Arts & Culture

Westside Bromide

A decade after reopening, the Hippodrome hopes a new arts district can jumpstart the neighborhood.

A champagne-colored Jaguar pulls to the curb in front of the
Hippodrome Theatre on a snowy Sunday afternoon. Two middle-aged women
get out, duck under the marquee, and scurry inside as the car departs.
Other theatergoers—clustered in groups of two, three, and four—tramp
down North Eutaw Street, navigating icy sidewalks and the stream of
traffic. Not everyone heads to the Hippodrome’s White Christmas holiday show though—some folks are arriving early for a matinee of Red
at Everyman Theatre, around the corner. Adding to the bustle, flocks of
fans in purple jerseys walk toward M&T Bank Stadium for the Ravens
game, or duck into Alewife to watch it on one of the bar’s televisions.

a scene envisioned by developers and city planners when the Hippodrome
reopened 10 years ago after $70 million worth of renovations. The
renovation included two adjacent buildings, and the new complex was
rechristened the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.

theater, seen mostly as a destination for touring Broadway musicals, was
trumpeted as the crown jewel in what figured to be a transformative
redevelopment of the surrounding area. The Hippodrome was “a project
considered crucial to reviving Baltimore’s faded Westside,” according to
The Sun and many others. The strategic plan proposed by the
Baltimore Development Corporation identified it as “the most significant
component of the Westside revitalization effort,” which would infuse
the area with “residential, retail, and restaurants to serve the needs
of theater patrons, visitors, workers, and residents.”

A decade
later, the theater has mostly fulfilled its promise, enduring some rough
stretches along the way, while the broader renaissance it was supposed
to kick-start never materialized. In fact, the larger Westside project,
as embodied by its so-called “Superblock” component, has become
synonymous with bureaucratic and legal gridlock. Observers rarely equate
the Westside with renaissance these days; instead, terms like “stalled”
and “in jeopardy” are more the norm.

“Since 90 percent of the
development plans didn’t happen, it leads people to say, ‘I told you
that wouldn’t work,’” says Jeff Daniel, president of the France-Merrick
Performing Arts Center. “And we get dragged into those negative
perceptions about the lack of development.”

So where does the
revamped theater, a community anchor in a sea of red tape, turn for
much-needed momentum and rebranding as it enters its second decade?

answer, says Daniel, is to downplay a dubious geographic designation
and more fully embrace its role as a local arts organization, which
makes sense considering recent developments.

Daniel notes the
theater isn’t actually located on the city’s west side—it’s a downtown
venue, like the arena, Convention Center, or sports stadiums. He also
believes the Hippodrome’s inclusion within the boundaries of the Bromo
Tower Arts & Entertainment District, designated in 2012 as the
city’s third arts district (after Station North and Highlandtown), is a
natural fit for branding and marketing purposes, especially with
Everyman in the mix. He feels the theaters can help establish the
district’s identity and transform once-blighted properties into
arts-centric incubators à la Station North.

“There’s something
happening here now, in the past 18 months,” says Daniel of the period
coinciding with the arts district designation. “I get information almost
daily that indicates we’re at a true tipping point.”

artistic director Vincent Lancisi concurs. “We’re veteran pioneers, and
we know what it’s like to move into an underdeveloped neighborhood,”
says Lancisi, who moved his theater to the Bromo Tower Arts &
Entertainment District from Station North last year. “We have a ways to
go, but something is definitely going on here.”

Sitting in the
Hippodrome’s VIP lounge—surrounded by large-format photographs of
automobiles by Lexus, the lounge’s corporate sponsor—the 43-year-old
Daniel exudes measured, but unwavering, confidence in the overall
development process. It can be painfully slow, he points out, and he’s
seen it before, in cities like Boston, MA, and San Antonio, TX.

began his arts administration career 20 years ago, when, as a business
major fresh out of Oklahoma State University, he worked with Theater
Management Group (TMG) to help restore a vaudeville-era theater in San
Antonio. Although he had no theater background, he was hooked. Daniel
became general manager at TMG and specialized in devising public-private
partnerships to finance the development of historic theaters. He
managed venues and promoted touring Broadway shows for Clear Channel
after the media behemoth bought TMG in 1998. He also worked on the deal
between Clear Channel, the Maryland Stadium Authority, and the nonprofit
Hippodrome Foundation that bankrolled the Hippodrome.

“I go way back with this project,” says Daniel. “I was there at the beginning, practically before the beginning.”

