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Actors Get a Glowing Review in Classroom

TIMES STAFF WRITER

O nce upon a time in deep winter when the snowflakes were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen was sitting at a window with a black ebony frame. . . .

Once upon a time--this very month, in fact--on a gray drizzly afternoon at Hart St. School in Canoga Park, about 25 second-and third-graders sat on an apple-green carpet in the library. The children listened intently as actor Lev Mailer, seated in front of them, read the original tale of Snow White.

No, he had warned at the beginning, this was not the Walt Disney version.

He showed them two books, one full of old fairy tales, the other a modernized, abbreviated version full of Disney illustrations.

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He would read from the picture book later, he promised, “but first we’re gonna work your imaginations.”

Everybody’s imagination seemed in working order.

Mailer gave a virtuoso performance, hamming it up with the characters, and his extremes were never too much for his listeners.

They were a ready chorus for “mirror, mirror on the wall” sequences. They giggled and poked each other as the wicked stepmother called for Snow White’s death; they cried “Ugh!” and “Yummy” when the queen was tricked into eating the innards of a wild boar; one boy called out, “No way” when the poison apple was offered.

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And, as if rehearsed, the children tah dah, tah dahed the tune of “Here Comes the Bride” when Mailer announced Snow White’s wedding to the prince.

Mailer, a film and television actor who most recently has done off-camera voices for “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West,” is among a growing number of actors volunteering for the new in-school reading program of the Screen Actors Guild Foundation.

Actress Barbara Bain, of “Mission Impossible” fame, came up with the idea. Bain had been reading to children, she says, at a day-care program in Santa Monica:

“It was in a park and I sat on the ground and just read to them. I found it incredibly enjoyable, exhilarating really.”

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Never one to “leave well enough alone,” she says, she approached the foundation, wondering if others among the area’s 35,000 SAG members would join her.

It took the foundation 3 1/2 minutes to say yes, she says. A grant of about $15,000 from the Ahmanson Foundation covers administration and coordination.

“And no more is needed. That’s all it takes,” says Bain, now a regular reader at Westminster School in Venice.

For Mailer, that is one of the program’s high points: “I realize the contribution I’m making is to a generation, and maybe a second generation, of kids who have no contact with the written word.”

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There is a lot of pleasure, he says, in being a storyteller--"a great tradition in any culture.” But, he admits, the kids give his energy a workout.

Jay Julian, program coordinator, says the response from actors has been terrific. The program started in November and sends readers once a week to 13 schools. The foundation hopes to add more schools.

“There’s been a terrific response from the kids too,” he says. “Some have never had anybody read to them. Hopefully, we’ll get them interested in improving their reading skills.”

For now, at the suggestion of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, the foundation has teamed up with L.A.'s Best, an after-school educational, enrichment and recreation program already in place in 19 of L.A. Unified’s schools.

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Joey Safdeye, site coordinator for L.A.'s Best at Hart Street, said children who enroll can remain at the school until 6 p.m., participating in supervised activities and getting tutoring in the homework lab.

Clearly, the Hart Street kids already love the program.

The multicultural, multilingual group of kids had arrived at the library looking rambunctious. But as soon as Safdeye said to them, “OK, let’s show your best library manners,” it was as if he had waved the magic wand of storytelling. They tiptoed in as quietly as church mice.

After Snow White, Mailer moved on to Walt Disney and “101 Dalmatians,” but only after one tactical error: He told the kids they could pick the story from the illustrated book.

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The young people knew their Disney. A sea of hands had gone up representing those who had seen, or were going to see, the newly released “Beauty and the Beast.”

Now, for a few cacophonous seconds, shouted titles battled in the air: “The Little Mermaid,” “Bambi,” “Cinderella,” “101 Dalmatians,” “Beauty and the Beast.” When they couldn’t reach consensus, Mailer exercised his prerogative as a grown-up.

Quickly, though, the kids gave themselves over to the Dalmatians. Mailer is a trained actor, but the kids easily matched his “arfs,” “yips,” and “woof woofs.” Likewise, his range of snooty British accents.

“Beautiful,” whispered Hart Street Principal Diana Villafana, who had stolen into the back of the room.

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The minute Mailer opened this book, the group moved in on him, hovering over his knees, poring over the pictures. One young girl exclaimed about a girl dog: “That’s the bonita !”

Toward the end, a loud bell interrupted the story.

Mailer looked up, questioningly.

“We have to go for our snack,” a boy told him, “ porque tengo hambre --because I’m hungry.”

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“OK,” Mailer said with a good-natured smile. “I’ve only got two pages left.”

When he finished, the children did not rush the door. They walked out cheerily, the good time registered on their faces. A few lingered, rewarding Mailer not so much with thanks as with shy entreaties for a last look at the book.

They were not quite ready to leave never-never land.


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