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Moving On into Cycles of L.A. Letters

Moving into autumn as lingering summer finally fades, there are too many happenings to note this week. An album release party, the passing of a local heroine, neighborhood heroes facing foreclosure, and literary journal launch parties. This week L.A. Letters covers a kaleidoscope of L.A. arts issues, equally tragic and uplifting. Themes overlap and co-mingle in the whirlwind of the California dream. Moving on into cycles of L.A. Letters.

On the heels of the World Stage's eviction issue is a similar case at Bob Baker's Marionette Theater. The longest running children's theater in Los Angeles, the legendary marionette theater has been in continuous operation since 1963. Baker himself is almost 90 years old. Similar to the World Stage, they are faced with a huge bill and an uncertain future.

Prior to the rise of computer animation, Baker once made much of his income doing puppetry for Hollywood when the studios needed it. Some time, starting in the late 80s and early 90s, animation technology became so advanced that Baker hardly got any Hollywood work at all.

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Baker's theater is where Beverly and Glendale Boulevard meet, by the former Belmont Tunnel, now turned luxury condos. A graduate of Hollywood High School, Baker is an L.A. icon. His resume of film and television credits is mind blowing, including "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "A Star is Born," and work for Jerry Lewis and Michael Jackson. Baker worked on many epic films and television shoots over the years -- his expertise in puppetry made him the go-to guy.

Similar to the World Stage, Baker's theater needs assistance now. The right emissary with the right pocketbook could make a major difference. Thousands of local schoolchildren and families have been visiting the marionette shows there, for over five decades. Baker's service to the city is second to none. His marionette theater is a treasure we can ill afford to lose. Like the World Stage, which is having a rally in Leimert Park on Saturday the 26th at 1 p.m., Bob Baker's Marionette Theater is currently hanging in the balance, waiting for the cards to fall, where they may. This is another case where the right investor could make the difference. Bob Baker's Marionette Theater is an iconic space worth preserving for future generations. Here's to a quick and sensible resolution in this matter.

Bob Baker Marionettes | Photo: Loren Javier/Flickr/Creative Commons


I witnessed a multigenerational group of writers at Cal State L.A. celebrate the annual National Day on Writing with an open mic and community writing collage. The actual National Day on Writing was on a Sunday, October 20, 2013, but the Cal State L.A. English Department and the school's literary journal, Statement Magazine, held their event on campus Tuesday, two days later. Three Cal State L.A. Professors, Dr. Harris, Dr. Ramey, and Karen McDermott, invited some of their classes to come by. Writers, ranging in age from 18 to 64, shared their words in the forecourt of the Engineering and Technology Building.

I hosted the reading, and after almost 40 poets got up over about a three-hour session, I lost count. By nightfall, twinkling lights in the wooded hills of City Terrace loomed to the south, beyond a word tree where people were invited to write anything down, which were added to the community collage. Over 200 scribes contributed to the word tree, and many of them also read aloud, including several for the first time.

Following the National Day on Writing I went to Downtown L.A. and the Last Bookstore for singer-songwriter Megan Jacobs' album release party, for her second record "Moving On." She played nine songs with a full band, including talented veteran Angeleno musicians like Damon Aaron and Dan Ubick from Connie Price & the Keystones. Vocalist Jacobs is a clever songwriter who also plays upright piano. It was a full house at the Last Bookstore, with everyone there to hear Jacobs sing her heart out. Her signature mix of deep pathos and joyful exuberance echoed under the vaulted ceilings.

A seasoned musician, the Santa Monica-born Jacobs went to college in Berkeley and has done a number of performances in San Francisco and New Orleans. Her latest musical incarnation combines the mojo of Laurel Canyon, with a 2014 retro-futuro swing. Her record is a collection of songs about moving on and persevering in the midst of frustration and life's gridlock. Jacobs' indomitable spirit shines in her recordings and her electric live performance.

The following night I was in North Hollywood for their first annual Lit Crawl. Many of the city's small presses and literary institutions, like Tongue & Groove, the Glass Table Collective, Writers at Work, and the Rumpus were there, along with many scheduled readings in spaces along Lankershim Boulevard in the NoHo Arts District. I read in Beyond Baroque's section with Doug Knott, Laurel Ann Bogen, Dennis Cruz, and host, Carlye Archibeque. Red Hen Press read before us, and I bumped into Douglas Kearney after he finished his set. I also ran into celebrated Angeleno poet Peter J. Harris, strolling with his daughter.

Noho Lit Crawl with Poesia Para La Gente reading at Pitfire Pizza | Photo: Rosalind Helfand | Facebook

Harris is one of the World Stage's most senior scribes, dating back to when the doors opened in 1989. A prolific writer with two new books out and over ten previous books in his repertoire, Harris founded the Black Man of Happiness Project. The first book for this project, "Gritt Tuff Play Book: Hard Core Wisdom for Young People," was co-written with his oldest brother Glenn Harris, an Emmy winning broadcaster and humanitarian in D.C. They want to donate as many of the books as they can to organizations that encourage young people. Harris' latest book, "The Vampire Who Drinks Gospel Music," mixes Harris's signature surreal style with poignant humor. He characterizes it by saying it's "like listening to Richard Pryor's wino school Dracula."

