Posted: 9:00 pm Thu, November 26, 2009
By Liz Farmer
Daily Record Business Writer
Edie Brown can’t go anywhere in Baltimore without seeing someone she knows.
When asked how many people she knows here, the longtime public and community relations director for the 1st Mariner Arena just laughs.
“[Baltimore] is very neighborhood-oriented, so you kind of always stick to people that you know and you grew up with or went to school with who are in the same social circle, so you don’t really expand out of that little circle,” she said. “This has given me the opportunity to meet terrific people I never would have met otherwise. It helps you stay young and alert.”
And while she may have framed photos of herself and Luciano Pavarotti, Michael Phelps and Sugar Ray Leonard in her office, the 76-year-old has made her career by treating everyone who crosses her path as a friend.
“I know it sounds silly, but I do enjoy being with people,” Brown said. “I think because I care about them. My media friends will call me if they’re having trouble at home. Sometimes I think maybe I should hang up a shingle.”
And it’s precisely that quality that landed Brown her first job offer in public relations 30 years ago this week, and what has carried her through successfully working for one of the city’s busiest — and at times most troubled — venues.
“I don’t know that I’d want to be the PR person for the arena because that’s a hard place to sell,” said Steve Davis, a local sports broadcaster and founder of the Steve Davis Media Group. “The arena — we all know it’s outdated. It’s no secret it’s a dump and it needs to be replaced, but you still need to sell events. She’s a great representative to do it because she has so many friends, and everybody in the media likes her.”
Brown, a former schoolteacher to the likes of now-Senator Benjamin L. Cardin and filmmaker Barry Levinson, got her first public relations job when she interviewed at the Baltimore Convention Center the day before Thanksgiving in 1979.
“I came in never having written a press release,” she said. “I didn’t even know what PR was.”
At that time, the city also ran the downtown arena. Originally called the Baltimore Civic Center, and renamed the Baltimore Arena in 1986, the 11,000-seat venue opened in 1962 and cost $14 million to construct. The first event at the building was a Baltimore Clippers hockey game with entertainment by Paul Anka.
During the 1960s and ’70s, the list of stars and guests increased with acts like the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and the Supremes. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also delivered a speech to Methodist clergy in 1966.
In 1983, Brown made the move from the convention center to the arena. By then, however, it had become a tough sell. The building was dark and closed-off and in a then-desolate part of downtown.
“It was in the middle of nowhere,” Brown said. “And it was a place that was perceived as where kids came and did drugs and smashed windows. There were no lights — when it got dark at four o’clock it was this dark square block of blackness.”
Brown said she and the management worked to change that image by attracting families and by changing the face of the building. The entrance of the arena near Baltimore Avenue and Hopkins Place was redone in glass, opening up the face of the structure. Lights shined on the building 24/7 and a parking garage was added to the rear.
The message was the arena wasn’t just a place for concerts anymore — that it was a place for sporting and family events too, she said. The effort was a step-by-step process that entailed bringing in more family events, promoting them and getting word out to community.
In 1986, tennis pro and Baltimore native Pam Shriver founded her annual charity tennis tournament and held it at the arena. Brown said she now does PR for that event pro bono as a gift to her longtime friend. The two met through Brown’s son, Mitchell.
“When Mitchell was 13 he came in one day, threw his racket on the floor and he said, ‘Some big ugly girl that walks like a duck beat me and I’ll never play tennis again,’” Brown said.
“When she came out with her book, she sent him an autographed copy and it said, ‘Mitchell, I beat you then and I can beat you today,’” Brown added with a laugh.
And despite her small frame and quick smile, Brown is a force to be reckoned with. There was the time she chewed out Pavarotti’s security guards when they gave her a hard time during set-up.
Or the time she went to tennis pro Ivan Lendl’s room to deliver his requested Coca-Cola, and he answered the door nude.
“I just tried not to blush,” Brown said. “And later at this party, he was very straightforward and very haughty to me, and he asks me, ‘Your press says I have no sense of humor — is that true?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know about your sense of humor but you have a great build,’ and he just broke up laughing.”
The arena had a renaissance of sorts as a result of the marketing efforts and the downtown revitalization and hosted major events during that time such as the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in 1989, the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials in 1992 and the first two rounds of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship in 1995.
But the events also exposed the then-30-year-old arena’s limitations. Unlike most arenas today, Baltimore’s has a permanent stage, so seats are arranged as three sides of a box, rather than a continuous oval. The building does also not have a modern press box, and television crews are required to bring in extra cables and other equipment because of the arena’s older design and wiring.
“They were very happy with Baltimore,” Brown said of the NCAA. “They had never been to a city that was so welcoming. But the arena just didn’t work for them, so we didn’t get it back.”
The press also began exposing the faultiness of the arena in the following decade, portraying it as out of date and in need of major renovations (if not demolition). Brown said she deals with adverse situations the same way as good one — with openness.
“You always have to be honest,” she said. “And if you don’t know the answer, don’t make it up — just tell them you’ll try to find the answer. Media can tell when you’re [B.S.-ing] them.”
That attitude has earned the respect of the media, said Davis.
“Whenever you needed an interview that involved the arena, you call Edie and Edie will make it happen every time,” he said. “If she says she’s going to do something, she’ll do it.”
That relationship has also paid off in the form of getting tipped off by members of the press if something was going to happen at the arena (like a PETA protest during a circus event). One year she got a call from a reporter who warned her he was coming to the arena later that evening to write a story about the building’s faults and outdated amenities.
Brown said she knew the bathrooms would be featured, so she spent the afternoon changing some men’s rooms into women’s rooms so the lines wouldn’t be outrageously long for the event that night as the reporter was expecting.
“I told the reporter when he came, I said, ‘Look, you were really nice to give me a warning but I didn’t want it to be as bad as it could be,’” she said. “He still got his story but the photo wasn’t as dramatic.”
In 2004 the city seriously began toying with the idea of building a new arena, and early this year, officials announced plans to raze the building and construct a new arena on the site. With the ensuing crash of the development market, those plans are on hold.
And despite its age the arena still attracts major acts (like Bruce Springsteen last week) and is one of the few arenas in the country that turns a profit.
“Will we get a new arena? I think eventually,” Brown said. “Do we need new arena? It would certainly be wonderful to have a state-of-the-art arena with all the bells and whistles. There are not a lot of the newer, easier ways to do business in this building. But does it work? Sure, it works.”
In 2000, Brown decided to retire but agreed to stay on as a consultant for the arena. In order to do that, she had to form her own company, Edie Brown & Associates.
Her “retirement” didn’t last long. Brown’s company now lists Feld Entertainment (the arena’s biggest client), Everyman Theatre, Dunkin Donuts and About Faces Day Spas among its clients. Brown has served on various boards like the Preakness Festival Board of Directors and the Maryland Film Commission, and on Mayor Sheila Dixon’s transition team.
“I’m at the point where I’m getting old and I should be retired,” said Brown. “I should be basking in the sun somewhere. … But I like what I do. I have no regrets.”