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Before home theaters became de rigueur, the Baskt Theater paved the way for artists in Baltimore

James Abbott, Director and Curator  - Arianne Teeple
James Abbott, Director and Curator - Arianne Teeple

Chances are, if you're a fan of home design shows, you've seen mansions featuring their own mini-movie houses, complete with a big projection screen, cushy seats with cup-holders and maybe an old-style popcorn machine.

Of course, these folks have nothing on Washingtonian Alice Warder Garrett who in 1922, with husband John Work Garrett, president of B&O Railroad, commissioned famed Russian designer Leon Bakst to create a theater -- a stage for plays, that is -- in her home converted from a gymnasium, no less.

Bakst, who won acclaim for his vivid colors and use of patterns in designing costumes and sets for the Ballet Russe, met the Garretts while in Paris just before World War I. The Garretts' space would be the only private theater decorated by Bakst.

The Garretts' home is now The Evergreen House museum located on Charles Street near the Loyola University campus. Nearly 100 years later, the theater still has the power to wow visitors.

"Next to the main library of the house, it's probably the most famous room in the museum. If you're thinking about modernism in Baltimore in the early part of the 20th century, the Evergreen (Bakst) Theatre is what you think of," says James Abbott, director-curator for the Evergreen Museum & Library.

The theatre's design reflects Bakst interest in folk art, on which he lectured at the Maryland Art Institute. When the theatre opened in May 1923, Bakst designs adorned "the ceilings, walls and columns. The effect is bold, almost kaleidoscopic, because the colors are magentas, azures, and yellow-greens," Susan G. Tripp, director of the Johns Hopkins University's collections, notes in her essay, "Bakst at Evergreen."

"People are just blown away by its design and the fact that it even exists. It's quite an eyeful," Abbott says.

Michael Carleton, artistic director for the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival who has led dramatic readings from the Evergreen stage, agrees.

"I was blown away�what an intimate setting. It was very calming, felt very warm, that it had a history. When I did the first reading there, there were all these little clues about what theater had been long ago. Today we use a lot of electronic and digital controls, but at Evergreen you can see the ropes used to haul out small pieces of scenery built for children's shows�it was thrilling to see how theater got started, when things were done by hand by craftsmen," he says.

The theater has even been the location for attempts to connect with the spirit world. Laure Drogoul, interdisciplinary artist and founding director of the Maryland Art Place's performance venue, The 14Karat Cabaret. has played the Evergreen stage three times, including leading "a s�ance for Alice (Garrett). We used the space as a salon, a parlor�I liked the idea of a s�ance, which is a kind of theater that happens in people's houses," which, afterall, is what Evergreen mansion was, the Garretts' home.

"Mrs. Garrett was a believer that you couldn't collect paintings unless you painted, you couldn't appreciate dance unless you danced or opera unless you sang, so the theater was a personal investment for her, created so that she could perform and at the same time, provide the perfect backdrop for inviting actors, singers and dancers, not only from New York and the Boston stage, but also from European stages.

"[Mrs. Garret] was credited as having said, 'I'm going to bring culture to Baltimore,' and for an outsider to say that, you're going to insult the natives, needless to say. But she did bring culture to Baltimore. She brought modernism, the first Picasso, to Baltimore," Abbott says.

Leon Bakst was part of that culture, coming to Baltimore to assist Mrs. Garrett not only in designing her theatre, but her house as well. His touch may be seen in the Evergreen dining room "with its wonderful, vibrant red Chinese scrolls" and bright yellow walls in a time when "Baltimore dining rooms were buff gray or off-white in color," Abbott explains.

The Garretts would host all manner of entertainment, including such greats as Cole Porter and even "a drunken H.L. Mencken, introducing the rhumba" in the theater according to Abbott.

In 1942, John Garrett bequeathed his house and surrounding lands, his Asian collections and 35,000-plus volume library to Johns Hopkins University. Mrs. Garrett continued to live at Evergreen, entertaining in and enjoying the theater until her death in 1952.

