Stephan Berry is hoping for a miracle this season.
He wants the scaffolding inside the auditorium of the School for Creative and Performing Arts to disappear. The steel tubing reaching to the ceiling? Gone! The ladders and catwalks creating a bridge from the stage to the balcony? Poof! Vanished into thin air.
He dreams of seeing the scorched plaster restored, the soot-blackened walls repainted, the charred floor rebuilt and the new seats installed.
Most of all, he wants to see students on the auditorium's stage for the school's next big show, Timeless Expressions of Faith, a Jan. 16-19 tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Only then will every trace of an arsonist's ugly work be removed. A renovated school auditorium will replace the floor-to-ceiling burn that caused $1 million in damages on the night of April 18.
Trouble is, that tribute might not happen in the auditorium. There's still plenty of construction work to do.
As the school's artistic director, Mr. Berry has a vested interest in seeing this job done and done soon.
Since the fire, it's been a chore scheduling the school's performances. He's had to use the Taft Theatre and the Aronoff. For recitals, he's used the school's foyer. For rehearsals, the students have had to practice in the gym and cafeteria. This is what happens when someone sets fire to a school's heart.
''It's just amazing everything that still has to be done,'' Mr. Berry said. ''There's not a lot you can do to speed it up and still have it done right.''
He says this and looks into the scaffolding-filled auditorium. Forty feet up, workers walk across planks suspended above the floor.
The crew washes smoky grime from the plaster-coated ceiling. Finely carved stone curlicues of Corinthian columns keep watch from their posts in the auditorium's far corners.
Mike Turner, the auditorium's project manager, stands at the lip of the stage. Pointing to different areas of this work in progress, he runs down a list of what's been done and what still needs doing.
The burned flooring has been removed. The floorboards await a new covering.
The new paint colors have been selected. The wiring needs to be inspected.
Impressions are being taken from the unscathed section of the balcony's plaster facade. These will be used to make molds to replace parts damaged in the fire.
''With a restoration project like this, you just never know what you're getting into,'' Mr. Turner says. ''One day you can be ahead of schedule. The next, you can find a serious problem and fall behind.''
Mindful of the school's schedule of events, he wouldn't say yes or no when asked whether the auditorium would be ready for the tribute to the Rev. Dr. King.
''I don't want to disappoint anyone,'' he said, ''by saying it'll be ready when it won't.''
Wanted: one stage
Worried the King tribute will need a home, Stephan Berry is theater shopping. But, so far, he's come up empty.
His needs are quite specific. ''The ideal place would have 300-350 seats, plenty of parking and be centrally located,'' he said.
The stage would have to be big enough to hold a band and the school's alumni choir. ''And not cost a fortune to rent.''
It would also have to be available for daytime and evening performances during the week and weekend.
''During the days, middle and high school students from other schools come to see this show,'' he says. ''That rules out other schools.'' Too much foot traffic while classes are in session.
''We have a Sunday afternoon performance.'' That rules out most churches.
Still, he's upbeat about this problem.
He could whine about all the time it took to get the work started. But he hasn't uttered a peep.
Instead, he hopes for a miracle.
''It would be nice if we could have a Hollywood ending so we could get this thing finished in time.''
All the while, he's bracing himself for a shot of reality. He's prepared to tell his students, one more time:
The show must go on. Even if it's somewhere else.
Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.
Published Dec. 4, 1996.