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The Arts

Stage Stuck

On North Avenue, the Parkway Theatre—and the Neighborhood around it—Finds Itself Caught Between Competing Visions for the Future

Christopher Myers
FOCUS, PLEASE: Owner Charles Dodson says he has plans for the 89-year-old Parkway Theatre, but not everyone sees the project the same way.

By John Barry | Posted 12/15/2004

Since 2002, when the state created the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, the eyes of city planners have been on the dilapidated Parkway Theatre—and on Charles Dodson, the man who owns it. The 1,100-seat theater is a monument to the city’s glory days: In 1915, it boasted a tea room, royal boxes, and a huge Wurlitzer organ; after mid-century, it went into slow decline; now it sits at North Avenue and Charles Street, sandwiched between a fried chicken restaurant and a McDonald’s. But it’s also planted at the center of the 25-block area slated for revival as Baltimore’s new arts mecca. If the neighborhood is going to experience the renaissance that the city hopes it will, the Parkway needs an overhaul—and sooner rather than later. Now, two years after he bought the space, the question remains: Is Charles Dodson the one for the job?

Dodson, a self-employed engineer, moved to Baltimore from Annapolis in 2002 and purchased the Parkway for $235,000. He says he “dropped everything,” including much of his professional life, for this project, in the hopes of creating a catalyst for Baltimore’s untapped artistic treasures. And from the start, he says he has had particular plans in mind—a restoration aimed less at thoroughly overhauling the building than at simply reviving it, so that the Parkway can resume its role as a cultural landmark.

“We can have fashion shows and theater, wild stuff,” he says. “I mean what do you have in this city for raw talent? [The Parkway] will offer a place for what falls through the cracks. It can be a venue for eclectic music, jazz, and classical music.”

Dodson says he has spent “about $750,000” on the Parkway so far, including $350,000 on the purchase and attendant expenses, and $400,000 on construction costs, cleaning, legal work, and reaching out to the community. “It hasn’t been cheap,” he says, “and I haven’t even gotten a free lunch out of it. You’d think that when they see someone crazy enough to invest money in the arts community, that the city would give me some support.”

But support has been slow in coming. While wishing him success, some in the government and the development community have expressed doubts about Dodson’s ability to get financial backing necessary to turn the Parkway around. The doubts came to a head in the summer of 2003, when the City Council drew up resolution 03-1143, giving the Baltimore Development Corporation authority to seize—and sell—19 properties in the Station North area, including the Parkway (see “Revolving Stage,” Mobtown Beat, March 10). Dodson considered it a slap in the face. The city considered it a push for progress.

“In terms of vision, we’re on the same page,” says Otis Rolley, director of planning for Baltimore City Department of Planning. “We want the Parkway to be active and used. The city has been patient, and we’re serious about preservation. Have you ever been inside that place? You’d have to be smoking crack to think it should be coming down. And the City of Baltimore doesn’t support drug use.”

Their disagreements, says Rolley, have more to do with logistics than vision: “Does he have the capacity to make it happen? The city has been patient. But we only have so much time to spend.”

Since the passage of 03-1143 in June 2004, Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) has given Dodson a larger window of opportunity. Paul Dombrowski of the BDC says that the BDC has recently offered to sit down with Dodson to discuss proposals for renovating the theater’s exterior. But there’s a caveat: Dodson has about two years to show that he’s got “serious plans” for getting funding to restore the interior as well.

“We’ve made an offer to assist with the renovation,” Dombrowski says, “but we’ve also asked him to put together a plan of action. So the ball’s in his court.”

Now Dodson worries that some involved are looking for a renovation on a different scale than he is—namely, a scale like that of the Hippodrome restoration, which turned a downtown eyesore into the painted lady of Eutaw Street. Dodson says they’re forgetting one important fact: “It took 15 years to come up with financing for that place.” And while he grants that the Parkway is an historic theater “with a breathtaking interior,” he emphasizes that a complete reconstruction of the theater shouldn’t be a top priority. Instead, he says, the focus should be on making the theater functional enough to attract artists and events, which may in turn help revitalize the area at a cost of less time and money.

