The Hippodrome is back.
The Lights, the Drama, the Music, the Energy of Broadway are once again playing to a Packed House. And while many people have worked hard to keep this local icon from closing its doors, one person stands out.
A person whose vision, ingenuity and eternal optimism spearheaded a complete turnaround of the organization in only two years. A person who the Wacoan has crowned Wacoan of the Year.
Scott Baker was born in San Antonio and raised all over the country, plus time spent overseas. Landing the lead role in his high school production of “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” propelled him into a world of musical theater. Baker followed that path to Baylor’s theater department and on to New York City where he began living the life many actors dream of. But sensing a higher purpose of exploring a career in ministry with an arts focus, he found himself back in Waco and enrolling in George W. Truett Theological Seminary.
In the summer of 2005, public support saved the Waco Hippodrome from the brink of closure, but its future didn’t look too promising. The board of directors of the Waco Performing Arts Company hired Baker on an interim basis as they searched for the right executive director to chart an upward course for the theater. By January of 2006, the search for a more permanent director had been abandoned.
With a strong sense of the types of shows that would play well in Waco — and a lot of creative negotiating — Baker began booking acts for the 2006–2007 season, and people began buying tickets. The shift in momentum came at a critical time and has continued to build, right up until this October when 582 season tickets were sold — more than at any point in the theater’s history.
This turnaround, as remarkable as it is, doesn’t guarantee future success. In the mind of the general public, performance art fluctuates in popularity. Baker’s ability to see the larger picture, to be innovative in his approach and his overriding belief in the value of the arts have allowed the theater to regain its footing in the community. Time will
tell how lasting the effects will be.
Before Baker could be named Wacoan of the Year, the theater itself had to play out its storied past like one of the shows brought to life on its stage. Here is a detailed look back at the Waco Hippodrome’s evolution through its 93-year history.
A Theatrical Icon makes a Comeback.
Like an aging diva, the Waco Hippodrome has seen stardom and scandal, fame and misfortune, good times and bad. During her long career, countless people have been entertained. Her lifespan has encompassed 16 presidential administrations, two World Wars, the Roarin’ Twenties, the Great Depression, the Cold War, the Sixties, the New Millennium — and more.
Opening a year after Woodrow Wilson became president, the grand dame of Austin Avenue hosted organ concerts, silent movies, orchestra performances, operas and vaudeville acts during her infancy.
Baker said he knows why Wacoans first fell in love — and stayed in love over many years — with the venerable old theater at 724 Austin Avenue. “Every seat offers a good view,” he said. “Unlike many theaters, the view is superb no matter where you sit.” Baker’s favorite spot? Right in the middle of the mezzanine. There, he cannot only see the show — but a lot of audience reaction, too.
According to records, a local stock company headed by James H. Riley had the theater constructed, and work began in 1912. The land had been donated by Mrs. William Bruestadt.
When it opened on February 7, 1914, the theater was operated by E.H. Hulsey and J.P. Harrison. It was officially called the Hippodrome Theater, but townspeople nicknamed it “Hulsey’s Hipp.” It is believed this theater was the only one in Texas to be called “Hippodrome.”
Family entertainment was offered at reasonable rates. Admission was a dime for adults; according to an inflation calculator, that would be equal to about $2 in today’s money. Children’s tickets, at a nickel apiece in 1914, would be the equivalent to about 98 cents today. A box seat cost a quarter back then, but would still be a bargain-priced $4.92 in modern money.
At first, Hulsey’s Hipp was a place chiefly meant for live performances. Silent movies were sandwiched in between live acts. However, within about a half-dozen years, motion pictures became the rage, and the theater began featuring more of them. The new stars of 1914 included Charlie Chaplin, whose first movie, “Making A Living,” premiered in February of that year.
What the theater lacked at this time was air conditioning. So during hot weather, free drinks — ice water and lemonade — were handed out during intermission.
A local woman, Nan Frazier, played the Hippodrome’s organ to accompany the silent movies. She was supplied with a cue sheet, which told her the appropriate kinds of music to play for the various scenes.
A photograph taken by early Waco photojournalist Fred Gildersleeve shows the Hippodrome as it appeared between its opening and when it shut down for the first time in 1928. The marquee spelled out “HIPPODROME” in descending vertical letters and below was a horizontal message: “10 cents.” The building looked very narrow, compared to today, and contrasting paint made the architectural details stand out even more. Ground floor windows had large posters advertising “Jack London’s Sea Wolf.”
It was not until 1928 that “The Jazz Singer” ushered in “talkies” or movies that had sound. However, the nearby Orpheum Theater showed this movie as the Hippodrome still lacked the necessary audio equipment.
“This was one of five theaters in Waco,” Baker said. “They were all doing similar things.”
The Orpheum, the Strand, the Rivoli, the Texas, the LaVega — and later, the 25th Street Theater — all vied for the public’s entertainment dollars.
At one point, the famous Hoblitzelle chain of theaters operated the Hippodrome. Decades later, some of the money for restoring the place came from the Hoblitzelle Foundation.
In the early part of the 20th century, Central Texans from small towns would make trips to Waco, often staying at the Raleigh or another fine downtown hotel. Their evening entertainment was a night at the theater. In that era, downtown was filled with people even late into the evening.
Early movie projectors were quite dangerous and prone to catching fire. The building suffered two such blazes. The first was in November of 1928. According to news reports, the projector’s kerosene lamp caught on fire. The projection room burned. The flames were so hot, they melted the projector.
Although the rest of the theater suffered no worse a fate than smoke damage, the owners shut the business down. They wanted to modernize by installing sound equipment and air conditioning.
The Hippodrome was closed several months while the extensive remodeling was undertaken. All in all, the project cost $80,000 in 1928 — equal to almost $900,000 in today’s money.
