The Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric announced on Thursday that it has hired an outside management firm for the first time in the venue’s 125-year history — a bold move that could breathe new life into the under-utilized institution.
The Lyric Foundation said it has signed a five-year agreement with the Los Angeles-based firm ASM Global to operate the 2,568-seat nonprofit arts center at 140 W. Mt. Royal Ave. And ASM seems determined to begin with a bang.
The first show at the Lyric booked by ASM will be Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band. Tickets go on sale Friday ,and that concert will take place June 16 and 17.
No members of the Lyric’s existing management team will lose their jobs, a spokeswoman said, though some may take on different roles. For instance, Jonathan Schwartz, the Modell Center’s executive director, will shift his focus to education and fundraising, while a team in Philadelphia will handle all bookings for the venue.
Schwartz thinks that ASM’s reach — the company operates more than 300 venues in 14 countries and five continents — will be invaluable for helping the Lyric book top rock and country music concerts, urban theater, comedy shows and other acts.
“We’re confident that we have a great team in place that can help us to attract world-class entertainment to our city,” Schwartz said. “Quite frankly, a lot of the top acts have been bypassing the Lyric in the past.”
The Lyric currently hosts performances on between 60 and 70 nights a year. In addition, the theater is rented about 30 nights annually for college graduations and other events, Schwartz said.
Bob Papke, ASM’s vice-president for theater, thinks he can bump that to 100 performances, plus the rental events. The Lyric has the right mix of acts, he said, but not enough of them.
In addition to Ringo Starr, comic Sebastian Maniscalco will perform in March, Papke said. Another possibility: actor Tyler Perry’s phenomenally popular urban theater productions.
“Fingers crossed,” Papke said. “We do a lot of Tyler Perry dates. If Tyler Perry wants to play the Lyric, we would love to have him.”
Last year, the total attendance to ticketed shows at the Lyric was about 85,000; Schwartz said he anticipates ASM Global will increase that “by about 20 percent in the next two to three years.”
About a year ago, Schwartz said, ASM approached the Lyric Foundation (the venue’s governing body) and broached the possibility of running the historic house.
The Foundation was intrigued; though ASM Global itself was formed just last month as the result of a merger between two other companies, its corporate predecessors have been running entertainment venues in Baltimore for two decades, Schwartz said.
ASM understands the Baltimore market, Schwartz said, and it understands the Lyric.
The Lyric will be ASM’s third and by far the smallest venture in Baltimore, in addition to the MECU Pavilion (formerly Pier Six) which has a capacity of 5,500 and Royal Farms Arena, which can hold up to 14,000 people.
“Different artists prefer to play different-sized halls,” Papke said, “so these three venues aren’t in competition. They complement one another.”
In its heyday, the Lyric housed such legendary artists as tenor Enrico Caruso, funny man Will Rogers, attorney Clarence Barrow and aviation pioneers Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.
Later, crowds were wowed by such blockbuster entertainers as Aretha Franklin, Robin Williams, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle.
During four weeks in 1984, more than 70,000 people flocked to see actor Yul Brunner star in “The King and I.” That same year, Patti Labelle sold out five shows, while in 1987, more than 75,000 theater lovers bought tickets to “Cats.”
But one by one, the Lyric lost the anchors that for decades made it Baltimore’s go-to entertainment venue. In 1982, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra — which was launched at the Lyric in 1916 — moved down the block and into the newly constructed Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
Then, in 2004, the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center re-opened to great fanfare after a $62 million renovation. Once the Hippodrome signed on with theatrical presenter Broadway Across America, the Lyric could no longer compete for the most in-demand touring shows. Theatrical offerings dwindled.
The final blow came in 2009, when the Lyric’s longtime anchor, the Baltimore Opera Company, filed for bankruptcy and closed its doors after 58 years in operation.
The Lyric’s own $14 million renovation began in 2010 and was completed in 2014. But though the improvements increased the types of shows that could be mounted in the theater, the crowds didn’t follow.
In recent years, the Lyric has been dark on many nights. The new management agreement with ASM has the potential to change that.