Mitch O'Farrell: Cruise Ship Performer to City Council Candidate | KCET
Mitch O'Farrell: Cruise Ship Performer to City Council Candidate
Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@LosJeremy) asks, "How did you - or your family before you - wind up living in Los Angeles?
Today we hear from Mitch O'Farrell, Glassell Park resident and Los Angeles City Council candidate:
"I was born in a farming community in northeast Oklahoma. I grew up and finished school in Moore, a suburb south of Oklahoma City.
"My mother's name was Mary Alice Cotter. She worked in administrative assistant jobs. She passed in 2008. My father, Jack, was a truck driver. He passed in 1998. My parents raised four kids - we are all close in age. We were born in the late `50s and early `60s.
"My father's route was Los Angeles. He drove here two or three times a week. He was a Teamster and worked for Leeway [Transportation.] He would always stop and get postcards for me, so I had this huge postcard collection growing up. I always dreamt of coming to Los Angeles.
"As I got older, I thought, 'What could I do to make a life in L.A.?" In high school, I was a competitive gymnast. So I decided to study dance and I became a professional dancer. I ended up in Summer Stock in Tulsa. I worked with a dancer who knew a producer in L.A. who did a show -- the Folies Bergere -- in Vegas at the Tropicana.
"I bought a one-way ticket from Oklahoma City to L.A. I must have had a plan to stay, right?
"I went to my scheduled audition and the producer hired me on the spot. The show he hired me for was in Mexico -- it was in Acapulco at the Acapulco Princess' casino.
"That show had a can-can number -- that was the producer's specialty. When you have a can-can there is always some gymnastics involved. I was considered an "acro-dancer" because I had both gymnastics and dance skills.
"This was 1982. I was hired in late January and had a costume fitting. The show was to begin in June. So I had a five-month gap. I was barely twenty-one. I remember all of this. I rented a car in advance and I shuttled from LAX to the rent-a-car. It was a Chevy Chevette. The exterior was blue and the interior was blue and gray.
"My first few days here, I would sleep in the back of the Chevette one night, then stay in a cheap hotel the next. By the end of the week I had an apartment in Hollywood. And within a week after that I had a job to sustain myself, working as a waiter at a coffee house. I had six roommates in that apartment. They were in various forms of performing arts themselves. I slept on the floor.
"I'm a big bicycling advocate -- I just enjoyed the latest CicLAvia. But in those early days, I drove all over the place. I wanted to see everything. I remember taking that Chevy Chevette and getting on the 405. I thought, 'Oh my god, even the freeways are beautiful.'
"I took Sunset Boulevard through the UCLA area and then Bel Air and Holmby Hills. I was just in awe. I was also so naïve. When I would look up and see the hills of Angeles Forest I would think, 'Oh, that's where they snow ski.'
"All of this was a wonderland to me. I made a pilgrimage to the Chinese Theater. Also that first week, I snuck into the studios' backlots. All of them. I had one jacket, a button down shirt, decent shoes and a decent pair of slacks and I would just wave to the guard and just walk right in there like I knew what I was doing.
"You could never get away with this now. But then, I would walk into a set and watch television show scenes being filmed. I remember sneaking into MGM's backlot and sneaking onto the set of Dallas and sitting at J.R.'s desk.
"Not a soul knew I was in there. It was crazy. So yeah, I was adventurous -- and I still am.
"The five months I was scheduled to stay in L.A. turned into close to two years.
"The Acapulco show completely fell through. I stayed in shape by taking dance classes when I wasn't exploring the city or working at the coffee shop.
"Then that same producer from Vegas hired me for a different show. This one was in the Bahamas. All through the `80s I traveled the world, dabbling as a professional dancer on cruise liners.
"I went through the Caribbean, the Caymans, Cozumel and the Virgin Islands. Then I spent fifteen consecutive months back in the Bahamas during the mid-`80s. The show I was in was typically six evenings a week with Monday being the off-night.
"I took a roommate; we had a condominium at the beach. I had a perpetual tan. I learned to scuba dive. I would wind surf around the island during the day. Go back, you know make it back and get on my bike and ride to the casino, dress up, and hit the show.
"I took more contracts on ships later, like in 1990. I went to Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Vanuatu Islands, the South Pacific and -- wow -- Alaska.
"I am a naturalist. I hiked all through Alaska. I remember hiking up to the top of the mountains in Juneau and thinking, 'It's getting kind of late' and running down the mountain and barely making it to the ship on time. Then I'd run to the theater and get ready to do the show an hour later. But I never missed a performance.
"The last contract that I did was in Australia on the Star Princess, with Princess Cruises back in '91. After that, I bought a EuroRail pass and a friend of mine and I traveled through Europe. I was just like the poor man's traveler -- all I had was, like, one suitcase and one backpack. I learned how to roll up my clothes and hand-wash things.
"For someone who had the wanderlust of traveling from a young age, it was just a great experience. I was living the life. I was just so fortunate.
"I came back to L.A. and I joined a theater group. I would do maybe, like, Mystery Theater. I never made it as an actor. This was pretty much the end of my performing career. I thought, 'Okay, I am in my 30s now. I better get serious.'
"I moved to Glassell Park, in Northeast L.A. That's where my partner George Brauckman lived. We are twenty years together next month and we still live in Glassell Park.
"During the years that followed, I learned how to run a business because I managed restaurants, hired and trained staff, trained managers, etc. I became a community activist and started volunteering for my neighborhood. Eric [Garcetti] was running for City Council and I did some volunteer work for him.
"Before you knew it, I was the President of the Glassell Park Improvement Association and I was helping form the Neighborhood Council. I started meeting deputies from the Congressional offices and City Council offices and a light bulb went off. I thought, 'My gosh, maybe that is something that I could do.'
"I felt so blessed to get hired, in 2002. And sure enough, I stayed for ten years and I loved it. I was field deputy, then deputy director, then district director and then senior advisor. Now, I'm a candidate** for the City Council. [In Council District 13.]
"My story sounds so unlikely for a City Council member -- I actually had to get over this psychologically. But I did. Everyone has their own biography.
"There's a tradition of Oklahomans coming to L.A. and to the West. My late grandmother on my father's side was one of thirteen kids. She had brothers who came out this way during the Great Depression. They probably ended up in Fresno or Bakersfield or whatever. She never heard from her brothers again.
"I came because I wanted to make my life here -- not unlike so many others who come from all over the world.
I think the common denominator is, people come to L.A. to make a life for themselves. They also want to build a community and have a place in that community.
"This really is one of the ingredients that makes this city such a great place, because people can come here and be who you are. You can really redefine yourself; you can make a new life for yourself; you can really leave the past behind if that's what you want to do.
"There is a sense of opportunity and there is actually a sense of expectation for that. It is so healthy. No one asks you, 'Who's your family? Where are you from?'
"In other places that matters a whole lot. You know, what your parents did for a living, or what your station in life is, or, do you come from money or do you not come from money? I love that about Los Angeles. I love it so much."
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)
** Note to other candidates: Please feel free to contact the columnist on Twitter @LosJeremy if you too would like to nominate a Law That Shaped LA. or have a compelling Arrival Story you'd like to share
- Read this recent Laws That Shaped LA post featuring Mitch O'Farrell discussing the Los Angeles River and the built environment.
Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com.