Spotlight Story

Always a holiday for pet adoption

February 13, 2014

Shelter volunteer Elaine Seamans gets some love from a furry friend.

Some people just have a knack for matchmaking. Elaine Seamans, for instance, has arranged hundreds of long-term relationships.

Last Halloween, she helped kindle more than 80 love affairs in a day at the county’s Baldwin Park animal shelter. Dozens more found the mate of their dreams at her Fourth of July and St. Patrick’s Day pet-to-person meetups.

And this week, the county Department of Animal Care and Control will be expanding the shelter volunteer’s signature love fest—a hearts-and-flowers pet adoption extravaganza that has found homes for nearly 100 stray and abandoned animals during the last three years.

“The idea was just to use the holidays to celebrate adoptions,” says Seamans, a 58-year-old Valley Village designer who has been organizing “My Furry Valentine” at the Baldwin Park shelter since early 2011. “But this has just gotten bigger and bigger every year.”

Colorful and festive, the event turns the shelter into a giant Valentine for one day, welcoming prospective pet owners with chocolate, gift bags, music and doggie kisses. This year, each of the county’s six shelters will hold a more or less elaborate version of the Baldwin Park celebration through the Valentine weekend, with the usual $50 adoption fee discounted to a heartfelt $14.

Holiday-themed adoption events have been a growing trend for some time at rescue nonprofits—the Found Animals Foundation has long held an annual “Happy Pawlidays” campaign in December, for instance, and the Best Friends Animal Society holds an “aCATemy Awards” tied to Oscar season. But until recently, it was unusual for a county shelter to initiate this kind of promotion, according to animal control officials.

The reluctance stemmed partly from an ambivalence about holiday adoptions. People are tempted to give pets as gifts, “and having a pet isn’t like getting a sweater that you can return—it’s a lifetime commitment,” says county Animal Care and Control Director Marcia Mayeda.

But, she added, county shelters were also slow to get on the holiday bandwagon because the shelter staff is consumed with day-to-day animal care duties. Only in the past decade, she says, has the county shelter system developed a volunteer program with the base and coordination to do fundraising and event planning, and “a lot of this is dependent on volunteers.”

Seamans, who has been volunteering with Best Friends and other rescue nonprofits since the 1998 death of her dachshund Quackers, had been donating her time for about a year at the Baldwin Park shelter when she suggested to shelter manager Lance Hunter that more could be done to find homes for the bereft dogs and cats in the shelter kennels.  That, she says, is when she pitched the Valentine idea.

“It started out as just this little grassroots thing with just a couple of volunteers and some decorations,” says Hunter. But when their usual rate of eight or ten adoptions per day nearly tripled, he says, he took Seamans up on her offer to do more holiday events.

Since then, he says, other county shelters have begun hosting their own festive campaigns, and no holiday has been left behind when it comes to rustling up homes for pets at the Baldwin Park shelter. Last year, Seamans and her fellow volunteers organized events at Christmas, Valentine’s Day, the Fourth of July and Halloween, which Hunter said “topped the charts” at the shelter for holidays.

Among the attractions at the Halloween event were a fog machine and buckets where humans could bob for apples and dogs could bob for cocktail wieners, says Seamans. But “My Furry Valentine” is still the most elaborate promotion.

Among last year's highlights was a "kissing booth" for pet lovers.

“Last year Elaine put frames and flowers around the outside of the kennels, and hung signs all over that said things like, ‘Your Best Friend Awaits’ and ‘Your Heart Is Missing Something’,” laughs Hunter. “We even had face painting and a ‘kissing booth’ built with some of the donations. And she got a young actor she knew to dress up as Cupid.”

“This year we’re getting a harpist,” adds Seamans. “This woman is donating her time in honor of her retriever, who passed away in January. Can you imagine? A harp player in the kennel! I’m dying to see how the dogs react to that.”

Mayeda says holiday events not only save pets’ lives, but also generate donations to the county’s Animal Care Foundation and improve morale among the county’s now-thriving ranks of volunteers.

They also put a friendlier face on the county system, says Seamans.

“A lot of people think shelters are scary,” she says. “They think they’re death camps, or where the ‘problem dogs’ go.”

But when people actually meet the pets, she says, they’re less concerned about their surroundings. All three of the dachshunds she has now—Quizzie, Fred and Doodles—were strays or abandoned. And after the 2011 event at which her teenaged actor friend Lou Wegner played Cupid, he returned to shoot a music video at the Baldwin Park shelter to benefit pet rescues.

In any case, she says, few things are more heartwarming than matching the perfect pet with the perfect family. Take, for instance, the note she got from a young mother who adopted a little dog for her 6-year-old son on a therapist’s recommendation last Valentine’s Day.

“Ohhhh, she is soooo good. Her name is Sassy,” the mother emailed. “Since the day we brought her, she let us know when to take her outside . . . She does love the bed, so we suckered her into sleeping with us or the kids. She is perfect for us—thank you.”

And that, she says, is just the product of one love story among hundreds.

“I tell people that the shelter is where your best friend is waiting,” says Seamans. “These animals are out there just waiting to show you how great you are.”

For more on “My Furry Valentine”, click here. And for more on the county’s other pet adoption programs, click here.

