From the vault: At Center Stage, the show goes on

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Center Stage on Calvert Street has reopened after a $28 million renovation. 44 years ago, its old building was destroyed in a fire.

“Only in a third-rate drama would the theater burn down just as the morning-paper presses were rolling with a highly complimentary review of the new production,” The Sun editorial board dryly observed on January 11, 1974. But it happened here in Baltimore. On January 9, 1972, arsonists set fire to Center Stage on North Avenue, the same night “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” had opened to rave reviews. It was reportedly a mistake: the two men meant to set fire to the restaurant next door, but came through the wrong door, and the theater burned instead.

But the show must go on. “Virginia Woolf” was staged the following night at the Baltimore Museum of Art, finishing its run at Notre Dame College.

In December 1975, the theater found an entirely new home in the former Loyola High School and College building on Calvert Street. The cost? Free. Or, close to it, as Jacques Kelly recalled in The Sun last year:

“Attorney and theater advocate Donald N. Rothman met with the Rev. Anthony Zeits, a Jesuit priest who was then treasurer of the order’s Maryland Province. Rothman sought permission to use the former Loyola High School and College buildings at Calvert and Monument streets in Mount Vernon as a replacement theater.

“The building had not been used as a school since 1941, when the last batch of high school students moved to the Blakefield campus in Baltimore County. The college had departed for its Evergreen campus in 1922.

“Those present during the meeting between the priest and lawyer recalled that Rothman made a strong appeal — he noted that theater worked to better the lot of mankind.

“He appealed to Zeits to hand over the building free of charge, and in one of the city’s more curious transactions, the religious order agreed.”

The most recent renovation cost a bit more – around $28 million.