At Hippodrome's 10th anniversary, a report card

Current, future presidents of downtown theater discuss challenges, goals

  • Jeff Daniel, outgoing president of the Hippodrome at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, is pictured at the Hippodrome.
Jeff Daniel, outgoing president of the Hippodrome at the France-Merrick… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
March 21, 2014|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Ten years after the Hippodrome reopened its doors, revealing a vibrant makeover to a long-neglected, century-old Baltimore landmark, the theater appears to have settled into a manageable groove.

That was especially true a few weeks ago, when people crammed into the place for "The Book of Mormon," the multi-award-winning musical that was part of the 2013-2014 Broadway Across America series at the Hippodrome. That booking broke the house record, grossing $1,675,748.25 for the week ending March 9.

"There is no hole in the boat here," said Jeff Daniel, departing 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. For the 2008-2009 season, those figures were about 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 have improved. Total attendance last season was 211,090.

"Our numbers will change due to the cyclical nature of the business," said Daniel, 43. "Just one mega-musical can cause a 30,000 to 40,000 swing in attendance."

A significant bump in Hippodrome subscribers was expected this season because of "The Book of Mormon"; subscribers got first crack at tickets to this hit show. The bump didn't happen, Daniel said, but the total number of subscribers rose to 9,073.

Because "Mormon" played only two weeks — some hit shows stay for four, such as "Wicked," which will be back for another month next season — bottom-line figures were not boosted as much as they might have been. Total attendance for the 2013-2014 season, which still has three more Broadway shows and other events left on the schedule, is projected to be 186,565.

The total number of subscribers "may not be the highest number in the country," Daniel said, "but we have had the highest or second-highest renewal rate in [Broadway Across America's] 40 markets."

That renewal rate is about 80 percent.

As for the utility bill situation, a new arrangement worked out with the Maryland Stadium Authority, which owns the Hippodrome, 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 livable.

"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. The Hippodrome guarantees the Maryland Stadium Authority paid attendance of 220,000 per calendar year. If the number falls short, as it did last season, Broadway Across America pays the difference to the state, Daniel said.

Speaking of the state, the economic and fiscal impact analysis prepared by Crossroads Consulting Services for the Maryland Stadium Authority shows that event activity at the Hippodrome generated an estimated $28.5 million in total spending in Maryland during fiscal year 2012, with the bulk of that spending in Baltimore.

Daniel is relocating to New York after five years here to become executive vice president for business operations of Broadway Across America.

His duties there will include new business development, government affairs, labor relations and overseeing the Hippodrome and theaters in Boston and Minneapolis operated by the Broadway Across America, a division of Key Brand Entertainment, which develops and produces Broadway shows.

"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 [Nov. 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."

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