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HIPPODROME DREAMS; Frank Sinatra was their customer and the theater their friend. Now plans to revive the Hippodrome threaten a family's 70-year old business.; COVER STORY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE OLD TAILOR DOESN'T HAVE THE heart to throw away the winter coats, suits, summer dresses and trousers left behind by those who abandoned the city. Wrapped in cellophane, the garments hang from a dusty clothes carousel that stopped spinning long ago in his North Eutaw Street shop. The three-piece, pin-striped disco suit, the 1960s Gidget petticoat and the cotton seersucker dresses -- the styles of the clothing reveal when their owners left.

Over the past 50 years, Sam Boulmetis watched the downtown shopping crowd thin through the front window of his tailor shop as one out of every three Baltimoreans -- 300,000 in all -- found a ribbon of new highway beckoning them to the suburbs.

At 76, Boulmetis still hoists the rolling steel security gates of his store each day to toil beneath the arched lamp lighting his sewing machine. Though his back is hunched from decades of work, his eyes still thrill at the sight of a customer returning from a three-year prison stint to find his best jacket waiting on the carousel.

"They have no family or friends, nothing," Boulmetis says. "But at least they know their suit will be here. It gives them hope."

Hugging this one strip of asphalt -- City Block 632 -- three generations of the Boulmetis family watched nearly a century of city life unfold.

Here, Eutaw Street once throbbed with crowds crossing town on electric trolleys to the shopping, financial and theater district. The 8,000-bulb marquee of the Hippodrome Theater in the middle of the block bathed the entire street in its prosperous glow.

Louis "Pops" Boulmetis, Sam's father, opened the family's hat shop across from the theater in 1930, in time to ride the Hippodrome's soaring popularity.

After the war, Sam and his brother, Tom, opened the cleaners and tailor alongside their dad, allowing road-weary vaudeville performers to simply cross the street to get stitched, shined, pressed and clipped. It wasn't uncommon to see Red Skelton, the Three Stooges or a young crooner named Frank Sinatra step through the front door.

The family relied on the theater business so much, they named their shops for it: Hippodrome Hatters and Hippodrome Cleaners and Tailors.

Today, the Hippodrome sits boarded up, the marquee lights have been dark eight years and time has worn down the once-stately interior. City redevelopment leaders and appraisers walk up and down the street, clipboards in hand, staring at building facades soiled black by diesel exhaust.

Two months ago, the City Council introduced legislation condemning every Eutaw Street property between Baltimore and Fayette streets. With a new century dawning, business and political leaders plan to renew downtown Baltimore with a $350 million, 18-block face lift, beginning here.

A $53 million renovation of the Hippodrome to house Broadway shows serves as the project catalyst, turning the theater that once carried the Boulmetises through a Depression and two World Wars into a likely cause of the family's eviction.

On a recent afternoon, a visitor steps through the door of Hippodrome Hatters, transfixed by a cardboard poster of Clark Gable in a riverboat gambler's hat. Like a jukebox whose buttons have been pushed, Sam's nephew, Lou, spits out the tale of how Gable himself stood at the Hippodrome, handing out cigars and drinks during Baltimore's 1939 premiere of "Gone With the Wind."

The visitor stares across the street at the ghostly marquee, fluorescent tubes visible through white plastic cracked like broken teeth. He squints at the dilapidated theater, trying to imagine.

OPENING NIGHT

The curtain rose on Nov. 23, 1914.

Baltimore theater promoters Marion Pearce and Philip Scheck had hired Scottish designer Thomas Lamb to create the 3,000-seat theater, the largest south of Philadelphia. The owners poured $225,000 into their venture, a project that would cost $100 million to build today.

Mayor James Preston joined opening-night patrons gawking at the gilded leaves, plaster cherubs and Gothic pillars framing the 43-foot stage. Curtains draped the walls above luxurious opera boxes, an exclamation point of palatial elegance.

Ushers wearing light-gray suits guided patrons to their seats through the gold and brown theater covered in three miles of red carpeting. The shadows of musicians rose from the orchestra pit, their first selection swelling from a low tremble into a piercing blare depicting the breaking of dawn.

Stage lights bloomed, and the Hippodrome at 12 N. Eutaw St. officially opened.

