New city home for performing arts Hippodrome: Could old downtown vaudeville theater be centerpiece of new complex?

January 18, 1998

AT FIRST, the idea sounds preposterous. Who on earth would venture to the old Hippodrome if the once-famous Eutaw Street vaudeville house were renovated and reopened as a state-of-the-art theater for large-scale Broadway productions? Even in the daytime, the area is foreboding.

Yet the embryonic plan has merit and promise. A first-rate performing arts center could easily -- and relatively cheaply -- be assembled at the Hippodrome, taking advantage of an adjoining garage, another nearby theater and access to mass transit and interstate highways.

Plans are under way to transform the vicinity of the Hippodrome into a safer, more desirable area.

Construction starts this spring on the first of 500 market-rate apartments aimed at renters working downtown or at the nearby University of Maryland, Baltimore. A task force reports in May on ways to revitalize the surrounding 75-acre district bounded by Saratoga, Paca, Camden and Liberty streets.

Consultants have tackled the problems of that once-bustling retail hub several times in the past. This time, though, the initiative is bankrolled by the Weinberg Foundation, a major property owner. Also involved are UMB and the University of dTC Maryland Medical System, Downtown Partnership, Baltimore Development Corp. and Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who also owns a major downtown office building.

The possibility of revitalizing the entire Lexington Market area -- from replacing the aging Baltimore Arena to recycling Howard Street's former department stores into other profitable uses -- has rekindled talk of a new performing arts center. Efforts to fashion such a complex near the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall several years ago failed because of the steep price tag -- $80 million.

The Hippodrome could be brought back to life for much less money -- $35 million. A private promoter, the Theater Management Group of Houston, has already shown interest. It says it would put up $10 million as long as it can control bookings at the complex, which would have events 200 nights a year.

Another plus for the Hippodrome, which is adjoined by two catering halls known as the Baltimore Grand, is its 987-space garage. More secure parking is nearby.

As early as 1991, the Abell Foundation called attention to the fact that the 1,607-seat Morris A. Mechanic Theater at Charles Center is too small to satisfy national touring companies. The foundation feared that without a replacement theater, many shows might skip Baltimore.

Revitalizing the long-vacant Hippodrome would alleviate those concerns and extend the transformation begun by Camden Yards and the Convention Center. We welcome the Greater Baltimore Committee's leadership and urge a serious feasibility study.

Instead of focusing just on the Hippodrome, the study ought to include the old Town Theater, just around the corner on Fayette Street and also owned by the University of Maryland. If both venues were used, Baltimore could have a performing arts center with a 2,300-seat main stage at the Hippodrome and of an 800-seat lower level theater and a 700-seat upper level space at the Town.

The possibilities of such a combination are truly awesome.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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