The TV was one of those ancient black-and-white numbers, so the whole gray-into-Technicolor thing was lost on him. At his mom's urging, he was plopped in front of the tube, ostensibly to watch the brain-free Scarecrow flop around the yellow brick road. But then he saw Judy Garland.

Oh, Judy, Judy, Judy.

If there is such a thing as having a life-altering experience at the age of 3, watching Judy Garland warble "Over the Rainbow" in "The Wizard of Oz" was a happening that shook Michael Mayer to his preschool core.

And before he even knew what Broadway was, he knew that he wanted to be a Broadway star.

It if all sounds a little too much the quintessential gay experience, well, that's because it is--stereotypes be damned. We're talking about an openly gay man who lives theater. He's a hyperactive director who this year accomplished a theatrical juggling act, with three plays--"The Lion in Winter," "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" and "Side Man"--running on Broadway at the same time. (His production of "Side Man" is at the Kennedy Center through Nov. 28.)

He's an artist who's comfortable floating between the fun and fantasy of musicals and the theatricality of straight drama. A man who revels in seeing the world through the prism of metaphor.

He's a man who knows a Moment when he sees one.

Not long after the Judy revelation, Mayer was staging homemade productions in his Rockville split-level, which sprang from his fevered imagination. (Surprised?) He starred in, produced and even directed his own plays. Anyone was fair game, from his brother, to his sister, to his cousin to whatever neighborhood kid happened to stray into his path. And whenever he wasn't plotting another original theatrical extravaganza, he was memorizing every line in "The Wizard of Oz"--even Toto's.

Or he was playing the double album "Judy at Carnegie Hall" over and over and over. Then Judy Garland died in 1969. She was buried on Michael's ninth birthday--which seemed loaded with significance to him. He created a Judy shrine, complete with all the newspaper clippings he'd collected. Then he propped up the Carnegie album, lit candles and incense. And held a seance. So what if he never managed to bring her back? His devotion was complete.

"Other kids my age were looking at Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays or Joe Namath," Mayer, now 39, recalls. "I loved Judy Garland. Not nor-mal. It's such a cliche, because she's such an icon of the gay community. But I didn't know that when I was 8 years old."

The Judy fascination fueled his love of theater, carrying him through endless drama club stagings at the now-defunct Woodward High School on Old Georgetown Road, through the lean days in New York in the '80s, through the "I'm really an actor" waiter gigs to pay the rent. And it's still part of him in his current flush period as the It director of Broadway.

He started out as an actor. Realized pretty quickly that he wasn't a very good one. He didn't have the tunnel vision needed to be an actor. There's an old joke in theater circles: When an actor reads a script, what he sees on the page is bull, bull, bull, my line, bull, bull, bull, my bit of business. Mayer reads a script and finds himself absorbed by everyone's lines, and the lighting and the thematic structure and . . .

"It's a good thing I made the transition," he says.

Indeed. He's endured scathing reviews: "Michael Mayer either permits or encourages some of the worst acting currently on Broadway." (The New York Post's Clive Barnes on his direction of Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing in "The Lion in Winter.") And he's enjoyed glittering ones: "The whole production is alive with personality, feeling and humor, the signature qualities of director Michael Mayer . . . the Elia Kazan of today's Broadway." (The New York Post's Donald Lyons on the very same production of "The Lion in Winter.")

Critics love him or loathe him, and it matters. Sort of. But mostly, he's happy to be working.

"Arthur Miller calls me on the phone and we talk," Mayer says. "Arthur Miller! I had tea with Bette Midler. Sometimes I have to pinch myself. Truly. I can't believe it."

In the double-air-kiss world of theater, where Broadway-size egos and temper tantrums often go hand in hand, Mayer is unfailingly polite. His rehearsals are peppered with gentle requests to the "ladies and gentlemen" he directs. He stays in close contact with his parents, Jerry, a labor lawyer, and Lou, a former housewife who now sits on the Montgomery County Board of Appeals. They raised him, he says, in an atmosphere of tolerance in a "leftie Jewish secular" home.

At heart, Mayer's a nice Jewish boy who's settled down with a nice Jewish doctor. A nice Jewish boy who's made his parents verklempt. Earlier this year, when both "Side Man" and "Charlie Brown" were nominated for Tonys, his parents held a Tony party in their sprawling home. It didn't matter to them if Mayer didn't personally win an award--his productions ended up taking four awards in all. Brags his mother: "Maybe I'm saying this because I'm his mother, but everyone loves Michael. I think I'll write a play, 'Everyone Loves Michael.' "

Not that his folks didn't worry just a bit when he moved to New York to study acting at New York University's Tisch School of Arts.

"You think, 'Oh, God, who ever makes it in this field?' " Lou Mayer says. "But I knew he was convinced that's what he had to do. We supported him because that's what you do for your kids. I'm really proud he's done so well. It's not just that he's received a fair amount of notoriety. But more that he feels comfortable with what he's doing."

She's even happier now that her darling's bringing it all home for an extended run of "Side Man" at the Kennedy Center. Happy, happy, happy. She's positively beaming. And she's not beyond calling the editors at his hometown paper (namely, the one you're reading) to tell them so.

The It Director

In theater, unlike Hollywood, it isn't the director who is glorified. More often than not, directors are the anonymous puppeteers, the unseen men and women behind that big velvet curtain. You might go out of your way to see the latest offerings from Spielberg or Scorsese. But unless you're a theater groupie, chances are, you're not going to break your back to see a Mayer. On Broadway, the playwright (not to mention the Hollywood actor) is the thing.

