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Hope restored


IT'S ANOTHER opening, another show tomorrow at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre.

The $62 million renovation, in which the much-mourned vaudeville house was polished up and tucked into a blocklong series of new and rehabbed buildings to become the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, is complete. The cast and crew of Broadway smash The Producers are waiting in the wings. The elegant dresses and pricey suits are hanging in closets, ready to adorn some 2,250 opening-night patrons, who will pass by hand-drawn faux marble wainscoting and felt-styled wallpaper on their way to their plush but cozy seats.

When the rows of clear bulbs light the giant marquee outside, and the crowd glides through the lobby with its great green glass and side-sweeping staircases, even the most skeptical of Baltimoreans will have to concede that something special has happened here. Financiers, politicians, artisans and craftspeople have revived a piece of city history, pulling it through a postmodern looking glass and back into yeoman service.

And it must carry a heavy load. This is the jewel of the west side's development plans, the one that must entice patrons downtown in droves to goose the next phases of renewal. Good shows, and good word-of-mouth, are essential.

Early signs are good. Subscriptions to this year's season, with performances at both the Hippodrome and the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, have more than tripled last season at the Mechanic alone. Better foot traffic from the Atrium apartment complex and the University of Maryland law school -- as well as the many construction workers -- have boosted sales at Lexington Market, itself in the midst of a makeover success story.

This may be the tipping point, but neighborhood success doesn't happen overnight. In New York, for example, it has taken a decade for the Brooklyn Academy of Music to spread its influence -- and its patrons -- across its neighborhood. Ditto in Cleveland, where the restoration of two theaters now draws 400,000 people a year to downtown.

Clear Channel Entertainment, which manages the Hippodrome, plans 200 performances and predicts 400,000 patrons at the theater each year. That should stir up some ghosts -- perhaps echoes of the Banana Man, Burns and Allen, Cab Calloway, Dinah Shore or Frank Sinatra, all bidding Baltimoreans a hearty welcome back. And on with the show.

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