New plans afoot for old Hippodrome Theater: Business leaders want to transform the 1914 theater into a place that could tempt the big Broadway productions to town.

January 14, 1998|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

Baltimore business leaders are asking the state for about $3.5 million over the next two years to begin the transformation of the Hippodrome theater, 12 N. Eutaw St., into a site suitable for large-scale Broadway productions.

The project would shift one of the city's two venues for Broadway shows from the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, the privately owned venture that opened in the late 1960s as a cornerstone of the Charles Center urban renewal effort, to the Hippodrome, a former vaudeville showplace located in a Baltimore neighborhood earmarked by the Schmoke administration for rejuvenation.

The idea for the renovations comes from the Greater Baltimore Committee Inc., an organization of business leaders, and the Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit group that works to improve the city's business climate. It has the endorsement of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, the nonprofit organization that operates the Mechanic.

The three groups are proposing a $25 million renovation of the Hippodrome, a once-grand theater now owned by the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Another $10 million would be spent on improvements to the surrounding neighborhood, which was once a busy retail center.

"This allows us to make sure that there's a future for Broadway theater in Maryland," says Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a performing arts center board member.

"It also puts us in a position where we could rejuvenate the Eutaw Street block between Lexington and Camden Yards, and we'll try to bring the university a step closer in an active, visible way to the business district of Baltimore."

The state is being asked to contribute $17.5 million to the effort, Hutchinson says. The city's share of the costs would be $6 million. Another $10 million would come from a developer or a theater management group, and the remaining $1.5 million would be raised from private donors.

A Houston-based company called the Theater Management Group already has expressed interest in the project, Hutchinson says.

The company, a for-profit theater operator that also renovates historic theaters, has been interested in the Hippodrome for about four years, says David Anderson, president. "We are always looking for new opportunities, especially in cities like Baltimore, which is under-served."

The Hippodrome is a 2,250-seat theater designed by Scottish architect Thomas Lamb, who specialized in plush entertainment venues. Built in 1914, the grand old building once was host to performers such as the Three Stooges, Frank Sinatra and Red Skelton. Later, moviegoers crowded "the Hipp" to attend matinees and evening shows, says Donald Hicken, head of drama at the Baltimore School for the Arts, who in the past has led other efforts to refurbish the building.

Part of larger renewal

Under the plan, the Hippodrome would be transformed into a 2,300-seat theater outfitted with the technology needed for large productions. The theater would be expanded to include the neighboring building, now being used as a catering hall, says Hutchinson. It then could be used for a spectrum of events from theatrical performances to lectures or conventions presented by the university.

The city views the project as part of a wider urban renewal effort. "We strongly support this effort and think that it will have a tremendous benefit to the west side of downtown," says Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "It will be of benefit particularly to the University of Maryland campus and to the arts community."

The project's proponents are asking the governor to include in his budget about $3.5 million in planning money for the project, to be paid over two years. The state budget will be announced next week. "The governor has made no commitments, but we're hopeful," says Hutchinson.

But a meeting held yesterday between Mayor Schmoke and Gov. Parris Glendening left unclear where the project was on the city's list of priorities. "He had a meeting with Schmoke today, and the proposal was not brought up in this morning's meeting, so I don't think the governor has made any decisions or commitments about that project," says Ray Feldmann, spokesman for the governor.

In recent years, the management of the Baltimore Center for Performing Arts has pointed out that the Mechanic is no longer suitable for Broadway productions that have grown increasingly big-budget and high-tech.

According to a 1991 study conducted by the Abell Foundation, )) the 1,607-seat Mechanic is too small to meet the financial demands of producers of bigger Broadway shows. Other problems include inadequate backstage areas and a loading dock that cannot accommodate ever-larger sets. Consequently, the theater can no longer attract Broadway hits such as "The Phantom of the Opera" or "Miss Saigon."

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