When the theater re-opened in 1929, the Hippodrome moniker was dropped. It was renamed the Waco Theater. Records show it was owned by Southern Entertainment, a subsidiary of Paramount, and was leased to “Louis Dent’s Waco Theater.”
By now, the Great Depression had hit, and movies proved a haven from hard times. But not until 1931 did the Waco Theater play its first “talkie.” The first movie with sound to be shown within the walls of 724 Austin Avenue was the 1925 version of “Ben Hur,” with recorded sound effects added.
Color films were also introduced in the 1930s, although most movies were still black and white. This decade also saw the launch of a Saturday children’s matinee, aired over WACO radio and hosted by Mary Holliday, one of very few females in broadcasting at that time. It proved to be one of the most successful of such shows in the United States.
Another fire occurred in 1933. This again prompted another facelift. Usually during such remodels, the stately high ceilings inside the building were lowered to give the place a more modern feel.
Baker said the Hippodrome was originally a one-level theater: “It wasn’t until after the fire of 1933 that the balcony and mezzanine were added. This put some height onto [the exterior].”
The carpet that was installed had a palm leaf pattern, and a brass chandelier was rigged so that it had soft illumination around its rim.
Live performances — some of them featuring famous stars — continued. During the first 30 years or so of the theater’s existence, Waco was a prominent stop on the Texas entertainment circuit.
“[Waco] was a very notable vaudeville stop,” Baker said. “In those days, Waco was a very notable city. It was on the railroad lines, and cattle drives had once come through here. The Cotton Palace had also put Waco on the map.”
Vaudeville legend Fanny Brice, the subject of the movie “Funny Girl,” appeared on stage about seven decades ago, as did Kate Smith, who made the song “God Bless America” famous. Will Rogers is said to have made an appearance. Records also mention jazz greats Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway entertaining the Waco crowds.
In 1935, the Waco Theater hired Claude Stewart as its manager. He would stay on the job until the movie house closed in the 1970s. Stewart told local reporters his old theater was “a building with a soul.”
In the 1930s and 1940s, it was a common sight to see then-Baylor University president Pat Neff and his wife at the Waco Theater. They came to the movies every week and were all dressed up when they saw the shows. Author Madison Cooper was another regular.
Competition with other theaters was fierce during Stewart’s long time at the helm. Therefore, publicity was used extensively to hype the current flick and to ensure long lines streaming into the 1,150 seats, 400 of which were in the balcony.
One news photograph shows the front wall of the Waco Theater, above the marquee, decked out in what looks like a gigantic hula skirt. It was a row of large jungle-like trees, out of which appeared a life-sized cutout photo of Tarzan swinging on a vine. On the sidewalk level, another giant cutout of the jungle man reached to the roof of the overhang. No passer-by could miss the fact the Waco Theater was screening a Tarzan film!
Another publicity stunt involved a cage of monkeys and a live elephant. Stewart recalled having unanticipated — and embarrassing — problems with the animals. Not having restroom facilities, the elephant caused a big stream of urine to flow down the street gutter, all the way to the rival Rivoli Theater. Meanwhile, the monkeys in the cage busied themselves in activities deemed not suitable for family viewing.
Stewart’s other publicity stunts included having cowboys on horseback promote Westerns and machine guns set up along Austin Avenue to call attention to war movies.
Before the construction of a pedestrian mall, which closed it to traffic, Austin Avenue was considered “The Drag,” where teenagers paraded in cars, much like a local “American Graffiti.” The street was lively after dark. Lines of moviegoers stretched past the Sportsman’s Lounge, then standing next door to the theater, and on down Eighth Street.
Tickets for downstairs seating usually sold for 50 cents.
One passing fad was three-dimensional movies. The Waco Theater handed out special 3-D glasses for audiences as they came to see “House of Wax,” the classic horror film.
Stewart once told of a group of soldiers who drove in from Fort Hood to see “No Time for Sergeants.” One soldier in particular wanted to relax and see the movie with his pals and asked that things be kept low-key.
But no doubt mesmerized by the soldier’s gorgeous blue eyes and handsome smile, a young cashier told all her friends he was there. Soon, Stewart said, a crowd appeared.
The soldier had no time for the movie, for he was being asked for his autograph and to pose for photos. His name? Elvis Presley.
Later, Presley also was one of a stampede of stars to appear at the Waco to promote various flicks. When television threatened to rob movie houses of their audiences, studios sent their leading actors and actresses to make personal appearances to lure the audiences back. Besides Elvis, the theater hosted John Wayne, Ann-Margaret, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens and Jeff Chandler during various stars’ cross-country publicity tours.
According to local lore, one woman wore her hand in a bandage for several days after shaking hands with her movie star idol, John Wayne. She was one of 10,000 Central Texans to come out to see the “Duke.” That was the largest crowd ever to be counted at the Waco Theater.
Elvis flicks, big westerns and Hollywood blockbusters were perennial favorites during the theater’s movie days. Such movies as “The Ten Commandments” and “King of Kings” were shown with much fanfare.
By then, the Waco was considered the flagship theater of the ABC Interstate Theater chain. It was one of many such flagship theaters in cities throughout the South.
Although the theater survived the1953 Waco tornado, one of the deadliest in U.S. history, it may be argued that downtown did not.
After 114 people lost their lives in the disaster, local businesses began relocating to the suburbs. The hustle and bustle of downtown’s earlier years were gone and with that the large movie audiences.
The 25th Street Theater began drawing audiences to its neighborhood, then considered a suburb, and the Waco and Orpheum both began to struggle. Other theaters had already closed.
A newer, more modern theater opened near the Lake Air Mall in the 1960s, and this also took a toll on downtown audience numbers. The decline continued for another decade or so.
