Monday, September 26, 2011

L.A. County Fair

My family may have been rich in many ways, but we never had much money.  Still, our parents managed to take my sister Vicki and me to Disneyland every couple of years.  Plus we always went to the L.A. County Fair—an annual ritual—that is, until Vicki and I got too old to care much about farm animals and family outings. 


When we were young, all six of us—including our Gramma and aunt Ti—would pile into the car at the crack of dawn, so we could get to the fair when the gates opened.  (Pomona was a looong way from Burbank, in those days!)  As soon as we arrived, we’d drop Gramma off at the Mexican Village, where she could yak all day with other Spanish-speaking natives.

I no longer remember what we did at the fair (other than eat), but do know we always stayed till dark, stopping at the “Fun Zone” on our way out.  My sister and I weren’t much for carnival rides, but we did love to pitch dimes at small faux Depression-glass bowls in one of the many game booths.  Vicki had an extraordinary arm, filling both our and Ti’s kitchen cabinets with tiny glass bowls—far too many, even for our family of hardy dessert-eaters. 

Me, Ti and Vic 


It’s been many years since I’ve been to the fair, so naturally I said I’d go when Tim announced he had to work a remote broadcast from there this past weekend.

The radio show started at 7AM.  We spent the night before at the Fairplex Sheraton (Pomona is still a very looong way away!).  I was surprised to see the fairgrounds looking pretty much the same: the big grandstand/racetrack at the center, farm animals to the north, the flower and garden pavilion to the south, and the permanent exhibit buildings on the east.  The “Fun Zone” has been replaced by rides located throughout the park.  Tim’s broadcast booth was next to the sky ride, from which passengers were admonished not to throw objects or spit (!).

My first stop was the old flower and garden pavilion, where I had spent many delight-filled hours as a youth—an early indicator, no doubt, of my future fascination with all things botanical (who knew?).  I was distressed to find myself back in the 1960s, however, staring at tacky lush landscapes and lots of water features.  Have the county fair exhibitors learned nothing about drought-resistent California plants in all these years?  A major disappointment.

I next went in search of Gramma’s Mexican Village.  Now called the more politically correct “Plaza de las Américas,” the stage—and the performers!—looked exactly the same, though the audience was decidedly much more heterogeneous.  Hawkers were selling the same old south-of-the-border junk; but Spanish-language radio station KWKW's booth, where Ti and I were interviewed on the air many years ago, was now history.

I then moseyed over to Fairview Farms.  In the old days, the cows, goats, pigs, chickens, and sheep were all confined to small pens.  At least now the barn was spacious, allowing the animals to roam around and stay clear of humans, if they so desired.  Where else can you laugh at a mound of adorable sleeping piglets, then step outside and order barbecued pork as soon as you leave the barn?  The county fair is nothing if not incongruous!

I spent a good hour walking down the crowded aisles of the “Shopping Place,” where you can buy everything from jewelry, candy, sewing machines, beds, flags, several brands of kitchenware, handbags, flying toy helicopters, vegetable choppers, grave sites and coffins (yikes!), and fake chamois.  You can also have your teeth whitened and/or get a foot massage, while waiting for the next product demonstration to begin.  

This, too, was a familiar throwback to my childhood.  But I did stumble upon two completely new areas that I would have loved as a kid: a medieval town, where youngsters posed with fake knights and a magician, and Jurassic Planet, a pretty good exhibit of animatronic dinosaurs.

As fun as all that was, the biggest highlight for me was the Millard Sheets Center for the Arts, where “Eclectic Collectibles” were being displayed.  Here I found collections of postcards, lunch boxes, comicbooks, buttons, thousands of soda-can pull-tabs carefully shaped into furniture, wood sculptures, fruitbox labels, and an assortment of signs on loan from the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale.  This alone was worth the price of admission.

And, of course, no county fair experience is complete without massive quantities of mostly fried food.  But as even Tim discovered, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing!  For the first time ever, he couldn’t finish his hot dog.  Another county fair memory to cherish!

Vicki, me and Dad

Monday, September 19, 2011

Vegas, Baby!

There was a big boxing match in Las Vegas this past weekend, so HBO, which broadcasted the fight as pay-for-view, invited radio stations nationwide to promote the event from Vegas on Thursday and Friday.  My 40-year high school reunion was also this weekend, so Tim swapped jobs with his boss Mike, who covered Tim’s weekend hours in exchange for Tim going to Vegas.  Hey!  Radio is hard work, but someone’s gotta do it!

