Arson fire wrecks theater Painters Mill blaze started during break-in, police say.

Baltimore County officials today were considering condemning the Painters Mill Music Fair in Owings Mills after an intentionally set, four-alarm fire extensively damaged the complex and brought down portions of the roof.

"It looks like the damage estimate will be well into six figures," said Baltimore County Fire Department Battalion Chief Ralph Nelson. "County building engineers are looking at condemning what's left of the building."


Nelson and police arson investigators said the fire was set at Painters Mill -- a well-known entertainment spot for more than three decades -- by one or more intruders who cut heavy screen mesh on a side window with an acetylene torch.

"The way the fire spread so quickly indicates to our investigators that it was intentionally set to mask the break-in or whatever else they were going to do," Nelson said.


Edward Snell, a manager at Painters Mill and secretary of Painters Mills Corp., said today that burglars broke into the complex to rob the safe.

But, Snell said, money was not kept overnight at the administrative offices because of a series of burglaries there last November. Instead, he said, receipts from ticket sales were deposited nightly following the shows.

The burglars used two industrial-size tanks containing oxygen and acetylene used to feed a cutting torch. The tanks and torch were found in the remains of an office that contained the safe.

A large dolly used to move the tanks -- one of which was 5 feet tall and 2 feet in diameter -- was seen in the charred wreckage next to the tanks.

Police spokesman Sgt. Stephen Doarnberger would not comment on reports that police arson investigators were checking into a report that several such tanks were stolen recently from a construction site in Hampstead, Carroll County.

Doarnberger also refused to discuss whether the owner of that construction firm gave police information regarding possible suspects.

Arson investigators were on the scene, but the results of their probe were not expected to be known until later today, officials said.

The theater, which featured the country-rock group "The Kentucky Headhunters" Saturday, was closed at the time of the fire; no injuries were reported among the nearly 80 firefighters who were dispatched.


Police were alerted to the fire when an unidentified motorist flagged down Officer Mark Williams at 3:22 a.m. and told him the building was on fire, Lt. Richard Landsman of the Garrison District said.

Landsman said flames were shooting from the middle of the 200- by 300-foot corrugated steel building when he arrived.

He said part of the roof above the lobby, foyer and administrative offices also collapsed.

The major owner of the Painters Mill property is Diversified Investment Association Inc. in Timonium. The property is leased by Painters Mill Corp. and is headed by Samuel J. L'Hommedieu of Falls Church, Va.

The scene of major productions and appearances of big-name Broadway and Hollywood stars in the past who performed "in the round," the Painters Mill Music Fair opened in 1960.

The Music Fair, which had booked such acts such as Mitzi Gaynor, Phyllis Diller, Liza Minnelli, Aretha Franklin and Jose Feliciano, closed in January 1985 following a flood.


It had reopened within the past year.

L Recently, the Music Fair featured rock and country concerts.

"It's been real popular since the rock and country-western groups have been there," said Landsman.

Theater officials said the building could seat about 2,400 people.

While performers continued to appear at the Music Fair, Landsman said, the building continued to undergo renovation. Boxing matches were also staged there recently and theater officials said they had met with mild success.

The show scheduled to appear tonight, the rock group "Nelson," featuring the twin sons of the late Ricky Nelson, was switched to an alternate site. They were to perform with three local bands in a program sponsored by a local rock radio station.


A spokeswoman for the station, WIYY-FM, said the concert will be held at 7 o'clock tonight at Hammerjacks, 1101 S. Howard St.