As the children's room of the central Enoch Pratt Free Library steamed with infamous Baltimore humidity yesterday, a throng of fidgety children and star-struck grown-ups waited for the man with the cool voice.
Actor James Earl Jones pressed through the waiting crowd, took a seat at the head of the room, and with his legendary bass voice breathed new life into Maurice Sendak's 35-year-old story, "Where the Wild Things Are."
He enunciated like nobody enunciates.
When he read, "The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws," the children could recognize his voice as that of the imperial Mufasa in "The Lion King" (and their parents, Darth Vader from "Star Wars.")
He even gave fresh meaning to the word "all" when he read, " they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all."
Jones, stage actor, movie star, voice of animation and the personality in Bell Atlantic commercials, visited the library yesterday for a program sponsored by the telephone com- pany in support of literacy.
Library and phone company officials expected 75 children -- and brought that many copies of "Where the Wild Things Are" with matching T-shirts to give away. But 125 children -- along with numerous adults -- showed up, and others had to be turned away.
Enoch Pratt director Carla Hayden beamed as she introduced Jones and looked out over the crowded room of future library users.
When Jones was finished reading the book, he gently quizzed the children on what it meant and taught them a morality lesson.
"What happened to Max that got him in trouble?" he asked.
"He started doing mischief," answered a little boy sitting cross-legged on the floor.
"His mother called him a wild thing," answered another.
"So he became wild," Jones finished the child's thought.
"You've got to take responsibility for what you're doing. You've got to accept what you do wrong and correct your behavior," said Jones, winner of two Tony awards for his performances in "Great White Hope" and "Fences."
Then, the actor famed for creating worlds of make-believe asked the children, "Did the forest really grow?"
"No," answered little voices in unison.
"What is it?" he asked.
"His imagination," they answered.
"Sometimes the imaginative world is not as good as the real world because there's no real food in the imaginary world," Jones said, recalling how the wild boy, Max, left his imaginary world at the end of the story to go home and eat his dinner.
Then Jones told the crowd a little story about himself.
"I once took a whole day pretending to be a horse and got my grandfather very upset because he knew he couldn't feed me hay," he said to laughter.
On a more serious note, he talked about reading.
"When I came through the library I came through stacks of rows of very old books," he said, worrying aloud that they hadn't been read for a long time.
Later Hayden recalled how Jones had patted the books in passing and said, "Books are patient."
Asked what he's reading now, Jones said he was looking at several scripts for possible acting jobs.
"I rarely have time to read for pleasure," he said.
Pub Date: 6/21/98