6:47 PM EDT, June 15, 2013
Hurry up and finish, willya?
That's becoming almost a rallying cry on the Baltimore arts and entertainment scene, as filmgoers, theater lovers, lounge lizards, even merry-go-round riders wait eagerly for new and refurbished venues to open.
Some projects appear to be on schedule, even if fans might think they're taking forever. Others have endured a delay or two — like North Baltimore's Senator Theatre, which the new owners had hoped to have reopened earlier this year — leaving fans champing at the bit.
What follows is an update on eight Baltimore-area projects where the finish line is clearly visible or has just been crossed. The list is by no means exhaustive — the Baltimore Museum of Art, for instance, will be announcing plans Tuesday for the next phase of its continuing $24 million renovation project, while the Maryland Film Festival's plans for the long-empty Parkway Theatre on North Avenue are still in the earliest of phases, with any opening at least two years off.
The Chicken Box
1 W. North Ave.
At its best, the fried chicken takeout joint at North Avenue and North Charles Street was hardly a gem in the cityscape. It was worse after the business closed a few years ago, leaving a grim vacancy. But the lights are back on, the doors back open, and the grease has given way to greasepaint. Baltimore Annex Theater has taken up residence in what has been dubbed The Chicken Box.
The new space is welcome news in the neighborhood, especially after the art-and-theater building Load of Fun a few blocks away shut down in 2012. "There's also a new music venue coming" to the area, said Ben Stone, executive director of Station North Arts & Entertainment Inc., which spearheaded the renovation of The Chicken Box.
Annex Theater gave The Chicken Box a soft opening in May with a gender-bending production of Shakespeare's "Macbeth." With only about 40 seats, things were decidedly intimate for performers and audiences alike.
"I didn't know how the company was going to pull that off, since there really is no backstage area, but they're very creative," Stone said. "North Avenue became their backstage, with the actors going outside."
The facility, which cost about $30,000 (plus lots of in-kind services) and includes office and gallery space, is "certainly a work-in-progress," Stone said. The Chicken Box will get a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony with the mayor on June 26.
The National Aquarium's Blacktip Reef exhibit
601 E. Pratt St.
A 260,000-gallon coral reef exhibit, which aquarium officials promise will make visitors feel as though they are inside an actual reef, is scheduled for a July 10 opening.
The new blacktip reef habitat, a re-creation of an Indo-Pacific reef that replaces the popular "Wings in the Water" exhibit, will include a school of sleek and fast-moving wingtip sharks. Also included in the $12.5 million exhibit will be 15 other marine species and more than 60 varieties of fish.
The tank is in place and has been filled with saltwater, said Jack Cover, the aquarium's general curator. Workers are making sure the exhibit's life-support systems are functioning properly, Cover said — think of setting up a fish tank in your home, but on a massive scale — and are adjusting the lighting.
The exhibit will offer views both above the reef and below the waterline.
"It's amazing, it really is," Cover said. "It just gives you that feeling, like you're the diver."
Inner Harbor carousel
Between the Maryland Science Center and Rash Field
A new Inner Harbor carousel, replacing the 106-year-old amusement ride that was removed by its owner in March 2012, should be in place and operating by mid-July, said Kimberly Clark, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp.
Officials had hoped to have the new merry-go-round in place and running in the spring, but delays in getting the necessary permits and some "electrical issues" have moved the opening into the summer, Clark said.
The new carousel will be operated by Charm City Carousel Entertainment under a $50,000-a-year lease agreement with the city.
The Waterfront Partnership and Greater Baltimore Committee are continuing work on a master plan that could bring other attractions to the Inner Harbor area, Clark said.
1001 Reisterstown Road
Work on bringing back the old Pikes Theatre, a Baltimore County landmark that hasn't shown movies since 1983, should begin in earnest this week, said Ira Miller, who operates Baltimore's Rotunda Theatre and will be operating the restored Pikes.
He said the theater should begin showing films in late July or early August.
The building, which dates to 1937, has housed various businesses since the movies left three decades ago; most recently, a diner operated out of the location. That business, the Pikes Diner, will continue operating out of part of the building once the theater reopens.
"I think that will really liven up downtown Pikesville," said Jessica Normington, executive director of the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce. "We're really enthusiastic about getting the Pikes back as a theater and getting people back in."
5904 York Road
Construction work at York Road's Senator Theatre, closed since April 2012, is between 80 percent and 85 percent complete, said owner James "Buzz" Cusack, who also operates the five-screen Charles Theatre.
Cusack said he is hoping to have the renovated and expanded Senator open in August.
