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Friday, December 13, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kay McFadden / Times staff columnist

Live, from Bedford Falls, 'It's a Wonderful Life'!

Live radio broadcast


"It's a Wonderful Life," Doors open at 7 tonight; audience must be seated by 8. Museum of History and Industry, 2700 24th Ave. East, Seattle. Information: 206-324-1126. Performance will be broadcast live on KING-FM 98.1.
Radio has been called "theater of the mind." Sitting with some voice actors in a large, drafty room at Seattle's Museum of History and Industry one night, just enough sleight-of-sound emerges to support this claim.

"Our story starts before the war," reads Tom Dahlstrom, who's been cast as a 1940s announcer. "When life was normal, shortages were generally unknown, and simple luxuries like Lux Soap were abundant."

He pitches the next line in a manner that would do Paul Harvey proud.

"I won't say that's the only reason people said, 'It's a Wonderful life,' but I do know from the thousands of letters in our files, that most of them said, 'It's a Wonderful soap.' "

The others crack up. Of such soapy bubbles were dreams once made — and may be made again.

Tonight at 8, the MOHAI troupe will tap the magic of a past era to convince thousands of KING-FM 98.1 listeners that "It's a Wonderful Life," with a rare live radio performance of perhaps the most popular Christmas movie ever.

The broadcast version of "It's a Wonderful Life" was first performed in 1947, a year after the film came out. The show originally aired on "Lux Radio Theatre," a program of one-hour film adaptations co-sponsored by the makers of Lux soap, Lever Brothers (now Unilever), and the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency.

For MOHAI, turning 50 this year, it's the latest installment in what deputy director Feliks Banel and his co-workers jokingly call "Exhumation Playhouse."

Over several years, Banel has resurrected old plays suitable to the museum's historical themes and with sponsorship allure. (Among past revivals was "The Alaskan," a 1907 operetta about the gold rush written by one Joseph Blethen.)

Tonight's event fits the mold. "Evening Magazine" host John Curley stars as George Bailey — the result of some casual Jimmy Stewart mimicry he did while visiting MOHAI to tape a television segment a year ago.

Curley's enthusiastic participation has helped MOHAI reap publicity on KING-TV as well as get the production beamed over KING-FM.

The event also will be open to 375 lucky patrons who nab tickets for the performance at MOHAI. Advance prices are $10 for members and $13.50 for nonmembers, and can be purchased at the museum or www.ticketwindowonline.com. Door admission is $15.

Attendees will get to both see and hear Curley and other well-known cast members, including Chris "J.P. Patches" Wedes as the malignant Mr. Potter and former "Almost Live" cast member Tracey Conway as Mary. And Carnation resident Karolyn Grimes, who portrayed Zuzu in the movie, will have a cameo.

Adding to the atmospheric allure will be the organized chaos of getting a dozen or so actors to the mikes on time, along with sound-effects man David Persson. Pianist John Engerman will enliven the Lux score by playing his own variations on "Buffalo Gals."

Curley, who minored in acting at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University and actually dropped out to try a thespian career, clearly relishes the immortal Stewart stammer.

"He's ah, ah, ah, easy to do," says Curley. "But I don't really feel like I'm acting. I feel like what I'm doing is imitating."

Nevertheless, rehearsal proves Curley's familiar peppy persona will bend to more than an accent. His voice holds convincing anguish when George utters the fateful lines, "If it hadn't been for me, everybody'd be better off! My wife and my kids and my friends!"

Curley concedes the film, which he saw in its entirety just two years ago, got to him.

"You cry at 'It's a Wonderful Life,' you cry at 'Rocky' and you cry at 'Brian's Song,' " he says with mock gruffness. "Those are the only three movies as a guy that you're allowed to cry at."

Even minus the film's picturesque scenes — the Charleston competition that ends with a splash, the honeymoon night in a dilapidated manse — "It's a Wonderful Life" has emotional wallop. Maybe the door of imagination swings a little wider when there's only dialogue to absorb our attention.

The actors seem surprised by their reactions when the first one-hour reading concludes.

"I think I've seen the movie twice," says Wedes. "But as we were reading it aloud, I really felt something; I was chilled at times."

Banel, who's directing tonight's production, has made a few minor changes to the original text. For instance, it's now called "Lux SAFECO MOHAI Radio Theatre" in recognition of another current museum benefactor.

There's a certain symmetry to such modifications. Interspersed throughout the three acts of "It's a Wonderful Life" are commercials on behalf of Lux soap. These gushing endorsements take the form of interviews with young starlets who, inevitably, use Lux. Other alterations are a bow to sound. The immortal exclamation "Zuzu's petals!" has been changed to "Zuzu's bell!" so a tiny tinkle can be heard.

The real "Lux Radio Theatre" broadcast from 1934 to 1955, and then tried to adapt to the times, becoming "Lux Video Theatre" on television until 1957.

Many stars willingly reprised their film roles on radio for the show's $5,000 fee: Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Dick Powell and of course, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.

The "It's a Wonderful Life" script, which Banel traced to the J. Walter Thompson archives at Duke University, also contains some minor revelations for fans.

For example, Bedford Falls — which in the movie could be Anywhere-With-Snow, USA — is placed in upstate New York. There are references to Elmira and other nearby cities.

What isn't explained anywhere is the disappearance of the once-ubiquitous Lux brand. Calls to Unilever reaped no response as of this writing, paving the way for perhaps another radio play: "The Vanishing Bar of Lux Soap."

Kay McFadden: kmcfadden@seattletimes.com.

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