Posted 2/13/14

We loved them yeah yeah yeah

February 6, 2014

Fans mobbed the Hollywood Bowl for tickets to the Beatles' 1964 Los Angeles debut concert. Photo courtesy of The Music Center Archives/ Otto Rothschild Collection

It was 50 years ago this summer that four lads from Liverpool took the stage of the Hollywood Bowl, ushering in Beatlemania, Los Angeles-style.

Before the end of their 30-minute set on August 23, 1964, this much was certain:

A long-running love affair between the Beatles and Los Angeles was underway. Initially it involved mass hysteria, stealthy getaways, partying with local swells and celebrity hobnobbing on the Sunset Strip. Eventually it blossomed into “Breakfast with the Beatles,” a record label romance, a song, an uncomfortable meeting with Elvis in Bel-Air, even a Tower Records commercial.

At the same time, the Bowl itself was experiencing an electrifying new chapter in its fabled history, as a generation of screaming teenagers converged on the place where their parents had thrilled to popular stars like Frank Sinatra and classical music greats like Jascha Heifetz and Vladimir Horowitz.

Suddenly, it was a whole new ballgame.

“I think that night in 1964, that’s the most famous concert in American history, not counting Woodstock,” said Bob Eubanks, then a 26-year-old Los Angeles deejay and owner of two “Cinnamon Cinder” nightclubs, who produced the Beatles show by mortgaging his house for $25,000.  “The boys at the Hollywood Bowl told us we couldn’t sell this thing out in one day, that it was physically impossible. Well, we sold it out in 3½ hours—without computers, by the way—and away we went.”

Paul McCartney backstage at the Bowl in '64. Photo courtesy of The Music Center Archives/ Otto Rothschild Collection

Along with thousands of smitten schoolgirls, stars like Lauren Bacall, Debbie Reynolds and Michael Landon turned out for the performance. Gossip queen Louella Parsons had to be relegated to the back benches—“she let us know about that for a long time,” recalled Eubanks, who went on to national fame as host of “The Newlywed Game.”

Ticket prices ranged from $3 to $7. Fans who couldn’t get in climbed trees around the amphitheater as “Twist and Shout,” “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” rocked the Cahuenga Pass. After the final number, a cover of the Little Richard hit “Long Tall Sally,” the band was whisked away in a tiny compact car and was getting off the 101 Freeway at Sunset Boulevard before the audience knew what hit them. “The kids still thought they were there and they ruined two limos out back,” Eubanks said.

From his vantage point as a deejay at KRLA, the city’s top rock ‘n’ roll radio station at the time, Eubanks had known for months that something big was on its way.

“Suddenly, there were these four guys from England who just changed the world musically,” he said. “Our phones just started to ring off the hook…It started the night they did the Ed Sullivan show, quite frankly. When we heard they were coming to America, the country started to really buzz.”

This year, the buzz is back. With the 50th anniversary of the group’s first appearance on the Sullivan show taking place this Sunday, February 9, there’s no shortage of magazine covers and think pieces analyzing the British Invasion. And the Hollywood Bowl, where L.A.’s adventures in Beatlemania began, this week announced that it is marking the occasion with three “The Beatles’ 50th at the Bowl” concerts in August. (Those aren’t the only ‘60s flashbacks in store at the Bowl, by the way; the summer schedule also includes performances of the musical “Hair”—complete with “simulated drug use” and “brief nudity.” Check out the complete Bowl schedule here.)

Fainting girls went with the territory. Photo courtesy of The Music Center Archives/ Otto Rothschild Collection

Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics fame) will be “ringmaster and musical director” for the August 22, 23 and 24 Beatles shows at the Bowl, which will include yet-to-be-announced special guests and a re-creation of their original musical set from 1964.

Eubanks said he’d like to take part in the shows if possible. As the 50th anniversary approaches, he has also reached out to Paul McCartney. In an email reply, read by Eubanks in a telephone interview this week, the former Beatle demurred about his availability on the anniversary date but sent along reminiscences of the “heady days of our early trips to L.A.” and this message to fans:

“It was a fantastic time for us and I still have many memories of the things that we got up to. It was great to play the Hollywood Bowl even though our music was completely drowned out by the screams of our lovely fans.”

The Hollywood Bowl Museum is gearing up for the occasion as well. Carol Merrill-Mirsky, museum and archives director for the museum and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which operates the county-owned Bowl, has commissioned a 3-D model of the Beatles in concert. It will be showcased this summer along with the small cache of Beatles memorabilia—including a copy of Eubanks’ contract for the 1964 concert—that’s on regular display.

Tickets for the 1964 show sold out in 3½ hours. Photo courtesy of The Music Center Archives/ Otto Rothschild Collection

She also has been combing through old pictures from the Music Center archives to put on display—although there are not a lot of images in the collection from that initial concert. She thinks that’s because, aside from Eubanks, few saw the magnitude of what was about to unfold that night.

“He had an instinct that it was going to be huge but nobody else did. Nobody. Certainly the Bowl didn’t, and the fact that we have so few photographs is proof that it was not a big deal. But it was a big deal to the fans—to those teen fans.”

