A tour of the Hippodrome Theatre was running 20 minutes overtime on April 19, yet guide Danyela Marks was still enlightening the group of 20 from UMB that had gathered for the latest edition of “Behind the Red Curtain,” a Broadway 101 lunchtime event organized by the University’s Council for the Arts & Culture. (See a photo gallery.)
Marks, who has worked at the Hippodrome since 2006 and been its assistant house electrician for the past three years, was discussing all types of jobs associated with the theater, stressing that you don’t need to act, sing, or dance to work in the industry. For instance, if there’s a show that includes kids, such as when School of Rock was performed there in March, an adult must be assigned to shadow each child while they’re in the theater.
“These people are called ‘child wranglers,’” she said, a phrase that drew laughter from the group. “That is their technical term. And they’re basically a baby sitter. Anyone who is a minor in the theater cannot go unescorted anywhere. They cannot be left to go from their dressing room to the stage – even if it’s 20 feet away.”
This was just one interesting tidbit from the Hippodrome tour, which started on the historic venue’s stage, moved up to its “fly floor,” and escalated even higher to a floor 80 feet above stage, where riggers ply their trade. The group moved back into the theater, just above the balcony seating, and climbed one by one up a metal ladder and into a cramped room where three spotlights operate during a show. All the way through, Marks shined a light on the Hippodrome’s history and what it takes to produce a Broadway show.
She noted that the original building was a hotel but burned down and was converted in 1914 to a movie house that also hosted vaudeville performances. Business boomed for decades but slowed in the 1970s and ’80s, leading to the theater’s closure in 1990. A renovation was undertaken in the early 2000s, merging it with the Western National Bank Building and the Eutaw Savings Bank Building to form the Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center in 2004.
“When it opened in 1914, the Hippodrome was the leading vaudeville house in Baltimore and the largest theater south of Philadelphia,” said Marks, who pointed out that two rows of seats – the grand suites – below the balcony are from the original venue. “These seats were restored and are much more comfortable with more room to them than the other seats — they’re also more expensive,” she said with a laugh. “Usually the best view of the show is from those two rows.”
Ropes, Rigging, and Spotlights
On the fly floor, tour participants learned how “fly men” and “fly women” operate synthetic ropes to lower and raise such things as set pieces, backdrops, or borders that help frame the show’s scenery. This part of the tour sparked several questions from the group, as Marks described how these items are attached to a series of pipes and that one to eight people could be manipulating the ropes during a show, depending on how fast or how many pieces need to move at a time.
“Any sort of flying set piece that needs to move in and out is attached to a pipe,” Marks said. “Electrics with lights on them, even though they don’t move during the show, have to get hung and flown up in the air at some point. So there’s a wide variety of things that will get hung on these pipes.”
The operators label the ropes with numbers, and the Hippodrome crew must quickly learn the show’s cues. “There will be a head fly man that comes along with the show, and the rest will be locals,” she said. “The cues are different every show, but pulling a rope is pulling a rope. It’s just a matter of when and how fast. So you have your cue sheet, and you follow it.”
The tour moved up several levels to the floor where riggers work. They are responsible for hanging any motors that a show will use, and anywhere from 10 to 80 could be used during a show, said Marks, who added that once the rigs are set up, this level is generally unoccupied during a show. “If there is someone up here, that means something’s wrong.”
Heading back down into the theater, the tour made its way to the spotlight room, where three 3,000-watt spotlights are operated. The spotlights have a housing area up top where operators can use frames to emit six colors, and the spot can be widened or narrowed.
“They manipulate the spotlights throughout the show,” Marks said. “The operators will use a cue sheet but also will be on a headset, with someone telling them who to pick up and in what color and what size.”
A Laundry List of Jobs
The tour’s final two stops took the group down into the basement for a look at the green room – it used to be painted purple, but now it’s white — and rooms where cast members can dress, get their wigs fitted or hair done, or take a break. Then there was the laundry room, where Marks again dropped some interesting theater terminology.
Costumes are sent out for dry cleaning, but cast members’ undergarments such as socks or bras need to be washed on-site. Each item is tagged with a number that corresponds to the cast member and put into a “ditty bag” that is sent to the laundry room. The person who washes all these clothes? That would be the “laundry wench” or “laundry warlock.”
“Those undergarments have to get cleaned every night, so their whole job when a show is in town is to do the laundry,” Marks said. “So that’s another non-theatrical job, and they live in this room.”
Theaters also need masseuses, physical therapists, seamstresses, and staff that make travel, hotel, and catering arrangements. As for her theater role, Marks says she’s thrilled to be working in the industry.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to work on every Broadway show that’s out there,” she said. “It’s always changing and there’s always something new. It’s a very exciting job.”
— Lou Cortina
Visit the UMB Council for the Arts & Culture website to learn more about its events and programs.