This week's high drama at the Senator Theatre reminded me that owning and maintaining an old entertainment palace is not easy. Put your name on a theatrical mortgage at your own financial and mental peril.
The lights of the marquee may impart excitement and glamour. But the anxiety involved with keeping up a roof, walls, furnace and upholstery in a house that seats hundreds of people is a killer. And what about the bank that holds the deed?
Two summers ago, I was walking along Baltimore Street and spotted an open door at the Morris Mechanic Theatre, which, at that point, had ceased being an operating entertainment venue. Being a snoop, I walked in and gasped at the sight. Demolition workers were gutting the interior of what was once Baltimore's principal playhouse. The auditorium had been pulverized.
Where was the stage magic and all the performers I'd seen here? I can remember a stylish opening night in 1967 and thought of all those happy nights thereafter. Where were Rex Harrison, Cab Calloway, Ginger Rogers or Lauren Bacall now?
The state and other benefactors spent $65 million to reopen the Hippodrome in 2004. True, I still get a thrill when I observe the lights around the marquee and consider that a 1914 playhouse is still up and running.
But the Mechanic is now the subject of its own preservation battle. Its auditorium is toast, and lots of people are scratching their heads over what to do with a landmark of 1960s architecture and urban renewal.
The ghosts of Baltimore's vanished theaters drift through nearly every neighborhood. Some are just parking lots. Others were refitted as churches or food markets.
A few weeks ago, in another theater auction, the beleaguered and long-closed Ambassador on Liberty Heights Avenue could not even attract a serious bidder.
No wonder the board of the little Everyman Theatre asked for more time before it embarked upon renovating the old Towne Theater on Fayette Street in downtown Baltimore. It would be great, in theory, for the Towne to be reopened for entertainment. But the costs of taking on a 100-year-old building, where films haven't been shown for many years, is enormous. Maybe Everyman should stay small and stay put.
Let's not forget about the financial needs of the 1894 Lyric Opera House. It's a building that's worked hard and long to provide Baltimoreans with a night out of live music or drama. The aged Lyric needs constant maintenance and upkeep. And to make matters worse, its principal tenant, our beloved Baltimore Opera Company, went bust during the current economic hard times. I'm glad I went to Aida twice last fall. It might be a long time before the trumpets sound Verdi's triumphal march on Mount Royal Avenue.
We won't even talk about the city's ownership of the old Parkway Theater on North Avenue. Who will come to its rescue?
Over the years I've known some of Baltimore's intrepid show business people. Clarisse Mechanic and her brother, bandleader Blue Barron, ran the theater named for her husband, who died during its construction. The Mechanics paid for the enterprise in the mid-1960s out of their own pockets. I think of Hope Quackenbush, who toiled to keep the good shows coming to Baltimore. I think of Mebane Turner, who campaigns so long and hard for the Lyric. They all earned the medals. It's not easy to give an audience a good time.