Brand Entertainment, a company steeped in the development and
production of live theater, eventually acquired Clear Channel’s theater
assets and hired Daniel for the Hippodrome job in 2009. Upon arriving in
Baltimore, he was surprised to learn that Baltimoreans didn’t feel much
of a connection to the theater, which was known for productions of
blockbusters such as The Producers, The Lion King, and Wicked,
but little else. “It was like Clear Channel developed a theater,
dropped it downtown, and announced, ‘It’s open,’” recalls Daniel. “It
wasn’t presented as a longterm asset for the community, so there seemed
to be a disconnect.”

That belief was confirmed when he spoke with
Hippodrome staffers. “None of their priorities involved the community or
taking a leadership role in the city,” says Daniel. “No one was given
any credit for opening the doors and trying new things, which led to a
decrease in the amount of people who felt any attachment to the theater
and a decrease in the number of people who came here.”

The number
of Broadway shows decreased, as well. The revamped Hippodrome was
projected to host 26 weeks of theater by 2009, but, when Daniel arrived,
it was down to about half that, and the venue was losing money. Coupled
with the effects of the recession, it was a downward trend compounded
by costly expenditures such as a yearly utility bill of $1 million. The
average theater of the Hippodrome’s size pays $180,000.

figure resulted from an arrangement that allowed the theater to tap into
city utility systems instead of constructing its own heating and
cooling plant back in 2003. The deal reportedly saved $4 million up
front, but its escalating fees and interest were ill-advised for the

Daniel knew things had to change.

Key Brand
renegotiated the utility arrangement, and, according to Daniel, the
current deal is significantly better, though still more costly than the
average Broadway theater. The Hippodrome retooled its subscription
series, giving patrons more flexibility in their choices, and the number
of subscribers ticked up to 9,000 this year. (It had dwindled to a low
of 8,000 for the 2008-2009 season, after peaking at 14,400 in

The theater also expanded its offerings by presenting events like the Foodie Experience and a touring MythBusters
show, as well as concerts by the likes of Neil Young and Styx. Daniel
mentions he’d like to see an outside arts presenter curate and book a
series of modern dance, ballet, and children’s shows to further expand
the Hippodrome’s programming.

The moves are apparently paying off.
As a private company, Key Brand doesn’t disclose figures, but Daniel
claims the venue is now profitable. “We were losing considerable sums
when we got here, and we stopped that,” he says. “We’re not making
considerable sums, but we have a lot to be proud of.”

finances under control, Daniel has worked on improving the Hippodrome’s
community standing. With help from the nonprofit Hippodrome Foundation,
the theater brought Soulful Symphony, the predominantly African-American
orchestra led by Darin Atwater, aboard for a residency and shows,
including an upcoming concert in May. The foundation also sponsors a
summer arts camp (Camp Hippodrome), a Young Critics Program (run by
Geoffrey Himes, an occasional Baltimore contributor), master classes for
local high-school students, and outreach programs at libraries, senior
centers, and hospitals.

“The development of the Hippodrome
Foundation has been important, because what we do can’t stop at the
theater walls,” says Daniel. “It should extend into the neighborhood,
where we can take a leadership role.”

With that in mind, the
Hippodrome figures to be a major player in the new arts district.
Bounded by Paca Street to the west and Park Avenue to the east, it
extends from Lombard Street into Mt. Vernon and includes a variety of
arts organizations—from the Maryland Historical Society and Eubie Blake
National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center to Arena Players and
galleries like Sub-Basement Artist Studios, Current Space, and Gallery
Four. The designation, says Bromo Tower Arts & Entertainment
District director Priya Bhayana, not only provides tax incentives for
arts-related development, it also “strengthens a critical sense of
community that creates a framework for [these organizations] to
recognize one another, collaborate, and participate in strategic and
thoughtful planning for the neighborhood.”

Everyone pretty much
agrees the district already has significant daytime foot traffic from
the nearby University of Maryland, Baltimore campus, the University of
Maryland Medical Center, and various government offices. Thanks to such
entities, it also has a highly educated base of local residents. What it
needs is more foot traffic at night, enhanced safety measures, and a
solid infrastructure of services for residents, who generally shop and
dine elsewhere.

The same goes for Hippodrome patrons. “They drop
in to see shows, get in their cars, and leave,” says Daniel, who
believes that initiatives like the arts district designation, the
proposed renovation of Lexington Market, and David S. Brown’s new
Baltimore Street high-rise—a mix of apartments, office space, and
retail—can help provide needed amenities for the Hippodrome’s coming

In the meantime, Daniel says it would be great if some of the folks coming to this month’s run of The Book of Mormon
drop in to see what’s on view at Current or check out what’s happening
at EMP Collective. “There’s actually a lot going on already,” he says.
“It’s not like we’re out here in the badlands by ourselves.”

John Lewis is arts and culture editor at Baltimore.