Troubled theater hopes to stage revival

February 13, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

HAGERSTOWN -- Bob Hope, Jay Leno and Johnny Carson have made 'em laugh here. Entertainers such as Crystal Gayle, Anne Murray, B. B. King and the Temptations are among those who have sent crowds away humming.

"Cabaret" and "A Chorus Line" have made audiences want to sing and dance.

Regular symphony performances add to the cultural life of Western Maryland and neighboring communities in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia.

"Birth of a Nation," Al Jolson, Paulette Goddard and Will Rogers ++ are part of its colorful history.

But the Maryland Theater will become a historical footnote unless board members can come up with $100,000 in the next few months.

The venerable Hagerstown theater, which has been host to tens of thousands of spectators for films, stage shows and one-night stands since 1915, has financial problems.

The 1,400-seat theater needs to raise money to offset operating costs and provide cash flow for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, said Susan Tuckwell, president of the theater's board.

"We need the money. We need to keep the theater alive," Mrs. Tuckwell said. "Everybody says the theater is an anchor of downtown Hagerstown. Let's rally around the theater, then."

Supporters have launched an aggressive fund-raising campaign aimed at keeping open the neoclassical theater, which was designed by renowned theater architect Thomas Lamb, who also designed the original Madison Square Garden and the Strand in New York.

"When people think of Hagerstown, they think of us as being culturally deprived," said Bob O'Connor, director of the Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Most people in Washington and Baltimore would not guess we have a world-class fine-arts museum and our own symphony orchestra and the Maryland Theater."

Financial problems were disclosed last fall after the theater's director of seven years resigned and board members took a closer look at the $680,000 annual budget.

Board members found unexpected problems, Mrs. Tuckwell said, including the use of money from sales of advance tickets to cover operating expenses and overspending in booking acts.

In recent years, she said, the theater sustained "substantial losses" in booking top-name acts such as singer Dionne Warwick.

Paul Frank III, the former director, could not be reached for comment.

To keep the theater open, board members borrowed $40,000 from the city of Hagerstown in October and are seeking a $225,000 mortgage to repay the city and other debts, she said.

"We have not closed our doors or canceled any shows," Mrs. Tuckwell said. "We've been managing our business and tightening [expenses] ever since."

City officials had no qualms about bailing out the theater.

"It's a cornerstone of our downtown revitalization program," said Mayor Steve Sager. "It has a real presence in downtown Hagerstown. It's a cultural jewel and an architectural gem. We simply couldn't let the theater fail."

The theater is host to about 80 shows annually that attract about 70,000 people.

The Maryland Theater, which was renovated after a fire in the early 1970s, has a domed ceiling, wall chandeliers, carpeted aisles and seats with red cushions.

Its stage still uses sandbags as weights for props.

Many citizens and business officials have stepped forward to help in fund raising.

"I'm pretty positive we can turn things around if people are receptive to our pleas for help," Mrs. Tuckwell said.

Art Richards, owner of Richards World Travel in Hagerstown, is donating $200 from each ticket sold for a $1,895-per-person trip to England, during which travelers will attend a private reception and dinner at which the Earl and Countess of Harewood will be hosts.

Hagerstown radio station WARX is underwriting the cost of jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd's performance at the theater next month and will donate profits to the nonprofit group.

Nick Giannaris, owner of the Sheraton Inn in Hagerstown, is donating a percentage of money from room rentals to the theater.

"We need this theater," said Aubrey Dagliano, a longtime theatergoer from Hagerstown. "Everyone should support it any way they can, whether by donations or going to the theater. It's the only theater in this area that brings in big names. It's a real gem for Hagerstown."

Because of the financial difficulties, the theater's board also has taken a second look at corporate and private sponsorship.

Long-term commitments from businesses and residents -- something that is common among other nonprofit cultural institutions but has not been tapped by the Maryland Theater -- are being sought.

"We're really working to make it a first-class operation," Mrs. Tuckwell said.

"It's long overdue. We're getting there, but it's difficult for a nonprofit organization," she said.

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