The director's role is to comfort and to cajole, to poke and prod performances from the players. It is by nature the role of the manipulator. Some manipulate by invoking terror; others coddle with kindness. Mayer falls into the latter category. In rehearsal, he is earthy. Unassuming. Self-deprecating. Gently exacting. He makes suggestions, not demands.

Says Warren Leight, who wrote "Side Man": "A lot of directors are cold and clinical or are traffic cops. Some directors are control freaks who need to assert their status. Michael's not afraid of emotion. About the most fun you can have in theater is a good rehearsal with Michael."

And what about when it's a bad rehearsal?

"It's not so bad. He snapped at me two times in tech [rehearsal]. I just rolled my eyes at him. Years ago, he used to have a bit of an image problem when it came to tech rehearsals. If you're trying to do too much, you can completely wring yourself out."

Success agrees with Mayer, according to Leight, who met him when they were both relative unknowns. He's grown more comfortable playing director, which makes for a smoother production. Of course, it helps that with success comes a better crew.

Blocking Movement

It's a good rehearsal day at the Roundabout Theatre studio, where Mayer is currently rehearsing actors for the off-Broadway production of Sybille Pearson's "True History and Real Adventures," a drama that takes place in the Wild West.

Because it's a good rehearsal day, there are no divas throwing fits a la Bette Davis in "All About Eve." The director isn't channeling Machiavelli. Everyone's on time and ready to work, dressed in scrubby jeans and baggy tees, a pastiche of varying ages and races.

At first glance, Mayer is one of the guys, baby-faced and spectacled, slightly slump-shouldered in a gray V-neck sweater, black jeans and sneaks. He's playful, down-homey, but clearly focused on his goal: to block the movement of the actors for one of the scenes from the first act.

"We're going to make a little change," Mayer announces. He wheels away a portable wall of mirrors. "This is gone! Yaaay! History."

He outlines the activities: This actor moves there. This group sweeps across the stage then. Everyone pretends they're seeing electricity for the very first time. Act amazed.

"Let's see how gross it is," he tells them. "It could be heinous. But you know what? It could hardly be as heinous as it was yesterday. That's as bad as it gets."

Mayer is all Mama Hen as he watches, sometimes singing along with the piano player--"Ya da dum da dum. Now, go"--as the actors walk through their paces, scribbling notes in their scripts.

They stop. Start. Stop. Start.

Stop.

"Great. Beautiful. There's only one weird thing, though . . ."

Then, for just a minute, he lets go and the cast is permitted to perform full out. And suddenly, in just that instant, the inevitable lassitude that comes from blocking things again and again and again is lifted . . . and the actors soar. In that instant, it's theater.

Mayer stands back, a big grin stretching his face. He's a kid, playing with them.

"Doesn't this feel better than yesterday?"

'Poised on the Brink'

Being the It director means that suddenly everyone knows your name. And lately, the phone is ringing, ringing, ringing as everyone tries to book that name.

In the past couple of years, Mayer has staged a revival of "A View From the Bridge," as well as "A Lion in Winter," "Side Man," "Charlie Brown" and an off-Broadway production of "Stupid Kids." Early next year, he begins rehearsal for "Uncle Vanya," starring Derek Jacobi, and is in the process of turning that ghastly Julie Andrews movie musical "Thoroughly Modern Millie" into a theatrical production. In January, he'll venture into the land of the small screen, directing an episode of "Party of Five," his first TV effort.

He's not ruling out the big screen, but theater remains his touchstone. Not that just any play will do. For him to do a play, it has to beg for an audience, demand to be heard in the context of living breathing bodies taking it all in.

"Theater has always been my church, my synagogue," he says. "Theater is so elemental. You're operating in the realm of metaphor and mythology in that communication with the audience. It's transformation and transportation. You're making magic. And it's pure alchemy because you can take something ugly and transmogrify it into something beautiful."

Mayer's been moved to tears in rehearsal, a quality that so attracted playwright Leight that he decided only one director would do for his quasi-autobiographical play about jazz musicians, "Side Man."

So, in early '96, Leight pursued Mayer. Wooed him. Even begged him. But Mayer was too busy.

At first.

"I think I conned him, but in a well-meaning way," Leight says. "I knew he liked the play and wasn't really available. So I told him, 'I'll take what I can get.' I said, 'Fifty percent of you is better than 100 percent of anyone else.' "

It worked.

At the time, Mayer was a busy, working director, swamped with projects, but he wasn't a Name. He could feel the Name thing happening for him. He was, he says, "poised on the brink of something."

"Side Man" ushered in the "something": It began as a bench reading in the basement of a bar on 13th Street. From there, it made it to off-Broadway, then to Broadway in a not-for-profit theater, then finally, a commercial theater. Along the way, the lead actors, Edie Falco ("The Sopranos," "Oz") and Ed Wood, became stars. Falco won an Emmy; Wood, a Tony. Christian Slater called up and asked to be in the play. Andrew McCarthy wanted in, too. (He appears in the Kennedy Center performance.) Mayer was suddenly hot, winning the Drama Desk Award for his direction of "A View From a Bridge," and an Outer Critics Circle Award for both "A View" and "Side Man."

But ultimately, it's all about the "process," that rarefied time in the hothouse of a rehearsal room, when everything is still and pure and focused on the work.

Then, says Mayer, "you're unshackled, once you're in that room. Getting in the room is key. And trying to make it as safe--and as sacred--for everyone. It's all about pure, childlike belief."

Just like Dorothy and those shoes.

CAPTION: "Other kids my age were looking at Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays or Joe Namath," Michael Mayer recalls. "I loved Judy Garland."

CAPTION: Angelica Torn and Michael O'Keefe in the Kennedy Center's "Side Man."