The Hippodrome's next act Restoration: The University of Maryland seeks $3.5 million in state funding to begin restoring the majestic theater.

January 18, 1998|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

A garland of 1914 roses sheds flaking plaster dandruff down on the seats at Eutaw Street's closed and beleaguered Hippodrome Theatre, but the years have not destroyed the architectural majesty of the downtown entertainment palace now being touted for a big-ticket restoration.

Rain splashes through a threadbare roof. Ropes and counterweights hang in tatters within the rusty stage housing. A long strip of an artist's idyllic mural lies atop the old orchestra pit -- in front of the expansive stage where Frank Sinatra, the Andrews Sisters, Bob Hope, George Burns, Dinah Shore, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis and Henny Youngman once delighted Baltimoreans.

Aged playhouses such as this, once routinely demolished for downtown parking lots, have recently been reclaimed for large musical shows such as "Ragtime," "Phantom of the Opera" and "The Lion King." Three such theaters, built about the same time as the Hippodrome, have been restored on New York's 42nd Street.

Baltimore's Hippodrome, four blocks from Oriole Park, closed as a movie house in 1990. Its previous owners turned the building over to the University of Maryland, which, in conjunction with the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, the Downtown Partnership and the Greater Baltimore Committee, is seeking an initial $3.5 million in state legislature-approved funds to begin restoring what was once Baltimore's largest show-business venue.

As envisioned, the restoration would cost $25 million in public and private funds and create a showcase venue with 2,250 seats.

"It must be one of the best-remembered theaters in Baltimore," said theater historian Robert Headley.

"Just about everybody can remember who they saw there on the stage. It was the last place you could see vaudeville," said the retired linguist, whose book "Exit" is a history of Baltimore's movie theaters. "I can still hear a man and a woman doing an act in the 1950s. They whistled 'The Land of Sky Blue Waters.' "

A recent visit to the shuttered theater reveals a deteriorating palace nearly at the end of its economic life.

The unventilated auditorium reeks of damp plaster. The heat and lTC electricity are off. Vandals have removed some brass railings and shattered a section of marble wainscoting.

During a cold snap several years ago, the theater's sprinkler system burst, flooding the basement and further damaging plaster walls and billowing panels of fabric stretched across the walls in a 1960s decorative scheme.

Sections of fabric curtains that masked the original 1914 architectural appointments fell, revealing an impressive plaster cameo marked with the letter "H."

Atop this is a cluster of flags and a harp, all rendered in gilt-decorated plaster touched with French gray, dusty rose and pistachio green.

When the Hippodrome opened Nov. 23, 1914, its ads bragged: "The big gorgeous playhouse for all the people all the time." When constructed, it was the largest theater in Baltimore. For many years the stage acts -- singers, comics, trained animals -- got bigger billing than the movies.

The Hippodrome's audiences began to decline in the 1960s. Its box seats, which flanked the stage, were cut down. Its 1914 interior was deemed out-of-date and was draped in heavy fabric to mask the plaster ornamentation.

"Everything was draped in that god-awful material," said Daniel Gibbs, a resident of the 2200 block of St. Paul St. who sat through Saturday afternoon monster-movie pictures. "The balcony was bigger than the orchestra."

Still, much of the theater's original design (the work of architect Thomas Lamb) is intact -- except a tier of three plaster-encrusted boxes on either side of the 44-foot-wide stage.

Art nouveau-style women's heads peep out of cornice detailing. Nicely turned iron staircase balustrades lead to the upper floors. (There is no elevator, and the lobby is small.) Atop the fancy proscenium is an arched mural of diaphanously begowned Muses, the spirits of the arts, floating within a dreamy sylvan landscape.

"The design is really understated, not like the rococo theaters of the late 1920s," said Donald Hicken, head of the Baltimore School for the Arts' theater department. "The sight lines are really exceptional. And the acoustics are ideal. You can speak on the stage and be heard in the last row of the balcony."

Laurie Schwartz, the Downtown Partnership's president, said, "Even before you see what's on stage, the Hippodrome's spectacular architecture and past create a dramatic experience."

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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