Despite the frenzy among local teens, not everyone was thrilled to see the Fab Four arrive in Los Angeles in 1964. “They wanted to stay at the Ambassador, but the Ambassador didn’t want ‘em,” Eubanks remembered. A house in Bel-Air, complete with “a pool and the whole nine yards,” was lined up instead.

On the night of the concert, a busload of marshals showed up at the Bowl, ready for deployment to “protect the neighbors up in the hills.” Eubanks thought it was a great idea until he realized he was going to be footing the bill.

As a result, he said, he ended up making only about $4,000 on the 1964 concert. But Eubanks, who went on to produce all of the Beatles’ L.A. concerts—two performances at the Hollywood Bowl in 1965 and a 1966 show at Dodger stadium—did “quite well, thank you” on the later gigs.

Eubanks, with Beatles publicist Tony Barrow at Dodger Stadium in 1966, witnessed the band's evolution.

He also had the priceless experience of seeing the band’s three-year evolution—from “wide-eyed and curious” in 1964 to seasoned “road warriors” in 1965 to “very difficult” in 1966.

After the last-ever Los Angeles show in 1966, he remembers arguing with John Lennon in the Dodgers’ dugout after the original getaway car failed to make it out of the stadium.

“We got into it pretty good with John down there because he wanted to get to a party. ‘You’ve gotta get us out of here.’  We went nose to nose. And finally I said, ‘I’ll get you out of here.’ We went upstairs and put them in the back of an ambulance.”

The driver “was nervous as heck. He drove right down through 40,000 people…he hit a speed bump and the radiator fell out of the ambulance.”

Finally, they reached a rendezvous point with an armored car that was intended to complete the trip away from the stadium. But it was mobbed with teenage girls and the Beatles’ escape seemed to be foiled again.

“And all of a sudden, I have no idea where they came from, the Hells Angels showed up,” Eubanks said. “They circled the armored car, the kids backed off, and the Hells Angels led the Beatles from Dodgers Stadium. And that was the last time I saw the Hells Angels or the Beatles.”

Onstage in 1964. Photo courtesy of The Music Center Archives/ Otto Rothschild Collection

Ticket buyers in 1964. Photo courtesy of The Music Center Archives/ Otto Rothschild Collection

Running into the Bowl in 1965. Photo courtesy of The Music Center Archives/ Otto Rothschild Collection

Posted 2/6/14

Defenders mark a century of L.A. law

January 19, 2014

In this 1963 photo, Public Defender Kathryn McDonald confers with client Gregory Powell (left), who was accused with Jimmy Lee Smith in the "Onion Field" killing of LAPD officer Ian Cambell.

In the early 1880s, an Italian immigrant in San Francisco was charged with trying to collect $500 in insurance by torching his house on Telegraph Hill. The man was innocent but could not afford a decent attorney, and when his trial date rolled around, his lawyer didn’t show.

So the judge, as judges did then, went into the hallway and ordered the first lawyer he saw to represent the defendant. This didn’t bode well, since most court-appointed defense lawyers at the time were not only unpaid but also incompetent.

The lawyer—Clara Shortridge Foltz—was, in fact, just out of law school. But she won the case and used it as Exhibit A in a national push that led to the opening of the nation’s first public defender’s office in 1914 in Los Angeles.

One hundred years later, the Public Defender’s Office of Los Angeles County is marking its centennial anniversary. Some 700 attorneys work there now—more than at any criminal defense firm in the nation—along with hundreds of investigators, paralegals, psychiatric social workers and support staff. Last fiscal year, they defended clients in more than 400,000 felony and misdemeanor cases, not counting the thousands more defendants in juvenile delinquency and mental health courts.

Like Foltz, they occasionally make history.  And, like Foltz, they tend not to become particularly famous. (In 2001, when the criminal courthouse downtown was renamed in her honor, the Los Angeles Times noted “a chorus of people saying: ‘Clara Who?’”)

“We usually pick up cases because nobody else is there,” says Alan Simon, a now-retired public defender bureau chief who spent five mostly unsung years representing the Hillside Strangler, Kenneth Bianchi.

“But most of the great names in public defense are not the ones that you see in the headlines. Charlie Gessler was probably one of the best defense lawyers ever. Do you know who he is? Probably not.”

Deputy Public Defenders Bernadette Everman and Dave Meyer at arraignment of "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez.

Less obscure are some of the names of the clients represented over the years by the department. The Night Stalker had a public defender. So did the Onion Field killers and members of the Manson and Menendez families. Public defenders played a key role in uncovering the Rampart scandal at LAPD in the 1990s, and handled the crush of cases filed in the wake of both the Watts Riots and the L.A. Riots.

Most of the office’s clients, however, are the kinds of people to whom society tends to pay little attention—the impoverished, the downtrodden, the lost, the addicted, the difficult.

“It’s a calling,” says Public Defender Ron Brown, who has spent 33 years in the office, where turnover for reasons other than retirement averages a miniscule 2 percent a year.

“Our clients aren’t always nice people,” Brown says. “But somebody has to defend them, and vigorously defend them, in order for justice to be done. So what we do is about protecting peoples’ constitutional rights, and people who work here find that this is a place where they can do God’s work, as corny as that may sound.”