Seven vaudeville acts including elephants, a foot juggler twirling axes, comedians and chorus girls followed. Critics called three of them unworthy of the 50-cent ticket price, five times the going rate at comparable theaters.

Outside on Eutaw Street, the whiz, rumble and clang of electric trolleys sliced through teeming crowds of shoppers and theater-goers. Each afternoon, a brigade of police motorcycles, lights flashing, escorted armored trucks from Pimlico Race Track to the vaults of the Eutaw Street banks, hauling the broken dreams of unlucky gamblers.

With its Venetian stained-glass, bronze doorway and Corinthian columns, the Eutaw Savings Bank anchored the north end of the block at 20 N. Eutaw St. Next door, Western National Bank gleamed with white marble from Cockeysville's Beaver Dam quarries and teller islands topped by cages built with Bethlehem Steel to protect accounts dating back to the Civil War.

Shoppers could get anything they wanted on Eutaw Street. Grover Koontz sold signs and shared space with outfitter Hugh Lyon & Co. at 1 N. Eutaw. Morris Lazarus and Louis Schulman sold jewelry.

But the Hippodrome was the neighborhood's main attraction. Its size and luxury, however, became its greatest hindrance. Smaller surrounding theaters -- the Maryland, New Lyceum, Palace or Ford's Opera House -- nibbled at Hippodrome crowds as the motion-picture industry blossomed, forcing Pearce and Scheck to sell in just three years.

Loew's Theaters of New York held it for seven years, unable to stop the financial hemorrhaging. The October 1929 stock market crash spelled the official end to the Hippodrome's first act.

BUILDING A FUTURE

A year after the Hippodrome opened, 18-year-old Lou Boulmetis stepped off a Greek freighter in Baltimore harbor. With World War I in full swing, German U-boats combed the Atlantic Ocean vowing to sink foreign vessels. The submarines torpedoed Boulmetis' former ship on its return trip, all hands lost.

The young immigrant worked at St. Louis Cleaners, renting a room above the Guilford Street shop while learning how to press, clean and steam. With money saved, he married and fathered two sons, stepping out on his own in 1930 by buying the hat shop at 9 N. Eutaw St. In showbiz, timing is everything, and Boulmetis sat perched for the rebirth of the Hippodrome.

Isadore Rappaport, a 28-year-old New Jersey theater manager, leased the vacant theater after a disappointing tour of the Palace Theater for sale around the corner.

With Noel Coward charm and biting business acumen, Rappaport earned the nickname "Mr. Showbiz," handling everything from booking national vaudeville acts to hiring concession clerks. He scrutinized singers and dancers, censoring off-color jokes that might offend immigrant customers.

The theater's reopening on Aug. 28, 1931, featured comedian Georgie Jessel -- the Robin Williams of his day -- sprinting on and off stage in a double-breasted tuxedo, flinging wisecracks.

"The Depression is so bad now," Jessel quipped, "the squirrels in Druid Hill Park are giving the peanuts back to the people."

Rappaport lured patrons back with every gimmick possible, mounting fake jungle foliage and safari animals on the marquee in 1932 to tout American explorer Frank Buck's film, "Bring 'Em Back Alive." When World War II brought the Big Band era, Rappaport jumped in full swing, booking acts such as Woody Herman, Jimmy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo and Glenn Miller.

From across the street, Meyer "Mike" Peisach watched the carnival from his father's sewing machine shop. "When the lights went on at the Hippodrome," Peisach says, "the whole block glowed."

Rappaport made his mark on American entertainment history by giving exposure to Abbott and Costello and allowing a young comic named Milton Berle to make his vaudeville debut.

With the theater thriving, Eutaw Street sprouted newsstands, restaurants, clothing stores and jewelers. One day in 1941, Frank Sinatra brought his hat into Boulmetis' shop. Pops cleaned and shaped it, handing it back, no charge, saying: "Break a leg, kid."

Singers, dancers, dogs, jugglers, musicians and acrobats roosted in the wings of the Hippodrome as patrons wrapped around the alley starting in the morning to wait for tickets. Prices escalated throughout the day from the 25-cent matinees to 50 cents after 6 p.m.

"When you saw somebody running along a downtown street," Rappaport would later write, "chances were they were running to the Hipp to beat the price change."