Indeed, the Waco’s last movie ran December 15, 1974. A news photo shows “The Trial of Billy Jack” on the theater marquee as the last film to be featured during the facility’s 61-year run as a movie house.
Ownership changed and a Dallas businessman ended up with it. Although occasional movies were screened in the building, and some community events were held there, maintenance issues soon ended those activities.
By the late 1970s and early1980s, the downtown theater was a dismal dame, down on her luck. Certainly she’d seen better days. Pigeons coming in and out of the holes in the roof nested in her rafters. Rain seeped in through those holes, too, producing buckets of water damage, rot and mold. Rubble punctuated the downstairs auditorium. The walls were in tatters. Her star long ago faded; it appeared the grand dame wasn’t too long for the world.
But like most good movies, a posse of heroes soon rode in to rescue the damsel in distress — just in the nick of time. Members of the Junior League of Waco saw her potential and saved the day.
In the 1978–79 school year, Kay Metz chaired the Community Research Committee for the Junior League of Waco. She recalled that just prior to this, voters had turned down a bond issue which, among other things, would have paid for the construction of a performing arts facility for students.
At the time, said Bob Darden, then a newspaper entertainment editor, Waco had few options for certain performances. Both Waco Hall and the Convention Center were much too large, and the Waco Civic Theater too small, for school groups and touring shows. The county lacked what was needed most — a 1,000-seat theater.
Metz agreed: “The schools had quit building auditoriums, so local schools had nowhere for children to perform.”
However, Metz’s committee, in charge of grants that the Junior League gave to worthwhile community projects, was studying ways in which it could enrich the city. Members decided to investigate the possibility of opening a performing arts facility. They studied whether it was more feasible to build from scratch or to remodel an existing building. As far as remodeling, several buildings were proposed, including the historic Dr Pepper plant, now a museum.
Eventually, the committee thought about the old Waco Theater. It was in a prime location downtown, and League members thought perhaps a restored theater would spark a renaissance of restoration in the central city.
Around this time, Darden said, several other Texas cities were restoring their old theaters. Success stories, including the Paramont Theater in Austin and the Majestic Theater in Dallas, proved such restorations were feasible.
Junior League members decided, therefore, to investigate the Waco Theater property. Their first visit wasn’t so promising, Metz remembered. Going into the building at 724 Austin Avenue, members found it in a state of “disarray,” she said.
“Boards in the floor had fallen through,” Metz recalled. “There was water below. The dropped ceiling in the foyer was painted pink and orange and was multi-colored. It was not a pretty picture at all!”
Darden remembered his first tour of the facility: “We walked through it with an architect,” he recalled. “It was pretty well gutted. There was a hole in the roof and pigeons. The architect said there were troubles with the Hippodrome — no orchestra pit and no backstage area.”
One story has it that the Junior League was not even aware the building had a basement — until the water was pumped out revealing the subterranean level. Because it is half brick and half concrete, the basement has been a continuing maintenance problem, especially where water leakage is concerned, according to current board president Carolyn Hurst.
Metz said Jerome Cartwright of the Cooper Foundation engineered a plan in which the Orpheum Theater, part of the foundation’s trust, was traded to the businessman in exchange for the Waco. The foundation leased the Waco to the Junior League and stemmed the water damage by quickly having a new roof installed. The Cooper Foundation also funded a study to examine the feasibility of restoration.
Even for such movers and shakers as the Junior League of Waco, the theater restoration was a mighty undertaking, Metz said.
“Up to that point, the League had only reacted to grant requests; we had never been pro-active,” she said. “But we had built up our funds and we wanted to do something really significant — something that would have a lasting impact.”
In 1979, the Junior League of Waco voted $55,000 toward the theater project — the largest grant the League had ever approved.
Metz said the theater’s condition was so terrible, her committee didn’t let the membership into the place prior to the vote. Instead, they showed them photos and talked up its potential.
Out of the Junior League, a second nonprofit organization was founded. The Waco Performing Arts Company was to be in charge of the restoration project itself. It would be comprised of five Junior League members and 19 other citizens.
In 1981, the Waco City Council approved a $95,000 community development grant for the exterior renovation. Funds also came from Southwestern Bell, the Hoblitzel Foundation and Junior League Charity Ball proceeds.
A shining moment occurred on May 7, 1981. Clare Williams, director of the Texas Historic Commission, presented Waco Performing Arts with a state historical marker. Two years later, the theater was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
It was a long and painstaking restoration — more than seven years’ worth of work, all done in phases.
Metz recalled the day the huge movie screen was removed. She was thrilled to see the proscenium and other features of the small stage were still intact, even after decades of neglect. Indeed, the plaster around the proscenium is the only part of the interior that dates back to 1914.
Another highlight she recalled is the painters who restored the gilded ceilings and walls. The results were spectacular.
One way theater backers raised funds was through “selling” chairs. Individuals and businesses could have their names placed on plaques on a theater seat, on a lobby plaque and on the program by paying for a chair. The company had wanted to raise $250,000 this way, but in 1985, chair sales chairwoman Metz announced the total sales exceeded $300,000.
Finally in December of 1986, it was almost ready. When the Hippodrome’s first director, Greg Holland, announced the theater was only $318,000 short of opening debt-free, Wacoans grabbed their checkbooks. Within 10 days, they’d donated more than half that figure, reducing the debt to $146,000.
Amazingly, only one loan — for $150,000 in 1987 — had been taken out on the initial $2.1 million restoration project.
In September of 1986, a travel film was screened at the newly restored theater. Some 158 people attended, marking the first time the public had a chance to see the interior restoration. Most expressed approval.
On February 26, 1987, the curtain rose on a touring company’s version of “Give ’em Hell, Harry,” starring Kevin McCarthy. Every seat was filled. This was the first live performance put on inside the restored Waco Hippodrome, and a magical moment for many.
