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THEATER : ‘Strike Up the Band’ Skips the Nixon Years : Civic Light Opera show at the presidential library focuses on show-tune medleys, patriotic standards and themes from TV commercials and early-'60s sitcoms.

They played Richard Nixon’s favorite song Saturday at the first-ever live-entertainment production at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, but anyone hoping for a musical recollection of Nixon’s presidential years was otherwise disappointed.

Instead of songs recounting the turbulent administration--one that, in the view of Nixon library displays, forged the environmental movement, achieved peace with honor in Vietnam and presaged American victory in the Cold War--the Yorba Linda Civic Light Opera’s “Strike Up the Band” focused on medleys of show tunes, patriotic standards and, oddly, live performances of themes from television commercials and sitcoms from the early 1960s, when Nixon’s nemesis, John F. Kennedy, was President.

The revue included some songs that might discomfort loyal Americans--"Dixie,” the tune that symbolizes rebellion against the Stars and Stripes--to the general exclusion of records from 1969 to 1974, when Nixon served as President and was a frequent subject of pop, rock and folk music lyrics.

Nevertheless, officials of the library said they believed that the show would have delighted the former President, who now lives in New Jersey and was unable to attend the performance.

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“He’s a big fan of traditional, old-fashioned patriotic music,” said the privately run facility’s director, John H. Taylor. “And it’s widely known around the world that ‘God Bless America’ is his favorite song. They played it for him in China, you know.” (During his presidency, however, Nixon also expressed a special fondness for Guy Drake’s 1970 country hit “Welfare Cadilac” (sic) and once invited Merle Haggard to the White House to sing his anti-hippie ode, “Okie From Muskogee.”)

Indeed, many in the audience shared the former President’s taste, as Jim Trebilcox’s rendition of the Irving Berlin hit garnered the loudest applause. Audience enthusiasm did not seem muted by the fact that the production occurred on a bare stage without sets and with no band to strike up--a recorded soundtrack provided backing for the 19 amateur dancers and singers, who sometimes could not be heard over the theater’s sound system.

“It’s all very nice,” said Carol Ann Tassios, the Yorba Linda city librarian and one of many local officials attending opening night.

Some, however, were concerned that “Strike Up the Band"--which, strangely, did not include the titular George and Ira Gershwin number--just was not American enough.

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“I expected more of those World War I and World War II songs, more of those songs about America that bring tears to your eyes,” said Rosemary Ramirez, 43, of Yorba Linda. “There just wasn’t as much patriotism as I expected.”

But to a group of European tourists who happened to be visiting Yorba Linda, “Strike Up the Band” offered an intriguing glimpse into a corner of the American psyche.

“It was astonishing,” said Christian Hoedl, 27, an Austrian attorney. “The patriotism this shows is quite unusual. At home, we don’t have these kinds of shows.”

Added Bertha Presa, 31, of Madrid: “The idea that all these people gather around this one idea of the flag is very interesting. We don’t have any songs about the red and yellow in my country,” she said, referring to the colors of the Spanish flag. Not only do Spaniards never sing their national anthem, Presa observed, they can’t; the “Marcha Real” has no lyrics.

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“In Spain, you see, we don’t celebrate our country or feel united by it. We feel we should try to criticize the way things are done.”

Nevertheless, Presa, an attorney, said she found American patriotism, as it is practiced in Orange County, attractive; years ago, Presa had spent time as an exchange student at UC Irvine, she said, and her good feelings for the United States led her to select July 4 as the date of her wedding two years ago.

Her Yorba Linda host, Alice Armstrong, had suggested they attend “Strike Up the Band” as a chance to see something “real American.” Armstrong had an appropriate conclusion in mind for a night that began with a recorded medley described by the program as “Yankee Doodle-Stars and Stripes-Grand Old Flag.”

“Now we’re going to go out and have some apple pie,” she said.

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* “Strike Up the Band: A Musical Review (sic) of Our Country’s Best Loved Music,” presented by the Yorba Linda Civic Light Opera, continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 6:30 p.m. through Sept. 1. Tickets: $10, including admission to the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, 18001 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda. The library opens 90 minutes before the performance for patrons. Information: (714) 779-1932.


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