November 15, 2005

Living the “White Christmas” dream

Filed under: Art and About Holidays — admin @ 4:21 pm

The stage version of “White Christmas” has opened again in San Francisco. You may recall that the theatrical adaptation of the 1954 film premiered in San Francisco last year to great reviews and even better ticket sales. It was so successful that this year, they have added productions in Los Angeles and Boston.

The film version of “White Christmas” is to my family what “It’s a Wonderful Life” is to other clans. In filmmaking craftsmanship, “White Christmas,” starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, is one scene away from being a perfect movie. In the categories of holiday schmaltz, feel-goodness, love, joy and downright good entertainment, it is the perfect movie. To this day, I have a burning crush on Danny Kaye. And I cry every time General Waverly walks into the barn-turned-stage and is surprised by the hundreds of soldiers from his former battalion who have shown up to remind him of what an impact he has had on their lives. (If you don’t know the scene I’m describing, you seriously need to head to the DVD store.)

So out of morbid curiosity, I went to see the stage show last year. For me, the production had a huge task ahead of it to convince me to like it. On casting alone, how could it even compare? And part of the charm of the movie is that it is decked out in all of MGM’s musical splendor and sophistication. I love stage musicals, but there is no way to mimic the thrill of a well-filmed and edited dance sequence.
I knew that I the sentiment I was bringing to the theater was shared by many of the audience members. I took my seat with a mixture of trepidation and hopeful anticipation.

From the first moments of the show, I was disappointed. I felt that the heart of the movie and its characters was gutted to appeal comedically and musically to the lowest common denominator.  I’m not saying that the movie script is Shakespeare, but when you’ve seen it hundreds of times, you notice the multiple levels of nuance and subtext in every word and every song, and in the performances of the actors. It’s far deeper and cleverer than it appears on the surface, and none of that was apparent in the stage show.

Judging by the crowd reaction, however, I was alone in my assessment. I started to grumble louder and louder as I observed the audience succumbing to the dumbing-down of American entertainment. They were falling for drek, and nothing steams me more. I not so patiently waited for the torture to end.
Then the cast began singing the classic title song, and they did a not-so-bad rendition of it. And then the audience started singing along, just like the soldiers do at the end of the movie. Hundreds of people suddenly became a choir singing the most mellow, heartfelt and comforting music I had heard all season. I started to cry.

I cried so hard, my attempts to sing along were only squawks of choked sound. I was overcome by a community of people sharing the common background of a beloved song. This show had inspired a theater full of strangers to join together for a few minutes of holiday harmony before re-entry into the disharmonious world. It was oral tradition ceremoniously being shared by the tribe. It was the unabashed joy of art and life being lived in the moment. It was the pure essence of live theater.

My heart grew three sizes that day. I remembered that no matter our artistic differences of opinion, nothing is more unifying to mankind than a shared artistic experience. Thank you, “White Christmas,” for the best gift of the holiday season.

October 11, 2005

The scariest thing about Halloween

Filed under: Art and About Holidays — admin @ 4:00 pm

I dread October. The horror of Halloween haunts me all year. I should revel in a holiday that spurs people to heights of creativity in masking their true selves beneath an imagined persona. Instead, Halloween forces me to confront the ugly truth I suppress from the world: I don’t sew.

Not that I can’t sew. I own a sewing machine, and a needle and thread. I have the skill set to use them. I would rather wear holey clothes than get either of them out.
Not that every Halloween costume requires sewing. But the good ones usually do. The original, never-before-seen, did-you-make-that kind do. I value original thinking and superior execution most highly. I can do the thinking part, but my execution is lacking.

I was born of a woman who is an excellent seamstress. My childhood costumes were incredible. I may have been just a fairy, or an Indian or an angel, but my costumes were homemade, one-of-a-kind expressions of that fairy, Indian or angel as conceived by my mom and me.

Sometimes, our efforts to be unique led to frustration and foolishness. When I wanted to be a bunch of grapes, Mom made a green jumpsuit and she and I papier-mâchéd almost two dozen orbs. I painted them purple, and then we safety pinned them onto the jump suit. Since they were made of paper, and heavy from paste, many of the representational grapes didn’t last the length of the school parade as they fell off in a trail behind me. We had to do repairs before trick-or-treating that nights. That same Halloween, Mom saw another person dressed as grapes by pinning purple balloons to herself. Duh!

The pressure I put on myself to be unique took its toll, and I was greatly relieved when I reached high school and was too old for parades and trick-or-treating. I ignored Halloween for the next 15 years.

