Revival of Painters Mill concert hall ends in arson


Early yesterday morning, Nick Massoni and his employees stood before the smoldering black hole that was once the green facade of the Painters Mill Theatre and cried.

"There's not much else you can do. It's totaled, its all gone," said the theater manager, who watched a year's worth of hard work to restore the luster to the once-fabled concert hall go up in smoke. The hall began holding shows 13 months ago after being closed for more than five years.

Dozens of employees came to see for themselves whether anything was left of the building, which was set ablaze Monday when burglars used an acetylene torch to break open the safe in Mr. Massoni's office, the manager and police said.

"The didn't just kill a building, they killed a theater . . . it's a living entity," said a tearful Robin Parker, the theater's crew chief.

The fire spread rapidly through the front office and -- if it were not for a fire wall -- would have consumed the theater, where just last Saturday the Kentucky Head Hunters played to a sold-out crowd of country music fans.

Investigators quickly concluded that the fire was deliberately set because the burglars left behind a hole seared out of a metal grate in a dressing room window where they entered, along with the acetylene torch and oxygen tanks near the office safe.

Police said they were investigating tips that may lead them to the burglars, including a theft at a Car roll County construction site where the oxygen tanks used in the Painters Mill fire were stolen.

Inside the 2,400-seat theater, smoke and water damage turned the red velour, cushioned seats into row after row of blackened stumps. Nearly a foot of water covered the rotating stage and loose rigging and cables dangled everywhere.

"The building is in very bad shape," said Ed Snell, general manager of Painters Mill Theatre. "It will be difficult, but not impossible, to rebuild it."

Mr. Snell said Painters Mill Theatre leased the building from Diversified Investment Associates Inc., a real estate investment firm whose principals could not be reached yesterday for comment on whether they plan to rebuild.

With the concert hall's future in doubt, those who reveled in its revival as a showcase for nationally known acts lamented the loss of a place that helped to fill a void in the Baltimore music scene.

"It had its advantages over the club circuit," said Russ Mottla, program director at WIYY-FM (98 Rock). "It was a sit-down theater, rather than a bar, and it was an all ages access venue."

"This was the best place in Maryland to see a show," agreed Mr. Massoni.

"The acoustics were great," Mr. Massoni said. "You were never more than 70 feet from the stage. It was like being in a jam session."

The fire also left Chesapeake Concerts scrambling to find places to stage seven events on the Painters Mill calendar, which ranged from the rock group Great White to country singers the Oak Ridge Boys and the modern dance troupe Pilobolus.

"We are trying to place all of them in different venues," said Jeanne Wagner, director of public relations and advertising for the Northern Virginia-based company. "We should know in a couple of days."

Ms. Wagner promised "there will be refunds" for tickets sold to any show not rescheduled, although she said no procedure had been formally established.

The fire came just as Painters Mill was rebounding from one of the most difficult periods in a storied history that began when it opened in June 1960 as a summer tent theater offering Broadway-style shows and Hollywood acts.

The theater's operators, Music Fair Inc., of Pennsylvania, decided to abandon the tent concept in 1967 in favor of an enclosed, year-round facility.

Painters Mill continued to draw crowds but was beginning to experience financial problems.

In 1973, it reported losing more than half a million dollars on revenues of $8.6 million.

In January 1980, the operation of the theater was taken over by Maryland Theatrical, a company whose principals included two well-known local promoters, Richard Klotzman and Lee Silverman.

Its last show of the decade would turn out to be a performance by Ashford and Simpson in December 1984.

The next month, a flood, blamed in part on the construction of Interstate 795, forced the theater to close, canceling several concerts.

When ticket-holders couldn't get refunds, the state attorney general's office launched an investigation which revealed that the operators of the theater had failed to pay federal, state and local taxes amounting to more than $200,000, including interest and penalties.

The concert hall got a new start in December 1989, when Painters Mill Theatre signed a lease to operate the facility.

Its first concert was a Feb. 14, 1990, show by country singer k. d. lang. Since then, the theater has hosted nearly 20 acts, including shows earlier this year by Bob Dylan and heavy metal group Slayer.

"Things were going great," said Ms. Wagner of Chesapeake Concerts. "We were just now getting our feet planted in the market."

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