Will Work for Milk and Cookies

Lynne Heffley is a Times staff writer

If you've ever taken your preschooler to one of the fairy-tale musicals that play Saturday afternoons at a small theater near Studio City, you may not realize that the affable man handing you a program or smiling a welcome is one of Hollywood's higher-profile producer-writers.

Lloyd J. Schwartz, whose credits include both "Brady Bunch" movies and scads of other TV shows and films, is as likely to be found at those modest, decidedly low-profile Storybook Theatre matinees as he is making studio deals.

Show-biz veteran Schwartz, 50, the son and creative partner of prolific writer-producer Sherwood Schwartz, has been involved with the nonprofit Storybook Theatre ever since his wife, actress Barbara Mallory-Schwartz, sparked its creation at Theatre West 11 years ago. He is usually on hand with her to gauge audience reaction to the shows.

The couple talked about why children's theater has become their avocation, after a recent matinee performance of "Aladdin and His Lamp," at West Hollywood's Roxy Theatre, a new second venue for their shows. Another Storybook Theatre musical, "The Emperor's New Clothes," plays Saturdays at Theatre West.

"Well, part of it is you go through school and there the grading system is A's, Bs and Cs," Schwartz said, "and then you graduate and the grading system becomes how much you make a year and whether you're famous or not. But what is important is the little message we have in our play: Is it worth doing and is it the right thing to do?

"I've turned down many deals," Schwartz said, "because this is more important to me," something that puzzles many of his Hollywood peers. "People come up and ask, 'Why are you doing it? Why are you handing out a program to a 5-year-old when you have a meeting with the president of Paramount?' Yeah, I do all that other thing," he said, "but there are other rewards than just profit and grosses."

Storybook Theatre is Mallory-Schwartz's "baby," born after she tried to find live shows suitable for the couple's then-4-year-old son, Andrew. (He's now 15 and carrying on the family tradition by manning the box office and serving as sometime assistant director. The couple's 7-year-old, Elliot, is a ticket taker and budding actor.)

"I say, if we lived on a farm they'd be milking a cow," Mallory-Schwartz said. "Instead, they go to the theater."

Disappointed by limited children's theater options, she asked her husband to "write a show for me."

"All our friends are actors," she said, "so we asked some of them to be in the show and we rented a Studio City park and did a weekend."

The show was such a success that Theatre West, where Mallory-Schwartz is a member, invited the couple to do another there, and then a season. They've never left, doing weekend shows, outreach programs for schools and charity work. They are also advisors for Theatre West's new performance series, now in the planning stages, targeting older children.

Schwartz, who writes most of the shows and lyrics and sometimes the music too, said he defers to his wife about what's right for their young audiences.

"Barbara provided all the rules in terms of what she thought children's theater should be, in terms of how long the acts should be, in terms of attention span, having the lights up and all those kinds of things. It is her guiding spirit that keeps that going."

Mallory-Schwartz's knowledge comes from firsthand experience. Although her TV roles are an incongruous contrast--she was Squeaky Fromme in "Helter Skelter," and "I always seem to play drug addicts possessed by devils," she said--the youthful 48-year-old, with bobbed blond hair and a piquant, waifish look, came out of the esteemed Minneapolis Children's Theatre.

"Most of our audience is probably about 5 or 6 years old," she said. "There's so much out there that I feel is not appropriate for [that age]. So we're very careful to tell stories with elements that are going to be very comfortable for a 5-year-old."

Said Schwartz: "We want to be everybody's first play, so we're very simple in terms of message. There's not much conflict--a lot of times, for the audience, the conflict is just going to the theater. It's a big thing. So we try to be very nonthreatening. The evil people are always done with a smile, and they always reform."

Audience participation is key.

"We say we're like the 'Rocky Horror Picture Show' of children's theater," Mallory-Schwartz joked, "where they come several times and start dressing like the characters or they tell their friends, 'This is the part where you get to go onstage,' and they're waiting in the aisles."

The casting (the actors are adult members of Actors Equity) is done with that in mind.

"Even though we cast for talent, we also cast for what we call the niceness factor," Mallory-Schwartz stressed. "When people audition for us, they have to be really comfortable with children, really kind."

"The kids are first," Schwartz agreed. "If a child has a problem or starts to cry, you deal with the child. There's no rush to our plays, no 'we gotta get to our next line.' We want the kids to come along on the journey with us."

Schwartz, whose next film is "Gilligan's Island: The Motion Picture," said he is able to write the shows by "doing a little bit at a time; I have it ready about six months in advance." And planning for the unexpected is part of the rehearsal process, he said, noting: "We build that in, so the actors have answers in situations where things could conceivably go wrong."

Mallory-Schwartz, meanwhile, produces, directs some shows, acts in others, watches for children who are "desperate" to get up onstage who might be overlooked and oversees every element of the productions, even the juice and cookies served at intermission.

"It's never to the point that it's not important," she said. "If we ever get there, we should quit."


"ALADDIN AND HIS LAMP," Roxy Theatre, 9009 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Dates: Saturdays and Sundays, 1 p.m. (lunch available). Indefinitely. Prices: $8-$10. Phone: (310) 550-8651.

"THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES," Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. W. Dates: Saturdays, 1 p.m.; also Dec. 15, 1 p.m. Indefinitely. Price: $8. Phone: (818) 761-2203.

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