Celebrating work in progress

Hippodrome: Once and future patrons gather with city officials downtown for a party to honor the theater's restoration.

October 02, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

What is it about Frank Sinatra and the Hippodrome Theater? Everyone of a certain age seems to remember hearing the legend sing at the long-closed Eutaw Street theater on downtown's west side.

Jean DiCarlo is among the many. As a girl in the 1940s, she warmly recalls, she once journeyed all the way from Westminster with her aunts and a cousin for a Sinatra show.

Yesterday DiCarlo, now of Dundalk, visited the Hippodrome for a different spectacle. A party was held to fete the $63 million renovation that is turning the 88-year-old dusty gem into an elegant, 2,250-seat house for Broadway shows. The first show scheduled for the early 2004 grand opening is the hit musical The Producers.

"I'll be back down," DiCarlo, 74, promised.

Usually a phalanx of local dignitaries will extol a project of this magnitude before or after construction, not when the job is only one-quarter done, but the Hippodrome is a special case.

It never had a groundbreaking because of the time needed for the funding to fall into place. Now, the steel frame has risen for a new lobby and box office, and renovations are under way in the theater and two adjacent bank buildings that together will form the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center.

"A lot of people need to know we're moving forward," said Robert Boras, who oversees the project for the Maryland Stadium Authority, part of a team that includes the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts and Clear Channel Entertainment.

Yesterday, they closed Eutaw Street between Baltimore and Fayette streets. A jazz ensemble grooved in the sun. Dancers from a touring company of 42nd Street, now appearing at the smaller Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, did a number. Hard hat-wearing construction workers watched from girders and open windows.

Out on Eutaw, speaker after speaker told a crowd of over 100 people - many of them political or business heavyweights - how important the Hippodrome is to the west-side revitalization effort.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said he drove up Eutaw Street a couple of weeks ago and, seeing the construction, had a sort of vision. "I felt I could actually see what the west side would look like 10 years from now," he said.

What he hopes it looks like is this: a safe, clean area where middle-class residents live in hundreds of renovated apartments, eat at new restaurants, stroll down the street, maybe walk to work downtown or at the University of Maryland, Baltimore - and take in shows.

Once the city's retail hub, the west side has been in decline since the 1960s. Many of its grand buildings have faded, and while the area still bustles, the discount stores, beeper shops and wig emporiums cater to a mostly poor clientele.

The Hippodrome is not expected to lift the area on its own. Just across Eutaw Street, Bank of America plans to build a project with 394 apartments and ground-floor retail shops with a parking garage in the interior. The bank's Centerpoint project, a mix of new construction and renovation of older buildings, has been delayed by a dispute with a subcontractor. The site now sits conspicuously idle.

However, some new apartment buildings are open on the west side, including the Atrium in the former Hecht Co. department store on Howard Street. A $3.5 million face lift for Lexington Market is intended to attract new arrivals.

The new Hippodrome will be highly modern in many ways, from the heating system to the seats. It will have a new stage and backstage area, making it appealing to touring Broadway shows. Developers expect 200 shows a year.

"Yet as modern as this new theater will be, it will be restored to its original splendor," said Mark Sissman, president and chief executive officer of the performing arts group.

Plasterwork that mimics the original is ready to adorn loge boxes, which are being rebuilt exactly as they once appeared on either side of the stage, down to the onion dome on top.

The theater had at least four signs in its life as a vaudeville house and movie theater. Boras hopes to replicate the first one, a vertical sign that blared "Hippodrome" in big letters.

In some cases, historical integrity will bend to another force: a need to thank donors.

The France-Merrick Foundation awarded a $5 million challenge grant, pumping much-needed money into an equation that also includes funds from the city, state, Clear Channel, bond sales, private gifts and historic tax credits.

That is why, Boras said, the metal letters on the brick facade will not read "Pearce & Scheck's Hippodrome," as the original did in a nod to the developers. Instead it will read "France-Merrick Performing Arts Center."

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