As integral as the Public Defender’s Office now is to the legal system, it was a radical notion when it began. It arose from decades of lobbying by Foltz, whose long list of accomplishments included being the first female lawyer in California. With fellow suffragettes and Progressive allies, she sought to balance the odds in the late 1800s against impoverished defendants who were often railroaded by ambitious prosecutors and judges, even though they were supposed to be presumed innocent.

At the time, the state prosecuted people suspected of criminal wrongdoing, but didn’t underwrite any of their defense costs. A judge could appoint a lawyer to represent a pauper. But the court-appointed attorney, who was duty-bound to take the assignment, had to work without pay, or pro bono.

As a result, few competent lawyers made themselves available for such work.  Instead, judges typically drew from the lowest ranks of the courthouse pecking order, often strolling out into the hallways and grabbing whoever happened to be around.

Foltz was outraged by the situation. A lawyer’s daughter, she had turned to the law to support herself after her husband deserted her and their five children. She had a soft spot for the poor.

She also had a knack for agitation: When she learned that only white males could become lawyers in California, she hounded the governor into signing landmark legislation to abolish the inequality. When she couldn’t’ get into law school, she sued for admission. Now, pressed into action on behalf of poor clients, she believed the time had come for lawyers like her to be able to make a living.

So she began agitating for legal reforms that would guarantee a paid defense and balance the odds against the defendant. According to a definitive biography of Foltz by retired Stanford law professor Barbara Babcock, she spent three decades campaigning in state legislatures and drafting model statutes before a political tide of Progressives and women—who had just gotten the vote here—led to success in California.

By then, Foltz was working as a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County, another first for a woman, and was an influential political voice, both nationally and here. In November 1912, Los Angeles County voters approved a charter that included the creation of the Office of the Public Defender, and the following year, it was ratified by the state legislature.

After a competitive exam, the Board of Supervisors appointed Walton J. Wood, a Los Angeles deputy city attorney, as the first public defender in the nation. The office opened on Jan. 9, 1914.

Over the years, according to Public Defender Brown, the office’s focus has changed with the societal landscape.

“In the past, we looked exclusively at winning—at getting the guy out and moving on,” he says. “The thought was that we’re lawyers, not social workers. But in fact, a good lawyer really is a kind of social worker. You end up getting involved with everything from housing to mental health needs.”

To that end, the office now works closely with social services in the county, from children’s services to mental health. It also has helped pioneer the use of specialized courts for addicts, veterans, the mentally ill and women, and has become involved in communities with programs like Parks After Dark.

And as it heads into its next century, he says, the department has added to its diversity in ways that would probably please the suffragette who made it happen: More than half of the lawyers—from trial lawyers to managers—are female now.

Clara Shortridge Foltz's groundbreaking activism led to the creation of L.A. County's Public Defender's Office in 1914, the first of its kind in the nation.

Posted 2/21/14

Ringing in a Grand new tradition

December 12, 2013

Like the tranformation of this Dallas building, a spectular "3D digital mapping" show is planned for City Hall.

From the first, it was part of the civic vision—a big, free, central place where Los Angeles would, for once, come together in public on New Year’s Eve.

Even while it was on the drawing boards, Grand Park was being touted as a rival to the big, cold-city countdowns that have always seemed to have the market cornered on December 31st at midnight. At meetings, civic leader Eli Broad talked excitedly about the notion, envisioning televised images of a 12-acre party between The Music Center Plaza and L.A. City Hall.

Now, at last, Grand Park will step up with its first New Year’s Eve celebration, an event that, at least for now, may not draw the hundreds of thousands annually estimated at Times Square, but that is expected to set its own kinds of records with a dazzling technological display that will be the largest of its kind ever attempted on the West Coast.

Of course, there’ll be live music, dancing, food trucks and a cash bar. But the highlight is expected to be a colossal presentation of so-called “3D digital mapping”—a high-tech urban art form that will make L.A.’s iconic City Hall do some things that it may have to blame on the champagne in the morning.

“I don’t think anyone in L.A. has done anything on this scale,” says Jonathan Keith, creative director at Idea Giants, the local consortium of 3D special effects artists who created the extravaganza.    

The technology, which employs projectors and sophisticated 3D models to make art out of ordinary landscapes, has been used to turn skyscrapers into everything from ancient ruins to giant dancing monkeys. Windows can seem to extrude, walls can seem to fall away, and—in one stunt hinted at by the creators of the New Year’s Eve show—whole landmarks can seem to disappear and be replaced by Grand Park’s renovated jewel, the Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain. (Click here for a sample of what digital mappers can do to an unsuspecting building.)

Keith says his team will use a 20-foot stack of five 40,000-lumen projectors weighing about 500 pounds each—state-of-the art equipment. “I believe we have every 40K projector in California for this event,” Keith says. “We needed some major fire power with a structure the size of City Hall.”

Park programmers are striving to create a family-oriented New Year's Eve party.

