THE NEXT ACT As the Lyric reaches the century mark, its guardians are hoping there's life in the old theater yet

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It took three owners to the brink of financial ruin.

It lost its major tenant more than once.

In the 1960s, it was so rundown that Baltimore's mayor recommended it be razed.

But next week, barring any catastrophes, Baltimore's venerable Lyric Opera House will reach a milestone that few cultural institutions attain anymore.

Oct. 31 will mark the 100th anniversary of the night maestro Emil Paur led the Boston Symphony Orchestra into the prelude to Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg," the first number in the gala concert held to celebrate the opening of Baltimore's newest performance venue, then called the Music Hall.

Nellie Melba, the famed Australian soprano, crowned the evening with her rendition of Handel's "Sweet Bird" aria. Architect T. Henry Randall, who modeled his design on the Neues Gewandhaus in Leipzig, Germany, joined the throngs backstage, where he was congratulated on the acoustics.

In the intervening years, the Lyric has featured opera stars and orators, wrestlers and rockers, hypnotists and Hindu fakirs. William Jennings Bryan, Charles Lindberg, Amelia Earhart and Will Rogers appeared on its stage. So did Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Quinn and Michael Crawford.

For years, it ranked high on lists of the world's finest music halls, acclaimed for its distinctive "Lyric sound" and air of gentility.

The theater -- renamed the Lyric after a change of ownership in 1909 -- "has charm and a feeling of southern hospitality that almost makes you expect to find a butler at intermission passing hot confections on burnished salvers," critic Leo Beranek wrote in a 1962 survey of halls around the world.

The Lyric has also been a cultural touchstone to generations of Marylanders. Many savor memories of their first trip to the opera or a holiday show of "The Nutcracker" there. Thousands of women made their debuts at the Bachelors Cotillion held there every spring. Tickets to the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra's performances there were so hard to obtain that families passed them down from generation to generation.

It was "the backbone of Baltimore's musical life," recalls Carolyn Hutzler, a longtime Lyric Foundation board member.

On opera night, "the place was filled with thrilling and charming people. It was glamorous. It was the place to see and be seen. It was society night."

Adds Harold Manekin, past chairman of the Lyric board: "There's nothing to compare with [the Lyric] in the state. If it weren't here, I don't know what people in Howard County or Baltimore County or Carroll County would be doing. I guess they'd be going to

Washington."

The best of times?

Given such an illustrious history, these should be the best of times for the music hall, Baltimore's oldest continuously operating public theater -- and one of the oldest in the country.

For the 75th anniversary, the Boston Symphony returned and performed the same concert it did on opening night. This year, there might have been a week of festivities to mark the end of the Lyric's first century, and to look ahead to the next.

Instead, on this Oct. 31, the theater will be dark. Members of the Lyric Foundation, the nonprofit group that operates the building, talked about holding a reception to mark the milestone. But they decided to wait until midway through the 100th year, when they can unveil a mural that is being installed in the upper lobby. As far as bookings go, Oct. 31 will be just another date on the Lyric's calendar, an off-night between two shows.

If no one at the Lyric is taking particular note of the past, foundation members are clearly focused on its future. The Lyric has weathered rough times, and more could lie ahead:

* Twelve years ago, it lost its main tenant -- and in many respects, its reason for being -- when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra moved two blocks away to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The move was the culmination of a successful campaign by former BSO music director Sergiu Comissiona and others to build an exclusive home for the symphony, and it left the Lyric without a resident orchestra for the first time in 66 years.

* A subsequent effort to replace the symphony concerts with Broadway-style productions has been an uphill struggle in a building never designed for the kind of large traveling shows producers put on today.

* Competition is mounting in the form of new suburban performing arts centers planned for such areas as Pikesville, Columbia and Owings Mills, where the $4 million, 550-seat Peggy and Yale Gordon Center for the Performing Arts will open next April.

* There's talk of a new performing arts center with a 2,800-seat hall practically next door to the Lyric: the $60 million Maryland Center for the Performing Arts, proposed for the former Baltimore Life Insurance Co. site at 901 N. Howard St. Its driving force is Hope Quackenbush, former managing director of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, which books shows at the Lyric and the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Charles Center.

Envisioned as a potential anchor for the "Avenue of the Arts" that the Schmoke administration wants to create along Howard Street, the proposed hall could end up luring another longtime Lyric tenant, the Baltimore Opera Company, as well as the Broadway-style productions that otherwise would perform in the Lyric.

