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ANN CONWAY

Getting With the Programs : SCR Donors Share Memories at Gala Opening of Play on Quiz-Show Scandals

March 07, 1994|ANN CONWAY

Hundreds of theater buffs gathered for the world premiere of "Night and Her Stars"--a play about the network quiz-show scandals of the late '50s--at South Coast Repertory on Friday night.

Donors of at least $1,000 to the Tony Award-winning theater mingled al fresco under a sprawling, light-studded canopy and feasted on roast turkey and pasta before watching the three-act work commissioned by SCR and written by Richard Greenberg of New York.

The buzz? Game shows, now and then.

UC President Jack Peltason recalled that, in the '40s, his father won $64 on the old radio show, "The $64 Question."

"He went to New York and won by correctly answering this question: 'What was the name of the wife of Chiang Kai-shek?'

"I think it was Mai Ling," said Peltason, who was a teen-ager at the time. "Anyway, when he came home we asked how it went and he said it was fun, but cost him a lot more than $64 because all of his friends expected him to take them out to dinner."

Peltason also had a chum who was a TV game show contestant in the '50s. "He got all the way to the top--this was before the revelation of corruption--and then quit when they began to feed him questions," Peltason said.

Robert Hickock, dean of fine arts at UCI, has never been a fan of game shows. "They don't interest me. I'd rather be studying a score, writing a book or reading a book," he said.

Not Greenberg. "I watch 'Jeopardy' chronically," he confided before ducking the pre-theater party to dine at Diva with SCR directors Martin Benson and David Emmes.

"And most of the time I'm pretty good. Oh, I have those weird nights where it's all world geography and I can't make any headway," said the thirtysomething playwright who received his master of fine arts degree from Yale. "But when it's about drama or American literature, I rarely miss one."

Does he think "Jeopardy," like the "Twenty-One" game show portrayed in his play, could be fixed?

"No," Greenberg said. "And if any show is fixed today--I don't want to know about it. I'd be terribly disappointed."

Said "Night and Her Stars" director David Warren: "The closest thing to being fixed on television today would be talk shows, where everyone is coached to sob and fall apart."

Greenberg began to write "Night and Her Stars" after seeing a 10-minute segment of a documentary about the '50s quiz-show scandals on television.

"It fascinated me," he said. "Automatically, those men (Charles Van Doren and Herbert Stempel) became my characters. I started writing and never stopped. That was two years ago."

Warren said he hopes the play will get audiences thinking about television's potential to shape their lives, influence the way they think. "It's a play about people searching for a way to live authentically, not be defined by television or by what it tells them about America," he said, "or where they fit."

Added Greenberg: "I was born during the chronology of this play. And that made it completely fascinating for me because it became an effort for me to figure out what made me ."

Theater activist Gail Ochs said she loved the game shows of early television. "And I can see why we were easily deceived by them," she said. "We were naive; television was a new medium and everybody was excited about somebody knowing everything about everything. Today, we're far more sophisticated."

SCR supporter Arden Flamson said Friday night's party scene--with its twinkle lights, towering trees and sparkling silver service--reminded her of Tavern on the Green, the Big Apple restaurant located in Central Park. "I love that place--used to go there quite a bit," she said.

Said former SCR board President Peter Ochs: "Well, tonight, New York is looking at us. In fact, the quality of theater here is so outstanding that New York will always be looking at us."

After the play, guests again mingled in the courtyard, sipping Kenya and Sumatra coffee and sampling fruit tarts and Kahlua crunch cheesecake.

"What a witty, wonderful play," said Orange County Supervisor Harriett Wieder. "It sure brought back memories--reminded my husband, Irv, and I, that, after we were married in the '40s, we auditioned for a newlywed show on radio. Those were the days."

Also among guests were Bill and Bobbie Stabler (swaddled in shear beaver); Olivia and Andrew Johnson; June Wankier and her daughter, Michele Wankier Edwards (who will co-chair SCR's annual gala on Sept. 10); Carl and Margaret Karcher; Ralph and Dot Clock; Steward Woodard; Larry and Dee Higby; Lydia Wang and Kenneth Himes; Marilyn and Frank Lynch and SCR board President Tom Sutton.

* FUZZY PICTURE

"Night and Her Stars" is impressively staged but the message is unfocused. F1

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