The battered Kaiser-Frazer sedan barely made it to the West Coast in 1951, but it did and carried Gene Barry to a Hollywood contract and TV success in "Bat Masterson," "Burke's Law," and "The Name of the Game."

Left behind was the Iroquois Amphitheater in Louisville, where he had just finished a run with a touring company and a three-musical repertoire: "No, No Nanette," "Annie Get Your Gun," and that fine old turkey, "Rosemarie."

So it is nearly 27 years later, and Gene Barry now hopes that "Spotlight," a new musical about a song-and-dance man who made it big in the movies and finds his career slipping, will be his "returning point" to the Broadway musical stage.

"Spotlight" will play a four-week stand at the National Theater here beginning Wednesday before it opens on Broadway at the Palace Theater. Previews at the National start Tuesday.

Tan, trim, with the tousled casualness of a self-assured sophisticate, Barry has checked into Washington for pre-opening rehearsals at the National.

Barry, the debonair Bat Masterson with cane and derby for millions of TV viewers nearly 20 years ago, is now reaching his mid-50s. He carries that off with the same self-assuredness as the casual-tousled look. If there are lines to crease the handsomeness, he makes them lines of character and not of age.

In actors residence at the Jefferson Hotel, he wants to make certain that the kitchen is equipped because he likes to cook and then talks about his role as Jack Beaumont, the fading movie-musical star in "Spotlight" ("I think I like him better than any character I ever have played").

The obvious parallels are too easy - and deceptive. In "Spotlight," Jack Beaumont is the song-and-dance man who wins Hollywood stardom and then sees his career slipping. Barry is the musical-stage hoofer who went to Hollywood and then TV's instant popularity.

His last TV hit series, "The Name of the Game," was in the late 1960s, and now is into returns a couple times over.

But the parallels stop there.

"Beaumont was a total movie star, a fair father and a fair husband, really a little less than fair," Barry describes his role in "Spotlight." "When you meet him, he's looking at his life . . . He's a movie star but he's also everyman and his relationship with his maturing children is everyman's."

Beaumont, who has put audiences above family, long since has been deserted by his wife when "Spotlight" opens. He bitterly counsels his children not to try the entertainment business, which he feels has damaged his own happiness with its demands.

That is not the story of the Barry family, on opening night at the National Theater, the audience will include Betty Claire Barry, the star's wife of more than 30 years, and Liza, their 11-year-old daughter. There are also two sons, both in the entertainment business or on its fringes: Michael, 30 a film producer-director, and James, 25, a rock composer-musician, when he doesn't have to earn money as a photographer and carpenter.

And if Beaumont, looking back on his life, is sour and disillusioned when "Spotlight" opens, Barry gives the impression of a man who has looked at his life, doesn't feel that bad about it, and still has something going in the future:

"I feel that the timing of this role as Jack Beaumont is just as right at this moment as the timing of that trip to California in the old, broken-down car. I'm not reaching out. I fear prepared, in good shape. I think "Spotlight" will be my returning point, let me return to the Broadway musical stage."

Barry, who made his Broadway debut in "Pins and Needles," has kept his foot on the musical stage with summer theater appearances in such shows as "Fiddle on the Roof" and "Kismet."

In the early 1960s, he put together a nightclub act that opened at the old Lotus supper club here.

He has had bids to come back to the Broadway musical stage ("Funny Girl," "Music Man," and "The Bells Are Ringing"), but either the role didn't work out or a TV pilot took off into a popular series (as did "Burke's Law," in which Barry played Amos Burke, the millionaire gentleman-detective with the Rolls Royce and chauffeur).

And if there hasn't been a TV hit series for several years, Barry has had TV and film roles and other good-paying assignments. "If you've got the time, we've got the beer" - That's me," Barry says and his confidence is such that he can smile at being the voice of a beer commercial.)

"I wouldn't come back if there wasn't a strong role in a musical. I think "Spotlight" is a strong statement."