Monday, December 17, 2007

Season's Greetings!

Happy Holidays to all our friends and family!

(click on the toolbar below to view our first-ever annual Christmas greeting)

video

xoxo Love, Tim and Cyn xoxo

Brief Shining Moment


Tim’s company Christmas party was held at the ESPN Zone in Downtown Disney, Saturday night, so we went a little early to spend some time in Disneyland. It was too crowded to go on any of the rides, but we did enjoy seeing the grounds all decorated for the holidays. The castle was especially spectacular this year, all covered in enormous garlands and faux snow.

We rode the monorail into the park and then wandered over to Fantasyland. We were strolling toward Frontierland when I spied a tall man dressed in purple robes and a pointy hat.

“It’s Merlin!” I yelled and dragged Tim over to the sword-in-the-stone monument next to the King Arthur carousel. Everyone who knows me knows I’m fanatical about all things Arthurian, so it was no surprise that I knew exactly where Merlin was headed. It was time for him to crown a new monarch of the realm and I wanted a front-row view.

The test, of course, was whether anyone could actually pull the sword from the stone (er, anvil). To pick the most likely candidate, Merlin fished a divining rod out of his bag and aimed it at a several people in the audience. He moved from one person to the next, until he finally settled on . . . Tim!

“Oh no,” he groaned as he joined Merlin on the impromptu stage.

“To become the next ruler of Camelot, you must remove the sword from the stone!” Merlin implored. But try and try as he might, my husband just wasn’t kingly enough and so was directed to stand to the side as Merlin looked for another candidate. Meanwhile, Tim, who normally hates being the center of attention, played to the audience by mugging and flexing his muscles. The little girl standing next to me thought he was a riot; I just rolled my eyes.

By now, another victim had been selected: an eight-year-old girl who handily lifted the sword from the stone. Merlin shot Tim a look of disgust as he sheepishly hung his head.

But Tim had the last laugh.

“Merlin smells like cigarettes,” he conspiratorially whispered in my ear afterward.

So much for the "one brief shining moment" that was Camelot!

12/17/07

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Our Dinner with Bob


The Los Angeles Public Library foundation’s “Literary Feast” is possibly the group’s biggest and most successful fundraising event of the season, bringing in no less than $500,000 every year it’s held. The Feast offers contributors the opportunity to dine with famous authors—many of whom are well-known celebrities—in fabulous homes throughout the southland.

Having attended the last Literary Feast, we were thrilled to receive an invitation to participate again this year. Dining arrangements are made strictly according to how much money you contribute to the event. For instance, top donors ($2,000 a plate) get to eat with one of two authors of their choice. Those of us at the bottom of the financial ladder get to choose six authors and then cross our fingers that we’ll be asked to dine with our top choice. This year we chose:

1. Judith Freeman, author of one of my favorite historical novels, “Red Water,” about the 1857 Mormon Meadows Massacre

2. Peter Greenberg, travel editor on “The Today Show” whom we know through Tim’s work

3. comic genius Bob Newhart

4. Patt Morrison, National Public Radio personality and L.A. Times writer

5. John Sacret Young, producer of the TV shows “China Beach” and “The West Wing”

6. Pulitzer Prize winner David Oshinsky

Three weeks later, we learned we were to be one of 25 couples eating with Bob Newhart at a mansion in Bel-Air. Cocktail attire required!

I had planned ahead and bought a low-necked Lycra dress for just such an occasion, but Tim was in a dither. Somehow, the suit I bought him seven years ago had mysteriously shrunk (wink, wink) and so, with just a week to go, we went shopping for another suit. He settled on a nice navy-blue pinstripe by Jones of New York (see photo below). Thank heavens for Men’s Wearhouse!

Our hostess, Fabienne Guerin, wife of movie producer J.P. Guerin, called us on Saturday to make sure we were still coming. “Cocktails are on the patio at 7PM,” she cheerily added.

Indeed! The house, located at the very top of the Bel-Air hills, overlooked the entire westside. (We heard later that the Guerins, who had just sold their home for $35 million, were renting this place while their new house was being built!) A shuttle brought us from the street up to the residence. I felt like Cinderella masquerading as nobility.

Bob Newhart and his wife appeared a few minutes after we arrived. “He looks so old,” a woman said to me. But I thought he looked very much like himself. Some people brought books for him to sign, others just casually went over and chatted with him. Tim had met him a while ago at the radio station (see photo above) and so didn’t feel compelled to mingle. Instead, we staked our place under one of the outdoor heat lamps and snacked on hors d’oeuvres (mini-Kobe beef hamburgers, champagne flan and caviar, puffed pastry filled with shrimp, and mushrooms and cheese)—rather, Tim snacked while I chatted with the other guests.

After about an hour-and-a-half, a woman came out and announced that dinner was about to be served. Seating was prearranged, forcing spouses to sit apart. However, since Tim and I have separate last names, the hostess goofed and sat us together, making it a lot easier to share food during our seven-course (!) meal.

Two long tables were set-up side-by-side in a great hall that seats 50. The Newharts were at what I guessed was the $2,000-a-plate table, surrounded by movie producers and the like. We sat at the “other” table amongst a clutch of real estate investors and lawyers. A guitarist, who styled himself after Carlos Jobin, was playing softly in the corner.

“This is so much better than the dinner party I attended last week,” the woman across from Tim enthused. “The hostess had hired a ten-piece band to play while we ate. I was hoarse the next morning from yelling all night!”

(Gee, I thought to myself, and what were we doing last weekend? Oh, that’s right—we were scarfing down free appetizers at one of the California Library Association conference receptions. Well, at least we didn’t get hoarse from talking over a ten-piece band!)

Dinner was served. The courses consisted of (in order):

1. Three small bowls of soup: onion, butternut squash, and fennel. “What’s fennel?” the man next to me asked. “It’s an herb,” I answered, smacking my lips at how amazingly tasty the soup was.

