Hippodrome Dreams

Frank Sinatra was their customer and the theater their friend. Now plans to revive the Hippodrome threaten a family's 70-year old business.

Cover Story

February 28, 1999|By Story by Gerard Shields | Story by Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

THE OLD TAILOR DOESN'T HAVE THE heart to throw away the winter coats, suits, summer dresses and trousers left behind by those who abandoned the city. Wrapped in cellophane, the garments hang from a dusty clothes carousel that stopped spinning long ago in his North Eutaw Street shop. The three-piece, pin-striped disco suit, the 1960s Gidget petticoat and the cotton seersucker dresses -- the styles of the clothing reveal when their owners left.

Over the past 50 years, Sam Boulmetis watched the downtown shopping crowd thin through the front window of his tailor shop as one out of every three Baltimoreans -- 300,000 in all -- found a ribbon of new highway beckoning them to the suburbs.

At 76, Boulmetis still hoists the rolling steel security gates of his store each day to toil beneath the arched lamp lighting his sewing machine. Though his back is hunched from decades of work, his eyes still thrill at the sight of a customer returning from a three-year prison stint to find his best jacket waiting on the carousel.

FOR THE RECORD - An article on the Hippodrome Theater in Sunday's Arts and Society section of The Sun inaccurately reported the year the theater desegregated. The Hippodrome admitted its first African-American patrons in 1958, four years before owner Isadore Rappaport sold the theater. The Sun regrets the errors.

"They have no family or friends, nothing," Boulmetis says. "But at least they know their suit will be here. It gives them hope."

Hugging this one strip of asphalt -- City Block 632 -- three generations of the Boulmetis family watched nearly a century of city life unfold.

Here, Eutaw Street once throbbed with crowds crossing town on electric trolleys to the shopping, financial and theater district. The 8,000-bulb marquee of the Hippodrome Theater in the middle of the block bathed the entire street in its prosperous glow.

Louis "Pops" Boulmetis, Sam's father, opened the family's hat shop across from the theater in 1930, in time to ride the Hippodrome's soaring popularity.

After the war, Sam and his brother, Tom, opened the cleaners and tailor alongside their dad, allowing road-weary vaudeville performers to simply cross the street to get stitched, shined, pressed and clipped. It wasn't uncommon to see Red Skelton, the Three Stooges or a young crooner named Frank Sinatra step through the front door.

The family relied on the theater business so much, they named their shops for it: Hippodrome Hatters and Hippodrome Cleaners and Tailors.

Today, the Hippodrome sits boarded up, the marquee lights have been dark eight years and time has worn down the once-stately interior. City redevelopment leaders and appraisers walk up and down the street, clipboards in hand, staring at building facades soiled black by diesel exhaust.

Two months ago, the City Council introduced legislation condemning every Eutaw Street property between Baltimore and Fayette streets. With a new century dawning, business and political leaders plan to renew downtown Baltimore with a $350 million, 18-block face lift, beginning here.

A $53 million renovation of the Hippodrome to house Broadway shows serves as the project catalyst, turning the theater that once carried the Boulmetises through a Depression and two World Wars into a likely cause of the family's eviction.

On a recent afternoon, a visitor steps through the door of Hippodrome Hatters, transfixed by a cardboard poster of Clark Gable in a riverboat gambler's hat. Like a jukebox whose buttons have been pushed, Sam's nephew, Lou, spits out the tale of how Gable himself stood at the Hippodrome, handing out cigars and drinks during Baltimore's 1939 premiere of "Gone With the Wind."

The visitor stares across the street at the ghostly marquee, fluorescent tubes visible through white plastic cracked like broken teeth. He squints at the dilapidated theater, trying to imagine.

OPENING NIGHT

The curtain rose on Nov. 23, 1914.

Baltimore theater promoters Marion Pearce and Philip Scheck had hired Scottish designer Thomas Lamb to create the 3,000-seat theater, the largest south of Philadelphia. The owners poured $225,000 into their venture, a project that would cost $100 million to build today.

Mayor James Preston joined opening-night patrons gawking at the gilded leaves, plaster cherubs and Gothic pillars framing the 43-foot stage. Curtains draped the walls above luxurious opera boxes, an exclamation point of palatial elegance.

Ushers wearing light-gray suits guided patrons to their seats through the gold and brown theater covered in three miles of red carpeting. The shadows of musicians rose from the orchestra pit, their first selection swelling from a low tremble into a piercing blare depicting the breaking of dawn.

Stage lights bloomed, and the Hippodrome at 12 N. Eutaw St. officially opened.

Seven vaudeville acts including elephants, a foot juggler twirling axes, comedians and chorus girls followed. Critics called three of them unworthy of the 50-cent ticket price, five times the going rate at comparable theaters.

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