* Theater-going patterns are changing in general. Before television, a night at the theater was a popular form of entertainment. Now competition comes not only from the major networks but cable TV, home videos and other forms of electronic media. And from sporting arenas and shopping malls as well.

As it approaches 100, the Lyric is a theater at the crossroads, caught between its proud past and an uncertain future. Can it still compete, with so much else on the horizon? Or is it destined to go the way of the old vaudeville houses downtown?

Despite the potential threats, those in charge of the Lyric are undaunted about its prospects. They say its future is the same as it always was: a matter of making the right choices and adjusting to new demands.

"The Lyric has been in business for 100 years, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's in business for 100 more," says H. Mebane Turner, president of the University of Baltimore and chairman of the executive committee of the Lyric Foundation.

"We've always found something to keep us busy here," agrees Robert Pomory, who worked his way up from an usher to become the foundation president. "We always will."

Maryland's melodrama

Part of the reason the Lyric's guardians remain so optimistic about its future is that it has been down before and always managed to come up, often against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Indeed, for much of the past century, the grand old music hall was either in financial trouble or dire physical condition or both. Its history is Maryland's longest-running melodrama -- a series of epic, hold-your-breath cliffhangers.

The Music Hall was built by the Auditorium Co., a group of prominent Baltimoreans, in response to the growing public interest in the Boston Symphony and other big-city orchestras ,, that made Baltimore a regular stop on their tours during the 1870s and 1880s.

Before the Music Hall was built, orchestras played in the old Concordia Opera House at the southwest corner of Eutaw and Redwood streets. After the Concordia was destroyed by fire in 1891, the music lovers incorporated themselves and purchased land at Mount Royal and Maryland avenues. To raise construction funds, they authorized the sale of up to $200,000 worth of common stock.

Ironically, the Music Hall ran into financial trouble even before its construction was finished. As the building was nearing completion, contractors filed liens against the property for approximately $70,000, and the owners rushed to sell another $75,000 worth of preferred stock.

The last-minute contributions marked the first of several times the hall was either saved or bailed out of trouble -- a prelude to future woes. The funds enabled the Auditorium Co. to cover its debts, but not to complete the entire building. Architect Randall had designed the Music Hall to have a rounded baroque front similar to the Paris Opera House, but it was never built because of lack of funds.

An enthusiastic reception

Even without its grand entrance, the Music Hall was enthusiastically received by performers and audiences alike.

The opening-night crowd saw an interior with much the same character as today: a large rectangular auditorium characterized a wide, oval-topped proscenium and full-length side balconies supported by columns, with box seats underneath. The owners advertised it as "The Largest, Handsomest and Best Appointed Auditorium in the South. Five Halls Under One Roof . . . every luxury and comfort requisite for the proper enjoyment of Musical, Literary, Educational and Social Entertainments."

In keeping with that promotion, the hall was used for a wide range of events, many of them unrelated to music. They included a 1905 boxing match between Mike Sullivan and world lightweight champion Joe Gans, and the first local demonstration of cooking with electricity that same year. On summer evenings in those early years, the theater doubled as a beer garden.

But the hall's true strength has been its ability to showcase music, and many of the world's greatest orchestras, opera companies, soloists, ballet stars and conductors came to take advantage of its much-praised acoustics.

Not long after the opening, Enrico Caruso came to the Music Hall with the Metropolitan Opera Company's production of "Marta." Audiences also could hear the symphonies of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington; the bands of Sousa, Santelmann and Godfrey; the Metropolitan and Chicago opera companies.

In 1916, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was formed under the director of Gustav Strube. It performed at the Lyric until its move to the Meyerhoff in 1982.

Financial woes

As impressive as this lineup was, staging these events was no easy task.

From its first decade on, the Lyric suffered financial problems -- often as a byproduct of its design. Because Randall conceived of the building as a music hall and not a multipurpose facility, its 32-foot-deep stage was deemed too shallow for the proper presentation of certain operas, ballets and plays, and the owners lost many lucrative contracts over the years.

In addition to limited stage and storage space, shortcomings included lack of adequate dressing and rehearsal space for performers, and few creature comforts for audiences.

Many of these limitations were addressed by major renovations in 1928 and the early 1980s. While the work improved the Lyric in many ways, the size and condition of its stage area continues to be an issue with some prospective tenants.

