A city of 'road houses'

Baltimore Glimpses

February 02, 1993|By Gilbert Sandler

BALTIMORE'S "road theaters" -- theaters where companies perform on the road -- have a long and glorious history dating at least to 1871. Two are still thriving. Here's a little rosemary to sprinkle on the graves of the others.

The granddaddy, Ford's Theater, opened on Fayette Street, between Eutaw and Howard, in 1871. By 1900, a mere 93 years ago, a critic called Ford's "a relic," but it remained Baltimore's favorite road theater for 64 years, surviving the Holliday Street Theater, the Academy of Music (later the Stanley, at Howard at Centre) and the Maryland (Howard at Franklin, where in 1931 Henry Fonda proposed to Margaret Sullivan just before their performance in "The Farmer Takes a Wife").

In 1942, Ford's was bought by entrepreneur Morris Mechanic, who brought the greats to its stage: Katherine Cornell, Tallulah Bankhead, Mae West, Judith Anderson, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, "Blithe Spirit," "Medea," "Mister Roberts," Irving Berlin's "This Is the Army."

The last show was 29 years ago tonight, a Saturday. Jerry Lester starred in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." After the show, Lester came stage front and made a farewell speech to the old place, and then everyone rose and sang "Auld Lang Syne."

By late the next Monday, the wrecker's ball had turned Ford's into a huge pile of bricks, wood and plaster. Saile Gavin and May Richardson, granddaughters of John T. Ford, arrived for a ceremony. As Ophelia had done in "Hamlet" on the grave of Polonius ("There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray, love, remember"), they sprinkled rosemary on the grave of Ford's.

"It was May's idea," Ms. Gavin said later. "She's very sentimental. We simply spread the rosemary, said goodbye and walked off. It was a very cold day."

Ford's, amid the downtown shopping district, was replaced not by another theater but by a parking garage for department store patrons. (It's still there.) For Baltimoreans looking for a Broadway road-show theater, the pickings were slim.

For a short time the Stanton was used as a live house. There, Baltimoreans saw "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "110 in the Shade."

Enter Morris Mechanic. He offered to build a legitimate theater as part of Charles Center. Opening night was Jan. 16, 1967, with Betty Grable starring in "Hello, Dolly." (Mechanic had died a few months earlier.)

But in the next few years the Mechanic faltered, until Robert C. Embry, then city housing commissioner, and others led a group to reinvest in making the theater more accommodating. (There had been complaints about its acoustics and architecture). The new Mechanic reopened Nov. 1, 1976, with George C. Scott playing "The Sly Fox," followed by "Anna Cristie," "Equus," "Same Time Next Year" and "Golda." With a few lapses, the Mechanic has thrived ever since, presenting Baltimoreans with fare ranging from "A Chorus Line" to the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre and with performers ranging from Rudolf Nureyev to Colleen Dewhurst. The Mechanic generates $23 million in box-office revenue yearly and $8.7 in employment income, second only to the National Aquarium in a ranking of city cultural institutions.

Two other theaters, the Lyric and Painters Mill, need to be mentioned here. Ford's younger sister, the Lyric, opened Oct. 31, 1894, as a concert hall, dedicated, the opening publicity read, "entirely to music." Years later, even after it had undergone extensive renovation and reopened in 1982, an employee remarked of it, "You can't call it a theater. It's a concert hall." Nevertheless, road shows have played at the Lyric through the ** years, when the Mechanic was not available or was too small. (The Mechanic's capacity of 1,607 is not enough in today's theater economy to make Baltimore stops profitable for the biggest Broadway productions.) Last New Year's, "Fiddler on the Roof" was playing the Lyric at the same time "Jesus Christ Superstar" was at the Mechanic.

In the summer of 1959, Painters Mill opened in Owings Mills with musicals in a summer theater setting, complete with canvas chairs and tent ("No poles to obstruct!"). It would bring "Carousel," "Guys and Dolls," "Paint Your Wagon" and "West Side Story" to Baltimoreans, punctuated occasionally by the whistles of Western Maryland trains passing nearby.

In 1967, Painters Mill management decided it would go "hard top" and give up its tent for a permanent structure. The new Painters Mill opened July 4, 1967, with "West Side Story." In 1975, Painters Mill changed its format to jazz and contemporary music. Theater goers were invited to take in musical groups -- the Jackson Five, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie, Oscar Peterson. New owners and producers were experimenting with still another format, rock and country shows and boxing matches, when Painters Mill burned in March 1991.

It has not reopened.

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