Stepping into the stars of Tinseltown

UCI production has actors filling the larger-than-life shoes of old Hollywood.

November 29, 2012|By Michael Miller
  • Actors rehearse scenes from "Tinseltown Christmas" at UC Irvine's Claire Trevor Theatre on Saturday.
Actors rehearse scenes from "Tinseltown Christmas"… (KEVIN CHANG, HB…)

When Madeleine Barker's fellow cast members handed her the Oscar in the Claire Trevor Theatre, she felt excited for herself and a little sad for Judy Garland.

Barker, who plays Garland in UC Irvine's upcoming musical "Tinseltown Christmas," had been busy in recent weeks studying her role, watching performances on DVD and reading about the often-turbulent life behind them. Then, during rehearsal one day, "Tinseltown" director Don Hill told the cast that he had a surprise.

That turned out to be an Oscar — the one Eileen Heckart won in 1972 for Best Supporting Actress in "Butterflies Are Free." Hill, whose husband, Luke Yankee, is Heckart's son, let the actors pass around it for inspiration.

As Barker held the Academy Award, she realized she was enjoying a moment that mostly eluded Garland. The actress got a special Juvenile Award for her role in "The Wizard of Oz," but went home empty-handed in competitive categories.


"Judy, she never received an Oscar," said Barker, an undergraduate majoring in musical theater. "So it was kind of strange to hold that and know that she never got a chance to have it.

"Everyone thought she was going to get one for 'A Star Is Born,' but it went to Grace Kelly for 'The Country Girl.' And then, when Liza [Minnelli] won one for 'Cabaret,' she said, 'This is for Mom.' So it was interesting holding it and feeling the weight and feeling the history and the love behind it, and knowing that that was something she never experienced."

In researching Garland, James Stewart, Natalie Wood and Bing Crosby, the cast of "Tinseltown Christmas" got to know their characters, not just as stars, but as seasoned professionals — Oscar heartbreaks, stage parents and all. It's somehow fitting, then, that the play features a story in which the four actors return as ghosts to spread Christmas cheer because ... well, it's their job.


Film history — with a wink

Like more than a few Hollywood scripts, "Tinseltown Christmas" took a stop-and-start journey on its way toward production.

Playwright Chana Wise (first name pronounced "HAH-na") got the original premise from the Academy for New Musical Theatre in North Hollywood, which had held a brainstorming session and come up with an idea about movie star ghosts visiting a lonely woman on Christmas Eve. Wise, a member of the academy, sent a one-paragraph pitch to UCI, which encouraged her to develop a 15-minute sample.

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