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Keeping ‘Radio Gals’ on the Dial : Co-creator Mark Hardwick’s death from AIDS could have ended the play’s journey to Pasadena. Mike Craver made sure it didn’t.

<i> Don Shirley is a Times staff writer</i>

The “Oil City Symphony” came to Pasadena, Poway and Santa Barbara in 1992-93. It tickled connoisseurs of Americana with its gentle spoof of small-town baby boomers returning home to perform in a corny concert at their high school reunion. At the Pasadena Playhouse, it was the biggest hit of 1992.

Now, three of the four cast members from that production are back at the Playhouse with a new show, “Radio Gals,” opening today.

The only missing cast member from “Oil City” is a co-creator of both shows, Mark Hardwick. He died in late 1993 of AIDS.

Hardwick “didn’t feel very good” during the California performances of “Oil City,” recalled Mike Craver, the other co-creator of both shows and Hardwick’s “best friend and life partner,” in Craver’s words. Hardwick already had gone through an AIDS-associated bout of pneumocystis carninii pneumonia. “But he was an amazingly strong trouper.”

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Shortly after “Oil City” closed in Santa Barbara, Craver and Hardwick did the premiere of “Radio Gals” at Arkansas Repertory Theatre. Set in a small town in Arkansas on April 18, 1927, “Radio Gals” depicts the morning broadcast of a retired music teacher who now runs a radio station out of her parlor, as she tries to fend off a government regulator.

In that first production in Little Rock, Craver and Hardwick played Azilee and Mabel Swindle, respectively--two female friends and piano-playing colleagues of the renegade radio gal. They had planned to cast women in these roles, Craver recalled, but they were so strapped for time by their obligations to “Oil City” in California that they decided it would be easier to play the parts themselves.

So they donned ‘20s old-biddy attire. Craver, who continues to play the role in the current production, said he doesn’t think of himself “in drag"--"I guess there’s a little old lady inside me.”

“I wish you could have seen him,” said Craver of Hardwick’s Mabel Swindle. “He’d cross his legs and wiggle his feet so that his foot was like the eighth character in the show.” The men were padded in the appropriate places, of course, and at one performance, one of Hardwick’s fake bosoms fell out while he was doing a dance step.

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During the Arkansas run, Pasadena Playhouse executive director Lars Hansen saw the show and began thinking of bringing it to California. Meanwhile, Hardwick and Craver planned to carry on as Mabel and Azilee in Hardwick’s staging of “Radio Gals” at Blowing Rock Stage Co. in Blowing Rock, N.C. But by then Hardwick was too sick to go on, and an understudy stepped in to serve as Craver’s onstage partner.

After the show closed at Blowing Rock, Hardwick and Craver returned to their home in New York to begin rewrites. But soon Hardwick entered the hospital and “never came out,” Craver said.

Craver didn’t work for nearly a year before and after Hardwick’s death. But he didn’t forget about “Radio Gals.” Another co-creator and original cast member of “Oil City,” Debra Monk, helped with the rewrites. Craver continued working on the script after moving back to his hometown of Reeds Crossroads, N.C. (population less than 300), where he moved in with his widowed mother.

Last year he returned to the stage in productions of “Oil City,” and in November “Radio Gals” went up again at Cape Fear Regional Theater in Fayetteville, N.C. “We needed a workshop before Pasadena, where the stakes are higher,” Craver said.

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During the Arkansas production of “Radio Gals,” Craver said, he couldn’t imagine doing the show without Hardwick. “His personality and spirit were such a part of it.” But now Craver says the current production’s Mabel, Mark Nadler, who was found at a California audition, has “worked out just fine.”

When he met Hardwick, Craver was a member of the Red Clay Ramblers, a band that often performed on “A Prairie Home Companion” and other public radio programs--his most direct tie to the situation that’s dramatized on “Radio Gals.”

The Ramblers also performed in Off Broadway shows, and one of them, Sam Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind,” led Craver to settle in New York. Once there, he parted company with the Ramblers and began his personal and professional association with Hardwick. “Oil City” ran Off Broadway for a year and a half.

But like his characters in both “Oil City” and “Radio Gals,” Craver, 46, has now left the big city for his small-town roots.

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It was in Reeds Crossroads that he learned to play the piano from his mother and the “Teaching Little Fingers How to Play” series. His father, too, taught violin when he wasn’t busy delivering the mail. It’s no coincidence that a music teacher is honored in “Oil City” and another one is the heroine of “Radio Gals.”

Craver went through the requisite teen rebellion, playing in rock bands and “loving anything that was different” from Reeds Crossroads--"where everyone knew more than they needed to know about everyone else.” But now he finds it “nourishing” to return home. “There is something about being where you first saw the light that feels right.”

The Craver-Hardwick plays try to evoke this sense of affection for the old hometown (Hardwick grew up in several small towns in eastern Texas and his funeral was in one of them, Hughes Springs). But they don’t overlook the “off-center” qualities sometimes found in these environs, and they include elements of what Craver calls “self-deprecation.”

For example, when asked why “Radio Gals” is a stage play instead of a radio play, Craver talked, with a smile in his voice, of the look of the era--"the ladies in flapper frocks and big, horned-rim glasses, carrying these guitars, or the way the early recording studios looked like parlors, with big pots of palms.” He said the “Little Fingers” piano curriculum was “wonderful, beyond kitschy.”

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But the Craver-Hardwick plays don’t bite into small-town characters in the same style as, say, the “Greater Tuna” shows, which also have been seen at the Pasadena Playhouse (but which Craver hasn’t seen). Instead, Craver said, his and Hardwick’s work is all about “remembering the things that were funny--and not remembering the things that were more complicated."*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Vital Stats

“Radio Gals”

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Address: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena

Hours: Today, 5 p.m. Regular schedule: Tue.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 5 and 9 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Feb. 19.

Tickets: $33.50; (818) 356-PLAY.


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