It didn't escalate to shin-kicking or name-calling. But a reader named Laura says that next time, it just might.

The issue: Kennedy Center patrons who leave during curtain calls, thus distracting and annoying their fellow ticket-buyers.

"I'm a regular at the Kennedy Center and have been for more than 20 years," Laura says. "When I first started coming, it was like the opera in Vienna. No one budged until the proper moment. It was classy. It was glorious.

"But in the last couple of years, it has become a stampede."

Laura says that curtain calls are "the best part of an evening at the theater. You can pay personal tribute to the cast with your applause, and you can watch them lap up the praise."

But when some hulk is worming past you -- and conversing with his wife, and trying to put on his coat, and fumbling for his car keys and powering up his cell phone -- "the magic is getting lost," she adds.

Last week, when some Redskin-sized humanoid blocked her view of the curtain call for the third performance in a row, Laura followed the person into the hallway. When she caught up, she asked why he was in such a hurry to leave. The answer was Classic Washington:

He wanted to beat the traffic.

Okay, maybe he was a Kennedy Center neophyte. But anyone who has been to the KC in recent months knows that beating the post-performance crush is next to impossible.

There's only one way out of the underground garage, and it clogs within seconds. Even if you do make it out into the open air, Rock Creek Parkway and Virginia Avenue suffer from serious arteriosclerosis.

In fact, more and more KC patrons are doing what pro football fans do. They hang around for 25 minutes once the main event is finished, have a drink, have a bite and schmooze with their companions. Then and only then do they try to escape. Then and only then can they hope to succeed.

Laura says there's only one excuse that would register with her: If someone were trying to get home to relieve a babysitter so he could save a buck or three.

"I hear that sitters cost $10 an hour these days," she told me (she hears right). "If I still were hiring sitters, I'd be conscious of time, too."

But please see above, Laura. Even if you try to save a few minutes of sitter charges on the back side of a Kennedy Center evening, you probably can't manage it. So the golden rule becomes even shinier when applied to the rights of fellow theatergoers whose view you are blocking.

Wouldn't it be great if ushers were in evidence at the critical moment? They could ask patrons -- politely but firmly -- to keep their seats until the last bow.

But an usher at the end of a play seems to be like a cop at the scene of a crime. They're never there when you need them. Perhaps Laura's grievance (and today's column) will change this. She deserves victory.

CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL

The finish line is in view. So is our $1 million goal. Soon we will discover whether our 2002-03 fundraising drive on behalf of Children's Hospital ends like a lion or a lamb.

You hold the keys, ladies and gentlemen of newspaperland. The final three days of any campaign usually determine whether it succeeds or sags. There's still time to turn this year's Children's Hospital drive from one of hope to one of unparalleled results. If you've followed our numbers, you know that we've had a very strong run since we opened for business in early December. Every step of the way, we have run ahead of the 2001-02 Children's campaign at the comparable time -- and last year's drive set a record of $916,000.

But now is the time for delayers and doubters to step forward. Children's Hospital would be a remarkable institution on the basis of its medical quality alone. But when you mix in the hospital's policy of treating every child, every day, regardless of the family's ability to pay . . . well, that always cinches it for me.

Your charitable donation cannot go to a better cause. It will buy not only great medical care but hope among needy kids and their families. And every cent you contribute through Bob Levey's Washington goes to the "free care fund." Nothing is ever bled off for any other purpose. Nothing ever has been.

We welcome last-minute gifts of any size, via any of the methods listed below. All gifts are tax deductible as long as you itemize deductions. All are greatly appreciated.

Have you forgotten to support our drive in 2002-03? The time is now. You hold the keys.

Our goal by Jan. 24: $1,000,000.

In hand as of Jan. 18: $775,846.67.

TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE CAMPAIGN:

Make a check or money order payable to

Children's Hospital and mail it to

Bob Levey's Campaign for Children's,

P.O. Box 75528, Baltimore, Md. 21275-5528.

BY VISA OR MASTERCARD:

Call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 on a

touch-tone phone. Then punch in K-I-D-S,

or 5437, and follow instructions.

TO CONTRIBUTE ONLINE:

Go to www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital and follow instructions.