SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Love at first sight sounds like a fairytale, but for Evelyn Rudie and Chris DeCarlo, it happened twice. Both fell in love with acting as children.

For DeCarlo, it was in his kindergarten play when he portrayed a mouse.

“I did my first play at Edison school,” he said. “I didn’t even know what it was. But I got a laugh, and I was hooked.”

Rudie, on the other hand, started in film at age 3 in the film “Daddy Long Legs.” At 6, she became the first child to receive an Emmy nomination for her role as Eloise on “Playhouse 90.” A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame followed shortly after, as did films like “The Gift of Love” with Lauren Bacall, but it was during an appearance on “You Bet Your Life” that Groucho Marx may have seen her future.

“What about the theater?” Marx asked the 9-year-old. “Have you no interest in going on Broadway?”

“Yes, I might like it,” Rudie replied seriously. “I think it’s fun.”

After graduating from Hollywood High School, her parents wanted her to continue her education, so she enrolled at UCLA. On her first day of college, she also enrolled in a class at the Santa Monica Playhouse.

“It was just a workshop to keep up my chops,” she said.

At that time, DeCarlo was in Vietnam, but on the very day he returned to California, he went to the Playhouse where he had taken classes before being drafted, and when he walked in, Rudie was on stage.

“I said, ‘This woman is a beautiful being,’” he said of their encounter.

“We fell in love. And the rest is history,” Rudie said with a laugh. “We’ve been married for 52 years.”

And they’ve been acting together the whole time, starting with “The Love Merchant” in 1972 and still going strong. Over the years, they believe they’ve done more than 10,000 performances in the building, creating more than 600 productions. In fact, the last time they appeared on the stage was New Year’s Eve.

“We both work all the time,” Rudie said. “We direct, we write, we compose and we perform. And I think for me, and I think for Chris as well, performing is our foundation.”

While they have worn many hats at the theater — and have a dressing room full of them to prove it — their defining roles are co-artistic directors of the playhouse. They took the reins 50 years ago, a fact that Rudie finds mind-boggling.

“It seems like yesterday, and it seems like forever,” she said. “If we were thinking about somebody else having done something for 50 years, we would say, ‘No, no, no. That can’t be right.’”

Over half a century, they’ve taken the small gem of a theater and grown it into a community staple, an educational institution for young children and adults alike, and an international arts and outreach group that has performed all over the world. The work they do is sacred to them. Theater isn’t a luxury, they say. It’s a necessity.

“When we sit in the theater and watch a play, we become a little more accepting, a little more understanding, a little more appreciative, a little more human,” DeCarlo said. “And that, to me, is the gift.”

“The artistic expression, the ability… to have the self-confidence to say what’s in your heart… is something that helps us keep our humanity alive and keep us going,” Rudie said. “So all of our classes, all of our plays, everything that we do is focused on allowing people to communicate, allowing people to find out who they are, what they want, and allowing them to express their concerns in order to make a healthier planet and a healthier community.”

The physical space is sacred to them too, and in a way, it’s become its own museum. DeCarlo designed the main theater on graph paper decades ago. Backstage, there is a green glow emitting from the monitor of the Apple 2E computer running the lighting. A statue in the entrance hall has been at the theater since day one, and the walls are lined with commemorative plaques marking milestones and yellowed newspaper reviews with photos often featuring the couple.

“I still have that dress,” Rudie said of one.

“I know,” Decarlo replied with a laugh.

Upstairs, the dressing room is bursting with wigs and feathers, colorful hats and costume jewelry. In one corner, DeCarlo keeps his well-loved wooden makeup case, a gift from Rudie 45 years ago, its drawers holding pancake makeup and an array of fake mustaches.  

The couple has devoted their entire lives to this space and touched millions of lives in the process. They found true love in these walls — with each other and with the work. And while most people in their position would be thinking about their next act, not these soulmates. They have no plan to take a final bow anytime soon.

“Never, never, never, never,” Rudie said of the idea of retiring from the stage. “To create new programs and meet new people, and young people, inspire them, it’s something I think that both of us would like to do for the rest of our lives.”

“It’s like saying, ‘I’m gonna step out of life,’” DeCarlo added. “I think there’s a vibrant universe here, and it’s accessible all the time. I can’t think of a better way to live.”