The party is the most ambitious undertaking yet for park programmers, who have built audiences for the new downtown destination through a number of high profile events. The biggest was on the Fourth of July, when some 10,000 revelers flocked to Grand Park’s lawns to watch fireworks, but thousands also have gathered for events ranging from a live screening of the 2012 Presidential Elections, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s swearing-in celebration, an assortment of outdoor concerts and CicLAvia. 

To that end, Julia Diamond, the park’s director of programming, says organizers have tried to err on the side of caution in planning the New Year’s Eve celebration. Although they’re planning for a repeat of the Independence Day attendance, they also avoided bringing too much celebrity wattage to the entertainment lineup, lest a too-massive turnout spoil the park’s vibe.

“I think especially in this early period, the event isn’t about a person or a band, especially on New Year’s Eve,” says Diamond. “Maybe down the road we’ll go with a big national name, but right now, this space isn’t a 100,000-person venue or even a 30,000-person venue.

“We don’t want to re-create the kind of experience you have at Times Square, where you’re smashed into a packed concrete space where you can’t sit down and can’t move and can’t eat. And the bigger names you have, the more you get of those logistical issues. We want people to come in, find a bench, spread out and enjoy themselves with their families.”

A key question, of course, is: What will the countdown look like? Organizers have been close-lipped about the details, but they will confirm that they don’t want their clock to strike midnight the way Times Square’s does either, although there will be a live feed of the ball dropping for early birds at 9 p.m.

“We can represent the passing of time in ways that are much more creative and dynamic and sleek now,” Diamond says. “The ball dropping is great and iconic, but it’s really analog.”

Beyond that, Diamond says, there will mostly be brightness and action. Images of revelers and their hopes for the New Year will be projected on the Hall of Records, as will names of the various communities of Los Angeles County.

“The first thing people will notice is a sort of neon takeover of the park,” she says. “You’ll be surrounded by lights and color and New Year’s Eve.”

The party will also showcase art installations symbolic of the city by Michael Murphy, Geoff McFetridge and Charles Baker, and dancing by the hip-hop Versa-Style Dance Company.

Dublab, an L.A. nonprofit web radio collective, will provide music, and Fool’s Gold, a Los Angeles Afropop collective, will headline and ring in 2014 with their rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.”

In short, she says, midnight on December 31 promises to be a lot like L.A.—light-hearted, cutting-edge, and—at least lately—a little more interested in community.

“This hasn’t been a place where New Year’s Eve is celebrated collectively, but I think people are more interested in coming together,” says Diamond. “What we’re building is a new tradition for L.A.”

Grand Park's 4th of July bash drew its biggest crowd yet, some 10,000 revelers.

Posted 12/12/13

Making spirits bright

December 6, 2013

Hillary Shaw rings in the holidays with the ARC Handbell Choir. Photo/L.A. County Arts Commission

The holiday season demands a soundtrack, and for many musicians, this is one of the busiest times of the year.

Just ask Jane Sarture what her ensemble is up to these days.

“We played this morning in a real estate office,” Sarture said. “We’re going to go out to hospitals, senior centers, the Ronald McDonald House charity Christmas party. We’ll be playing at Olive View hospital. We’re going to be at the Kaiser farmer’s market… I don’t think I ever stopped to count yet but I think we have 25 performances across 24 days.”

Sarture is a music director, but she’s not leading a local orchestra, singing group or jazz combo. Her musicians are developmentally disabled adults who play in the ARC Handbell Choir.

Their rendition of “Jingle Bells” may not be the slickest version you’ll hear this season, but it’s undoubtedly the most heartwarming.

“It is inspiring,” said Sarture, 52, a former associate producer of television game shows who switched careers to work at ARC 22 years ago and now accompanies the group on keyboard during their performances.

Jane Sarture, left, talks bells with Sarah Glascock

“The first day I walked in, I was like, “This is so cool.’ It’s like that old cliché: it’s not a job, it’s a calling,” she said of her work at the non-profit ARC (Activities Recreation and Care). The North Hollywood organization offers adults with cognitive disabilities a chance to take part in a wide range of life-enriching activities, from camping and field trips to volunteering at senior centers and even running marathons. The handbell choir is one of the most visible manifestations of the organization’s mission; they’ve performed 11 times since 1999 in the county’s Holiday Celebration, which is broadcast live on KCET. (This video captures one of their previous performances.)

This year, they’re returning to the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the 12th time to perform in the annual Christmas Eve extravaganza, produced by the county Arts Commission and featuring an array of performers in many genres. If past experience is any indication, look for the audience to respond to the handbell choir with a rousing ovation—and perhaps a discreet tear or two.

“People are amazed,” said Jennifer Davis, an ARC employee who conducts the ensemble’s performances and also serves as the organization’s volunteer marathon coach. She ran the New York Marathon this year with ARC client Jimmy Jenson, who has Down syndrome and received national acclaim on the “Today” show for his accomplishment.

“A lot of times people see the young, cute babies and they don’t know what happens [to the developmental disabled] when they grow up,” Davis said. “You’ll see people with tears streaming down their faces and they’ll say ‘I have a six-year-old and to think that my child can grow up and live such a phenomenal life.’ ”

Davis said an overarching message behind the group’s success is a determination to look past what people can’t do and focus instead on what each individual is capable of.

“When we look at what we can do, and what we can contribute, that’s when community and the real music in life happens,” she said.

