Is a Big New Theater What Baltimore Needs Most?


November 09, 1991|By DANIEL BERGER | DANIEL BERGER,Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

Not everyone saluted when the Abell Foundation ran a proposal to build a $25 million theater inside the Power Plant up the flagpole. In the current economic climate, arts organizations are struggling to survive, government is shrinking, Maryland politicians are moaning about money for Baltimore and nobody has a spare $25 million.

All that is irrelevant. Business cycles come and go. The cycle of Broadway hits involving high-tech enhancements of human performance needing bigger theaters with fancier equipment is, presumably, of longer duration.

The Abell study, called ''Broadway Theater in Maryland -- the Future of the Mechanic Theatre: It's Maryland's to Choose,'' appears timed to something else.

Recently the city entertained bids for the old Power Plant on Pier 4, where an amusement park had failed -- and rejected all. They included serious proposals for art museums and a children's museum and one in which the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, which operates the Mechanic, would use the existing small theater for Off-Broadway productions.

The city owns the Power Plant and has to do something with it. Somebody could come along and say it ought to be part of the Columbus Center which is threatening to become reality next door on Piers 5 and 6, but apparently no one has. This study could be the basis for a new proposal by the Center for the Performing Arts. So never mind the time not being right for $25 million.

This is a thorough study of the economics of the performing-arts center at the Mechanic, and occasionally at the Lyric Opera House, against the trend in Broadway hit musicals. Its starting point is that Baltimore failed to attract ''Phantom of the Opera'' and ''Miss Saigon'' because it lacked the right large theater. This, the report assures us, is the wave of the future. The current ''My Fair Lady'' in the 1,607-seat Mechanic is fool's paradise. Enjoy it while you may.

The Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts has made the city a premiere road town at the Mechanic, to the benefit of Baltimore and of everyone who likes a show. Its concerns are not to be minimized. But this report is a study of the center, not of Baltimore facilities. It says the center ''must decide whether to keep and strengthen its competitive advantage by building a larger performing-arts center (approximately 2,500 seats) or reduce its mission and present 'low-cost' Broadway and non-Broadway shows.''

Further discussion involves questions the report did not address:

* Is Baltimore maximizing the facilities it has now? Is it failing to attract touring performers for which halls are appropriate and available, especially in music and dance? Or does it need an entrepreneurial organization such as some towns have, and such as the performing-arts center is for the legitimate stage and summer pop concerts?

* What does this report imply for the Lyric, which it dismisses without elaboration as unacceptable. The foundation that runs that historic hall for the University of Baltimore says it could be enlarged backstage for $5 million to accommodate everything needed, which beats the costs this report contemplates.

If a large theater was inserted into the Power Plant, would it take away the Lyric's opera and ballet business, or black-interest shows such as the current ''Wicked Ways''? Would it leave the Lyric a role? Would the university have sufficient uses for the hall? Was the $18 million in public and private expenditure used to renovate the Lyric misspent? Should it be torn down?

* What about the closed Hippodrome Theatre on Eutaw Street? It is an old movie and vaudeville palace, seating 3,000, similar to ,, the renovated halls in Cleveland and Pittsburgh that the Abell study cites as models.

As Jacques Kelly wrote in The Evening Sun: ''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.''

Or might not. But an analysis of its suitability and cost must be part of the discussion.

* What future is intended for the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre itself? Can a theater built in 1965 as cornerstone of Charles Center and the Baltimore renaissance be obsolete already? Presumably it is more suitable than a larger hall for such intimate Broadway productions as the recent ''Park Your Car in Harvard Yard.''

Is the idea to maintain the Mechanic for smaller productions, tear it down for an office tower, turn it over to local theater companies accustomed to smaller halls or -- a previous threat -- the movies? No proposal for a new theater is complete until it deals with the Mechanic as well as with the Lyric and the Hipp. You have to know what is being proposed for Baltimore, not just for the Center for the Performing Arts.

The recent 20-year plan for downtown by a citizens commission headed by Walter Sondheim included a proposal for a 3,500-seat performing-arts center, significantly larger than what is proposed here, though the same idea.

The future of the Power Plant is in the hands of the newly merged City of Baltimore Development Corp. (embracing the former Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management, Market Center Corp. and Baltimore Economic Development Corp.).

Honora M. Freeman has replaced David M. Gillece as its chief executive, so there is continuity at least in the middle initial. She answers to Mayor Schmoke, who has been preoccupied with re-election. Now his desk is cleared for the big questions.

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