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Baltimore: a theater town once more [Commentary]

Baltimore theater fans are hard-pressed as of late to find a reason to leave the city with so much available right at home: superb local theater companies and community theaters and the renovated Hippodrome. It's a welcome revival of an industry the city was once known for.

In its heyday in the 1930s, Baltimore was a theater and music town where the legendary Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and countless other stars got their start or visited on their way to stardom. Holiday was from Baltimore, while Sinatra played a famous show at the Hippodrome, in its older incarnation, on his way to massive fame.

Then the 1960s arrived, and a steady decline began, leading to the closing of several local theaters: the Parkway, the Mayfair, the Town, and the conversion of the Hippodrome into a movie theater which would later itself close. For the next several decades, through the 1980s, Baltimore theater languished, despite the emergence of local stars including Howard Rollins and John Glover, who studied theater at Towson University, and Kathleen Turner, who studied at UMBC.

Still, some dedicated smaller operations persevered, the Fells Point Corner Theatre, Vagabond Theatre and Audrey Herman's Spotlighters Theatre among them. Everyman Theatre's Vince Lancisi converted a bowling alley in Station North into one of the finest local companies around, while Center Stage continued to offer powerful shows and cast some of New York's finest — like future Tony-winner Jefferson Mays — in its Baltimore productions. Amid these efforts, the tide began to turn.

Since 2000, Baltimore has seen the rise of local troupes the Single Carrot Theatre ensemble and The Strand Theater Company, the move of Everyman to its new home in the renovated Town Theatre, and the restoration of the Hippodrome into its former glory as a go-to stop for major Broadway touring productions like "Billy Elliott." In just months, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company will set up in a former bank on Calvert Street in downtown Baltimore to perform works by the Bard.

Some local actors have become, like their predecessors, local stars. Bruce Nelson, who went from performing in community theater to becoming well-known as an Everyman company member, is now a regular draw at Center Stage, which otherwise rarely casts locally for major roles.

Then there is community theater. Mr. Lancisi once said, tongue-in-cheek, that community theater featuring mostly non-professional actors is theater "of the people" whereas professional theater featuring union actors is theater "for the people." In the past, he may have had a point with some productions drawing uneven casts with poor rehearsal attendance and commitment to the work, leading to unsurprisingly disappointing shows. But recently, especially as seen at Vagabond Theatre, and as noted by The Sun's Tim Smith, some community theater productions are giving Baltimore theater a good name.

As an actor myself, I take little personal credit for the success of shows I have been in, which are always collaborative efforts and rely so much on hard work of a lot of great people from fellow actors to the director to production staff. Yet, in the two shows where I have recently performed at Vagabond, "Frost/Nixon" and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," the expectations laid upon the cast were high from the very beginning.

It was humbling that the reviews for each play were very strong, but joined by Vagabond's current show, "The Foreigner," it is clear that the bar has been raised. In addition, "Hyde" broke all recent attendance records for a play at Vagabond to became one of the most financially-successful shows the theater has ever had, proving that theatergoers don't just attend professional theater for quality programming.

Still, more can be done to make theater stronger. There's a significant lack of corporate support for community theater, even from major arts organizations, which is extremely disappointing, given that these theaters, more than anyone, need the help. Corporations and trusts have money to give, and they either aren't being adequately approached or aren't investing the funds. That needs to change.

Baltimore also sorely needs to create corporate or municipally-funded programs to expand on the big things happening such as an incubator program that funds local theater companies by encouraging development of new works that could be taken to Broadway or Off-Broadway. Such an incubator could truly put Baltimore on the national map. Along this line, establishing a new grant program to help actors grow locally and explode nationally can only help the city and its arts renaissance.

But with all the growth in theater, plus the critical acclaim and popular success of TV shows "Veep" and "House of Cards," in which I had a small part, Baltimore is well on its way to becoming a theater-arts destination once again.

Thomas Maronick Jr., a Baltimore lawyer, actor and radio host of "The Tom Moore Show" on AM 680 WCBM. His email is tommooreradio@yahoo.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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