and the new 100-seat theater, students started testing out the new specialized flooring in the dance studios and practicing their next roles on November 1.

Part of Mr. Aly’s philosophy is that performers should perform, and the school offers a season of shows, just like any professional theater company. Some are large, and some are small. Some are done as benefits for community groups. In 2016, the various performing groups in the school put on a benefit for a local pet rescue organization. That’s another part of his philosophy—that people should find a way to use their talents to do good in the world.

The students show up at many community events and are strongly supported by local businesses in Damascus, Mt. Airy, and Westminster. They often get a chance to let people know about the move to the Druid, and the news has been met with joy that the building is being used again for what it was intended. Damascus is already beaming with pride to have its performing arts school reside in its own theatrical icon.