No one's lining up to heed Abell Foundation's call for a new theater in the city

November 04, 1991|By Eric Siegel

When an Abell Foundation study last month called the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre inadequate for large-scale, Broadway-style productions, it warned that efforts to replace the performing arts center need to begin immediately. But no one seems inclined to heed the admonition -- at least not publicly.

Indeed, even the staunchest supporters of theater in Baltimore, mindful of the poor economic condition of the state and its subdivisions, are taking a cautious approach to the report, which said the 24-year-old Mechanic needs to be replaced with a larger, up-to-date facility costing a minimum of $25 million.

Others, citing the high price tag at a time when the state is cutting back on education and welfare and talking about employee layoffs, dismiss the suggestion out of hand.

"I'm not publicly out drumming up support for anything. I'm too busy running the theater," says Hope Quackenbush, managing director of the non-profit Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, which operates the 1,607-seat Mechanic and the Pier Six Concert Pavilion.

Sandra S. Hillman, board president of the BCPA, says she needs time to "digest" the report. "I need to think not just about [the BCPA's] interests, but also the interests of the city, state and region," she says. "This is a very fiscally complicated time."

And State Sen. Larry Young, a Democrat from the city and BCPA board member, says flatly that the economy precludes any quick action on the recommendation, adding, "I have mixed emotions about even doing a feasibility study."

"I'm willing to do it -- but not put it on a fast track," he says.

State Sen. Julian L. Lapides, another city Democrat and a member of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, is not willing to put the proposal on any track that involves public money. "If the Abell Foundation wanted to fund it and we called it the Abell Theater, it would be a wonderful thing to do," he says sarcastically.

"Realistically, we have so many other priorities I don't see it happening," adds Mr. Lapides. "We're cutting welfare and we're going to build a new theater? Come on."

Robert Pomory, executive director of the non-profit foundation that operates the Lyric Opera House, dismissed by the Abell report as an "inadequate option" to the Mechanic, says improvements to the Lyric could be made for $5 million, a fraction of the cost needed to construct a new performing arts center.

He says plans already exist to deepen and widen the stage of the 2,522-seat theater, which he admits must be done to accommodate larger shows, with half the money for the renovations coming from the state and the other half to be raised from private sources. But he says the foundation has decided to wait at least until 1993 before seeking any state money. "The climate's not right, not with talk of people being laid off," he says.

Mr. Pomory admits he is concerned the state might be reluctant to put funds toward the Lyric as long as there is talk of constructing a new center. But he points out that since 1979, $18 million in state, city and private money has been put into renovating the Lyric, which will be 100 years old in 1994. To ignore its relatively modest needs, he argues, would be to ignore that substantial past investment.

But a representative of one of the country's leading theatrical producers says a new, larger performing arts facility here would be "extremely welcome."

Alan Wasser, general manager of Cameron Mackintosh Productions, says Baltimore is "one of the eight or nine strongest markets in the country." But he says there is "no way" for his organization to bring touring versions of its two biggest hits, "Phantom of the Opera" and "Miss Saigon," here because the city lacks appropriate facilities.

The Mechanic is "probably the smallest theater in a major city I'm aware of," Mr. Wasser says, and the Lyric is "technically one of the most difficult" venues in the country in which to stage a show.

If the need for better facilities is indisputable, the question remains how to raise the money.

City Councilwoman Jacqueline McLean, Democratic candidate for city comptroller and a longtime Mechanic season subscriber, particularly likes the Abell suggestion that the city-owned Power Plant -- now vacant -- be considered as the site of the theater. She even has an idea for future use of the Mechanic: a new home for the Arena Players.

But she knows of no municipal funds that could be committed to the project. "The Power Plant would be the city's contribution," she says.

But Del. Howard P. Rawlings, another city Democrat and vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, says he feels there would be a "strong reluctance" from state lawmakers outside the Baltimore area to support another large capital project in the city after recent multimillion dollar commitments to the University of Maryland Medical System and the Maryland Biotechnology Institute.

Raising private funds is also sure to prove problematic. Fredye Murphy, board president of Maryland Art Place and director of development for the Enterprise Foundation, which builds low-income housing, says it's easier today to raise money for social services than the arts. "This is the wrong time to do a big fund-raising campaign for the arts," she says.

Both Senator Young and Delegate Rawlings say the best chance for a new performing arts center may come from a quick turnaround in the economy followed by a multi-year state commitment in the remaining tenure of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who has a strong commitment to the arts and the city.

Whatever the outcome, proponents of a new center say they're glad the issue is out on the table.

"We're not talking about today, we're talking about the future," says Ms. Quackenbush. "We have to look 10 to 15 years down the road."

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