Baltimore Glimpses: theatrical moments

December 16, 1997|By Gilbert Sandler

BALTIMORE venues that host entertainment touring shows have a long and star-studded history, dating to at least 1871.

Theater has enriched our culture, created jobs and attracted tourists. But today, some of the most popular Broadway shows are designed with a level of technological sophistication that challenges facilities built decades ago. For example, the critically acclaimed Broadway musical ''Miss Saigon'' could not play here.

On the theater front, the plot has thickened. We need to take a look at the next act. But to know where you're going, you must know where you've been.

The grandfather

Here's where we have been.

The grandfather of Baltimore theater was Ford's. It opened on Fayette Street between Eutaw and Howard streets (a parking lot now desecrates this hallowed ground!) in 1871 as Ford's Opera House.

It was built by John T. Ford, who also built Washington's famed Ford Theater in which John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln.

Ford's was a key player during the heyday of American theater. For years, many Broadway producers tried out shows there before opening in New York.

Gilbert and Sullivan's ''H.M.S. Pinafore'' made its American debut on Ford's stage, as did the first English production of Richard Wagner's ''Parsifal.''

William ''Buffalo Bill'' Cody, of Wild West show fame, made his stage debut there in a Western melodrama.

But by the '60s, the three-story, pressed brick building that was painted white had grown old and tattered; there were stories about bats flying through the dressing rooms.

''A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum'' played the night Ford's closed, Feb. 2, 1964. After the curtain came down for the last time, the pit orchestra played ''Auld Lang Syne,'' and then the crowd of 1,800 made its way slowly to the exits.

The next day, a wrecking ball Ford's was a key player during the heyday of American theater. For years, many Broadway producers tried out shows there before opening in New York.

smashed into the Fayette Street wall of what was at that time the oldest theater in America still in active use, leaving a pile of rubble -- bricks, plaster, broken lumber -- and memories.

The 93-year-old theater was razed for the construction of a Hecht Co. parking garage built to accommodate the growing number of shoppers who had begun to drive rather than take the streetcar downtown.

Ford's demolition was greeted with tears by many Baltimore residents, including dozens who whisked into the theater shortly before it was demolished looking for souvenirs.

At that time, the only other in-town venue for live theater was Stanley's, at Howard and Centre streets, but it was much smaller.

A year before Ford's was demolished, Morris Mechanic, the third and last owner of Ford's, promised to build a glorious new playhouse in the then-new Charles Center.

His announcement brought joy to the hearts of local theater lovers. On Jan. 6, 1967, the Mechanic Theater opened to a packed house. Unfortunately, Mechanic had died a few months VTC before the opening, so his widow, Clarisse, was escorted by Milton Eisenhower, brother of President Dwight Eisenhower to the Opening Night show, ''Hello, Dolly,'' starring World War II pinup girl, Betty Grable.

Critics in The Sun and Evening Sun panned the show, but that wasn't all that was subpar that night. As they politely applauded the actors, many audience members whispered that they couldn't hear or see. Some wondered if Baltimore's new showcase hadn't bombed on opening night.

But the Mechanic went bravely on. A reason for its staying power was that the theater had been leased to the James Nederlander Corp. of New York for 10 years.

Subscriptions reached 18,000 -- one of the highest in the country. But problems continued to plague the Mechanic. The audience dwindled and Nederlander advised the city that it would either break the lease or turn the Mechanic into a movie house.

Enter then Mayor William Donald Schaefer and the downtown merchants. They organized Baltimore Theater, Inc., under the leadership of Howard Owen, Jack Fruchtman and Frank Roberts. But in two years, they, too, called it curtains. The Mechanic stayed dark for 18 months.

City to the rescue

Enter then Baltimore City in the person of Robert C. Embry Jr., then housing commissioner, with $500,000 for improvements. With the assist of a 20-year lease from the Mechanic and the retention of New York impresario Alex Cohen, things began to happen. Walls were moved in, the orchestra pit was doubled, acoustical improvements were made.

A much-improved Mechanic re-opened on Nov. 1, 1976, with ''The Sly Fox,'' featuring George C. Scott. ''Now I can see from my seat,'' one patron told a reporter.

Another Baltimore theatrical landmark is the Lyric Opera House, which opened on Oct. 31, 1894, as a concert hall dedicated ''entirely to music.'' It's home to the Baltimore Opera and plays host to a variety of theatrical touring companies. Some shows go there because the Lyric is bigger than the Mechanic.

A $3 million, three-story expansion of the Lyric is just being completed to help the historic theater attract more Broadway-style touring shows and other productions.

Theater is a living organism, restless with change, and Baltimore must decide if our theaters must change more. Hard questions: Does Baltimore have the theaters to sustain its great theater tradition? Can the Mechanic do the job into the future (built in '60s, renovated in the '70s)? Or do we turn to the Lyric (built in 1894, renovated in 1982 and again this year)? Or to both? A new theater, perhaps?

I= Whatever, for Baltimore's theater lovers, it's show time.

N Gilbert Sandler writes from, and about, changing Baltimore.

Pub Date: 12/16/97

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