May 28, 2015

A Matter of Place: Dancing Through Chinatown's Changes

Usually, when people attend a concert, the symphony, a ballet or a play, where the show is happening had some influence on their decision to go. People are just as drawn to the Greek Theatre or the Hollywood Bowl or Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as they are to whatever is happening on the stage. Seeing a movie at the Chinese or the Egyptian is an event.

But that film or performance would be more or less the same, regardless of where it took place. The play's the thing, after all.

But there are a growing number of opportunities to see all different types of spaces be transformed into a stage, inspiring the music or choreography that takes place in, on, and around them. These immersive performances might take you into a church, a former bank, a mansion, an abandoned hospital before it becomes senior housing, or – in the case of Chinatown Blues – in an old retail building that's being renovated while rehearsals are happening, even minutes before the show's opening night on Friday, May 29.

On Spring Street, down the block from LA's Chinatown Gold Line Metro station...

...there's a building covered in scaffolding and tarps, which mask fragile windows and historic brickwork.

Built in 1912 as a warehouse, this is the former Chinatown Phước Lộc Thọ Center shopping center / swap meet, where choreographer Heidi Duckler has brought her dance troupe for their next performance.

The audience will enter from North New High Street, at the rear of the former Vietnamese-style bazaar, whose bustling businesses once included a karaoke studio, music/video store, gift shop, locksmith, and Diva Girl, a clothing store – all run by ethnic Chinese immigrants from Vietnam.

While it's currently being renovated into a mixed use retail and creative office space, Portuguese street artist Vhils (née Alexandre Farto) is creating one of two Chinatown building murals here.

Renovation was supposed to be completed in November 2014, but it is very much an active construction site as we speak.

That means that even the dancers don't know what the final space will be like on opening night – whether boards will be removed, windows will be opened, or walls will be built.

And there's a lot of debris to choreograph around.

But part of the point of this performance is how the dancers are able to process the transition of this space from its former lives into its future one, interacting with it during an indistinct intermediary stage of redevelopment.

They will be accompanied by Claire Gignac et compagnie from Montreal, their jazz performance of "The Beggar's Opera" filling the cavernous space regardless of where they end up setting up or how they, too, move through the space.

Of course, they are all rehearsing, so it won't be exactly an improvisational performance. But as they bridge the gap between the space's past and present identities, the performance must evolve as the building evolves, making a performance like this excitingly dangerous. It also makes it short-lived: Chinatown Blues only performs this Friday and Saturday.

View property details and historic photos here and here.

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May 27, 2015

Photo Essay: Adding My Own Splash of Color

I remember when New York City taxicabs started showing up with these flower child designs on their hoods in 2007. I wasn't much interested in public art at the time, and I had no idea that it was part of a whole program called "Garden in Transit – NYC in Full Bloom" by the non-profit Portraits of Hope. At eye level, it looked ugly to me. It was different, and I didn't like it. I can imagine the aerial view being spectacular, but when do you ever get an aerial view in NYC?

Time passed, and less than four years later, I moved from NYC to LA and kind of forgot all about it until I read that MacArthur Park's lake would be filled with brightly colored painted beach balls this summer. I loved the look of the renderings: a splash of color in the middle of a pretty bleak area with a history of crime and no natural gardens. But they also looked somehow familiar, tapping into some dark part of my psyche where memories get expunged.

Of course, although Portraits of Hope has done lots of projects in NYC, including some after I left, they're bicoastal and also have flowered the oil derrick tower in Beverly Hills and lifeguard towers in the South Bay, both pre-dating my arrival here.

Back in New York, I didn't know about the project until I saw the final results, but this time I heard about it early enough to get involved. I wanted to paint one of the 7000 spheres floating in the lake at MacArthur Park. I wanted to be a part of something. I wanted my artistic DNA to contribute something positive to the LA experience, something that might bring Angelenos some joy.

Fortunately, it's a community project, and although much of the focus has been on bringing in school children to do the painting, weekend open sessions welcome anyone. After all, there's a lot of painting to do.

I arrived a little early on Sunday, and they put me immediately to work, flattening out the completed balls from the day before and stacking them to the side, so that the new balls – blank except for the black outlines of the flowers – could be inflated and set up for a whole new crew of painters.

