It's a safe bet that Zelda Fichandler could have succeeded at just about anything she set her sights on. Luckily for Washington it was the stage.

Last night 750 theater lovers paid tribute to the woman who founded the Arena Stage 40 years ago and guided it to become one of the country's best regional theaters.

"She has tremendous tenacity. Unbelievable," said actress Olympia Dukakis, one of the many Broadway luminaries who attended the black-tie gala at the Departmental Auditorium. "And energy. Formidable is an appropriate word. Words like 'national treasure' are appropriate."

But Fichandler, who will step down as producing director in June, attributed her success at Arena to the people of Washington.

"I think it was a response to a need," she said. "There was a hunger for this kind of theater. I heard and felt that. When people used to say it's a hick town and a cultural desert, I always felt time would prove that attitude wrong.

"I'm sure when I go, that the same passion will be as strong as ever."

But to hear the accolades pour forth last night, even allowing for dramatic license, it was clear that Fichandler played a vital role in the success of the theater.

"A theater like the Arena doesn't achieve the prominence it has for no reason," said actor Edward Herrmann, who has performed in three Arena productions. "You can job-in every famous actor you can think of, but it doesn't mean a damn thing. The consistency of the theater is the artistic director."

Tony-winning actress Jane Alexander, who spent three seasons in Arena's repertory company, called Fichandler "probably the person I most admire in my life. And Arena is the theater I most admire."

Fichandler, along with one of her professors, Edward Magnum, founded Arena Stage in 1950, while she was a graduate student at George Washington University. Their first production, Oliver Goldsmith's "She Stoops to Conquer," opened at the Hippodrome, a former burlesque club on New York Avenue NW. Opening-night tickets sold for $1.90. After a brief stint in the old Heurich Brewery in Foggy Bottom, the company settled into its present home on Maine Avenue SW in 1961.

Arena first received national attention with its 1967 production of Howard Sackler's saga of a black boxer. "The Great White Hope," starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, went on to great acclaim on Broadway and became the first play developed by a regional theater to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Its success sparked regional theaters around the country and finally brought recognition to the work emerging outside of New York. In 1973, Arena was the first regional theater selected by the State Department to tour the Soviet Union.

Before turning her attention to the theater, Fichandler studied Russian language and literature. Once nicknamed the Dark Lady of Arena, Fichandler presented productions that reflected her interests: serious dramas, for the most part, which in turn attracted actors and actresses looking for juicy, sink-your-teeth-into roles.

"Most of my friends were hanging around New York waiting for the Big Break," said Alexander. "And I never wanted to hang around and wait for any big break. I wanted to do classical theater and I wanted to do new plays, and that's what Zelda offered."

Robert Prosky auditioned for Fichandler in 1958 with the intention of doing one play in Washington. He stayed for 23 years.

"I expected to be a comic actor and to do the latest Broadway shows if I was lucky," he said. "I came here and all of a sudden I was doing Miller, Shakespeare, Brecht and new plays. I just got fascinated. Plus it was a job."

Prosky, who went on to film and television work (including "Hill Street Blues") after leaving the company, is currently in rehearsal for a new production of "Our Town," which opens next month at Arena. Last night he performed a scene from the play, one of many thank-yous from the actors, directors and others who got their professional start under Fichandler's wing.

"She created Arena as an ensemble of actors, administrators and craftspeople dedicated to artistic excellence," said Doug Wager, whose first job at Arena 15 years ago was sweeping the stage. Wager went on to direct many of the theater's most successful productions and will become Arena's next artistic director.

Fichandler is stepping down at the end of this season to become the artistic director of the Acting Company, the New York-based touring company founded by the late John Houseman.

Fichandler said she was confident of Arena's future without her, but the theater has managed to extract a promise that she will continue to direct one production each season at Arena.

"When the word was out that this was my last season as producing director," she told the audience, "I got a call from a friend who said, 'Can't hold a job, Zel?'

"Yes, I can hold down a job. And when sometimes I felt like I couldn't, then the job would hold me down."