Venerable 'Hipp' is going to UM Theater: The once magnificent entertainment palace could not be sold, so the building and land will be donated the university -- with no strings attached.

Urban Landscape

March 27, 1997|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

BALTIMORE'S ONCE magnificent Hippodrome theater, whose restoration is a key element of the Schmoke administration's strategy to make the Howard Street corridor an "Avenue of the Arts" -- will soon be donated to the University of Maryland at Baltimore.

University spokesman Chris Hart said UM's board of regents approved acceptance of the gift last month and expects transfer of ownership to be completed in the next few days.

Hart said the university did not solicit the 1914 theater, which has been closed since 1990, and has no immediate plans for renovation or reuse of it.

"We recognize and respect the Hippodrome as an integral part of the history and character of downtown Baltimore, and we look forward to becoming its new caretaker," Hart said.

The university anticipates spending $30,000 to $40,000 a year "to keep the heating on and the place locked up," he said, while its real estate experts determine the best use for it.

Located at 12 N. Eutaw St., the 2,250-seat theater was designed by Scottish architect Thomas Lamb, who specialized in gilded entertainment palaces. Built by Pearce and Scheck, a company that put together vaudeville bills and toured them, it's one of the lost grand theaters in downtown Baltimore dating from the vaudeville era.

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. Its huge marquee had 8,000 lights.

Last rented to Loew's Inc. for use as a movie palace, it lost customers to suburban "cineplexes" and has been on the market in recent years, with the asking price ranging from $600,000 to $1.5 million.

The donors are J. Mark Schapiro and John A. Luetkemeyer Jr., principals of Continental Realty Corp. Schapiro said he and his partner, unable to sell the building, decided to donate it to the institution they felt was in the best position to bring it back to life.

"We're Baltimoreans," he said. "We wanted something positive to happen in that area. We wanted to put it in the strongest hands available, and that was the University of Maryland."

Schapiro said Continental is giving the building and land -- about one-third of an acre -- with no strings attached.

"We weren't in a position to restore it as a theater," he said. "It makes all the sense in the world for this institution to have control. Our only objective was to do what's best for the community."

Over the past four years, a local group headed by Donald Hicken has explored plans to rehabilitate the theater as a "National Museum for Live Entertainment."

Hicken, head of the theater department at Baltimore's School for the Arts, said he was encouraged by the gift and still optimistic that the building can be restored.

He noted that many other cities have restored old theaters, from Pittsburgh's Benedum Center to the 42nd Street theaters in New York.

"I'm delighted," he said of the pending ownership change. "Baltimore has lost a lot of movie theaters over the years. This one is still standing. That's the good news."

Hicken said he believes the best possible use for the Hippodrome would be a mixture of education and entertainment. He envisions a "multiple performing arts use" that could include providing convocation and teaching space for the university, a gathering space for conventioneers, and performing space for dance, music and theater groups.

With only 2,250 seats, he said, the Hippodrome may never work well for Broadway-type shows, but it is "acoustically perfect" for concerts, lectures and other events.

"Once a beautiful auditorium is restored, the possibilities for its use are just enormous -- in terms of convention-related events, civic events, university events. City after city has discovered this."

Hicken added that he believes this is the last chance to restore one of Baltimore's legitimate theaters. "If that goes, there's nothing else that can be done for less than an astronomical cost."

Schapiro estimated that the cost of rehabilitating the theater could range from $1 million to $15 million, depending on the scope of the renovations.

Hippodrome featured in City Hall exhibit

Baltimore's heritage as a center for vaudeville and live theatebetween 1850 and 1950 will be celebrated with an exhibition in the City Hall Courtyard Galleries, 100 N. Holliday St., starting tomorrow and ending May 2.

"Live from the Hippodrome! Baltimore's Great Theaters" will feature drawings and paintings by Greg Otto, a local artist, and photographs and text by Robert Headley, the author of "Exit," a guide to Baltimore movie houses.

The galleries are open weekdays, from 8: 30 a.m. to 4: 30 p.m.

Pub Date: 3/27/97

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