Visionaries bask in Hippodrome glow

First of two parts

The curtain goes up Tuesday night at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center in downtown Baltimore.

While the 2,286 guests on hand for the opening night gala premiere of the mega-Tony Award-winning musical The Producers will marvel at the meticulous $63 million restoration, the occasion will be marked differently by a small group of patrons inside the theater.

"There are eight or nine people who understand, from the beginning to end, what went into this," said Donald P. Hutchinson, president and chief executive of the Maryland division of SunTrust Banks Inc. "And in the end, all of us will be satisfied because we'll all look at one another Tuesday night, and we'll nod our heads at each other. That will be a quiet acknowledgment that we know what we did."

These business and civic leaders formed the core group that started the Hippodrome's march to opening night nearly 15 years ago. They worked tirelessly to bridge the varied - if not competing - interests of Maryland's corporate, philanthropic and private sectors to bring forth the Hippodrome Theatre.

They remained steadfast in their efforts, developing the strategies necessary to overcome skepticism and to sell their vision of transforming the dilapidated show palace at 12 N. Eutaw St. into what has become the center of a $700 million effort to revitalize the west side of downtown. For many years, the campaign was led by the Greater Baltimore Committee.

"I was one of those silly people who never thought we wouldn't make it," said Nancy Roberts, a board member of Hippodrome Foundation Inc., the nonprofit group that oversees the theater. She successfully lobbied the France-Merrick Foundation to make the project's largest private contribution, $5 million. Roberts came to the effort eight years ago.

"I'm sure I didn't know exactly how we were going to make it, but I believed it could be a fabulous, fabulous contribution to the cultural scene in Baltimore."

Besides Roberts and Hutchinson, other believers included former Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening; David Anderson of Clear Channel Communications Inc.; Frank P. Bramble of MBNA Corp.; James M. Dale of the Hippodrome Foundation; former Maryland State Sen. Barbara Hoffman; Bruce H. Hoffman, former executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority; former GBC vice president Diane Hutchins; Walter D. Pinkard Jr. of the Colliers Pinkard real estate firm; John Morton III of Bank of America Inc.; University of Maryland-Baltimore President Dr. David J. Ramsay and longtime civic activist Walter Sondheim Jr.

And there are other nonprofit organizations: the Abell Foundation, which commissioned a 1991 study calling for a new venue in Baltimore, and the Homer and Martha Gudelsky Family Foundation in Silver Spring, a major donor to the project.

There are the unsung heroes: Danny Mendelson of the Hippodrome Foundation and J. Michael Riley, who worked under Bramble at Allfirst Bank Inc. and now is senior vice president at M&T Bank Corp. They worked quietly to restore financial and operational stability to the Hippodrome Foundation's predecessor, the quasi-public Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts Inc. (BCPA).

There are two supporters who died last year, Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, who championed the Hippodrome project in the Maryland General Assembly, and Hope Quackenbush, whose quest for a larger place to house Broadway shows in the city began in the early 1990s after serving as longtime director of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre. She died in December.

There are, of course, a host of other names: Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer; former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke; Rick Berndt of the Gallagher, Evelius & Jones law firm; Anthony W. Deering of Rouse Co.; David Hillman of Southern Management Co.; Ronald Kreitner of WestSide Renaissance Inc., which is overseeing the redevelopment in the area; Roger C. Lipitz of Meridian Heathcare Inc.; and developer and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

"In this town, today, there are 30 people - maybe 50 people - who understand everything it took to get this theater built," said Hutchinson, who came to the effort as president of the GBC in 1992. "It shows that a handful of people can make a tremendous difference in the community. But the community has to be willing to go along for the ride."

Legendary venue

Opened in 1914 as a vaudeville theater and movie house, the Hippodrome Theatre was designed by Scottish architect Thomas Lamb, who specialized in guilded entertainment palaces, and built by Pearce and Scheck, a firm that organized touring vaudeville acts.

The Hippodrome played host to a broad array of performers - Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, Benny Goodman, Dinah Shore, Jerry Lewis - even actor Ronald Reagan. In 1939, Frank Sinatra made his debut as a big band singer with the Harry James Orchestra.

"We worked out of New York, but we first played here in 1930 with the Bert Smith Revue," said William Baron, half of the tap-dancing Baron Twins, who played the Hippodrome as 8-year-olds.