In this, Dodson has both the technical and visionary support of Steve Ziger, of Ziger/Snead Architects, who is working on plans for the exterior renovation. Ziger characterizes Dodson’s approach as an “honest re-creation,” similar to those done in several other cities, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Majestic Theater in New York.

“Dodson is trying to do as much as necessary to make the Parkway useful as a performance center and introducing it to the arts community, while preparing plans for a large-scale renovation,” Ziger says. “He doesn’t want to busnify the building with a glitzy recreation. It maintains the raw character of the original building. So if there’s plaster missing or something, you leave it there.” Ziger contrasts this with the sort of renovation that was undertaken downtown. “The Hippodrome is spectacular,” he says, “but Dodson is going for the authentic feel.”

Dodson refers to it as a “chaste, pure” approach to renovation. “I want it to be functional. It’ll be a place to hang out without being too corporate and whoring out.” This, he says, is a more European approach to maintaining historical buildings. American developers are inclined to gut interiors, Dodson says, transforming them beyond recognition, whereas renovations on the Continent tend to be more nuanced. Indeed, Dodson is soon heading to Europe, where he expects to get ideas from old theaters in England and Italy.

“I guarantee you the Italians don’t do what we do,” he says. “They don’t do complete restorations. . . . They keep it original without bastardizing it. There are no neon signs, or velvet ropes.”

But not all Baltimoreans believe that this model is going to be enough to attract the large audiences that Parkway will need if it is to turn into a viable theater.

John Grant, who wanted to restore the Parkway himself in 2000 before pulling out for lack of financial backing, prefers the Hippodrome effect. “My sense of Dodson’s and other similar approaches is they tend to drag on and wind up not getting the type of restoration you need in a timely or comprehensive manner,” he says. “My approach would be to wait for the deep pockets so that we could restore it with the proper backing. I would opt for the comprehensive Cadillac plan, rather than nickel and diming it over a period of five or 10 years.”

But according to Dodson, who says he has rebuilt hundreds of antique cars, the “Cadillac planners” just don’t get it. “They just don’t understand the concept. You do a restoration on a neat old car, leaving all the original chrome and the steering wheel, and they ask, ‘What’s that?’

“Look, there are two ways you can go about this,” Dodson says. “Spend money wildly like they did with the Hippodrome, and have traveling shows like Rocky III, or keep it modest and use it for local performances. Either way, the profit margin is about the same.”

Otis Rolley agrees that the Cadillac approach isn’t appropriate for the Parkway. “There’s a happy medium between total renovation and nothing at all,” he says. “We want people to get engaged and come to the place. We don’t want to see it closed for three more years. So we think the phased approach is the right one. Then people can come to the theater and look around—and more things happen after that.”

Meanwhile, M. J. “Jay” Brodie, president of the BDC, says that they’re waiting for Dodson to come up with a full-blown plan. “We’ve been trying to work with Dodson, and frankly we haven’t gotten very far,” he says. “We were ready to meet with him, but his message is that we can meet after his European trip. We want to help him make the Parkway a success rather than buy it and look for another developer.”

All of this has served to make the Parkway Theatre an object lesson in the riddles of arts-based redevelopment for a neighborhood in transition. Artist David Crandall, who was one of the original authors of the proposal for the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, describes it as a conundrum.

“The Parkway is a key facility for that area,” he says, “And when the dominos start to fall, you want them to fall the right way. But no one knows what the path to waking up the area is. Do you rebuild the theater so you can have people come there? Or do you have people come there, and then rebuild? No one knows which is the chicken and which is the egg.”

Dodson sums up the quandary a different way. “The BDC wants to check the language of my plans,” he says, “but the only language I need is a signature on a check.”

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