Mechanic Theatre loses operating company

ARCHITECTURE

Small venue misses out on big shows because of its limited seating

August 02, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

For the first time in nearly three decades, Baltimore's Morris A. Mechanic Theatre is dark and without an operator working to schedule theatrical events there.

A representative for Clear Channel Entertainment, the company that has been running the 1,614-seat theater, said its lease and operating agreement expired on Saturday and is not being renewed.

"We're not responsible for managing or booking the space anymore," said Marks Chowning, vice president of Clear Channel Entertainment's theater management division. "Our operating agreement expired, and we're not renewing it."

The expiration comes less than six months after Clear Channel and partners opened a larger theater on the west side of downtown, the 2,286-seat Hippodrome Theater at the $63 million France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St.

It raises questions about the fate of the Mechanic, which opened in 1967 at 25 Hopkins Plaza as an anchor of the Charles Center renewal area.

The last time the Mechanic stood dark was in 1975 and 1976, when a private group bowed out after two years of running it for its owner, the estate of Morris A. Mechanic.

That closure led the city to form a quasi-public agency, the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, to lease the theater and bring in Broadway-style productions. It reopened in the fall of 1976 and became one of the most successful operations of its kind in the country.

In recent years, the Mechanic has been unable to attract certain large touring shows, such as The Lion King and Phantom of the Opera, because it did not have enough seats to make the tickets affordable. In addition, outmoded backstage and loading dock facilities made it difficult to mount large shows.

Worried that certain productions were bypassing Baltimore because of the Mechanic's physical limitations, the BCPA became active in developing the Hippodrome as the city's main venue for Broadway productions. It subsequently changed its name to the Hippodrome Foundation to reflect its new alliance.

Clear Channel, which operated the Mechanic for the BCPA, maintained a split season in 2003-2004, with the first half at the Mechanic and the second half at the Hippodrome.

It had extended its lease at the Mechanic to run until Saturday to give it flexibility to book shows in both venues and so it would have a performing space in case construction on the Hippodrome wasn't completed on time.

With the Hippodrome fully operational as of February, Clear Channel opted to let its operating agreement at the Mechanic expire and focus on making the Hippodrome a success, said Chowning, who also serves as executive director of the France-Merrick center.

The Mechanic has not been an easy place to present the sort of productions Clear Channel brings to cities, Chowning said.

"Quite honestly, the economics of that theater and what we do create a very difficult marriage," he said.

"We've been operating that building for six or seven years to a large degree as a precursor to the completion of [the Hippodrome], and we haven't made any appreciable money in that building," he said. "In fact, we've lost money in some years on operating the building."

Chowning said he believes the Mechanic could work well as a "cultural arts facility" for some of the small arts organizations in the city that need a home.

"Some of the dance companies, Everyman Theater, whomever," he said. "There's enough space in that building, through the old food court and so on, to create plenty of administrative office area. They could share box office space, and have a common performing space."

To keep functioning as a performing center, he said, the building needs some improvements.

"That complex is 40 years old, and it needs some updating of the mechanical systems and so on. Someone is going to have to foot that bill, whether it's the [Mechanic] estate or whether it's a private developer or the city buys it and puts a couple of million dollars in it."

Chowning said he understands that the owner's representatives have been focusing on leasing commercial space around the base of the building, including the former food court and restaurant space that open onto Hopkins Plaza. He said he doesn't think it's in immediate danger of being torn down as long as Morris Mechanic's widow, Clarisse, is alive.

"I don't think she would agree to allow it to be torn down," he said.

Clarisse Mechanic, longtime executor of Morris Mechanic's estate and keeper of his vision, declined last week to make any immediate comments on Clear Channel's action.

"I'll have to get back to you when I know a little more," she said.

One of the challenges for the Mechanic estate is to develop a strategy for guiding operation of the entire property, not just parts of it. Its owners should be particularly careful not to fill up the commercial space at the base of the theater in a way that might later prevent reuse of the performing space above.

The Hippodrome restoration has been successful because the group that rebuilt it was able to incorporate adjacent buildings to house spaces that the original theater itself could not, including lobbies, restrooms and a large multi-purpose space.

The vacant commercial space at the base of the Mechanic could be the answer to making the theater work better, but not if it's already committed to non-theater uses.

Hugh Hardy regroups

The lead architect for the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, Hugh Hardy, has left his longtime firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates (HHPA), to start a new venture in New York City, H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, effective yesterday.

Hardy's move is part of a breakup by HHPA into three firms. The other two are Holzman MossArchitecture, based in New York, and Pfeiffer Partners, based in Los Angeles.

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