Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Lemonade Skies and Tangerine Dreams

Dawn in the desert. The beautiful sunrise brushes finger-thin rays of lemonade pink against the still sleeping snow-capped mountains. Occasionally there are fleeting glimpses of coyotes on the golf course returning from their nocturnal hunt. Those hours just after dawn seem to draw out an interesting assortment of desert characters (human and otherwise) intent on enjoying the cool of morning before the heat of the day. 

Many desert communities down the Valley hide behind their miles of stucco walls, ficus hedges and other obstacles to a glimpse inside. Not so with Palm Springs. Hollywood East, as it is sometimes called, is a different kind of animal. Most resort communities sport the ubiquitous gated enclaves of look-alike signature homes surrounding a golf course where every home has a swimming pool in the backyard. Those enclaves of understated wealth are sprinkled with a flavoring of palaces to fine dining and expensive shops with one-of-a-kind amenities meant to separate the cake from the chaff. Palm Springs is all that but much more. It’s what separates this desert town from so many others.

Photo Credit:  Melvin Hale
Over the past several decades, Palm Springs got so outdated that it became hip all over again. What was once old mid-century modern architecture is now hip and all the rage among modernists. Tired old motels have been revamped, remodeled and now charge ten dollars for a bottle of beer. 1950’s throw-away furniture fetches a fortune in design stories and replicas fare just as well. Old is new again and thus hip for those born twenty to thirty years ago. Early morning in Palm Springs is a perfect example of this paradox.

In Palm Springs it takes a lot to turn heads. For example, there’s nothing remarkable about a hundred and fifty thousand dollar Bentley parked in front of McDonalds or the elderly owner inside sipping his cheap cup of coffee-with refills. Or the ‘classic’ 1964 mustang convertible parked in front of True Value hardware. A hipster arriving at ‘The Rowen’ wouldn’t turn an eye with his vintage corvette.

Gardeners and pool boys file in and out of convenience stores for their unhealthy snacks and caffeinated beverages. At the other end of the lifestyle spectrum, joggers and bikers perform their morning ritual before the rest of us finish that first cup of Joe.

Trail riders are deep into their morning ride along the wash. Not far away, mountain bikers churn up the sandy bottoms for traction. 

Desert rats scramble up shale and rock mountain paths that twist and turn up toward the sky. Centenarians are on the golf course for their sunrise special and then haunt the coffee shops before most of us are even awake.

In the beginning there was only Starbucks. Now several other coffee shops have carved out a sizeable notch of the early morning caffeine addicts. Koffi started the trend. Now Red Collar, Old Town La Quinta Coffee and many more have claimed their own patio in the rising sun.

There is a particular Starbucks on the outskirts of downtown Palm Springs that always seems to attract a smattering of circus performers minus the circus. In the early morning hours, before the rest of us are beginning to stir in our beds, these shadows of the night emerge from the darkness and slip into their caffeine-induced second home. One local character, Saint Joseph, was usually among them.

St. Joseph always seemed to hold court around same time and always the same corner. When I first started coming to the desert years ago, I would find Saint Joseph in his corner chair, counseling and administering to the daily needs of his flock. The only variable would be his entourage for any particular day and the visiting dignitaries who stop at his office for a brief exchange of wisdom before melting into the night once again.

Joseph was an older gentleman, probably in his mid-seventies. He was always cheerful, ready with a smile and a laugh. He had a pleasant demeanor that never varied with the seasons. He was a counselor, adviser, cheerleader, friend, listener and seeker of the good in everyone he met.

For many people, Joseph was their early morning elixir for what ailed them on that particular day. Unlike the old men who gather at coffee shops around the world to blather on about nothing and expose their ignorance with Monday morning quarterbacking, second-guessing politicians and berating the government, Joseph was articulate, thoughtful and intelligent. He listened to their wishful sometimes confused tangerine dreams.

His entourage varied from day to day as did his visitors. There was usually some old curmudgeon who would be bitching about something and always countered by Joseph’s calm response. Joseph was the man’s patient sounding board.  

There was the handicapped young woman confined her wheelchair. She moved around by using her crutches as walking sticks. She had the sad eyes of a fawn that has just lost its mother.  

There was the muscle man, built solid as a rock, who walked a toy poodle. The dog was his trusted companion and he loved that animal. Mr. Bojangles anyone. Dogs were always a part of the daily entourage. There’s still a dish of water for them outside every morning.

