Memories of the Hipp add to excitement about its revival

City Diary

October 01, 2003|By ARTHUR LAUPUS

WHEN I heard that the Hippodrome was to be refurbished and reopened in 2004, a flood of memories gushed forth - unicyclists, comedians, singers, jugglers, tumblers, trapeze artists, big bands, dog acts, magicians, dancers. All of those vestiges of vaudeville appeared before me, a parade of bygone performers whose purpose it was to make me "ooo" and "ahhh" and laugh until I cried.

I grew up in Walbrook in the 1940s. Just about every other Thursday, my mother, my sister and I would board the No. 4 streetcar (Charles and Lexington streets) at Belmont Avenue and Poplar Grove Street and proceed downtown to meet my father to catch the movie and live show at the Hipp. He worked at the Baltimore & Ohio Annex Building on Hopkins Place.

Once inside the theater, it was like another world. The Hippodrome was truly a movie palace, with polished brass railings, rococo balconies, uniformed ushers with flashlights, plush seats and a mammoth velvet stage curtain with gold trim. And it was huge. Ticket prices were about $1.50.

What really formed a strong impression occurred at the end of the movie when the music played over the closing credits. The curtain began to close and, as its two sections met, the final bars of the music segued into live music from the stage. The curtain would then reopen, the screen had miraculously vanished and in its place was the Hippodrome Orchestra. Truly magic.

There were usually four or five acts on the program, and they followed the old vaudeville format - the weaker acts were at the beginning and end while the "headliner" was in the middle. One of my favorite headliners was comedian Jack E. Leonard, portly and dressed in a Panama hat, who reminded me of the actor Sydney Greenstreet. His rapid-fire patter and snappy one-liners were a big hit with the audience. ("I miss Mom's cookin' whenever she's not lookin'.")As everyone roared, he would grab his hat and spin it around his head, much to the delight of his hysterical audience.

Another comedy act was the Garrett Sisters, Betty and Jean. Their take-off on Carmen Miranda was side-splitting, especially when Betty, wearing a turban with all the appropriate exotic fruit, would tear off a banana and nonchalantly sit and stuff it in her mouth while her sister went through all the typical Miranda gyrations. Betty later went on to Hollywood, where she appeared in MGM musicals as, appropriately enough, a "second banana," and then to television in All in the Family and Laverne & Shirley.

Sometimes the headliner was a big band. When Sammy Kaye and his orchestra came to the Hipp, he held a contest - "So You Want to Lead a Band" - in which members of the audience were invited onstage to conduct. I was amazed at the abundance of nonmusical talent that mounted that stage and struggled to lead that orchestra. The audience voted for "best conductor" by applause.

Some acts were downright goofy. One particularly puzzling display was one in which a guy came onstage with a bunch of dogs, some painted scenery showing a burning building, and ladders. The dogs would climb the ladders and jump into the windows of the burning building while the guy would face the audience and hold out his arms for the audience to applaud. After some polite applause, the dogs would jump out of the windows onto the ladder and proceed to climb down while the guy held out his arms again, soliciting more applause.

I never got the point, but I sure remembered it.

What I'm really looking forward to is The Producers, the first show to open the Hippodrome, a theater I haven't entered in more than 50 years.

Today's writer

Arthur Laupus is a retired schoolteacher and actor who lives in Columbia. He is a part-time film teacher at Towson University.

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

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