Times Staff Writer

A funny thing happened to Connie Goldman on the way to the grave: She discovered that everyone else was headed in that direction too.

Rarely a day passes in Sun City, Ariz., without a grim reaper visiting somewhere in the vast retirement community. But Goldman, who recently wrapped up her latest radio documentary on geriatric sociology in Sun City, depicts death and disability more as a nuisance than a tragedy.

"When you hear about Sun City, the most well-known retirement community in the country I guess, you hear people say, 'Oh, God! What's it like there, waiting in the sun to die?' " Goldman told The Times recently.

Nobody's waiting, Goldman has discovered. There's too much to do and precious little time to get it done to waste it waiting in the sun.

She has made it her mission in life to expose American culture's dirty little secret about retirement and crawling off to Sun City to die. Hearses and crepe rarely creep into the former National Public Radio reporter's radio documentaries.

Her current series of 13 half-hour interviews with aging American artists, "I'm Too Busy to Talk Now" (airing Tuesdays at 1:30 p.m. over KCRW-FM (89.9) ), is strong testimony to the creative lust that powers and plagues everyone, but especially artists and--literally--to their last gasp.

Artist Alice Neel, who died late last year at age 84 shortly after Goldman finished interviewing her, had this to say in "I'm Too Busy to Talk Now" about growing old gracefully:

"I painted a nude of myself when I was 80. I didn't paint it to shock, I just made myself as is. I'd rather be called insane at 80 than to be called vain, making myself beautiful."

Singer Burl Ives, 75; director John Huston, 78, and "Casablanca" screenwriter Julius Epstein, 75, are just as passionate in the series about defending themselves against stereotyping.

Playwright and radio pioneer Norman Corwin, now a 74-year-old visiting professor at the USC School of Journalism, talked with Goldman about Michelangelo, George Bernard Shaw and Giuseppi Verdi--all examples of artists who hit their stride in their twilight years. Corwin's own father, he told Goldman, is as spry a 107-year-old as you would find.

And, in today's installment of the series, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stanley Kunitz has this to say about the golden bliss of retirement living: "The artist is never retired. The obligations, the excitement, the adventure, all that is just as alive. I am now 78. There's no difference except for maybe on the plus side at my age." Armed with a tape recorder and the typical measure of tender pity that the young feel for their waning elders, Goldman found during her nine-year stint as a reporter for NPR's "All Things Considered" that a lot of the American mind-set about aging is--excuse the expression--dead wrong.

"Nobody ever taught anybody about growing old," she told The Times. "We are in a youth-oriented culture. But by the turn of the century, 35% of the people in the U.S. are going to be over 65."

As much to her own surprise as that of her NPR listeners, Goldman found that death and disability are a damned nuisance to most older Americans, but hardly their sole obsession.

Two years ago, after claiming the fine art of getting old in America as her journalistic beat on "All Things Considered," Goldman quit to devote full time to documenting the graying of America. She formed her own nonprofit production company and set out grant-hunting. The Sun City project, for example, is funded in part by the Arizona Department on Aging.

There's a book in all of this, she theorizes. If Gail Sheehy can attain best-sellerdom telling young America how to grow middle-aged in "Passages," how about telling the middle-aged how to grow old?

But that will have to wait, she said: "Maybe I'll get around to writing it when I know enough." For the moment, however, Goldman said she's too young and callow to sit at a typewriter and bang out a book.

"I just turned 54," she said. "Happy birthday to me!"

SHORT STUFF: KFWB-AM (980) sponsors its annual tax advice day Wednesday from 4 to 6 p.m. Tax experts answer listeners' income-tax preparation questions off the air. Call 466-9806. . . . The KNX-AM (1070) "Drama Hour" has expanded from five to seven days a week. Old-time radio dramaphiles can now get everything from "Gangbusters" to "Sgt. Preston of the Yukon" from 9 to 10 p.m. any day of the week. . . . "Entertainment Coast to Coast," the weekly CBS Radio Network news magazine that could find no Los Angeles station to call home when it debuted two weeks ago, was finally picked up by KKHR-FM (93.1) this week. The hourlong audio counterpart of TV's "Entertainment Tonight" airs at 11 p.m. Sundays. . . . NPR's "Duck's Breath Mystery Theater" troupe will be appearing in person Friday and Saturday at Santa Monica's At My Place nightspot at 8 p.m.

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