LATELY, I'VE BEEN listening to some of Baltimore's leading citizens tout the idea of renovating Eutaw Street's Hippodrome Theatre as a home for big touring musicals -- the "Phantoms," "Ragtimes" and "Lion Kings."
Almost in the same breath, these downtown boosters have been running down our current playhouse, the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre. Some suggested it would be demolished. After all, the former Hamburger building is now being razed at Charles and Fayette.
While standing in that dank and potentially glorious Hippodrome auditorium -- even with its ruined plaster and peeling paint it's a knockout -- I got a different kind of wintertime chill. Baltimore without a Mechanic? Unthinkable.
As much as I would like to see the Hippodrome lighted again, the place is just too big, too cavernous, for many classic plays and old-fashioned musical comedies made to order for the Mechanic.
Both theaters -- the Mechanic and Hippodrome -- have strengths. And, after all, didn't Baltimore once accommodate many theaters downtown?
One cold February Saturday afternoon in 1962, I stood at the corner of Charles and Baltimore streets watching the last tenant -- WMAR TV -- move out of the old Sun Building, itself such a landmark at that corner.
Downtown Baltimore looked like downtown Berlin or London after World War II. There were piles of urban-renewal debris everywhere. Soon the wonderful limestone-clad walls of the old Sun building were carted off to the landfill.
L What rose on that site always slightly rattled Baltimoreans.
The Mechanic Theatre was never a cuddly and lovable building. It exterior walls were done in rough concrete. The entrance -- so peculiar, almost hidden -- was not gracious or welcoming. It was darn odd that you had to climb a steep flight of steps to reach the lobby. I wish the architect had made the sight lines better from some of the cheaper balcony seats.
Yet, for all its failings, the Mechanic was a symbol of the renewal and change that swept through downtown Baltimore in the 1960s.
We Baltimoreans often take for granted amenities this city offers. Morris Mechanic built the place with his own money. The architecture still seems goofy, but it is a landmark and, more importantly, has delivered Baltimore three decades' worth of live theater. On many a night, when the Inner Harbor was still a moribund basin, the show at the Mechanic was one of the few live attractions.
I think back to a balmy April afternoon in 1967, when the Mechanic's concrete still seemed to be wet. George Gilmore, a Loyola High School classmate, outlined a plan whereby we would circumvent Father Joe Hawley's English literature class for a field trip in dramatics.
George explained that if we took a left through one door, w would be prisoners of school desks for the next hour. If we took off fast down the back stairway, to his mother's VW microbus, we would be downtown in 20 minutes, in possession of her matinee seats to "Man of LaMancha."
From that day onward, through the Mechanic's sold-out recent run of "Chicago," I've been returning to Baltimore and Charles, to that playhouse whose rough concrete walls are now a soft sponge of absorbent memory.
My theater tastes have never been too highbrow. I'm reminded of an unintentionally campy version of "The Desert Song" staged there years ago with a vigorous and enthusiastic beef-trust chorus, polyester costumes and a lot of nerve.
In thinking about all those very starry nights and matinees, it is easy to forget about how good a downtown citizen the Mechanic has been. Season after season it has attracted audiences downtown. It suffered a financial reverse in the middle 1970s, but rebounded smartly, and the shows kept coming, better than ever.
In many ways, the Mechanic demonstrated to 1967 Baltimore that good things could happen downtown. It so complemented its cultural-entertainment first cousins -- the Lyric, Center Stage and Meyerhoff. And, I pray, one day the Hippodrome too, but one not without the other.
This is not a time to think small and exclusionary. For those of us who like a good aisle seat, think in terms of a Mechanic, plus a Hippodrome, Lyric and wherever else the chorus belts out "The Desert Song."
Pub Date: 2/22/98