Autograph Playhouse opens in derelict 25th Street theater
Billie Taylor hopes to transform 65-year-old Charles Village venue into the city's newest performance space
Published: October 5, 2011
Not long after the Homewood Theater opened near the corner of 25th and Charles streets in 1946, a nurse reported to the police that there was a dead body with a knife sticking out of it in a nearby alley. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a dummy advertising Abbott and Costello’s Who Done it? It was a splashy entrance for what was to become, during the ’50s and ’60s, one of the city’s leading art houses. But in the mid-1980s, the theater—by then called the Playhouse—closed. Ever since, every endeavor there has been short-lived.
From 1989 to 1994, the 7,500-square-foot space was used as a church. In the late 1990s, it was the Heritage Playhouse, which played exclusively African-American movies. Then, for the blink of an eye, it was a Korean movie house. “[T]he space is so big, the electric bills got to be too much,” the owner told City Paper in 2002. That year, the Paragon Theatre Company leased the space in the hopes of turning it into a venue for live theater. That venture ended in 2004. By the time Billie Taylor toured the place last year, it had been neglected for years. “It was, like, feces and dead birds,” she says, mimicking tiptoeing through a pile of refuse.
Taylor, 55, is the latest to see promise in the space. After 33 years working at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C., she decided it was time to retire and make good on a lifelong dream. “This is all I ever wanted to do in my life, so I decided to go ahead and go for it,” she says. She had been involved in theatrical pursuits for years, but always as a sideline. She trained with the now-defunct D.C. Black Repertory Theatre, and more recently acted with smaller companies, including Heralds of Hope. (Taylor was also an usher at the Kennedy Center in D.C. for nine years, and thus had access to shows. Famed jazz musician Billy Taylor was an artistic advisor there at the time; the female Taylor says their tickets were always getting mixed up.)
Taylor sold her house in D.C. to buy the theater, which she took ownership of late last year. (She paid $205,000 to Alan Shecter, whose company owns the buildings that house the Charles Theatre and Everyman Theatre.) Her dream is to provide a venue for local performers to showcase their work. “Anything kind of goes,” she says. “Whatever one group wants to bring in, as long as it’s quality, I’m for it.”
Taylor has already proven herself adventurous. The first production in the new Autograph Playhouse, as Taylor has dubbed it, was a double-feature rock opera. Last May, the Baltimore Rock Opera Society (BROS), a group of young, energetic performers prone to tongue-in-cheek productions of epic proportions, produced Amphion and The Terrible Secret of Lunastus (“Cue Lasers,” Stage, June 8). The show was a roaring success, with about 1,400 tickets sold over three weekends. Colorful foam monsters still lie across some of the seats in the auditorium, and a giant papier-mâché pig with an apple in its mouth dominates the former projection room.
The relationship started coincidentally.
In 2009, the group put on its first rock opera, Gründlehämmer, at 2640 Space on St. Paul Street (“Tales of Brotopia,” Feature, Sept. 30, 2009).“We had been looking for a venue pretty much all last year,” BROS Managing Director Dylan Koehler says. “But we wanted a space where we could be in there all the time, and 2640 is not set up like that.” Members of the company attended a realtor’s showing at the Autograph, the very same one Taylor attended. “We walked out and thought, That would be a cool space to have, but somebody needs to buy it,” Koehler says. Taylor, for her part, knew the theater needed cleanup and renovation, as well as programming. They exchanged contact information, and once Taylor decided to move forward, she made a deal with the BROS: In exchange for working on the place, they could put on a show.
With the help of Rick Gerriets, managing director of the Annex Theater and resident carpenter at Everyman Theatre, the BROS got to work. A year later, the carpets remain musty, there’s a leak in the ceiling of the “dressing room,” and the lobby could use some sprucing up, but the rats have left the building, as have the birds, and the vast, high-ceilinged auditorium has been painted brick red—with about 25 gallons of paint donated by Sherwin-Williams—to match the 285 cloth-covered seats. Lights are installed along the walls, and the stage now has a second balcony level. Gerriets also rigged up professional stagelights.
The BROS will put on a Halloween show at Autograph later this month (a screening of Brian De Palma’s 1974 musical Phantom of the Paradise, with a live band and live actors) and is already planning two more rock operas to debut there next year: Valhalla, a rock opera based on Nordic mythology, and Murder Castle, a vaudevillian/steampunk rock opera about America’s first serial killer. The space has become more or less a permanent residence for the group, to their relief. “The number one thing we can do [now] is spend more time on the craft of making rock operas and less time on the hassle of finding a space,” Koehler says.
But there are significant hurdles to overcome. Most dire is the lack of a heating and cooling system. Taylor estimates installing one would cost somewhere between $16,000 and $20,000, which she does not have. “I keep plugging away, trying to get some help,” she says. She’s put out a call to friends and family for financial help, and approached both the Baltimore Development Corp. and the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation for advice on tax incentives and other help. (The theater lies just outside the boundaries of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, making it ineligible for tax breaks and other benefits associated with the district.) Meanwhile, the demand for a venue seems to be there.
“I’m getting calls almost every day, and I’m not advertising it yet,” Taylor says. She says jazz musician C. Anthony Bush has expressed interest in producing a jazz musical at the Autograph in January—if, that is, there’s heat. Someone else recently called about putting on a gospel musical next spring, and Taylor says she’s talked to local film historian George Figgs about the possibility of an independent film series.
And in November, the Annex Theater—which, until recently, was housed in an annex to the Copycat Building—will be putting on the first non-rock-opera in the Autograph: Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. “I love doing shows in warehouses and alternative spaces,” Evan Moritz, who is directing the production, says. “But I’m realizing that for me what I’d rather see in those spaces are shows that are purposefully smaller in scope.”
The company is taking an experimental approach to Threepenny, including working with a projection artist whose work will appear on the theater’s still-extant movie screen. The cast may grow to include 30-plus people, Mortiz says, a large production for Annex. “My vision is that this is the space that exhibits the biggest show of the season for a lot of the independent production companies in the city,” he says. The fact that Taylor has kept the percentage she takes from ticket sales low is a boon to the do-it-yourself companies she has begun to attract, he adds.
Taylor, for her part, hopes that money will be enough to keep the place going until the schedule stabilizes. She dreams of one day having a resident company, and of directing a production herself. “Sometimes I’m like, What have I done? I should just sell it. Oh my God,” Taylor says. “But I get up the next day and think, I’m going for it.”
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