When "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men" was first produced 16 years ago, Lonne Elder III immediately entered the ranks of young black playwrights who sounded a new voice in the theater. Elder, 53, who is today somewhat grayer and wiser, was in town recently to attend the opening of a revival of his play at Ford's Theatre.

"Ceremonies" is the only play of Elder's that has been produced. Its success led him to move from New York to Los Angeles, where he has been living and working in film and television since 1971. His screenplay for "Sounder" won several awards, as did "Sounder II." He also scripted "Melinda," "Bustin' Loose," and episodes of "N.Y.P.D.," "McCloud" and "Toma."

But his best scripts, he said, have not been produced. One was a film version of "A Native Son," and the other an expose' of the recording industry, "Number One With a Bullet." He has written two other plays as well, a bio-drama about black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldrige, and a recently rewritten comedy about a musician. Neither has found a producer.

"I've wanted to get into teaching," he mused. "Maybe that would liberate me from having to depend so entirely on the movie and television industry . . . You have to spend so much time fighting for your own sanity." For two years, he said, he was employed by a studio and given almost nothing to do. "They decided they were going to teach me a lesson, and for two years I couldn't get arrested."

He finally left that studio, but the experience left its mark. "I had been so tense, so rigid, so self-righteous. I lived with this ball of tension inside me. I didn't know the rules . . . When I was very young I thought writing meant so much, art meant so much . . . But it becomes the way you make your living. You have to make decisions about how you want to live, about what's really important in life. Life is a very fragile thing."

For Elder, what is important is his family -- his second wife Judyann, an actress to whom he has been married for almost 17 years, and his three children, ages 21, 14 and 6. A religious man, Elder tries to attend Episcopalian services every day, and volunteers once a month to assist the chaplain at a convalescent and retirement home. "That's a real character builder for me. I used to be real squeamish. Now I talk to people who may vomit on my chest at any moment."

He would like to move "back East," where he was born, but likes the suburban life style he has in Canoga Park. He works now in his garage, where he has a word processor and two computers that his middle son taught him to use.

"I didn't really intend to get as far away from the theater as I did," he said. "Once you move out there and become involved in that system, that takes priority . . . I never thought in terms of making money, I just wanted a couple of cars and a nice home."

He has just finished the first draft of a screenplay of Ethel Waters' life story for World Wide Pictures, and has other projects in the offing, including the two plays, which he hopes someonew will produce.