Carpenters install railings

Carpenters Terry Schappell (left) and Eddie Piunti install railings in a balcony of the Hippodrome Theater. The theater opens Feb. 10, when "The Producers" begins a five-week run. (Sun photo by Amy Davis / January 10, 2004)

They have spent $62 million of public and private money to transform the Hippodrome Theater from a decrepit hulk on downtown Baltimore's west side into the region's sparkling showcase for Broadway shows.

But a month before actors take the stage for opening night of The Producers, those guiding the theater's revival say the public does not seem to realize what a big change has taken place on North Eutaw Street.

"I think it's still a well-kept secret in Baltimore," said Mark Sissman, president and chief executive of the Hippodrome Foundation Inc. "I was just with a bank manager, and she was shocked it was getting redone."

That bank manager would be even more shocked if she stepped inside the theater.

With the Feb. 10 premiere closing in, a hundred or so workers moved about the theater and three connected buildings last week. Specialists hooked up speakers, installed railings in loge boxes and laid maple planks for the stage.

But the dominant impression was of a space transformed since construction began in April 2002. Back then, paint was peeling, seats were grungy and chunks of ceiling had disappeared in a building that opened in 1914 as a vaudeville house.

What could be saved has been splendidly restored, the rest painstakingly reproduced. The 2,286-seat theater is bathed in gold, brown and beige, with dizzying detail provided by painters, plasterers and other experts who have made it hard for the inexpert eye to tell new from old.

"I think we're going to be in really good shape," said Richard Slosson, executive director of the quasi-public Maryland Stadium Authority, which owns the property and is overseeing the project.

The theater is a public-private venture that skeptics said would never happen. Nearly $34 million of the cost has come from the state through bonds and grants. Other sources include Baltimore, Baltimore County, Clear Channel, foundations, individuals and Bank of America, which spent $9.5 million to obtain tax credits.

The result, beyond the theater and new stage area, is the restoration of two stately 19th-century bank buildings to the north and to the south a new building with a lobby and box offices, named the Constellation Energy Pavilion when the energy company donated $1 million. These spaces will have restrooms, bars and a cafe, and are linked to a parking garage.

Collectively, the block of buildings is the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, named after the foundation that has pledged $5 million. Late this week, that name will go on the facade, along with a reproduction of the vertical Hippodrome marquee that stretches more than 30 feet tall. The original graced the theater during its turns as vaudeville house, movie palace and, after 1990, vacant building.

"To me, this is one of the largest and most exciting preservation projects in the state," said Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland.

Yet despite steady news coverage about the project, Sissman said, many people do not grasp the change. "People don't read carefully," he said. The foundation has marketed to subscribers at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, a 1,607-seat venue, likely to live on as some kind of performing-arts venue.

Plenty of seats, which start at $35 for the upper balcony, remain available for The Producers. The five-week run of -- a long run for Baltimore -- is half-sold, said Marks Chowning of Clear Channel Entertainment. Clear Channel invested $8 million in return for rights to run the Hippodrome for 20 years.

Also coming this year are Mama Mia!, Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera.

On Eutaw Street, the primary focus is readying the theater, owned by a corporation made up of the Hippodrome Foundation, stadium authority and Bank of America. Slosson said crews are mostly down to minor "punch list" changes. Some parts are still on the way, including the backs for seats in some rows of the balcony.

The $62 million cost is in line with projections, Slosson said, and includes about $6 million set aside for unexpected problems. The largest surprise came after engineers realized the concrete balcony lacked sufficient steel reinforcements. That fix cost $750,000.

Some of the cost is because of the attention paid to detail. Hayles & Howe, a Baltimore firm that has won an award from Queen Elizabeth II for work at Buckingham Palace, did ornamental plaster work that Slosson said cost $1.2 million.

Ilex, a custom woodworker in Baltimore, made, among other things, reproduction doors and glass transoms adorning the theater's Eutaw Street entrance.

In 2002, the stadium authority switched architects. Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, a prominent New York firm, received $4 million to design the theater. Local firm Schamu Machowski Greco was paid $2 million to ensure those plans were implemented, Slosson said. Otherwise, he said, the stadium authority would have faced "exorbitant" travel costs for the New York architects.

But Hugh Hardy, head of the Hardy firm, has made many day trips to the theater, at a cost to the stadium authority of a couple thousand dollars per trip. Slosson said the visits paid off. Recently, Hardy said columns in one lobby area would look better in dark green. They were repainted.

The goal now is to get through the next month without too many changes.

Eric Grubman, chairman of the Hippodrome Foundation, said that when he took the post 18 months ago, friends told him that the project might never be completed. With opening night so close, he said, "you can smell the finish line."