Performing arts center in Owings Mills opens to serve suburbanites

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the Peggy & Yale Gordon Center for Performing Arts opens its doors tonight for a black-tie gala, it will also be opening an era of easy access to performing arts for many Baltimore suburbanites.

Far from downtown, where theaters are traditionally built, the $4 million hall -- attached to the Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills -- provides a high-tech venue for the arts, including classical music, theater, dance and children's programs. It even has the capacity to produce TV shows.

This is the first attempt in the past 20 years to build a performing arts center on this scale without the benefit of a resident music or theater company, says Joseph Meyerhoff II, who is chairman of the center. Until now, virtually every arts center opened with a single tenant already in mind.

"This really hasn't been tried around Baltimore before," Mr. Meyerhoff says. "What's that saying in 'Star Trek'? We're seeking out new worlds."

What he means is: The Gordon Center is seeking to build new audiences for the arts.

In addition to pleasing existing arts lovers who may be daunted by the drive downtown, the Gordon Center management wants to convert those who usually are intimidated by theater into aficionados of live performance.

"The challenge is not to attract the 40- to 60-year-old audiences but the 30- to 50-year-old group -- people with families," Mr. Meyerhoff says.

Everything about the 550-seat hall -- the season's artistic lineup, the promise of low ticket prices, proximity to the Beltway, convenient parking, extra-wide chairs, even the inordinate number of stalls in the ladies' room -- is aimed at achieving that goal.

Supported in large part by the Peggy and Yale Gordon Trust Fund, with additional financing coming from other private donors, the center intends to showcase classical music, says Nancy Goldberg, its director.

Though the new center is connected to the Jewish Community Center and will offer some shows that appeal to the Jewish population, Mr. Meyerhoff stresses there will be programming for all.

"The Jewish community doesn't want to see klezmer show after klezmer show or every Neil Simon play there is, or 'Fiddler on the Roof' four times a year. It wants to see high-quality, varied performing arts," he says.

Consequently, scheduled events include tomorrow night's performance by Israeli-born singer Noa and guitarist Gil Dor, a review by actors Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach, modern dance, films and concerts. There also will be children's programming, such as a performance by Baltimore native David Buechner, a Tchaikovsky Competition-winning pianist who in June will play classical pieces that inspired the themes of popular cartoons.

A taste for theater

Once newcomers to the arts develop a taste for live performances, "they won't care about traveling downtown," says Goldberg. "But right now we have parking on-site, there's less baby-sitting money to be paid because the travel time is less, and the tickets are a little lower. It just looks a little more attractive."

The thirtysomething Mr. Meyerhoff, who describes himself as "not a big performing-arts buff," claims that he is the sort of person the Gordon Center wants to reach.

"I saw my first or maybe second opera a few weeks ago, and I don't go to the symphony twice a week, and I live way out in the county," he says. "I am a prototypical customer for the Gordon Center."

Mr. Meyerhoff, who headed the effort to build the Gordon Center, is also the grandson of Joseph Meyerhoff, the Baltimore construction magnate who gave $10 million to build the 14-year-old Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. And he is the son of Harvey M. Meyerhoff, who led the national effort to build the 2-year-old Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Incidentally, the center's technical director also represents a younger generation of Baltimore performing arts leaders: Mark Quackenbush is the son of Hope Quackenbush, the city's grand dame of theater and former managing director of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts.)

The younger Meyerhoff hopes that by targeting non-theatergoers, the Gordon Center will not compete with Baltimore's existing performing arts venues, such as the Lyric Opera House and the Morris Mechanic Theatre. "The whole reason I was willing to take on this project was it was not competitive. That would be foolish," he says.

Nonetheless, the Gordon Center debuts in the midst of a campaign to build a new, $60 million performing arts center in the 900 block of North Howard Street in downtown Baltimore. The proposed center, which would be located near the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, would be a cornerstone of an "Avenue of the Arts" that some community leaders, including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, would like to see built in the city.

bTC The Howard Street plan, however, is moving ahead slowly. The Maryland General Assembly, which last year commissioned an $80,000 feasibility study of the project, recently concluded its 1995 session without allocating any more money for it.

And though proponents of both the Gordon Center and the proposed downtown center say that the two halls won't compete for audience members, each venue cites Owings Mills, Towson, Pikesville and Randallstown as primary market areas.

The two centers are "apples and oranges," because each will present highly disparate artistic lineups, says Anand Bhandari, of the state planning office.

The proposed 2,800-seat Howard Street performing arts center would showcase Broadway "mega" hits such as "Miss Saigon" rather than concerts and smaller theatrical acts.

The Gordon Center is part of a decades-old national trend in which large cities spawn suburbs, which in turn spawn first shopping centers, then cultural centers.

To illustrate that, local urban planners point to the many regional and college theaters, such as the one at the University of Maryland College Park. There's also talk of developing other theaters in Pikesville and Columbia.

"It isn't just dinner theaters anymore," says Melvin R. Levin, an urban studies professor at the University of Maryland College Park. "The trend in general is that the suburbs develop their own centers: There are an awful lot of suburban people who rarely get downtown."

Generating interest

There are two schools of thought among urban planners about performing arts centers in the suburbs. "There's a theory that the suburban centers tend to generate interest in the arts that otherwise wouldn't exist," says Mr. Levin.

"And there's another feeling that essentially you are dealing with people who [like the arts but who] would go unserved -- that if they didn't have a suburban arts center they'd rely on TV."

Mrs. Quackenbush, who is the driving force behind the effort to build the new downtown performing arts center, says she prefers the concept of developing one urban arts center.

"Most cities have built big performing arts centers and have created places on the Lincoln Center design in New York," says Mrs. Quackenbush. "San Francisco, Cleveland, Tampa all have this concept of a center."

But, she adds, "I'm of the opinion that the more theater you have, the more theatergoers you get -- so I don't have any reservations about the [Gordon] theater at all. It's a matter of expanding the opportunities for people to leave their homes and enjoy live theater."

And if suburban arts lovers do venture from their homes to the Gordon Center, they'll find charming reminders that they're not in the big city: In the calm of morning or evening, a herd of deer frequently can be seen from the lobby windows, grazing in a nearby cornfield.

Gordon Center presents first month's lineup

Here is the opening month's performance schedule at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills:

* Tomorrow, 7:30 p.m. Internationally renowned jazz singer NOA (Achinoam Nini) and Gil Dor, composer, arranger and guitarist, perform. Tickets are $25.

* Saturday, 8 p.m., and May 7, 2:30 p.m. Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach present their successful off-Broadway show "In Persons." Tickets are $30.

* May 11, 7 p.m. Lawyer and author William Kunstler, who has defended such controversial clients as Jack Ruby, John Gotti and defendants in the World Trade Center bombing case, will talk about his professional and private life and his new book, "My Life as a Radical Lawyer." Tickets are $2.

* May 20, 8 p.m., and May 21, 7:30 p.m. The Lewitzky Dance Company, led by Bella Lewitzky, the West Coast's leading representative of modern dance, performs. Tickets are $20.

* May 22, 7:30 p.m. Celebrated folk singer and star of stage and screen Theodore Bikel talks about his new autobiography, "Theo." Tickets are $2.

* May 23-25. The Jewish Film Festival features four films from around the world -- "Coffee With Lemon," "American Shadchan" (American matchmaker), "A Woman's Pale Blue Handwriting" and "The Last Klezmer." Tickets are $6.

All tickets available through TicketMaster. Call (410) 481-SEAT. For performance information, call (410) 356-SHOW.

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