2. Two salads: crab and mixed greens. Tim and I discreetly exchanged plates so he could eat my crab salad.

3. A small lamb chop with couscous baked in a filo purse. Even though I hate lamb, I took a small bite and then retreated to the couscous, which was heavenly.

4. Then the main course: medallions of beef on wilted spinach, with seabass on a bed of rice. I ate my vegetables and left the rest, but, thankfully, was not alone because by then everyone was just about stuffed.

5. A cheese platter, which Tim and I shared. Gorgonzola on pear pieces—YUM!—along with brie on a cracker that looked and tasted suspiciously like figs (yuck).

6. A cookie platter, which our server told us to “share with our neighbors.” (Whaddaya mean share?) And then finally . . .

7. Dessert: cantaloupe sorbet sprinkled with cinnamon and served with a warm berry cobbler. To die for!

We chatted with our tablemates during the entire meal, until Fabienne finally got up and introduced the guest of honor. Bob Newhart then moved over to a microphone and began to tell stories from his book, “I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This!: And Other Things That Strike Me as Funny.” Everyone, including Newhart himself, laughed hysterically at his jokes about Frank Sinatra, et al. Mrs. Newhart, however, just sat there stoney-faced.

“She’s obviously heard these stories a million times before,” Tim whispered, as I giggled behind my hand.

Then suddenly it was 11:10PM. We bid our dinner companions adieu and raced down the hill to our car. We wouldn’t want our small Honda to turn into a pumpkin, now would we?

11/10/07

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Rock 'n Roll Heaven


Just when I think we’re getting too old to go to any more rock concerts, a week like this one comes along and my faith in the restorative powers of music is renewed.

As part of being named “Employee of the Month,” Tim was given two free tickets to any sports or cultural event of his choice. I was secretly hoping he’d pick the Neil Young concert, but he went with Bruce Springsteen instead, mostly because we had never seen him in concert and Tim thought we probably should at least once in our lifetime. The deal was sweetened when Springsteen’s bandmate Little Steven Van Zandt, who played Silvio on “The Sopranos,” came to the radio station and gave out passes to a meet-and-greet he was hosting before the show.

The concert was held at the L.A. Sports Arena, perhaps best known as the site of the 1960 Democratic national convention. When Tim reminded me that the Arena would probably soon be demolished, I groused, “But this is where JFK was nominated, for cryin’ out loud! IT’S HISTORIC!!”

But, yeah, the building has certainly seen better days. It was grungy and, by today’s standards, relatively small. The seats were nothing more than folding chairs bolted into cement. We had general admission tickets “on the floor,” which meant we got to stand for the entire concert.

Traffic was worse than usual due to an accident that had closed the 405 freeway all day, so we practically had to run from the parking lot in order to make the meet-and-greet on time. Little Steve was there, wearing his signature bandana while glad-handing the fans. This was definitely a “jeans and t-shirt” kind of crowd—“working class” concertgoers that Springsteen is famous for. The line to meet Steven was too long, so we just looked at him from afar and then went to claim our spots on the Arena floor.

The concert was phenomenal. Springsteen plays with such energy that I thought every song was the final song of the evening. At one point, I turned to Tim and said, “I can’t believe you and Bruce are the same age!” We slunk out at 11PM, exhausted as people stomped and hooted for the band to come out and play yet another encore.

Meanwhile, a couple of miles up the road on the very same night, our perennial favorite Neil Young was entertaining folks at the Nokia theater, downtown L.A.’s newest concert venue located across the street from the Staples Center. Obviously we couldn’t be in two places at once, so I was very interested to read the L.A. Times review of the show on Thursday. The reviewer loved it, of course.

Luckily for me, Young was returning to the Nokia on Friday, so I called Tim immediately. “We HAVE to see Neil Young in concert!” I implored. “Can you PLEASE get tickets through your connections?!”

The show was sold-out and Tim’s contact had the day off, so he went to a broker, StubHub, instead and found us good seats in the orchestra. We couldn’t get them until two hours before the show.

Because there was also a basketball game that night, we decided to leave obscenely early. I picked-up Tim at work at 4:30PM and then headed east on surface streets. Not only did we arrive downtown in plenty of time, but we were also able to find a free parking spot on the street! I may be willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a concert ticket, but I refuse to pay $20 for parking—the ultimate highway robbery.

With time to kill, we decided to eat at the Liberty Grill, two blocks from the theater and the Staples Center, where the game was being played. We had fun trying to guess where the other guests were going after dinner. A group of three men in their 30s, eating ribs and burgers: basketball game. An old hippie couple wearing their best tie-died t-shirts: Neil Young concert!

We then walked ten long blocks to StubHub (I wasn’t about to give up my primo parking spot!) to pick-up our tickets. There we met three very young college kids who were hoping to nab last minute basketball seats. They had no idea who Neil Young is! We got back to the Nokia a half-hour before show time.

We’ve seen Neil Young many times before, including last year’s fabulous Hollywood Bowl concert with Crosby, Stills and Nash, but we’ve never seen him quite like this. For the first half of the show, he ambled onstage alone and sang several songs, accompanied by an harmonica and either one of eight guitars, which were set-up around his chair, or one of two pianos. Some of the songs were well-known, but many sounded like he had just written them the night before. He didn’t engage much with the audience—but, then again, he didn’t need to because his music said it all. I was very moved and amazed.

After a brief intermission, Neil, who had (quite frankly) looked fairly doddering during the acoustic set, returned to the stage with members of his old band Crazy Horse and suddenly transformed himself into the rock legend we all know and adore. Playing electric guitar, he pounded his way through classic songs and new as he lumbered around the stage like a big kid. He almost ruined the night by indulging in a 20-minute solo that everyone but us loved—good grief, we ARE getting old!—but redeemed himself during the encore by playing “Cinnamon Girl” and “Tonight’s the Night.” I was so ecstatic that I don’t even remember walking the five blocks to our car.