“I remember standing across the street and watching people come in to the Waco Hippodrome [on its opening night],” Metz said. “I stood there and cried. It was like the theater was alive — it was alive. It had taken on a new life!”
As in days of old, the restored theater has also had its moments of mix-up and merriment. Once, a performing arts chairwoman gave her approval for what she thought was a Disney children’s show featuring the chipmunk characters, Chip and Dale.
Instead, it was Chippendales, a troupe of male exotic dancers. Realizing their mistake, the company said this would not be a suitable type of program. The show had to go on, however, because the troupe threatened a lawsuit.
In more recent years, a galaxy of stars and hit shows have come to the Hippodrome — Helen Reddy, Michael Martin Murphey, James Earl Jones, Lionel Hampton and many others. Troupes as diverse as the St. Petersburg Ballet and “A Chorus Line” have danced across the stage.
Three actors from the “MASH” television series entertained at the Hippodrome. Actors Jamie (Klinger) Farr and William (Father Mulcahy) Christopher toured as the “Odd Couple and later Gary (Radar O’Reilly) Burghoff appeared in “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers.” And long before “Dream Girls” became a hit movie, its touring company played a gig at the restored theater.
The Waco Hippodrome still had its share of ups and downs. The 1998–99 season was highly successful, but the following year was not. In March of 2000, officials announced a severe cash flow problem “exceeding six figures.” Officials went hat in hand to local foundations, and the crisis was averted.
It happened again in 2005, when the theater had to raise $100,000 by May 31 or close its doors. Grassroots support swelled during a “Keep the Lights On” campaign which asked every Waco resident to send in at least $1. St. Paul’s Episcopal schoolchildren set up a lemonade stand, selling drinks and cookies to raise $700. South Bosque Elementary students sent in $600. A week prior to the deadline, funds were still short by $18,000. The Rapoport Foundation issued a challenge grant, and by month’s end, $110,000 was collected.
“I was hired after the ‘Save the Hippodrome’ campaign was put on,” said Baker, a former New York actor and Baylor graduate.
Why take over a struggling theater? “I knew it could be done,” Baker replied. “I saw the problems, and I knew how to fix them.”
And, it may be said, the Waco Hippodrome — and its home city — is in his blood. Although Baker did not grow up in Waco, his mother did. The former Carol Robinson, who attended Midway schools and Baylor, has fond memories of seeing movies at the old Waco Theater, her son said. Later, Baker attended Baylor, both as an undergraduate and as a Truett Seminary student, and developed a fondness for Waco and its sites.
According to board officials, things have been looking up since Baker’s coming on to the scene. The Waco Hippodrome has broken its box office record for season ticket holders.
This fall, the musical “Hairspray,” also spun off into a movie, played to a packed house — and Baker promises many more smash hits are on the way.
But one warning: Baker said the days when Wacoans could saunter up to the ticket window before a show and buy seats at the last minute are gone.
He advises buying tickets for future shows right away. If you’re not a season ticket holder, you might be stuck with balcony views — if you can get a seat at all. And that’s a big if, Baker added.
“I really, really want to see this work for the city,” Baker said of the Waco Hippodrome. “I’ve lived in many places all over the world, and I know how life-giving it is to have a vibrant art scene.”
Baker said he wants to remodel the balcony and continue maintenance and restoration touchups. After 20 years of operation as a live theater, the grand dame needs a few more nips and tucks. Her new director says this will require some masterful scheduling so that repairs are done in between performances.
Maintenance is always a challenge with aging structures, and Hurst said the theater was not designed to be a “stand-alone” building. Nine decades ago, the theater stood in the middle of a row of structures, most of which have since been razed.
Yet, it seems the grand dame of Austin Avenue is a plucky old lady who won’t be denied her place in the spotlight for long. Through wars, recessions, bad storms and changing tastes, the Waco Hippodrome has refused to bite the dust — and keeps getting herself reinvented to meet the needs of new generations.
Darden, who wrote stories about the Waco Hippodrome’s restoration for many years, said he’s glad the story is continuing: “It’s become a big part of Waco’s cultural and entertainment scene, and I’m delighted to see it’s worked out well.”
And now, the interview with Wacoan of the Year Scott Baker
As executive director of the Waco Performing Arts Company, leader of the Downtown Merchants Association and part-time Truett Seminary student, Baker plays different roles in the community. The remarkable thing isn’t how he manages to stay busy — it’s how he’s consistently turned negative scenarios into thriving entities.
Here is your chance to learn more about who Scott Baker is, what led him to this particular station in life and what drives him to succeed.
WACOAN: Tell me about your background. What brought you to Waco?
Scott Baker: I was born in San Antonio. I am a Texan, but I was not raised in Texas. I was raised all over the world. We moved from Texas to Colorado to Washington, D.C. to Tel Aviv, Israel back to Washington, D.C. Then I moved back to Texas to go to Baylor. I majored in theater and left from there to go to Dallas and then to New York City to do acting before coming back to Waco for what is now my second tour duty here. I came back for [George W. Truett Theological] seminary.
My family is fairly vagabond on my father’s side. My mom was born and raised in Waco, and this is where my grandparents lived when I was a little kid. So I’ve known Waco all my life, which is helpful because for many people who come to Waco for the first time, it is a different experience. It first strikes them as odd that they are going to Waco. It never was for me. I was familiar with it. I was glad to come to Waco. I thought it was a neat city. I had been visiting it since I was a little kid.
WACOAN: Growing up, what were your interests? What led you to theater?
