An explosion, a beloved theater saved from foreclosure, a felon redeemed - yes, a year on the Baltimore arts and entertainment scene might have the makings for a great movie. Here's a sample of what made 2007 so dramatic:
New arrivals included Marin Alsop as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the summer's Paetec Jazz Festival, Single Carrot Theatre and the Landmark Theatres multiplex in Harbor East. The Virgin Festival and Free Fall Baltimore made happy returns. Our best and most telegenic shone on reality TV: Lakisha Jones on American Idol, Julienne Irwin on America's Got Talent and Christian Siriano on Project Runway. Even disgraced cop Ed Norris has found his second act as a top-rated radio host.
Hairspray showed a glorious, nostalgic vision of Baltimore. While the Wham City arts collective and the Station North Arts District blossomed, the Senator Theatre teetered at the financial brink but was saved. Preservationists won temporary protection for the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre. And, between the performance and a tetchy propane tank, the BSO had a truly explosive gala in September.
What follows are paeans to our "lucky seven" - some of the most colorful contributors to Maryland's arts scene in 2007.
Guiding the BMA for 10 years
When January brings a $10 million gift, and a few months later you get $5 million more plus a major donation of artworks, it's a pretty good bet you're having a great year.
For Baltimore Museum of Art director Doreen Bolger, everything came up roses in 2007.
She celebrated her 10th anniversary as director, having presided over a decade of change that saw the reinstallation of the museum's famed Cone Collection, major staff reorganizations and important acquisitions.
In just the last year she's overseen a widely acclaimed Matisse sculpture exhibition and garnered an important gift of 77 prints by the artist. She also led the museum through its first full year of free admissions.
"After 10 years, so many things that I hoped for the museum have happened," Bolger said. "The gifts reflect people's realization of how much the arts contribute to Baltimore."
The $10 million gift in January from Baltimore philanthropist Dorothy McIlvain Scott was the largest cash gift from one person in the BMA's 92-year history. It will be used to spruce up the museum's wing for American furniture and decorative arts.
In September, an anonymous donor gave $5 million to endow the director's office. In October, the museum announced the Pierre and Maria-Gaetana Matisse Foundation's gift of prints by the modernist master, worth $600,000.
What's ahead? "I always knew the local arts community had to be an important part of our mission," Bolger says. "That's why I'm glad we're incorporating local artists into our programs and collaborating with the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts for the next three years to present the Sondheim Prize exhibition. The museum is always changing, and I can't even imagine what it will be like in 100 years."
Energizing the BSO
Since the summer of 2005, when she was tapped to be the next music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop has been the topic of cultural life around here. But it was 2007 that really became her year, an unmistakable milestone.
In January, while still officially music director designate, Alsop led an unprecedented combination of the BSO and Peabody Symphony Orchestra in a blockbuster program that, in one fortissimo after another, reaffirmed her energizing style and imaginative ideas. The next month, she conducted the BSO's first program devoted to the music of Philip Glass, a long-overdue acknowledgment of the Baltimore-born composer.
March was newsy, too - a live recording from the January triumph became the BSO's first download on iTunes, a best-seller at that. By September, the orchestra's first commercial recording in eight years was on the shelves, and the BSO became a new presence on XM Satellite Radio, starting with a live broadcast of Alsop's official, tenure-starting concert that month.
The historical nature of her inaugural season - Alsop is the first female music director of a major American orchestra - led to remarkable media coverage, including extended segments aired nationally on PBS and NBC. Although all the attention also meant fresh reminders of the bumpy start to Alsop's association with the BSO (the musicians initially balked when her appointment was announced), the unpleasantness now seems very remote.
With energetic music-making, provocative programming (lots of exposure to eminent living composers), and an audience-friendly personality, Alsop's 2007 adventure has left a vivid impression. Next year, which includes two BSO appearances at Carnegie Hall, promises to be even more eventful.
Creator of 'Mad Men'
No Hollywood writer/producer has enjoyed more success this year than Baltimore-born Matthew Weiner.
The 42-year-old former Park School student won an Emmy for his work on the final season of HBO's The Sopranos (writing the episode in which Christopher dies), and he created what many critics are calling the best new series on television, Mad Men on cable channel AMC.
The richly textured drama about life in a Madison Avenue advertising agency in 1962 has already earned a raft of nominations from the first wave of awards shows - Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America. Expect a bunch of Emmys - and probably a Peabody, too.
Weiner examines the price of success in American life with a wisdom worthy of novelist John O'Hara or playwright Arthur Miller. Mad Men, like no other show on TV, explains how we came to be such a media-saturated and emotionally jangled culture today.
"I will not lie and pretend like I'm not trying to say something about American life," Weiner said. "The real story of the show is about assimilation and upward mobility."
He believes there's a toll taken along the way, particularly for "self-made men" like Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the lead character in Mad Men. Weiner promises to continue to explore the darker aspects of the American Dream throughout the series.
"The story of upward mobility is that you are going to have to give up something that is very important to you if you want to succeed - and giving that up is going to be very painful at some point," he said. "We don't talk much about the painful part in our popular culture."
Ed Norris is clearly our Comeback Player of the Year. In just over two years, he's gone from disgraced former city and state police chief and felon to host of Baltimore's top-rated midday radio show among adults ages 25-49.
"It feels darn good, actually," Norris said, unable to suppress a laugh at the positive media attention his story has garnered. "It's been a great year for me."
