Kids fun not alien to actor

Orchestra: Actor John Lithgow reads his children's book with accompaniment today at the Meyerhoff.

September 22, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

After six years playing an alien on TV, actor John Lithgow is turning his attention to an only slightly less bizarre life form: children.

Today at the Meyerhoff, Lithgow, the Emmy-winning star of 3rd Rock From the Sun, will serve as performer, narrator and master of ceremonies for a children's concert based on his recently published children's book, The Remarkable Farkle McBride. He'll read from the book, sing silly songs, wear silly hats.

"Basically, it's old baggy-pants vaudeville stuff," Lithgow explains, "but I mix that in with subliminal music education." Anything to engage the kids and maybe, just maybe, help them gain an appreciation for orchestral music.

"It's now 30 years that I've been entertaining children, ever since my 30-year-old son was a baby," Lithgow, 55, says by phone from his Los Angeles home. "Until a couple of years ago, it was limited to sitting in kindergarten classes with a guitar. But I've gotten very good at knowing what kids like and what they don't like. I've just expanded it to concert halls, with a huge symphony orchestra."

The centerpiece of this afternoon's show will be Farkle McBride, the lavishly illustrated tale of a young musical prodigy who takes up (and masters) a succession of instruments, only to quickly tire of them. It's only when he hits upon the idea of conducting, of merging all the sounds into one glorious whole, that he becomes as satisfied as he is talented.

Lithgow laughs at the suggestion Farkle is in any way autobiographical. "Not remotely," he insists. "I was never a child prodigy."

Rather, he says, the book grew from a children's CD he put together in 1999, Singin' in the Bathtub, a collection of novelty songs from his younger days.

"I literally telephoned Carnegie Hall and said, `I'm sending over my CD. I've got a great idea for a kids' concert.' And they said yes.

"I guess," he says, acknowledging that most performers spend years dreaming of performing at New York's most famous concert hall, "I started at the top of the food chain."

That concert, in fall 1999, proved the first in a series that expanded to five cities and eight performances over the ensuing months. Farkle, he said, was writ- ten in response to the suggestion that his concerts, while fun for kids, lacked an essential ingredient.

"One thing about these big hall concerts, I would deal with symphony orchestras that all had great educational concert programs, and they would ask me, `What's the educational angle?' Early on, there was none, so I decided to devise something.

"I came up with Farkle McBride, which is a kind of child's guide to the orchestra, the four sections, the various instruments."

Lithgow's next planned step was to find a composer to write accompanying music. "But I realized that I may have written a children's book here. So I contacted the great illustrator, C.F. Payne. Together we went to Simon & Schuster, and presto, I became a book author."

To those who feel Lithgow's success here came a little too easily, here's more bad news: the 37-page book, with its sing-songy verses, took him only a weekend to write. "Once you get the idea, it comes pretty quickly," he says.

With 3rd Rock behind him - NBC canceled the show at the end of last season - Lithgow says he plans to continue taking his career in different directions. Beginning in March, that will mean returning to Broadway for the first time in more than a decade, playing J.J. Hunsecker in the musical adaptation of Sweet Smell of Success.

"I've made a decision in recent years that, from now on, everything I do in my career should be something I'm scared to do, something I haven't done before."

That doesn't mean, however, that he's through with writing for kids. Lithgow's second book, Marsupial Sue, landed in bookstores this month. And, since they don't seem to take much time to do, he anticipates even more to come.

"It's a wonderful sideline, and always available. I can dust it off any time," he says. "The books are going to come trooping along every September."

Farkle & Friends

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 3 p.m. today

Admission: $15 to $54

Call: 410-783-8000

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