Baker: I’m a middle child. I have an older brother and a younger sister, and I was a typical middle child. I was quiet. Don’t make waves. Make sure everyone is peaceful and happy. I was also very sickly until I was about seven, so I was a very quiet, very skinny, weird little kid who read constantly. I started reading at a very young age and have maintained an interest in reading all my life. Being a military family, we moved constantly. As I got into preteen and early teen years, it really started sinking in that if I was going to have any friends, I was going to have to make them quickly. So I started learning how to be more outgoing, how to make friends more easily, how to get along with people who were different than me. When you’re moving all the time, you have to make friends quickly and forgive easily or you’re not going to have any friends. The first time I really got that was when we moved to Israel. In Israel, the kids who I was making friends with were really different than me — they were from different countries, spoke different languages, had different religions, backgrounds, ages and races — as many differences as you could have. My best friends were from Greece, South Africa, Hungary, China, Canada and Colombia. This really started to change me as a person.
When I moved back to the States in the middle of the seventh grade — which is the pinnacle of awkwardness in an adolescent’s life — I didn’t know anything about football or American music or pop culture. But I went about trying to make friends, and I made some really good friends. My best friend kept encouraging me to audition for the choir. It wasn’t until my sophomore year in high school that I auditioned for the choir. There I met some other friends — because all choir and drama people stick together — who tried to get me to audition for a school play. My first year doing any of this I was in the top choir of the school, I had the lead in the school play, and my world suddenly changed. I was doing very different activities than I had ever done before and finding I had a certain aptitude for this.
In retrospect, it shouldn’t be a mystery. I joke about it all the time. My grandfather was a preacher, my dad was a diplomat, and I’m an actor — it’s all in the family business. I joke, but to a certain extent, it really is. A lot of the same familial traits and skills that made my grandfather a good preacher and a good missionary and made my father a good diplomat make me a good actor: the ability to speak easily in front of people, to organize thoughts into speech on the fly, to appear confident despite changing situations, to hold a bigger perspective than first person. It’s really not a mystery that I ended up going into the arts.
When I got to my senior year, I was either going to school to study voice and drama or I was going to play hockey. I played hockey all through high school and was seriously thinking about heading north to a school to play hockey.
WACOAN: Why did you choose Baylor?
Baker: I’m fourth generation at Baylor, which of course meant I was dead set against going to Baylor. I wanted nothing to do with Baylor, but I promised my parents I would visit anyway. I fell in love with it. I came and loved the voice and drama faculty and the facilities and the campus. I liked the people. What can I say? It changed my mind.
My great-grandfather on my mother’s side went to Baylor. Both of my grandfathers have degrees from Baylor. My parents both went to Baylor, and countless aunts and uncles and second cousins and everyone else all went to Baylor. Both of my grandfathers taught at Baylor, and my dad now teaches as Baylor.
WACOAN: When did you first consider applying to seminary? While you were living in New York City?
Baker: Yes. I had always thought about going into ministry. I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do, but I really wanted to go into ministry — both out of a sense of a call to do so and because I really did feel that would be the best way for me to serve my fellow man and to help people. I also got a lot of the same sense of being able to help people, to be able to lighten their loads and improve people’s lives through the arts. The two have always gone together in my head. They aren’t the same thing, but my artistic background and my theological perspective are very much joined together.
I went to New York thinking I would be there 10 or 15 years or so and then go to seminary and work in arts ministry or in pastoring. I was only in New York for a month before I got cast in my first show. Things were going well. I started having good auditions, getting recognized by directors, getting called in for things. Did some shows, some readings. The more I did it, the more I started to feel like I wanted to do more. That’s not to say that acting wasn’t challenging. I didn’t quit; I still haven’t quit. I didn’t leave New York because I wasn’t any good or because I didn’t have any success. It just seemed to me that so many people I was working with and interacting with in the New York theater and artistic scene had really small worlds. People talk a lot about the Baylor bubble. The Baylor bubble’s got nothing on the island of Manhattan. The island of Manhattan thinks that it is the beginning and the end of the universe. There’s Manhattan and then there’s this big cornfield of Jesus-land out there where weird people go to church and watch football and do strange things with their lives. Their bubble is so impenetrable, and that was so foreign to me because I’d been all over the world.
I have a hard time calling someone an artist who isn’t able to understand that the people of Waco, Texas are people. They are not just the uninformed, unwashed masses outside the island of Manhattan or outside of L.A. They’re real people. Art that doesn’t work with, speak to, involve real people in many different contexts really doesn’t live up to my standard of art. It’s not to say that all art is going to be for everyone, but the New York theater scene is really collapsed in on itself. It’s written by, for and to New York actors.
It seemed so out of touch with the rest of the world that I wanted to do more. I wanted to write, to read, to be able make more of a difference in more people’s lives than I was able to do as an actor in New York City. In one of the trade papers, I saw an advertisement for a worship and arts pastor at All Angels Episcopal Church up in New York. It looked like something right up my alley, although I had no experience or degree. I applied anyway. Despite my lack of qualifications, I made it down to the final three candidates. That process changed me because I got so excited about the application process and being able to work with a church and incorporating more of the arts into the worship experience and having a way to reach out to New York’s artistic community. I quickly realized that was my passion. I decided that if I didn’t get the job, I was going to go to seminary because that was what I wanted to be doing. In the final interview, I casually tossed off that I was considering going to seminary. The next day, the head of the search committee called me and wanted to thank me personally. He said the other guy was getting a form letter, but he wanted to give me a call. Uniformly, the search committee all wanted to encourage me to go to seminary. I took that as the last little kick that I needed. I started looking into seminaries. Of course I was familiar with Truett from my days in undergrad at Baylor and really liked it.
WACOAN: Theological training and musical theater don’t seem to have too much in common. How do those two mix for you?
Baker: They mix for me about as much as everything else does. I really try to take a very holistic approach to my life. I try not to segment it out. It never strikes me as odd that I’m working on my master’s in theology, that I have an undergrad [degree] and professional experience in musical theater and that I’m now working in business as an executive of an arts organization. That never strikes me as odd because I try to take a very integrative approach to my life. I really see the different things I do as complementing and helping each other, providing me with different experiences to do whatever task I have at hand right now.
