When parents at Silver Spring's Sligo Creek Elementary come for Back to School Night this month, one of the evening's activities will be a peek behind a couple of the school's closed doors -- for the first time in years.
Just beyond the yellow tape stretched across the door frame of the auditorium at the former Blair High School, parents will look into a cavernous, 1,200-seat auditorium where singer and musician Stevie Wonder once performed. As did folk singer Pete Seeger. And folk singer and songwriter Tom Paxton. And Ella Jenkins, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner, and folk rockers Trout Fishing in America.
Playbills from musicals and other performances by students are still pasted on the fly space of the stage: "The King and I," "Tom Jones," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Anything Goes."
The auditorium was once part of the old Blair High School, which became Sligo Creek Elementary School and Silver Spring International Middle School in 1999. But it was boarded up, a victim of tight school budgets and a school system policy that says middle schools can't have auditoriums. Now, a group of residents is working to return it to its glory days.
"The real issue is money. It's an auditorium that's not needed by the elementary or the middle school . . . based on our program standards. We've told the community we're fully supportive of opening it as a community theater," said Richard Hawes, the director of the Department of Facilities Management for the Montgomery County school system. "It'd be a nice community asset if they could raise the money and use it as a community theater. But if they can't, it'll remain unused right now. It's not really a school system priority."
Standing at the back of the auditorium recently, a building services manager, two school administrators, a parent and an organizer of the auditorium effort looked around at the space. Building services manager Phil Baldwin, who has worked for the school system for 31 years, had rigged a few high-wattage lamps on the stage because none of the light bulbs remained in the sockets in the ceiling.
"It's here," Baldwin said, gesturing around the room. "If it's here, why let it go to waste? Why let it go for the critters?" The disrepair has encouraged rats and other rodents in the building, and the problem will only worsen if the area isn't spiffed up, he said.
Beside him, Busy Graham, an arts advocate, mother and one of the organizers of the auditorium effort, agreed: "That's the thing of it. It's here."
It shares two walls with Sligo Creek and two walls with Silver Spring International. And some parents worry about the potential for a fire. The auditorium has no sprinkler system in the ceiling. So if vandals, who sneak in and spray-paint their names and pictures on the walls and toss toilet paper all over the floors, were ever to drop a cigarette or somehow else cause a fire, the flames would spread quickly, these parents fear.
But Hawes says a fire "doesn't pose any danger right now. There's a one-hour fire separation between it and the rest of the building so if there were a fire, there'd be sufficient time to vacate the building."
Standing at the back of the auditorium, looking at the wide stage, with its orchestral space that can be raised and lowered, the five supporters and administrators start dreaming.
If the auditorium is revived, it could be used by the schools as well as arts organizations, cultural groups, touring companies and area businesses, said Graham, founder and executive director of Class Acts Arts, a nonprofit arts outreach organization that facilitates performances around the region.
It will cost about $1.5 million to $2 million to renovate the auditorium. Organizers are looking at ways to raise money, including contacting famous alumni.
Goldie Hawn went to Blair High, Graham said. Tim Britton, assistant principal at the middle school, added, "So did Ben Stein! And Steve Francis," a basketball player with the Orlando Magic. "He's got money."
"It's such an opportunity for people who recognize the arts," Graham said. "When I see how much money is spent on other projects in the county, $1.5 to $2 million doesn't seem like such a dream."
Said parent Lisa Gabriel, who has a child at both Sligo Creek and Silver Spring International, "The schools have said, 'Go ahead and renovate, but we don't have the money.'"
Pointing to stains in the ceiling, Gabriel said: "You can see the water damage. As time goes on, it's going to get worse."
Efforts are underway to get a federal grant to help with the renovation. U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) has backed a grant proposal for funds to reopen the auditorium, which it calls "an extension of Silver Spring's arts and entertainment district" and part of the city center's revitalization. The proposal also says the auditorium would fill a "pronounced need" for a 1,000 seat facility that schools, community groups and others could use for fundraisers and arts and cultural events.
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) also supports the project. In a May letter to Mikulski, he called it a "worthwhile project" that would give "much needed auditorium space for performances, meetings, concerts, and special events for residents and businesses throughout the county."
With large cardboard signs set on the seats in the auditorium with the words, "Would you like to help re-open this auditorium for our children?" Graham and others are gearing up to start another round of fundraising this fall.
And Back to School Night at the elementary school, said Principal Diantha Lay, is a great place to start. She and the administrators at the middle school said they envision the auditorium as a remarkable resource that, though not officially part of the school's grade-appropriate curriculum, is still an amazing enrichment for the children. And she's hoping that parents will agree.
"We're asking them to support a vision they've never seen," she said. "We need all the support we can get."
A community-wide town meeting on the effort will be held at 7 p.m. Oct. 14 in the media center at Sligo Creek Elementary.