11/4

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Paley Center for Media

Tim and I love television. We were kids when it was still a relatively new medium and love to regale each other with tales of life without color TV.

One of the best things (for us, at least) about living in L.A. is being so close to the entertainment industry. I grew-up in Burbank under the shadow of Warner Bros. and NBC. We now live in Culver City, where Sony Studios is king. L.A. is also home to the Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television and Radio), which holds screenings and seminars on TV shows, old and new. Their big annual event is the Paley festival—a two-week extravaganza featuring the casts of television’s hottest hits—but even more exciting are the museum’s intimate series celebrating people and shows that aren’t necessarily among Nielsen’s top ten. Last year, Karen and I attended a tribute to legendary filmmaker Robert Altman, who had his start in television, a few months before he died. We were also among the handful of fans to attend a seminar on “Nip/Tuck” before it became a cable TV phenomenon. True to his character on the show, Julian McMahon (aka Dr. Christian Troy) looked like a sculpted god.

More recently, Tim and I went to panel discussions on “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and “Friday Night Lights,” my favorite TV show du jour. Julia looked quite fetching in her vintage cocktail dress and mod hairdo; but I nearly swooned at seeing all my favorite actors from “Friday Night Lights.” I was in testosterone heaven!

I went by myself, last night, to see a special seminar on “Cane,” the CBS drama about a rich Cuban family growing sugarcane in Florida. Jimmy Smits, who stood head-and-shoulders above the rest of the cast, not only stars as the prodigal-son-turned-murderer Alex Vega, he also produces the show. Obviously, he was the main reason most of us were there. The real attraction, though, was Rita Moreno, who plays the family’s matriarch. She sashayed across the stage in her brown leather pants and gold-coin belt and generally looked fabulous. It was hard to believe that she was my mother’s neighbor when they were both growing up in NYC.

Even better yet was the Paley’s “toast” to “Mad Men,” AMC’s spot-on drama about the advertising business in 1960. Still stuck in the 1950s/60s ourselves, this is the perfect TV show for us with all its perfectly recreated mid-century furniture and wardrobe. Jon Hamm, who plays Don Draper, the advertising exec with the mysterious past, is a lot more petite in person than he is on the screen. Actresses Elisabeth Moss and Christina Hendricks were also far less voluptuous. "They must be forced to wear padding on the show," Tim kept insisting. If only the rest of us were so lucky!

10/30/07

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Home Improvements, Pt. 2


After living all summer with a grassless, defoliated backyard, we heard from our landscaper Joel that the weather was finally cool enough to plant new foliage. So we schlepped all the way out to the Theodore Payne Foundation, a 22-acre California native plant preserve and nursery in Sun Valley, to go plant-shopping. With Joel’s (and, thank goodness, Karen’s) help, we selected three varieties of salvia (i.e., sage), three types of Manzanita bushes, two succulents, and an assortment of plants that will eventually cover the ground and (fingers crossed!) bloom in festive colors come next spring.

Joel also picked out a small tree (cercis occidentallis—i.e., redbud), which produces tiny magenta flowers in the spring, a luscious gardenia bush (my favorite flower), and tall brown-and-green cannas for two of my many pots. The real centerpiece, however, is the magnificent octopus agave that we decided to include rather last minute. It is the most dramatic element of the entire project and gives me hope that the rest of the yard will soon be just as beautiful.

The gardeners showed up to plant everything on Wednesday — the day I teach, unfortunately, so I wasn’t able to appreciate their handiwork until the next morning. I was surprised to see what looked like a lanky man standing on the front porch, though, when I drove up that night. It turned out to be one of the cannas greeting me with its brilliant orange flowers.

To say that I’m now obsessed with my garden would be an understatement. Much like a mother hen with her chicks, I check my baby plants daily for any signs of progress and even slunk outside before dawn with a flashlight, Saturday morning, to make sure they had survived the rainstorm the night before. Most of the plants are very small, but should start looking like their own nature preserve within the year.

Stay tuned . . .

10/14/07

Monday, September 24, 2007

Porto's


Located in Glendale since 1960, Porto’s is the most famous—and possibly the best—Cuban bakery and cafe in all of L.A. county. Even though I grew-up right next door in Burbank, neither Tim nor I ever ate there until last spring. Our first visit was most memorable.

Vaguely remembering its address, I creeped along Brand Blvd. until I saw cars jostling for parking spots in front of a store with sidewalk tables and umbrellas. We parked two blocks away and walked in the front door.

Inside was pure chaos as mobs of people stood on line for pastries (on the right) and hot food (on the left). Even with 20-30 employees working behind the counters, the lines were ridiculously long—but everyone was happy! We decided to stay.

After about 20 minutes, we ordered two “pan con lechon” (roasted pork) sandwiches and then went in search of a table. We found one right next to an open doorway that led to another entire store filled with Porto’s goodies! Over Tim’s shoulder, I could see shelves lined with bread in all shapes and sizes. I could barely finish my sandwich before leaping out of my seat and running over to see what other delicacies awaited.

Of course, it was complete unbridled havoc in the bakery. Where the cafe had (albeit long) lines of patient customers, the bakery was another matter altogether, with everyone standing in one massive group waiting for his or her number to be called. We grabbed a number (#83) and joined the crowd. There were some 20 people ahead of us.

Porto’s is probably best known for its fabulous cakes which, in most cases, look like works of art. The people ordering cakes seemed to know exactly what they wanted; but for the rest of us the options were endless. I spied something that looked like a knot of dough covered in cinnamon in the corner of the display case and so squeezed through the crowd to get a better look.

