We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Not everyone would have seen possibilities five years ago in the oil-stained hulk of the old K-B Rosslyn movie theater. Hidden away in a dark office-building basement, smelling of decades-old popcorn, sweat, and motor oil, the place felt as if some disaster movie had spilled off the screen and taken up residence.

“The seats had been taken out,” remembers John Palmer Claridge. “The movie screen was all torn up. At some point it had been turned into an auto detailing shop, which had failed. There was really nothing there.”

Still, for Claridge, who as director of arts programming for Arlington County’s Cultural Affairs Division has watched theater bloom in some extremely unlikely spots—an underused middle school (rechristened Gunston Arts Center), a nondescript auto bumper warehouse (Signature Theatre), and a leaky, cavernous railroad building (Clark Street Playhouse)—it seemed clear there was potential.

“Rosslyn Renaissance [a consortium of businesses in the area] brought the space to our attention in the summer of ’92,” he recalls, “and suggested it might make a nice cultural facility. I had the idea we would build some Guthriesque sort of thrust stage, level part of the floor, maybe have movable walls to partition off the seats in the back. But then the county studied it for almost a year and determined that it was going to be too expensive.”

Indeed, estimates for even a scaled-back renovation topped $600,000, more than half the Cultural Affairs Division’s entire 1993 budget. Claridge and division chief Norma Kaplan began to fear that Rosslyn would end up a rerun of their attempted foray into Clarendon, where a promising space had slipped inexorably from the division’s grasp. This time, the outcome proved happier.

“Just when we thought we’d have to give up,” says Claridge, “the Smith Companies [the building’s landlord and a major funder of the county’s free “Arts Al Fresco” summer series] rode to the rescue. They mentioned that they were interested in turning the space into a conference center, and would we be interested in going into a partnership and splitting its use?”

This arrangement meant compromise, obviously. Theater troupes would need to remove all evidence of their presence after an evening’s performance so conferences could take place during normal working hours. But Claridge figured he could back the thrust stage with a scenery-hiding curtain, and that the benefits of partnering outweighed any inconvenience.

“The upside,” he says, “is that we have a theater with a pretty high level of build-out [bureaucratspeak for “not shabby”], because corporate clients require a polished look.”

“We figure the county got a million-dollar theater for a $275,000 investment,” adds Kaplan. “And because the space was designed from the get-go to accommodate both business and arts, it’s like nothing else out there. There are conference centers all over the country, but they almost always sit unused in the evening.”

For the Smith Companies, the investment was greater, but the benefits are also considerable. “The space sat vacant for 10 years, and now we have an income generator,” says Tom Dight, vice president of Smith Realty. “We also get cultural amenities for our other Rosslyn tenants.”

“It was a difficult challenge,” he adds, “designing a space where one use stopped at 6 p.m. and the other began at 7. But for conferences, it’s turned out to be pretty ideal. In fact, because of what the theaters needed in terms of lighting and sound, it’s actually better than most conference spaces being built today. Theater-quality sound is a lot more than most conference users are used to having.”

Claridge hopes the Rosslyn Spectrum—which is what the space has been dubbed—will also prove audience-friendly once actors arrive in early September. (Corporate clients will begin using the auditorium next week.) “It has 200 seats within seven rows of the stage,” he boasts, “and another 167 seats behind a cross-aisle.” That separation lets troupes with Equity contracts rope off the rear section so they’re in compliance with union requirements—one of many minor adjustments the Cultural Affairs Division requested during design sessions.

The division also had a theatrical lighting grid, a hard cyc (a curved theatrical backdrop), and a soundboard installed, as well as backstage dressing rooms with showers. Curved panels on either side of the stage allow for entrances and exits. So while it’s a compromise space, the compromises aren’t in the physical plant.

Plans to open the theater with a deft bow to another Rosslyn attraction—a Newseum co-sponsored production of The Front Page—fell through recently. But a gender-bending Washington Shakespeare Company riff on The Comedy of Errors (female twins) should fill in nicely at the early-September premiere.

After that, the French-language troupe Le Néon will call the Spectrum home, as will Horizons Theater, the Jane Franklin Dance Company, and a children’s troupe called Playtime Productions. They’ll share the space with chamber music concerts and possibly even films.

