John Schlenker, a theater owner in Oceano, Calif., has found an idea whose time has come - not only for Oceano, but also for Salt Lake City. His concept is the right thinking at the right time for Utah.

Let me explain.We have two types of theater crowds in Utah. One crowd enjoys good, economical, popular entertainment, so they flock to shows at various community theaters, Hale Center, City Rep, etc. The other crowd likes sophisticated shows that get serious, artistic treatment. They end up at PMT, the Salt Lake Acting Company, TheaterWorks West and other "art houses."

And trying to get those two distinct crowds interested in the same show is a publicist's nightmare. They come together for the big, touring productions such as "Cats" and "Les Miserables," but regional theaters get few crossover patrons.

That's why Schlenker's approach is timely.

In Oceano, his theater offers Victorian dramas - turn-of-the-century morality tales with simple plots and stock characters. The difference is he offers them with rare style, artistic distance and attention to the era. His shows are "period pieces," slices of Americana, high-minded time capsules.

One key is that Schlenker puts distance between himself and all the cliches that generate easy sentiment. He comes at melodrama from higher up, like a museum curator. And he shows flair and professionalism.

For such reasons, his theater gets the intellectual crowd (they enjoy the shows on one level) and the people who just like a well-done, sentimental show full of traditional values.

In fact, the productions have more in common with classic black and white movies from the '40s than live theater. Schlenker even sells popcorn, hotdogs and soft drinks, to heighten that effect.

He calls his place The Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville Theater. Shows for 1991 have included "The Streets of New York" (an evil banker embezzles a ship captain's life savings), "A Double Barrelled Detective Story" (by Mark Twain) and "The Ragpicker of Paris."

"Ragpicker" had some great performances (proving again there's never a shortage of actors in Southern California). It's the story of a young woman who finds herself in the middle of a startling mystery that involves a murder, a lie and a child left on a doorstep.

As I left the theater I kept asking myself, "Where have I seen this type of show before?" Then it dawned on me.

Schlenker's shows are the same in tone, style and characterization as Disney's "Roger Rabbit."

Without the cartoon rabbit, of course.