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Legion, eatery becomes theater

December 12, 2005|by ERIN CUNNINGHAM

SHARPSBURG

erinc@herald-mail.com

It's hard to imagine a kitchen or dining area in the space that now holds a ballet company's stage.

But when Ray Russell bought what is now the Antietam Ballet Theatre at 104 S. Mechanic St. in Sharpsburg, in 2000, it was previously home to the American Legion - and had most recently been a restaurant.

Stage lighting and dressing rooms weren't part of the $100,000 purchase.

Antietam Ballet Theatre, owned by Carolou and Ray Russell, now hosts her Hagerstown Ballet Company.

Nearly six years ago at a local auction, Russell bid on the building without really knowing what he would do with it, he said. He did know he wanted to give his wife, Carolou, a dance studio.

"He wouldn't stop bidding," she said. "I tried to get him to stop."

A small crew of carpenters went to work transforming the building into what they believed would be a studio for Carolou's small ballet company. As they continued to work, Ray said the couple began to think it could be a theater.

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Carolou said it had always been a dream to have a place where her company could perform exclusively. Before moving into the small theater, she said her dancers had to haul props, costumes and other items in and out of other theaters. Now, those items are stored upstairs and anywhere they will fit.

"These are more props here," Carolou said, pointing to a small area behind the stage.

It's nothing fancy, but she said the small theater, which can hold an audience of about 70, is where she plans to spend the rest of her life teaching. Her company also uses the theater for rehearsals and practice sessions.

The audience sits on recycled restaurant booths, and the glass that covers the control room is the same glass that was once part of the Legion's front doors. What was once a bar is now a refreshment area near the theater's entrance.

"This is my first owned theater," Carolou said. "Now, I can do performances whenever I want. And it's a place where the children can practice."

She believes there have been about 100 performances since the theater opened.

And during those performances, the closest seat in the house is about 3 feet from the stage. The farthest seat from the stage is about 50 feet away.

"There are no bad seats here," she said.

Carolou Russell said she believes the intimacy of her theater also has created a close-knit company of dancers.

Clarissa Mathews, a Hagerstown Ballet Company dancer, said the theater is different than others in which she has danced.

"It's so different. It's intimate," she said. "The audience can interact."

Mathews said many of Russell's students have danced professionally in the New York City Ballet, the Pennsylvania Ballet, the Houston Ballet and others.

In January, two of her current students, Rachel Doub, 16, of Williamsport, and Erik Hoffman, 17, of Sharpsburg, will audition for a summer program at the School of American Ballet, the official training academy of the New York City Ballet.

Russell said she will continue to teach as long as she can.

"It's my salvation," she said. "I want to dedicate the rest of my life to the theater."

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