Hippodrome viewed as salute to vaudeville Group considers restoring theater


November 18, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Can vaudeville make a comeback in this electronic era of channel surfing and virtual reality?

That's the question facing a local group seeking to restore Baltimore's once-magnificent Hippodrome Theater to its 1914 splendor.

The National Museum of Live Entertainment Inc., a private, nonprofit group headed by Donald Hicken, last week secured an option to buy the vacant theater at 12 N. Eutaw St. for "about $800,000" from an affiliate of Continental Realty.

The option gives the group until early next year to determine whether it would be feasible to reopen the building as part of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's effort to transform the Howard Street corridor into an "avenue of the arts."

Mr. Hicken heads the theater department at Baltimore's School for the Arts and is artistic director of Columbia's Festival of the Arts.

Though reluctant to reveal details, he said the concept is that visitors would pay a modest admission and be treated to a combination of exhibits and performances designed to salute vaudeville and other forms of live entertainment. There also would be tours of the stage, dressing rooms and other areas.

"We want to take it back to 1914, right down to the dust on the windowsills if we can," he said. "But we'll have modern technical facilities."

Mr. Hicken said he is driven by the concern that today's MTV generation is losing sight of what live entertainment means in American culture. He envisions the restored Hippodrome as a sort of "Smithsonian of live entertainment" that will allow serious study as well as fun.

"I want it to be a celebration of the importance of live entertainment," he explained. "As we move more and more to an electronic culture, there's still something magic that happens in live entertainment, and it's even more magic as we move away from it. We're going to keep the lamp lit."

For a group that wants to celebrate live theater, no location could be more appropriate. Designed by Scottish architect Thomas Lamb, who specialized in gilded entertainment palaces, the Hippodrome was built by Pearce and Scheck, a company that put together vaudeville bills and toured them. The owners boasted that it seated 3,000; today the number is closer to 2,000.

Performers included the Three Stooges, George Burns, Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton, and Bob Hope.

During the 1930s and '40s, "the Hipp" was a magnet for moviegoers attending matinees and evening shows. In recent years, it became a victim of suburban "cinemaplexes." Though closed since 1990, "it's in remarkable condition," Mr. Hicken said.

Armed with a feasibility study by Economic Research Associates that indicates the project could be a success, Mr. Hicken's group selected a team headed by Ziger Hoopes & Snead Inc., architect of Center Stage's Head Theater, to determine what's needed to restore the building and how much it would cost.

If the group decides to proceed with the restoration, the city most likely would provide the money to buy the theater and then seek reimbursement as funds are raised. Mr. Hicken said he believes it would be popular with conventioneers and tourists as well as area residents. The auditorium also could be rented.

Five teams to compete to design UM arts center

Five teams have been chosen to take part in a competition to design an $80 million performing arts center for the University of Maryland at College Park. A winner will be announced in February.

Finalists are: Cesar Pelli and Associates of New Haven, Conn., with RTKL Associates of Baltimore; Barton Myers Associates of Los Angeles, with Cho, Wilks Benn of Baltimore; Pei Cobb Freed and Partners of New York; Moore Ruble Yudell of Santa Monica, Calif.; and Antoine Predock Architect of Albuquerque, N.M. Ayers Saint Gross of Baltimore would work with Pei, Moore, or Predock if any of them are chosen, but won't take part in the competition.

Forum set on future of Mount Royal district

The public can join a discussion of the future of Baltimore's Mount Royal cultural district at 7:30 tonight at Mount Royal tTC Station, 1900 Cathedral St.

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