Broadcasting may have been the furthest thing from Norris' mind when he came to Baltimore from New York in 2000 to become the city's top cop. Two years later, he left to head the state police. Two years after that, in 2004, he pleaded guilty to conspiring to misuse money from a city police department discretionary fund. He served 180 days.
And now, here he is, big-time local-radio personality, bringing an average of 49,100 adult listeners every week to his show on WHFS-FM (105.7). Listeners who tune in between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. can hear Norris and his guests talk about almost everything - sports, politics, law and order (of course), whatever.
"I never imagined myself becoming a broadcaster," said Norris, 47. "The whole thing, getting my side of the story out and starting a career. ... It's been a great opportunity for me."
And one that he still can't quite wrap his sensibilities around. "It's such a foreign business to me," he said of this voice-on-the-radio gig. "It's really different from the people and organizations I've been used to."
But success isn't his only reward. The radio show, Norris said, has helped him to feel he is making a difference.
"I've had people actually come up to me and say, on numerous occasions, that they've actually voted for the first time, that they've written their congressman, that they've gotten into rehab. ... I feel like I'm contributing, that I'm still a public servant of sorts."
Director of 'Hairspray'
Director-choreographer Adam Shankman succeeded in casting a spectacular light on Baltimore in this town's most nervously anticipated movie: the star-studded big-screen version of the Broadway musical Hairspray (based on the beloved 1988 John Waters comedy).
A Los Angeles native, Shankman won over Charm City skeptics with energy and ebullience, and his go-for-broke merging of early-1960s nostalgia and funk - as well as his attention to local detail, though he shot the film in Toronto.
Shankman says he would have loved to film here if the city had stages big enough for his blow-out numbers, and over the last few years, no filmmaker has brought more business to Baltimore.
As a producer, he mounted the 2006 sleeper hit Step Up, set at the fictional Maryland School of the Arts, on sites such as the Fells Point recreation pier. Its success spurred Step Up 2 (due out Valentine's Day). And from the Los Angeles set of his latest production, Seventeen, featuring Hairspray star Zac Efron, Shankman says that he'll likely return for a Step Up 3.
He praises the Baltimore and Maryland film offices for their enthusiasm and resourcefulness in making the most of the state's financial incentive programs. He agreed that "the incentives could be stronger" but quickly added, "I'm not kvetching!"
When Hairspray made its premiere, many critics and Shankman, too, viewed it as a giant leap forward for the director after films such as The Pacifier. He now says the reviews for Hairspray "were so strong and people loved it so much that they're looking back and thinking maybe those other movies weren't so bad. I feel a little exonerated!"
Next up for Shankman as a director is Bedtime Stories with Adam Sandler.
No matter where he goes from there, Shankman said, "Baltimore will always have a special place in my heart, because my Baltimore-set movies turn out very well and are very successful and very good to me!"
Jamal Roberts and Juan Donovan Bell
Though 2007 was a diamond-studded year for Darkroom Productions Inc., the beat-making duo of Jamal Roberts and Juan Donovan Bell has set its sights much higher for 2008 and beyond.
This past January, Darkroom released Hamsterdam 2: Stash to the Strip, a double album featuring a host of Baltimore MCs. Independently produced and promoted, it went on to sell more than 50,000 copies in the U.S. and Europe. Songs from the album are featured on HBO's drama The Wire.
In March, Roberts and Bell signed a deal with MTV Networks to produce music for shows such as Rob and Big. And in December, they signed a distribution deal with Koch Records.
But the ambitious duo refuses to dwell on the musical achievements of 2007.
"It was good, and we were blessed this year," Bell said. "But if I had to put it on a scale of one to 10, it was probably a one because we've got so far to go."
On Jan. 8, Warner Group will release the official soundtrack to The Wire, which includes several Darkroom Productions tracks. The first single will be "Jail Flick," which features Baltimore MC Diablo rapping over Darkroom Productions beats. A new album with more area MCs is slated for an April release.
"We're still working really, really hard," Bell said. "We want the world."
Maryland's fashion star
He has rubbed elbows with Tim Gunn and Sarah Jessica Parker, basked in the praise for his European-style fashions and braved criticism of his nontraditional designs and unfailing nerve.
It has been quite a year for Annapolis' Christian Siriano, the youngest contestant on Bravo's hit reality show Project Runway - a year he has approached with a mixture of confidence, talent and a wonderful bit of snarkiness.
Despite the ups and downs of the show - sometimes he's one of the favorites; other times he languishes among the least-liked - Siriano has found his brush with fame to be consistently rewarding.
"This experience ... has been so amazing," said Siriano, 21. "I have learned so much about myself and others. I would not change it for the world."
Although he's currently still sleeping on the floor of his New York apartment (with limited funds, it's either new clothes or a mattress), Siriano said he has big plans for 2008.
"I was going to save Britney [Spears]," he said, showing a bit of the wit that keeps fans watching every week. "But I don't have three years for hair and make-up, so I moved on. I will be starting a line to show in the spring. I'm looking into showrooms and financial support for the season. And there also will be a few pieces sold soon on my Web site [christianvsiriano.com]."
Siriano - who graduated from the Baltimore School for the Arts in 2004 - was home over the Christmas holiday, visiting his family in Annapolis and "taking a break from work."
But no hiatus will last too long, he said. The designer has tasted sudden fame and is hungry to get back out in the public eye.
"I'm not going to lie," he said. "I love the attention."