City needs new theater to draw Broadway shows, according to study

October 22, 1991|By Eric Siegel ~

Area theater-goers soon could find large-scale, Broadway-style touring hits non-existent locally if the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre is not replaced by a larger, up-to-date performance space, a new study warns.

The study by the Abell Foundation says the non-profit Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, which operates the Mechanic and the Pier Six Concert Pavilion, can no longer attract productions such as "Phantom of the Opera" and "Miss Saigon" because the 1,607-seat Mechanic is not large enough to meet the financial guarantees of their producers.

The 2,522-seat Lyric, where the BCPA has staged such shows as "Starlight Express," is not well-suited for theater because of its many obstructed-view seats and lack of backstage space, the study says.

The cost of a new performing arts center with at least 2,500 seats is estimated at $25 million if built on the site of the city-owned Power Plant in the Inner Harbor, the study says. But other unspecified sites also need to be evaluated, it asserts, adding that the costs of recently constructed performing arts centers around the country have ranged between $40 million and $100 million.

Hope Quackenbush, managing director of the BCPA, who has spoken quietly for years about the need of a new first-rate facility, said she was "heartened" by the Abell study.

"Baltimore is a very strong theater town right now," she said. "It would be a real step backward if we became one of the few major cities that didn't have major Broadway theater."

"Whether or not Baltimore has the will or the way to construct such a facility is something I can't answer," she added.

If a new facility were built, it would require a variety of public and private funds as well as the unified support of a coalition of arts groups, the study says. The latter would be particularly difficult "because the scarcity of public and private funds has made organizations more hesitant to support new arts initiatives in Baltimore," the report adds.

But if a new theater is not built to replace the Mechanic, which will be 25 years old in January, the future is bleak for Broadway-style theater in Baltimore, the study suggests. In the near-term, cash subsidies could be used to attract a few big-name shows needed to retain season subscribers, but within 7 to 10 years that might not be enough, it says.

In that case, the BCPA would be forced to present less expensive non-Broadway shows, a move that would make subscriptions "fall significantly." That, in turn, would decrease its economic impact on the state, which the report says totaled $23.2 million in sales and $1.5 million in taxes in 1989-90.

Public officials and private citizens involved in the arts questioned whether there would be enough money available to fund a major new project at a time when both state and local governments and businesses are laying off workers, even thoughfunds for the theater would come out of capital budgets and not the general fund operating funds that are experiencing huge deficits.

Page Boinest, a spokeswoman for Gov. William Donald Schaefer, said she didn't want to "shoot down any particular project" but noted: "Obviously, any new capital projects are being watched very, very carefully."

George L. Bunting Jr., chairman of the newly created Governor's Commission on the Future of the Arts in Maryland, said, "Can the community pay for something like that in the current economic climate? Wow, I don't know."

But Mr. Bunting, noting there must be "renewal" of facilities for a city to remain vibrant, added, "It may be time to take a look at the Mechanic."

The Abell Foundation study, "The Future of the Mechanic Theatre: It's Maryland's to Choose," says a decision on whether to build a new theater needs to be made quickly because the BCPA's lease with the Mechanic expires in mid-1995 and it has taken arts organizations elsewhere three to five years to construct new performing arts centers, excluding the time needed to raise funds.

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