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)

As it marks the one-year anniversary of its opening, the renovated Hippodrome Theatre has been a hit in most respects, but an under-performer in some others.

During its first year, the theater generated $46.1 million in sales in Maryland, $39.6 million of which were in Baltimore City, according to preliminary figures from an economic impact study commissioned by Clear Channel Entertainment, which operates the theater, WestSide Renaissance Inc., and the Hippodrome Foundation. The figures include expenditures for catering, construction services during productions, hotel rooms, and fees to anyone providing a service on behalf of the Hippodrome, such as accountants.

Attendance at the Hippodrome, the centerpiece of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, was slightly below projections, however. Original expectations were for 85 percent capacity and 400,000 in attendance. Final figures were just under 78 percent, with attendance just over 350,000, said Marks Chowning, executive director of the Hippodrome and a vice president of Clear Channel Entertainment.

The first anniversary of the theater's reopening will be celebrated tonight with the world premiere of ShowTime at the Hippodrome, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Bill Whiteford's documentary about the history and restoration of the 1914 vaudeville palace.

Chowning attributed most of the shortfall in expected attendance to the decision by the producers of The Phantom of the Opera to trim two weeks from its scheduled eight-week run. He said those weeks could have added 36,000 theatergoers.

Phantom's early departure was especially disappointing because the show exemplified the type of large-scale production that no Baltimore theater could accommodate before the Hippodrome's renovation.

The Producers was another show that couldn't have played Baltimore before. In this case, the show ran five weeks and grossed an average of just over $900,000 per week, setting a Baltimore record, Chowning said. (That record was broken two months later by Mamma Mia!, which topped $1 million in each of its final two weeks.)

Both Phantom and The Producers looked magnificent in the ornate 2,286-seat Hippodrome. And though the first year's subscription offerings were all Broadway musicals, the theater took some risks in its non-subscription attractions, such as Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam, which played two engagements.

The Hippodrome also appears to be having a positive influence on the surrounding area. "It's brought people who haven't been downtown in years back to the area. We're seeing new residential development. We're seeing new restaurants. We're seeing leasing continue to be strong," said Sharon Grinnell, chief operating officer of the Baltimore Development Corp.

The Hippodrome is part of Baltimore's old retail district, once the setting for department stores and numerous smaller shops. The department stores started moving out in the 1970s, and the area entered a period of decline, with many storefronts vacant or leased by low-end retailers. Today, with the Hippodrome as the centerpiece for revitalization efforts, the area is on the way back, with some buildings improved or targeted for renovation. Still, many older buildings need repairs, underscoring the impression that the area has a way to go.

West side development plans announced within the past year include: new offices and shops in the 400 block of E. Baltimore St.; apartments in the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s historic west tower on Liberty Street; and an Irish pub and restaurant.

"The Hippodrome has the effect of making the area more of a neighborhood," said David Hillman, president of Southern Management Corp., owner of a 173-unit apartment project near the Hippodrome. "There's more life on the street, as they say."

"It's a banner for the reality of the west side," said Ronald Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance, a nonprofit business group. "What I'm sensing is a lot of increased confidence. That translates to decisions by people to live in the area and by small property owners to invest in improving their properties. It's having a widespread effect."

Employment figures were among the other preliminary results from the economic impact study. In the past year, the Hippodrome generated 933 jobs in the state (786 of them in Baltimore), according to the study's author, Anirban Basu, chairman and CEO of Sage Policy Group, a local economic research and consulting firm.

Basu said he was surprised by the number of people in certain companies that played the venue, including 100 (onstage and backstage) for The Producers and 90 for Phantom. "These people stay in Baltimore during these weeks and that generated considerable impact," he said, referring to such expenses as hotel rooms and meals.

Subscriptions to the Hippodrome's 2004-2005 seven-show series number 14,352, just shy of Chowning's goal of 15,000, but an increase of 2,000 over last season. The executive director said he feels confident the theater will attract 500,000 people this year.

Chowning also reported that the France-Merrick center hosted 296 events in 2004: 216 performances and 80 special events such as parties, weddings and meetings. For 2005, he expects more than 325 events, including 286 performances.

Part of the proceeds from tonight's event benefit the Hippodrome Foundation's education programs, and part is earmarked for the Baltimore City Mounted Police Unit, which Chowning praised as a beneficial security force and a "positive visual" for downtown. In recognition of this, a horse will appear on the Hippodrome stage for the first time in decades.
Hippodrome Celebration

What: Commemoration of renovated Hippodrome Theatre's one-year anniversary. World premiere of documentary, ShowTime at the Hippodrome, by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Bill Whiteford; salute to Baltimore City Mounted Police Unit; champagne and dessert reception

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St.

Tickets: $35 and $50 ($10 and $15, students and seniors) to benefit the Baltimore City Mounted Police and educational programs of the Hippodrome Foundation. Available at the box office or through Ticketmaster, 410-547-SEAT