Actors rehearse scenes from "Tinseltown Christmas" at UC Irvine's Claire Trevor Theatre on Saturday. (KEVIN CHANG, HB Independent / November 24, 2012)

When Madeleine Barker's fellow cast members handed her the Oscar in the Claire Trevor Theatre, she felt excited for herself and a little sad for Judy Garland.

Barker, who plays Garland in UC Irvine's upcoming musical "Tinseltown Christmas," had been busy in recent weeks studying her role, watching performances on DVD and reading about the often-turbulent life behind them. Then, during rehearsal one day, "Tinseltown" director Don Hill told the cast that he had a surprise.

That turned out to be an Oscar — the one Eileen Heckart won in 1972 for Best Supporting Actress in "Butterflies Are Free." Hill, whose husband, Luke Yankee, is Heckart's son, let the actors pass around it for inspiration.

As Barker held the Academy Award, she realized she was enjoying a moment that mostly eluded Garland. The actress got a special Juvenile Award for her role in "The Wizard of Oz," but went home empty-handed in competitive categories.

"Judy, she never received an Oscar," said Barker, an undergraduate majoring in musical theater. "So it was kind of strange to hold that and know that she never got a chance to have it.

"Everyone thought she was going to get one for 'A Star Is Born,' but it went to Grace Kelly for 'The Country Girl.' And then, when Liza [Minnelli] won one for 'Cabaret,' she said, 'This is for Mom.' So it was interesting holding it and feeling the weight and feeling the history and the love behind it, and knowing that that was something she never experienced."

In researching Garland, James Stewart, Natalie Wood and Bing Crosby, the cast of "Tinseltown Christmas" got to know their characters, not just as stars, but as seasoned professionals — Oscar heartbreaks, stage parents and all. It's somehow fitting, then, that the play features a story in which the four actors return as ghosts to spread Christmas cheer because ... well, it's their job.

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Film history — with a wink

Like more than a few Hollywood scripts, "Tinseltown Christmas" took a stop-and-start journey on its way toward production.

Playwright Chana Wise (first name pronounced "HAH-na") got the original premise from the Academy for New Musical Theatre in North Hollywood, which had held a brainstorming session and come up with an idea about movie star ghosts visiting a lonely woman on Christmas Eve. Wise, a member of the academy, sent a one-paragraph pitch to UCI, which encouraged her to develop a 15-minute sample.

Once Wise, along with composer Carl Johnson, got the go-ahead to write the entire script, she realized she lacked one thing: an extensive knowledge of Christmas movie classics. The nearest Hollywood Video, which stocked a wide array of them, became her favorite haunt.

By the time she finished her research, Wise considered herself an old movie buff and applied that savvy in the script as much as she could. "Tinseltown," which follows the ghosts as they urge a pair of bickering neighbors to fall in love, is rife with in-jokes and even irreverence; when the neighbors seem to have hit it off midway through, the ghosts stick around because, after watching so many romantic movies, they know a plot twist has to come soon to tear them apart.

The disembodied stars have been assigned by a higher power to brighten the Christmas season — and if they fail, they risk being demoted to Halloween. At one point, when the female neighbor tries to shake her visitors off by declaring that she isn't celebrating Christmas, they're quick with a song: "We do wonders with Muslims and Mormons as well / the Hindus are pleasant and rarely rebel / so Buddhist or Baptist, we don't pick and choose / and being in show biz, our friends are all Jews."

That last group includes Wise herself, who seldom watched Christmas movies growing up. Although she was a relative latecomer to the classics, she grew to love their craft, to the point where she had her characters lament in the script that modern Christmas movies often run along the lines of "Home Alone 3."

"There doesn't seem to be anything that people just sit down and watch every year," Wise said.

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'Better than a corset'

Will "Tinseltown Christmas" make the time capsule too? Hill, who serves as vice chair of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts and heads its stage management program, has hopes that it will find an audience beyond campus — and the RSVPs over the next week may help determine that.

"We have a number of producers and theater people coming to see it opening weekend and next week, so we're scouting it out in hopes that it may have legs and walk some place," he said.