Hopkins has kept up Mrs. Garrett's tradition of inviting musicians and artists to Evergreen and today offers an annual artist-in-residency program.

"We receive applications from artists around the world; one is selected and they create, using Evergreen as their muse. This 'site-specific' work began with Leon Bakst in 1922 with the creation of the theatre and has continued. The Garretts didn't have any children of their own, so artists became their passion. Some might stay for a week or a month, with what was the 'servants wing' being transformed into the 'genius wing,'" Abbott added.

The artistic spirit of Evergreen is alive and well; Alice Garrett's Picasso inspired Carleton to suggest his dramatic reading from Jeffrey Hatcher's play, "A Picasso," and Bakst' influence captivated Drogoul: "I studied as a sculptor and so am very interested in spaces. That space, the Bakst Theatre, is just a complete gem in the city. The Ballet Russe connection with Leon Bakst, such an interesting combination of painters and dancers and artists mixed together, working together, and I think of Alice Garrett inviting Leon Bakst here�it's just amazing," she says.

Both Carleton and Drogoul were impressed by the "intimacy" of the stage.

"It is a venue where you're never going to be more than 20 feet away from the farthest audience member. You can have a real interaction with every single member, they're in your face and they affect your performance, much more than in larger venues. You feel that anything you do there is a collaborative experience with the audience," Carleton says.

Of course, maybe it's the spirit of Mrs. Garrett -- raised by Drogoul's s�ance perhaps -- that gives this 9-foot by 10-foot stage its power.

"Mrs. Garrett, her theatre, and all she did at Evergreen, I think, really made Baltimore receptive to a more avant-garde, a more varied arts circle�I think that was her intent, to think beyond the Colonial Revival, beyond what was safe, and to look at experimental theater, and new modes of dance�Baltimore is home to John Waters and to unique and different means of expression and I think Mrs. Garrett played an instrumental role in making that happen," Abbott says.

According to Heather Stalfort, communications and marketing manager of the Johns Hopkins University Museums, the Bakst Theatre has recently welcomed a host of international performers, including France's Amedeo Modigliani Quartet; Chinese pianist and composer Peng Peng; Croatian guitarist Robert Belinic, and the string quartet, Brookyn Rider, as part of the annual "Music at Evergreen" concert series.

"These are in addition to illustrated lectures and book singings we regularly host on topics related to the fields of architecture, art, history and design. The Bakst Theatre is also a space available for private rental�for dinners, receptions and wedding ceremonies," Stalford says.

Still, the Bakst Theatre seems to exhibit its true wonder when it is used as Mrs. Garrett originally intended�for artistic performance.

"One of the most moving experiences for me in the theatre took place last December when Michael [Carleton] stood on the stage and gave a reading from 'A Christmas Carol' from the edited notes of Charles Dickens, presenting it in the same way Dickens had when he himself was on tour a century ago. A woman came in with three 12-year-old boys who had electronic devices in their hands and you can tell they were just dragged into something, where they wouldn't want to stay.

"Michael began reading and the lights went down and there was a glow of the back set which is a farm scene, nothing to do with a 'Christmas Carol,' but those boys didn't move. They were totally engaged in the performance for an hour and 15 minutes. They didn't take their eyes off of what was transpiring before them. That was a great experience," Abbott says.

A communications professional for over 25 years, Dan Collins has been a reporter, features writer, editor and columnist since 1984, including stints with The Washington Times and the Times Publishing Group and The Baltimore Examiner in Baltimore. His freelance writing career has included his work for the Beacon newspaper as well as other publications including Baltimore Magazine.

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1. James Abbott, Director and Curator of the Evergreen Museum and Library, Johns Hopkins University. Photo by Arianne Teeple
2. to 5. The Bakst Theater at the Evergreen Museum and Library, Johns Hopkins University. Photos by Arianne Teeple
6. Alice Garrett performing in the Bakst Theatre - courtesy of the Evergreen House Foundation Archive, Evergreen Museum & Library, The Johns Hopkins University

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