The release of the latest Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, is bringing back some warm Hollywood memories for Perth resident and Classic Theatre Festival Associate Producer Matthew Behrens, who lived in the City of Angels for a decade.
“Both my parents were actors, and my Dad, Bunny Behrens, was chosen to play the role of Obi Wan Kenobi in a series of radio productions of Star Wars for National Public Radio in the early1980s,” Matthew recalls. “The pay was nothing to write home about but the experience was great, because he got to work with some terrific performers, including some of the original Star Wars actors.”
Among those who gathered around a Studio City microphone with Behrens were Mark Hamill, reprising his Luke Skywalker role, and Anthony Daniels, the quirky English chap who created the role of C-3PO on film. With James Earl Jones unavailable for the Darth Vader character, that role was filled by veteran Hollywood actor Brock Peters (who played Tom Robinson in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird). Behrens had previously worked with James Earl Jones on a forgettable satire of pirate films, Swashbuckler, along with fellow Canadian Genevieve Bujold.
The multi-year series recreated the stories of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi, airing on NPR stations across the United States at a time when some radio networks still broadcast evening comedies and mysteries.
“Each new series would be launched with a reception at the amazing Griffith Park observatory in Los Angeles which, if you have never been there, you’ve probably seen in a multitude of Hollywood movies, including many scenes in James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause,” Matthew remembers. “So the place was dripping with history. As the lights dimmed, the ceiling of the observatory would become a starscape and, in the dark, we would listen to the first episode, just like people used to do when radio was the main source of entertainment in North America.”
Matthew Behrens lived in the same neighbourhood as the The Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, a retirement home for performers, and recalls seeing some of the legendary actors of the 30s and 40s in their sunset years across the street at the El Camino Shopping centre. “Mae Clark (who got a grapefruit in the kisser from Jimmy Cagney), and Gale Sondergaard, who was Bride of Frankenstein, were often shopping for shoes and I got a wee peak at these folks who were still larger than life figures who carried themselves with such class and dignity.”
Behrens recalls that Sondergaard, in particular, also carried with her the weight of a bleak era in Hollywood documented in another new Hollywood release, Trumbo, which recreates the Red Scare blacklist period. During that time, premature ends were brought both her own film career and that of her husband, director Herbert Biberman (who, with Dalton Trumbo, was one of the Hollywood Ten group of writers and directors blacklisted for standing up against racism and being labeled “premature anti-fascists” for opposing Hitler in Spain).
“Being in Hollywood from the mid-70s to the mid-80s was a fascinating time because there were still connections to the golden age of Hollywood,” says Behrens, who adds that his love of that era carries over into his passion for the Classic Theatre Festival, which next summer will be producing its 7th season of plays from that same golden era that appeared on Broadway and the London Stage.
“Next year’s Neil Simon comedy, I Ought to Be In Pictures, particularly strikes a chord with me, because he is writing about the same Hollywood I was living in during the late 70s,” Behrens says. The 2016 CTF season is expanding to include three mainstage shows, with the Simon comedy being followed by George Bernard Shaw’s satire, Arms and the Man, and the gripping J.B. Priestley mystery, An Inspector Calls.
The Festival’s Holiday Sale runs until December 31 (pre-purchasing tickets generates savings of up to 25% with the freedom to pick dates next year). It is also collecting funds for its charitable Save-a-Seat program, which has opened up over 1,000 free seats to low-income and socially marginalized community members. The fund is named for his parents, Deborah Cass and Bunny Behrens.
To order discounted holiday sale tickets for 2016 or to donate to the Save-a-Seat program, visit classictheatre.ca or call 1-877-283-1283.