I am very keenly interested in the way ministry and the arts work together. Except for music, the American church in the 20th century largely abandoned the arts to the point where now in American churches, when you say worship, you mean music. That’s not a one-for-one for me. I don’t make that equation, and I don’t think the church should. So a real passion of mine is integrating a more holistic approach to what worship is through the arts, through community, through families, through intergenerational interplay. For me, the two seem really natural to go together. I know for some people it seems like an odd combination, but in leading up to this job, I have worked as a carpenter, as a teacher, as an actor, as a minister, as a business consultant, as an interpreter, as a candy maker, as a salesman.
WACOAN: What makes you tick?
Baker: These two go hand-in-hand: hope and imagination. I love what I get to do here because I know what theater does for people’s imaginations. I don’t have some false, high notion of what musical theater does for people. I don’t think that everyone who comes is going to be inspired to become an artist and go live on a beet farm and do paintings all day. Give me a break. For most people who come to the shows, they work hard, they have stressful days — that’s everybody, right? They come to the theater and they’re able to relax, to laugh and be freed up to be creative, imaginative people. When you’re stressed out, that creativity gets shut off. This rejuvenates people. It allows them the ability to be more productive and at ease when they have to go right back to the rest of their life the next day.
And I don’t think I could call myself a Christian without saying that hope made me tick. Like I’ve said, my theological worldview and my artistic one are very married. I wouldn’t have the motivation to do anything if I didn’t think that it was contributing to the hope that tomorrow can be better than today. That goes for the work I’m doing with the Public Improvement District, the Downtown Merchants Association and the Performing Arts Company in our work to revitalize downtown. If I didn’t believe that it was worth doing, if I didn’t believe there was a good hope in it, that it will create more jobs for people here in Waco, that it will help people to have better lives here, that it will help lead towards having better education for our kids — it wouldn’t be worth doing.
I am not simply trying to put on shows here. I really do believe that the educational shows add so much to a kid’s education and life. We really are able to lighten people’s loads by having good shows here, and we can contribute a lot to this city in terms of the quality of people’s lives and the overall variation and experience that they have of being a Wacoan when they are able to take all of the good things we already have and add to it, getting to see world-class art and music and drama and theater and dance.
WACOAN: You were hired as executive director of the Hippodrome at a critical stage for the theater. Did you feel a lot of pressure or expectation to succeed?
Baker: No, it was a mixture of really high expectations and no expectations whatsoever. At that point in the theater’s history, I really believe most people didn’t think that the Hippodrome was going to be able to survive. Not through that year, the ’05–’06 year. The flip side of that was it was going to take a lot of work, a lot of creativity, a lot of ingenuity, some new ideas, some new approaches. It was a fairly tall order in order for it to succeed. But again because of that tall order, most people really wanted it to — nobody was rooting against us. Believe me. Everyone wanted to see us succeed, but most people thought it was too tall of an order.
WACOAN: Because of that, did you have free rein to do what you wanted to turn it around?
Baker: Not free rein, but as the year went on and I gained the confidence of the staff and board more and more, things got loosened up a little bit. There were some really important things that I was given latitude with that ended up being huge for us. If I had to say one thing that year that helped us survive, it was a production that I added to the season in February of ‘Love Letters,’ which was performed by Milton Wilson, who is a totally beloved community guy here — Milton is just one of the coolest humans you’ll ever meet — and Deborah Mogford, who is one of my mentors and taught at Baylor Theatre for about 20 years. The money we brought in from that show came at a critical time in our season as funds were running really low and allowed us to push through the year and stay open. Adding a show like that really did show some latitude that the board had given me and that the organization had given me. As far as the internal organization, I was given pretty much free rein to reorganize policy and procedure and, boy, did we.
WACOAN: The Hippodrome has certainly begun to thrive again under your leadership. What did you do to turn things around?
Baker: The short answer is everything. Everything about what we’re doing now is different than we’ve done in the past. That’s not to say that who we are fundamentally is different, it’s how we get there. The two biggest things we did were audience development and programming. Audience development includes marketing. For years, the Waco Performing Arts Company had enjoyed a lot of attention here in the community. Because of the wonderful job that was done by the Junior League and other community organizations in revitalizing and remodeling the theater for it to be open again, there was a lot of fanfare and attention. Everybody clamored to be a part of the Waco Performing Arts Company and the Hippodrome. The organization sort of got used to that, and they weren’t doing the necessary steps to reach out, to always be cultivating and developing new audiences, different audiences, younger audiences — things like that. I say that because everybody always talks about younger audiences — I find myself in a funny position in life — being a 29-year-old male, I’m everybody’s demographic, it seems. But you don’t reach out and try to develop young audiences just for the sake of having a young audience. I reach out to try to get a 30-year-old season ticket holder because a 30-year-old season ticket holder might hold those tickets for 40 years. It’s about the longevity of the commitment. And I want to be sure that they have a good time when they come. We’ve decided that we did not want to be used to the attention that we’d had in the past; we really needed to be very proactive always — no matter how successful we were — about making sure there were new faces in the audience. That we found ways to have room for new people, different people, younger people, and this season is a prime example of that. We have broken the all-time season ticket sales record; we’re going to have sold-out shows every time we open our doors. We are never going to stop making sure that our marketing, that our promotions, that our development efforts are focused on attracting new audience members, always finding someone in the community who’s never been here before.
