Visionaries bask in Hippodrome glow

Rebirth: Restored theater a source of personal pride among select group at the heart of a project years in making

February 09, 2004|By Todd Beamon | Todd Beamon, Staff

First of two parts

The curtain goes up Tuesday night at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center in downtown Baltimore.

While the 2,286 guests on hand for the opening night gala premiere of the mega-Tony Award-winning musical The Producers will marvel at the meticulous $63 million restoration, the occasion will be marked differently by a small group of patrons inside the theater.

"There are eight or nine people who understand, from the beginning to end, what went into this," said Donald P. Hutchinson, president and chief executive of the Maryland division of SunTrust Banks Inc. "And in the end, all of us will be satisfied because we'll all look at one another Tuesday night, and we'll nod our heads at each other. That will be a quiet acknowledgment that we know what we did."

These business and civic leaders formed the core group that started the Hippodrome's march to opening night nearly 15 years ago. They worked tirelessly to bridge the varied - if not competing - interests of Maryland's corporate, philanthropic and private sectors to bring forth the Hippodrome Theatre.

They remained steadfast in their efforts, developing the strategies necessary to overcome skepticism and to sell their vision of transforming the dilapidated show palace at 12 N. Eutaw St. into what has become the center of a $700 million effort to revitalize the west side of downtown. For many years, the campaign was led by the Greater Baltimore Committee.

"I was one of those silly people who never thought we wouldn't make it," said Nancy Roberts, a board member of Hippodrome Foundation Inc., the nonprofit group that oversees the theater. She successfully lobbied the France-Merrick Foundation to make the project's largest private contribution, $5 million. Roberts came to the effort eight years ago.

"I'm sure I didn't know exactly how we were going to make it, but I believed it could be a fabulous, fabulous contribution to the cultural scene in Baltimore."

Besides Roberts and Hutchinson, other believers included former Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening; David Anderson of Clear Channel Communications Inc.; Frank P. Bramble of MBNA Corp.; James M. Dale of the Hippodrome Foundation; former Maryland State Sen. Barbara Hoffman; Bruce H. Hoffman, former executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority; former GBC vice president Diane Hutchins; Walter D. Pinkard Jr. of the Colliers Pinkard real estate firm; John Morton III of Bank of America Inc.; University of Maryland-Baltimore President Dr. David J. Ramsay and longtime civic activist Walter Sondheim Jr.

And there are other nonprofit organizations: the Abell Foundation, which commissioned a 1991 study calling for a new venue in Baltimore, and the Homer and Martha Gudelsky Family Foundation in Silver Spring, a major donor to the project.

There are the unsung heroes: Danny Mendelson of the Hippodrome Foundation and J. Michael Riley, who worked under Bramble at Allfirst Bank Inc. and now is senior vice president at M&T Bank Corp. They worked quietly to restore financial and operational stability to the Hippodrome Foundation's predecessor, the quasi-public Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts Inc. (BCPA).

There are two supporters who died last year, Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, who championed the Hippodrome project in the Maryland General Assembly, and Hope Quackenbush, whose quest for a larger place to house Broadway shows in the city began in the early 1990s after serving as longtime director of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre. She died in December.

There are, of course, a host of other names: Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer; former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke; Rick Berndt of the Gallagher, Evelius & Jones law firm; Anthony W. Deering of Rouse Co.; David Hillman of Southern Management Co.; Ronald Kreitner of WestSide Renaissance Inc., which is overseeing the redevelopment in the area; Roger C. Lipitz of Meridian Heathcare Inc.; and developer and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

"In this town, today, there are 30 people - maybe 50 people - who understand everything it took to get this theater built," said Hutchinson, who came to the effort as president of the GBC in 1992. "It shows that a handful of people can make a tremendous difference in the community. But the community has to be willing to go along for the ride."

Legendary venue

Opened in 1914 as a vaudeville theater and movie house, the Hippodrome Theatre was designed by Scottish architect Thomas Lamb, who specialized in guilded entertainment palaces, and built by Pearce and Scheck, a firm that organized touring vaudeville acts.

The Hippodrome played host to a broad array of performers - Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, Benny Goodman, Dinah Shore, Jerry Lewis - even actor Ronald Reagan. In 1939, Frank Sinatra made his debut as a big band singer with the Harry James Orchestra.

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