This is the story of a white elephant which has been stirring here for five years, and soon may be strong enough to pull Cleveland's decrepit downtown out of its doldrums.

The white elephant is actually a small herd - four of the most garrishly beautiful old vaudeville-and-movie palaces Marcus Loew, Harry Warner and B. F. Keith ever built.

Three of them - The Ohio, The State and The Palace - are housed in one 21-story office building. The fourth - The Allen - every bit as opulent with marble, gilded stuco, crystal chandeliers and delicate ornamentation as its sisters, is in an office building next door on Euclid Avenue in the heart of the business district.

Together the four theaters, known as Playhouse Square, seat over 7,000 - more than Lincoln Center in New York - to say nothing of spacious and lavish lobbies with room to spare for restaurants, supper clubs and all sorts of diversions, dressing rooms and back-stage amenities built for stars like Lynn Fontainne or the Ziegfeld Follies.

Like the rest of America's great peoples' palaces, Playhouse Square, built in the 1920s, sustained the morale, if not the morals of this country through Prohbition, Depression and World War II. They went into decline, after June 5, 1950, when the Supreme Court decided that movie production and distribution must be separated from theater ownership. The downtown palaces no longer had the monopoly on first runs.

The suburbs were growing and suburban theaters began showing premieres. With television, Muzak drenched shopping centers and eateries there was no reason left to venture downtown.

The theater palaces took desperate measures, sacrificing some of their precious decor to stereo and cinerama installations. But it did not help. The Allen closed in 1968, with the State, Ohio and Palace following one year later. As one observer noted, "even nostalgia appeared daed; no one seemed to care. With the theaters dark, many retail businesses left also."

Enter Ray K. Shepardson, a young teacher. He had come from Seattle and entered the boarded up and vandalized Playhouse Square early in 1970, in search of a meeting place for teachers. He emerged as dazzled as archeologist Howard Carter when he first broke into the tomb of Tutankhamen.

But Shepardson found it hard to excite many others in Cleveland who were in a position to save the deteriorating treasure. What does one do with big theatrical caverns in a downtown desert?

Shepardson's answer: "Stage something."

Without any previous experience, Shepardson turned out to be something of a genius as a producer. Within a year of his "discovery," the Budapest Symphony Orchestra performed in the drafty, flaking Allen to a full house. One night proved that people would come downtown if there is something worth going on.

The Association grow Big plans were made and a little money began to trickle in. Nevertheless, the owners announced in May 1972 that the Loew Ohio and State theaters were to be razed for a parking lot. No Buster Keaton thriller approached the suspense of the ensuing cliff-hanger. Shepardson and friends put down their money only minutes ahead of the bulldozers.

Enter Gordon Bell, a young planner, also from Seattle. He became executive director of what is now the Playhouse Foundation, taking care of the real estate, as well as artistic, aspects of the enterprise.

The money came from a Shepardson triumph. he booked "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris," and staged it in The Ohio lobby, where it ran two years to capacity crowds. The lobby, no doubt contribute to the success. It is 320 feet long and gives The Ohio theater, which is way in the back of the building, frontage on Euclid Avenue. It is decked out somewhat like the Versatiles Hall of Mirrors, only instead of mirros it has murals of James H. Daugherty, a noted American modernist.

Jacques Brel's aliveness paid for starting restoration in earnest. A bevy of serious young artists approached the repair and repainting of the neo-neo-Varoque cupolas, ceilings, moldings and ornamentations as though they were redoing the Sistine Chapel.

Shepardson followed up with "Name Shows," a sort of Las Vegas on Euclid in the 3,400-seat Palace.

Playhouse Square began to fill the void between the renowned Cleveland Symphony and rock with something more than X-rated movies and hole-in-the-wall go-go bars: Quality entertainment at low prices. Last year, in fact, Shepardson offered critically acclaimed performances of "All Night Strut" and "City Lights" - for free. About 150,000 people came - and spent freely at the Playhouse bars and in the adjoining restaurants.

Downtown business associations meanwhile, commissioned expensive revitalization plans to turn lower Euclid Avenue into a pretty pedestrial mall, with careful thought given to plantings, graphics, light fixtures and such - but little to what might attract the pedestrians.

A clear and present hope for attracting people downtown is obviously the full restoration and modernization of all of Playhouse Square - its conversion into a humming, widely appealing cultural and entertainment center.

Quite without benefit of beautification consultants, Shepardson's bookings have already led to the construction of two new treatments, neither of them architectural masterpieces, but both of them welcome cases among downtown Cleveland's plastic-spoon cateries. There are also some 20 new businesses. All this, says Bell, adds up to $15 million of new investment.

Now Playhouse Square was placed on the national historic landmarks list. Crahoga County has bought the Loew building and is restoring it for county offices, leasing the theaters to the foundation.

Cleveland is some five years behind Washington Baltimore, Philadelphia. Boston and other cities in attracting middle class "urban pioneers" to downtown house restoration, simply because there are no townhouses to restore.

But if Playhouse Square, as seems more than likely, attracts large numbers of people downtown, a good many of them will decide to settle there.

When that happens it is time to celebrate with a pedestrian mall, plantings, pretty light fixtures and bunting.