ARC’s handbell choir has been jingling all the way since 1985 and now performs year-round.

They don’t charge for their performances, but happily accept donations, which Sarture said can range from “a great lunch and a couple of candy canes” to a check for $50 or even $2,000.

It all comes in handy when you’re trying run a handbell choir.

“It’s an expensive operation,” Sarture said. “If you drop a bell, it’s $200.”

There’s plenty of music in the air, but one thing you won’t hear from this group is any complaining about how busy things get when the holidays roll around.

“It’s amazing,” said one performer, 34-year-old Hillary Shaw, after an evening performance at a holiday open house in Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s Van Nuys district office this week.

And as for Sarture? “It’s a blast,” she said. “It’s my favorite time of the year.”

The ARC Handbell Choir plays gigs year-round, though they're especially busy during the holidays.

Posted 12/6/13

County has designs on voting

November 13, 2013

IDEO founder David Kelley has melded utility with elegance in his firm's designs for famous clients.

It’s not easy to re-imagine the largest voting system in the nation, but it doesn’t hurt to have the company behind stand-up toothpaste on your team.

For the past year or so, Los Angeles County has been working closely with IDEO, the innovative Bay Area design firm, to help with the county’s multi-faceted initiative to update its antiquated voting apparatus. The challenge is a big one: The county’s system serves some 4.8 million registered voters in 11 languages at some 5,000 polling places, and is currently using technology that dates, in some cases, to the 1960s.

So in an effort to think creatively about the future, the office of the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk and the committees guiding the county’s Voting Systems Assessment Project reached out to a firm whose groundbreaking design work goes back to Apple’s first computer mouse in the 1980s.

“We wanted to focus on innovation, and we were attracted by their philosophy of design that’s human-centered,” says Efrain Escobedo, governmental and legislative affairs manager for the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s office. IDEO, he says, studies “what the experience is underlying a project—whether it’s a filling station or a vegetable peeler—rather than just designing around what’s cheapest.”

County officials say there's no plan to drop this popular feature of voting.

Created as a merger of four design firms—one in Palo Alto, two in San Francisco and one in London—IDEO, which is now global, specializes in cutting-edge product and organizational design. One of its founders, David Kelley, was close friends with the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, whose elegant products became a computer industry standard. But IDEO’s work has run the gamut, from upright dispensers for Crest toothpaste to a rethinking of school lunches.

Initially, Escobedo says, the county learned about IDEO during an experiment with crowdsourcing in which the county put out a call for ideas on the future of voting through OpenIDEO, an online platform and community. But in early 2013, after conducting its own extensive data-gathering process, the county engaged the company’s consultants to help analyze the research under a series of short-term agreements worth about $1 million.

Among IDEO’s objectives is a rethinking of the traditional voting machines so they not only accommodate voters in a multiplicity of languages and settings, but are also universally accessible no matter the voter’s age, education, familiarity with the process or physical abilities.

“We’ve delivered three really, really rough concepts that we’re working now to whittle down into one,” says Sarah Rienhoff, IDEO’s public sector lead on the voting project. Visual renderings and mock-ups have ranged from boxy one-stop, hands-free voting stations to lightweight podium-like contraptions that can be easily moved around by poll workers and stored.

To augment data the county gathered, IDEO consultants examined on their own the extremes of the voting spectrum—newly naturalized citizens, older voters, young voters, people who had stopped voting and people with physical limitations that impacted their use of the existing system.

That last group was especially important, in part, because advocacy groups for the disabled have sued over issues such as the lack of touch-screens and the paper ballot requirement—mandates that, they contend, make voting harder and less private for visually-impaired voters.

So, Rienhoff says, the group put a special emphasis on disabled voters. One focus group brought county staffers nearly to tears as a man with cerebral palsy talked about the alienation of being shunted off to vote in a separate booth for handicapped people.

Another exercise took the form of an educational field trip.

“We did ‘dining in the dark’ at Opaque, a restaurant in Santa Monica where all the [servers are] visually impaired or blind and the customers eat in a fully dark dining room,” says Rienhoff, adding that they went back the next day to interview their waiter—one of more than 44 individual interviews they conducted last spring.

The IDEO group also studied lottery kiosks as an example of a system in which decision-making is paired with convenience and observed elections in Pasadena and Compton to compare voting in diverse communities.

What’s more, the firm’s creative approach served to inspire the Registrar-Recorder staff, Escobedo says. Among other things, they created an “idea wall” in the executive office in Norwalk after visiting IDEO’s workspace.

As the project’s self-imposed 2016 deadline approaches, some broad outlines have begun to take shape. For one thing, Escobedo says, it is clear that the new system won’t include voting via Internet or smart phone, at least for now, due to security concerns.

That, however, doesn’t preclude the possibility of the vote-by-mail option morphing someday into a scanned ballot sent by encrypted email, or a digital tablet onto which voters can electronically upload their pre-marked decisions. Also, look for bigger ballots, voting machines with universal design and hands-free access and possibly a voting process that revolves less around a single day at a single polling place than, say, a 2-week voting “window” or community voting centers.

