Times Staff Writer

Imagine an evening with Cary Grant: Picture him sitting on a high wooden bar stool, one leg elegantly placed above the other, a thatch of white hair framing the familiar square face, taking questions. And, ever so candidly, answering them. Or deflecting them, like stray lint, with humor.

Grant, who has nearly as many movies (72) to his credit as he has years (81), telling why "with all due respect to dear Ingrid (Bergman)," he preferred Grace Kelly. She had "serenity." Grant, saying he has learned to "develop a skin like a rhino" when it comes to scandal sheets, yet elaborating about his medically supervised experience two decades ago with LSD. It "dispelled my fears."

Grant, talking about his daughter, Jennifer (by his fourth wife, Dyan Cannon). She's 18, a student at Stanford. He doesn't care what her career will be "as long as she majors in being happy." And how, Cary Grant, is it that you keep so fit? Is there some nutritional secret?

"No," Grant says with perfect timing, "not a damn thing. I just breathe in--and out. . . . I don't smoke. . . . Do everything in moderation. Except making love."

That's the way it was Friday night at the La Mirada Civic Theatre. Grant, who fashioned an art form playing straight man to stars in romantic comedies, made the packed 1,264-seat house seem as intimate as a family room.

The event opened on a note of giddiness. Mere mention of a favorite Grant movie, from "Notorious" to "Father Goose," drew applause or at least murmurs of approval. Toward the end of his hour and a half onstage, Grant introduced his wife, Barbara, whom he married nearly four years ago, sitting "there in the sixth row" with her "good friend, 'Dear Abby.' "

It was mostly a pre-Yuppie audience, but there was a smattering of other ages. They paid good money too--$22.50 for an orchestra seat, $18.50 for the balcony. It was the kind of crowd that appreciated Grant's one-word answer to a serious question: Why did Hitchcock make so many suspense films?

"Money," Grant said.

Such is the popularity of this "one-man show," which opens with a rerun of Grant receiving a special Oscar in 1970, that it was a sellout three days after mailings were sent. How did this suburban theater--a plush 8-year-old cranberry-velvet-seat house in the middle of a shopping mall--draw Grant? "We pursued him," said producing director Tom Mitze happily. "We sent brochures."

Grant as much as said he will make no more movies: "Put that in your 'fat-chance' department. I'm tired of tripping over cables." But he gets "a kick" out of these occasional evenings: a while ago in Cupertino, January in San Francisco and Wednesday in Bridges Auditorium at Claremont Colleges. He called the performances "ego-fodder."

His fans lapped that up too.

The actor, now an MGM board member and a director of a cosmetics company (Faberge), seemed to delight in poking fun at his age, at himself, at makeup. "I think the extent of (the use of) makeup is the extent of insecurity."

Talking about his daughter he said they had a really good relationship. "We level with each other. I know when she's looking at me she's not thinking, 'I wonder if I can get this old goat for a BMW.' "

Grant played on the intimacy of the evening, at one point comparing his movies to his audience's home movies and noting how hard it is to view the heartlessness of a camera. "Those bags under my eyes are larger than your bunions."

There were serious notes too. Asked about the impact the blacklist had on him in the '50s, he replied: "How it affected me personally? Not at all. I was very sorry about the witch hunt going on. . . . Clifford Odets, one of my closest and dearest friends, (was in trouble) because he had associated with Communists. I think it affected all of us because many of the writers of that age were Communists . . . or had associated with. . . . "

Odets had directed Grant in "None but the Lonely Heart" (1944) for which the actor received an Oscar nomination. He lost out to Bing Crosby in "Going My Way."

As for his experimentation with LSD, which he was quick to say he no longer advocates because "it is illegal," Grant explained, as he had done years earlier in Look magazine: "I know that I became happier because of it. Also I lost a lot of the fears that I had . . . the hypocrisy. I did it under good supervision, medical doctors. . . .

"Like anything else that's good for you," he added, "they take it away, or they use it for warfare. . . . Let me explain about LSD, by the way, and how it can be used for warfare. It's colorless, odorless and quite indistinguishable from water. If it's ever dropped in the dams . . ."

By this time his audience had grown subdued. "Oh that's a bore, isn't it?" he said lightly. He had them back on track.

Grant, touching upon the matter of death, managed to infuse that with humor too. He said that his mother, Elsie Leach, had died one afternoon just after she had taken some tea from a housekeeper. "My mother was a remarkable woman. My mother died at 95--claiming to be 93. . . . I often wonder how I'm going to do it. Do you ever wonder how you are going to do it, whether you are going to embarrass someone or do it in your sleep?"

He said that when his father, Elias Leach, was dying, he told Grant how very important Grant's movies were to him. "I feel I can go down and touch you," Leach said.

Friday night, an elderly woman in a wheelchair, who had come in from a nursing home in Duarte, was the only one in the theater who actually got to touch Grant. There was a ban on tape recorders and photos from the audience. She raised her hand and wanted to know if she could take Grant's picture to show the other patients.

"Won't they believe you were here?" he asked her.

"But they may not believe you were here," she retorted, and he invited her to come down and say hello.

Once more Cary Grant let himself play straight man.

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