“They’re brioche,” I reported back to Tim. “They look phenomenal!”

“I’ll have what she just said!” the man next to me replied when his wife asked what he wanted. Our collective appetites were soaring!

Finally I heard a voice behind the counter yell my number and I snapped to attention.

“EIGHTY-THREE!! EIGHTY-THREE” I cried as I elbowed my way to the front of the pack. No one was going to stand between me and my brioche!

I ended up taking home four brioche, half-a-dozen polverones (Spanish sugar cookies that I hadn’t seen since I was a kid), and a baguette—and all for the remarkable price of only $7.50. A haul like this would have cost twice that much on the west side.

We now find an excuse to stop in Glendale every time we’re east of downtown L.A., including last Saturday when I convinced Tim to accompany me to a paper collectibles show by promising to eat at Porto’s afterward. The place was as crazy as usual, but the food smelled just as tasty; so we slipped into line and waited to order. Mmm, mmm! Pork and pastries—what a feast! And such a deal, too!

9/24/07

Thursday, September 13, 2007

9/11/07


While others solemnly commemorated the sixth anniversary of 9/11, Tim and I cheerfully headed downtown to hear local author James Ellroy speak at the Los Angeles Public Library. A native son of El Monte and Hancock Park, Ellroy is most famous for his darkly complex stories about the seedy underbelly of mid-century Los Angeles. “L.A. Confidential” and last year’s “Black Dahlia” are film adaptations of two of his better known works. Although we have never read his novels, we know him by reputation and were anxious to see him speak. But first we had to get downtown.

L.A. is, of course, notorious for its impossible rush hour traffic. Ellroy was speaking at 7PM, so we left the house at 5:40PM, motivated by a curt email, received earlier in the day, threatening to give away our seats if we did not arrive by 6:50PM. As natives ourselves, we knew better than to take the freeway and so flew down surface streets. It looked like we would arrive with plenty of time to spare, until we got to Figueroa and waited ten minutes to turn left. We then came to a screeching halt as road construction forced everyone to merge from four lanes down to two. At 6:40PM Tim looked at me and asked if we should just turn around and go home.

“I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss James Ellroy after coming all this way!” I exclaimed and zoomed down a side street. Ten minutes later, I pulled into the library’s parking lot.

“Run ahead,” I told Tim. “I’ll catch up later!” It had taken just as long to travel the last mile-and-a-half as it had taken us to drive the eight miles from Culver City to downtown.

We checked in at 6:55PM and got the last pair of seats. I heaved a huge sigh of relief. The man sitting next to me, however, was a nervous wreck, frowning at the door and looking repeatedly at his watch. There was an empty seat next to him. Obviously he was waiting for someone.

“Traffic is horrible,” I offered, trying to put him at ease.

“No, it’s my son-in-law. He went to validate his parking and I’m sure he got lost,” he said, wagging his head as if he still couldn’t believe his daughter had married this guy.

Meanwhile, Tim, who had run off to the restroom, came back with news of food being set-up in the courtyard outside the auditorium.

“Oh, yeah,” my seatmate explained. “They always have great food after these things.” The son-in-law then appeared and the man finally relaxed—so much so, in fact, that he slept through most of the program.

Ellroy was outrageous—ribald and profane and definitely not PG-rated. The woman who introduced him reminded the audience that the event was being taped for radio. All I could think was that every other word would have to be bleeped out! After an insanely crazy 20-minute speech, Ellroy opened the floor to questions.

The audience seemed more interested in his movies and sordid past (drugs, alcohol, jail, extramarital affairs) until Ellroy demanded they start asking about his books. The errant son-in-law raised his hand and, to my astonishment, Ellroy called on him by name! Apparently they were friends. I was dying to get the inside scoop, but he and his sleepy father-in-law ran out of the auditorium as soon as the Q&A ended. We saw them a few minutes later, noshing hors d’oeuvres at the head of the reception line.

The food in the courtyard was surprisingly good, especially since the program was free. Hordes of people crowded the salmon and tamales table, while Tim and I headed toward the desserts. We piled our plates high with fruit and pan dulces (Mexican pastry) and then stepped aside as the swarms descended. Ellroy mingled with his fans, but we couldn’t even get close. We left after eating our fill.

James Ellroy has called L.A. an ugly place where people “come to vacation but leave on probation.” Still, I saw only beauty as we emerged from the library’s parking lot. No sporting events or concerts congested the streets on this sixth anniversary of 9/11. There weren’t even any film crews diverting traffic. Just a strangely serene city.

We rolled down the windows and drove home.

9/13/07

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Home Improvements


No home improvement project is ever simple. You make one small change, which leads to another and, before you know it, you’re neck-deep in a whole new project.

Case in point: After putting it off for several years, we finally had the outside of house painted last February. In the process, we had the painters remove the hideous old aluminum patio cover that the original owner had installed in the 1960s. The plan was to replace it with a new wooden structure; but when I saw glorious sunlight streaming into a kitchen that had previously been dark, I decided to leave the patio uncovered and paint it red instead. I then bought furniture and colorful umbrellas to create a much more festive atmosphere. I envisioned having lots of garden parties with friends as we luxuriated in the cool summer breeze . . .

But wait. What garden? Our backyard was a nightmare of brown grass and sad old rose bushes. Something had to be done!

I love our small postwar home and enjoy freshening it up with new furniture and interesting colors on the walls. But I know nothing about yards and things that grow in the earth. In fact, one of the first things we did when we moved in was hire a gardener to mow the lawns twice a month and periodically shape-up the bushes. As long as the grass was short and the plants neat, I was happy.

To get some help with this new project, I hired a landscaper named Joel, who was highly recommended by a friend. With water rationing seriously looming on L.A. county’s horizon, we decided to go with drought-resistant plants in the back instead of traditional grass. We then turned our attention to the front yard. Joel loved our fabulous Chinese elm—everyone does!—but was distressed at our neglected birch tree.

