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Brainpower Takes Center Stage : High-Powered Scientists Ham It Up in Comedy

February 26, 1987|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

Physicist David Goodstein, winner of 12 awards for a public television series last year, can be seen this weekend in another kind of show: He plays a janitor in Caltech's production of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."

Pasadena Mayor John Crowley is his sidekick in the custodial chorus line.

Albert Hibbs, a senior scientist at Jet Propulsion Laboratories who has been the chief spokesman to the media on the exploits of America's unmanned space probes, such as Voyager, Mariner, Surveyor and Viking, has a song-and-dance lead in the show. And Nobel laureate Richard Feynman appears as a slick game-show host.

That such a concentration of power and genius would come together on a small Caltech stage seems unlikely, but Hibbs has an explanation: "All these egomaniacs here are the same. We're in it for the excitement."

Record Number of Bigwigs

Producers have tapped a record number of big names for this year's musical comedy, which opened last weekend and will be performed again in Ramo Auditorium on campus at 8 p.m. Friday, at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday.

Performed mostly by students, the annual shows have long used Caltech employees, alumni and, whenever possible, famous people as participants.

This year's cast also includes Harry Gray, winner of the National Medal of Science in 1986; Alan Dressler, one of the country's leading astronomers; Fred Shair, professor of chemical engineering; Jenijoy La Belle, associate professor of literature; Edwin Munger, professor and authority on Africa; Pasadena Police Chief James Robenson and several other teachers and alumni.

"I think I am the only director in the world who works with Nobel-prize winners and makes them wait around in a dark auditorium," said Shirley Marneus, who has directed the show and Caltech's theater arts program for 17 years.

While audiences' delight at the rare comic glimpses of super-achievers is as predictable as "How to Succeed's" 25-year-old plot, the performers' motives are less clear.

Even Marneus says she is amazed at the number of people who are eager to donate their time to student productions and endure long rehearsals for their brief appearances.

One explanation comes from Dressler, whose main professional concerns are the evolution of galaxies and the beginning of the universe. His purely comic role in "How to Succeed" is his first experience on stage.

"This is a magnificent lesson in sociological organization," Dressler said. "I get to meet a lot of people who are quite different, more artistic, and I like to think of having that part of me, too. I think this is important to being a whole person."

Dressler likened the performance to writing a scientific paper.

"You reach a conclusion and you feel you've gone up another rung," he said. "The show is the same kind of pleasure."

Crowley admitted to being a "ham" after his two lines were greeted with applause on opening night last Friday. "I've been on stage a lot, but never like this," he said. "It's great fun."

Goodstein laughed off his many hours of waiting for a 30-second appearance in coveralls with "Custodian" emblazoned on the back. The Caltech physics professor created the PBS series "The Mechanical Universe," about the history of classical and modern physics.

"A professor is always on stage," Goodstein said. "I get nervous, but we have to be nervous. If I don't, the whole class will go to sleep."

"How to Succeed" records the breathtaking ascent of a window washer (freshman engineering student David Stevens) who becomes chairman of the board, wins the gorgeous girl (sophomore applied physics major Heidi Anderson) and demolishes the competition, including the president of the company (Hibbs).

Greek Dramas and Pure Nonsense

Hibbs can't remember how many times he has performed at Caltech. He has appeared in Greek dramas, Shakespearean plays and pure nonsense; he sings, dances, emotes, clowns, and passes it all off as "a lot of fun and a lot of excitement."

The famous-guest appearances started with "Guys and Dolls" 10 years ago, when, Marneus said, she needed 40 extras and there were not enough students.

Feynman and Hibbs made their first appearances, and Gray took one of the leads, as Harry the Horse.

" 'Guys and Dolls' broke the ice," Marneus said. Feynman beat on a drum and was the voice of the owner of the garage that housed the oldest permanent floating crap game in New York. He went on to take serious roles in some of the classics.

In 1978, Caltech President Marvin Goldberger and his wife, Mildred, made a brief appearance as the couple in Grant Wood's famous painting "American Gothic" during a performance of "The Music Man." The show's author-composer, Meredith Willson, came and loved it, Marneus said.

"A lot of times people are not asked simple things," she said. "We forget that people who are important are still people--they have funny bones, they have ham in them. The worst that can happen is they may say no when I ask them, but not very many do."

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