Now 81, Baron and his brother, Wilbur, spent most of their lives in Baltimore. The brothers also played Broadway in the musical "Best Foot Forward" in 1940. "Then we got drafted," Wilbur Barron said.

The theater later featured such films as "Shane" with Alan Ladd and Gregory Peck's "Pork Chop Hill" in 1959; "Where the Boys Are" featuring Connie Francis in 1961; and "Girls Girls Girls" with Elvis Presley in 1962.

The Hippodrome hosted the regional debut of "Cleopatra" with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1963 and the Baltimore premiere of "My Fair Lady" in 1964.

By the 1970s, people began leaving the city and flocking to suburban movie complexes. The city's once bustling downtown retail core had declined as such businesses as Read's drugstore and Hecht's department store closed. That left the Hippodrome to showing "blaxploitation" films, including "Uptight" in 1971 and "Uptown Saturday Night" in 1974.

When it closed in 1990, the Hippodrome was the city's last downtown first-run movie theater. It was donated to the state in 1997.

'Always in our sights'

The quest for the refurbished Hippodrome Theatre grew out of efforts to save the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, the quasi-public agency that now is the Hippodrome Foundation, which presented Broadway shows at the Mechanic, which opened in 1967.

BCPA had been losing money for a number of years, teetering dangerously near closing on several occasions. The agency, which also oversaw the Pier Six Concert Pavilion and helped run the Lyric Opera House, was losing money because the Mechanic - with about 1,600 seats - was too small and had facilities that could not accommodate the demands of modern Broadway shows.

"It was our concern that the city was losing out on theater business because the facility at the Mechanic was inadequate," said Robert C. Embry Jr., director of the Abell Foundation, which commissioned the 1991 study. "The study came back saying that, for a variety of reasons, the Mechanic could not house some of the shows that were coming out of New York.

"The study recommended that a new theater be created that had more seats, more stage space - and was easier to load and unload sets from," Embry said. The Hippodrome was considered in the study, but the foundation made no specific site recommendations.

By 1996, BCPA was running a deficit of about $3 million. That's when Schaefer asked Lipitz, who then was chairman of the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp., and Berndt to approach the Greater Baltimore Committee about saving the agency.

"We weren't aware of it," said Bramble, who was GBC's chairman and also was chairman and chief executive of Allfirst Bank Inc. "We didn't know there were any problems."

The GBC took up the issue of stabilizing BCPA, Bramble said. "We decided, as an organization, that we did not want this thing to fail."

That May, the business organization had raised $1.6 million for BCPA. The money was raised within eight weeks, said Bramble, who became the agency's board chairman.

"We put additional business people and other people on the board," including Dale, Mendelson and Riley, Bramble said. "It's no exaggeration that, during that period of time, we were not sure that we would be able to make it from one month to the next, that we would have enough money to cover the next show."

With this support, BCPA's financial picture had improved, Bramble said. "We were able to convert it to break-even, and when we did that, we started to look at what was the future of commercial theater in Baltimore."

Bramble, holding the chairmanships of both the GBC and the BCPA, commissioned a GBC task force, chaired by Sondheim, to study nine potential theater sites, including just north of the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and the Inner Harbor.

Constructing such a theater on any of the sites would cost more than $100 million, according to Bramble.

"We also looked at possibility of redoing the Mechanic Theatre, but that turned out to be a very expensive, a very elaborate and a very difficult job," said Sondheim, the GBC's senior adviser.

The Sondheim Task Force also considered a 1994 state study for a new performing arts center in the city's Mount Royal area. The report included a proposal by Anderson, then president of Theater Management Group Inc. (TMG), to renovate the Hippodrome Theatre. The cost was estimated at about $65 million.

The idea won the group's backing. That was 1997. BCPA also hired the group to manage the shows at the Mechanic.

"The Hippodrome was always in our sights," Sondheim said. "The more we thought about it, and the more we considered it, the more attractive it seemed to us.

"There were people who were opposed to it, because of its location," Sondheim added. "They thought that the area was run down and that people would not come there at night."

Added Embry of the Abell Foundation, which considered the Hippodrome in its 1991 study: "It had to be a consensus that something should be done." Most people didn't go to the theater, so most people didn't care about it. They had other things on their minds, and there are many competing issues for the public agenda.

"So, as with anything, it doesn't get support the day it is broached - unless somebody has all the money to do it themselves," he said.

Tomorrow: Financing, strategies and success