Here’s Tim’s account of what happened:

I knew this wouldn’t be a normal trip when I arrived at LAX and saw a very tall young lady in “Daisy Duke” shorts.  She was standing on the security line with a man who probably would have endured short jokes, if he were not built like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime.  I was going to Las Vegas to oversee remote broadcasts to promote HBO’s upcoming Mayweather vs. Ortiz fight. An otherwise uneventful one-hour flight suddenly turned interesting as we circled McCarran airport for 45 minutes, waiting for a thunderstorm to pass, before landing in Vegas.  I then took a shuttle to the hotel: the MGM Grand, site of the fight and the broadcasts.

A regulation-sized boxing ring was installed under the dome in the hotel’s lobby. Signing autographs nearby were Leon Spinks, Ernie Shavers, and others. Autographs cost $49 to $99, depending on which one you got to sign. The lobby was crowded for a Wednesday, I was told. Weddings, bachelor/ette parties and fight fans had swelled the usual weekday mob.

My room was nice for what I paid (zero—thank you, HBO!). Since it was the MGM Grand, all artwork in the rooms and hallways was glamour shots of movie stars, past and present. My room featured a photo of Patrick Stewart, Cindy's beloved captain Jean Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation. He stared at me as if admonishing me to stay away from the mini-bar, if I knew what was good for me! 

The remote broadcasts were in a ballroom converted into “Radio Row.” A couple of dozen stations from around the country sent teams to do their shows, mentioning the MGM Grand, HBO pay-per-view and the fight MANY times an hour. My last radio row experience was during the 2000 Democratic Convention in L.A., but this was way better. Catered! Radio people are far down on the show biz chain, so free food is a BIG deal. At home, our “craft service” is a vending machine.

Our shows were broadcasted from 10AM to 2PM, then 4PM to 10PM. Our final guest during the early show, Thursday, was Mike Tyson—a surprise addition who just happened to walk by after we went off the air. We taped a 20-minute interview with him for the next show, about 6 minutes of which was deleted because of profanity.  A very interesting man, Tyson spoke of his youth and time in the ring. He got emotional recounting the accidental death of his 4-year-old daughter. I took a picture with my cellphone, but was warned by one of his group (i.e., the blurred figure reaching out to me in the picture above) to refrain from taking more.

Walking around the hotel on Friday, I spotted more muscle types. Turns out the Mr. Olympia competition was also in town. Usually you see men staring at attractive women. But they were also staring at the Mr. Olympia men with as much, if not more, admiration and awe.

Early flight out on Saturday—plenty of time to prep for that night’s high school reunion. But could the Universal Sheraton match the glitz of the MGM Grand? As long as there was no Hercules walking around in a tank top, I'll take it.

Sugar Ray Leonard

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Two Spocks

We already had reservations to attend another event when I read in the newspaper that Zachary Quinto, who played Spock in last year’s Star Trek movie, was going to interview the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, about his latest photography project, "Secret Selves," at the Hammer Museum.  I emailed Tim immediately to say there had been a sudden change of plans.  He told me to go have fun.

Located in Westwood a few blocks from campus, the Hammer is one of UCLA’s many museums/galleries.  The outside is very imposing—a big concrete, steel and glass box that seems impenetrable.  But inside, the box opens to the sky as the exterior of the building surrounds a lovely open-air atrium with trees and a small cafe.  To me, the space has always seemed more like something you’d find in NYC than Los Angeles.

The event was free, so I left almost two hours early in anticipation of a big crowd.  Sure enough, there were about 100 people in line by the time I got there.  Still, I got an excellent seat—one of the advantages of going to these types of things alone.  I had plenty of time to observe the audience, many of whom wore Star Trek regalia, including jackets, t-shirts and one woman attired in a full 24th-century star fleet uniform—completely inappropriate, I thought, for a program about Nimoy’s artwork.

Nimoy was introduced shortly after 7PM and commenced explaining his artistic process.  Seems he recently became interested in the Greek notion of humans once having four arms, four legs and two heads, until Zeus split them in half, forcing us to constantly search for our other selves.  Wondering what this might look like photographically, he asked the R. Michelson gallery, where most of his art is exhibited, to find 100 people who’d be willing to reveal their “secret selves” to his camera.  Nimoy then showed us a 40-minute film of his sessions with 25 of these people.