I first met Harris at a nonprofit organization in the Arts District, where he was teaching poetry to underprivileged youth, sometime in 2005. Billy Mark, formerly from the Last Bookstore, had invited me to share some poems with the youth, and Harris was their workshop leader and mentor. Though I had seen him at the World Stage and heard his poems on Carlos Nino's record, "Build An Ark" and KPFK, it was not until that venue in the Arts District that I met him. His manner with the students was very inspiring, and I was stoked to connect, especially after being a big fan of his poem "Love is Our Nationality." To this day it remains one of my favorite recorded poems.

Harris also told me though that as much as his writing has been published and the numerous awards he has received over the years, he's been having a hard time finding work recently. He said, "Ironically, while jamming on these projects, I've been unable to find work, despite a full court hustle, so I've lost my house to foreclosure, and will have to move out within the next month. Surreal and painful, but I continue to make as much beauty as I can muster, in hopes of attracting resources I need to thrive."

Harris' sentiment here describes the modus operandi for so many in these times: continue to make beauty, in spite of all the obstacles and elaborate set of hurdles. Furthermore, his faith in the work and the beauty he creates empowers him to press forward. The new economy needs to incorporate and utilize seasoned individuals like Harris -- he's a pioneer that draws from a wealth of experience when he instructs. There are literally hundreds of schools that could benefit from his services. Hiring him would be a win-win situation; hopefully some administrators will realize how valuable of a resource a veteran writer/performer like Harris is. As much as people complain about the quality of education these days, there are more than a few ultra-skilled individuals out there who, like Harris, can teach circles around most instructors, and yet ironically many can no longer depend on finding steady work. A sensible administrator would be wise to hire him. Peter J. Harris is a leviathan of L.A. Letters.

Black Man of Happiness Project with Peter J. Harris | Photo: Rosalind Helfand |Facebook


A few hours before I wrote this column on Thursday October 24, I went to the re-launch party for Boom: A Journal for California. Held in a warehouse space called the Hub in the Arts District on Traction Avenue, I saw a number of excellent Angeleno scribes, like UCLA Professor Ursula Heise, L.A. Observed's Kevin Roderick, Victoria Bernal, KCET's own Nathan Masters and Elson Trinidad, some of the Artbound team, and Esotouric's Richard Schave and Kim Cooper. Boom editor and UCLA Professor Jon Christensen spoke enthusiastically to the crowd about the journal's role in California literature. He noted that 20 years ago the journal "New West" disappeared, and that Boom fills that void, and a whole lot more. He also said his intention for Boom is that it be an "Evocative Object." The print quality of the issue matches Christensen's wish with excellent photography and well-edited articles. Boom is now based at UCLA and will soon be opening a creative space in the Arts District on Traction. The current issue's focus is on the 100th Anniversary of the L.A. Aqueduct. "There it is, take it."

This week's column ends with sad news about a well-loved local heroine. The Los Angeles arts activist, curator and women's advocate Avinger Nelson died on Monday, October 21, 2013 from complications after routine abdominal surgery. Nelson was a one-woman creative powerhouse involved with several organizations, like the Women's Caucus for Art, the Lantern of the East, L.A. (LELA) project in Little Tokyo, and Barnsdall Art Park.

Nelson organized numerous arts programs and exhibits across the city. I attended several of the events she curated, and the artists and audience mirrored L.A.'s diversity. Through her work with the L.A. Experimental Artists she gave many emerging artists their first break, especially all of the up-and-coming women she mentored in the Women's Caucus. Her husband Bill Nelson wrote in an email, "She died just a month shy of our 32nd wedding anniversary. She was my best friend; my rock; my inspiration; my guiding star. She lifted me up and she kept me grounded. She was and forever will be the best part of me."

I remember witnessing her selfless spirit and unbridled dedication to community arts at this event in Little Tokyo. There were women artists from all over the city, and Nelson was talking in detail to each artist and attending to their needs. Her husband notes, "She was perfectly happy to work behind the scenes and to let others have the credit or the spotlight. She was also willing to share her knowledge and experience with anyone." She undoubtedly will be missed.

Avinger Nelson is one of millions of selfless people around the world that have given their life in service to others. Emissaries like Nelson, Bob Baker, Peter J. Harris, and Megan Jacobs dedicate their lives to improving the community and creating as much beauty as they can muster, even in the midst of eviction and economic restructuring. The faith to keep creating in the face of closing doors and adversity keeps the city moving on through all seasons and cycles. Themes overlap and comingle. Salute to Boom, the student poets at Cal State L.A. and the four alchemists named above; together they personify the indefatigable spirit of L.A. Letters.

Top Image: NoHo Lit Crawl with Tongue & Groove reading at Republic of Pies. Photo: Rosalind Helfand | Facebook

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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