As the county’s showiest showplace, the Rosslyn Spectrum is poised to become one of the brighter heat lamps in Arlington’s Arts Incubator, an award-winning program of government assistance to arts organizations.

The Arts Incubator’s premise is simple: Where other municipalities offer monetary grants to cash-strapped artists and arts groups, Arlington offers free space and services ranging from help building sets to advice on accounting procedures.

The program began in 1990, when the Cultural Affairs Division opted to make county facilities available to professional organizations as well as to the community troupes and private residents who were already using them. In the case of the Gunston Arts Center—a renovated ’50s-era middle school that had been converted to arts uses in the ’80s when the baby boom went bust—this meant theater troupes were given access to such usually costly facilities as a pair of intimate theaters, scene and costume shops, rehearsal rooms and a dance studio, fully stocked lighting grids, and a costume library with everything from crinoline dresses to monster get-ups.

Area artists leapt at the opportunity. Signature Theatre came into being specifically because of the Arts Incubator and thrived to the point that it outgrew Gunston in just three years. It now has a million-dollar annual budget and its own theater complex about a mile away. The Washington Shakespeare Company, which relocated to Arlington from D.C. in the first year of the program, has also been able to leave the nest. Its Clark Street Playhouse qualifies as an Incubator success story, as does the newfound strength of Horizons Theatre, and the growth of American Century Theatre and the Spanish language troupe Teatro de la Luna.

Theater is only part of the Arts Incubator story. The Cultural Affairs Division’s largess also extends to the visual arts at such locales as its Lee Arts Center Studios and Ellipse Arts Center. The lobby of the Rosslyn Spectrum will join these and other diminutive art galleries in displaying county-sponsored work, all in the name of integrating the arts into the everyday life of the community.

The program’s statistics indicate that its work is paying off. In 1990, before the start of the Arts Incubator, Arlington hosted a total of 198 arts events and performances. Last year it hosted 1,300. Seven years ago, annual attendance stood at 98,000. Last year’s attendance topped 300,000 (for reference, the county’s population is about 180,000).

During the same period, patrons increased their spending on the arts in Arlington from just under $1 million to more than $5 million.

“Success breeds success,” grins Claridge.

So impressive have been the results of the program that the Ford Foundation recently gave the Arts Incubator a prestigious Innovations in American Government Award—the first time the prize has ever gone to a cultural program—along with $100,000, $80,000 of which is specifically earmarked for spreading the word.

Spreading it they are, with a comprehensive Arts Incubator web site scheduled to be up and running next month, a 20-page brochure that’s in the process of being mailed to some 5,000 governmental organizations around the country, and a monograph distributed by Americans for the Arts, an influential culture lobby. Before that had even happened, though, news stories about the Innovations award had already prompted more interest than the Cultural Affairs Division staff had received in its previous six years of proselytizing.

“We’ve gotten more than 100 calls from 32 states and even foreign countries,” beams Claridge. “Guam, Ontario, and New Zealand have all contacted us. Places all up and down the eastern seaboard. Also Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, Missouri, Wyoming, Oregon. I don’t see Alaska on the list, or Hawaii. Guess we’ll have to send them a brochure. We’re even part of an incubator network, started by the city of San Jose. And someone from public housing in New Jersey just called who’s looking for new ways of growing sustainable communities.”

Public housing?

“In governmentese,” he explains, “performance measures are really hot items right now. Everybody’s trying to measure the impact of arts programs on the greater community. It’s seen as a tool you can use in neighborhood-build—”

He pauses in midthought, perhaps because it’s a thought he’s had to express so many hundreds of times in the seven years since the Arts Incubator began. The national debate on whether governments should adopt a hands-off approach to the arts seems somehow to have bypassed Arlington, where residents seem delighted at the benefits, both cultural and financial, of becoming the region’s most arts-friendly environment. But there’s no question the debate over the National Endowments, funding issues, and censorship have taken their toll on the county’s staffers. Persuading people that the arts are good for them, for business, and for the life of a community, has become a full-time job.

“Some people are suggesting that maybe we have this backward,” Claridge continues, thoughtfully. “That rather than trying to justify the arts as a tool for building stronger communities, we should be looking at the arts as the result of communities being stronger.”

“In other words, successful civilizations have always had an arts presence, and this community has a lot of arts activity, so it must be a good community. That sure sounds right to me.”

And, apparently, to Arlington. CP