It started with a public health crisis. Dubbed “the infantile paralysis plague” by newspapers of the time, polio began to proliferate in major cities in the United States around 1916, causing panic among parents and health officials nationwide. Baltimore was one of those cities struggling to curtail the spread of the disease. Among the measures implemented by Baltimore’s city health officer was a regulation to prohibit children under the age of 13 from attending theaters—as any theater owner, past or present, can attest, neither the first nor the last time a well-intentioned government initiative went beyond any rational measure of addressing a problem. Today the spread of polio has successfully been curtailed through the use of vaccines, a significantly more effective solution. The lasting impact of Baltimore’s ordinance against theater owners in 1917, however, was the unification of the region’s exhibition community under one banner.
The Exhibitors League of Maryland was incorporated on March 8, 1917, and is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month under its current name, Mid-Atlantic NATO. The organization’s first name change came in October 1925, when it became the Motion Picture Theatre Owners of Maryland, an identity it would keep until 1952, when it became the Allied Motion Picture Theatre Owners of Maryland.
1966 was a big year for exhibition in North America with the formation of national NATO, the first time the majority of the country’s theaters united to fight for fair business practices—even if deep regional ties and rivalries didn’t translate into a particularly unified voice. Maryland exhibitors followed suit with yet another name change, coming together as the National Association of Theatre Owners of Maryland in July of 1967. Polio may no longer have been the top concern, but exhibitors of the time nevertheless had their hands full with the death knell of the Motion Picture Code and the fledgling ascendancy of the MPAA in 1969. New battlefronts would emerge in the form of bidding, admission taxes, Sunday blue laws, and wage regulations, underlining the importance of strong industry associations. This spirit of collaboration is highlighted by the organization’s next major milestone in 1989, when it joined forces with NATO of DC and NATO of Virginia under an umbrella organization known as Mid-Atlantic NATO, under the direction of executive director Jerome “Jerry” Gordon.
The three different state units continued to work independently for the following two decades. It wasn’t until 2009 that all three parties merged as one entity under the same name during a time marked by the logistical and financial challenges of the industry’s transition to digital cinema. Mid-Atlantic NATO will continue a new chapter of its history this year as it enters its second century in operation. Its members will once again be convening at their annual convention, Cinema Show & Tell, on May 9 and 10 in Springfield, Virginia.
Boxoffice would like to congratulate Mid-Atlantic NATO for its 100th anniversary and wish them success in the century to come.
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