Good shows, management can fix the Mechanic

March 09, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

I made the right choice on a warm spring Wednesday afternoon in 1967.

A high school classmate rushed up to me in the Loyola High School corridor. In hushed, conspiratorial tones, George Gilmore said, "Let's cut the last class and use my mother's tickets at the Mechanic Theatre." Within minutes we were off, heading south on Charles Street in George's VW microbus.

It was my first show at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, the downtown playhouse which had opened a few weeks earlier. We saw "The Man of LaMancha" and I've been hooked on the theater ever since.

Now comes a news story that the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, which operates the Mechanic, is in the red and needs $2 million over the next two years. The Greater Baltimore Committee and the Abell Foundation are helping to stem the tide of red ink.

There are reasons why the Mechanic (which also mounts shows at the Lyric) is having trouble. This season's selection of plays and musicals has not been especially appetizing.

That's a reason why I haven't been to the Mechanic for nearly a year. The theater can only bring to Baltimore the shows that are available and touring. If the scene in New York isn't good, the picture on the road (Baltimore is considered a road town) can be dismal.

There are so few plays and new musicals available. How can you get real excited about another revival of a middling 1960s musical? There are no worthy productions such as "Lend Me a Tenor" or "The Night of the Iguana."

Broadway is in one of its slumps. Producers there are banking that patrons will come back again and again to see highly promoted shows such as "Les Miserables," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Miss Saigon." I have one friend who takes great pride in saying he and his wife have been to "Les Miz" eight times.

That may work in New York, but it brings trouble in Baltimore, where theater audiences have come to expect six or eight new shows a year.

Much of what is plaguing the Mechanic is out of its hands. But some of it is not. Good management and good judgment is

necessary. During the many years the Mechanic was run by the great Hope Quackenbush, the comfort level of the Baltimore audience came first. Theater-goers responded with loyalty and enthusiasm.

Another factor is the competition. Shows that play Washington don't come to Baltimore. And the Mechanic's subscription season has been challenged by a run of musicals at the Lyric that has proven popular. In a somewhat different vein, there is Center Stage, plus a healthy array of community and college theater as well.

The thought of the Mechanic closing is pretty dreary. So it comes as good news that forces have joined to address the Mechanic's ills.

If you want to consider a bleak period in local entertainment history, consider the years when Baltimore had no Broadway playhouse. There were two distinct periods in the mid-1960s and 1970s when no shows came to town.

Restaurants suffered losses.

Downtown was more dead than normal.

It was a time of real funk.

Baltimore has never been known as an exceptional theater town. There isn't enough population in the income brackets necessary to pay the prices for legitimate theater. Even in the 1920s, we got plays and musicals long after they had been to other cities. Baltimore was one of the last stops on the original tour of "Show Boat." The 1960s pop hit "Hair" did not make it here until 1971.

I grimace when I hear of plans to build some huge new theater along Howard Street with a staggering seating capacity. Sure, a producer will make a lot of money when "Phantom of the Opera" plays a barn like this. But is this real theater when the actors are distanced from the audience and all the voices are miked excessively?

In the years since that afternoon that I cut English class, I've grown affectionate toward the Mechanic -- its not-too-large auditorium and familiar setting and audience. In a world of change, at least the Mechanic's subscription base has a reassuring solidity to it.

No, the plays are never too sophisticated for Baltimore's tastes. And three rows over you spot somebody you think you know.

And even though the tickets are often expensive, and it's an effort to get dressed up, the experience of live entertainment is worthwhile. The thought of a downtown minus all this curtain-up glamour is not pleasant.

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