“By the end of the year, we hope, we’ll have an actual final design concept that we can begin to engineer,” says Escobedo, who expects to start prototyping some time next year.

One aspect of the process is unlikely to change, however: That little “I Voted” sticker?

“Oh, that’s a mandatory do-not-leave-out,” laughed Escobedo. “People love that. It’s not going anywhere.”

One possibility for future voters might be more portable voting machines, as seen in this IDEO rendering.

Posted 11/13/13

A beach for one and all

November 7, 2013

This stretch of Manhattan Beach will soon provide access to disabled visitors through a new ramp.

When it comes to reinforcing stereotypes of the California dream, few towns can match Manhattan Beach. Its finely-groomed sands draw scores of barely-clad stars of beach volleyball, including Olympic champions. Its waves are crowded with high-flying surfers and its shoreline bikeway is among the region’s most scenic.

But now, thanks to the persistence of a 90-something activist, the South Bay community is clearing the way for a new group of beachgoers to hit the sand, a group that’s certain to grow as baby boomers advance well into their senior years.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved the drafting of an agreement between the city of Manhattan Beach and the county’s Department of Beaches and Harbors for the construction of a “Path to the Sea” that will provide access on the sand for people with disabilities.

Already, Santa Monica has two access ramps across the sand near the pier that stop short of the water, one made of wooden planks, the other of recycled tires. There’s also one that travels alongside the north jetty and at “Mothers Beach” in Marina del Rey.

But the permanent concrete path proposed for Manhattan Beach, which juts directly onto the sand, is the first of its kind for southern Los Angeles County-operated beaches. It will be located at the city’s northern end near the popular El Porto parking lot, where wheelchair ramps currently exist. From there, the 10-foot-wide path will extend 70 feet onto the beach, with a broad turnaround at the end, about 150 feet from the water’s edge.

The project represents an “a very interesting experiment” that poses challenges unmatched by other kinds of access for disabled people, said Chief Deputy Director Kerry Silverstrom of the Department of Beaches and Harbors. Foremost among those, she said, was determining how to construct a permanent path that won’t be undermined by eroding sand or damaged by tractors that drag the beach for trash.

“The beach is a natural resource that should benefit everybody,” Silverstrom said. “But it’s particularly complicated with urban beaches where a lot of grooming occurs…It’s hard enough to keep a bike path maintained. How do you keep these kinds of walkways maintained and free of sand for people who need them?”

Logistical questions like these kept the project on the drawing board for years, to the frustration of neighborhood activist Evelyn Fry, 98, the driving force behind the walkway, which will be constructed by Manhattan Beach, at an estimated cost of between $33,000 and $38,000, but cleaned daily by the county.

Fry, who is not herself disabled, championed the path as part of her active participation for decades in the civic life of the community, to which she moved in 1938. She could not be reached to discuss her latest success.

According to Manhattan Beach engineering technician Ish Medrano, Fry wanted the concrete path to extend to the shore’s edge. But that wasn’t possible, he said, because of the possibility of it being washed away by the surging sea. “I think she’s going to be a little disappointed,” Medrano said of Fry, who became so well known at City Hall that when she walked through the door “it was like an alarm going off: ‘Evelyn’s here!’” 

Medrano described Fry as “the nicest woman” but “relentless” in her six-year crusade. “I think she’d like to see it completed before she passes away,” Medrano said, quickly adding:  “She’s joked about that herself.”  

Posted 11/7/13

Kitty cat 90210

October 24, 2013

Virginia Robinson Gardens Superintendent Tim Lindsay with Harry, his new employee.

Even a cat can dream big in this town. Take Harry. Just five months ago, he was wandering the alleys. Now he lives in a landmark 6.5-acre Beverly Hills estate.

At the Virginia Robinson Gardens, a 102-year-old historic property owned by Los Angeles County, staffers say the white stray with the black tail and ear has been an unofficial colleague since April.

“He just showed up one day and started following one of the gardeners around,” said Superintendent Timothy Lindsay on a recent morning. “He was very friendly, very domesticated—and very vocal.”

“Meoooow,” confirmed Harry, glancing up from the tiled Italianate pool, where he appeared to be alternately drinking and scouring the blue water for signs of sea life.

“He likes to think there are fish in there,” whispered Lindsay.

Harry visits his water cooler, modeled after the Villa Pisani in Veneto, Italy.

Harry switched his tail. Lindsay said he was recently named Chief Mouser and Rat Patrol.

The property, built by the heir to the Robinson’s Department Store fortune and bequeathed to the county after his widow’s death in 1977, is a paradise, even by non-cat standards. A national, state and local landmark, it is now operated by the county Department of Parks and Recreation and supported by the nonprofit Friends of Robinson Gardens as one of Los Angeles County’s first great estates.

The owners, Harry and Virginia Robinson, were community pillars in L.A. for decades, famed for their star-studded parties, their elaborate landscaping and the many pets on whom they lavished attention.

“I think they were more dog people,” Lindsay said, noting the canine paw prints in the concrete walks connecting the estate’s five gardens. “And they had 300 blue songbirds that she imported from New Zealand, and a toucan that spent time on the loggia, eavesdropping on all the Hollywood gossip.”

