Debut near for arts site

Time: As the Brooklyn Park center's grand opening approaches, workers make finishing touches and people marvel at the triumph of a long shot.

January 11, 2001|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

It's a drama fit for community theater: A school falls into disrepair. Bureaucrats declare they'll tear it down. But the locals, led by a diminutive state legislator and a towering farmer-turned-drama coach, organize themselves, save the school and turn it into an arts center.

Luckily for Brooklyn Park, the plot and happy ending are real.

The Chesapeake Center for the Creative Arts, a 58,000- square-foot center that includes a large and small theater, dance studio and classrooms, will celebrate its grand opening this weekend. Among the honored guests at the $100-a-ticket gala Saturday night will be Del. Joan Cadden, a Brooklyn Park Democrat credited with hatching the idea, and Wayne Shipley, a Jessup farmer and former high school drama coach who is the center's executive director.

Many are wondering how the largely blue-collar community landed the center.

"People would have bet their paychecks it wouldn't happen," Shipley said.

The story of the old high school on Hammonds Lane could have ended with a demolition scene if something hadn't been done quickly to save it.

Built in 1954 to house a junior and senior high school, the building had fallen into disrepair. Anne Arundel County officials wanted to use the building as a middle school, but it was too large. So in the mid-1990s, the county announced it would demolish part of the building and build a middle school.

"It was just totally unacceptable to me," Cadden said of the plan.

She began looking for other uses for the sprawling building in late 1996. As a longtime board member of Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in the 1980s, she kept her eye on the local arts scene. Northern Anne Arundel County had no arts center, forcing residents to find cultural outlets in Annapolis, Baltimore or Washington.

To drum up support for a "Maryland Hall North," Cadden called Cliff Prince, former Southern High School principal; Ned Carey, a Brooklyn Park activist; Bob Nichols, a local art teacher; and Eloise Vaughn, founder of the Performing Arts Association of Linthicum. By early 1997, they had assembled a board of directors, on which they serve, and a foundation to handle donations.

A few months later, Cadden enlisted Shipley to draw up a plan for restoring the dilapidated theater. Shipley, 57, had retired from 30 years of teaching English and drama in Anne Arundel County schools. Cadden's project didn't exactly fit with his plans to restore old cars, work on his farm and perhaps direct plays. But Cadden, he said, was unrelenting, and Shipley has signed on as the center's executive director.

"She's like a pit bull," he said. "When she gets ahold of something, she doesn't let go."

In the end, the county embarked on a $35 million renovation project for the old high school. The complex includes the new Brooklyn Park Middle School, a senior center, county recreation offices, the county Police Department's DARE drug education offices and the arts center. Cadden said she doubts any of it would have happened without the foundation.

Cadden's expertise helped the group secure state funding. And more than $30,000 in donations and much-needed moral support poured in from Brooklyn Park residents. Many, such as longtime resident Nellie Lewis, are retirees who contribute each month.

Lewis has her Social Security check and her teacher's pension. She won't disclose how much she gives, but it's enough for her to be considered a "platinum sponsor." She also volunteers at the center when she can find a ride. She is legally blind and can't drive herself.

"It's like an answer to a prayer. North County got something, too," said Lewis, 76. "I hope that as long as I live, I can give them a donation every month."

The board also enlisted Steven Cohen of Jason's Music Center in Pasadena to begin a music program. He responded by joining the board and lending 15 pianos - worth $125,000 - for the center's piano lab. Jason's will sell them after one year and then lend the center new ones.

Cohen predicts he'll lose money in the first two years but will recoup his costs as the center builds its mailing list and more people are interested in taking lessons and purchasing pianos.

Cohen said he's glad to see the center in an area that had little in the way of theater or music venues. He and the other board members are counting on drawing from Baltimore a few miles away, and from Howard and Baltimore counties.

Organizers hope to make a splash with the opening week acts. Country singer Crystal Gayle will perform Tuesday. Thursday, actor and impressionist Eddie Carroll will present a tribute to Jack Benny.

Commercials are airing on local cable channels for the center's dance classes. Shipley wants to expand the three-person staff and hire a marketing director to broaden advertising. Eventually, he says, the center will produce the commercials in its studio theater.

For now, Shipley is content in the 904-seat main theater, trimmed in purple and gold, with a large stage.

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