“What’s with this tree?” he asked incredulously.

“I don’t know. What’s wrong with it?” I innocently replied.

“It’s dead!” he announced.

“IT IS!?” I practically yelled, completely oblivious to the fact that it hadn’t sprouted leaves in more than two years.

With a great sweep of his arm, Joel declared that it had to go, while I stood there amazed that I could be so botanically-challenged. He also decided to yank the hideous junipers from our brick planter, but the camellia bushes, which do bloom once a year, could stay.

The backyard is another thing altogether. Everything has been demolished—including a fruit-bearing peach tree that I didn’t even know was there!—and replaced by mulch. Joel designed a short pea gravel-filled path that stops at the corner where the peach tree used to stand. It’s now up to me to find a birdbath to put at the end of the path—a much more difficult task than I imagined. Have you ever investigated birdbaths? Most of them are common monstrosities—the rest cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Needless to say, the quest continues.

It is too hot to plant natives during the summer, so my assignment these past couple of months has been to identify specimens that I’d like to see growing in our backyard. Joel loaned me a book to help me decide, but I ended up marking everything that produces red or purple flowers! So now I’m supposed to look at actual plants at nurseries or in other people’s yards. I hit the jackpot when we attended a wedding last month at the Estancia Spa and Resort in La Jolla. The grounds there were completely covered in California natives! I ended up taking more pictures of the plants than of the bride.

My second task has been to buy pottery to dress-up the patio and front porch. Tentative at first, I have now officially gone berserk and buy every pot I see. My downfall was a small store I spied as we were leaving our vacation rental in Shell Beach last month. For an hour I rambled through piles of Mexican pottery until I finally narrowed my search to three items. Now, of course, I’ve got to find plants to put inside them. I’ve heard of pot addicts, but pottery addicts? I think I’m the first.

We’re still waiting for the weather to cool down enough for Joel to return and plant the backyard. In the meantime, Tim has bought a lawnmower, which he uses every other week to trim the grass in front, while I occasionally pull weeds in the back. To be continued . . .

9/6/07

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Catonsville Nine



The formerly glamorous Culver Theater was a mere shell of itself when we moved here nine years ago. At one time the premier venue for showcasing movies produced by MGM Studios, located right across the street, the theater had fallen into disrepair by the early 1990s. City officials were debating what to do with the decaying relic, when actor Kirk Douglas and his wife Anne stepped up and donated over $2 million to convert the old movie house into a live theater stage. Two years later, the Culver reopened, appropriately enough, as the 300-seat Kirk Douglas Theatre, part of the Center Group theaters that include the Mark Taper and Ahmanson in downtown L.A. With its marquee encircled by blazing white neon lights, the Douglas has become a dramatic landmark in Culver City’s renovated downtown area.

I have vague memories of seeing “Gone with the Wind” at the old Culver Theater when the film was rereleased in the 1970s, so I’ve been dying to see its new interior. But I haven’t been all that excited by the plays offered there—that is, until last Wednesday when I opened the L.A. Times and saw that the Actors’ Gang was going to stage a one-time-only reading of “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.” Set in 1968, the play features actual testimony of the nine Catholic activists who were found guilty of stealing and burning military draft records in protest of the Vietnam War. The much-celebrated Daniel Berrigan, a poet and priest who was one of the Nine, wrote the play while on the lam. Eighty-six years old, he is still active in the peace movement.

Although the reading was a fundraiser and, therefore, cost an arm-and-a-leg ($250) to attend, I decided to go because the subject matter is as timely today as it was forty years ago; plus I greatly admire the Actors’ Gang, which tends to stage progressively liberal plays that other more well-known theater troupes wouldn’t touch. Actor/activist Tim Robbins is the Gang’s artistic director.

The ticket price was a little too steep for Tim, so I went alone. I wasn’t sure what to wear to such an event, especially since I assumed the audience would be filled with rich, if progressive (!), celebrities. I settled on a new dress I had recently bought but had never worn: black cotton spandex top with a festively full skirt attached—very much the type of thing Rita Moreno would have worn in “West Side Story.” I dressed it up a bit with some jewelry, but then dressed it down by wearing nice flip-flops. I thought I had all bases covered until I got there and saw that, even though some women were as dressed up as me, most were very casual in denim skirts or jeans. I guess if you pay $250 for a theater ticket, you buy the right to dress comfortably!

The theater was intimate and still very new, but all vestiges of its previous life are now gone. In fact, this could have been any of the many recently refurbished live theaters in Los Angeles, except that this one is only 10 minutes from home and there’s plenty of free street parking. I was very disappointed.

I read later that Jeremy Piven, whom I love from HBO's "Entourage," and actress Sharon Stone were in the audience, but I didn't see them. I did recognize Marg Helgenberger, of “CSI,” seated two rows in front of me, however. (She’s much more attractive in person!). The star power on-stage more than made up for the lack of other famous people in the seats.

Starring as Daniel Berrigan was none other than Martin Sheen, president Jed Bartlet on “The West Wing” and one of my all-time favorite orators. Toward the end of the play, he gave a speech that practically brought the house down. Tim Robbins played Berrigan’s priest brother Philip, who masterminded the Catonsville incident. He also delivered an antiwar speech that completely resonated with today’s situation in Iraq.

Rounding out the cast were Neil Patrick Harris, whom I’ve loved ever since he spoofed himself in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” Camryn Manheim (late of “The Practice”), Beau Bridges, Keith Carradine, Sandra Oh (from “Grey’s Anatomy”), Mike Farrell, who had some sort of foot ailment and so did his entire performance from a wheelchair, Frances Conroy (the mother in “Six Feet Under”), Jason Ritter (late of “Joan of Arcadia”), Anthony Zerbe, who had starred in the original “Catonsville Nine” play in the late 1960s, Dakin Matthews, and Tonya Pinkins. Phew! The reading was a little rough around the edges—apparently they had little time to rehearse—but it was amazing nonetheless. The message—burning military service records to prevent the burning of children in war—was not lost on all of us who hate what George Bush is doing in Iraq.