The basic challenge for the Lyric, over time, has been to accommodate an ever-changing lineup of productions. Because theater is constantly evolving, no one overhaul can guarantee the Lyric's survival for all time. There will always be a new set of demands on the theater, forcing its owners to adapt or suffer the consequences.

That very scenario has been played out over and over. Citizen groups have mounted save-the-Lyric campaigns at least half a dozen times over the past century. From 1894 to 1920 alone, the Lyric changed hands three times, as financially ailing owners put the building up for sale -- or lost it through foreclosure.

The first ownership change came in 1907, when the Auditorium Co. ran into financial difficulties and saw its property put up for auction. Citing inadequate support from Baltimore audiences, the Boston Symphony had canceled its concerts several years before. A local music lover, Frederick Gottlieb, bought the hall for $126,000 to prevent it from being converted to a car dealership.

Two years later Gottlieb sold the Music Hall to Otto Kahn, a representative of New York's Metropolitan Opera Company. He outlined a $200,000 improvement plan for the Music Hall, but never carried it out. He did change the name to the Lyric Theatre.

Mr. Kahn owned the building for 11 years, before running into financial woes of his own and putting it up for sale. Bidders included one group that wanted to turn it into a movie house and another that wanted to operate a used-car lot on the site. Alarmed that the Lyric might be lost, a group of Baltimoreans who wanted it to remain a first-class music hall mounted a vigorous campaign and raised the $250,000 purchase price just minutes before the seller's deadline. The new owners called themselves the Lyric Co.

The Lyric prospered until 1928, when several major symphonies and opera companies threatened to remove it from their performance tours unless more seats were added. They argued that because of rising expenses, they no longer could afford to perform at the Lyric even if they filled its 2,000 seats.

As a result of these threats, the management launched the first major renovation of the theater, breaking through the rear wall and adding 600 to 700 seats in 23 rear balcony rows without adversely affecting acoustics. No major alterations were made for another 50 years.

In 1934, the trust company that held the Lyric's $140,000 mortgage went into receivership, a casualty of the Great Depression. Yet another save-the-Lyric campaign was launched, with the goal of raising money by selling mortgage certificates to subscribers. The Lyric thereby became entirely the property of 1,000 Baltimore families.

The interest and support shown by these families have been "a big factor in our success, and have carried us through the bleak years," former Lyric Co. president Hugh Hampton Young wrote in 1945. "When other theaters of the city were closed, the Lyric continued to be well patronized."

A change in course

For the next several decades the Lyric was able to present quality performances, but the specter of financial trouble was always looming. In the 1960s, without much upkeep over the years, the Lyric was deteriorating rapidly. When municipal planners were looking for a site to put a midtown exit off the Jones Falls Expressway, Mayor Theodore McKeldin proposed that the city buy the Lyric and build the interchange there. The owners refused to sell.

Two changes came about that put the hall on its present course. In 1968, a nonprofit organization known as the Lyric Foundation was formed to buy the theater from the old Lyric Co. and renovate it. Many of the families that held mortgage certificates agreed to donate them so the new group would have less of a financial burden.

Then in 1976, the foundation negotiated a strategic alliance with the Education Foundation of the University of Baltimore, its growing neighbor to the east. University President H. Mebane Turner became chairman of the executive committee of the Lyric Foundation, a position he still holds.

That agreement was critical because the university provided the political clout and fund-raising ability the Lyric Foundation needed, said Mr. Pomory. "If Meb Turner hadn't stepped in, we probably wouldn't be here today."

Just as the alliance was being cemented, the campaign to renovate the Lyric took on a new urgency: Builder and symphony patron Joseph Meyerhoff was moving quickly to construct a new concert hall for the BSO at Cathedral and Preston streets.

Lyric defenders howled in protest, warning that the city could not support two halls. But Meyerhoff persevered, securing a $10 million commitment from the state legislature to match the $10 million he ultimately put up. Having lost its prime tenant, the BSO, the Lyric Foundation had to come up with a new marketing strategy or face the prospect of closing.

The result was a $14 million plan to reposition the Lyric as a major multipurpose venue, specializing in Broadway-style shows. The quasi-public Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, already successful at the 1,607-seat Mechanic Theatre, wanted -- and received -- access to the Lyric.

