Role of Mechanic uncertain as Hippodrome is remade

Baltimore theater seen as small, outmoded

November 18, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Can the Mechanic be retooled?

The answer will determine the future of the 34-year-old Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, a bulky downtown landmark once hailed as the cornerstone of the city's theater scene but viewed by many today as small and outmoded.

Questions about what to do with the 1,600-seat Mechanic are not new, but they are gaining urgency because of the planned $56 million renovation of the Hippodrome Theater on downtown's west side.

Though little work has been done, the 2,300-seat Hippodrome is scheduled to open in two years. Planners expect it to stage the kind of Broadway-style shows that the Mechanic has offered and, in some cases, been unable to land. Its opening will leave the city with the Hippodrome, the Mechanic, the Lyric Opera House, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Center Stage and many smaller halls.

"How many venues for live performances can this city or any other support?" said Sandra Hillman, who helped turn around the Mechanic during the 1970s. "I think the viability of live venues is a very dicey question."

She noted that young people are not flocking to theatrical productions, raising questions about the future of the entertainment form. Last year, half of those attending touring Broadway shows were 50 or older, according to the League of American Theaters and Producers.

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm, said options for the privately owned venue at Charles and Baltimore streets run the gamut. The Mechanic could carve out a niche for itself as a showcase for smaller shows or, at the opposite extreme, be razed to make way for a new development such as housing, he said.

The Mechanic has its vocal supporters. "The place has never been gorgeous, but it certainly functions. You can see and hear from practically every seat," said Orem "Jerry" Wahl, who runs a Mount Vernon framing shop and described himself as an avid theatergoer. "The Mechanic has a certain intimacy."

Whatever decisions are made will not rest solely with government officials or the arts community, because the Mechanic family owns the building. Clarisse Mechanic - widow of Morris, who died in 1966, during its construction - and her brother, Blue Barron, have let Brodie know they are worried about the Hippodrome.

"The last time I saw them, they were concerned the city wanted to do something negative to their theater," Brodie recalled. "We said, `Absolutely not.'" That was more than a year ago.

Efforts to reach the family last week were unsuccessful.

An executive with Clear Channel Entertainment, which books shows for the Mechanic and will do the same for the Hippodrome, said he thinks the family should do what it considers appropriate, because the theater is a sort of memorial to Morris Mechanic.

"If it is as a theater, terrific; if it is some other incarnation, they totally have control over that," said David Anderson, president of Clear Channel's theater management division.

The Mechanic opened to high expectations and praise in 1967, even if its roughhewn exterior did not appeal to everyone. The theater was a central piece of the Charles Center redevelopment effort in the core of downtown.

Morris Mechanic, a theater owner and real estate investor, paid $4.5 million to build the structure, renting a room at a nearby hotel to oversee early stages of construction.

The theater has had a bumpy history. In 1976, the city had to rescue it by forming the nonprofit Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts. The group built a large subscription base that made the theater one of the country's most popular theatrical touring venues.

Yet in 1991, the Abell Foundation released a study calling the Mechanic inadequate for large-scale productions and recommending a new performing arts center. In recent years, the BCPA has fallen $4 million into debt while running the Mechanic.

The nonprofit group continues to lease the theater from the Mechanic family, while Clear Channel runs day-to-day operations.

BCPA President Mark Sissman said the discussion about the future will involve his group, the Mechanic family, city officials and others. "We have to approach it the way we approach other planning challenges: Get the right people together, close our eyes and think of what the best possibilities may be," he said.

Ideas are being tossed around.

"What do you do with a place that has a lot of seats and a stage? Would there be a possibility of a movie theater?" Brodie mused.

Brodie noted that development restrictions imposed for Charles Center have expired, so it would be possible to build a tall building there if the family chose to do so.

Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a member of the BCPA's board, said the Mechanic could continue to stage shows geared to smaller settings.

Hutchinson said it would be possible to have shows running simultaneously at the Mechanic and the Hippodrome.

Clear Channel's Anderson did not rule that out. Although the Mechanic has a cramped stage and loading area, he said its advantages include good sight lines, onsite parking and a central location.

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