Opening night at Hippodrome

Baltimore's newest jewels, the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center and the Hippodrome Theatre, opened to the public last night with red carpet, fanfare and the Broadway show The Producers. The restored theater is an important part of the rebirth of Baltimore's west side. (Sun photo by Algerina Perna / February 10, 2004)

Hipp hipp hipp hooray.

With spotlights, orchids, champagne and more than a little nostagia, Baltimore last night celebrated the rebirth of its beloved 1914 vaudeville palace, the Hippodrome Theatre.

A well-heeled crowd of more than 2,200 plunked down from $250 to $550 apiece to attend the gala opening of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center (which includes the Hippodrome) followed by a performance of The Producers. For many, the celebration was a welcome reminder of the days when Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton and the Three Stooges trod the Hippodrome's stage.

Among the attendees were Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Mayor Martin O'Malley and former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. For Sargent Shriver, former U.S. Ambassador to France, the sight of the old but gleaming sign spelling out in vertical letters: H-I-P-P-O-D-R-O-M-E brought back fond memories. "It looks exactly as it did in its heyday," he said.

During a brief presentation before the show began, Ehrlich mentioned that his parents, who were in the audience, came often in the 1940s to the Hippodrome to listen to Glenn Miller and his band and the comedy team of Abbott and Costello.

"This is a terrific night for the state of Maryland and for the city of Baltimore," Ehrlich said. "West side redevelopment lives."

O'Malley likened the spirit that drove city business leaders to undertake the $62 million, 13-year renovation in a blighted neighborhood to the spirit that helped rebuild Baltimore after the Great Fire of 1904. "Tonight is not so much a celebration of the storied past of the city as it is a celebration of the potential that still lives in Baltimore."

For theater insiders, a particularly poignant moment came when Eric Grubman, chairman of the Hippodrome Foundation, pointed to a seat in the balcony that was empty save for a large vase of flowers. The chair, he said, was left vacant in honor of Hope Quackenbush, the guiding force behind bringing Broadway theater to Baltimore for nearly two decades. Quackenbush died in December.

At the gala, guests munched on shrimp as big as their palms, onion tarts, tequila lime capon breasts, Asian salmon and miniature French pastries. If you didn't know better, it was almost possible to think you were in New York. Starting with the pre-gala traffic jam. (Top speed on Eutaw Street? Four mph.)

Although the France-Merrick is huge, the performing arts venue was so full that meeting anyone with whom you hadn't arrived was virtually impossible without the aid of a cell phone. The color of the evening wear was black. Black gowns, tuxedos, lipstick-sized purses, shawls, pearls, furs. At moments, standing in the theater's jam-packed lobby was like standing in a dense forest, livened only infrequently by a passing dragonfly in iridescent blue, or a shock of bird-of-paradise orange.

Some attendees remembered coming to the Hippdorome as children. "I'd come to see Frank Sinatra and Count Basie. I just loved it," said Calman J. "Buddy" Zamoiski Jr., former board chairman of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. "I would always play hooky from school. Everyone did."

Even those who once performed at the Hippodrome have fond memories of the old theater, said Baltimore developer Lou Grasmick. About six years ago, Red Skelton paid a visit to Grasmick's home. The two men began swapping tales about the Hippodrome and Skelton asked to visit the theater once again.

They drove to Eutaw Street and turned down an alley. "I remember exactly where the old stage door was," Skelton told Grasmick. "I used to stand outside there signing autographs."

Outside the newly renovated theater last night, if you squinted into the street lights, it seemed almost possible to glimpse the performer once again.