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Friday, August 19, 2016

Meet Ron Legler

Written by  Frankie Kujawa
Ron Legler Ron Legler

He co-founded Pulse. Now he’s helping transform Baltimore through the arts

Summer is traditionally a time when many begin to ease back on their workloads and enjoy vacations in the warm sun. Baltimore Arts tour de force Ron Legler, however, has been humbly working behind the scenes to bring positive changes to the city of Baltimore. As president of the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, Legler’s vision and mission reflects his community approach and tireless work ethic. The Tony Award voting member of the Broadway League candidly shared with Baltimore OUTloud the great work going on at the Hippodrome, as well as his own story of how he became a leader in the arts.

Growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania, Legler was always interested in student government and getting involved with his community. As a teenager, Legler honed his leadership skills as captain of both his water polo and swim teams. Soon after, Legler was awarded a leadership scholarship to attend Thiel College, a small Lutheran school outside of Pittsburg. “I was the first in my family to go to a traditional college. I was very fortunate to be there and I didn’t want to waste any of that experience.” It was while attending Thiel that Legler’s advisor suggested that he try his talents in theatre as an elective. “My advisor said, ‘You look like you’d be in theatre. You’d be good.’ But I never had any exposure to Broadway or any kinds of shows. So I went to the class and I instantly felt like it was supposed to be.”

Legler credits his professor and long-time friend, Dr. Robinson, as the one who opened this world up for him. “I saw Les Miserables in the Benedum Center and it changed my life. At that moment, I knew had to be part of this Broadway thing.” Legler attributes his participation in theatre in helping him to grow and develop into the person he is today. “Living your life in this Broadway bubble there’s such a protection. As a young person growing up in Erie I didn’t really know what being gay was, which is kind of disappointing. Broadway protected me from the bullying. It was ok to be gay because you were in Broadway and lived within that bubble.”

After college, Legler moved to New York City and worked for a while as a booking agent. It was in 2001 when Legler relocated from New York City to Orlando. “I had just come from New York and I wanted to go to some of the gay bars, and there were like two in Orlando at the time – Parliament House and Southern Nights. Both were very dated, and I thought it was time that we bring this martini bar sensation to Orlando. And that’s how Pulse was really born.”

Legler, who co-founded Pulse with Barbara Poma, was heartbroken after the events of June 12th, 2016 in which 49 people were massacred in the hate-filled attack. “In the way Broadway protected me, Pulse became sort of that bubble for many people.” Legler explained. “When you go to gay bars, you feel that you can be yourself and you don’t have to be judged. Which was really wonderful. And having that bubble popped two months ago was devastating.” Tearing up, Legler shared, “My heart is with those people. It’s difficult because it was the place that makes you feel safe. It was a sanctuary for many people. To have that interrupted, and have those people brutally murdered, it’s very difficult to think that could have happened within those four walls.”

Switching gears to discuss his cultural impact in Orlando, Legler went on to explain that upon his arrival he found much of the downtown district suffering tremendously. “Church Street was once this bustling, fun area but as Disney opened Downtown Disney and Universal opened City Walk, many tourists stuck to those areas. So downtown just became desolate.” As the president/CEO of the Florida Theatrical Association, Legler was instrumental in re-imagining how to use these areas to help the community. “So what happens when you go into these areas where you have all these empty buildings? theatre happened. Art started happening. Pop-up restaurants. Life started to slowly get breathed back into these places.”

Since his arrival at Baltimore’s Hippodrome in May 2014, Legler instantly began to analyze thetheatre’s potential in Baltimore. “The community is your audience.” Legler explained. “Think about Baltimore and the cultural assets in a relatively small community. We have over 21 museums! What city in the world has 21 museums? A harbor city with one of the most beautiful baseball stadiums in the world. You have the Lyric Opera House, the Hippodrome doing National Touring Broadway, the BSO with its beautiful space. This city is filled with culture! I think that’s what we have to rely on to build Baltimore into a safer city.”

Legler’s passion and mission at the Hippodrome has already begun to take effect on the facility. Receiving a much needed facelift from years of wear and tear, the Hippodrome’s recently installed carpet was a multi-million-dollar project designed by an artist in order to make it historically accurate to the theatre’s history. The conversion from incandescent to LED lighting is also adding a new feel. This fall, patrons will be able to enjoy the newly renovated Hippodrome Cafe, which has a more bistro feel with a new menu. Legler, along with the Hippodrome Foundation, is currently working on the “Reimagining of the M&T Bank Pavilion.” This project would open up more unused space at the Hippodrome for more community events. This drastic change will allow the Hippodrome to serve as a bridge to the community for self-expression.

“We have to be accessible. We have to be reachable.” Legler explained. “We have to be the outlet of steam for these communities. We have to be the bridge that if you think you can’t get somewhere from here, you can. I think the arts are the way to do it.”

Reflecting back on the spring performance of Beauty and the Beast, Leger recounted that through the Hippodrome Foundation and a sponsorship from BGE, the theatre was able to welcome 2,200 at-risk kids from the Baltimore area to a matinee performance. “It was such a proud moment because kids that would never have this opportunity were able to experience this show. These kids were hanging on every single word.” The experience affected adults, too. “In the middle of the performance, I went back stage and the actress who played Belle was crying. I asked her, ‘Is everything alright?’ and she responded with ‘I’ve never had this experience in all my time being an actress.’ The cast was literally crying backstage because the power of these kids and the experience they had. They’ll never forget it.”

Legler’s job, however, is just beginning. His investment in both Baltimore and the community transcends into his work. “There’s a lot of work to do. All the plans we’ve made here for the future is the key to becoming a true performing arts center where you give the community a very big part. When those doors are open, and the answer is always yes, change can happen. I believe these community spaces are the need.”

Legler also reflected on both past and current events in Baltimore. “You look at Baltimore and it’s on the edge. Baltimore is a city where there is so much history and beauty. But at the same time so much suffering and anguish. I think that we at the Hippodrome have to be the relief valve for that. We have a responsibility to be that. And our work is just beginning.”

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