Historic theater feted in morning ceremony

Eric P. Grubman simply couldn't compete with the nearby drilling.

"Going forward ...," he began at a news conference earlier today announcing the festivities surrounding Tuesday's opening of the $62 million Hippodrome Performing Arts Center on the west side of downtown Baltimore.

After a brief pause, Grubman, the chairman of the Hippodrome Foundation, began again, to no avail.

"The Hippodrome Foundation ...." Nearly defeated, he looked over toward the drilling. A workman said, "We're OK."

"He's fixing it," Grubman quipped. "As you can see, we're still getting ready."

And so was the atmosphere at the Hippodrome this morning: workmen scurrying to put up wallpaper, lay carpeting, install lighting fixtures and arrange furniture -- as well as corporate executives, shop foremen, architects and public relations specialists walking around making sure the Hippodrome will open on schedule. The 2,286-seat venue is located at 12 N. Eutaw St.

There also was a sense of great anticipation and excitement.

"This is just not Baltimore's theater," said Marks Chowning, the center's executive director. "We are working to establish this building as a regional performing arts center."

Chowning said the goal is to present entertainment that reaches all audiences -- families, children, African-Americans and other populations. "The programming mix is going to be broad enough to appeal to everybody in the community," he said.

Opened in 1914 as a vaudeville and movie house, the Hippodrome played host to such performers as 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. In 1967, the Hippodrome played host to the local premiere of "My Fair Lady."

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

The meticulous restoration effort included a ceiling mural, a half-dozen balconies -- as well as the demolition of three storefronts to allow for the construction of a deep stage needed by today's more elaborate Broadway-style shows. In addition, the incorporation of two historic bank buildings made room for a larger lobby and a 450-seat private banquet room.

Together, the buildings comprise the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.

Besides "The Producers," other Broadway shows scheduled to play the Hippodrome include "Mamma Mia!," "Def Poetry Jam," "Les Miserables" and "Phantom of the Opera."

On Tuesday, more than 2,200 people will celebrate the Hippodrome's opening with the Baltimore premiere of "The Producers," the Mel Brooks musical that won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards. Guests will get the full "red-carpet treatment," with buffet dinner, cocktails and a dessert reception after the performance.

The news conference today also included excerpts from a documentary of the Hippodrome being produced by local filmmaker William A. Whiteford, a producer and director at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

Besides film clips from such performers as Cab Calloway and music by Sinatra and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, the excerpts included recollections from the Baron Twins, William and Wilburn, who played the Hippodrome as 8-year-old tap dancers in 1930. The pair, now 81, are from New York and have spent most of their lives in Baltimore.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley also was featured in the excerpts, praising the efforts to bring the Hippodrome to fruition and whose band was featured during a performance last month at a "Hard Hat Concert" at the theater.

The hourlong documentary has yet to be completed, Whiteford said. "I shot 130 hours worth of film," he said. "I've got a large pile to pull from."

The project's architect, Hugh Hardy, founding partner of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates in New York, led a tour of the arts center. His passion, pride and enthusiasm for the project could not be contained.

"This project is about the transformation of this part of town and the rediscovery of this area," Hardy said. "Come and see how this community rediscovers itself through this facility."