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A Pioneering Work : In his one-man show, 'A Playful Dose of Prairie Wisdom,' actor Kevin Hagen shows that he's at home on the range and the stage.

March 14, 1991|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Speaking of outhouses--a prudent man always built 'em down wind."

--Kevin Hagen, from "A Playful Dose of Prairie Wisdom"

Most people probably recognize Kevin Hagen as "Doc Baker," the character that he played on the popular television series "Little House on the Prairie," originally broadcast from 1974 to 1983 and currently airing weekdays in syndication.

Based on the classic children's books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the series chronicles American life on the prairie during the late 19th Century. "The role was so comfortable for me," said Hagen, 62, "because when I started in the business in 1956, about the only thing on TV was Westerns."

These days, the Port Hueneme resident walks audiences through the years before 1875 in "A Playful Dose of Prairie Wisdom," a lecture/one-man show that he also wrote and produced. For 40 minutes Hagen's amiable persona combines the cynicism of Mark Twain, the wit of Will Rogers and the artistry of Thornton Wilder to conjure the challenges of being a country doctor. Here is some of "Doc's" down-home commentary:

* "A man becomes a doctor because he's too lazy for the farm, too stupid for the Bar and too immoral for the pulpit."

* "I recall one night delivering a baby for Mrs. Shedd. Then another one showed up and then a third. So I yell to her husband, 'Hank, bring that kerosene lamp closer.' 'Not on your life, Doc,' he says. 'It's gotta be light that's attracting them.' "

* "I want you to think of the baddest thing you ever smelled in your whole life. Outhouses smelled 100 times worse--and that was in the winter, when it was most tolerable . . . . Although we prairie folk got to where we could hold our breaths longer than a whale, I believe the high incidence of constipation among the prairie populace was due to the understandable tendency to delay goin' to the outhouse until the last possible second."

It seemed natural to develop a lecture about medicine, Hagen said, because illness was one of the most dramatic threats that pioneers faced in settling the prairie. Such diseases as typhoid, cholera, yellow fever and smallpox often decimated a town's population.

Other common dangers were snakebites and horse falls and kicks. Usually there were no trees in the area, so pioneers living in sod houses were exposed to extreme changes in the elements--hot sun and blizzards. Hagen discovered that life expectancy was only 40 years.

To create the lecture, Hagen studied the period. He also drew upon memories of accompanying his uncle, Doc Wadsworth, on rounds back in Joliet, Ill.

Continental Cable Television, which serves West Los Angeles, is scheduled to broadcast Hagen's one-man show on its public access channel April 3. The show will be available to local cable stations upon request. Steven Kolar, volunteer coordinator at the station, created the hourlong program by taping Hagen's lecture followed by an audience question-and-answer session about life on the prairie. The story is illustrated with inserts of old photographs.

Whatever he does, Hagen will probably be known as a "Doc" of one sort or another, because when he spins a yarn, he proves the adage "Laughter is the best medicine."

* FYI

Any Seniors groups interested in scheduling a "housecall" from "Doc," call (213) 342-9110. Fees vary.

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