Hippodrome's history belongs on marquee

CITY DIARY: Patricia Montley

July 31, 2002

NAMING IS power.

Don't primitive peoples resist revealing their names to strangers? Wasn't Adam's naming of the animals a sign of his dominion over them?

Places used to be named after the people living there. Think of the states, rivers, mountains named for Native American tribes. Consider how, without William Pitt, Pittsburgh might be ... well, West Philadelphia.

In Baltimore, we like naming streets for statesmen -- from founding fathers such as Charles and Calvert to contemporary heroes such as John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But when it comes to structures, we lack imagination. PSINet Stadium? Puh-lease.

And now the renovated Hippodrome Theater is to be renamed for the France-Merrick Foundation when it reopens in 2004. The Towson foundation won naming rights last year by pledging $5 million -- 8.3 percent of the total renovation cost.

OK, there's precedent for philanthropists or their heirs naming buildings after their generous selves: The Mechanic, the Meyerhoff, the Gordon Center. But none of these supplanted an arts building with a long history and a name tying it to an even longer one.

The original hippodromes were open-air stadiums used for horse and chariot races in ancient Greece and Rome. (Think Ben-Hur.)

The most famous, in Constantinople, seating possibly 80,000, was used for chariot races, Palm Sunday processions, gladiatorial contests, the torture-execution of prisoners and performances by mimes, acrobats and dancers.

More recent hippodromes include ones in London and New York. Built at the turn of the century as venues for massive circuses and spectacular revues, they went through several incarnations, from opera to vaudeville houses, before being tamed into a restaurant/cabaret (London) and a movie theater (New York), prior to closing.

Baltimore's Hippodrome, built in 1914, also started out playing host to live performers -- big bands, as well as singers, vaudevillians and comedians. Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Abbott and Costello, Benny Goodman, Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, Glenn Miller and the Three Stooges all performed there.

In the 1960s, the theater made the transition to screening films, but it later lost patrons to suburban "cineplexes." The Hippodrome closed in 1990.

Does the France-Merrick Foundation have a cultural responsibility to consider all of this in naming the new building?

Do we owe it to future generations reading the marquee to reflect the history and purpose of the institution?

If so, how do we choose a name?

Given its classical roots, should we call it the Terence Hippodrome, after the African brought to Rome as a slave who earned his freedom by writing plays so clever that they became models for comedy writers from Moliere to Larry Gelbart?

Or, given its transition from vaudeville to movies, should we name it for America's favorite uncle, who so famously made that same journey (and even played there): the Milton Berle Theater?

Or should we keep the hyphen from France-Merrick and combine the names of the greatest music hall comedian and the performer who brought her to the silver screen: the Brice-Streisand Theater?

Better yet, how about a contest? The winner gets two passes for the opening 2004-05 season. You see: Naming is power.

Today's writer

Patricia Montley is a free-lance writer who lives in Lutherville. She has a doctorate in theater arts.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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