Culman has brought deep dedication to his job at Center Stage

December 15, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

On Peter W. Culman's 10th birthday, his godmother took him to see his first Broadway show -- "Where's Charley?" -- the musical in which the late Ray Bolger sang "Once in Love with Amy" with the audience.

"There's a story there," Mr. Culman says, launching into one of many tales he tells over lunch in the sunny kitchen of his Roland Park home.

About a decade ago, he explains, he picked up a magazine profile of Bolger in a dentist's office. "The interviewer asked him what prompted him to sing 'Once in Love with Amy' with the audience, and he said, 'Well, at a matinee there was a young redheaded boy who stood up and started singing with me.' "

Slathering peanut butter and jelly on pumpernickel -- his favorite sandwich -- Mr. Culman, 53, laughingly admits he can't be sure Bolger was referring to him, but at the same time, he does have red hair, and he distinctly remembers that he stood up and sang, "and [Bolger] stopped the show and the audience joined in."

That epiphany may have led Mr. Culman to choose a life in the theater, a life whose last quarter century has been spent as managing director of Center Stage -- a longer tenure than any other managing director in the history of American regional theater.

But above and beyond the impact of Ray Bolger, Mr. Culman ascribes his dramatic leanings to the inherent theatricality in his Irish-American upbringing. "I came from a family of Irish raconteurs and they were all telling stories all the time," he says. And when he describes the house in which he grew up, he might just as easily be describing a stage set -- a pair of connected East Side Manhattan brownstones that also housed the family bridal gown business and his uncle's doctor's office.

Nor can he discount the influence of the Catholic Church on his career -- not the pomp and circumstance, mind you, but the spirituality that is always with him. As Donald N. Rothman, a former Center Stage board president, puts it, Mr. Culman's faith extends beyond Catholicism -- he also has faith in the theater.

For Mr. Culman, theater is a vocation. The most obvious proof is his 25th anniversary as chief administrator of Center Stage. This past Monday the event was honored with a surprise party whose lineup of speakers was headed by the acclaimed South African playwright Athol Fugard. And, as part of the tribute, the nearly 400 guests were treated to a rendition of "Once in Love with Amy" -- though this time Mr. Culman didn't join in.

Why has Mr. Culman lasted at Center Stage when managers at other theaters have not? In a word -- "objectivity," says Peter Zeisler, director of the national Theatre Communications Group, which presented Mr. Culman with its distinguished service award earlier this year. "In many cases ego gets in the way. People get confused and think they are the institution, in which case it's time to move on or get rid of them. That's never happened with Peter and therefore his continuity of service has been a blessing. . . . He has not shaped [Center Stage] in his own image."

Mr. Culman has maintained his objectivity by pursuing a range of interests that are catholic in the broadest sense of the word and that hark back to a childhood spent in an eclectic, accepting atmosphere that summons up the setting of one of Center Stage's past productions, "You Can't Take It with You."

The third child of a German Lutheran stockbroker and an Irish Catholic mother -- who gave birth to him when she was 44 -- Mr. Culman essentially grew up in a household of adults. His father, who died of leukemia when Peter was 10, was home the last three years of his life. The shipping department of the family bridal business, Kathleen Inc., provided a kind of after-school day care for the young Peter. Not only did he learn to pack dresses, he also learned to get along with a diversity of people -- a "little U.N.," he calls the department, which was manned by an Orthodox Jew, a Hispanic and a black.

His early education was under the auspices of the Sisters of Charity; a few years ago he paid a visit to his middle school, St. Ignatius Loyola. Everything but the nuns' habits looked the same. The new principal -- dressed in a plaid skirt -- pulled out his file and asked, "Have you amounted to something? Are you still a disciplinary problem?"

He says he earned this reputation because he was forever questioning the answers to the Baltimore Catechism. This inquisitive tendency has not only stuck with him, it is one of the elements that nourishes him spiritually and enhances his value as a teacher, according to the Rev. Robert F. Leavitt, S.S., president-rector of St. Mary's Seminary and University, where Mr. Culman has been an adjunct professor of homiletics, or preaching, on and off since the early 1970s.

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