From Bean Town to Culver City the stage is being reset

According to current real estate wisdom, any fool can build a theater from a hole in the ground. All it takes is deep pockets and a rubber stamp from the appropriate government agencies.

But it takes vision and guts to take a decrepit landmark theater and refashion it as the centerpiece of a multimillion-dollar civic redevelopment project.

“We’re talking about making something into the cultural epicenter of an entire community,” says Scott Zeiger, CEO of Clear Channel Entertainment’s North American theatrical division, which has two such monumental projects in the works — and more in the hopper.

In Boston, Clear Channel is only a year away from completing an extensive $35 million-$40 million restoration of the historic Opera House on downtown Washington Street, in the heart of the city’s theater district.

An ambitious undertaking in itself, one would think. Designed as a moving picture and live performance house by Thomas White Lamb, who used the Paris Opera House as his model, the ornately decorated beaux-arts structure opened with a flourish in 1928 as the B.F. Keith Memorial Theater. But after being vacated by its last major tenant, the Opera Company of Boston, the facility was reduced to spot bookings and has been shuttered since 1990.

When the Boston Preservation Alliance stepped in to evaluate the feasibility of restoring the theater in 1996, executive director Albert Rex says he found nests of wildlife in the balconies. Restoring the rundown opera house to its former grandeur — by transforming it into a state-of-the-art 2,500-seat venue that can accommodate the big musicals that generate the big bucks — is indeed Clear Channel’s goal.

Worth the price

Clear Channel is already a major presence in town through its local theatrical division, Broadway in Boston, which owns and operates the Charles Playhouse and holds long leases on the Wilbur and the Colonial. But the little empire has sorely lacked what David Anderson, prexy of Clear Channel’s theater management operations, calls a crown jewel theater capable of challenging the 1,800-seat Colonial for major musicals like “The Producers.”

The pricetag on the Boston restoration has ballooned from $18 million to north of $35 million since Clear Channel took on the project in 1996. Still, Zeiger considers the prize worth the price. “If you do it right, it ultimately costs less,” he says. “If we were to build that same building from the ground up, it would cost $120 million.”

Unlike its go-for-broke investment in Boston, Clear Channel’s role in the so-called West Side Renaissance of Baltimore is more limited, but much more complex. The company’s $70 million restoration of the Hippodrome, a gilded and locally cherished movie palace and vaudeville house built in 1914 and scheduled to reopen in February as the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, is only one piece of a multimillion-dollar development project.

But it’s the key piece, says Mayor Martin O’Malley, who is counting on the 2,250-seat legit theater to be the anchor that will attract commercial and not-for-profit investment in the hugely ambitious civic project that is expected to revitalize a seedy part of town.

“The (Paris Opera House) in Boston is only one building, but the Hippodrome involves four buildings, including three historical structures,” says Zeiger, who points out that the pricetag for reclaiming the entire city block is double the renovation costs for Boston.

“It was a very, very complicated financing package,” he says, executed through a cut-and-paste process involving city and state funding, municipal bond sales, tax credits, and corporate and private contributions in addition to Clear Channel’s commercial investment.

“It’s much more than a theater,” says Richard Slosson, president of the Maryland Stadium Authority, the official state partner on the restoration, which is in its 11th year.

Although the Hippodrome complex will occupy only 30% of the site under development, it is the linchpin of the complex package of private-public partnerships nurtured by city and state initiatives. “It has to work,” Slosson says. “There’s a huge investment going on and we’re all banking on that.”

Although Culver City, Calif., was not mentioned as one of the cities that might be drawn into the embrace of Clear Channel’s burgeoning theatrical empire, the loving restoration of the Ivy Substation goes to show what spunky communities are capable of doing on their own. Opened in 1947 as a movie house in the art moderne style, the Culver Theater, as it was called, fell into disuse as a theatrical space and at one time was pressed into service as a waystation for electric railway cars.

Now, after using it for the past year as a temporary house for new play development, the Mark Taper Forum has committed itself to a complete — but architecturally discreet — renovation that will begin this month. A challenge grant also has galvanized private and commercial interests in this historic district, which is already having something of a renaissance.

Kirk Douglas, whose movies once played the vintage house, has donated $2.5 million toward the $20 million restoration cost of turning it into a 320-seat space for developmental work and youth programming. So it should come as no surprise that when the refurbished theater reopens, in fall 2004, it will be called the Kirk Douglas Theater.

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