Restored theater draws support for arts

March 18, 1991|By Thom Loverro | Thom Loverro,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

FREDERICK -- The word "epic" comes to mind when entering the 1920s-era theater called the Weinberg Center for the Arts in downtown Frederick.

The restored movie house is the sort of palace that was an appropriate showplace for the epics filmmakers produced in Hollywood-past.

No one is making "Ben Hur" anymore, but the former Tivoli theater continues to thrive into the 1990s, now as an arts center with strong community support and a diversity in programs ranging from country-western singer Ronnie Milsap to Soviet acrobats.

The former vaudeville house and first-run movie theater, which opened in 1926, operated as a cinema until 1976, when downtown Frederick was hit hard by flooding from the nearby Carroll Creek.

The theater, which seats almost 1,200 people, suffered severe damage, and owners Daniel and Alyce Weinberg decided to donate it to the city of Frederick. After two years of restoration work by hundreds of volunteers, the theater reopened in February 1978 as the Weinberg Center for the Arts.

The theater has managed to sustain the community interest that helped restore it and has continued to make it a successful non-profit arts venture.

"I think part of the reason for its success is that the community is proud of it," said Michael M. Stup, arts center director. "I think people realize what they have here, and they have shown that they will not let anything happen to it. They donate to it, attend it and protect it, and you can feel that."

The center is managed by a committee of the Frederick Arts Council, which rents the building from the city for a nominal fee. Carole A. Werking, the council's executive director, also cited strong community support and Frederick's rapid growth as reasons for the center's success.

"More and more people are moving here who have been attending arts events where they lived, and they are looking for this here," she said.

The county has eight non-profit arts organizations, many of which use the arts center for their presentations, she said.

Despite the occasional big names, such as country singer Kathy Mattea and other shows from out of town, local groups and productions form the backbone of the arts center, Mr. Stup said. He estimated that about 75 percent of the theater's bookings were for local shows, whether it be a local ballet group or the Frederick Symphony Orchestra.

Sometimes the center acts as a movie house again, with silent films accompanied by a Wurlitzer pipe organ.

The diversity, from the Richmond Ballet to Laurel and Hardy, serves the purpose of the arts center, said Mr. Stup.

"The philosophy here is not complicated," he said. "I have said this theater should present programming for the tastes of all citizens, and that has never changed and will remain so."

The center, which operates on an annual budget of about $200,000, receives its money from ticket sales, rentals, local and state grants and private donations.

Since it is an old theater, capital improvement projects are a priority, and the center is in the middle of a fund drive to match a $150,000 state grant. The campaign, which ends June 30, has raised $115,000, Mr. Stup said.

The center is not only the jewel of the arts community but is also a drawing card to downtown Frederick, which translates into dollars for businesses. Former Mayor Ron Young was one of the community leaders who saw the benefits of the center.

"When we started, we saw an opportunity to add something to Frederick that was needed," he said. "It's now a very integral part of the city."

The current mayor, Paul P. Gordon, also recognizes the impact the Weinberg Center has on the city. "We find it is not only an attraction for the people in Frederick, but it also brings in people vTC from the metropolitan areas and helps bring people downtown," he said.

Arts officials intend to keep the momentum going.

"I think the public can look for even more and better programs in the future," Ms. Werking said. "We'll be expanding our offering of national talent, and what is being offered by local groups is getting better and better. It's a win-win situation for the public and the arts."

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