By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
EVERY SATURDAY IN THE BIG OPEN SPACE IN THE OLD FARMERS Market (where it's still possible to pretend that the new Vegas-like Grove shopping mall next door doesn't exist), some tables are pushed aside to make room for a stage and a few large speakers. It starts getting crowded early -- all tables are taken by 7 -- and then there's a wild scramble for the next hour as strangers come up and beg to sit next to you. If you're holding a chair for a friend, you'll have to say "Yes, this is taken" so often that you become surly. By the time the karaoke starts at 8, the sign-up sheet is filled for the night. If you're a first-timer, you might not get to sing, even if you are on the list, because there are so many regulars who are in with the emcee, Danny Ray, that they automatically go on before anyone with a name he doesn't recognize. At 11:30 one Saturday night, I saw a first-timer, who had been told for two hours that she was next, jump onto the stage in utter exasperation and demand that Danny put on her song (she brought the house down with, I think, one from the Dixie Chicks). But people aren't there to see first-timers anyway. It's the regulars who make the evening so much fun.
There's the young, skinny Vegas guy who is decked out in a leisure suit, gigantic Elvis glasses, big chain and open polyester shirt. It's hard to tell if he's kidding or not, but who cares? His dance moves are so original (especially the one where he leans back like he's going for some limbo world record as his arms and hands shake toward his partner) that you're just glad he's there. Then there's the woman in the crazy, gigantic multicolored feather outfit waving a giant bone and singing Spanish songs with a lot of screeching ay yay yays. Some of the regulars are great -- doing a dead-on Sinatra or a perfect Alanis, or just singing classics in their own style. Most of the best singers dress normally. Some are real performers, walking amid the audience, getting on a knee to croon; others stand, shyly, and hug the mic stand. Nobody gets to sing more than once, and it seems that for a lot of the regulars those three and a half minutes onstage are the greatest of their week. (After an older, skinny African-American man sang Sinatra's "The Summer Wind" to great acclaim, I heard him in the men's room muttering, "I fucking own this town. This is my town.")
There are many regulars who never sing at all. They just come for the fun or to dance or to be in a place in Los Angeles where you can have a good time with old people and young people, gorgeous hipsters and normal shlubs. The entertainment industry fuels some of the excitement -- clearly some singers are hoping to be discovered -- but that's easy to ignore. I can't think of another place in town with such a free, accepting, silly atmosphere.
Most people's favorite is Diana ("I just go by Diana. Like Cher"). She won't say how old she is. "I just tell everybody I'm a senior. Let them guess. Let them guess. I'm in my second childhood."
She takes to the stage in a big overcoat, then whips it off, and there she is, wow, in a sparkly miniskirt, fishnet stockings, colorful top. She might sing "Last Dance" or some Creedence Clearwater Revival. "My signature song is 'I've Got the Music in Me.'" She sings well and with passion, she kicks her amazing legs and struts around the stage, and gets everybody up and clapping.
She's having so much fun, we're having so much fun, everything just seems perfect. She won't say this is the happiest time in her life, because she'd give it all up to have another day with Frank, her husband of 42 years. Six years ago he died; not long after, her two sisters passed away. "And my son, my only child. I was very depressed for a long time. I had a very wonderful husband, and I just wanted to die with him, to be honest." For three years, she didn't leave the house. Then a neighbor dragged her to a senior center. "The lady said, 'Sign here.' I said, 'What's that?' She said, 'It's karaoke.' I said, 'What's that?' Because I'm always thinking of my husband, I sang 'Unforgettable.' It was terrible. The tune wasn't mine. I was shaking. Nobody was listening. I went home and turned on the radio, and I said, 'I'm going to sing.' I heard 'I Will Survive.' What a wonderful song."
IDEAS: What You See and What You Get
ONE EVENING LAST WEEK A stylish group of 300 students, professors and various intelligentsia types crowded into an auditorium at Westwood's UCLA Hammer Museum to hear Yale professor emeritus Edward R. Tufte, who was in town for the opening of "Escaping Flatland," his own visual display on view at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum in the Bradbury Building downtown. Tufte (pronounced tuff-tee) has spent the past 30 years dissecting graphs, charts, maps and, more recently, Web pages -- anything that uses visuals to convey information. He examines the visual presentation of the factual whether in cruise-missile-payload diagrams, a timetable for a Javanese railway line, family trees of modern art or the book How To Ski by the French Method. He views the world as if peering through a panopticon, with one eye on the big picture, the other on the minute.