The Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, a key venue in the blossoming Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District, is getting a new president with a history of sparking the redevelopment of an arts community.
Ron Legler, president of the Florida Theatrical Association in Orlando and a former chairman of the Downtown Arts District in that city, will succeed Jeff Daniel as Hippodrome president. He is scheduled to start in early May.
"I'm very much a community person, as interested in community arts — music, dance, everything — as in Broadway tours," Legler, 46, said. "That's who I am. I see so many opportunities in Baltimore. The energy there is great."
The Hippodrome is the Baltimore venue for Broadway Across America, a prominent producer and presenter of theater events in 40 markets throughout the United States and Canada. It specializes in touring productions of such hits as "War Horse," which played earlier this month, and "The Book of Mormon," opening next week. A separate nonprofit Hippodrome Foundation, involved in cultural and educational activities, is also part of the center.
"I've known Ron for 20 years, even before he started in Orlando," said Daniel, who is relocating to New York to serve as executive vice president for business operations of Broadway Across America. "He's very creative and he's a master at developing relationships in the community. I think people are going to love Ron."
Since its reopening in 2004, the Hippodrome has been at the vanguard of west-side redevelopment, which remains a work in progress.
The area just south of Lexington Market has drawn some new businesses over the years. Alewife Restaurant, for example, is a popular pre-theater dinner spot across the street from the Hippodrome's main entrance, and there's now a Panera Bread nearby. The biggest arrival, in late 2012, was Everyman Theatre, one of the city's two professional companies, which relocated from Station North to a venue around the corner from the Hippodrome.
But the city severed ties last year with the developer of the long-delayed Superblock project, and the neighborhood has had its share of headline-generating crime.
Still, Ron Kreitner, the executive director of WestSide Renaissance, called the Hippodrome "a great asset" to the city's arts scene. "Its coming provided the spark to a number of projects around there," he said. "The Everyman Theatre really underscored that."
Kreitner, who has headed WestSide Renaissance since 2000, said he was glad to learn that Legler had earned accolades from Orlando's arts community.
"It's encouraging to have someone from the arts community coming in," he said, adding that he looks forward to continued "synergy" with the city's evolving west side.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake plans to meet with Legler soon, her deputy chief for economic and neighborhood development said.
Kaliope Parthemos noted that Daniel had been key in creating the city's third arts district, which centered on the Hippodrome, in 2012.
"He understood how much the mayor valued arts and the contributions of art and culture to Baltimore City," Parthemos said. "And he shared that interest."
She said Daniel helped facilitate regular communication between the city and the arts community and helped ease the concerns of those in the city's other art districts — Station North and Highlandtown —who worried that a third would compete with their interests.
"He made sure that all three districts were communicating — and are communicating — with each other," she said. "He understood that each individual district complemented one another and shouldn't be in competition with one another."
The Pennsylvania-born Legler joined the nonprofit Florida Theatrical Association, which presents touring Broadway productions and also distributes arts scholarships and grants across the state, in 2001. He was appointed president four years later. During his tenure, the number of subscribers to the Broadway series nearly doubled.
Legler served as chairman of the Downtown Arts District and was a vice chairman of the Orlando Fringe Festival. He was also a board member of See Art Orlando, a public arts project. In December, he volunteered as interim executive director of Orlando Ballet.
Along the way, he also opened the Abbey, a 250-seat venue in Orlando.
"We opened it in the middle of the recession," Legler said, "when arts groups were losing their spaces. I wanted them to have a place of their own downtown where they do performances and fundraisers. We built it as a fun, community place. It's a big cabaret room."
"We've raised over $3 million for different groups there," he said. "Some of the biggest fundraising that happens in this community happens there. I'm super proud of that."
Also reflective of Legler's entrepreneurial side, he was involved in the opening of the Mezz, a large space for weddings and other functions, and he is part owner of the nightclub Pulse in the Orlando area.
Barbara Hartley, executive director of Orlando's Downtown Arts District, called Legler "an amazing champion for the arts" who "collaborated with so many other organizations. His love of helping to grow the arts — all the arts — makes this a huge loss," she said of Legler's departure.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer also weighed in on Legler's move.
"I am excited for Ron as this is a great professional opportunity for him," Dyer said in a statement. "But Ron's advocacy for the arts in Orlando will certainly be missed."
Legler said that he was impressed with the development of the Bromo Tower district.
"Walking in a 10- or 12-block area, you can really see the revitalization effort," he said. "All of that makes me so excited about coming to the Hippodrome. And that beautiful bank building that became [a pavilion] at the Hippodrome is a place where I see a huge potential. I am hoping I can find a way to get it more utilized. I think it would be great for jazz and dance."
As for the main performance space at the Hippodrome, which opened a decade ago after a major renovation project, Legler found much to savor as well.
"Just being in that incredible theater made me so excited about coming to Baltimore," he said. "It is so perfect. I can't wait to see a show there."
Reporter Matthew J. Palm of the Orlando Sentinel and Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.
Born: 1967 in Erie, Pa.
Education: Bachelor's degree, Thiel College in Greenville, Pa.
Theater career: After a brief stint in mortgage banking software, Legler worked in the subscription department of the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach and the ticket office of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and booked national touring productions.
Nightlife career: Opened Pulse nightclub in 2004. Opened the Abbey and the Mezz, a nightspot complex, in 2010.
Current: President/CEO of Florida Theatrical Association, where he has worked since 2001.
Awards: Orlando Business Journal's Most Influential (Non-Profit) Businessman, 2011. Downtown Orlando Partnership's Downtowner of the Year, 2012.
Source: Orlando SentinelCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun