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They say that theater "gets in your blood." Whether or not the theater bug is genetic hasn't been scientifically proven - but one case for the "pro" argument could be Robert Baca, an assistant professor in the theater department at the University of Utah.

His latest assignment has been directing the Babcock Theatre production of Preston Jones' "Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander."When his mother was five months' pregnant with Robert, she was performing the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a Catholic Church play in Albuquerque, N.M., where Baca grew up as the youngest of nine children (he has four brothers and four sisters).

His parents enjoyed being involved in theater in Albuquerque, but Baca is the only family member to take up theater as a full-time career.

And Baca's association with the author of "Lu Ann Hampton . . . " goes back several years as well - almost into his childhood.

Jones, who was being praised as a writer as promising as Tennessee Williams when he died in his early 40s in 1978 from a heart attack following stomach surgery, at one time lived on the same street that Baca grew up on in Albuquerque.

Baca was an undergraduate student at the University of New Mexico when he first met Jones. "You mean Jake Baca's house?" was Jones' first response when Baca told him where he lived.

The Baca residence was well known to folks driving along Rio Grande Avenue. The Bacas, back then, owned a brilliantly colored macaw. The bird would perch in a tree near the street and screech loudly at people passing by - which is why playwright Jones was familiar with where Baca lived.

Their paths would cross again, however, after Jones got his theater degree from Baylor University and joined the exciting company that artistic director Paul Baker, now retired, was assembling at the Dallas Theatre Center.

Baca went to Texas in 1962, working on his master's degree and becoming a member of the prestigious DTC Repertory Company. Dallas was an exciting city in the 1960s - big oil and big money were both gushing, and there was plenty for funding the performing arts.

The Dallas Theatre Center was known for its strong acting company and Baker was able to have a splendid new complex designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It had a 400-seat mainstage, the intimate Downcenter Stage and a couple of studios - all of which could be used for a variety of productions, frequently at the same time.

Baca spent six years in Dallas, then eight years at Trinity University in San Antonio - a school that maintained close working ties to the DTC.

Both Baca and Jones were in the DTC acting company, often in the same shows. "But Preston would sit backstage with a yellow legal pad and would keep busy scribbling notes with a pencil. He'd rush back on stage, do another scene, then go offstage and write some more," Baca said.

What Jones was doing, his colleagues soon discovered, was writing what would become known as "The Texas Trilogy."

Jones' wife, Mary Sue, brought the first play in the series to Baker's attention.

"Baker fell in love with it. He was always promoting Texas theater and he asked if Jones had any more," Baca said, "Mary Sue told him he was already at work on the second installment."

It's this segment, "Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander," that Baca is doing at Babcock.

Baca resigned from Trinity University during the late 1970s to be with his ailing father in Albuquerque. (Jake Baca was nearly 90 when he died in 1978.) During this time, Baca resumed old ties with theater friends in his hometown and also directed for a theater company in Tulsa, Okla.

He was seriously considering a move to Tulsa when he got a call from somebody ("I really don't remember who it was") in the theater department at the University of Utah asking if I would be interested in an opening there.

There's this vast grapevine linking the country's theater community and Baca isn't sure how the U. found out he was ready for a change.

"I have never applied for a theater job in my lifetime," Baca told us. Instead, he's always just making the right connections by word-of-mouth.

Keith Engar was chairman of the U. of U. theater department at the time and an arrangement was made allowing Baca to continue directing part-time in Tulsa, too. So for his first couple of years in Salt Lake City, he commuted regularly between Oklahoma and Utah.

It was in Salt Lake that Baca also met his second wife. (An earlier marriage ended in divorce.)

His wife, the former Margret Guertler, also comes from a theater background. Her parents, who were converts to the LDS Church, moved to Salt Lake and established the country's only known German-speaking theater in the Avenues. Margret had worked in theater from the time she was 3 years old.

Appropriately enough, Robert and Margret met on stage. They both had lead roles in "Danton's Death," a play that was being directed by Richard Scharine. Baca played Danton and Margret portrayed Danton's mistress.

Baca still keeps in touch with many of his colleagues from his Texas and New Mexico days.

Preston Jones' widow, Mary Sue, assumed managerial duties at the Dallas Center when Paul Baker resigned, but she was uncomfortable in the administration end of things and now works at the Greer Garson Theatre in Santa Fe - at the request of actress Garson herself.

(The last time Baca saw playwright Preston Jones alive was during a production of "Magnolia Flats" at the Garson Theatre in 1976. Garson was also on the board of directors of the DCT.)

Last year, Baca attended a theater conference in Waco, Texas, Baker's old stomping grounds. The conference was also a celebration honoring Baker for the imprint he had left on theater in Texas.

Another of Baca's former colleagues from the Dallas Center company is Ronald Wilcox, a native of Ogden. Baca recently saw Wilcox at another theater conference.

Although Baca has directed more than 50 productions, he prefers teaching. He has taught acting and lighting design and is also responsible for the U.'s annual Spanish-language plays.

He also enjoys studying theater architecture and plans on taking a one-quarter sabbatical next year to research in this area.- "Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander" continues in the Babcock Theatre, downstairs in the Pioneer Memorial Theatre building at the University of Utah, tonight (Sunday) at 7 p.m.; Thursday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday, March 16, at 7 p.m. For reservations, call 581-6961.