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Gerald Carpenter: Ojai Art Center Theater Goes ‘Live’ with ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

Phillip Grecian adapts the film into a 'live radio' version, running through Dec. 18

The Ojai Art Center Theater will present a “live radio” version of Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life.

Playwright Phillip Grecian adapted It’s a Wonderful Life to the radio/stage.
Playwright Phillip Grecian adapted It’s a Wonderful Life to the radio/stage.

It’s adapted by Phillip Grecian, directed by Gai Jones, and stars Peter Fox, Karen Orser, Brittany Danyel, Claudia Davoli, John Hankins, Maureen McKnight, Steve Grumette, Joyce McWilliams, Neva Williams, Mel Burckes, Kim Hoj, Ed Buckle, Marilyn Lazik and Kat Payseno.

“Live radio” means, presumably, that what you see when you get to the theater will be not a staged play, but a reconstructed live radio broadcast from the late 1940s — you will be the “live studio audience.”

It’s a Wonderful Life began as a short story, The Greatest Gift, written in 1943 by Philip Van Doren Stern. When Stern couldn’t find a magazine to publish the story, he had a number of copies printed up as pamphlets and sent them off to his friends and relations as holiday gifts. One of the pamphlets found its way to a producer at RKO, who showed it to Cary Grant, who expressed interest and RKO bought the rights for $10,000 in 1944.

After several screenwriters had tried to do a screen treatment and failed, RKO sold the rights to Capra’s production company for the same $10,000. Meanwhile, The Greatest Gift was published in book form, with illustrations by Rafaello Busoni in December 1944. In the same month, Stern sold the story to both Reader’s Scope magazine, and to Good Housekeeping, which published it under the title The Man Who Was Never Born.

Then, Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart, and it opened to a surprisingly lukewarm reception in 1946. It has since, of course, become a classic and one of the best-loved perennials of the Christmas season.

It’s a Wonderful Lifeis like A Christmas Carol in that both are set on Christmas Eve and involve protagonists whose lives have either stalled or gone in absolutely the wrong direction and are in need of a supernatural fix. The difference is in the characters of the protagonists themselves.

Unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, who sacrificed all his relationships to his quest for wealth, George Bailey has, time and again, sacrificed himself and his happiness for the people he loves. He doesn’t, like the archetypal skinflint of Dickens’ tale, need to change his ways, but to change his perception of himself, so that he can see all the positive difference he has made to everyone, just because he was there to help exactly when they needed it. George is already a good man, a good husband and father, a good brother and an honest, altruistic businessman — he just needs to believe it. Enter Clarence, novice angel, hoping to earn his wings by saving George. He shows George what his world would be like if he had never been born.

It’s a Wonderful Life shows at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 18. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for Art Center members and seniors age 62 or older, and $10 for youths. For reservations, click here or call 805.640.8797.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer.

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