Then I made a tactical error. I had children. And much to my chagrin, they want to celebrate Halloween. My mom, now a Grammie, has done a complete 180. For the last two years, she has taken the kids to Target and (Gasp!) bought ready-made costumes. The kids looked adorable but I was still desperate to encourage them to add some original features to the cookie-cutter commonness. No go. They wanted to look like everyone else. With a sad heart, I went to my son’s first Halloween parade last year and watched as one unoriginal kid after another filed by.

I became noticeably irritable with the creative zombies who came to the door trick-or-treating having done nothing more to earn their booty than forking Mom or Dad’s cash over to some mega-mart for an instant costume, no brain cells required. I actually refused some older kids candy because “they should know better” than to simply put on a rubber mask with their street clothes and call it a costume. My 4-year-old told me he would relieve me of door duty at that point. I went and drank a bottle of wine.

This year, both kids said they want to be Jedi. Not a specific Jedi like Anakin Skywalker or Obi-wan Kenobi, but just “normal Jedi.” I asked my son, the spokesman for the pair, what he thought of when he imagined a Jedi costume. He said, “boots, pants, a shirt and a Jedi robe. Especially a Jedi robe.”

Except for the robe, that costume sounded pretty assemble-able. It looked like I could scrape by one more year without sewing, but still help my kids be their own unique Jedi. I know licensed Jedi costumes exist, but they are a bit pricey. I decided we’d see how we could do on a budget putting our own Jedi attire together.

The three of us spent two hours wandering around Target picking up the necessary costume elements. I admit, finding clothes that represented the Jedi ‘s basic wardrobe was a creative exercise in itself. The piéce de résistance was finding belts for the tunic-style shirts that reflected the space-aged primitiveness of the Star Wars universe.

Feeling victorious but exhausted, we started to head toward the checkout when my son asked, “What about the robes?” I told him I wasn’t sure if we could find robes, to which he matter-of-factly replied, “You can make them.” I let him live in his dream world overnight before I fell off my pedestal the next day when I told him I wouldn’t be able to make a Jedi robe. We agreed to purchase the pre-fab ones.

Once again, the Seamstress Ghost of Halloween Past spooked me, but I had one last chance to save face. The spandex pants I bought my young Jedi were too long and needed to be hemmed. I could still vindicate myself with needle and thread. I meticulously measured and pinned the pants legs. I did two fittings on each patient child before starting to sew. I made five Frankenstein stitches and gave up. Non-stitch hem tape is the friend of the Jedi.

May 10, 2005

Give yourself a “Happy Birthday” rebirth

Filed under: Art and About Holidays — admin @ 4:14 pm

A string of recent birthday parties for family and friends has brought to my attention a cultural concern. Some people don’t feel comfortable singing “Happy Birthday” in public. In fact, some dread it while others hate it. Why? “Because I can’t sing” is the most common response. One person told me, “I just let everybody else sing,” which is an evasive non-response.

I have 33 years of experience celebrating birthdays and of course I have noticed that some people choose not to sing the requisite anthem. But when I observed a young child not singing at one of these recent celebrations while his friends jubilantly sang out, it hit me that this is a serious problem.

I come from a family who sings and so I realize I have a skewed view of the larger population. Even the people in my family who say they can’t sing really can sing. Everything’s relative. But whether you come from a singing family or not, I believe everyone should feel comfortable singing “Happy Birthday,” and there are grave implications for all of us when one of our tribe refuses to join in.

I discussed the non-singers with my sister-in-law. She has degrees in music so she is wise and insightful in these matters. She remarked that probably at some point in the non-singer’s life, someone told them they couldn’t sing, or suggested that perhaps maybe they shouldn’t sing. It’s horrible for me to imagine such a scenario, but she’s probably right.

Even more horrible is the thought that a person may not have been exposed to music during their formative years at the crucial time when learning to play the notes on the vocal instrument is akin to learning language. A teacher who taught the Mommy and Me music classes I took with my son could easily upset herself telling stories about families who don’t have music in their daily lives. She wasn’t talking about playing Mozart to a fetus in the womb. She was talking about parents who didn’t sing to their babies, or even parents who didn’t listen to music on the radio when their children are present. I was always struck by these stories. I’m convinced that if a child hears music, they will learn to carry a tune the same way they learn how to form spoken language. It’s all about sounds and pitch.

As a side note, I don’t believe people can’t sing. I had a friend in high school who was definitely challenged in the songbird department but she was eager to conquer her weakness. She went to a voice teacher who rigorously drilled her on learning how to use her voice. I sat in on many of these lessons and I admit, it was sometimes a painful process to listen to. But eventually, my friend learned how to harness the tune in her head and reproduce it successfully with her vocal chords. It was one of the bravest acts I have ever witnessed.