There was a reception with the performers afterward out in the lobby. I saw people walking by with small plates filled with asparagus spears and other hors d’oeuvres. I grabbed a tasty piece of carrot cake and then quietly slipped out as the schmoozing began. Time to go home and do a little research on Daniel Berrigan and the Catonsville Nine.

8/18/07

Monday, August 06, 2007

Zorro in Hell



We’ve been fans of the Latino theater troupe Culture Clash since we saw their play “Bowl of Beings” in San Diego almost 20 years ago. Their humor is often irreverent, but always poignant and timely. Their last two plays, “Chavez Ravine” and “Water and Power,” did an especially terrific job of poking holes in the dark underbelly of L.A. politics. As soon as their latest play “Zorro in Hell” opened a couple of weeks ago, I got on the phone and ordered tickets.

The play is appearing at the Ricardo Montalban theater on Vine St. in Hollywood. Never quite as glamorous as the nearby Pantages, the theater—formerly called the Huntington Hartford and then the Doolittle—was saved from the wrecking ball in 1999 by the Ricardo Montalban Foundation in hopes of creating a venue for aspiring Hispanic actors. Although this potential still hasn't been truly realized, the building itself has a colorful history. I remember seeing “Equus” there when I was in college—it was the first time I had ever seen a completely naked man in person! Much more recently, the theater served as the backdrop for a Progressive Democrats fundraiser, which Tim, Karen and I attended during the 2004 presidential election. The star-studded event featured a reading of Tony Kushner’s “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy,” a satirical work-in-progress about Laura Bush (played by Sally Field). Lots of lefty celebrities in the audience—we were in our glory.

Although not as exciting as Kushner, the play Friday night was nonetheless fun as a picture of Che Guevara, donning a Zorro mask, set the tone. The play focused on a “pocho” (non-Spanish-speaking Latino) playwright who, through a series of humorous hallucinations, gets in touch with his inner “Zorro.” (A glossary in the playbill translated key Spanish phrases for the gringos in the audience!) The play's message: it’s time to take back California from the Imperialist pigs. OK, so it wasn’t very subtle. But we did note the irony of staging an agitprop performance across the street from the future site of an opulent W Hotel currently under construction. In fact, nightshift bulldozers greeted us loudly as we left the sanctity of the theater. I’ve complained before about the encroaching gentrification of Hollywood, but maybe Culture Clash is right. It’s time we all become Zorro-istas and demand that the craziness stop. Just how much development can Los Angeles stand anyway? Que vive El Zorro!

8/6/07

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Comic-Con 2007

Comic-Con hit San Diego again with a big "BANG! POW!" last weekend. What started 38 years ago as a rather casual annual gathering of local comicbook collectors has turned into a mega-million-dollar extravaganza that attracts some 130,000 fans and media hounds from around the world. According to the LA Times, Comic-Con has become a “pop-culture” phenomenon.

Since getting into the con on Saturday was such a nightmare last year, Tim and I decided to go on Friday instead. Activities began at 10:30AM, so we reserved seats on the 7:20AM train heading south. We arrived at L.A.’s magnificent Union Station at 6:40AM.

“What do you think the geek factor will be on the train?” Tim asked before we even got to the station.

“HUGE!” I replied.

And sure enough, the train was overrun with young fan-boys and -girls wearing dark t-shirts sporting the logos of various rock bands and science fiction movies. Clothes—and, of course, costumes!—are a big part of the Comic-Con experience.

The train arrived in downtown San Diego at 10:10AM. From there, it’s a 15-minute walk to the Convention Center—just enough time to make the first big panel presentation of the day at 10:30AM. Warner Bros. studio was sneak-previewing its upcoming movies, including “Get Smart,” the remake of one my favorite 1960s TV shows. Although the movie’s main star, Steve Carell (who plays secret agent Maxwell Smart), wasn’t listed in the program, Tim and I were betting he would indeed show-up since Comic-Con has become the biggest movie-hype fest on the west coast. We raced off the train.

Thank goodness for advance online registration because we were able to run right in and get our convention badges. The line outside the Warner Bros. event, however, was daunting. Even though the auditorium (the infamous “Hall H”) holds 6,500 people, the room was already at capacity, so we gave up and headed over to the exhibits. Boy, was I grumpy the next morning when I read that not only did we miss Carell, but The Rock (who plays super Agent 23) was also there.

The exhibits were a rush, as usual. Some of the creative geniuses behind the sci-fi classic “Blade Runner,” including actresses Sean Young and Joanna Cassidy, were there signing posters for the 25th anniversary DVD of the movie. At the Disney exhibit, we stood on line to see an enclosed display of costumes and photographs from the most recent installment of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

The most impressive exhibit, though, had to be LucasFilms, which showed clips of the various “Star Wars” movies on three screens that could be seen from just about anywhere in the hall. At one point, everyone in the immediate vicinity looked upward as Luke Skywalker proceeded to use The Force to destroy the impenetrable Death Star. As a group, we’d probably all watched that scene over a thousand times total—still, there’s nothing quite like seeing “Star Wars” again on a big screen.

LucasFilms also provided a mini-exhibit of “Vader Project” artworks from the “Star Wars” convention back in May. Our favorites were “Carmen Mirandarth,” made up to look like Carmen Miranda, and political satirist Robbie Conal’s tribute to the Dark Lord (Dick Cheney) and his minion (George W. Bush).

