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Behind-Scenes Work Brings a New Sense of Drama to Schools

June 13, 1991|DOUG SMITH

Mary Poppins has been in town.

I know that first-hand. My daughter came home one day this spring and said she'd won the part for the school play at Ribet Academy in La Canada Flintridge. I didn't understand at first. I'd never known that she could sing or dance or even recite.

Then a script appeared. Evenings became filled with singing of jolly holidays and spoonfuls of sugar.

For those who've forgotten, Mary Poppins was the mildly supernatural nanny who flew into two young children's lives just long enough to release their priggish British banker father from the bondage of his caste.

On listening closely, I observed that her sentimentality came cloaked in devious reason:

"What would happen to me, may I ask, if I loved all the children I've said goodby to?" she asked, explaining her abrupt departure.

I could be no help in singing or dancing, but I know how a line like that should sound. So, we practiced together.

As the day approached, I picked up hints that something bigger was happening than what I remembered of high school plays. Finally, my day to help in set construction came, and that's when I discovered the work of Paul Nichols of the NBC Studios carpentry shop.

His daughter, Wendy, was cast as a chimney sweep. He'd volunteered to help and, before he knew it, he and the NBC crew had built Admiral Boom's bridge, the rooftops of London, the interior of a Victorian mansion and the interior of the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. He had rigged a pulley and wire with a mountaineer's sling to fly Mary Poppins onto stage.

No less than that, Wendy's mother, Sharon Nichols, who works in the NBC costume shop, had fitted at least 60 children for everything from penguin suits to the haute couture of Ascot and had overseen the tailoring.

This couple's professionalism might easily have turned farcical had not months of work by director and choreographer Wendee Lee turned a pack of kids into an competent, disciplined dramatic team.

The chimney sweeps' dance sequence kept the audience clapping in time for 10 minutes and produced more dance than I had thought possible in a group of 10-year-olds.

All of this shined a light of new radiance on Ribet Academy, whose driving and crafty headmaster, Jacques Ribet, had built his school's reputation on stern formality and athletic prowess.

For two nights, the arts brought the school to as high a pitch of excitement as had the advance of the basketball team to the state finals.

I hadn't meant to go into this at all, considering it a personal matter, until I heard about "The Princess and the Pea."

That's an original musical done by the Glendale Centre Theatre Group. Doreen Alderman, private dance instructor and parent at Mark Keppel School, saw it just about the time she was wondering why public elementary schools don't produce musicals.

With the OK from the Centre Theatre Group and Principal Gordon Morse, she brashly decided to make it happen.

"I won't volunteer to bake cookies," Alderman said. "But this I will do."

Casting aside the doubts of many, Alderman pushed on with auditions in December. About 35 students began twice-weekly rehearsals in January.

The children painted the sets and were put in charge of their own costumes. Some of their parents got out sewing machines and did expert work. Alderman made daughter Spencer Grammer into a $10 horsy with a leotard and felt ears.

"It worked," she said. "All the costumes looked fabulous."

The students also choreographed a rap number into the script, learned how to do the lighting and sold tickets at $3 apiece.

For crowd appeal, Spencer's father, Kelsey Grammer, the psychiatrist on "Cheers," made a cameo appearance.

With the last sellout performance Friday, the students will have raised almost $1,000 for their school, without selling a bar of candy.

There was still one more dramatic triumph this season. At Eagle Rock High School, Principal John Anderson decided last year to restart a drama program that had been dormant for a decade or more.

Drama teacher Barbara Goodwin told him that if he wanted a musical, he'd need $10,000 up


"He didn't blink an eye," Goodwin said.

Royalties for "Fiddler on the Roof" cost $2,800. But somehow, again, parents materialized to solve the production puzzles. Joan Butsch of the summer children's theater at Occidental College recruited her husband, Tom, set designer for Disneyland. An Eagle Rock graduate who works for Lorimar did the lighting.

One woman spent hours sewing the seven-foot dress of Frumma Sarah, the ghost.

The whole school got excited. "That was a surprise because drama has not been anything people cared about at the school," Goodwin said. "Sport has been the only outlet for parents to get involved with their kids outside of the classroom."

Eagle Rock charged $5 for three performances and made back the $10,000 with $1,000 profit.

Goodwin believes that drama is on its way back at Eagle Rock.

So that's how it stands: Three schools, three dramas, three unique styles, one message.

Don't stay away long, Mary Poppins. The children need you.

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