Formation of the American Musical Theater Center at Duke University was announced yesterday by Duke president Terry Sanford in Durham, N.C.

The aim of the new professional theater is to avoid the complex financial and union regulations governing production of new musical plays, revivals of old ones, particularly in New York, and to create an educational facility for Duke.

Joining Sanford, who created the North Carolina School of the Arts during his governorship, was Gov. James Hunt, who noted that Duke has "all the facilities to produce major American musicals in its 1,500-seat Page Auditorium."

President of the company will be composer-producer Richard Adler, whose experience in the musical play field runs from "The Pajama Game," Damn Yankees" and "Kwamina" to "Gift of the Magi," "Rex" and "Music Is."

Financing does not appear to be a major worry. Private efforts have raised $1 million and, as landlord, Duke will rank as a stockholder in the company, hoping, Sanford allowed, "to make some money from this in time."

Professionals will operate within union regulations, but they are not expected to be so strict as they are in New York, where theaters may not be used for rehearsals unless crews are employed for specific periods.

Sanford stated that "the theater center will provide opportunities for many of our students in business, law, music, drama and other disciplines to observe at first hand the formative stages of America's major contribution to world stages, our musical theater."

A New Yorker who studied at North Carolina's Chapel Hill and worked with the noted Carolina Playmakers, Adler brought the scheme's component parts together after recent years of Broadway frustrations. He observed that his own contributions and those of others had collapsed under New York's "hit-or-miss" syndrome, though they had gained approval from audiences elsewhere. He singled out the power of The New York Times in instantly determining any stage work's success or failure.

"But," he added, "we're not setting out to ignore New York. We just don't want to play Russian roulette. We want a chance to create and to produce under more propitious circumstances."

First production to be created will be "Escape," suggested by magician Houdini's career and co-authored by choreographer Grover Dale, associated with Michael Bennett on "Seasaw." Production will begin early next summer, with an early fall opening planned in Durham, to be followed by touring within the state and, Adler hopes, "elsewhere."

Adler estimated that a musical which might cost $1 million to produce in New York might be financed for $700,000 or less in Durham.

The operation, which Adler hopes will be of interest to all producers, would also include production of established American musical plays. Cast with young, talented unknowns and without major star salaries, the shows could be sent across the country from North Carolina, Adler believes.

"Our whole aim," he said, "is to be thoroughly professional but without the horrendously chancy pitfalls of an outmoded, nonproductive system."