Programming is the other big thing. Some of the programming over the few years before I had come, the patrons weren’t very happy with it. It had gotten kind of obscure and a little bit away from what they expected in a Broadway season. We’ve really brought that not only back to center, but we’ve been very dynamic with that. A bunch of the other performing arts presenters in Texas have commented to me that our lineups are really dynamite, and these are people that are doing the same thing. I’ve really gone out to try to find shows that are current, that either are on Broadway or have been on Broadway recently, shows that are going to have some name recognition, shows that the audience likes. I talk to the audience and ask them, ‘What shows do you want to see? What shows are you aware of?’ And that has allowed us to have some really good programming.
Last year was the first year that I programmed, and we had shows like ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ — that was a huge hit for us — and ‘Rent’ and ‘Camelot’ and ‘Man of La Mancha.’ Those shows just have some real name recognition. ‘Joseph’ was actually sort of a classic at that point, but it’s always a timely show. Everybody loved that show. ‘Camelot’ has a national tour going out right now to a bunch of major cities. ‘Man of La Mancha’ had been on Broadway in the last three years. ‘Camelot’ is remounting for Broadway production again soon. And this season, ‘Chicago,’ still on Broadway; ‘Gypsy,’ had been on Broadway within the last three years and is a classic; ‘Ring of Fire,’ on Broadway within the last three years; ‘Hairspray,’ still on Broadway; ‘The Producers,’ still on Broadway; ‘Evita’ is a classic Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s always got something on Broadway. And there was a recent movie version of ‘Evita,’ of ‘The Producers,’ not of ‘Ring of Fire’ but ‘Walk the Line’ treated the material similarly, of ‘Chicago,’ of ‘Hairspray’ — so these are shows people are really familiar with in a number of different mediums.
WACOAN: How were you able to book those big acts in the face of such financial limitations?
Baker: There’s a certain amount of creativity that goes into that. Part of it has to do with my knowledge of the industry; I know what’s possible. In the beginning, I talked with production companies. I found out who was in Texas already, started tracking their routes, figuring out which nights they were off, waited until late in the game after they were already content with their route and made them an offer. This is where knowledge of the industry comes in — once you take a show out on the road, you’ve got costs built in. Those actors, those musicians, those stagehands — they make a weekly salary. Those costs are built in. So once you have your costs met, the production company is finally being profitable. That’s why they have certain minimum fees they accept. I talked with the production companies later in the game than most of the other folks, and I was able to say, ‘I can’t pay you what these other folks are, but I am willing to take a Tuesday or Thursday night, and I’ll offer you X amount of money. It may not be what you’re asking for, but it’s more than you’ve got. You can either have a night off where you have to pay your bills anyway, or you can make this amount of money.’
It didn’t work for everyone, but I was able to negotiate enough good shows last year that the companies were more eager to work with me this year. And this year, we weren’t considered risky at all because we did do well enough last year. With how sales have gone, Waco isn’t considered a risk or off the beaten path. We are one of the markets now that they are going to target because they know there is a venue and a promoter who can do a good job and make sure they get paid and the audience is full and happy and people are going to have a good experience here. The better we do, the better we will do. Already, we are moving towards capacity problems. With ‘Hairspray,’ we’re at full capacity with two performances, which is twice as many as we usually have. I’m already talking to the production company for ‘Chicago’ to see if they might be able to add a day to their stay here when they come in April. And next year, we’ll see. I’m not going to make any rash decisions and start booking beyond our ability to fill it in. We’re always going to grow steadily but conservatively to make sure that we don’t lose money on any of these things. That’s part of being a nonprofit. People give us their money, and I take that as a trust and a responsibility. I will not be irresponsible with people’s money. People give us donations. People buy tickets here. People support us through membership or sponsoring the shows. It wouldn’t be a good idea to try to grow too quickly. We want people to stay good and anxious to get the tickets. (Laughs)
WACOAN: Season ticket sales recently reached an all-time high. How will you be able to top this for next year? How will you be able to replicate this for next year?
Baker: There’s a couple of ways. The first thing that I’m concerned with is making sure that all of the people who come this year have their expectations met. Their expectations are high, and that’s where I want them. People are going to be blown away with the season this year. I’ve already started programming next year. The Broadway season is going to be every bit as good next year, really great recent Broadway titles. I would love to tell you what some of them are but until I have contracts on them, I can’t. I can only say that shows that are still on Broadway, shows that have been on Broadway within the last two years, a former American Idol winner — there’s a lot that we’re looking at.
But we’re also working on diversifying to make sure that we’re serving different kinds of audiences. One of the coolest things that we’re doing this year is that we’re starting a family series where parents and grandparents can bring their kids and grandkids to the theater for programs specifically designed for them that also hopefully won’t make the parents or grandparents poke their eyes out. We’re making sure that it’s something the parents are going to enjoy bringing their kids to. This year, we have it in a very limited format, just four simple shows, although it grows every time we have one of these shows. Next year, we’re going to have a full-on family series. I’m going to be bringing in an illusionist show, a cirque de soleil style show, some more great children’s theater and children’s music. We’re going to be able to serve a different audience because the folks who are coming to these shows, a lot of them do not come to our Broadway shows for the very good reason that they’ve got little kids. It’s harder to get away to come to the shows when you have little kids — I understand! So we wanted to have something the families can do together.
We’re also going to be diversifying into a comedy series. We’ve had some really good successes with comedy here lately with Carlos Mencia, with Gallagher, with Rickey Smiley. We’re about to have Second City in February, and that show’s going to be crazy cool. We’re looking at having a full comedy series next year.
I’m also working on developing a music series — excellent contemporary musicians. We’ve had good success in the past year or so with the Chieftains, with Jim Brickman, with some of these contemporary musicians, and I think the time is right that we start trying to see who else we can get on our stage. Can we have Lyle Lovett come and do an intimate set at the Hippodrome? Or Chris Isaak? Just him and his guitar? I think there’s a lot of potential for growth in that area as well.