After walking around and gawking at exhibits for about three hours, I insisted on sitting down. So we made our way back to Hall H, where clips from the upcoming movie “Shoot ‘Em Up,” starring Clive Owen, were about to be shown. Now I’ve loved Clive Owen since he played the title character in Disney’s movie “King Arthur,” so I was absolutely thrilled when he and director Michael Davis came out to talk about their new movie and answer questions. Owen, who usually plays a rather stoic leading man, was funny and very cute. The audience—all 6,500 of us!—adored him and the film.

On that high note, Tim and I left the con and headed into San Diego’s Gaslamp district to get something to eat. The geek factor was huge there, too, but we didn’t care because we were officially geeks now ourselves. After gobbling down a couple of tasty pizzas, we made our way over to the train station, where we boarded the Amtrak back to reality. Only 360 days left till next year’s Comic-Con . . .

7/30/07

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Mods & Rockers


The 8th annual “Mods and Rockers” film festival, which features movies about the 1960s “British invasion” and its aftermath, opened last night in Hollywood. Although the topic is, of course, right up my alley, we’ve never been. This year, however, the festival opened with “What’s Happening!”—a little-seen documentary about the Beatles’ first visit to the US. I bought two tickets immediately.

Driving to Hollywood on a Friday night in the middle of summer can be harrowing, so we left two hours early. We arrived at the Hollywood & Highland mall/theater complex an hour later. Tim wanted to try a new-ish French dip place, called “The Dip,” which he had read about on one of his L.A.-based blogs. It’s owned by Ken Davitian, Sacha Baron Cohen’s memorably corpulent companion in the movie “Borat.” The Dip's French fries were sprinkled with something orange that made them taste a bit like Cheetos. Yum!

The festival was across the street at the Egyptian Theater. Leaving the restaurant, we noticed a bigger crowd than usual milling around Hollywood Blvd. I overheard somebody say a commercial was being filmed. Sure enough, there was comic TV star Drew Carey chatting to a nice-looking middle-aged woman as the crowd looked on and cameras rolled.

“Would you like to talk to Drew Carey on camera?” a man asked Tim as we walked by.

“No thanks,” he said and kept right on walking.

“What do you mean, ‘No thanks’? You used to love Drew Carey!” I nagged. “Don’t you want to be on TV?!”

Apparently not, because he kept right on walking.

Even though the Egyptian was only a block away, it took us a while to navigate through all the tourists ogling the cement stars on The Hollywood Walk of Fame. A Latino family excitedly pointed out Jay Leno’s star in front of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, while a young boy sat on the sidewalk, posing for a picture next to Marilyn Monroe’s star. Unimpressed, we mushed ahead.

A long line of people were just starting to go into the theater when we arrived. I quickly ran over to the will-call window to pick-up our tickets. Amazingly, we were able to find two seats in the middle of the theater, eye-level to the screen. Perfect!

“Now aren’t you glad I didn’t stop and talk to Drew Carey?” Tim asked.

Beatles music played as we filed into the theater. Several people wore Beatles t-shirts and I could hear folks softly singing along to the soundtrack overhead. A British guy came out and thanked everyone for coming. The theater then went black. I felt like a 10-year-old kid all over again.

Despite claims that this was rare footage, I knew from the very first frame that I had seen this film before. In fact, we own the DVD under a different name, “The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit.” Still, it was wonderful seeing “the boys” projected onto a 60-foot screen again after all these years. For the next 81 minutes, they were young, beautiful and—best of all—all still alive. Except for the occasional burst of laughter or polite round of applause, the audience watched in rapt silence. We were transported back in time.

Afterward, the British guy, who had worked with Beatles press agent Derek Taylor, answered questions from the audience. The Rolling Stones’ documentary “Gimme Shelter” was playing next, but very few people stayed.

It was a gorgeous night, so we put the top down on the Miata, plugged in the iPod, and sang along with the Beatles the whole way home.

“There are places I’ll remember all my life, though some have changed—some forever, not for better, some have gone and some remain . . . In my life, I’ve loved them all . . .” (Lennon/McCartney, 1965)

7/14/07

Friday, July 06, 2007

Beam Me Up!


It’s no secret that I love “Star Trek.” I watched the very first episode on September 8, 1966, and have been a fan (i.e., Trekkie) ever since.

Even though I think “The Next Generation” (1987-1994) is by far the best of the five “Star Trek” series, I have, over the years, remained a fervent devotee of Captain James T. Kirk. As played by William Shatner, Kirk was a macho he-man who made all the ladies swoon, despite Shatner’s ham-bone overacting. Kirk also happened to be a male chauvinist pig — typical of the period — but I liked him anyway because he was decisive and never wrong.

Shatner has, of course, reinvented himself many times since then. Besides continuing to act on television and in the movies, he’s become an author (fiction as well as nonfiction) and released a well-reviewed music CD, called “Has Been,” a couple of years ago. He’s also the very funny spokesperson for Priceline.com. But perhaps his best role of all is as Denny Crane, the “mad cow” (i.e., Alzheimer’s) impaired senior partner on the TV show “Boston Legal.” When he’s not sleeping in court, he’s flirting with female clients (Kirk again!) or smoking cigars on his balcony with best friend and coworker Alan Shore (James Spader). I love Denny Crane.

I’ve seen Shatner many times at “Star Trek” conventions and even sat two feet away from him in a makeshift “green room” before he went on the air during a Mark & Brian radio show several years ago. Still, I was very excited when Tim called me on Tuesday to say that “Bill” was coming into the station later that morning.

Phone rings (7AM). . .

Tim: I forgot to tell you that William Shatner is coming into the station today to promote some project he’s involved in.

Me (surprised): What?! If I would have known he was going to be there, I would have given you something to have him sign!

Tim: Oh well. He’ll be on the radio at 8AM. Be sure to listen.

Me: [grumble, grumble, grumble. . .]

