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Revival of Recitation Benefits Library

Poetry: 'The Gregory Peck Reading Series' at the L.A. Public Library draws top acting talent and capacity crowds.


Recitation, poet Donald Hill remarked in an essay on "Casey at the Bat," was an American art form in those distant days before radio, television, the phonograph record and the Internet.

From 1888 when "Casey" was written by a Harvard graduate named Ernest Lawrence Thayer and for decades afterward, many a picnic, smoker and banquet was enlivened by a dramatic rendition of the poem and its mock-tragic revelation that mighty Casey had struck out on three pitches in the bottom of the ninth with two men on and the team trailing by two. "Somewhere the sun is shining," begins its mournful last lines.

The essay was read and the poem recited--from memory--by Walter Matthau not long ago at one of the monthly gatherings called "The Gregory Peck Reading Series" in the Mark Taper Auditorium at the Los Angeles Public Library. The evenings are a starry succession of recitations by some of Peck's starry friends, who have recited everything from "Casey" to Emily Dickinson to the Bible.

The events are hugely popular, drawing capacity turnouts of patrons who give $250 annually for the library's support. These patrons are rewarded with a glowing "only-in-L.A." kind of night.

Evelyn Hoffman, who directs the Library Foundation, suggested the programs to Peck after he had given a very successful reading at the opening of a branch library. Now, says one of the Saturday night faithful, "he's the Sol Hurok of the public library."

Peck recruits two of his actor friends for each of six meetings a year. Matthau, who confessed he had recited "Casey" to audition for an acting job at 16 (he didn't get it), was teamed with actress Judith Ivey, who read, in an appropriate and hilarious drawl, a New Yorker short story.

"The actors love it," Peck says. "They really get into it. They rehearse on their own, some of them more than once. They love libraries and I think they feel they're putting something back in. So these little evenings have become a cultural boon."

The season's last evening on May 31 will feature British actress Helen Mirren ("Prime Suspect") and a partner to be announced. "So many actors want to do it," Peck says. "But they're all working, and who can complain about that?"

Most recently, in mid-April, Broadway star Tammy Grimes ("The Unsinkable Molly Brown") and her daughter Amanda Plummer ("The Fisher King" and "Pulp Fiction") gave a wide selection of poems from Emily Dickinson to Robert Frost and collaborated on scenes from "Romeo and Juliet" and "Mary Stuart," a 19th century play by Johan Frederich von Schiller, which invents a scene between Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots, who never met in life.

The readers almost always choose their own material but Peck admits that when Grimes and Plummer were seeking one more item, he mentioned "Mary Stuart," which he had seen in a Franco Zeffirelli stage production in Rome.

Peck himself shared an evening with Louis Jourdan, who read Mark Twain's "What Is Man?," while Peck himself read poems by Yeats. Shirley MacLaine, sharing an evening with Gabriel Byrne, read from Tennyson, Kipling's "If," the Gettysburg Address and a piece from her own book, "Going Within." Byrne read from Yeats and Oscar Wilde and two selections from his book, "Pictures in My Head."

On another memorable evening, John Lithgow and Kathy Bates joined to do scenes from "Glass Menagerie," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "Waiting for Godot." Samantha Eggar and Norman Lloyd gave the evening to a single piece, Shaw's "A Conversation for Two Voices." On their night, Anjelica Huston and Morgan Freeman each read a short story, Huston Dorothy Parker's "Glory in the Daytime" and Freeman William Melvin Kelly's "Not Exactly Lena Horne."

In March, Charlton Heston and Lynn Redgrave, who launched the series in 1995, returned to do, among other readings, the last chapter of "Moby Dick" as condensed by Heston. Richard Dreyfuss read selections from courtroom speeches by Clarence Darrow, and Fionnula Flanagan read some remarkable Irish poems, including "A Lament in Memory of My Mother," by Cathal O'Searcaigh, as translated by Seamus Heaney.

Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen included an excerpt from "Love in the Time of Cholera," by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Among their offerings, Michael York and Victoria Tennant read from Alan Bennett's "An Englishman Abroad," his dramatization of actress Coral Browne's bizarre encounter with British traitor Guy Burgess in Moscow. Roddy McDowall read from Christopher Isherwood's "Prater Violet" and joined Genevieve Bujold in a selection from Shaw's "St. Joan."

The evenings are a reminder of the glories of the human voice, carrying without sets or props the range of the human condition from antic farce to romance and tragedy, ancient and modern. There may be no joy in Mudville, but there is at the library.

Information: (213) 228-7500.

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