Take a new look at the old Hippodrome

Jacques Kelly

October 24, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

I've hoped that one day, the Hippodrome Theatre on Eutaw Street could be resurrected.

Now closed, but in the center of a commercial neighborhood that is displaying strong signs of rebirth, the Hippodrome is Baltimore's largest playhouse, seating 3,000. Only the old Stanley, which theater mogul Morris A. Mechanic had demolished in 1965, was larger. Many of the Big Bands and performers such as Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, the Boswell Sisters and George Burns and Gracie Allen, gave live performances at the Hippodrome between movie showings.

Lines of patrons would wrap around the corner.

For too long a dream that the Hippodrome would have a second life seemed unrealistic. But I got a shot in the arm on a recent visit toToronto where the Elgin Theatre, that city's version of the Hippodrome, has been restored and is open nightly. Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Aspects of Love" opens there next month.

The comparison of Baltimore to Toronto is not too far-fetched. There are similarities. Both the Elgin and the Hippodrome were designed by the Scottish-born architect Thomas W. Lamb, who also created Hagerstown's excellent Maryland Theatre.

Both the Hippodrome and the Toronto theater were controlled and booked by vaudeville and film impresario Marcus Loew, who once said, "We sell tickets to theaters, not movies." They are also virtually the same age. Toronto's opened in 1913. The Hippodrome opened with great fanfare Nov. 23, 1914.

There are differences. Toronto's Elgin is on busy Yonge Street, facing crowded shops and thriving department stores.

Eutaw Street, between Baltimore and Fayette, still looks beaten down, even though the Oriole Park at Camden Yards is being completed several blocks to the south and the Grand, a large and attractive catering hall, has been created from a pair of old bank buildings next door to the Hippodrome.

The Ontario provincial government strongly backed a $20 million-plus renovation of the Elgin, as well as its companion, the Winter Garden. And just up the street, a private owner restored the old Pantages, giving Yonge Street three terrific restored playhouses.

Baltimore planners like to call the Hippodrome's neighborhood "University City." Without much promotion, the area around the University of Maryland at Baltimore's downtown campus has made considerable strides in the last decade. Many former Garment District loft buildings have been converted into apartments and UMAB itself has a major building and renovation drive going on. The new Veterans Administration Hospital, just around the corner from the Hippodrome, is another sign of life here. A new Central Light Rail Line is a block away. The area could use a strong people-magnet.

The Hippodrome would hardly be easy to renovate. A thorough housecleaning and new seats will not undo years of neglect. But with its 16 dressing rooms, a wide stage and seating capacity, it deserves a look.

So when the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts seeks a large auditorium for such spectacles as "Phantom of the Opera" and "Miss Saigon," which demand large numbers of seats, the forgotten Hippodrome might be the place to start.

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