In a splash of light, on a small raised stage bristling with microphones, actors await cues from director Peggy Webber, who's wearing bulky headphones. Webber raises her arm in a sweeping gesture and melody blossoms from a nearby piano, then fades as she extends her hand toward a well-known actor, who begins to speak, his voice carrying a beguiling invitation to young and old:
"All in the golden afternoon, full leisurely we glide . . . "
Roddy McDowall, whippet thin and silver-templed, plays Lewis Carroll in the opening performance of California Artists Radio Theatre's production of "Alice in Wonderland." It's Wednesday afternoon, and the company, made up of veteran radio, screen and stage actors--Jeanette Nolan, Norman Lloyd, Samantha Eggar, John Astin and William Windom, among them--is recording the radio play for a public audience at the Hollywood Cinegrill.
After a repeat performance today at 1:30 p.m., this first show in a series will be broadcast on KPCC (89.3 FM) Tuesday at 10 p.m.
As McDowall finishes the Carroll poem, Eggar's sweet-voiced Alice begins her "curiouser and curiouser" odyssey through wordplay, puns and assorted eccentrics. Composer David Pinto plays the piano and walrus-mustachioed Ray Erlenborn, a sound effects creator for radio and movies since 1929, is a one-man band, with horns, metal tubs, dishes, gravel, squeaky hinges and sound boxes.
Marty Halperin and Ray Angona engineer the recording and director-adaptor-producer Webber, who formed the nucleus of the radio-theater group in 1948, guides the action.
In the hands of these pros, Lewis Carroll's familiar story feels unexpectedly fresh; the performance is also a return to the past, before radio was dominated by schlock jocks, talk-show bombast, pop, rock, heavy metal and endless loops of headlines, sports, traffic and weather.
In radio's heyday, from the '30s to the '50s, Webber said, "there certainly were a lot of garbage shows, but there were the great ones--the Norman Corwin shows, the Orson Welles shows, the Columbia workshops . . .
"The main thing was the exercise of the imagination. The personalization of it, the magnificence of words spoken beautifully and with meaning."
Parley Baer, playing Tweedledum to Windom's Tweedledee, has done 16,000 radio shows since 1933, including Welles' Mercury Theatre, along with Nolan, Webber and other CART members.
"Radio is the most nearly perfect medium for an actor," he said. "It's kind of a hackneyed phrase, 'theater of the mind,' but it really is: If you have an audience of 5 million people listening to you, you're giving 5 million performances."
Webber, who started in radio at age 11, names Corwin and Welles as her major inspirations. She first heard the Mercury Theatre in 1937, listening to her father's car radio "while coyotes howled" because her Arizona home had no electricity. "He was angry that I ran the battery down," she said, but she knew then that radio "was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life." Welles would later use her in many projects, including his epic screen version of "Macbeth."
Although Webber became a familiar face on television, the preservation of radio theater is her life's work. Her company, heard on public radio for the past eight years, has earned awards for excellence from the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, the British Broadcasting Corp. and New York's International Radio Festival.
Webber sees a resurgence of interest in radio drama--L.A. Theatre Works' star-studded "The Play's the Thing" airing Saturdays on KCRW, for instance, has achieved noted success with a similar format. John Astin, who plays "Alice's" poignant White Knight, speculates that people are getting tired "of the glibness of television. I think people crave substance."
Samantha Eggar, a recent member, agrees: "I'm discovering how rich these radio actors are. It's another art form. Even if I was at the Royal Shakespeare Company, I couldn't wish for more interesting pieces to play."
Which is another plus in the "theater of the mind." Although Wednesday's 89-year-old host Buddy Rogers (star of the 1927 classic film "Wings") quipped, "old actors never die, they just lose their parts," radio actors have more options. Unseen, they can play young, old and in between.
Upcoming shows by the group include Corwin's new play, "A Strange Affliction," and his classic comedy "My Client Curly" in July; Richard Erdman's "Oscar," based on the life of Oscar Wilde, in August, and Shaw's "Major Barbara" in September.
* California Artists Radio Theatre at the Radisson Hollywood Roosevelt's Cinegrill, 7000 Hollywood Blvd., today, 1:30 p.m.; thereafter the second Wednesday and Saturday of each month at 1:30 p.m. through September, $18.50; (213) 683-3422.