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Supporting cast has high hopes for theater

February 05, 2007|by JANET HEIM

In 1982, he crossed The Maryland Theatre stage to receive his diploma from Smithsburg High School. More than 20 years later, Brian Sullivan was on that stage again - this time as executive director of the theater.

Hired in 2005, Sullivan brought lots of experience working in old theaters and arts organizations across the country.

"One of the reasons we're excited about the theater is the executive director," said Maryland Theatre Board President Ron Bowers. "He has a wealth of knowledge of the arts. He understands the lingo; he understands the stage."

Having recently marked his first anniversary as executive director, Sullivan is also celebrating the addition of four members to a board of directors.

"I was thrilled with the caliber of ideas," Sullivan said after last month's board meeting, the first with the new members.

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"I can't be more proud of a board than what we've put together," said Bowers, who has been on the board for about five years.

All on board

Sullivan said he and the board have two missions - to take care of the "beautiful theater," and integrating arts into the theater.

In addition to Sullivan, the theater's board of directors has 14 members, each serving three-year terms. Both Sullivan and Bowers think the board represents a good mix of arts interests and backgrounds.

New faces on the board this year include Jamie Cannon, a lawyer for Frederick County Public Schools; Don Hoffman, owner of Hoffman's Meats; Elizabeth Morgan, superintendent of Washington County Public Schools; and Spence Perry, a retiree who has been involved with the arts in the county for a long time.

Three's company

Sullivan said people are surprised to learn only three people are on the theater's full-time staff - an executive director, an office manager and a technical director. The latter maintains the 92-year-old stage and theater.

Volunteers serve as ushers and work the concession stand.

About 90,000 patrons come to events at the theater each year, Sullivan said. In all, it seats 1,377 on a main floor, on a balcony and in raised box seats on the sides.

Sullivan said it's a pleasure knowing that people from every ZIP code in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have bought tickets.

Those visitors are good for the local economy - often dining and shopping in the county before a show, Sullivan said.

Blending old, new

As he works to enhance the experience for theater-goers, Sullivan said, it's a balancing act to find the perfect blend of old and new in an historic building such as The Maryland Theatre.

He has made simple changes to highlight the architectural detailing in the theater.

By adding several well-directed spotlights, Sullivan was able to draw attention to the cherubs that grace the boxes, a subtle difference with impact. And, he dusted off the old-time popcorn maker, which is to be used when old black-and-white movies are shown on Sunday afternoons, a program he hopes to start in May.

He also has a box brimming with black-and-white headshots of many of the performers who have been on The Maryland Theatre stage. He hopes to frame and display the photos for public view.

Entertainers such as George Burns and Gracie Allen, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Frankie Valli, Sir Michael Redgrave and Steven Seagal have performed there.

With a nod to the 21st century, a recent addition is two plasma TVs and speakers in the lobby that allow patrons to see and hear what's happening on stage if, for instance, they're waiting in line for concessions.

Not all of the theater's history is in the building itself.

George Wagner, at 93, was born a year before the theater was built and worked as a projectionist there when he was a teen.

"We have a man who's filled with knowledge of the theater," said Sullivan, who describes Wagner as an "icon of this theater."

'A stage for every age'

The board and Sullivan want the community to think of The Maryland Theatre as a "stage for every age" and a place where people are educated in the arts.

Sullivan said there are many arts disciplines and he wants to "reach out and touch them all."

Programming at the theater has been successful at drawing in school groups, while the Maryland Symphony Orchestra attracts an older audience.

Sullivan is offering more choices to appeal to families, and the next hurdle is reaching out to youth. "My missing link is the younger generation," he said.

He said there is some "fun stuff" coming up, such as multimedia art, that he hopes will be inviting to the MySpace.com and YouTube generation. Already, he said, the theater has developed a new Web site designed to appeal to youths.

He is excited about a children's opera that was written for the Shreveport, La., Opera Company. Because of his connections, Sullivan said, he is the only person in Maryland who has a copyright to produce the opera.

He and the board would also like the theater to become more community-focused.

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