The phone rang again 45 minutes later. Tim had found an excuse to come home and so I ran around trying to find something for Shatner to sign. I finally settled on the cover of the season #1 DVD of “Boston Legal.” I shoved Tim out the door and turned on the radio. Shatner was reliving some moment from “Star Trek,” for the millionth time, but made it clear that he wanted to talk about other things, including his new pet project: sending department store gift cards to soldiers recuperating at Walter Reed hospital. He chatted on the air for about 50 minutes and then left to film “Boston Legal.” What a great way to start the day!

I waited for Tim to call, but he never did, so I assumed he hadn’t met my hero. I then ran off to UCLA, where I was teaching at noon.

When I returned home at 4PM, I found this photo in my e-mailbox, along with the following message:

“Denny Crane!!! I got the autograph. Love, Tim”

Denny and William Shatner’s signature now watch me all day long from where they hang on my office wall. Beam me up, indeed!

7/6/07

Sunday, July 01, 2007

That Was the Week That Was

Summer is definitely here. Not only am I now living in shorts and flip-flops, but every other day offers something fun to do. Take this past week, for example . . .

Friday, June 22

Jersey Boys,” the last play in this year’s Ahmanson theater subscription. A huge hit on Broadway, “Jersey Boys” captures the rise, fall, and rise (again) of the 1960s pop group The Four Seasons, through a colorful narrative (wow, what language!) and rousing renditions of their music. It sold out so quickly that the Ahmanson added another two months to the run. I love it so much that I call my parents the next morning and tell them they have to see it. I buy them matinee tickets for the end of August.

Saturday, June 23

The Police reunion concert at Dodger Stadium (see blog entry below).

Sunday, June 24

With ears still ringing, I rouse myself out of bed to accompany Karen to a Hawaiiana collectibles show. Lots of cool-looking rattan furniture and surfing memorabilia. Who knew pineapple collectibles could be so cute?

Two hours later, Tim and I attend the “Taste of the Nation” food festival in downtown Culver City. Since we’ve moved here, Culver City has become the restaurant capital of L.A. county, featuring trendy eateries and celebrity chefs, like Ben Ford (actor Harrison Ford’s son [see photo]) and Michael Wilson (Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s nephew). The food at the festival is phenomenal — Wilson’s pulled pork is “to die for” — the sun is so beastly hot, however, that my stomach rebels. The porta-potties are a mess, so we head home. But not without first stuffing contraband baggies full of Bluebird Cafe’s famous cupcakes and other sweet stuff. Thank goodness for large summer purses!

Monday, June 25

The L.A. Film Festival is in its second week, but we’ve been too busy to attend. I get a message that tickets are now available for “Jeff Garlin’s Combo Platter,” an improv comedy show that’s part of the festival. We love Garlin on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” plus he was very funny at last year’s film fest, so I quickly order tickets. The show is hilarious as Garlin and two friends riff on various comedy topics. We go to bed well past our normal Monday bedtime.

Tuesday, June 26

I was able to get tickets to one movie at the festival: “Joshua,” starring Sam Rockwell (a favorite from the “Star Trek” spoof, “GalaxyQuest,” and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”) and Vera Farmiga (the female lead from the old Heath Ledger TV show “Roar”). A dark chiller, I want to flee the theater as soon I realize that Joshua, the brilliant young son of a rich Manhattan couple, is actually a very “bad seed” indeed. But we stay and I not only get to see Rockwell, who is apparently channeling Johnny Depp these days, and Michael McKean, who has a small role in the film, but also TV actress Sharon Lawrence (very attractive!), who was standing on line in the women’s restroom. I have nightmares that night, but it’s worth it.

Wednesday, June 27

I hear on the morning news that former-Beatle Paul McCartney is staging a free in-store concert today at Amoeba Music, but am too tired to wait on line for a ticket. In fact, I’m so exhausted that I completely forget my 9AM doctor’s appointment and so call to cancel at 10:30AM. Lucky, too, because my new landscaper comes by a few minutes later to take pictures of the backyard, which he’s demolishing next week.

Thursday, June 28

Up early to catch a morning flight to Reno, where I’m meeting my sister and brother-in-law, who have driven down from Seattle to visit my 84-year-old uncle Louie. Lots of laughter. Some tears. We then drive to Sacramento, where we’re spending the night before heading down to Southern California. There’s a big fire blazing south of Lake Tahoe, but we see only blue skies and peacefully green forests.

Friday, June 29

We wake-up to a power outage and so take quick showers before the hot water runs out. We start the long trip south to Los Angeles. Eight hours later, Vicki decides she wants to see what’s become of our grandparents’ old house and so we take a side trip through The Valley. The house is overgrown and generally depressing. We flee to Culver City, where Tim is happy to showoff his barbecuing skills. Karen comes over for dessert outside on our newly renovated patio. Life is good!

Saturday, June 30

Awake by 6:30AM. After a long walk, we share a large apple pancake at Dinah’s (yum!). Vicki has been researching our genealogy and so we spend two hours examining all the records she’s uncovered through the census, steerage lists, etc. Looks like we might have some relatives in Spain and Puerto Rico we never knew existed—very exciting stuff!

Alone again, Tim and I decide to go dancing at Disneyland, where our favorite Disney swing band, Stompy Jones, is playing. The weather is so hot that we’re soaking wet after only one dance. Still, we stay for an hour-and-a-half and dance our feet off. We’ve seen the fireworks show many times before, so leave early. Home by 10PM!

Today, July 1

It’s nice to sleep in! We have a leisurely breakfast on the patio in our jammies. I read a review of McCartney’s Amoeba concert, which was fabulous, and am upset I didn’t go. Tim wants to see a movie that starts at 1PM and I’m desperate to get a haircut. Just enough time to catch my breath before the next round of fun begins. . .

7/1/07