The conversations varied by the day. One time it might be the local news sprinkled with criticism of national politics. The next might be the weather; summer is hot, the rest of the year is wonderful. The conversations would be open, honest and usually bent toward the left which was not surprising considering the community that hosted them. Other coffee shops might have better coffee but none had their own St. Joseph.

The Rowen Hotel
Not far away, early morning downtown Palm Springs presents a different tone and vibe. In its heyday, L.A. had the Sunset Strip and Chicago had its miracle mile. Minneapolis has its Nicollet Mall and Eat Street. Many cities across the country have their own branded tentacles of food, drink, lodging and entertainment. 

Palm Springs has done them one better with its own small-town village atmosphere cloaked as a 21st century hot spot. Throw in a summer splash party or two and it’s become a poor man’s version of ‘Caligula’ for the masses…as long as they’re preferably under thirty years of age.

  Even in the early morning hours, the new town is a happening place once again. After years of economic stagnation and entertainment limbo Palm Springs has risen like a Phoenix. Palm Springs is fast becoming just about the hippest hot spot this side of Brooklyn, Silver Lake and West Hollywood. West Coast hipsters, designers, remodelers, artists, musicians and actors are all rediscovering what their forefathers knew all along. They’re finding that wrapping those warm blue pools with a healthy shot of alcohol can bring out a hedonistic nature in the best of us.

In the heart of downtown is the Rowen Hotel; a central showcase for the brand new downtown Palm Springs. The new hotel is meant to anchor the many new downtown projects underway. Next door, 

The Palm Springs Art Museum continues to draw large crowds to its special exhibits. A pocket park will soon be constructed between the two enterprises. Walkability is a key ingredient here to attract the masses; tourist and local alike. 

The city is even carving up areas around downtown and giving them distinctive labels such as SOPS (South of Palm Springs), the Backstreet Art District and the Uptown Art and Design District.   

There is something magical here with the surrounding mountains, desert-scape, warm winter months and hip happenings all over town. Palm Springs is now a virtual cornucopia of cultural, artistic, sensual, musical and intellectual stirrings for just about everyone from the art culture-types to the more modest of minds. 

It all seems to be happening here and I’m lucky enough to be ‘cruising along’ in the middle of it.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

PTV: The Play

They say history is what we remember of it. Of course, memories are fallible and oftentimes painted over with pastels of pleasantry that cover some of the harsh reality lingering there. Impressions of the past are both subjective and selective. They summon up what we want it to be as well as what it really was. So it was for the Sixties and me.  I’ve tried to capture that sense of an era in one of my latest play entitled PTV.

Like some old hard rock miner, I went digging a while back to unearth recollections and reflections of my first job in the real world. And what a gold mine it turned out to be! I unearthed rough-cut gems of wisdom and insight into a world long since gone. It was a work world laced with honesty and deception, tough love and forbidden love, betrayal and self-direction all collected in that wonderful time capsule from roughly 1967 through 1972. It turned out my first real career steps occurred during a historic and dramatic transitional period for educational television in the Twin Cities and nationwide.

I started working at KTCA television in the winter of 1967 after living in Europe for a while. I had a used VW bug, a bachelor pad (translated: a hovel on University Avenue) and a hunger for more. I had secured a full-time job as a writer at the Minnesota Department of Health but I needed something else to fill my evenings. 

The ten year old educational television station had no writing positions available but they offered to let me work for free as a crew member. The offer was to learn the many different aspects of television production and perhaps something might open up in the future. I took the gig and never looked back. 

My education began literally from the ground up, learning to string cable, set lighting, assemble audio equipment and handle the studio cameras. More importantly, I learned the many different skills entailed in producing a television program. They were the same techniques, routines and procedures that follow most video, film, cable and television productions. I still use many of them today in producing plays.

In retrospect, it was a very pivotal time period for the entire instructional television industry. There were storm clouds on the horizon hinting of major changes in programming and content philosophy that many in authority never saw coming. The ancient axiom of teaching principles were being challenged by new and sometimes radical ideas of learning.

Young Turks saw major opportunities in television entertainment and program distribution. Those who grabbed the opportunity rode an ever growing wave of exciting and sometimes radical new programming ideas and concepts. Woven into that earthquake of change were seismic events like the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, the drug culture and a youthful challenge of parental and governmental authority. It was the best of times for some. It was the worst of times for others. That is the genesis for ‘PTV.’ Trust me; there was a plethora of material to work with.

