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Upbeat report card for Hippodrome's 10th anniversary

Ten years after the Hippodrome reopened its doors, revealing an extraordinary makeover to a long-neglected, century-old Baltimore landmark, the theater appears to be humming along nicely.

That has been especially true during the past couple of weeks, with people crammed into the place for "The Book of Mormon," the multi-award winning, one-show-offends-all musical that is part of the 2013-2014 Broadway Across America series at the Hippodrome.

"There is no hole in the boat here," said Jeff Daniel, outgoing president of the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.

Not long ago, it looked as if the 2,200-seat Hippodrome had sprung several leaks.

There was a steady decline in attendance after the peak during the inaugural season, when about 400,000 people came through the doors, and there were over 14,000 subscribers. Seven years later, those figures were 184,000 and 8,200, respectively.

On top of that, a complex deal involving capital costs saddled the Hippodrome with about $1 million in annual utility bills.

The numbers look much better today.

Daniel, who, after five years here, is relocating to New York this summer to be executive vice president for business operations of Broadway Across America, said that average attendance over the Hippodrome's first decade is 250,000.

Daniel had expected a significant bump in subscribers this season because of "Mormon," because subscribers would get first crack at tickets to this hit show. The bump didn't happen.

But single tickets are been strong all season. "Our numbers will change due to the cyclical nature of the business," Daniel, 43, said. "Just one mega-musical can cause a 30,000 to 40,000 swing in attendance."

The total number of subscribers remains has moved up since the low point a few years ago.

"Our very comfortable average of 9,000 to 9,500 subscribers may not be the highest number in the country, but we have had the highest or second highest renewal rate in [Broadway Across America's] 40 markets," Daniel said.

That renewal rate is about 80 percent.

The utility bill situation has improved. A new arrangement worked out with the Maryland Stadium Authority has nearly halved the annual expense.

"The Broadway theater where 'Spider Man' was playing, with all of that stage equipment, had a bill $400,000 less than ours," Daniel said. "Now we are more like that theater, paying between $500,000 and $550,000 a year. This has given us more room to breathe."

Getting the bill even lower would relieve considerable pressure on the Hippodrome, but Daniel said the present situation is manageable.

"In a city with the needs we have, I'm reluctant to ask for more money," he said. "Maybe a large sponsor comes in one day and takes care of it. Just cutting that bill in half would make us more like a typical theater."

Daniel added that the Hippodrome is not running a deficit and is meeting its annual commitment to the state of $1.7 million in net revenue, partly raised by a $2 bond fee for every ticket. If a drop in attendance causes a shortfall, the Broadway Across America pays the state the difference.

Speaking of the state, Daniel said that studies show that the Hippodrome's annual impact on Maryland is $28 million, with $10 million to $12 million of that Baltimore's share.

"I am very confident about where the Hippodrome is at this point," said Ron Legler, president of the Florida Theatrical Association in Orlando, who will succeed Daniel as Hippodrome president in May. "Coming up on the theater's 100th anniversary [November 23], we want to keep that momentum going."

The incoming president has been encouraged by some of the statistics he has learned.

"Jeff has been sharing data with me that shows 90 percent of the audience is from Baltimore," Legler, 46, said. "Most people see no reason to go to other theaters to see productions that will play the Hippodrome."

Legler is used to a Broadway series like the Hippodrome; the one in Orlando also has about 9,000 subscribers and an 80 percent renewal rate.

"It's a very loyal base," Legler, 46, said. "But, obviously, growing that number is always a concern."

That's a concern he was for Baltimore, too. But Legler won't be focusing solely on boosting subscriptions.

"I also want to reach out to people who are not typical ticket buyers, or have never been exposed to theater," he said. "Getting people to the Hippodrome more and more often, and getting them to return, is the key; that's what keeps an arts center successful."

Fluctuations in attendance, which have a great deal to do with the shows being presented each season, do not seem to worry Legler.

"Empty seats can be an opportunity to find partnerships in the city," he said. "It could be girls and boys clubs, to help build young audiences and maybe turn them into ticket holders in the future. It's about accessibility to the community. My job has to be serving the community and its needs."

An emphasis on outreach and development, along with his track record in Orlando at spurring neighborhood redevelopment, is one reason Legler, a former chairman of that city's Downtown Arts District, was hired by the Hippodrome.

"When I got to Orlando 13 years ago, Church Street had slipped off to a no man's land," he said. "Then we had the Empty Spaces Theatre Company starting up. The Fringe Festival came in and occupied empty buildings. There were art walks. That energy got people looking at downtown again, walking the streets again and feeling comfortable."

Making the area around the Hippodrome, part of the Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District, safer and more inviting has been a goal since the theater opened in Feb. 10, 2004. For several years, the venue was something of an outpost in a west side neighborhood of vacant or rundown buildings and bursts of crime.

The drooping attendance at the Hippodrome after the inaugural season coincided with the slow progress of redevelopment in the district. But things have changed considerably in the past two or three years, especially with the arrival last winter of Everyman Theatre around the corner.

More eateries have opened, including, just last month, the restaurant Forno directly across the street from the Hippodrome.

"You can see the differences in the neighborhood," Daniel said, "and it feels different. We still need three or four wine bars and a jazz venue. We're going to get there. People are starting to work together. Some of the most gratifying work I've done has been in the neighborhood with Vinny [Everyman artistic director Vincent Lancisi] and the Mayor's office. Ron is the right person to continue this engagement."

Daniel has attempted to make the Hippodrome much more than an attractive place for touring Broadway shows to stop by.

In association with the Hippodrome Foundation, he has encouraged broader use of the center. Soulful Symphony, which focuses on musicians of color, makes its home there. The foundation holds popular theater camps each summer. Assorted dance events are sprinkled through the calendar, and there have been discussions about bringing the Pennsylvania Ballet for an annual residency.

Broadway Across America helped launch money an arts fund at the Hippodrome in 2011 to help the foundation present more projects. That fund is now around $250,000.

"If the arts fund works the way it's supposed to," Daniel said, "the Hippodrome will pick up 20 to 30 performances a year that will translate into higher annual attendance."

Daniel also envisions inviting art galleries putting up displays in the lobby, where the work could be seen by thousands.

Legler thinks along the same lines. He is especially interested in the underutilized M&T; Bank Pavilion, which is part of the France-Merrick center.

"The pavilion offers such an incredible opportunity," Legler said. "I think having that space available could energize local artists and help us get some programming in there on nights that are dead."

As for the Broadway programming, Daniel will continue to guide that from his New York office, where he will also oversee theaters in Boston and Minneapolis operated by Broadway Across America.

Having a friend in high places may not mean the Hippodrome will get more shows before the Kennedy Center does (a long standing sort point for some Baltimore theater fans), but "being in New York probably will give me better exposure to the people making decisions about shows," Daniel said. "I think it will be a better platform."

The outgoing president plans to stay connected to Maryland in other ways. His to-do list includes lobbying for tax credits, like those for the film industry, to "benefit theaters that create work here. I am not talking $10 million, but just a couple million in breaks," Daniel said. "A secondary live entertainment tax credit exists in other states."

Daniel will be leaving day-to-day decisions at the Hippodrome to Legler. "We hired someone who can take things to the next level," he said. "I will try to give Ron the tools."

For his part, Legler said he feels "ready to take on the challenge of Baltimore, which is an amazing city. People are so friendly. After the story about my hiring came out, I had so many friend requests on Facebook. It's a very warm feeling," he said. "The community feels very genuine."

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