LAST SATURDAY, Chesapeake Concerts' major entry into the Baltimore concert scene was looking very smart indeed. That night's sold-out show for the Kentucky Headhunters at the Painters Mill theater was just the latest in a string of recent sellouts for the facility, coming on the heels of Bob Dylan, Slayer and Danzig.
On Monday, that optimism turned to ash -- so to speak. A fire at the Painters Mill theater early that morning, apparently caused by, police say, a burglar attempting to break in with a blowtorch, caused an estimated $4 million in damage and left the venue unusable for the foreseeable future. As its hopes for the Owings Mills theater went up in smoke, Chesapeake Concerts scrambled to find alternative sites for the ambitious schedule of concerts it had booked for March and April.
"We're trying to move everything," says Jeanne Wagner, director of public relations and advertising for Chesapeake Concerts. "We don't want to cancel anything. Now that we're just establishing ourselves in the Baltimore market, we hate to give it up. Most of the shows we had announced for March and April were selling very, very well -- many were close to sold out."
As of Wednesday afternoon, only two shifts were confirmed. The hard-rock triple bill of Great White, Steelheart and the Bulletboys has been moved to the Towson Center on the same date, Monday, at 8 p.m. The new-wave double bill of the Cocteau Twins and Galaxie 500 has been switched to the Towson Center, too, on the original date of April 1. All tickets for the original Painters Mill shows will be honored at the new site. For more information, call 481-6000.
Still unsettled is the fate of the March 28 WHFS party with three new-wave bands -- Jellyfish, Jesus Jones and the Tragically Hip; the March 31 folkloric concert with the Bulgarian State Female Vocal Choir; the April 2-7 run of the Texan cabaret act, Greater Tuna; the April 17 show by the '60s r&b duo, the Righteous Brothers; and the April 28 shows by the country quartet, the Oak Ridge Boys.
Moreover, Chesapeake Concerts had already booked several other shows for Painters Mill that it hadn't announced to the public. Those bookings, too, will now have to be moved. Wagner declined to reveal what those bookings were.
Painters Mill opened in 1960 as a summer tent theater for touring productions of Broadway shows. In 1967, it became an enclosed, year-round facility, and in the 1970s, its emphasis shifted from theater to pop music. The facility hosted shows by Aretha Franklin, the Allman Brothers Band (Duane Allman's last live show), Luther Vandross, Jethro Tull, Herbie Hancock, Aerosmith and George Jones & Tammy Wynette before a 1985 flood closed it down. It reopened as a church for a while, and then Chesapeake Concerts reopened it last year as a concert hall with a Feb. 14 show by k.d. lang.
Painters Mill had a capacity of 2,400 when shows were presented in the round and a capacity of 2,100 when the stage was placed on one side. Other Baltimore-area theaters that have a 1,500-2,500 capacity include the Towson Center, Hammerjacks, Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and Shriver Hall. Those are the likely targets for any venue changes.
Based in northern Virginia, Chesapeake Concerts had an exclusive lease on Painters Mill. (The fate of that lease is uncertain until Chesapeake can talk to Diversified Investment Associates, the owners of the building). Because Chesapeake's per-day rental was the same whether or not there was a show on and because they controlled the concessions, they had an incentive to keep the hall as busy as possible.
If they have to pay a separate rental fee for each time they promote a show elsewhere, explains Wagner, they are likely to be more conservative in their booking. That won't affect a sure-seller like the Kentucky Headhunters, but it will affect more marginal ventures like the Bulgarian choir and Pilobolus or a planned show by local heavy-metal bands.
"We were starting to bring in a lot of shows like the Bulgarians and Pilobolus that normally wouldn't play the Baltimore market," Wagner says. "When we booked the Warner Theatre, we always tried to bring in a variety of entertainment, and that's what we were trying to do with Painters Mill. Other promoters might say, 'Why should I risk my money on something that's unproven,' but we've always worked that way."
One of the problems in shifting the shows, Wagner explains, is finding a right venue for the right act.
pauses a minute and then bursts out laughing. "On the other hand, I'd love to see a modern dance concert at Hammerjacks."