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RANDOM SIGHTINGS: Circle of Friends

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Those of us who love live theatre know it probably will never have the press, publicity, paparazzi, and fan following that film and TV enjoys (and sometimes doesn't). The annual Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards for distinguished theatre achievement poses no popularity threat to the annual Oscars, nor does it get splashy news coverage. But LADCC is justly proud of its 31st annual event preceeding the Academy Awards by a week, and held in accordance with newly established tradition in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel's historic Blossom Room. This year's event is believed to have set a new record for attendance, with 360-plus aboard.

Completing her two-term tenure as president, Debbi Swanson leaves LADCC with what she believes to be a record number of 32 members. Her day job (most theatre people need one) is as fundraiser and expediter for City of Hope. Swanson is a go-getter; she gets things done, and she leaves the nonprofit Critics' Circle reasonably solvent, liaison efforts having achieved linkage with that interesting new internet company with the provocative name of Theatermania.com. The worldwide computer organization sponsored this year's awards evening and chairman, CEO/co-founder Joe Corcoran took the podium to pay tribute to the hard work and dedication of small theatres, while also declaring that his company has arrived in Los Angeles to help promote all types of theatre. How refreshing.

Corcoran also presented a $l,000 check to accompany the first annual Polly Warfield Award to be given by the Circle, an unexpected honor for which I am very proud and grateful. By unanimous LADCC concensus, this initial P.W. Award went to Pacific Resident Theatre, and was accepted by PRT's artistic director Marilyn Fox and its managing director Bruce Whitney.

Pacific Resident Theatre, a company of dedicated, diligent, determined theatre artists, pursues its sense of mission with passion, panache, and vision whether or not it has a home to call its own-which for a time it did not but happily now has, out on Venice Boulevard. The brilliant season that won PRT a prize started with a stunning production of Franz Wedekind's shocker Lulu (Valerie Dillman in the title role got an LADCC Lead Performance award as well). The year continued with Ibsen's classic The Master Builder; A.R. Gurney's slice of upper-crust Americana, The Children; a shimmering revival of Molnar's fairytale fable The Swan, and it concluded crisply with Simon Gray's study of upper-class British preoccupation and alienation, Otherwise Engaged. It was a year of putting PRT's best foot forward into the new millennium with world-class plays from Germany, Sweden, the U.S., Hungary, and Britain. Upcoming as this year's season opener is No"l Coward's Tonight at 8:30, directed by Daniel O'Connor and opening Apr. 27.

The Ron Link Award for consistent quality in directing, and also newly established this year as a memorial tribute to the late director, went appropriately to another great Ron-Sossi-founder/guiding spirit of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, whose three stages are almost constantly busy, with the liveliest lobby in town. For a complete list of LADCC's 1999 awards, we refer you to the Back Stage West issue of Mar. 23.

Porch Peril

Did I tell you about the time our front porch in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles was destroyed during a Japanese air raid in World War II? Of course not, so here goes and I swear it's true.

It was during the early days of the war. My sister Joy and I and Eleanora Van Ingen-a fascinatingly complex character, but that's another story-shared a nice little house on the eastern slope of a Silverlake hill. Soon my good friend Harriet (n e Dexter, playing leading roles at Los Angeles City College) would move in with us when her husband, master photographer William Reagh, went to work in Belfast for Lockheed Overseas. We paid $33 a month rent for that nice little house on the hill, $11 apiece. It had character, too-fireplace, two upper-level bedrooms and bathroom with a sunken tub, and a long, steep flight of stairs up to the front door. (We tried a Victory Garden, without much success, on the garage roof adjoining those steps. I had a little more luck with flowers in a window box on the porch-Eleanora always called them "fluffy ruffle petunias," rather mockingly I believe.)

It was a Sunday evening. Or maybe Saturday, I'm not sure. Air-raid sirens started wailing in earnest. I was out on a date with my boyfriend Bill, who was soon to become an Ensign in the U.S. Navy. We were fellow employees at KNX, the CBS network radio station. Bill was from Indiana and his father was a friend of Indianan Mr. Thornburgh, KNX chief factotum, which gave Bill a certain cachet, and he was a Dartmouth grad besides.

I was a mere script typist, happy to be making $15 a week in such surroundings. Orson Welles often came into the script room and gave us typists Christmas presents of cologne-awfully nice of him. I passed Danny Kaye outside on Sunset now and then. You never knew who was having lunch in the next booth at Brittingham's. I was plugging for a spot in the news bureau. CBS boasted the nation's best radio news staff-superstars Ed Murrow, Howard K. Smith, William Shirer, Richard C. Hottelot, Charles Collingwood-the great ones. Young KNX newsman Chet Huntley was beginning his meteoric rise to stardom. Every night I would I take home newswire copy to rewrite for helpful criticism from the newsroom guys the next day. It was a great place to work, great people.

It was also a time of great tension. Nerves were on edge for good reason. Pearl Harbor caught us totally unprepared, left us devastated and defenseless. Danger was real, so were those air-raid sirens. On tenterhooks, I called my sister as soon as possible. After several rings she answered in an obvious state of panic, breathlessly, with, "I can't talk now! A bomb just hit our front porch!" The receiver dropped with a clatter and the line went dead.

Confusion, conjecture, amazement, worry until the all-clear sounded and I got home to find a gaping hole where the front porch had been. This was puzzling. There was no news of other damage. And it's not entirely clear to this day whether enemy planes were over Los Angeles that night. Evidence claims there were.

But no denying the porch was gone. Later we learned it was indeed the result of an enemy air raid-or the siren's threat. What had happened: Eleanora was upstairs taking a bath, the water was running, music was playing, no one heard the lights-out sirens. The concientious, patriotic Lakeview Avenue air-raid warden saw forbidden lights, clambered up the steps, pounded on the door, and yelled. The porch, weakened from termites and dry rot, collapsed from reverberations of so much pounding and hollering and took the unfortunate air raid warden down with it. A homefront casualty in the line of duty, he suffered a broken foot and his wife was heard to sigh, "Poor Ira. Everything happens to him."

There was talk of reporting this story on a KNX newscast-but so much was happening those days, and so many more important things, it didn't make it in. It was a rather unusual and amusing incident, shadowed by sobering thoughts of the real, terrible suffering that was occurring, would occur, and always does in the wake of war, also of how narrowly we and the world escaped even worse epic tragedy and of how grateful we all should be that the Allies did not lose that war.

Perhaps it's another instance that absurdist, improbable, unlikely as it may sometimes seem, theatre has nothing on life. What does it have to do with theatre? Doesn't everything?

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