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Grand restoration

Reopened Hippodrome Theatre shares history with The Maryland Theatre in Hagerstown

Reopened Hippodrome Theatre shares history with The Maryland Theatre in Hagerstown

March 29, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

katec@herald-mail.com

BALTIMORE - The Maryland Theatre's big-city sister is back in business - and then some.

The Hippodrome Theatre, the 1914 vaudeville palace designed by architect Thomas Lamb, reopened last month. He also designed The Maryland Theatre, which opened in Hagerstown in 1915.

The Hippodrome is part of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, a 140,000 square-foot entertainment complex in downtown Baltimore. The $63 million project is a partnership of the Hippodrome Foundation, Clear Channel Entertainment and the Maryland Stadium Authority. Clear Channel manages the center and expects to host 275 performances in the 2,286-seat theater in its first year.

The 50-by-108-foot stage, equipped with state-of-the-art technology, can accommodate large and elaborate Broadway touring productions. The Hippodrome's February grand opening featured "The Producers," the theater's first live performance in 50 years.

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"Les Misrables" opens Tuesday, April 13, "Mamma Mia" debuts on Tuesday, May 11, and August will bring "The Phantom of the Opera" to the Charm City. Shows, including "Oklahoma" and "The Lion King," are scheduled through June 2005. But the Hippodrome will feature not only Broadway blockbusters. A variety of entertainment - performances for audiences of many ages and tastes - is planned.

The Hippodrome's restoration was extensive and exacting.

"We were lucky to find the original architectural drawings," said Marks Chowning, the center's executive director.

The original silk wallcovering had been replaced by an "icky" polyester. Everything was an unappealing "dirt brown," he said. The "turban" structure of the box seats at the front of the theater remained, but the boxes and the seats below them had been removed in 1962 to accommodate a Cinemascope screen. The opera boxes have been recreated in their original design - complete with gilded columns and curtained entrances.

A portion of the theater's ceiling and 20 percent of the handpainted 45-by-25-foot mural hanging over the proscenium arch had been destroyed. Athena, the goddess of the arts and the muses of history, lyric poetry, dance and comedy again grace the Hippodrome.

The arts center connects the theater with two other historical buildings - the 1887 Western National Bank, now the theater's north lobby, and the Eutaw Savings Bank, built in 1888. Original architectural features - dentil molding, copper windows, detailed cornices - blend with 21st-century use. Now called the M&T Bank Pavilion, the space is available for receptions and special events.

Chowning called the project the center point of the revitalization of downtown Baltimore. It's been made possible by the quintessential public-private partnership, he said.

The Hippodrome restoration project is more than a job for Chowning. Restoring and reviving historic theaters - helping to create spaces and venues and bring them and their neighborhoods a new life for the future is Chowning's thing. He's worked on similar projects in other cities, including Fredonia, N.Y, New Orleans and San Antonio.

The arts center has saved buildings that are a part of Baltimore and America's cultural history. But it's more than buildings that are being preserved, said Marilyn Waranch, director of public relations for the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.

Visitors have shared stories of attending Hippodrome performances with their grandparents.

Memories also are being preserved, she said.

And new memories will be made.

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