The architectural firm of Richter Cornbrooks Matthai Hopkins designed a new entrance, lobby, seating arrangement and backstage facilities. The state contributed about $12 million in // phases to match other funds, and the renovated Lyric, renamed the Lyric Opera House, opened just after the Meyerhoff did in the fall of 1982.

Record bookings

Now the Lyric is in its 12th year of presenting a mixture of theater, opera, concerts and other fare. In 1992, the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts was joined by a second organization that books Broadway-style shows for the Lyric, Nicholas LiTrenta's Performing Arts Productions.

The competition has been beneficial to the Lyric. The 1993-1994 season was its busiest ever, with 250 dates reserved and 240,000 tickets sold -- about 50 dates more than the year before.

But that level of activity is not guaranteed to last. Already, promoters are talking about bringing in certain shows for two weeks rather than three, because of declining ticket sales. The number of bookings is down for the 1994-1995 season, with 221 dates reserved so far.

"It's a very fickle business," Mr. Turner said. "One year, [a company] will book the Lyric for 11 weeks. The next year, it'll do five or six weeks. It depends what's on the road. You don't always know."

Looking ahead, Lyric officials say they are not overly concerned about the smaller halls planned for the suburbs, because they won't have the seating capacity or stage capability to bring in the large-scale productions seen at the Lyric.

But they are concerned about the idea of a new hall next door, for the same reasons they were about the Meyerhoff Hall 20 years ago.

Mr. Turner said he worries about the cost to the public of building and operating another large hall when society has so many other needs.

"The Lyric will continue to operate and will do reasonably well, but you don't make money on these things," he said.

"It isn't just building them. It's operating them when they're finished, and that is a monumental task. Where is the money coming from? How much are people prepared to subsidize the arts?"

Proponents of a new center say one is needed because neither the Mechanic nor the Lyric has enough seats to guarantee producers the volume of ticket sales that they want for bringing in the large-scale shows that are bypassing Baltimore now, such as "Miss Saigon" and "Phantom of the Opera."

In addition, they argue that a new center would help the Lyric, not hurt it, by strengthening the critical mass of activity in the cultural center. The more theater activity a city has, they say, the more people get in the habit of going to the theater, and the bigger the audience will be for everyone.

Mr. Turner and Mr. Pomory said they would prefer to see public funds spent to fix up the Lyric and the Mechanic more, so they can attract as many shows as possible.

"The cost to modernize the Lyric is quite modest compared to building a new hall," Mr. Turner said. "The Lyric has done more than half already."

Concerned also about the economic issues, state planners have commissioned an $80,000 study to determine the need for a new performing arts center in Baltimore and the impact it would have on existing facilities.

The results will guide legislators next spring as they decide whether the state should help fund a new arts center on Howard Street -- and if so, to what extent. To move ahead, the project also will need the support of Maryland's next governor.

In the meantime, the foundation is taking steps to improve the Lyric's physical and financial condition. It is seeking $2.5 million to enlarge the stage and build a three-story addition containing stage-level dressing rooms for performers, rehearsal space, and offices for Lyric staff and visiting and resident companies.

City voters will be asked to approve a $600,000 loan for that project on the ballot next month. State legislators will be asked to contribute $1.2 million in the spring. Mr. Turner also wants to increase the Lyric's endowment from $1.1 million to $2 million.

One for all

In a sense, the Lyric is back where it began 100 years ago. Its

construction is still not finished. And its owners are still raising funds to put it on a firmer financial footing.

But what's really needed to help ensure the Lyric's success, say foundation members and others in the cultural community, is a larger organization that could coordinate activity throughout the Mount Royal area.

If the Lyric, the Meyerhoff and the proposed arts center were all under one management group, they say, competition would be eliminated and the halls could be marketed as one strong entity.

"The key is to get them all to work together," said Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who was instrumental in recommending the site for the new performing center but who won't be in office to push through funding.

"There should be one management group for the Mount Royal area and one for the Inner Harbor. With a little imagination and direction from the business community, this could be done."

Mr. Turner and Mr. Pomory agree with those sentiments. They also point out that the Lyric's flexibility has been a key to its survival -- and will continue to be.

"If the Lyric can't compete one way, it will compete another," Mr. Turner said. "It's a very versatile facility, and it has been marvelous for the community. Can it be fixed up? Yes. Will it be perfect? No. But it can be better and better and better."

