Ready for Prime Time, This Troupe Plays Just for Fun

Times Staff Writer

There's something distinctive about the Ready for Prime Time Players, a South Bay community theater troupe that acts for the fun of it.

Regardless of the roles they're playing, no one in the cast will ever see 50 again. Only people past the half-century mark may audition.

"What we say in this company is that age is something that happens to us," said director Frances Fenimore of Rancho Palos Verdes, who describes herself as a "professional amateur" who acted and directed while raising her children.

"We challenge ourselves to develop our own creativity and tour places where there are other senior citizens our age for whom we can show there are ways to go, things to do," she said.

The group was launched 4 years ago by the Norris Theatre for the Performing Arts in Rolling Hills Estates to join seniors who want to act and to bring theater to new audiences.

"As a community of affluence, it is reasonable to use our resources for under-served areas," said Michael Putnam, the Norris Theatre's managing director. Senior organizations generally liked the idea, but did not want a "senior citizen" label.

Touring With Comedy

"So we came up with the idea of people sitting up there in the prime of their lives," Putnam said.

This season, the players are touring with the classic comedy, "Arsenic and Old Lace"--still quaintly funny after 47 years--with two of four free performances remaining: 2 p.m. today at the Little Sisters of the Poor residence, 2100 S. Western Ave., San Pedro, and 1:30 p.m. Monday at the Vermont Retirement Center, 22711 S. Vermont Ave., in the Harbor Gateway area.

Tour performances are played with a reduced set and sometimes without even a stage. But things will be more lavish when Prime Time hits the Norris on Nov. 18 and 19, where "Arsenic" will have a full set and lighting provided by the theater's professional crew. But there also will be an admission charge of $6 for adults, $4 for students and $2 for children under 12. Performances are at 8 p.m. Nov. 18 and 2:30 and 8 p.m. Nov. 19.

Putnam said the Norris is providing $10,000 for the group's productions this season, which will include a spring musical. Another $5,000 will come from a grant from Target Stores, which has supported the venture from the start.

The actors, the oldest of whom is 69, have varying amounts of theater experience--some have none at all--but Fenimore said: "All must have ability."

Don McMillen of Rancho Palos Verdes was a professional actor in New York in the early 1950s until he decided he "couldn't make a living at it" and dusted off his college degree in engineering. But he has stayed close to the greasepaint by acting and directing in community theater.

'This Part Is a Delight'

He plays the nutty brother who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt in "Arsenic and Old Lace," and this week he was still working to get his trumpet playing in shape for the charge up San Juan Hill. "This part is a delight," he said.

David and Carole Diestel play the romantic leads. The Rancho Palos Verdes couple met while performing in a high school musical, and neither had acted again until last year, when they made their Prime Time debut in the troupe's first musical, "Of Thee I Sing," a 1930s piece satirizing politics.

"What I like is going out to the residence homes and centers and performing," said Carole Diestel. "They just love it."

Barbara Walch of Rancho Palos Verdes, who is one of the balmy elderly sisters in the play, studied theater at the Pasadena Playhouse and USC and teaches drama in a Long Beach junior high school. After a day at work, she says, an evening rehearsing with Prime Time is "very invigorating, not tiring. Our esprit de corps is amazing."

From the start, Prime Time has chosen projects considered appealing to older people, including themselves. The troupe has done melodramas, a play about pioneer women, and a compilation of old radio shows that were performed script in hand, as if being broadcast live from a radio studio.

Personal Memories

Director Fenimore said everyone in the cast remembered the old radio programs. "We brought our own histories to these shows," she said. "Enthusiasm and memory is part of our company."

The group also presented an evening of Carl Sandburg poetry, as arranged years ago by Norman Corwin for a stage performance by Bette Davis and Gary Merrill.

The play about pioneer women, "Going to See the Elephant," was chosen because the main character "was the greatest risk-taker and most fearless in pursuing her life," Fenimore said. "The old lady wanted to go forward with her life, and that's what we're about."

"Arsenic and Old Lace" is the group's most ambitious play because the action is complex and there are three acts to memorize. Eight weeks of thrice-weekly rehearsals have gone into the play, and the actors have gathered on their own to perfect their parts.

Dan Finnegan, a retired school administrator who lives in Rancho Palos Verdes, said the role of the psychotic brother in "Arsenic" is his first stab at acting.

"It's taken a lot of time and work on memorization," he said. "It's a question of putting your action with your words."

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