Restoration of Hippodrome will make Baltimore proud

January 18, 1998|By Jacques Kelly

The Ford Center, one of the renovated theaters on New York's 42nd Street, had an informal opening back in November. After I inspected its lobby, walked up a fancy staircase, admired a new floor mosaic, and gazed at that grand proscenium arch, I thought: "Why can't Baltimore have this too?"

The Greater Baltimore Committee and the Downtown Partnership feel the same way, as do thousands of nameless Baltimoreans who grow pleased and proud when one of their landmarks of civic patrimony is saved, restored and appreciated.

Finally, after years of talk, dashed hopes and plans, some groups with muscle and conviction have stepped forward and asked that big money be sunk into the Hippodrome Theatre, built in 1914 on Eutaw Street.

Other cities have long been at the game of saving a massive old downtown theater. I've made visits to some the way sports fans make pilgrimages to classic ball parks. I've been to Boston, Louisville, San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans, and my

personal favorite, a gem called the Palace in Canton, Ohio.

Each city has preserved -- then promoted -- one or more of its splendid downtown theaters. They are expansive and opulent, with lacy plaster, beaded chandeliers, great sightlines and roomy aisles.

Baltimore, not a city to brag about what it possesses, has never made much of the Hippodrome's art and design. Architectural historians in the 1960s didn't have the nerve to champion these plaster palaces. It was just the old Hipp, a palace of memories, not art.

The Hippodrome, as a symbol of downtown theatergoing, brings back strong memories and emotions for Baltimoreans who found their entertainment at places like Ford's, the Stanley, Century or Mayfair -- perhaps with an on-the-run lunch at a Read's counter.

The Inner Harbor is successful -- a planner's masterwork -- but it doesn't have the heart of the old streets and their beloved institutions near Howard and Lexington.

Baltimoreans tend to associate the Hippodrome with the acts that played there when it was owned and booked by Isidor Rappaport, a Philadelphian who bought the place and saw its potential after its 1931 closure for bad debts.

The Hippodrome reopened that year and never looked back until the movie industry -- and downtown Baltimore -- endured crisis after crisis, which is another way of saying change and more change.

I didn't start attending movies until the 1950s, but can still recall seeing the Three Stooges on the Hippodrome's stage there, along with a terrible Louis Prima-Keely Smith movie. The old Hippodrome was the showcase house for the much-talked-about Cleopatra" of Liz Taylor-Richard Burton fame.

The owners got the idea of draping the interior in 1960s greenish-gold curtains that this newspaper's critic said looked like the interior of a coffin. But it remained a big-deal place well into that decade. When the film version of "My Fair Lady" came to Baltimore, the first place it went on a screen was the Hippodrome.

Thomas Lamb, the architect who designed the Hippodrome, was one of this country's greatest theater designers (he also gave Hagerstown its much celebrated Maryland Theatre) and is often championed elsewhere.

If you visit Toronto, you'll see his Elgin Theater. This architect also gave New York City its Capitol, Strand and Rialto, San Francisco its Fox and Kansas City its Midland. He's a big deal. If the plan announced this week to restore the Hippodrome goes through, we'll be amazed, dazzled and delighted.

The other day I slipped over Saratoga Street to the old Lexington Market district. I was amazed at the vitality of the street. It's changed. It's changed a lot. But there were plenty of people out at what some people would dismiss as a clutter of dollar stores and cheap-john joints.

What wasn't missing was the hustle and bustle of urban street life. The scene was far different from that afternoon's casual strolling along the harbor. I was proud that Baltimore can accommodate two such different worlds -- with national hotel chains and retailers like Brooks Brothers and Ann Taylor not far from stores selling electronic gadgets, pagers and two-for-a-dollar cotton-poly socks.

There's been a huge economic transformation of Baltimore's old department store district. Today it has the look of a street bazaar, but it is far from empty.

As for the Hippodrome, if any plaster has fallen off the balcony or boxes, don't worry. There is a flourishing industry today whose craftspeople can fix the old place and make the footlights glow again. Artisans can paint murals of nymphs and give the place a proper show business dazzle.

The Howard-Eutaw-Lexington street part of Baltimore will always look dreary until somebody does something to alter its economic state. It is great to see this partnership emerge with such a worthy goal.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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