Upbeat report card for Hippodrome's 10th anniversary

Current, future presidents of downtown theater sound hopeful notes

March 07, 2014|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Ten years after the Hippodrome reopened its doors, revealing an extraordinary makeover to a long-neglected, century-old Baltimore landmark, the theater appears to be humming along nicely.

That has been especially true during the past couple of weeks, with people crammed into the place for "The Book of Mormon," the multi-award winning, one-show-offends-all musical that is part of the 2013-2014 Broadway Across America series at the Hippodrome.

"There is no hole in the boat here," said Jeff Daniel, outgoing president of the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.

Not long ago, it looked as if the 2,200-seat Hippodrome had sprung several leaks.

There was a steady decline in attendance after the peak during the inaugural season, when about 400,000 people came through the doors, and there were over 14,000 subscribers. Seven years later, those figures were 184,000 and 8,200, respectively.

On top of that, a complex deal involving capital costs saddled the Hippodrome with about $1 million in annual utility bills.

The numbers look much better today.

Daniel, who, after five years here, is relocating to New York this summer to be executive vice president for business operations of Broadway Across America, said that average attendance over the Hippodrome's first decade is 250,000.

Daniel had expected a significant bump in subscribers this season because of "Mormon," because subscribers would get first crack at tickets to this hit show. The bump didn't happen.

But single tickets are been strong all season. "Our numbers will change due to the cyclical nature of the business," Daniel, 43, said. "Just one mega-musical can cause a 30,000 to 40,000 swing in attendance."

The total number of subscribers remains has moved up since the low point a few years ago.

"Our very comfortable average of 9,000 to 9,500 subscribers may not be the highest number in the country, but we have had the highest or second highest renewal rate in [Broadway Across America's] 40 markets," Daniel said.

That renewal rate is about 80 percent.

The utility bill situation has improved. A new arrangement worked out with the Maryland Stadium Authority has nearly halved the annual expense.

"The Broadway theater where 'Spider Man' was playing, with all of that stage equipment, had a bill $400,000 less than ours," Daniel said. "Now we are more like that theater, paying between $500,000 and $550,000 a year. This has given us more room to breathe."

Getting the bill even lower would relieve considerable pressure on the Hippodrome, but Daniel said the present situation is manageable.

"In a city with the needs we have, I'm reluctant to ask for more money," he said. "Maybe a large sponsor comes in one day and takes care of it. Just cutting that bill in half would make us more like a typical theater."

Daniel added that the Hippodrome is not running a deficit and is meeting its annual commitment to the state of $1.7 million in net revenue, partly raised by a $2 bond fee for every ticket. If a drop in attendance causes a shortfall, the Broadway Across America pays the state the difference.

Speaking of the state, Daniel said that studies show that the Hippodrome's annual impact on Maryland is $28 million, with $10 million to $12 million of that Baltimore's share.

"I am very confident about where the Hippodrome is at this point," said Ron Legler, president of the Florida Theatrical Association in Orlando, who will succeed Daniel as Hippodrome president in May. "Coming up on the theater's 100th anniversary [November 23], we want to keep that momentum going."

The incoming president has been encouraged by some of the statistics he has learned.

"Jeff has been sharing data with me that shows 90 percent of the audience is from Baltimore," Legler, 46, said. "Most people see no reason to go to other theaters to see productions that will play the Hippodrome."

Legler is used to a Broadway series like the Hippodrome; the one in Orlando also has about 9,000 subscribers and an 80 percent renewal rate.

"It's a very loyal base," Legler, 46, said. "But, obviously, growing that number is always a concern."

That's a concern he was for Baltimore, too. But Legler won't be focusing solely on boosting subscriptions.

"I also want to reach out to people who are not typical ticket buyers, or have never been exposed to theater," he said. "Getting people to the Hippodrome more and more often, and getting them to return, is the key; that's what keeps an arts center successful."

Fluctuations in attendance, which have a great deal to do with the shows being presented each season, do not seem to worry Legler.

"Empty seats can be an opportunity to find partnerships in the city," he said. "It could be girls and boys clubs, to help build young audiences and maybe turn them into ticket holders in the future. It's about accessibility to the community. My job has to be serving the community and its needs."

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