Father Gilbert Hartke, the grand old man of Washington theater, swears he was never stage-struck.

Before he was 7 he was acting in two-reelers for Essanay, the pre-Hollywood film company set up in Chicago in the wake of "The Great Train Robbery." He used to find the Epsom salts in his father's pharmacy for Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand and Francis X. Bushman. He remembers 17-year-old Gloria Swanson and her husband Wally Beery driving up in their block-long Dusenberg with a leather belt over its elegant long hood.

"The Chicago film colony was our neighborhood," he said, shortly before his 75th birthday today. "Everyone went to the same church, St. Edith's. We altar boys would watch cross-eyed Ben Turpin work his way up the side aisle. I grew up with all that."

Tonight Washington's arts community will turn out to honor this familiar dynamo, who built Catholic University's drama department out of a few sticks, who struggled for 10 years to raise the millions for the Gilbert Hartke Theater, who has been a personal envoy to the world for presidents from Truman to Carter, bringing his National Players and other special productions to dozens of countries in five continents, who taught and encouraged and influenced and sometimes found the money to help launch hundreds of theater people, from critic Walter Kerr and directors Alan Schneider and Robert Moore to playwright Mart Crowley, actors George Grizzard and John McGiver, and on and on.

The party will launch a five-year drive to endow a scholarship in Hartke's name, celebrating his 80th birthday and 50 years as a priest.

It is probably possible to prove statistically that if you have lived in Washington more than five years you have seen Father Hartke. Because he turns up everywhere, the long, fine white hair drifting forward over the powerful football-player features (he was a football player, at that, and his nickname was even Gip), the bright eyes missing nothing, the hand pumping other hands in practiced cordiality.

His office is full of mementos from Poland, where his students have been teaching for 16 years ("The State Department asked me to: We teach 400 kids in Poznan every year") and photos of George M. Cohan, Walter and Jean Kerr at their wedding, Princess Grace, who acted in his theater three years ago ("I did not ask for her picture," he insists, grinning) and the Jimmy Carter cuff links casually dug from a desk drawer. The famous names roll out with a boyish delight.

It was for Truman, his favorite president, that Hartke organized and led the first university performing tour of the Korean war zone in 1951. It was for Eisenhower that he sent his people to 12 Latin American capitals to counteract the anti-U.S. feeling at the time. It was for Johnson that he took "Ah Wilderness!" to Israel and six countries in Europe, including rarely visited Romania. But then there are the projects closer to home, the Olney Theater (since '53), the St. Michaels Playhouse, now in its 30th year, and the University Players, which has been operating the repertory group for 33 years.

"When I was 17 I had a conflict, whether to be a theater director or a priest. I waited until I'd graduated from Providence College in '29, and then I joined the Dominican community at 22." He was ordained in 1936, then came to Catholic to take an MA in English. It was while he was still a graduate student that he hitched himself like a great power source to the newly created speech and drama department.

By the second year he had charmed the Abbey Theater's great Sara Allgood into doing a guest shot at Catholic.

It's a tradition now: Famous actors from all over come at Hartke's summons, Cyril Ritchard, Helen Hayes. . .

"It's just that I relate to people with a sense of caring," he said. "If you're open to people, they respond."

He loves directing, though he hasn't done it since "Ah Wilderness!" in '74. "I take the play, say 'Twelfth Night,' and read it over and over until the characters emerge from the text for me, and I begin to hear Malvolio's hauteur and so forth. Then when I've settled my mind I read the other commentaries. I think some modern treatments of Shakespeare are no good. All these gymnastics distort him. They're avoiding what it really is. It's the words, the words."

In the tryouts, he listens for the actor who comes closest to his vision of the part. "I cast for the meaning of the role. The director is a godlike person, creating a world. You're creating human nature for human beings, and acting is the most difficult of all arts, because you're imitating God's greatest, most complicated creation."

About those plays with seamy language and tawdry story lines:

"Good art is morally good," he said briskly. "If I'm concerned, I have a nondrama friend sit with me for another perspective. I might not take the advice, though. The morally rigid person does as much harm as the libertine. The real artist is detached, the pornographer never is. The Greeks and Shakespeare: They never revolted you, with all the horrors they wrote about. Art is comment."

He didn't see "The Boys in the Band," the Broadway and movie hit about homosexuals written by his prote'ge' Mart Crowley, but he notes that "the play ends in tragedy, it makes a statement. Those things, like drugs and alcohol, I hear too much of it in confession, they're never amusing to me. I wish people wouldn't make them so alluring."

He seems comfortable balancing the three themes in his life, performing arts, sports ("I was a jock: swimming, softball, football; I thought golf and tennis were sissy stuff") and his vocation.

"I still don't have the words for it. From the time of my first communion I went to mass every day and often served as altar boy. It gave me a sense of completeness, it was so right for me."

He lifted his hands to say there was nothing more to say.

On his desk is a casting of Durer's "praying hands," a gift from William Graham, who succeeded him as drama department head when Hartke was moved up at 65 to become special assistant to the university's president.

"Bill knew I prayed constantly for guidance during those years I was putting the money together for this theater. I've got the 'nun's disease,' water on the knee. Stan Lavine, the Redskins' doctor, treats it for me."

Those three sentences tell the story: the theater, the sports, the vocation. What they don't tell you is why, once you have seen him, even across a room, you never forget him.