"I think people are tired of going to Netflix or Google or whatever, and watching films on their laptops," says the 65-year-old Figgs, who co-organized and is hosting this weekend's first RetroCineFest, running through Sunday at the University of Baltimore. "Why is that? Film depends on scale — movie magic depends on space. The film has to be bigger than you; the sound has to be all around you. And you're supposed to be quiet."
Long beloved by movie lovers for his championing of The Orpheum, the 80-seat revival house he ran on Thames Street in Fells Point from 1990 to 2000, Figgs says he has spent the past 12 years looking for a way to get back in the film exhibition game. This weekend's RetroCineFest, the first of many he hopes to program at UB and at the Autograph Playhouse on 25th Street in the coming months, makes for a welcome homecoming.
"This is important. This is my mission," Figgs says with enthusiasm and a gleam in his eye that suggests he's not exaggerating.
The local film community appears happy to welcome him back.
"He's showing great movies," says old pal John Waters, who used to hover with Figgs outside Martick's restaurant on Mulberry Street, the two teens trying to persuade the beatniks who hung out there to buy them some beer. "I can just see him, back there in the projection booth, being rabidly enthusiastic."
Adds John Standiford, who programs the Saturday Revival Series at the Charles, "I am glad George is showing movies again. The movies he picks, I like. I miss the Orpheum."
For his first offering, Figgs and Dan Breen, a partner in the annual High Zero improvised music festival, put together a nine-film lineup that spans both decades (from 1932's "Horse Feathers" to 1992's "Malcolm X") and directors (from the visionary auteur Jean Cocteau's "Orpheus" to low-budget legend Roger Corman's "Wild Angels"). His goal, Figgs says, was to present a proudly eclectic "candy box" of movie choices to his audience.
"I wanted to create a place where all sorts of films are brought together," he says, "and people can pick and choose — or go to all of them."
Movies have been a passion of Figgs' since he was a boy growing up in Hampden, watching "King Kong" and "The Wizard of Oz" on TV and checking out what was playing at the neighborhood's practically adjoining movie houses, the Hampden and the Ideal.
An early member of Waters' cinematic troupe — he appeared in "Desperate Living," "Pink Flamingos" and other films, including the never-completed "Dorothy, the Kansas City Pot Head" — Figgs had worn several hats by the time he opened the Orpheum. He'd played the blues in Boston, escaped the rat race in a rural hideaway in Western Maryland, even worked in Manhattan for a few years. While running the Orpheum, he helped make ends meet by driving a cab.
But showing movies at the Orpheum, sharing his insatiable love of cinema with an appreciative crowd every night, was a realization of his life's calling, Figgs says.
"I stayed for 10 years, even after people said I'd be gone in two," he says. "After it closed, it was tough. I was trying to save my marriage, which I didn't do. I tried to talk them into selling me the building, which they wouldn't do. I was also trying to find myself another set of bricks somewhere, where I could set up. But I couldn't. There was no money."
After the Orpheum closed — the building was home to the now-shuttered Fells Point Maritime Museum — Figgs did some painting, took a job with the Baltimore Opera Company, worked as a projectionist on some local film shoots ("Ladder 49" was his last), helped out with the Maryland Film Festival and the Charles, worked on a book about revival cinema.
He'd also throw his projector in the back of a truck and drive to small towns in Pennsylvania and Maryland, he says, showing old movies to any group that would show up. The enthusiasm he'd encounter during those nearly impromptu screenings, he says, convinced him that a project like the Orpheum could still work. It didn't matter that movie attendance overall was heading down, video rental stories were closing and movie-watching was being transformed into a solitary, at-home activity.
"It would always blow my mind: The kids who would show up," Figgs says. "I would program a film that I thought would draw the cinephiles and their coterie. But everybody from ages 18 to 25 would show up. They were in school. They were reading about these films, and their parents — their hippie parents — were telling them about these films."
Figgs has big plans but insists they're not too big. He hopes to start programming three nights a week at the Autograph. If attendance this weekend is good and the folks at UB will have him, he's already got the next three RetroCineFests programmed in his head — one devoted to the films of Roger Corman (he even has designs on bringing the legendary no-budget to town), one devoted to the flamboyant dance-hall spectaculars of director-choreographer Busby Berkeley, one devoted to film noir.
The classic movies deserve no less, Figgs insists. So do the audiences.
"There's a generation and a half that has not had the opportunity to come and see these films in the way they were meant to be seen," he says. "It just seems now that the time is ripe again."
If you go
The first Baltimore RetroCineFest runs through Sunday in the Wright Theater in the University of Baltimore Student Center, 21 W. Mount Royal Ave. Sunday's schedule includes Satyajit Ray's 1958 "The Music Room" (2 p.m.), Jean Cocteau's 1950 "Orpheus" (4 p.m.) and Roger Corman's 1966 "Wild Angels" (6 p.m.). Tickets are $4-$6. Information: 410-837-5739 or ubalt.edu