Admission was free yesterday as Baltimore's reawakening Hippodrome opened to the public for the first time since the 1914-era stage went dark in 1990.

Early reviews of the grand theater's dramatic space were glowing.

Scores of Baltimoreans lined up to don hard hats and tour the interior - still a work in progress - eager to see the balconies and murals some remembered from childhood, or wondering about an old popcorn stand. Others were seeing the Eutaw Street structure for the first time after hearing tales about it in city lore.

Pointing up, Andrew Brown, 50, a Constellation Energy employee, said, "The balcony was my spot. I saw all the movies here. I've seen this boarded up for years, and this is really spectacular."

Claire Berger, 63, of Towson said, "When I was a little girl, I saw Snow White and Gone With the Wind here."

Thousands flocked there in its heyday. Tour guide Suzanne Boyle told visitors the Hippodrome attracted 30,000 people a week for vaudeville and movies. It was the largest theater south of Philadelphia, she said.

When its 2,250 new seats are installed next month, the Hippodrome will surpass the Mechanic as Baltimore's largest show space. On Feb. 10, the first show in the restored theater will be the Broadway hit The Producers.

Looking around the huge interior space, still saw-dusty from construction work, Baltimore police Sgt. Michael Cassizzi noted that he has tickets for the show - but not the first night, and hopes for a switch so he can attend the opening gala.

"The attention to detail, the moldings, the hand-painting, it's exciting to see," Cassizzi said.

Artisans labored to re-create the theater interior just as it was, Boyle said, partly because the state historical tax credit program helped to finance the $65 million project by awarding it $8 million.

A new feature will be a "northern lobby" in the former bank building next door, which will open into the theater.

Many of the tourists were downtown workers, but not all.

Brian Keegan, a retired National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineer from Ellicott City, said going inside was like traveling in time - back to when his grandparents took him to the Hippodrome to see a magician.

Mike Evitts, spokesman for the Downtown Partnership, which organized yesterday's tours as part of a block party, said the Hippodrome foretells "a new downtown, a new west side as an urban experience."