That period of my life was a modern day soap opera lived through in a fog of growing up among creatives and crazies. The television station proved the perfect cauldron to observe emotions and angst, fear of the future and drug-induced raptures of imagination. Surrounded by the radical changes of the mid-Sixties, the station morphed organically into a mirror of youthful culture run amok.

The station had it all. There were marital dalliances, infidelity, and drugged out crew members scheming against wannabe Hollywood-minded directors. Rigid ivory tower professors railed against the subtle yet very real changes coming in education. Crafty entrepreneurs pushed their latest batch of Mary Jane. Those early educational TV defenders of the status quo shored up their academic defenses against the changes on the horizon. Off campus parties grew to legendary status.

It was a moment in time when the swirling currents of cultural, social, sexual and political events came together and made our television station a melting pot of change. For a playwright, that was a hell of a lot of wonderful material to work into a play.

‘PTV’ was a veritable trip down memory lane for me. The events, people and ever-changing political and cultural changes were based on some of my own experiences at KTCA over that critical period in my life. It included folks I knew well back then, others I was aware of, and still others who were there but never intermingled with me or the other crew members. Most of us were young, single, rambunctious, adventurous and always searching.

After volunteering on the crew for six months, I was offered a position as Producer/Director. Since it didn’t start for three months I returned to Europe for three months to wander and wonder. Then I began my real career in television and video production.

In retrospect, that turned out to be my wannabe hippie phase; a long stretch of soul searching with friends, especially Susan and ultimately a clearer focus on where I wanted to go with my life. That stretch ended with a simple “Got change for a quarter?” asked of the night receptionist and ultimately solidifying my future life with her forever.

Writing ‘PTV’ proved to be a cathartic romp back to a period of eternal, sometimes misguided, youth, romantic conquests, stumbles in time and falling forward. It was dancing with Mary Jane and sober analysis of future pathways. It hinted of writing and real estate, exotic travel and a place in that warm winter sun. It was a brief time capsule of radical change that fed me so many great memories. It predated Camelot out East but proved its own worthy mind bender.

Now my goal is to see if I can get the Minnesota History Theater to consider it for inclusion in their future play performance schedule. My proposal has just been sent in.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

A Passion for Art

Sharon hadn’t touched a paintbrush until well into her retirement. In fact, art theory; its creation and the emotional undercurrent within, wasn’t even on her radar when she left academics in 2014. Then a new passion began calling for her attention. Aside from her role as ‘Nana extraordinaire,’ Sharon found her muse in colors and tones and textures and abstract visions that call to her inner consciousness.

Like running was for me and writing is now, Sharon’s art is her new positive addiction. It’s an inner drive to create and make something out of her imagination. It’s given her purpose, focus, energy and a drive to add more to her already busy life. She’s doing what she loves to do; bypassing the notion that retirement means ‘slowing down and relaxing.’ I get it. I’ve found my own elixir in novels and plays and screenplays.

Unfortunately, this past summer my latest play put the brakes on Sharon’s inner drive to create. ‘The Last Sentinel’ proved a huge distraction for Sharon and her art. But after twenty-five hundred truffles and great attendance numbers later, Sharon was ready to bounce back to her true love of creating art.

Fortunately the teacher in Sharon helped her quickly morph back into guiding her five grand-children through new techniques and processes for making gauze art, abstract impressions and the old favorite alcohol ink. Both Minnesota and Colorado proved apt backgrounds for lessons in these new approaches to creativity. 

While not as frequent as in the past, Sharon’s classes in Norde East Minneapolis and the Palm Springs Art Center still prove fertile proving grounds for new approaches to her art.

This summer, Sharon’s art traveled to Hawaii and Colorado where she conducted more classes for her grandchildren and introduced a traveling companion to coloring books. It was both relaxing and therapeutic.

A ‘must see’ each fall for Sharon and other artists is perusing the winners of the Minnesota State Fair art contest. Even though Sharon hasn’t yet made the cut, Brennan and Charlotte, her two Minnesota pupils, have both won coveted prizes three years running.

Sharon has finally agreed to display her art around the house.

It’s a fitting tribute to her new-found passion which has been less than five years in the making. I and the children and grandchildren could not be prouder.