On a January night in 1998, an enthusiastic audience packed the auditorium of the old Brooklyn Park High School for a night of ballet, music, drama and a glimpse of the future. The sound system was awful, the seats were uncomfortable, but the show was a hit and the future looked bright.
That evening, a determined group working to transform the closed school into the Chesapeake Center for the Creative Arts knew it was on the right track.
"We thought we'd get a couple hundred people," recalls the center's executive director Wayne Shipley, "and we ended up with 800, many of them in broken seats that were in such disrepair that when you sat on them, you were slanted forward and had to put the brakes on for the whole performance.
"We took that as a mandate from the community that they wanted it to happen," Shipley said.
Tomorrow night, the men's a cappella choral group, Sons of the Severn, will take the stage in the center's refurbished 904-seat auditorium, outfitted with a computerized lighting system, up-to-date sound and new, comfortable seats.
It's the inaugural performance at the almost-finished Chesapeake Center for the Creative Arts (CCCA), envisioned by its backers as a showcase and school for the performing and visual arts in North County. The area has gone without an arts venue for too long, center organizers say, as residents have watched county arts funding go south to the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis.
"I think that people in North County have for so many years felt underserved when it comes to arts, and this will certainly fill that gap," said Shipley.
When the CCCA officially opens next month, the community will have an abundance of cultural choices. Scheduled performances next month will include the Artie Shaw Orchestra, Ballet Theatre of Maryland's "The Nutcracker," as well as sculpting, painting and pottery classes, drama and writing workshops, and a variety of dance classes.
"People are looking for something in the neighborhood, something inexpensive they can go to and not have to go into the city or drive all the way to Annapolis," said Bob Nichols, vice president of CCCA's board.
"I think that every child in Anne Arundel County and every adult deserves the opportunity to have an arts experience."
Although the center's primary mission is to serve North County, CCCA officials eventually hope that the facility - easily accessible from the Baltimore Beltway - will draw audiences from other areas.
"Our goal is to be certainly more than a community arts center and to promote the arts that will summon people from Baltimore County and Baltimore city, " Shipley said. "We have an ideal location and a physical plant second to none in the arts center arena."
The 50,000 square-foot center on Hammonds Lane is part of a mixed-use complex that includes the new Brooklyn Park Middle School, the county Police Department's DARE drug education offices, county recreation offices and a senior center. The $29 million project preserved much of the old high school, built in 1954.
Center supporters credit state Del. Joan Cadden, a Democrat who represents the 31st District, with developing the arts center concept and selling the idea to state and county officials to secure funding. Cadden figured that using part of the old high school for an arts center might be the key to saving the structure, which was being eyed by the county school board for demolition. Many residents viewed the former school as a landmark in the community, still home to a number of its graduates.
Over the past three years, arts center supporters formed a board of directors, held fund-raisers and began a charter membership campaign. More than 600 have signed on, and donations total more than $30,000 toward operation of the center. The board is seeking corporate sponsors and applying for arts grants.
Nichols said the Brooklyn Park community has stepped forward to show its financial support.
"A lot of these people have been extremely generous, considering their socioeconomic level," said Nichols. "They're retirees, living on fixed salaries, and they want it in the neighborhood, for their children and grandchildren."
One of Cadden's first moves was to recruit Shipley in the fall of 1997. He was three months into his retirement, after teaching English in the county school system for 30 years.
"This project is like a toy," said Shipley.
Lately, he's been putting in lots of overtime to prepare the auditorium for Sons of the Severn.
Until the center's official opening Nov. 14, workers will be putting finishing touches on the facility.
During the two-year construction, Shipley has come to know every inch of the arts center. He's partial to the 110-seat "black box" theater. "I think this place probably will be used more than any space we have," said Shipley. "Most community theater functions very well in an intimate surrounding. You can build shows like `Steel Magnolias' or `On Golden Pond' to fit perfectly on this stage."