Hippodrome's Adopt-A-Seat program fills theater with memories

THEATER

November 27, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

There was the woman whose grandparents had their first date at the Hippodrome; the brother and sister whose uncle was master of stage properties; the man with fond memories of taking the streetcar to the Hippodrome on Saturdays with his grandfather, a butcher; and the woman whose great-great-uncle founded and built the theater.

These were among the donors in the Adopt-A-Seat campaign who gathered at the Hippodrome Theater on Monday morning to affix plaques to the seats they "adopted" for donations ranging from $1,000 to $2,000 each.

Green balloons wafted above the adopted seats, which - like all the seats in the 2,250-seat venue - have dark green metal frames covered with burnt orange upholstery in a diamond pattern. With most of the seats in place, the Hippodrome is truly beginning to look like a legitimate theater again, even though the only folks on stage Monday were construction workers.

Sixty seats have been spoken for thus far, according to Charles J. Nabit, co-chairman with his wife, Mary Kay, of the Adopt-A-Seat committee. To date, the adoptions have raised more than $100,000 of the $1 million the program hopes to raise before the doors open at the Hippodrome on Feb. 10, 2004. (Seat adoptions are strictly honorary and do not necessarily correspond to the locations where their patrons may sit for performances.)

Before turning the microphone over to other donors, Nabit, whose wife is the granddaughter of the couple who spent their first date at the theater, quipped, "Had it not been for that first date, many things would have been different."

Next up was Nancy Kiel, filling in for her mother, Sarah Hesson, who broke her hip and was unable to attend. Kiel's great-great-uncle, Marion Scott Pearce, co-owned and built the former vaudeville house with Philip J. Scheck in 1914.

Kiel explained that the figures of the Three Graces, represented in the freshly-restored mural over the proscenium arch, were Pearce's tribute to his wife and two sisters-in-law, one of whom was Kiel's great-grandmother. "Marion said the three sisters would always remain at the Hippodrome," explained Kiel, whose great-great-uncle's name will adorn seat A108. "My mother said Uncle Marion should really have a seat in his own theater."

After her official remarks, Kiel said that the artisans who restored the mural consulted with her mother - showing her various old, black-and-white, water damaged photos - before beginning restoration. Kiel added that her family's multi-generational history with the Hippodrome also included her step-great-grandfather, who managed the theater, and her grandmother, who provided piano accompaniment for silent movies there.

Brother and sister Jeffrey Amdur and Marlene Amdur-Ferguson also had a host of behind-the-scenes stories - and a selection of autographed photos as visual aids. The seat they donated honors the memory of their uncle, Eli ("Elkie") Nieman, who operated a newsstand with his brother next to the theater.

In 1935, Nieman was offered a job as a carpenter inside the building. He went on to become Master of Stage Properties, working in many Baltimore theaters over the next half-century. "We can't imagine the Hippodrome going on without Elkie being a part of it," Amdur said.

Wearing a Three Stooges tie, Amdur, who brought a Stooges photo from the late Nieman's vast photo collection, recalled seeing the comedians perform at the Hippodrome in 1959. Afterward, he and his sister, then ages 9 and 4, met the Stooges in their dressing rooms, where Moe talked with them for an hour. "To this day, it remains one of the highlights of my life," Amdur said.

For August L. Dorsett, the Adopt-A-Seat program was an opportunity to honor the memory of his grandfather, August W. Desor. A German butcher, Desor took his namesake to the Hippodrome from the time Dorsett was 4 until he was 6, perching the boy on his knee so he could see over the balcony rail. These trips helped inspire Dorsett to do some acting himself, a pursuit he followed for 25 years.

Just about everyone seemed to have a Hippodrome memory to share on Monday - even Fernando Tosti, the assistant cameraman working on a documentary about the theater for the University of Maryland. Tosti's father immigrated from Italy, and on his first night in Baltimore, he and his brother took the streetcar from Little Italy to the Hippodrome. There they saw Jimmy Durante. "Neither understood a word of English," Tosti said, but when the audience laughed, the Italian brothers laughed right along with them.

Hippodrome seats are available for adoption for the following amounts: orchestra seats, $2,000; front balcony, $1,500; rear balcony, $1,000. For more information, call 410-625-4230, ext. 615.

ISO nuns

The 20th anniversary tour of Nunsense has put out a call for a few talented local nuns, each of whom would appear in a performance along with stars Kaye Ballard, Georgia Engel and Darlene Love. The production will hold a talent contest for nuns from 10 a.m. to noon Monday, Dec. 8, at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

Nuns who can sing, dance, juggle, play a musical instrument - you name it - are welcome to audition. Those chosen will appear in the production's talent show scene; in exchange, the company will donate $5 to the charity of the nun's choice for every friend, relative or parishioner in attendance. And, each nun who auditions will receive two tickets to opening night.

Nunsense will be performed at the Lyric Feb. 3-8. To register to audition, call Deb Fiscella at 301-540-4842 by Dec. 5.

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