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The most famous musician you've never heard of 

The Pewter Plough Playhouse pays tribute to one of the greats of music: Harold Arlen

Who wrote these timeless, culturally significant, and classic tunes: "Over the Rainbow." "Accentuate the Positive." "I've Got the World on a String." "That Old Black Magic."

click to enlarge ONE FOR MY BABY :  Ol' Blue Eyes himself--who would have been 92 on Dec. 12--made the Arlen hit One for My Baby (and One More for the Road) a juke favorite, making Happy Hour enthusiasts even happier. Pictured is the Over and Under the Rainbow with Harold (Who?) Arlen cast. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • ONE FOR MY BABY : Ol' Blue Eyes himself--who would have been 92 on Dec. 12--made the Arlen hit One for My Baby (and One More for the Road) a juke favorite, making Happy Hour enthusiasts even happier. Pictured is the Over and Under the Rainbow with Harold (Who?) Arlen cast.

# Berlin? Crosby? Either of the Gershwins? Eminem, perhaps?

Guess again.

Like many great artists, Harold Arlen was inspired at the oddest of moments and often wrote notes on a small notepad he kept in his jacket pocket. The idea for "Over the Rainbow" came to him in front of Schwab's drugstore in Hollywood. And "Rainbow" wasn't his only contribution to the Wizard of Oz film. Arlen and E.Y. Harburg wrote the entire score for the movie in just two months. Arlen believed that there was a total collaboration between lyricist and composer. They were equals. In most cases, Arlen was the composer.

The Great American Songbook Society is in session yet again at the Pewter Plough Playhouse, and guests are invited along for an intimate look at Arlen, a songwriter whose work is still heard in cinema today--and in Over and Under the Rainbow with Harold (Who?) Arlen, this year's holiday show at the Pewter Plough.

It's charming to see the same faces again from last year, faces that performed in the Irving Berlin version of a Musical Reality Play at the cozy playhouse in Cambria. Each actor is very much at ease on stage, and cast member Wayne Attoe, a retired architect who's participated in the last three holiday shows, agrees: "That is what we try to accomplish."

It's as though everyone is at a dinner party surrounded by the most fabulous and intelligent guests, and audience members can chime in at any time during the show. At times, they do.

Interesting and inspiring anecdotes accompany the ditties, such as "Blues in the Night," of which Judy Garland was an instant fan.

The numbers are sung quickly, the spotlight switching from one cast member to the next. Interspersed is the fast-paced, running commentary on the life of the man and his music. Delicious stories of old Hollywood are abundant, and the volley of conservation becomes educational.

But why Arlen? Well, why not? He was considered "one of the great pop composers," according to Jim Buckley, the 95-year-old

click to enlarge TILL WE'RE WITH YOU AGAIN, JIM :  Arlen wrote more than 400 songs--111 with Harburg, his partner on The Wizard of Oz. Pictured is the infamous plough at Pewter Plough. - IMAGE BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • IMAGE BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • TILL WE'RE WITH YOU AGAIN, JIM : Arlen wrote more than 400 songs--111 with Harburg, his partner on The Wizard of Oz. Pictured is the infamous plough at Pewter Plough.
# Pewter Plough proprietor who also stars in the show, making his grand entrance about midway through the first act.

All of the performances are infectious, from Viv Goff's sultry version of "The Man that Got Away" (Goff is also the playhouse's production manager) to the magnificent standout Jim Conroy impersonating Louis Armstrong. Conroy's Cowardly Lion impersonations give off a unique vibe, which is half the fun at the Pewter Plough. David Manion, the "Music Maestro," is a saint while tickling those ivories.

Laurelle Barnett, appearing in her 10th show, shines as she puts the sass into "Stormy Weather." She possesses a fluid physicality on stage--using a chair, touching and teasing the men, and moving her hips. Kathryn Taylor is a refreshing addition to the cast, belting out "Over the Rainbow" with ruby slippers decorating her feet. Buckley punches his cane into the carpet onstage to applaud everyone.

The stage isn't the only point of action. From the audience, there's a faint murmur of someone singing along to "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead," a couple snuggled close in the comfortable directors' chairs, the audience routinely responding to each musical number with a collective "Ohh!"

Arlen was a great jazz singer and pianist (he formed a jazz trio and played at brothels in New York), but what he's most known for--or maybe unknown for, as is the running gag in the show--is his music writing. Bing Crosby considered Arlen to be one of the best stylists of his own work, according to Buckley's script. He even collaborated with Truman Capote.

The other half of the fun comes after the show. Audience members join the cast to sip Champagne while leaning against the piano and singing along. Guests can just watch the cast members belt out a number, have a beer with Buckley (his drink of choice is non-alcoholic Buckler brew, in case you want to buy him a round), or chat with barkeep James Lee Buckley, Buckley Sr.'s son, who also creates the sets and designs the show's lighting.

Over and Under the Rainbow isn't a holiday show in the traditional sense, but who cares when 99 percent of everything else in the county is? Buckley's plays are so rich in music, information, style, and ambience. Pewter Plough Playhouse is also rich in history, and 30 years of photographs hang on the walls to prove it. Even the playhouse's restrooms are a sight to see.

The Musical Reality Play, as this type of show is called, takes many paths, including illuminating the love life of its main character, and discussing Arlen's last years. Arlen wrote about love, loss, and even suicide, yet Over and Under the Rainbow ends on a happy note.

Through it all, Buckley says he doesn't need his overly qualified cast to belt out perfect harmonies on stage: "These guys sing professionally in recitals, but I want them to act like they're just out buying a book about Harold Arlen."

Theatergoer Barbara Pearson attends the holiday show at Pewter Plough each year because, she said, she loves the music, the talent, the history, and the locals. The next season will start in February and includes a production of the group's first-ever playwright contest winner.

INFOBOX: A pot of gold

Over and Under the Rainbow With Harold (Who?) Arlen plays at 7:30 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. through Dec. 31. Pewter Plough Playhouse is in Cambria at 824 Main St. A special gala show on New Year's Eve will kick off at 8 p.m., to be followed by celebration in the Pewter Plough pub.

On Dec. 19, It's a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play takes place at 7:30 p.m. This staged reading is based on the 1947 script from the Lux Radio Theatre. Bring toy donations. Info: 927-3877 or pewterploughplayhouse.org.

And don't forget: Pewter Plough is always looking for volunteers to help with everything.

Christy Heron says that if he stays away, the rocking chair will get her. Help her find the man of her dreams at cheron@newtimesslo.com.

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