Hippodrome's first hurrahs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As it marks the one-year anniversary of its opening, the renovated Hippodrome Theatre has been a hit in most respects, but an under-performer in some others.

During its first year, the theater generated $46.1 million in sales in Maryland, $39.6 million of which were in Baltimore City, according to preliminary figures from an economic impact study commissioned by Clear Channel Entertainment, which operates the theater, WestSide Renaissance Inc., and the Hippodrome Foundation. The figures include expenditures for catering, construction services during productions, hotel rooms, and fees to anyone providing a service on behalf of the Hippodrome, such as accountants.

Attendance at the Hippodrome, the centerpiece of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, was slightly below projections, however. Original expectations were for 85 percent capacity and 400,000 in attendance. Final figures were just under 78 percent, with attendance just over 350,000, said Marks Chowning, executive director of the Hippodrome and a vice president of Clear Channel Entertainment.

The first anniversary of the theater's reopening will be celebrated tonight with the world premiere of ShowTime at the Hippodrome, Academy Awardwinning filmmaker Bill Whiteford's documentary about the history and restoration of the 1914 vaudeville palace.

Chowning attributed most of the shortfall in expected attendance to the decision by the producers of The Phantom of the Opera to trim two weeks from its scheduled eight-week run. He said those weeks could have added 36,000 theatergoers.

Phantom's early departure was especially disappointing because the show exemplified the type of large-scale production that no Baltimore theater could accommodate before the Hippodrome's renovation.

The Producers was another show that couldn't have played Baltimore before. In this case, the show ran five weeks and grossed an average of just over $900,000 per week, setting a Baltimore record, Chowning said. (That record was broken two months later by Mamma Mia!, which topped $1 million in each of its final two weeks.)

Both Phantom and The Producers looked magnificent in the ornate 2,286-seat Hippodrome. And though the first year's subscription offerings were all Broadway musicals, the theater took some risks in its non-subscription attractions, such as Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam, which played two engagements.

The Hippodrome also appears to be having a positive influence on the surrounding area. "It's brought people who haven't been downtown in years back to the area. We're seeing new residential development. We're seeing new restaurants. We're seeing leasing continue to be strong," said Sharon Grinnell, chief operating officer of the Baltimore Development Corp.

The Hippodrome is part of Baltimore's old retail district, once the setting for department stores and numerous smaller shops. The department stores started moving out in the 1970s, and the area entered a period of decline, with many storefronts vacant or leased by low-end retailers. Today, with the Hippodrome as the centerpiece for revitalization efforts, the area is on the way back, with some buildings improved or targeted for renovation. Still, many older buildings need repairs, underscoring the impression that the area has a way to go.

West side development plans announced within the past year include: new offices and shops in the 400 block of E. Baltimore St.; apartments in the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s historic west tower on Liberty Street; and an Irish pub and restaurant.

"The Hippodrome has the effect of making the area more of a neighborhood," said David Hillman, president of Southern Management Corp., owner of a 173-unit apartment project near the Hippodrome. "There's more life on the street, as they say."

"It's a banner for the reality of the west side," said Ronald Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance, a nonprofit business group. "What I'm sensing is a lot of increased confidence. SHATZKSHERLO

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