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ZCT’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” radio show this weekend will take you back to the 1950″s

By BEN OLSON/for The Herald  —  Frank Capra embodied the American success story. Born in Italy, he arrived here with his parents when he was 5 years old. He grew up in a poor Italian neighborhood in Los Angeles, working after school to help support his family.

Capra’s early years

 Upon graduating from high school, he enrolled in Cal Tech, supporting himself by playing banjo at nightclubs and working odd jobs. He earned a degree in Chemical Engineering. He had been in ROTC during college, and with the  beginning of World War I, was commissioned  a 2nd Lieutenant. He was stationed at Fort Point near San Francisco, where he taught math to artillery troops. After contracting the Spanish Flu, he was discharged, and went home to live with his mother. Chronic abdominal pains that he suffered turned out to be an undiagnosed ruptured appendix. Upon recovery from that, he took to riding the rails and finding whatever kind of work he could throughout the American West.

In his mid 20s, he answered an ad to direct a short film. His only experience was a class he took in high school. He had a knack for making films, and eventually was directing films with successful comedic actor Harry Langdon. While most directors had trepidation about the advent of talking movies, Capra saw the potential to take film-making to another level. 

With the making of “It Happened One Night”, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, Capra became one of the premier directors in Hollywood. That movie swept the top five Oscars, including Best Director, an award he would win two more times.

“It’s a Wonderful life” was in initially a dud

After spending World War II making propaganda films for the U.S. Army, Capra returned to direct “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 1946. It was a failure at the box office and was the beginning of the end of Capra’s time as a successful filmmaker. Although only in his early 50s, Capra wasn’t getting many offers for work in Hollywood and was now making educational films on scientific topics.

Capra enjoyed a long life, passing away in 1991 at the age of 94. This was 53 years after he won his last Oscar for Best Director for the movie “You Can’t Take It With You”. 

One of the most memorable movies ever

Although “It’s a Wonderful Life” was a dud at the box office, through a copyright glitch, it fell into the public domain in 1974. Through repeated airings during the holiday season, it became the classic movie that most Americans consider one of the most memorable movies ever made in Hollywood. The basis of the movie was a short story written in 1939 by Philip Van Doren Stern called “The Greatest Gift”. After failing to sell the story to any publishers, Stern produced and sent 200 copies of the 24 page pamphlet to friends and relatives for Christmas in 1943. A copy found its way to RKO Pictures, who bought the rights for $10,000 and planned to turn it into a film starring Cary Grant.

Three different scriptwriters tackled the project of turning the story into a movie. Dalton Trumbo, Clifford Odets and Marco Connelly each worked on the script separately. Eventually, Capra obtained the rights to the story and more writers, including Dorothy Parker, were brought in to polish the script. There was much contention between the writers, with many complaining about the difficulty working with Capra. In interviews later Capra said that when he read the story, he knew that it was the story he was meant to tell.

Stewart and Reed to it to the radio

A year after the release of the movie, stars Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed reprised their roles in two separate radio adaptations of the movie, and again in 1951. The Zero Clearance Theater’s version is based upon the Lux Radio Theater’s presentation, which originally aired on March 10, 1947. This adaptation will be true to the state-of-the-art techniques available to making radio shows in 1947. You’ll get to see it, with all the sound effects being produced by specialists right on stage with the voice actors. Perhaps the only experience I’ve had seeing how radio shows are produced was the 2006  “A Prairie Home Companion” movie.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” right here in Oakridge

The production will be taking place this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, as well as the following weekend. The shows on Fridays and Saturdays begin at 7 pm, with the doors opening at 6. Curtain for the Sunday show will be at 3 pm, with the doors opening at 2. Advanced tickets can be purchased at the Lion Mountain Bakery and Mane Street Coffee. Tickets for adults are $8 in advance and $10 at the door. Tickets for Senior citizens and children 10 years of age and younger are half price. The Zero Clearance Theater shares the same building as the Lion Mountain Bakery on Highway 58 in Oakridge.

Ben Olson, musician and Oakridge Resident, with his standup bass. Ben is a regular contributor, as well as the Entertainment Report’s columnist. Ben Olson photo
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