"It better be," said Cusack, who owns the theater with his daughter, Kathleen Cusack Lyon. "We've got to get it open sometime."
While original projections had called for the 74-year-old theater to be closed for about nine months, Cusack said various factors, including recent heavy rains, have contributed to the delay. In addition, the tight space in which workers are working — the expanded theater complex will be taking up 95 percent of the space on-site — has slowed down the pace of work, Cusack said.
But considerable progress has been made, said Cusack, who purchased the theater from the city of Baltimore for $500,000 last September. The Senator's signature murals have been restored and put back up. Work on the roof is nearly done. Construction on additions to the original building is substantially complete. Work on a renovation of the theater's signature marquee, being done by Baltimore-based Belsinger Sign Works, is also nearing completion.
When finished, the Senator will include three smaller screens and a restaurant, in addition to its original theater.
512 York Road, Towson
For 17 years, the Recher Theatre was Towson's most prominent concert venue, hosting acts such as the White Stripes, Motorhead and Patti Smith.
But that ended April 1, when the club closed and began its transformation from a dingy breeding ground for rock bands to an upscale lounge serving sushi and booking electronic dance music DJs.
More than a couple of months later, co-owner Brian Recher says the building is still in the process of shedding its old skin. The theater has been gutted, he says, and plumbing has been reworked. The only rock-club relic remaining is the sound system. Now, his crew has the task of turning the empty space into an LED-lights-filled dance club.
"We've got fancy tiles, new flooring, new ceiling, new everything," Recher said. "It's going to be totally different than the Theatre, ambience-wise."
Recher plans to open the Torrent Lounge in September. He hopes the venue's new look and attitude will eventually win over the Towson residents who expressed concern over a nightclub replacing the beloved concert venue. Recher says he appreciated the scrutiny, and that his goal is to "do right by the community."
"We're redoing the roof and the marquee. New bathrooms," Recher said. "It's going to be so beautiful. We're so excited. [The Theatre] was just beat to hell, man. It's time to fix her up and make her beautiful again."
Edgar Allan Poe House & Museum
203 N. Amity St.
Closed for nearly a year, West Baltimore's Edgar Allan Poe House & Museum is on track for an October reopening, under the auspices of the nonprofit Poe Baltimore group. While the house itself and its interior will remain essentially unchanged — it's a small space, and no one wants to change it fundamentally from what it was like when Poe lived there for a few years in the 1830s — officials promise some tweaks that will make for a more visitor-friendly experience. The emphasis will be on telling the story of Poe in Baltimore, and of the house in particular, through a well-marked walking tour and other interpretive exhibits.
Workers are finishing some rehab work inside, including plastering and carpeting, said Poe Baltimore board member Mark Redfield. In addition, he said, the group is in the final stages of obtaining approval of its nonprofit status, and it has begun looking for corporate donors to help put the project on firm financial footing — an essential consideration, as the house originally closed after Baltimore City decided that it could no longer afford the annual $85,000 cost of running it. Last fall, the city approved a $180,000 payment to the nearby B&O Railroad Museum to consult in the house's transition from city-subsidized museum to profit-making tourist attraction.
"We're almost there," said Redfield, a Baltimore-based actor who will be staging a radio theater production of three Poe stories on June 28 at Westminster Hall (just yards from Poe's grave) as a fundraiser. "People just need to bear down now, for the 'roll-up-your-sleeves' part of it."
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company
200 E. Redwood St.
For a decade, this enterprising organization has presented works by the Bard outdoors amid the cool hilltop ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City. If all goes according to schedule, the company will also have a snazzy new indoor venue in downtown Baltimore by the end of 2014.
The 1885 Mercantile Trust and Deposit Company, which has been used as a restaurant and nightclub space in recent years, is being converted to a facility with a 250-seat performance space inspired by the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare's day. The $6.5 million project, designed by Cho Benn Holback and Associates (fresh from creating the new Everyman Theatre), will also house administrative offices and educational rooms. The official groundbreaking will take place July 9.
"This is a pretty exciting moment for us," said founding artistic director Ian Gallanar. "We have a little under $2 million left to raise, and we feel confident about raising it. We will be performing five shows in the theater during the first year. If we can get people coming down there comfortably and happily, it will help other redevelopment projects in that area. That particular block or two needs to get more attention. "
With the arrival of Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, downtown will have three large-scale theater companies. Center Stage and Everyman Theatre "have been enormously generous to us," Gallanar said. "Each of the companies has a distinct point of view and a distinct character. In terms of audiences and opportunities for artists, it's going to beef up the theater community."
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