MORE THAN 15 years ago, we stopped...


MORE THAN 15 years ago, we stopped by a building in our neighborhood -- not just any old building but the majestic red brick hulk of the old Loyola High School and College adjacent to St. Ignatius Church -- to see how Center Stage was settling in.

Peter W. Culman, then and now the managing director of this magical theatrical enterprise, was racing against a deadline to open what is now the downstairs Pearlstone Theater. Though pressed for time, Peter took us on a quick tour of the premises -- including the cavernous space on the upper floors where school kids once assembled, Jesuit seminarians lived and old ghosts flew in tandem with pigeons.

The place was a mess. Debris, dust and enough pigeon guano to fertilize Carroll County. Yet the most vivid impression was one of SPACE -- vast cubic yardage that yearned for utilization then beyond Center Stage's wildest dreams.

No more. On a return visit just the other day, Culman proudly rushed us through the new Head Theater, the two new rehearsal rooms, the electrical shop, the performers lounge and a dozen other embellishments paid for by his trustees' successful $13 million fund-raising campaign. There's still a lot of clutter around the edges, still a few spaces yet to be utilized, but the fact is that Center Stage is BIG: 102,000 square feet, compared with 45,000 square feet when it first moved to Calvert Street.

The new Head Theater upstairs is, of course, the centerpiece. To give it the necessary vertical dimensions, architects tore out the floor separating the old school auditorium and the school library just under the roof. Then they produced a theater that Culman says is unique -- one in which the configuration of stage and seating can be turned around and convoluted to serve the

purposes of each separate production, thus producing constant new relationships between players and audience.

When the old Center Stage at 11 E. North Ave. burned down on Jan. 10, 1974, there were fears it was dark forever or, heaven forbid, that it would move to the suburbs and become just another dinner theater. Instead, heaven be praised, downtown SPACE in vast abundance was beckoning. The rest is one happy story.

HOW FITTING that filmmaker Barry Levinson's "The Natural" ran on a local television station the night before this town's favorite baseball team opened its spring training camp in Sarasota, Fla.

"The Natural" is the director's homage to old-fashioned baseball and old-fashioned values, with Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) as the home-run hitting hero.

Will fact now mirror fiction? Will the Orioles embark on their own storybook season, complete with their new "natural" home-run hitter, Glenn Davis? Stay tuned.

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