A sprig of rosemary for three Baltimore theaters

April 16, 1996|By GILBERT SANDLER

ON MONDAY morning, February 3, 1964, a wrecker's ball smashed into the wall of Ford's Theater on the north side of Fayette Street between Eutaw and Howard Streets, where it had stood majestically since 1871. In minutes all that remained of Baltimore's ''Temple of Drama'' was a pile of rubble -- bricks, plaster, crumpled steel, broken lumber.

Later that morning an odd scene occurred, as melodramatic as any ever acted out on the stage of the theater itself.

Saile Gavin and May Richardson, granddaughters of John Ford, the founder, arrived to perform, just aside the mountain of rubble, a small ceremony. As Ophelia did in ''Hamlet,'' on the grave of Polonius -- ''There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember'' -- they sprinkled rosemary on the ''grave'' of Ford's.

Three of Baltimore's great and revered theaters went to their graves within a brief 14 years: the Hippodrome on May 30, 1951; Ford's on February 2, 1964, and the Royal on January 6, 1965.

The last stage show at the Hippodrome Theater, on Eutaw between Fayette and Baltimore Streets, featured ''Pee Wee King and the Cowboys'' twanging through mournful, down-in-the-valley songs. Baltimoreans who came of age before, during and after World War II remember the ''Hipp's'' four-a-day vaudeville shows, beginning in 1914.

For 37 years a multitude of singers, dancers, dogs, jugglers, musicians, magicians, acrobats and ventriloquists played the Hipp -- not to mention some of the biggest names in show business: Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Milton Berle, the Andrews Sisters and a sometime comedian who in 1938 played opposite Jane Wyman. His name was Ronald Reagan. On Saturday mornings the line for tickets started to form at dawn.

On the Hipp's last night, John Urbanksi was playing trumpet in Joe Lombardi's house orchestra. ''We had just finished backing up King and the Cowboys doing 'The Tennessee Waltz,' '' he recalled. ''The curtain came down, the crowd applauded. The Cowboys took a few bows. Then we got the word that the manager wanted to see us in the musicians' room under the stage. We had no idea what to expect. After we all piled in and got seated, he told us, 'Fellows, it's all over. That was the last vaudeville show from the stage of the Hippodrome.' ''

At the Royal Theater that Wednesday night of January 6, 1965, Count Basie was playing and the house was packed. The house had always been packed since the Royal (1329 Pennsylvania Avenue) had opened as the Douglas in 1921. In its glory days the Royal ranked with the world-famous Apollo Theater in New York. Pearl Bailey was a chorus girl on its stage. Billy Eckstine, Cab Calloway, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington -- all played the Royal.

Booed off the stage

Albert (''Diz'') Russell, of the popular Baltimore singing group, the Orioles, played there in the 1950s. ''If you weren't good,'' he recalled, ''you didn't play at the Royal, because the crowds would boo you right off the stage.''

For jazz singer Ruby Glover, the Royal was a true love. She recalled: ''As a girl who grew up in East Baltimore in the 1940s I remember so well taking the bus across town and feeling such excitement when I got to Dolphin Street and saw the line of people waiting to get into the Royal.''

But the night of January 6, 1965, at the Royal belonged to Count Basie. According to one who was there, ''The Count was playing 'Jumpin' At the Woodside,' and you could just feel people falling in love all over again with that Basie style. Big brass explosions, low murmuring saxophone solos.

''The evening moved on until everybody knew it was time for the last number. Everybody knew, too, that last number was going to be 'One O'Clock Jump.' The band gave it everything it had. The kids were dancing in the aisle. Then the curtain came down. The Count took curtain call after curtain call. The applause finally faded, and everybody filed out of the theater onto Pennsylvania Avenue.''

What they didn't know was that the Count Basie show was the last big-time stage show ever to play the Royal.

The last performance of the last show to play Ford's was Sunday afternoon, February 2, 1964. When the curtain come down on the Broadway show, ''A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,'' comedian Jerry Lester, who had the lead role, came out stage-front. He acknowledged the applause and then brought the audience to silence. He began lightly but did not end that way. He said, ''Ladies and gentlemen, in order to get the demolition off to a good start, the management would like you to rip out your seats and take them home with you.''

He quipped through his monologue and then in a low voice said, ''The legitimate stage was once described as 'the fabulous invalid.' Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, we have lost the patient.'' He led the audience through a chorus of ''Auld Lang Syne.'' When the last notes had faded, the crowd made its way to the exits.

The ''patient'' Jerry Lester was talking about was the Ford's that, until the Mechanic opened in 1967, was Baltimore's only legitimate theater. Alfred Lunt played opposite Lynn Fontanne in ''Elizabeth the Queen.'' Tallullah Bankhead played in ''The Skin of Our Teeth,'' Humphrey Bogart and Judith Anderson in ''Saturday's Children.'' ''Mister Roberts'' and ''Blithe Spirit,'' played there, and Melvyn Douglas, Rosalind Russell and Edward G. Robinson performed.

Then Ford's was reduced to rubble. Scattering rosemary over the debris ''was May's idea,'' Mrs. Gavin recalled, ''She's very sentimental. She called me up and asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said I would. We sprinkled the rosemary, said a few goodbyes and walked off. We couldn't stay around. It was a very cold day.''

It must have been.

Gilbert Sandler writes from, and about, Baltimore.

Pub Date: 4/16/96

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