But Lindsay said the cat, who sauntered in without even a microchip of identification, had such a confident air that the gardens staff named him after the estate’s founder. After a student working on the grounds volunteered to take him to the veterinarian to make sure he was vaccinated against rabies, the staff and live-in groundskeeper took him in and started to feed him.

“He’s a great mouser, and averages two a day,” says Lindsay. “He brings them to the kitchen door and drops them. And he’s so entertaining—he flops over like a dog and wants you to rub his belly. He sleeps in the laundry room in the staff quarters adjacent to the main house. We have a little bed for him.”

Harry isn’t the only creature to have adopted the gardens, says Lindsay. Coyotes drop in occasionally, and two horned owls have taken up residence in the estate’s King Palm grove. But, he says, the cat is the estate’s only domestic pet.

“He’s made this his house,” Lindsay said as Harry trotted across the flossy emerald lawn, settling in for a nap near the Renaissance Revival pool pavilion, which was modeled after Italy’s famed Villa Pisani. “The cat’s no dummy. He picked the nicest place in the neighborhood.”

Posted 10/24/13

Grand Park comes of age

October 3, 2013

Programming director Julia Diamond calls Grand Park a "cultural and civic space with no walls."

They built it. And they came.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of downtown’s Grand Park, a four-block expanse that has provided a jolt to Los Angeles’ Civic Center for reasons well beyond its hot-pink furniture.

Since its dedication last October, the 12-acre park between the Music Center and City Hall has drawn tens of thousands visitors for events big and small, from a Fourth of July extravaganza to daily yoga classes. Although the big-city development around it continues to be vigorously debated, the park itself has proven to be an intimately scaled magnet for families and children. The “splash pad” at the Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain, in particular, has drawn knee-high youngsters and their parents from across the region.

“It’s just as serene and beautiful as I expected,” said Kesha Barkulis, who, on a recent and sparkling autumn weekday, was following her drenched and teetering 9-month-old daughter, Luna, as she navigated the 79 gentle water jets of the fountain.

First-time visitors Kesha Barkulis and daughter Luna enjoy Grand Park

It was their first visit to Grand Park, one that Barkulis said she’d wanted to make all summer, ever since reading about the ¼-inch-deep pool on a website aimed at moms seeking kid-friendly outings. They had taken the Red Line subway from North Hollywood to the Civic Center station, located just steps away from the fountain, which has become a popular venue for toddler birthday parties now.

For decades, the area formerly known as the “Civic Center Mall” was largely hidden by concrete parking ramps and two blockish government buildings—the Superior Court and Los Angeles County Hall of Administration. As a result, the mall and its 1960s-era fountain ended up being used mostly as an outdoor break area for bureaucrats and jurors.

But after a $56-million privately-financed makeover, which was required as part of the approval process for commercial development along Grand Avenue, the park is now generating crowds—and buzz—through a mix of programming experiments overseen by the Music Center.

The Fourth of July event, for example, drew an estimated 10,000 people, according to Grand Park Programming Director Julia Diamond. Thousands of people, she said, also have shown up for dance events and a movie series featuring such family fare as “ET” and “The Never Ending Story.” Last Sunday, 2,000 music fans gathered on a Grand Park lawn to watch the first simulcast of a Walt Disney Concert Hall performance, which featured jazz great Herbie Hancock.

Not bad for Year One.

“People think of Angelenos as wanting to celebrate privately,” Diamond said. “But people in L.A. are game for sharing.”

The park, which she called a “cultural and civic space with no walls,” has tapped into that growing hunger for collective experiences, exemplified by the widely popular CicLAvia events.

One key to the park’s early success, Diamond said, is that thousands of people in offices and lofts downtown “have actually shown a large appetite for diversion and entertainment in the middle of the day, uniting around something that speaks to a part of themselves outside of their work lives.” Besides lunchtime yoga and informational fairs on such topics as green transportation and public health, the mid-day programming has included a weekly farmer’s market and concerts ranging from Latin jazz to classical music to pop.

Diamond said she’s also been struck by the ethnic and economic diversity of the visitors—a result, she suggested, of having a park without a strong neighborhood history or existing identity. “This gives the park a lot of freedom to be whatever people want it to be,” she said.

Still, not everything’s gone as the programmers had hoped. One of the biggest first-year challenges, Diamond said, has been to get the downtown workers to become an after-hours crowd. “They get into their cars and drive away,” she said, adding: “If you gave people a reason to stay, they would. We haven’t found that reason yet.” (One possible reason: Grand Park’s official 1st birthday bash, which takes place from 7 p.m.-10 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 10, and features free entertainment on the Performance Lawn.)

Diamond said Grand Park programmers and marketers also have been stymied by the nature of downtown itself, which she described as “sort of like the Balkans.” The farther away from Grand Park people work, such as in the Bunker Hill area, the harder they are to engage. Downtowners, she said, “tend to stay in their micro-community.”

Diamond’s anniversary wish for the next year?

“I want everyone in Los Angeles to know about Grand Park,” she declared. “A year ago, we didn’t exist. I want that name to have instant recognition as an amazing place.”

Grand Park's music events have proven particularly successful in drawing crowds during the first year.

Posted 10/3/13

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