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Showtime Present

And the ghosts of showtimes past

The Circle Playhouse, circa 1984

It is evening in downtown Annapolis. The courtyard of the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre on Compromise Street is alive with people. Above their heads, in bold letters, the marquee spells out Chicago ...
    Annapolis’ outdoor musical theater is in performance.
    The brainchild of Joan Baldwin, a visionary who loved the challenges of making new ideas work, Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre opened 43 years ago in the abandoned historical Shaw Blacksmith Shop, part of the warehouse district of colonial Annapolis in 1696. The current building, dating to 1836, provided a variety of services before the Shaws closed its doors in the 1960s.
    With no money but inspired by a vision, an army of volunteers cleared the shop of old wagon wheels and a ton of pigeon droppings. They painted and hammered and wired and plumbed before the theatre opened in 1968, with I Do, I Do, supported by a live orchestra.
    Camelot, 1776, Auntie Mame, Cabaret, My Fair Lady and all the great Broadway shows followed, three a year for 43 years and still going strong. The theater sits on a major roadway in the heart of the city’s busy dock area. Passing police or fire sirens sometimes interrupt the chorus line. Who cares? The stage is outdoors, and the moon shines over the performers.

Theaters Surrounded the Capital

    Just below State Circle, 108 East Street is home of Colonial Players, in its 63rd year of award-winning productions. The celebration of the city’s 300-year birthday in 1949 gave birth to the Players. The first production, The Male Animal, played in the abandoned USO building on St. Mary’s Street. Supported by Becky Clatanoff — whose name would later grace a building at the Anne Arundel Medical Center — the Players made their theater in the round in an abandoned stable and auto repair garage.
    Once upon a time, another theater thrived a stone’s throw away. In 1920, Gov. Albert Ritchie cut the ribbon for the Circle Playhouse, a vaudeville theater on State Circle. Opening weekend drew 2,800 people. Such notable actors as Otis Skinner played the Circle.
    When the Circle Playhouse closed in 1984, a small group of business people and legislators hoped to transform the theater into one of America’s Historic Theaters and a performing arts center with historical pageants. The idea never gained the support of downtown residents or Historic Annapolis. The building with the best acoustics for stage shows is now an office building for lobbyists. Its orchestra pit and dressing rooms are buried under new floors.
    Half a century earlier still, in 1872, the Masons built an opera house in the shadow of the State House on the corner of Maryland Avenue and Prince George Street. Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado opened the Opera House.
    Theater in Annapolis dates to 1752, when the Beggars Opera inaugurated the Annapolis Playhouse on West Street. Annapolis was the cultural center of the colonies, and theater was a rich part of the social season during Annapolis Race Week. George Washington never seemed to miss a play when visiting Annapolis, according to his diary.

Showtimes Past

    Rams Head and 49 West carry on the musical tradition on West Street, where showtime in Annapolis began 250 years ago.
    Not far away on Clay Street, Harlem star Pearl Bailey performed at the Dixie Hotel. The Dixie is gone now, replaced by a parking garage. Also gone, the thriving business district that once brought vitality to the neighborhood.
    Historic Maryland Inn has played host to dignitaries and legislators for a hundred years. In the 1960s, it hosted jazz greats Charlie Byrd and Earl Fatha Hines, Monty Alexander and Baltimore’s Ethel Ennis. The city’s version of Blues Alley in the Historic Inn never had a vacant seat. On the death of Paul Pearson, who brought the Jazz Club to the city, jazz gave way to a Starbucks coffee house.
    A 1,000-seat theater once graced the City Hotel on Main and Conduit streets. “No playhouse in America can outrival this one in history,” boasted the Evening Capital of the richly decorated theater. The leaders of revolutions met here, as did the leaders in the new states to consider a Constitutional Convention. It burned down in 1918. The Hillman Garage now fills its space.
    Theater was once considered good business for the city. Taverns sold tickets for theater productions. In 1829, businessmen opened the 500-seat Hallam Theatre with a production of the French Corps de Ballet. The cornerstone of the building — where the Presbyterian Church now stands — included the town’s newspapers, the names of the building committee and, curiously, a copy of George Washington’s will.

Feast and Famine in Modern Times

    For a brief time in the 1960s and ’70s, downtown was a happening place for the arts. The Fine Arts Festival, rated as one of the Top 10 festivals in the country, blossomed on City Dock and beyond, featuring local talent and big-name entertainers.
    But times change. In the 1980s, downtown residents railed against visitors and events, and the festival died. So did a proposal by a commission appointed by Gov. Harry Hughes to bring a performing arts center to the city.
    Despite the “unparalleled richness of its historical and architectural features, the city suffers from a singular poverty in facilities for the performing arts,” commission consultants noted. Recommended was a 1,500-seat auditorium in a 5,000-foot exhibition hall on the bank of College Creek.
    Five million dollars was the estimated construction cost in 1980. A higher price tag was avoided by turning the abandoned Annapolis High School into a center for smaller performances, teaching space and other art needs. Thus was born Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, now in its 31st year.
    The performing arts center was never built; in its place is Bloomsbury Square public housing.
    Three decades later, Park Place is struggling to gain support for the other half of the proposal recommended by the Hughes Commission for a performing arts theater.
    The arts are good for a city; every few decades, a study group reaffirms that message. “The benefits of the arts are vital to our citizens, providing jobs and business opportunities … and enhancing the quality of life of all residents,” reported an Arts and Humanities Task Force in 2009. The economic impact for the arts was figured at $45 million — plus indirect revenue to the hospitality industry.
    That year, an incubator for the arts opened in the new Art and Entertainment District along recently refurbished West Street. At 275 West Street, Bay Theatre Company, the only professional theater in Anne Arundel County, offers unique drama and comedy performances. The troup hopes to follow in the footsteps of Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre and Colonial Players to a home they can call their own.
    The Arts and Entertainment District offers tax incentives for artists that locate there. But in Annapolis — a cultural center since before the Revolutionary War — the district, like the vision offered by the Hughes Commission, is still in limbo.