Gilded Hippodrome needs a gilded friend

JACQUES KELLY

March 19, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

The time is right for someone to step up and save downtown Baltimore's magnificent but decaying Hippodrome Theatre.

The theater that presented vaudeville stage shows and motion pictures opened 78 years ago.

It now sits closed and friendless in the first block of N. Eutaw St., just below Lexington Market and four blocks north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

From time to time, there are murmurings that someone wants to restore this masonry and plaster palace.

It was here that generations of Baltimoreans saw such acts as the Boswell Sisters and the Three Stooges live on the legendary Hipp stage. There's tons of local sentiment for the Hippodrome. Now someone with vision needs to come forth.

Not much has happened to the old palace since it closed in 1990, when it was a third-rate movie house. But despite the dirt and decades during which maintenance was neglected, the Hippodrome's gloriously gilded interior remains intact. The cavernous theater was never converted into twin movie houses or otherwise carved up.

The restoration of the Hippodrome does not have to be an exercise in nostalgia. While vaudeville acts, swing bands and Bob Hope movies are things of the past, the place possesses a fine auditorium, good sight lines and acoustics and a stage. Other cities have found impressive new uses for these buildings once written off as urban white elephants.

The Hippodrome could be used as an auditorium for large meetings and convocations of the University of Maryland's downtown campus.

When the "Phantom of the Opera" finally plays Baltimore, wouldn't this be the ideal house for Andrew Lloyd Webber's spectacle?

And it would be a natural for high school and college graduations.

Certainly, the neighborhood is looking better. Last April's debut of Oriole Park gave Eutaw Street and the west end of downtown a much needed boost. Light rail is now running on Howard Street; there's a subway stop only a block away.

Two former bank buildings immediately next door have been renovated as the Baltimore Grand, a large banquet hall that has blossomed into one of the city's better places to stage a large dinner or meeting. There are large new parking garages in the rear. A new office building is being completed around the corner at Baltimore and Howard streets.

The Hippodrome was one of many large theaters designed by Thomas Lamb, an architect who was born in Scotland. His specialty was these large entertainment palaces and he was a much respected theater designer. The original architectural drawings for his Baltimore work are preserved at Columbia University in New York.

When the Hippodrome was built, purists often laughed at the tons of marble and amount of plaster used to create American versions of 18th century French architecture. But the public loved the showy design and kept the theater humming, from orchestra pit to upper balcony.

Mayor James Preston opened the Hippodrome on Nov. 23, 1914. Some 3,000 patrons filled the seats in the deluxe auditorium decorated in dull golds and browns. Red carpeting ran down the aisles. The cheapest seat was a dime on opening night. A proscenium box cost half a dollar.

Other cities have done well by their Lamb-designed theaters. Toronto's Elgin and Wintergarden, which opened about the same time as the Hippodrome, have been painstakingly restored. Today, they are revered as urban treasures. Mr. Lamb also designed Hagerstown's Maryland Theater, which was never permitted to get terribly run down. The Maryland is in good shape.

Of course, it would be costly to renovate a 3,000-seat, 1914 theater. But downtown real estate is currently low in price. What if some local foundation bought the Hippodrome, secured it and gave it a tight roof, then worked on a step-by-step restoration spread over a number of years?

Who would have thought 30 years ago that Baltimore would eventually support the Morris Mechanic Theatre, the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the Lyric Theater and Center Stage? Who would have dreamed then of the cry of "Play ball!" at Eutaw and Barre streets?

So it's not so far-fetched to hope that the Hippodrome might come back. Wasn't it only 30 years ago that the toughest ticket in town was Liz Taylor in "Cleopatra" at the Hippodrome?

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