We’re also working on a film series. We’ve got our projector, which of course the Hippodrome was the Waco Theater for many years and was a movie house. We have our projector working again, and we’re working on getting the equipment in place so we could show digital format. Right now, it’s film but we want to expand to digital capabilities also. We want to start a series of classic films, foreign films, art films, documentaries — things that aren’t going to be in the megaplexes here in town.
The short answer to how we keep growing from this year is by making sure that we have more programming that can be targeted to more people, people who haven’t been to the theater before. I’m well aware that musical theater is not everybody’s cup of tea. That’s fine. We’re going to make sure that there’s something here for you to enjoy. I really do have a goal of making sure that the Waco Performing Arts Company looks like Waco. And by that I mean our programming, our lineup is going to be something that’s going to appeal to people across every different age or racial or gender boundary that we have or whatever other boundaries that there are, making sure that our board also looks like Waco, making sure that our audience ends up looking like Waco. We’re not just here to serve one little niche of people; we want to be a very broad-serving organization.
WACOAN: How do you overcome some of the challenges associated with downtown in the evenings? There’s a perception that it’s unsafe. How have you addressed that?
Baker: Fortunately, I’m all over that. I’m also the founder and chairman of the Downtown Merchants Association here. The funny thing is — well, I don’t know that it’s funny — the thing is downtown enjoys one of the lower crime rates in the city. It’s a perception issue, and if you have to battle the perception, it’s almost the same thing as having to battle the problem itself. For all of our shows, we make sure we have lights on all over the building; we have security available. Our staff is available and is all over the place, providing any feeling and appearance of security that people need to make sure that they feel safe. Additionally, with the popularity of The Green Room across the street and the Palladium on the corner — the Palladium is packed every weekend for a year and many nights in between — there is lots of activity on show nights. That kind of activity, that many people around really does provide a secure and safe atmosphere. As far as parking goes, people always manage to find parking; there is plenty of it available. Is it as clearly designated and as clearly marked as we’d like? No, not yet. Is it as brightly lit as I want? Not yet. Those are things that I’m working on through the Downtown Merchants Association and the Public Improvement District. Those are definitely things that I’m not the only person who’s dealing with. Everyone who does business in downtown wants more lighting, clearer signage and things like that. Those things are going to be coming. But of the people who come here, everybody feels very safe and very secure — we make sure of it.
WACOAN: After the close of Downtown Waco, Inc., you have led the charge to improve the future of downtown Waco and formed the Downtown Merchants Association. What has the reaction been to that? Are people joining you in that effort?
Baker: They are. The Merchants Association really couldn’t be received any better among the business people down here. It’s a simple matter of — and this is something that Waco does really well — when there’s a problem in Waco, typically we’ve been very good for many years about sitting down at a table together and working out differences. This is not a factioned city where you have the Hatfields and the McCoys on opposite sides of issues. There’s a city about an hour and a half north of here that has a famous history of problems like that, and Waco does not have those problems. Where there are issues, we sit down at a table. And that’s the thing — we’re all really good neighbors to each other. Down here in downtown, it’s the same thing. We recognize that we share many of the same concerns; we have many of the same problems; we have many of the same goals; we have many of the same resources that we share. It only makes sense to all of us to put our voices together, to help examine different issues to talk about our concerns, to try to make downtown the best environment for doing business that we can make it a wonderful destination for people to come and bring their time and their money and share their families with us.
A move to downtown is something that’s going on all across the nation. People are trying to reconnect with their historic downtowns, and Waco is no different. The merchants here really are trying to provide a place where the people of Waco can keep their commerce local, where they can spend time with their neighbors in their neighborhoods, where they can share more of their lives with each other locally. It’s so easy with technology, with transportation to go as far flung in the world as you want to, so much so that people are going to realize they really miss connecting with their neighbors. Downtown is the perfect environment for that because we have so many different unique shops and restaurants and services and entertainment options down here, and there are more being added all the time. You will not recognize this place in three years. And in five years, people are going to be fleeing Dallas and Austin in droves to get here. There is so much that’s going on, and like I said, the businesses who operate down here, we know that we have a lot more potential to grow and develop downtown together than by everybody on their own. When it comes time for City Council and other groups to be making decisions that impact commerce downtown, we want to have all of us get together and talk about these things so that we can provide feedback and reports to the people making the decisions that affect us. They desperately want to hear from the people who it affects most. It’s a really good give and take relationship.
WACOAN: The cost of renovating buildings downtown is one hurdle for potential investors. How do you handle that here at the Hippodrome? What are you currently updating?
Baker: In short, everything. It’s been 25 years since the building was renovated. There are some things that are just routine that need to be done, and there are other things that are a little more extraordinary that come with a 90-year-old building. We are actually about to begin a top to bottom renovation of the entire facility. People will be seeing scaffolding going up at different points, and people will see the changes. I want them to. I want them to see how good of care we’re taking of this building. But that’s a process that we’re just getting underway right now. We’ve been taking care of a lot of things that people notice first — the doors to the theater, the park next door, the carpets inside, the fixtures in the bathrooms — we’ve already begun addressing things like that. We’re about to begin the bigger tasks of the exterior walls, repointing and mortaring, repairing old brick, water sealing, replacing the trim on the facade in the front, replacing wooden frames in some of the windows, things like that that affect the appearance and, honestly, affect the appearance of downtown. It’s more than just us, which is one thing we’ve been saying as a Downtown Merchants Association about boarded up windows and dilapidated buildings. All that to say, the Hippodrome right now is a great drawing point and focal point for downtown — just wait until we’re finished with these renovations. It’s going to be spectacular.
WACOAN: Once people achieve success, it’s not unusual for some to use Waco as a stepping stone to a bigger market. What are your long-term plans?
Baker: I honestly don’t know. My wife and I have gotten as far as we need to finish our master’s degrees.