Hippodrome's first act looks good


Restored theater will likely meet or surpass the goal set for its inaugural year

August 09, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Six months after its grand opening, Baltimore's $63 France-Merrick Performing Arts Center appears to be on target to meet or exceed its goal of drawing 400,000 people to Baltimore's west side during its first year of operation.

From opening night of Feb. 10 to the end of the Riverdance run on June 13, more than 200,000 people bought tickets to attend a performance at the restored 1914 Hippodrome Theatre, the center's chief performance space with 2,286 seats.

Another 5,000 to 6,000 people went to a non-ticketed event in the adjacent multipurpose space known as the M & T Bank Pavilion, said Marks Chowning, executive director of the arts center and vice president of Clear Channel Entertainment's theater-management division, which operates the center.

Official ticket sales figures are compiled by the Maryland Stadium Authority, which oversaw construction and adds a $2 surcharge to every ticket sold at the Hippodrome to pay off the construction bonds.

Through June 14, the state collected $401,914 in surcharge fees, representing 200,957 tickets sold, said stadium authority fiscal director David Raith.

"It's been a good experience," Chowning said. "We're a little ahead of where we thought we would be right now, and the fall is going to be as busy as the spring. So we should hit that 400,000 figure easily and likely exceed it."

Most of the attendance has been for the three Broadway-style productions presented at the Hippodrome: The Producers (Feb. 10 to March 14), Les Miserables (April 13-25) and Mamma Mia! (May 11-30).

Other productions have included magician David Copperfield, the Irish Tenors, Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam and a sold-out children's show, Dora the Explorer Live! There has even been an East Indian wedding.

In all, the center had 124 shows or events on 101 different dates during the first six months, and the main productions all have been well attended, Chowning said.

"Shows have been doing 85 percent business pretty much on average," he said. "Mamma Mia! did a little more. The Producers was 82 percent. Les Miserables was 85 or 86. We've had some sell-out events. ... Everything's doing business, and that's exciting."

The France-Merrick Center at 12 N. Eutaw St. is a successor to the 1,614-seat Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, which opened in 1967 and lacks the seating capacity and backstage facilities needed to accommodate today's largest touring productions.

The France-Merrick Center was created as a joint venture of the nonprofit Hippodrome Foundation, formerly known as the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts; the Stadium Authority and Clear Channel.

The center's 2004-2005 subscription season begins Wednesday with preview performances of The Phantom of the Opera; its eight-week run officially starts Friday.

As of last week, Chowning said, Clear Channel had 13,300 subscribers for the 2004-2005 season. That's nearly 1,000 more than its 12,358 subscribers for the 2003-2004 season, which presented four Broadway shows at the Mechanic and three at the Hippodrome.

It's nearly 10,000 more than Clear Channel had for the 2002-2003 season, when all the shows were at the Mechanic and there were 3,731 subscribers.

In its heyday, the Mechanic had 22,000 subscribers, giving it the largest subscription of any theater in the country.

Chowning said he hopes to add another 1,000 subscribers for the full seven-show package this season, bringing the total to about 14,500. "If we hit 15,000, I think everybody is going to jump up and down for joy."

Information provided by subscribers indicates the Hippodrome is drawing people from a wider area than the Mechanic did, Chowning said.

"The biggest thing we see is a broader reach than we've had in the past," he said. "About a third of our subscription base is coming from areas that would traditionally have been considered Washington suburbs - southern Anne Arundel, southern Howard, Prince George's County, the northern part of the District, and we have subscribers actually in Northern Virginia, as well. We're encouraged that people who may have considered themselves Washingtonians from an entertainment and theater standpoint are [coming] to Baltimore."

Clear Channel is marketing its shows more aggressively to a broader area as well, he said. "We're penetrating farther into the Eastern Shore. Getting up into southern Pennsylvania. Doing things more consistently with radio stations and print outlets in Frederick. We're also cultivating the D.C. media in a way that we really haven't before.

"Washington and Washingtonians - I don't know if they look down on Baltimoreans, but they kind of think of us as the redheaded stepchild or whatever, and I think we're seeing that shift a little bit. We've got a physical asset in this building that is changing that tide."

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