I felt like I was reliving some part of someone else's childhood. I was never really allowed to get messy when I was a kid. There were no clothes that were OK to paint in. My mother would've covered me in plastic if she could've gotten away with it.

I took off my shoes and walked barefoot across the paint-speckled floor...

...threw on a big purple t-shirt to use as a smock...

...and started selecting my paint colors.

Of the already completed balls, there was a certain consistency in color palette: mostly an eco-realistic combination of yellow, green, and red.

I decided to go full-out girlie, fulfilling some fantasy of hybridizing my own species of flower to my own exact specifications...

...with a lilac background, pink petals, and a red center.

The volunteers kept telling us to keep the paint layers thin – mostly because they need them to dry quickly, and they just don't have time to apply a second coat.

Besides, the colors would look pretty solid from far away.

"Its better to go over the black line," we were told, "than to leave some white space."

As one of the few adults there who wasn't a parent, I felt very low pressure to paint perfectly, so I let myself just paint, without much attention to quality. As I progressed, though, I became more focused, and gave myself the time to apply a second coat. I didn't want it to be just fine; I wanted to do it right.

I thought I wouldn't have much competition from the kids that were also painting, but actually their balls turned out great – and somehow way more precise than mine.

My favorite one was the messiest of them all, but there was a certain artistic genius to it. I'd heard the boys painting it complain, "We have failed. We are terrible," so I went to check it out. I loved it. I'd rather see the work of a heavy hand than a light touch.

I found the whole process extremely therapeutic. I always loved painting, and even graced the front page of the Life section of the Syracuse Sunday newspaper on Mother's Day 1979, sporting a painters' smock and wielding a paintbrush.

I'm pretty sure I painted some part of my parents' house growing up – I have vague memories of the basement walls and the kitchen woodwork and the front porch – but I probably haven't really painted anything since 8th grade. I gave up fine art in high school, even though I had so much potential.

But when the program director walked by to inspect my work and look for white spaces, he said, "You're a painter," and I said, proudly, "Yes I am."

Unfortunately my health is so bad right now that I could only make it through one side of a sphere, but I'd like to go back and paint again. I'm already envisioning my next botanical creation.

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May 26, 2015

Life Through the Windshield

I can't believe it had been nearly two years since I last visited the Automobile Driving Museum for Ridealong Sunday. I mean, it's one of my favorite things to do in LA.

I guess that just shows what a funk I've been in, depriving myself of things that bring me joy. Or being unable to find joy in the things I once loved.

But, as I left the Automobile Driving Museum today with a huge smile, I told the woman at the front desk, "This place makes me so happy."

It had been so long since my last visit, the docents didn't recognize me. But that's OK, I know the drill.

For a pay-what-you-can donation (suggested at $10), you get museum admission and the chance to ride along your choice of three classic cars that have been brought out for the day.

Every Sunday, the museum selects three different cars from week to week. You can ride in as few or as many as you like. But I don't know why anyone wouldn't ride in all three.

Like a scene out of Sunset Boulevard, I started by channeling the ghost of Gloria Swanson in the backseat of a 1936 Lincoln Town Car, outfitted with foot rests, window shades, cigarette lighter and ashtray, and various secret compartments – plus lots of leg room.

The front seat is reserved exclusively for the chauffeur, who sits behind the wheel in the open air, exposed to the elements, so everyone can see how fancy you are. Even though it's a powerful machine with 12 cylinders, you'd never drive this car yourself: this car is meant for its passengers.

Next up was the 1952 Kaiser Manhattan, a sweet ride with a V-6 engine...

...a leather-covered dashboard...

...and a radio that seems to foreshadow the advent of rock and roll, though it predated Elvis' breakout by three years.

"This car must be fun to drive," I said as we tooled around in a 1928 Buick, but my docent said it was actually kind of a chore.

Since the gears of the unsynchronized manual transmission function independently from one another (allowing only first, second, and third gear moving forward)... have to double clutch, and the gears audibly grind. But that seems fun to me.

During my childhood, I viewed life primarily through the television screen, and occasionally my bedroom or kitchen window. While I lived in New York City and London, I spent a lot of time underground, popping up at various locations, not really understanding where they were in relation to each other, or what there was to see in between. I often opted for the bus, so at least I could see where I was going.