When the Meyerhoff was built, "everybody thought that would be the end of the Lyric," Mr. Pomory said. "But people still want to be in an audience. People still want live action. The Lyric's going to survive, no matter what."

ED GUNTS is a reporter for The Sun.

Lyric chronology

1892 -- Prominent Baltimoreans form the Auditorium Co. to build a music hall at Maryland and Mount Royal avenues.

Oct. 31, 1894 -- The Music Hall opens with a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

1907 -- The Music Hall is bought at auction by Frederick Gottlieb, a local music lover who bid $126,000 to protect the "musical interests of Baltimore."

1909 -- The Music Hall is acquired by Otto Kahn, a representative of the Metropolitan Opera Company, and renamed the Lyric Theatre.

Feb. 11, 1916 -- The newly formed Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presents its first concert at the Lyric, under the direction of Gustav Strube. It remains at the Lyric until 1982.

1920 -- Otto Kahn sells the Lyric to the Lyric Co., a syndicate of Baltimoreans who raised $250,000 to prevent the building from becoming an auto dealership. The first performance under the ++ new owner is a concert of military music conducted by John Philip Sousa.

1921 -- The Baltimore Opera Club is formed by Frederick Huber to bring operas from other cities to the Lyric.

1925 -- Giving in to demands, the Lyric provides smoking quarters for women patrons, but does not allow them to smoke in the lobby. It is the first public building in Baltimore to provide a smoking lounge for women.

1927 -- The importance of the Lyric Theatre is recognized by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which decrees that all switching operations in its Bolton Street yards are to stop during Lyric performances.

1928 -- Bowing to pressure from touring symphonies and opera companies for more seats, the Lyric launches a $50,000 renovation, adding 600 to 700 seats in the balcony.

1934 -- The trust company holding the Lyric's mortgage goes into receivership. Money to save the theater is raised by selling mortgage certificates to subscribers. The Lyric thus becomes the property of 1,000 Baltimore families.

1944 -- The Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People seeks to rent the Lyric for a speech by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The Lyric management refuses.

1954 -- Soprano Marian Anderson performs before a standing-room-only crowd at the Lyric, becoming the first major African-American performer to appear there and breaking racial barriers for others.

1950 -- The Baltimore Opera Company is incorporated. After presenting amateur performances at the Maryland Casualty Auditorium on West 40th Street, it becomes a semiprofessional company and moves to the Lyric.

1958 -- The Metropolitan Opera stops coming to the Lyric, citing the inadequacies of its stage and accommodations for performers as a major reason.

1968 -- The Lyric Foundation, a nonprofit organization, is formed to take control of the theater from the Lyric Co.

1969 -- The Lyric's 75th anniversary is marked by a return of the Boston Symphony, which performs the same concert it presented for the Lyric's grand opening.

1970 -- The Lyric is officially sold to the Lyric Foundation and the Lyric Co. is dissolved.

1974 -- Baltimore construction magnate Joseph Meyerhoff discloses plans to build a new home for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Preston and Cathedral streets. His plan draws criticism from defenders of the Lyric, who fear Baltimore can't support two major music halls and that the Lyric will suffer after the symphony leaves. The Greater Baltimore Committee supports Meyerhoff's plan, saying the Lyric should be renovated for other uses.

1976 -- The Lyric Foundation forms an alliance with the Education Foundation of the University of Baltimore. H. Mebane Turner, university president, becomes chairman of the Lyric Foundation's executive committee.

1978 -- The Lyric Foundation unveils architectural plans by Richter Cornbrooks Matthai Hopkins for a $14 million renovation of the building.

May 27, 1982 -- The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performs the last concert of its last season at the Lyric, before moving to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. It closes with the final movement of Haydn's Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp minor -- "The Farewell Symphony."

Fall 1982 -- After a $14 million renovation, the newly named Lyric Opera House reopens as a multipurpose theater featuring Broadway-style productions.

1984 -- Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation designates the Lyric Opera House an official city landmark.

1986 -- The Lyric's interior is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Fall 1993 -- Hope Quackenbush, head of a nonprofit group called Friends of the Performing Arts, discloses a proposal to build a $60 million Maryland Center for the Performing Arts on state-owned property within the Mount Royal cultural center.

Summer 1994 -- The state launches a feasibility study to determine the need for a new performing hall and the potential impact on the Lyric and other established venues.

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