BALTIMORE -- Anthony Fykes' proudest moment during his first year as co-owner of Next Act Cinemas in Pikesville, Md., came when he screened the movie "Harriet" for a bunch of kids from a nearby school.
Many students -- giggly and boisterous, their energy pulsing through the 1937-era movie palace once known as the Pikes Theatre -- didn't know who Tubman was. Or if they did, they didn't realize that the abolitionist, conductor on the Underground Railroad and Civil War spy had been born in Maryland.
"Getting a chance to teach students about her legacy was very, very rewarding," Fykes said. "The opportunity to have an impact on young people is one of the major reasons we wanted to do this."
"We" refers to Fykes' business partner, Robert Wright, and "this" is NextAct Cinemas, the independent boutique movie theater inside the much-loved Art Deco building on Reisterstown Road in Pikesville. In March, NextAct will celebrate its first anniversary.
Fykes and Wright know that running a neighborhood movie theater with 86 seats in the era of Netflix and cable television is a gamble. Despite a sinuous facade that beckons to passersby with its elegant, cream-colored bricks and contrasting black trim, several prior attempts to revive the theater have failed. During the past half century, the Pikes has been closed more days than it has been open.
Moreover, neither Fykes nor Wright has experience in the movie business -- and were unable to find a bank willing to loan them the sum they'd need to renovate the interior (a six-month project). So, the dynamic duo put their own savings into the business and enlisted investors.
Though the Art Deco building itself is owned by entrepreneur Wil Reich, it was Fykes and Wright who are responsible for operating the cinema.
"We convinced ourselves that despite the risks, the community would make it work," Fykes said. Both men are African American, and they suspect NextAct is one of just a few black-owned theater businesses in the U.S.
"There are only two other black-owned theaters that we know of," Fykes said. "One is in Richmond and one is in Las Vegas."
The dearth is an unintended consequence of integration, according to M.K. Asante, an associate professor of English, screenwriting and animation at Morgan State University. (A film based on his acclaimed 2013 memoir, "Buck," currently is in production and Asante said it's expected to be released next year.)