Hippo's opening another night to remember

Jacques Kelly

AS MY CAB turned south on Eutaw Street on Tuesday night, I asked the driver, "Where are the moving lights?"

I figured there would be intense beams arcing the winter sky, the way there were in 1967, on the January night when the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre opened.

I was then a high school student, and a new playhouse for Baltimore was a very big deal to me. I was so thrilled that I escaped from my Latin homework long enough to survey Baltimore Street and the magic of the fur coats and tuxedos. Maryland's celebrities were out in full force: Gov. J. Millard Tawes and his wife Helen Avalynne Tawes, a renowned cookbook author; Gov.-elect Spiro T. Agnew and his wife, Judy; then-Mayor (and former Gov.) Theodore R. McKeldin; and a real big deal, the legendary New York producer David Merrick, who put on Hello, Dolly!, the Mechanic opener.

And, in the middle of it all was my late mother's faithful and devoted friend, Clarisse Mechanic, widow of Morris, who became Baltimore's chief theatrical presenter after buying the old Ford's Theatre on Fayette Street in 1942. The Mechanics hold the city record of an amazing 62-year run as Baltimore's principal theatrical landlords.

Back in 1967, the old Hippodrome was still a first-run movie house. This week, as the cab swung around by the old Congress Hotel, the Hippodrome's magnificent vertical sign came into view again on its opening night. I thought of how many times I'd been to openers in Baltimore - at 1st Mariner Arena, a new Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, and a renovated Lyric Opera House.

This week, the dazzling Hippodrome looked like all of the $60-some million pumped into it by the state, charitable foundations and Clear Channel.

It's hard to define the unmistakable power a theater holds. We unveil new office buildings, schools and hospitals all the time, but this is not the same thing. Repeated visits to a theater have a way of digging deep in your memory. Many times do I recall visiting the Mechanic in its inaugural season to see Man of La Mancha and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever starring Howard Keel.

But I also recall the peril of theater economics and of how a youthful Mechanic Theatre went dark for an agonizing spell in the mid-1970s, when its New York-based producers couldn't supply enough appealing plays and musicals for Baltimore and then lost money.

Truth be told, Baltimore is one tough town in which to sell a theater ticket. I can see why the Clear Channel people want to market the Hippodrome deep into the Washington suburbs, just as the Orioles ticket sellers do.

I hope all the people who have a pleasant memory of the old Hippodrome show up at its box office. As I exited The Producers on Tuesday night, and walked over Baltimore Street to catch a bus on Charles, I thought, all we need here are a few more people on the street.
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