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Revolving Stage

Entrepreneur Hopes to Rehab Battered Parkway Theatre--If the City Will Let Him

Christopher Myers
Stage Left: The Parkway Theater has a pristine stage, but some worn infrastructure; Stage Right: Charles Dodson wants to turn it into a live-entertainment venue, but he says he's having problems with the city.

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 3/10/2004

For Baltimore's historic theaters it's the best of times--and the worst. Fitting snugly in the former category is the hoary Hippodrome Theatre, the once-abandoned vaudeville house at 12 N. Eutaw St. that, after a $63 million makeover, debuted this year as the city's premier venue for touring Broadway shows. And soundly taking "worst" honors is (or was) Highlandtown's nearly century-old Grand Theatre, razed in January--despite protests from community activists and preservationists--to make way for an expanded library.

Meanwhile, at 5 W. North Ave., where the 89-year-old beige brick and terra cotta Parkway Theatre looms, the drama is just beginning.

"The Parkway is going to be a live entertainment center focusing on jazz, classical, and eclectic music that's fallen through the cracks everywhere else in Baltimore," says owner Charles Dodson while striding across the recently expanded stage "The potential here is phenomenal. I'm just so enamored with the building and will do anything to save it."

Dodson, the lanky self-described "Renaissance man" who plunked down $235,000 for the Parkway in the fall of 2002, clearly has his work cut out. The stage might be pristine and new, but the hulking auditorium, with its water-damaged plaster and peeling paint, wears the scars of long neglect. Dead as a movie house since the 1970s, office space was subsequently (and destructively) created within a chunk of the erstwhile 1,100-seat theater. Much of the sloping auditorium floor was leveled, and sundry aesthetic details were destroyed in the process of nailing up plasterboard walls. The building has been vacant a long while, and vandals have made off with everything from brass balcony railings to decorative paintings. (All that said, the Parkway is certainly in better shape than the abandoned, city-owned Mayfair Theatre on North Howard Street, where a collapsed roof has gone unrepaired for years.)

"I've been working here 18 hours a day, every day, for the last year and a half," says Dodson, an engineer by training whose background includes electrical design and vintage-car restoration. "All the really awful stuff has been done. I've hauled tractor-trailer loads of debris out of here."

Dodson says he has already put some $750,000 of his own money into patching up the building: The leaking roof has been fixed, the perennially flooded basement dried out and cleaned, doors and windows have been replaced, and a "minimum" level of heat and air conditioning is now functioning.

"The idea is to stabilize the building first and then move on into a full-scale renovation," Dodson says.

However, any attempts to return the grande dame, built in 1915, to some semblance of her former glory while also creating a functioning modern performance space is going to cost plenty. Dodson says his chief obstacle to putting the Parkway back in the pink is not a fickle economy, however, but a combative city government.

"The city's just been beating me up from the time I stepped into the building," he says. "Right away, the [Baltimore Development Corp.] wanted a business plan, they wanted the names of my investors--all these impossible demands when I had just bought the building."

The city's interest in the long-overlooked Parkway can be traced to a City Council bill introduced last summer seeking to give the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp. the authority to condemn 19 properties--including the theater--within the now 2-year-old Station North Arts and Entertainment District. The goal, bill proponents say, is to spur revitalization of abandoned or underutilized properties within an area poised for renewal. If the bill becomes law (it's slated for a public airing before the council's Urban Affairs Committee on March 18), owners of the designated addresses would have to provide the city with concrete and funded plans for their properties. Failing that, the city could acquire the properties through condemnation proceedings and offer them up to others for development.

As Dodson sees it, the bill has only served to stifle his revitalization efforts. He says investors--friends of his family among them--were ready to pony up some $10 million toward his Parkway project until the condemnation bill came on the scene.

"They saw the city getting involved and said that it was the kiss of death," Dodson says of his would-be backers. "The [city] just has the corporate approach. Here they are in an arts district dealing with an artist who's put over half a million in cash into a building, and that's not enough for them. They just want to push me out so they can give [the theater] to some big developer--some golf buddy."

Paul Dombrowski, director of planning and design for the Baltimore Development Corp., brands any such sentiments as "absolutely untrue."

"We felt that in response to the community, we need to help turn things around in that immediate area." Dombrowski says. "It's been in a downward spiral for a number of years, and not something we can sit by and watch for another five or 10 years."

Dombrowski acknowledges that he asked Dodson "and the other property owners who have protested our acquisition bill" at a city Planning Commission meeting back in July to present business plans and financial data related to their buildings' futures. He says his office has received nothing to date. Should the condemnation bill become law, he envisions moving quickly on the acquisition process--possibly striving to take ownership of the targeted properties within a year's time.

"If we can see movement on the part of current owners, if there is demonstrated progress being done on the properties, we would certainly take that into consideration," Dombrowski says. "We would like not to have to spend public monies if the private market will do it."

Dodson, while hoping he'll be able to demonstrate the viability of his plans to the Baltimore Development Corp. (and angered that he has to do so at all), does see a way the city acquisition authority might actually help him. He says it's important to his long-range plans for the Parkway to acquire the three-story building just east of the theater. (Vacant save for a chicken carry-out, it is also on the city's property acquisition list.) He envisions the city condemning the property and then selling it to him to house food-service facilities, office space, a digital recording studio, and other infrastructure serving the Parkway.

Meanwhile, Dodson hopes to have a functional music venue "up and running by the end of the summer." He is also setting up a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to manage the operation. (The Web site should soon be up as well.) A 30-space Maryland Avenue parking lot at the rear of the building Dodson owns should start to address potential parking issues, and he says other parking options are being explored.

"The Charles Theatre does an excellent job with film and the Everyman Theatre does an excellent job with theater--I feel I could do an excellent job with music," says Dodson, noting that the oval-shaped auditorium's acoustics are "perfect."

"I'm very supportive of any efforts to convert [the Parkway] into a performance space," says Peabody Institute director Robert Sirota, who's toured the theater with Dodson. "I think there should be more places in Baltimore for small groups to perform, particularly independently. Peabody itself doesn't need another performance space, but many people who graduate from Peabody or are associated with Peabody could use other venues in town to do independent work."

A number of musicians have already played the Parkway, taking the stage at a rather impromptu open house held Feb.14 in conjunction with the Station North's Gotta Have Art festivities. A Mother's Day concert is currently in the works.

"Music is not my problem," Dodson says. "I have [music contacts] at my fingertips. I have the vision for the theater. What I need is a little bit of support. To save the theater I need be down there doing something on the theater instead of doing paperwork."

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