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Off Stage

Arts foundation's plans exclude black theater.



In a promotional video for the planned performing arts center, a statue of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson comes to life and tap-dances his way from Jackson Ward to Broad Street, extolling the virtues of a diverse arts community in early-20th-century Ebonics. "Yessir, lookin' good." says an actor playing Bojangles. "The heart and soul of this area all fixed up and spit shine."

Could be. But the comeback apparently doesn't include Bojangles' famed stomping grounds — the old Hippodrome Theater on Second Street.

Ronald Stallings, whose family owns the Hippodrome and the Elks Lodge next door, says he doesn't understand why the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation rejected overtures to include the most famous black theater in Richmond.

"I think it was slightly disingenuous," Stallings says. "And not to even be asked or approached initially was quite hurtful. We're right next door to the convention center."

Stallings, president of Walker Row Partnership Inc., sent a letter to the foundation's leadership in October 2003 outlining a proposal: If the foundation invested $1.5 million, the Hippodrome, which is expected to undergo a $5.8 million renovation, could be available at the foundation's disposal.

It seemed to fit with the foundation's plans to reach out to the African-American community, or "organizations of color," as stated in the master plan in an effort to drum up public support for the arts complex. Those plans already included the Thalhimers block, the Carpenter Center, and the Landmark, National and Empire theaters.

Jim Ukrop, chairman of the arts foundation's board, warmed to the idea and set up a meeting with Brad Armstrong, president and chief executive of the foundation, Stallings says. Armstrong regrettably declined the offer, Stallings says, stating that the consultants who created the master plan for the arts complex considered the Hippodrome too small and acoustically unsound.

In the "Richmond Arts Facilities Master Plan," completed by AMS Planning & Research in January 2001, the consultants rejected the Hippodrome as a "shoebox shaped movie theatre" that wasn't worthy of the foundation's investment "given the functional aesthetic, technical and operational needs that we were asked to consider."

Carolyn Cuthrell, a spokeswoman for the arts foundation, says the foundation supports the Hippodrome but couldn't justify the investment.

"We did look at it very early on when we were developing the master plan, and it just … didn't work out for us," Cuthrell says. "However, we haven't had an update on the project in the last six months, but by and large, we have been fully aware of and have been supportive of the Hippodrome project as it has evolved."

Indeed, Stallings says the arts foundation has allowed his firm to borrow their acoustic engineers and theater planners for free. And new negotiations with a "national production company," which include plans to redevelop the Hippodrome, are about to close, Stallings says.

Plans to turn the theater into a live studio as part of TV One and actor Tim Reid's New Millennium Television have yet to come to fruition for lack of financing, Stallings says, but he expects that deal — with the addition of the new production partner — to become a reality in the coming months.

And there's still room for the arts foundation. "I'd be more than happy to open up discussions and have the performing arts foundation participate," Stallings says. S

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