My friend’s goal in taking voice lessons was to be a successful contributor to the school choir, and to get a part in the school musical (she didn’t). For someone else, having the confidence to sing “Happy Birthday” is an equally lofty goal. This common tune is an extremely basic and unifying song in our culture. Most often, we only find ourselves singing it for people who mean something to us. No one should feel inhibited to show their love for another because of a bogus belief about singing talents. Every note may not come out perfect, and every tone may not be dulcet, but opening your mouth and letting melody come out should be as second-nature and primitive as we get as human beings. And allowing yourself the freedom to sing out is vital for you and for the collective good.

It’s your prerogative to sing, and the duty of the rest of us to support that prerogative by being accepting of any homespun variation of “Happy Birthday” which may come out of your mouth. I know it won’t be easy at first, but you’ll be breaking a cycle that needs to be broken. And if anyone dares to make a comment, don’t be afraid to ask about the last time they got an invitation to sing at the Met.

December 13, 2004

Celebrate the new year with the wisdom of the ages

Filed under: Art and About Holidays — admin @ 4:03 pm

The New Year is around the corner and I have many resolutions, including one that I have renewed every January 1 for the last 14 years — to live a more artful life. It’s the sentiment that informs this column, and every now and again I run into a great quote from someone far more artsy than I am underscoring the same ideal. I envy their succinctness because it takes me 600 words every two weeks to say in Art and About what they say in one sentence. But, as Charles Bukowski wrote in “Notes of a Dirty Old Man,” “An intellectual is a man who says a simple thing in a difficult way; an artist is a man who says a difficult thing in a simple way.”

My New Year’s wish for all of you is that you will embrace and nurture the artist within yourself, if you haven’t already. But you don’t have to listen to me. Here’s what the heavy hitters have to say.

“Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.” – Pablo Picasso

“It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance . . . and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” – Henry James

“Do not imagine that Art is something which is designed to give gentle uplift and self-confidence. Art is not a brassiere. At least, not in the English sense. But do not forget that brassiere is the French word for life-jacket.” – Julian Barnes

“Art is not a pleasure, a solace, or an amusement; art is great matter. Art is an organ of human life, transmitting man’s reasonable perception into feeling. In our age the common religious perception of men is the consciousness of the brotherhood of man-we know that the well-being of man lies in the union with his fellow men. True science should indicate the various methods of applying this consciousness to life. Art should transform this perception into feeling. The task of art is enormous. Through the influence of real art, aided by science, guided by religion, that peaceful co-operation of man is now obtained by external means-by law courts, police, charitable institutions, factory inspection, etc.-should be obtained by man’s free and joyous activity. Art should cause violence to be set aside. And it is only art that can accomplish this.” – Leo N. Tolstoy
(O.K., so Tolstoy also needed 600 words.)

“Art is the highest task and proper metaphysical activity of this life.” – Nietzsche

“It is through art, and through art only, that we can realize our perfection; through art and art only that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.” – Oscar Wilde

“Life is not a support system for art. It is the other way around.” – Stephen King

“The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul.” – Wassily Kaninsky

“Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.” – Stella Adler

“Art is a way of saying what it means to be alive, and the most salient feature of existence is the unthinkable odds against it. For every way that there is of being here, there are an infinity of ways of not being here. Historical accident snuffs out whole universes with every clock tick. Statistics declare us ridiculous. Thermodynamics prohibits us. Life, by any reasonable measure, is impossible, and my life—this, here, now—infinitely more so. Art is a way of saying, in the face of all that impossibility, just how worth celebrating it is to be able to say anything at all.” – Richard Powers

“Creativity takes courage.” – Henri Matisse

December 2, 2004

Embracing the Pathetic Tree

Filed under: Art and About Holidays — admin @ 4:18 pm

When my husband and I moved in together 10 years ago, our parents presented us with collections of Christmas ornaments from our youth so we could put them on our first commingled Christmas tree. At first, we politely said thank-you, unsure that the crude and imperfect ornaments would have a place on our “grown-up tree.” Together, we had bought more than enough ornaments that reflected our mutual taste, and they were definitely more polished then the lot of homemade and well-worn ornaments from our childhoods.

That first year we put the pathetic ornaments on the tree more out of obligation than sentiment. Most of them were placed on the back. During the next few years, they were the topic of derision, each of us teasing the other that his or her collection was the most pathetic assemblage of “Christmas Past” ever amassed. Some of my husband’s ornaments still make me laugh aloud when I unpack them. But I laugh harder at some of my own ornaments when I remember what my husband has said about them.

After we bought our first house, and had a little more room for decoration, we decided to segregate our ornaments, busing the ornaments from our youth off to a separate room and a less-than-equal tree. We bought a small artificial tree, put in on a corner coffee table, and designated it “The Tree of Our Youths,” although colloquially it was referred to as “The Pathetic Tree.” However, not once did we consider leaving those ornaments in storage, banished from Christmas splendor forever.

Those ornaments continue to have a strange hold over us. They are packed on the last layer of the last ornament box I open every year. Unlike our chichi ornaments, which each get an individual cardboard compartment in our ornaments boxes, the pathetic collection is squished together in whatever units are left vacant when all the other ornaments have been carefully wrapped and put away. Every year, I think about the bevy of ornaments we have acquired from friends and family, and I think it is time to use that artificial tree to highlight another subset of our collection. But instead, we choose to force the larger, dominant tree to become overstuffed with “quality” ornaments, while The Pathetic Tree is allowed to give each ornament the proper amount of airspace for optimum display.

This Christmas, a home remodeling project is encroaching on our living room, the center of all our Christmas decorating activity, and we decided to give many decorations a year off rather than watch them be smothered by construction dust. The artificial tree is acting as our primary arboreal accessory this year and it is adorned with some of the family’s favorite ornaments. None of the pathetic collection made the cut. And as you probably have guessed, I miss that motley crew.
Amateur psychology might suggest that the inclusion of those ornaments in our yearly celebration is a physical reminder of the Christmases of our youth, full of wonder, warmth and mystery. And that may be partially true. But I think what I miss most is that almost all those ornaments were either made by our own hands, made by someone for us, or they were personally selected to represent us in some way — my husband, the soccer player or me, the angel.

And I admit, not every ornament relegated to The Pathetic Tree is old. Sometimes, an ornament crafted by a friend or family member gets hung on that tree—ornaments that have more emotional and sentimental value than the average gift. Perhaps The Pathos Tree would be a better moniker. Next December when those ornaments see the light of day, they will be treated with the proper respect afforded the Elders.

December 21, 2003

Christmas-The Hollywood Musical

Filed under: Art and About Holidays — admin @ 3:48 pm

In a couple of days, the holidays will be officially over for all but the stalwart few who will be celebrating Twelfth Night on January 6. With the end comes relief and letdown. For me, the letdown stems from the fact that one of my favorite shows, Christmas: The Hollywood Musical, is over.

During the holidays, Shakespeare’s observation that “all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players” rings truer than ever. Every year, the onset of the holidays seems to awaken the creativity in people. Many of us become writer/director/producer and star of our own holiday tales fraught with symbolism, emotion, exultation and pathos. Whether we want to succumb to it or not, the events in December lend themselves to more dramatic interpretation than any other month.

Suddenly, a soundtrack of Christmas carols accompanies our lives at almost every turn. Singers stand on street corners, or at our front door, and we think nothing of it.
We become set designers in our own homes. People who ordinarily live with pristine white walls unabashedly awash their lives in Technicolor blue, red, green and gold for the month of December. A person who ordinarily would only purchase a piece of artwork because it matched her couch suddenly thinks nothing of adorning her piano with Grandma’s slightly tacky Christmas craft from years past.

We’re reminded that the man who lives next door and swears loudly at the 49ers every Sunday is actually a closet lighting director who meticulously places each bulb on his house and yard to create a precise effect.

Art direction is very important. We critique and discuss the artistic statements made through holiday decorating on civic buildings, retailers or private businesses. One is too modern, but next door they are too traditional.

We critique and discuss out own artistic endeavors. We want to pick and wrap gifts for loved ones that make a personal statement. Presentation becomes an artform.
Costuming gets a lot of attention. Go to any party and a surprising number of people are dressing a little more formally than usual. Women drape their bodies in rich, luxurious fabrics. Red attire is definitely preferred. Sparkly jewelry festively catches the light. Men divide themselves into two schools of design — those who choose the classy Christmas tie and those who opt for candy canes or snowmen on their neckware.

There’s lots of dancing. Folks who have never seen another ballet have seen “The Nutcracker” countless times. Dance floors on New Years’ Eve are packed by people who get out their dancing shoes only one night a year. And of course, as midnight approaches, the cast of Christmas: The Hollywood Musical breaks into their big, final production number, “Auld Lang Syne.”

Of course, everything has to be caught on film and video. Cameras that collect dust 11 months of the year are suddenly constant companions as we document the wonders of the season. Often, our kids go before a professional camera crew to get that one shot that marks the end of the year in the family album. This shot is also often used on the publicity materials we call Christmas cards, where we spin the year’s events in the best light for loved ones near and far.

Someone in the family has to be the location manager. That’s the person who volunteers their house for the big holiday feast and extended-family gift exchange.
And finally, there’s the caterers and their trusty files of tried-and-true holiday fare without which the celebrations would not be complete.

I’m invigorated by the creativity the holidays inspire. My New Year’s wish for us all is that we keep the creative spirit of Christmas throughout the entire year.

December 19, 2002

Resolve to put art in your new year

Filed under: Art and About Holidays — admin @ 4:09 pm

Did you hear the loud “Whoooooo-peeeee” ringing through the hills and valleys of Lamorinda last month? I was simply exclaiming my restored faith in humanity when I learned that the Lafayette City Council had directed city staff to research the prospect of creating a public art ordinance. The ordinance has a long, bureaucratic journey before it is adopted, but it is an idea that had seemingly disappeared off the radar screen two years ago. To see it resurrected at a time when the federal government is warmongering and the state government is doing some soul-slapping slashing of the budget where the arts, education, recreation and health are concerned, fills me with joy and great relief. At least my city government isn’t going to make the arts something that is only dusted off when the economy is booming.

It caused me to think that at times when the economy and spirits are down, we could all do a small part to ensure the arts weather the storm and come out virtually unscathed, in Lamorinda at least. Please forgive the cliché, but on this New Year’s Day, I present you with a list of resolutions to nourish the local arts economy and your soul in 2003.

See at least one production at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette. They have an incredible variety of offerings in the new year. There’s sure to be something that fits your fancy, ( or 283-1557 for information). And don’t forget, the Town Hall Kids are a talented group of local youth who do shows written by  Barrett Lindsay-Steiner which are entertaining for parents and children alike.

While you’re at Town Hall, pick up a brochure for the Gold Coast Chamber Players. Bring your family to an intimate, classical music concert for a fraction of the price and time commitment it takes to go through the tunnel. ( In the same vein, look into the upcoming programs offered by the Orinda Community Church Festival of Music (

When summer arrives, treat yourself to theater under the stars by checking out the Orinda Starlight Village Players. The theatrical experience does not get more intimate than the charming Orinda Community Center Amphitheatre.

Grab a cup of coffee in downtown Lafayette or in the Rheem Shopping Center and then stroll through either the Lafayette Arts Gallery or the Moraga Art Gallery to see what your neighbors are creating in sculpture, photography, paint, textiles, book arts, jewelry, printmaking and mixed media.

And if you need a unique gift for someone this year, consider foregoing the specialty gift shop and commission one of our Lamorinda artists to create a personalized, custom piece for that person. Contact the Lamorinda Arts Alliance and I’m sure they will help you get in touch with someone who will guide you through the process of creating an original work of art. I assure you, it will be inspiring for both you and the artist.

Bring your family to one of the events produced by the  Community Concert Series ( at the Orinda Library Auditorium. Tickets are always under $30 for a headliner the whole family will undoubtedly enjoy, and the library auditorium is a fantastic place to see a show.

If you’ve never had a chance to see a concert, musical or drama production at one of our local high schools, look into that this spring. And then, see where the burgeoning talent is coming from at the Lamorinda middle schools. And then, see where the kids get their start by investigating the array of original productions and concerts being produced in our elementary schools. There are too many phone numbers and Web Sites to list, but we all live within minutes of several schools. Find out what the closest one to you is doing in the next few months and go support the artistic endeavors of our youth.

Promise yourself to see a movie at the Orinda Film Festival ( next fall. Bone up on your cinematic knowledge and vocabulary in the months preceding by attending an event sponsored by the Orinda Film Society (

Participate in the California Shakespeare Festival’s “Inside Scoop” program. One evening before each of their summer productions, the festival offers a peek into the rehearsal process and into the creative minds associated with the shows. The night of artistic insight is free, with coffee and ice cream served at the end. A free evening of creativity, theater and ice cream —  it doesn’t get much better than that! (

This list of resolutions could go on and on. You may just want to promise yourself to keep your eyes and ears open to the thriving arts scene in Lamorinda. Look at the walls of local businesses and you’ll be surprised to see how many are informal galleries for local artists. Come summer, there are plenty of concerts in the park in the three communities. The community centers always have something going on. If you’re looking for something to do, read the Sun Arts Calendar for ideas.

And whatever you do, bring your kids. A trip to an art show, a concert or a play is a great family outing. And our kids must get into the habit of supporting the arts through good times and bad if the arts are going to survive through the next generation. My mother-in-law once said, as matter-of-factly as if she were describing oxygen or food, “The arts are essential for life.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.