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Son's Dedication Reviving Work of Preston Sturges

April 07, 1988|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Tom Sturges, who is in the rock music business, came to town last weekend for the formal Off-Broadway opening of a nine-character, 57-year-old comedy called "A Cup of Coffee."

The show, never before produced, doesn't exactly have the potential to be a rock musical. But Sturges had a special interest in it. His late father wrote the play.

That father was Preston Sturges.

The debut of "A Cup of Coffee" here is only part of a brewing bicoastal interest in the late screenwriter and playwright. In February, Room for Theater in Los Angeles produced a revival of "Strictly Dishonorable" (Sturges' only Broadway hit) that proved so popular that it was moved across town to the Matrix Theatre, where it reopens tonight.

"A Cup of Coffee," which became the impetus for Sturges' 1940 movie, "Christmas in July," is a satire on business and how it values a man's worth. It's set in a coffee warehouse during the Depression.

That the elder Sturges was a man of theater may startle film school urchins. They may know him only as the Oscar-winning writer and director of such bold, outrageous film comedy classics as "The Great McGinty," "Hail the Conquering Hero" and "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek."

But a playwright he was. And the thread of his plays, indeed his life, his son said, was that "no one is afraid to dream . . . and he saw himself as an entertainer, saw that the glory of making someone laugh was the greatest glory."

At 31, the age his father was when "Strictly Dishonorable" hit Broadway, Tom Sturges is embarked on a labor of love: keeping alive the work of his father.

"It's just (among) my efforts on every front," he said, speaking of the New York premiere.

The other efforts include a three-volume compilation--the University of California Press is the publisher--of 14 of his father's screenplays. The first book of five has been published. The others are on the way.

He has another never-produced play by his father, "I Belong to Zozo," a comedy about a Greek family that owns a small hotel in Paris. Also in the family bin: two never-produced film scripts. One is a comedy, "A Present for Uncle Popo," about the post-World War II friendship of three soldiers, two French and one British. The other is an untitled script, only 75% done, about Wall Street hanky-panky.

No novels or short stories have turned up, he said, although he has found five songs that his father, who loved to sing, wrote in the '30s. They conceivably could be made part of a musical, with "A Cup of Coffee" serving as the book, said Sturges, adding that he'll be talking with veteran Broadway producer Cy Feuer about this. (Feuer co-produced "Guys and Dolls.")

Sturges was only 3 when his father died. The second child of his father's fourth wife, Sandy, he understandably has little memory of Preston Sturges. But he was moved to do what he's doing now, he said, when he saw the film "The Power and the Glory."

"It was Spencer Tracy's first film and my dad's first screenplay, and because they made it on nitrate film," which is fragile and not used now, "a lot of it doesn't exist any more," he said.

"That bothered me. I thought, 'My God, here's this stuff just going to fade into nothingness.' " That led to the opening effort, the first book collection of his father's screenplays several years ago.

That "A Cup of Coffee" has finally opened 57 years after the elder Sturges finished it (it bowed last Friday and plays Thursdays through Sundays until April 17) is due to the efforts of Marlene Swartz, co-artistic director of the SoHo Repertory Theater here.

Her nonprofit troupe, staging the play in its tiny 100-seat theater in Greenwich Village, was planning a season of "Lost American Plays," she said. "There are two really funny American writers," she told her colleagues, "Mark Twain and Preston Sturges. Let's see if we can get a Preston Sturges play."

Tom Sturges was tracked down in Los Angeles at Chrysalis Music, where he is the creative director and scouter of rock music writers for the music publishing side of Chrysalis Records.

Oddly enough, Sturges--who said he studied musical composition and conducting at UC Davis--has never attempted anything in theater.

He has written two screenplays, but he does not think his future lies there, he said. He recalled an incident suggesting that even in modern Hollywood, where memories run in microseconds, people still remember the long-ago films of Preston Sturges:

"I took one of the screenplays to an agent. He told me, 'If your father had written this, it would have been great.' "

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