Boulmetis added to the circus atmosphere, hiring a platoon of tap-dancing bootblacks to brush the gleam into Eutaw Street soles. Shiners like Wild Billy Stewart became legends. As the story goes, Wild Bill danced into the middle of Eutaw Street one afternoon, heels clicking and clacking off the asphalt, the crazy fool.

The whole block froze: shoppers, street-car riders, waiting theater patrons. Moe, Larry and Curly watched, too. The Three Stooges stood camouflaged by the Hippodrome crowd, mesmerized by Wild Bill's neon smile and electric feet.

They signed him on the spot and took him on the road. Yet only a few weeks passed before Wild Bill came dragging back. His feet could jump and rattle as if they had a life of their own, but when he had to be somewhere, sometimes they weighed heavy as sandbags. After he showed up late for a Midwest show, the Stooges sent Wild Bill packing.

He returned to Eutaw Street, occasionally slapping his soles off the Hippodrome's hardwood stage as an opening act. But his brush with stardom ended, as would the Hippodrome's heyday.

END OF THE RUN

The curtain fell on Baltimore vaudeville May 31, 1951. Pee Wee King and his Golden West Cowboys performed as the last act before Rappaport pulled them aside, saying, "Fellas, it's over."

Television brought personal Hippodromes into living rooms, with Sinatra, Skelton and "Uncle Miltie" Berle.

The Hipp survived a few more years as a movie house until Rappaport, still longing for the vaudeville heyday, sold it to Trans Lux Theaters of New York in 1962.

A year later, black patrons entered the Hippodrome for the first time, to watch "Ben Hur." With Baltimore institutions long segregated, blacks had created their own theaters, the Bridge, the Lafayette, the Regent and the Hippodrome's uptown rival -- the Royal, home of jazz greats Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday and Pearl Bailey.

The Hippodrome limped through the '60s, banking on kung-fu movies and "blaxploitation" films. In 1967, the theater caught fire during a showing of "Gone With the Wind." While images of a burning Atlanta flickered on the screen, a cigarette smoldered in a theater trash can and patrons fled, foreshadowing the turmoil about to grip Baltimore.

In April 1968, the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King ignited rioting and looting throughout the city. On Eutaw Street, National Guard troops set up machine gun nests on the marble steps of Western National Bank.

That same year, Sam and Nick Pooner brought their steel security gates to Baltimore, turning blocks like those on Eutaw Street into fortresses.

The Baltimore security business became so profitable that the Pooners moved their century-old company from Philadelphia. How many Baltimore stores have the Pooners covered over the last three decades? "How many stars in the sky?" Sam Pooner replies.

The Boulmetises held out until the insurance discounts for installing the security gates became too good to ignore. The city exodus accelerated, drugs found their way into the Baltimore bloodstream and smash-and-grab shop robberies became commonplace.

Eutaw Street transformed into a dollar-store economy, anchored by Sunny's Surplus on the south, surrounded by wholesale outlets selling everything from beauty aids to wigs. With the shutdown of 250 city factories and a loss of 40,000 jobs, pawn shops became downtown's fastest growing industry, targeting the growing number of poor city residents unable to meet stiffer bank-loan requirements. The Eutaw Street banks merged and closed, following the money out to the suburbs.

Rappaport died in 1973. At 71, he was most remembered for turning the Hippodrome into one of the top vaudeville showcases in America.

A FAMILY TRADITION

Pops Boulmetis died in 1984, five years before the Hippodrome's marquee dimmed for good and the doors were sealed.

By then, Boulmetis' grandson and namesake, Lou, had pushed the family evolution forward, graduating from the University of Baltimore with a business degree. He could have easily become one of those downtown pressed shirts, with a nice car, benefits. But remembering the haze of steam and cigar smoke he had ducked through as a knee-high tyke in his grandfather's shop, he was unable to ignore the nostalgic call to keep the 54-year-old hat shop alive.

Today, fine orange powder collects on the exposed red-brick wall ledge inside the front door of his 189-year-old building. "If that wall could talk," he says, "it would tell us how it heard the cannons being fired on Fort McHenry."

Through the rows of Italian bowlers, Panamas and tweed caps resting side by side on wooden shelves in the window, the 46-year-old Boulmetis stares at the blighted theater. Blue jeans and T-shirts of the homeless lie limp over the rusting fire escape, gaps of stairs missing where the heels of thousands of theater patrons once clanged off metal steps at a four-show-a-day pulse.