To say that these were deeply intimate encounters with folks who have fascinating and—sometimes very touching—alternate lives would be a huge understatement.  The film opened with a children’s book illustrator, standing in his underwear, holding an electric guitar.  His fantasy self: to be a rock star.  Others included the former Junior League president who was physically and mentally abused by her husband (she appears wearing boxing gloves in her photo), a graphic designer who is portrayed as an angel, a transvestite who wants to be Rita Hayworth, and a sailor who sees himself as Superman.  (Click here to view all 25 photos, plus clips from the film). It must have taken great courage for these people to participate in this project. The audience laughed many times throughout the short film, but Nimoy never once acted as if his subjects were strange or ridiculous.

After the screening, Nimoy reemerged alongside Zach Quinto as the two started chatting like old friends.  They talked about acting and the secrets performers create about the characters they’re depicting.  They also talked about Spock and the sometimes unwanted celebrity he has brought them.  (Nimoy had famously said to Quinto, "I do hope you know what you're getting into," when the younger man agreed to play Spock in last year's movie.)  It was really quite wonderful listening to two such popular actors discuss their craft candidly and so intelligently.

I highly recommend watching the podcast of their conversation, which will eventually be posted on the Hammer website, but be sure to stop once the Q&A is opened up to the audience.  A trekkie myself, of course, I tend to be very tolerant of fan questions; but even by my lax standards these were far more idiotic than usual (e.g., “How do you both feel when you see yourselves as action figures?”).  Ugh!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Watts Towers

On a weekend when many people are commemorating the senseless destruction of the Twin Towers in NYC, I am so happy I had the foresight to buy a ticket to tour L.A.’s own magnificent Watts Towers, located in south Los Angeles.  Oddly enough, though I’ve lived in L.A. most of my life, I’d never seen the towers, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are a National Historic Landmark as well as a state Historic Monument.

In 1921, Italian immigrant Simon Rodia began building a series of steel-enforced concrete structures in his backyard.  Encrusting the towers in bits of discarded glass, pottery, ceramics, and seashells, Rodia called his masterpiece “Nuestro Pueblo” (“Our Town”).  He was not trained as an artist nor did he have a background in engineering, yet his towers have survived many earthquakes and seem to defy gravity.  In 1955, he just walked away, deeding the house and land to a neighbor.  Today the property is managed by the city’s Cultural Affairs Department, which has stepped up preservation efforts to save it (and not a minute too soon).  As you can see for yourself, Rodia’s work is truly an amazing piece of art.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Max Monroe

We were standing outside with our neighbors, watching as a police helicopter buzzed overheard, when the conversation turned to previous crime incidents on our block. In our 13 years here, we had seen 2 car chases zoom by and knew about a shooting that occurred on the street before we moved in.

Then our next-door neighbor to the right pointed to the next-door neighbor on our left and casually said, “Oh yeah, and of course you know that the front of your house was blown-up several years ago.”

“WHAT?!!” we all yelled. None of us had ever heard this story before.

Turns out our three houses were featured briefly in an episode of a short-lived 1990 TV show called Max Monroe, starring Shadoe Stevens as an “unconventional” L.A. detective. That bit of news sent us all scurrying back home to find Max Monroe footage on the Internet.

Well, the show lasted only 6 episodes and none of the YouTube snippets (apparently uploaded by Shadoe Stevens himself) were shot on our street. Nor could we find any evidence of recorded copies of the show. So I started hunting for bootleg DVDs of the entire series.

About 5 screens into an intense Google search, I found a dealer (who shall remain nameless) selling a DVD collection of all the show’s episodes. I called a good friend (who shall also remain nameless and who buys lots of bootlegs herself) to see if she thought this guy was reputable. Looking at what he promised, plus his ratings (consistently 4 stars out of 5), I decided to proceed and bought the set sight-unseen. The DVDs arrived in the mail yesterday.

“I know what we’re doing tonight!” I emailed Tim.

Sure enough, as soon as we finished dinner, Tim inserted the first of four DVDs. We fast-forwarded through the first two, containing two episodes each. Lots of scenes of downtown L.A. and other local landmarks, but no house. I was starting to worry that maybe our neighbor was wrong.

But then we started watching “Flashback,” a two-hour episode that aired on April 14, 1990. About 3/4 of the way in, we suddenly saw something very familiar.

“THERE IT IS!” we both yelled, as the bad guys’ car turned the corner onto our street.

The cameras were obviously filming from our front yard, because we could see everyone’s house but ours. Then the south side of our house appeared and we were ecstatic. Our house was famous, if only for half a second! And, indeed, the front of our neighbor’s home got pretty much blown-up. See for yourself: