Today marks the anniversary of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. The day after that horror, as the theater critic for the Pasadena Weekly I couldn’t help but draw parallels and distinctions between such a fresh hell and the subject matter of the play I covered, whose review, follows:

Taking ‘Heart’
Political drama points finger at causes of AIDS epidemic
By William Campbell

The Whitefire Theater’s production of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” opened April 20 in Sherman Oaks, one day after the tragic and horrible bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, Okla.

“So?” you ask.

Well, directly, there’s no connection, but at the close of the show that evening, it was all too easy to draw similarities between the play’s subject matter — the first, desperate years of the AIDS crisis and this country’s slow response in dealing with it — and the terrible event that had occurred in America’s heartland.

Both have had devestating effect; destroying lives and families, causing us to question our safety and security, and dragging into the light how vulnerable and fragile we are as both a nation and as individuals.

But in watching the events of the bombing unfold, amazed at the organization and mobilization of resources, appreciative of the forces being utilized to apprehend those responsible, and proud of the countrywide — if not global — outpouring of support for the citizens of Oklahoma City, the similarities abruptly end.

Because in the opening years of the AIDS crisis, well-depicted in Kramer’s play, there was no massive mobilization of resources. The only forces marshalled were those on the grass-roots level with little or no support from the government. And as to an outpouring? “Trickle-down” took on a whole new meaning in the early-to-mid 1980s.

Just imagine it if an organized, concerted effort — comparable to that witnessed in Oklahoma — had been concentrated against this nightmare disease early-on. Dream of what such a dedication of energy might have acomplished, what advances might have been made, what pain could have been eased, and what lives might have been prolonged or even saved. Because in looking back at the AIDS epidemic, a past of might-have-beens and could-have-dones, dreaming of what never happened is all that’s left — that and a lot of pain and death.

But dreaming of the non-existent past is not what “The Normal Heart” is about at all. Instead, Kramer’s semi-autobiographical drama is about hope and acceptance, triumph over fear and death, and the search for the face of truth in a world that has turned its back.

Directed by Ekta Monica Lobo and starring an ensemble cast that features Robert Bakkemo as outspoken, opinionated, brash and head-strong Ned Weeks, “The Normal Heart” takes place in New York City between 1981 and 1984, and chronicles Weeks’ struggle to create an effective organization to lead the fight against AIDS.

The production itself has a workshop feel to it, with its bare-bones sets and close-to-interminable gaps between the numerous scene and set changes, but it is not without its passionate moments.

Because I haven’t posted in a couple days, here’s a random photo from October in San Diego, where I’ll be these next three days…

Biking Around San Diego

… and a random circuitous School Daze story from some of the places I was a substantially longer time ago…

Early into fifth grade, I left Beverly Hills for Hollywood. One day I was a student at Horace Mann Elementary just south of Wilshire Boulevard that I’d attended since first grade, and the next I was a student at the now-defunct Founders School a private institution just south of Hollywood Boulevard. The quick change had to do in large part with my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Moore, an African American woman who apparently decided I was a junior white trash racist when it came my turn to tell the class that what I did that summer, which was that I spent part of it with my grandmother in the deep south of Carbon Hill, Alabama. Suffice it to say I had an educational year that Mrs. Moore seemed to relish making pretty miserable, and as a result there was talk of me repeating the 4th grade. But since murder is illegal my mother sought a less violent, more productive alternative, based on the knowledge that my lack of scholastic advancement was because of an idiot teacher, not because I was an idiot.

My teacher at Founders was an Austrian woman with a heavy accent named Mrs. von Hanwehr (which is probably spelled incorrectly, but was pronounced “von Han-vare”), and the class was very small — no more than 12 kids.

Each Friday Mrs. von Hanwehr gave everyone of her students a packet of Sugar in the Raw as a treat. To this day if I find them in a restaurant, I’ll take a couple and later dip a licked finger in and enjoy the stuff until the last crystal’s gone. Mrs. Von Honwehr was my favorite teacher, but not just because of the sugar. Because she made learning sweet again. I started at Founders  with a third-grade educational level. I ended the year at a ninth-grade level.

One of my classmates was a tiny hyperactive Asian kid named Harry who wore thick black-rimmed glasses. He was crazy intelligent. Always had to be moving or climbing or something — which Mrs. von Hanwehr allowed him to do — but he was never distracted. When she would ask him a question he’d fire back the answer while opening and closing a window or looking through an unrelated book or making his way halfway up the bookcase on the back wall of the room.

One day we were out on the playground during afternoon recess. It was one of those dreadfully smoggy days in mid-1970’s Los Angeles where your lungs would burn at the end of the day, but you could look prolonged and wide-eyed at the sun directly without it hurting your eyes. I was playing foursquare with others from my class when out of nowhere Harry charges through the court, grabs the ball and runs off. Immediately I’m in pursuit. And gaining. Gleefully he tosses the ball aside, but I’m angry at him for interrupting the game so I keep going and we rip around the asphalt with me closing on him. Suddenly he comes to a skidding stop and unable to avoid contact I barrel into him, one of my clenched fists connects with his shoulder and he gets knocked to the ground.

You’d think I’d shot him the way he picked himself up and glowered at me, his chest heaving with spittle-flecked inhales and exhales coming from his mouth as he worked himself into a rage. With no time to tell him it was an accident, I just took off, now with him chasing me. I ran until I’d opened up a few yards of distance between us, but in running out of playground and looking over my shoulder and seeing he wasn’t going to quit, I stopped and turned, facing him with whatever type of poor defensive stance I could muster.

All I was able to yell out was “Harry wait —!” before he beelined up at full speed and a full foot shorter than me and landed a hard punch right in my stomach. I fell to the ground gasping for air as other kids circled looking on while Harry stood triumphantly over me. A teacher quickly intervened and I was sent to the nurse. Harry was sent home.

When I next saw Harry Mrs. von Hanwehr told him to apologize to me, and he did from where he’d climbed to the top of his beloved back wall bookcase.

The following year my mom couldn’t afford Founders’ tuition so at the beginning of 6th grade I left Founders and  went to Cheremoya Avenue School at Beachwood and Franklin for 6th grade. My teacher was Mrs. Mulenthaler (pronounced myoo-len-thall-er) and one of my classmates was Janet Weiss who would later gain fame as the drummer for Sleater-Kinney. She had this huge mop of long curly hair and a penchant for Foghat tee shirts. As such, I had a huge crush on her.

After Cheremoya I went to Le Conte Junior High in Hollywood — the only school in my history of schooling I ever started and finished: seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. I saw Harry again that ninth grade year, entirely coincidentally, on 6th Street in the mid-Wilshire area. I had finished my Herald Examiner paper route for the afternoon and was just riding around when I passed him and his mom coming out of a store. I was still about a foot taller than him. He asked me if I remembered our “fight.” I told him I did. He apologized again. He said he was going to Hollywood High.

So was I or at least up until practically the last minute. Literally a couple weeks before my first day, our increasingly psychotic landlord forced my mom into an apartment search, but rather than just look around Hollywood, she broadened her search and found a two-bedroom flat back in the slums Beverly Hills where we’d previously lived, this time on Hamilton Drive, directly behind the historic Wilshire Theater (now the Saban Theater, though why it had to be renamed is just so much stupid ego bullshit).

Against my wishes we returned to that city for me to attend its high school, leaving me no notice or opportunity to tell the friends I’d made at Le Conte where I was going. By and large my three years at Beverly High was a miserable and lonely and discouraging experience initiated by my mom because of her rationale that Beverly Hills’ school district was so much better than its Los Angeles counterpart. Maybe that’s true, but looking back, I think if I’d had the wherewithal to remind her it was that same school district that had produced Mrs. Moore we would have stayed in Hollywood and my life would’ve ventured down a much different path.

I’m not dwelling on what might’ve been, just bumping into it like I did with Harry on 6th Street.

And while I didn’t encounter a Mrs. Moore during my three years in those shallowed halls, I did have an enthusiasm-crushing Mr. Stern for sophomore English.

Alternate Title: Just In Time For The Ides Of March 2010, Let’s Flashback To My Finest Moment As An Acting Student With A Monologue From Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”

I was a far better acting student than I ever was an actor. In fact, I’m not quite sure what drove me to study acting, other than it sounded like a fun thing to do and a fun way to meet people and it was something to do besides go to a real school and learn a real trade.

There was probably more to the story than that — like my secret desire to be a world-class movie star — but during the course of my days at the mouthful that was The Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting – West, I never took acting nor the business of it too seriously.

The school can now be found in the space above the Hollywood Wax Museum, but the conservatory’s original home was further east on Hollywood Boulevard just south of the Walk of Fame on Argyle. Like many of the landmarks of my past it’s gone, bulldozed in the early ’90s for the Hollywood & Vine Red Line subway station.

The year was 1987 and I was 22. My technique teacher was a fellow named Arthur Mendoza, and I don’t think I could’ve asked for a better one. He was flamboyant, outrageous, outspoken and fully centered in his own universe, but he was also quite perceptive, motivating and intuitive, which are things a student wants from his acting teacher.

As to my fellow students, there was a bunch of talent there, but there weren’t too many names to drop from that class in particular — save one you’ll certainly recognize: Benecio Del Toro. Arthur referred to him as “Beno.”


What a difference a couple decades makes. Nowadays if I hear a song on the radio, I simply open up my Shazam app on my iPhone point it in the direction of the noise and in a few seconds … well, SHAZAM I have the artist, the track title, and various links to listen and/or buy an MP3 of it.

Fast-backward with me tto one afternoon  in 1986. I was coming home from work driving north on Fulton Avenue listening to KKGO, then L.A.’s jazz station and the song being played was this rousing tune from some unknown big band that hooked me right from the toe-tapping start and featured an amazing dialogue of two tenor saxophones talking back and forth throughout. I was so entranced by the tight and hard-swinging number that when it was still going strong after I go to my apartment building I sat in my parked car listening to its end — and I’m so glad I did because it finished with a sax solo so effing JAZZ it gave me chills and I wanted it to keep going forever. But it didn’t, and when the DJ didn’t give me any info on it and instead went right into the next song, I sat in my car listening to that in its entirety with my fingers crossed that he would come back and give me some sort of clue.

My prayers were partially answered in that he did come back on air and quickly list the last several artists and what I heard for the second to last one sounded like “The Catearse Orchestra.”

You kids in the audience need to understand that in those dark days there was no running to a computer and extracting data from a search engine. Sure I could’ve dialed up a BBS at the blazing speeds my 400-baud modem was capable of and posted a question on one of the forums then waited around for an anwer, but the odds of anyone knowing were slimity slim.

So what I did in those analog days was start my car, back out of my parking space and roll a few miles to the nearest record store — in this case it was  The Wherehouse on Van Nuys Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. Inside I went and asked the nearest clerk if he knew anything about the “The Catearse Orchestra.” Shaking his head he pointed me to a massive phonebook-sized reference, which apparently listed all albums currently in print and available on earth.

I dove in and dug through it, but found nothing. Bummed but not beaten I came back home and gave the station a call.  When someone finally picked up I told them my plight about hearing a great song but not being able to find any record of the band at the record store.

“What’s the name?”

“Something like ‘The Catearse Orchestra?'”

And the person on the other end laughed. “No wonder you couldn’t find them. It’s ‘Capp/Pierce!’ as in Frank Capp and Nat Pierce. And the song you’re looking for is called “Little Pony” off their “Juggernaut Strikes Again!” album.”

“How do you know?” I asked, writing all that down.

“Because I’m the one who played it!”

Now it was my turn to laugh and thank the DJ. Then I raced down to my car armed with those facts, drove back to The Wherehouse,  went straight to the jazz section and when I didn’t find it in stock I dove back into the book, found Capp/Pierce, found the album and  went through the motions of special ordering the platter.

A week or so later it arrived. I brought it home, through it on my Marantz turntable, reveled in  it, and my musical landscape was never the same.

And now through the magic of my wonderful USB turntable, I can share the song with you — and in case you’re interested the two tenors are Bob Cooper and Pete Christlieb:

Now, while searching for that Capp/Pierce album in my LP collection I’m amazed to have found another that is a huge aural touchstone of my childhood. So if you’ll excuse me I’m off to digitize the heavily-scratched tracks from Whitehall Records’ “The Sound Of The Confederacy,” by Col. Beauregard Johnson and the Volunteers, an album I absolutely cherish and have not listened to in perhaps 35 years and thought long lost.

I heard the news via an unlikely source on January 28, 1986. I was in my Mazda GLC going from my apartment in Van Nuys to my job in the small business complex behind the gas station Barham Boulevard deadends into in the Cahuenga Pass. I was traveling on the gridlocked southbound 170 Freeway approaching the 134 interchange it passes under to become the 101. I was probably late.

I was listening to Rick Dees on KIIS-FM as I usually did, and coming back from a commercial break instead of launching into more of his usual shenanigans he spoke in a tone that was part solemn and part disbelieving in telling his listeners that the Challenger space shuttle had apparently exploded shortly after lift-off a few minutes earlier, reportedly killing all seven astronauts on-board.

To this day I’m not sure why the news hit me so hard, but I felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach by it. Overcome with sorrow I burst into tears, and sobbed as I crept my car along with the slow flow of vehicles while Dees and his on-air cohorts discussed what they knew and what they didn’t.

Eventually they ran out of things to say and put on a melancholy, reflective song that was a hit back then. It was “Life In A Northern Town,” by The Dream Academy. And just as my waterworks started to dry up, the song got to the last stanza of lyrics that close like this:

And though he never would wave goodbye,
You could see it written in his eyes,
As the train rolled out of sight,

I didn’t know who or what the song had been written about. All I knew was that those last few lines spoke of someone’s death, and for me from that point on they became about the Challenger crew never getting a chance to wave goodbye, of the space shuttle rolling out of sight and the sad and slow byyyyyyyyyyyyye byyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyye reflecting mine and the country’s heartbreak and loss.

I can hear this song today without so much as choking up, but it never fails to transport me back to that moment of profound tragedy.

Later that evening President Ronald Reagan was to give his State of the Union address, but postponed it and instead spoke to the nation about the disaster, closing with:

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.'”

They were: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik.

It was late 1986. I worked as a courier for a company that obtained travel visas for clients. I attended L.A. Valley College part time. I drove a Mazda GLC hatchback. “GLC stood for “Great Little Car.” I was 22. I was living in my first apartment. A second-floor single in Van Nuys. On Fulton — 6205 I believe, a couple blocks south of Victory. I don’t remember the apartment number.

I do remember how broke I was at the time. So strapped for cash I was forced to raid my savings, which was kept in a five-gallon glass water bottle and consisted of whatever spare change I’d spent seven years dropping into it.

On a Sunday afternoon, I could’ve put on a mask and gone down to the corner 7-11 to rob it, or I could’ve driven over to my mom’s and asked for her financial assistance. But instead I stayed home and poured the mass of coins out of the bottle clinkily tinkily onto the apartment’s carpeting to begin the time-consuming task of sorting them and then putting them into correspondening sleeves that I’d picked up from my branch of Gibralter Savings in Sherman Oaks a few days earlier.

“How many do you need?” The teller asked.

“A lot!”

It literally took all day to do and in the end my fingers the metallic smell of copper was stationed in my nostrils smelling vaguely blood-like.  I counted several paper and a paltry $53 in rolls of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters stacked up on my livingroom floor. Mostly pennies. But it was $53 I hadn’t had the day before, so I wasn’t complaining. There would be groceries. And cigarettes. And gas.

The next day I loaded all the rolls into a trashbag and shlepped them off to the bank, where of course I generated sideways glances from the security guard and customers when I walked into the place with a heavy Hefty bag slung over my shoulder. At the teller, rather than slip them a few at a time through the slot in the highly fortified window, I was directed to hand them over through the side door where a few random rolls were opened to make sure they were legitimatley filled with coins.

I watched this trying to imagine the cheap desperate bastard who would try to pass off two pennies sandwiching sand or slugs in order to make a profit of 48.

When eventually the teller was satisfied I wasn’t that petty I was told that I didn’t have to go through all the trouble of stuffing the coins. They had a coin counter that could have done the job in an hour.

And I said it would have been nice when I picked up all the empty coin sleeves if that nugget of enlightenment had been passed down to me.

“Well, for next time then,” the teller said, laying out two twenties, a ten and three ones before me.

I took the money and shook my head vigorously. “Oh there won’t be a next time.”

I can’t tell you whether the charbroiling burger smells that emanate from Carl’s Jrs are unique in their aroma, but I can tell you that when I biked by the one on the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue yesterday morning and got a good whiff in passing, I boarded the sense-memory express on a nonstop flight that took me and my olfactory system all the way back to when my age was in single digits and I made numerous trips by bike to that very same franchise location from where I lived at the time about a mile away in the slums of Beverly Hills.

But not for the food. For the drinks. Or rather the glasses they came in. I don’t remember the particular connection between the fast-food chain and Warner Bros., all I know is that in the early 1970s Carl’s Jr began selling glassware emblazoned with pretty much every Warner Bros.cartoon character you can imagine.

Mind you, these were not the cheap thin crap glass you get in promos nowadays. These were thick and sleek, with a heavy bottom from which the sides rose and tapered out and surrounded some 16 ounces of the beverage of your choice. And the artwork? Equally awesome. Whether it was Bugs Bunny or Sylvester or Tweety Bird or Yosemite Sam or Foghorn Leghorn or anyone else in the Looney Tunes cavalcade of cartoon legends, the images were authentic, the colors perfect and the paint thick giving it a bit of dimensionality off the glass — as if they’d jumped straight out of the TV and into real life.

Even at my unadvanced age, I knew these were well-crafted things I’d cherish forever.

Needless to say I saved my nickels and dimes and would make regular trips every weekend to that very Carl’s Jr I biked by yesterday morning, and I would march inside to the display at the front counter in high hopes that a new character glass had arrived.

If it was one I already had, I’d withdraw, bummed out. Maybe I’d bike over and hang out with the Dan the Miner statue in Carthay Circle, scuffing the grass with my sneakers in impatient frustration — in large part because I was playing catch-up in something of a gotta-get-’em-all competition with my best friend Randy, who lived in Van Nuys and was collecting them as well. In fact I’m pretty sure I only found out about the glasses during a visit to his house when he showed off the ones he’d already obtained from the Carls Jr near his house on Woodman Avenue and Burbank Boulevard. So envious was I that I’m pretty sure I contemplated stealing them from him. Instead from that point on the race was on.


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