Continental Realty, the building's last owner, donated it to the University of Maryland two years ago after failing to find a buyer. The 25-acre university campus behind the Hippodrome has over the last three decades grown to 25,000 graduate students and employees, a city within a city. Orange construction netting, pounding jackhammers and industrial cranes signal $700 million in new university projects.

The school hedged on how to condemn the old Aug. Mencken & Co. property at Baltimore and Eutaw streets, where the city's legendary scribe first set eyes on the world. Then fierce winds buckled the building, as if God and H.L. Mencken himself were endorsing the Hippodrome plan.

Such events fueled the hopes of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, which owns 6 percent of the downtown land to be redeveloped. Before his death in 1990, Harry Weinberg amassed 47 downtown properties, including the former Stewart's department store at Lexington and Howard streets.

For years, city leaders hoping to spread the Inner Harbor prosperity north blamed downtown's decay on Weinberg, a cantankerous Ernest Borgnine look-alike who left his millions to charity, yet held onto a stubborn real estate strategy: God isn't making any more land, so sit on what you own.

Bernard Siegel, Weinberg's accountant and now president of the foundation, suggested the West Side redevelopment plan two years ago.

"This area has lost its identity, it's suffering," Siegel says. "This is our last best chance."

LOOKING AHEAD

The condemnation plans torment Lou Boulmetis. He has heard planners say that he could rent or buy one of the new shops, but estimates his monthly expenses would triple.

His neighbor, Gene Petasky, will become the third generation of his family to lose a business to the city when it buys out his pawn and jewelry shop. Petasky's father lost his 10 Market Place bar to the Brokerage in 1975, and the Baltimore Police Department now occupies the site of his grandfather's Army-Navy store.

"They're talking about my life," the 48-year-old father of three says. "I stayed through the bad years, some terrible times."

Three years ago, teen-agers burst into his store brandishing pistols, smashing the jewelry case with a hammer and making off with $40,000 in Rolex watches.

Such incidents make Boulmetis think the cash the city will give him for his shop may allow him to pay off his mortgage early. Yet something deep inside tells him to stay and fight for his grandfather and his dad and anyone who ever stepped off a Greek freighter, for Baltimore and red bricks and all that is good about urban life.

Boulmetis wants to carry the family business into the 21st century. He recently received an order for a hat from an Indiana man who never stepped foot on Eutaw Street.

The customer found the hat shop online, through Boulmetis' new Web site: www.hiphats.com.

GOOD BONES

Through a giant hole in the Hippodrome stage roof, the sun shines down on a metal red-and-white sign from happier times: "Hot Dogs 50c, Popcorn 15c." Plaster flakes onto empty seats, the laughter that once bounced off the Hippodrome's cavernous walls now mere echoes of a Baltimore past.

Curtains sponge up the damp, musty legacy of the broken sprinkler system that showered the place during a cold snap years ago. Tattered stage ropes hang lifeless, the railing of the marble staircase gone, the arched mural of the begowned Muses -- the spirits of the arts -- curled and fallen to the floor.

Stewart Jones knows the value of restoring the Hippodrome. As lead theater architect for Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, he has restored theater wrecks from Honolulu to Columbus, Ohio.

The 120-member firm helped chase seedy X-rated theaters from Times Square in New York by redeveloping 42nd Street's Amsterdam and New Victory Theaters, turning America's most infamous block into brew pubs, coffee houses and a Disney Store.

The architects see the Hippodrome as a model candidate because Thomas Lamb built it. Theater design students now study Lamb the way baseball enthusiasts research Babe Ruth. Jones knows the walls and floors are solid, made with the finest material.

"Even though it looks pretty tough," he says of the Hippodrome, "it has the bones to work with, to transform it."

IN THE SHADOWS

Across from the Hippodrome, at 17 N. Eutaw, the walls of Gimani's Hair Designs throb to rap music:

With all the money that we can make, why you cats want to blame and hate?

Do you wanna make money, do you wanna make money, do you wanna make money with me?

As a young, black shop owner, Vincent Maidu stands apart in a city where half of fellow African-American men ages 18 to 34 have been arrested, face criminal charges or live on probation. He has stayed through tough times, too.