Now that I've been in California for four years, I'm enjoying viewing life through the lens of the windshield, its greenish blue tint giving everything a cool, relaxed hue. It is the widescreen frame of my life on the road, now that I finally get to drive – or at least ride in the front seat, after so many years relegated to the back of my father's Dodge Omni or an unclean, poorly navigated taxicab. Even while getting into the chauffeur-driven Lincoln Town Car, I tried to sit in the front, but they insisted I take my position in the back, where Queen Elizabeth would sit.

But I would not make a very good Queen, and I am not a very good passenger. I want to take the wheel. I want to see where we're going, not just wake up when we get there.

And I don't like relying on somebody else to deliver me. I'll drive myself, thankyouverymuch.

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May 24, 2015

Photo Essay: Fox Theatre Fullerton, 90 Years Old and Starting Over

Last night, the Fox Theatre in Fullerton unveiled its newly-restored and lit rooftop sign, which stood dark on its scaffolding for the last several decades.

Photo by Sean Scanlon / Redink Photography via Fox Theatre Fullerton

Too bad the fabulous marquee and the old box office are gone for now, though the rescued "Fox" sign is being held at Downtown Fullerton's Back Alley Bar & Grill for safekeeping until it can be reinstalled on the building.

Circa 2013, via Fox Theatre Fullerton

The relighting of the sign is a positive, public sign of what's to come for this 90 year old former movie theater that has been closed since 1987.

In order to get into the Fox, I had to head around to the back...

...past some locked gates...

...and under the fire escape.

New construction appears to be part of the revitalization plan – after all, this was never just a movie theater, but rather a whole complex that also included restaurants and shops.

The Fox is still in the relatively early stages of restoration. While the front doors appear much as they did in the 1920s...

...a lot of the work that's been completed since 2007 has been fundraising, and cleanup.

Because the building had been neglected for so long, it had been exposed to the elements.

It rained inside when it rained outside, and and pigeons got in, dropping poop everywhere.

The damage was so bad that the building had been red-tagged, making it unsafe to enter or inhabit. They've also done a lot of work to remove the red tag designation.

More cosmetic work includes painting the exterior in a sandstone and rust color palette...

...appropriate to the theater's original "California Gold Rush" theme, though its architectural style is technically considered Italian Renaissance.

Unfortunately when the sign's letters were sent out to the powder coating shop, the heat was set too high and softened the lead that kept the letters together, melting them. They had to be reconstructed as closely to their original specifications as possible.

The entire upstairs is pretty unfinished, including the balcony...

...but from there you get a great view of the newly restored coffered ceiling, with its shiny new rosettes.

When this theater was renovated in the 1950s, a lot of its original ornate elements were covered up, and modern red movie seats were installed.

Funded by grants from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment, loans, and an anonymous benefactor who donated $1 million, the Fullerton Historic Theatre Foundation plans to remove all those 1950s seats (which are in rough shape) and install "period-appropriate" seats.

They've worked hard to remove everything that was covering something up...

...and have revealed a number of wall murals in the auditorium and ceiling murals in the lobby which are ghosts of their former selves. The new operators hope to restore and recreate them as much as possible.

The most dazzling part of the restoration in progress is the auditorium's new overhead lighting: the wrought iron chandeliers have been relamped, and colorful LED lighting has been installed (reminiscent of the new work done in the Fox's sister theater, the Chinese in Hollywood).

Apparently the dressing rooms are intact, and the orchestra pit has been expanded, though the organ from the silent movie era is long gone. The Fox will reopen as a performing arts venue, scheduling concerts and shows and other performances and private events as well as movie screenings.

It's been a long time coming, but they're hoping to have enough done by October to start hosting concerts, though the entire restoration will probably take more like five years from now. If all goes as planned, eventually there also will be a restaurant upstairs.

I have no memories of the Fox Fullerton, or any Fox theater at all, so it wasn't nostalgia that brought me there. But everybody loves a comeback story, right? And for me, I can best appreciate the "after" if I got to see the "before" first-hand.

Read more about the theater's history here.

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