Two years ago, he scrambled for a new place to rent after an exterminator found a body on the fourth floor of his Saratoga Street shop. The homeless victim wore a T-shirt that read: "It's amazing how I stay so young for such a long, long time." Police caught the murderer, but customers were spooked. Eutaw Street saved Maidu's business.

Black entrepreneurs who rent the downtown shops abandoned by white owners worry that they will not prosper from the area's renovation. All they have to do is look south for evidence, to the Inner Harbor.

Seven years ago, the Rev. Douglas Miles, leader of 200 black city pastors in the Interdenominational Alliance, surveyed Inner Harbor companies and discovered that blacks made up less than 5 percent of the ranks of upper management and less than 20 percent of middle management.

"Baltimore has been reduced to being a playground for the rich and a place for poor people to sleep," says Miles, who helped integrate the Hippodrome 26 years ago. "The Hippodrome is not being built to accommodate the citizens of Baltimore. It's being built to accommodate the crowd at Inner Harbor."

Plans would allow theater patrons to drive to the Hippodrome, park in an adjacent garage and enter through a skywalk, their feet never touching a city sidewalk.

"The people who come to Baltimore to play," Miles said, "don't ever have to see poor people."

BACK TO THE FUTURE

Steve Bernhardt strolls through Baltimore's past, present and future every morning.

The president of Baltimore Equitable Insurance at 21 N. Eutaw St. lives a mile south of the historic office building that houses the state's sixth oldest company.

Founded in 1794, Equitable remains the only insurance company that didn't go bankrupt paying claims on the massive 1904 city fire that devoured 1,500 downtown buildings. City planners have already placed a big "H" over the property, saving it from condemnation for its historical value.

From his Otterbein home, Bernhardt walks among the red bricks of old Baltimore and the orange bricks of renewal. The 29-story Harbor Court Hotel now blocks the harbor view in a neighborhood where rowhouses, once sold for $1, are untouchable today for less than $200,000.

Hundreds of morning-rush-hour cars stream past Pratt and Light streets where decrepit warehouses 20 years ago prompted Life magazine to label the area the "ugliest intersection" in America. Today, giant convention hotels and a serrated glass horizon tower over it.

"This was Nowheresville," Bernhardt says. "Now we're in the middle of Hollywood and Vine."

The downtown progress screeches to a halt at Howard and Baltimore streets. As if stepping from Technicolor into black and white, Bernhardt sees dingy shops draped in 40-year-old awnings, one out of every four vacant. The Pooners' steel security gates rise like weeds on a freshly mowed lawn.

"You're only a block and a half from where the university begins," Bernhardt says. "If you make the Hippodrome happen, the job is practically done."

He marches onto Eutaw Street, where developer Sam Gorn has restored the bank buildings by pouring $13 million into the interiors, Tiffany windows and all. He transformed the banks -- now banquet rooms -- into Eutaw Street's secret garden, a logical lobby for the restored theater.

Passing the steel gates of his neighbors' shops, still sleeping, Bernhardt reaches the stately brownstone steps of his building, looks up and sighs: "Ah, civilization."

Inside, a waist-high wooden teller counter gives the place the look of the Bailey Bros. Savings and Loan operated by Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life."

Stewart's voice can almost be heard delivering his impassioned speech to save the town. "You're thinking of this all wrong, as if I had the money back in the safe. Your money's in Joe's house, that's right next to yours and in the Kennedy house and Mrs. Makelin's house and a hundred others."

ANOTHER OPENING NIGHT

The Hippodrome glows again below swirling spotlights, red letters on the marquee proclaiming "LION KING." Theater patrons -- black and white -- in ball gowns and dark suits glide toward the theater as shiny black limousines idle in the street.

The Boulmetis hat shop is gone. So is Hippodrome Cleaners and Tailors and Gimani's. In their place stands a seven-story apartment and shopping complex. Pooner steel security gates are absent.

"It's pie in the sky," Lou Boulmetis says, looking at the architectural drawings. "Where are the buses? Where are the methadone clinics?"

Yet deep in the picture, planners see the spirit of Eutaw Street revived, Wild Billy Stewart tap dancing, heels clicking and clacking on the asphalt.

Crazy fool.

An article on the Hippodrome Theater in Sunday's Arts and Society section of The Sun inaccurately reported the year the theater desegregated. The Hippodrome admitted its first African-American patrons in 1958, four years before owner Isadore Rappaport sold the theater. The Sun regrets the errors.
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