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L.A.'s literary salons: club-hopping for bookworms

Wednesday, May 3 2006
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In the 1620s, the first literary salons popped up in Paris. They were held in big, lavish hotels by the upper classes. In 1920s New York, we saw the birth of the roundtable gatherings at the Algonquin Hotel, peopled by the cultural elite — Dorothy Parker, Alexander Wollcott, Harpo Marx, Harold Ross, Edna Ferber, Robert Sherwood. Finally, in the 1950s, Allen Ginsberg and his beatnik brigade brought literary readings to the masses. Back then it was the commingling of verse and jazz that mixed the rich and the poor and just about everyone in between together. Those North Beach cafés leveled 300 years of elitist tradition. Here in L.A. the literary scene has equal parts Hollywood glamour and Eastside edge. Besides its literary magazines (Swink, Black Clock, The Los Angeles Review) and smaller indie presses and imprints, there are also a dozen regular literary salons and another half-dozen not-so-regular salons, many of which come with a heavy dose of industry participation on both sides of the stage.

Books, Booze and... Sodomy?Tonight is the last Sunday of the month, and the 40 or so people gathered here at Mount Hollywood Church are dressed in their Sunday best, or in what passes for Sunday best in this part of town. Candles are lit, incense is burning and the music sounds soul-stirring at first — an acoustic quartet singing and strumming what could be an Appalachian spiritual — but after closer aural inspection it appears to be a marginally disfigured version of OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” The next tune — also lullaby-soft — appears to be about, um, butt fucking. Yup, sodomy. A fast glance at the evening’s program reveals the band’s name: The Evangenitals. What the hell kind of church service is this?

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Actually, this is Speakeasy, a monthly semiliterary salon run by Christine Louise Berry of Smart Gals Productions. And as its name might suggest, you’ll need to know the password to get in. The event started in 2001 because of Berry’s dislike for Los Angeles’ rarefied literary/performance-art world. “I felt like there were so many people out there who want to be engaged,” says Berry, “who wanted to see something different, but they’re not part of that little arty circle.” To break out of that little circle, she designed her literary salon as a sort of proletariat mixer with intellectual underpinnings. To this end, these evenings usually begin with a parlor game. The game itself changes month-to-month, but it functions as an ice-breaker. At Speakeasy, intermingling is aided by pastry and punch. Or, with the purchase of a $10 bookmark — designed by a local artist, as a limited edition series — you’re entitled to a different kind of punch, poured by a tattooed, tank-topped, zaftig woman, who passes the glass with a wink and says, “Just keep on drinking until mama cuts you off.” Sometimes, there’s music. There are always readings. On the night in question, both John Albert, the author of The Wrecking Crew, and Jennifer New, who wrote Drawing From Life: The Journal as Art, presented sections of their respected new works. Unlike bookstore readings, the Speakeasy encourages its audience to boo, hiss, cheer, challenge or generally make their presence felt any way they choose. If this much participation seems opposite to the hushed reverence — or, some would say, false reverence — that accompanies a typical Los Angeles reading, that’s because it’s intentional. “A lot of people blame Hollywood for the lack of a literary scene in Los Angeles,” says Berry, “and while that may be true to a point, I think the stronger the disease, the stronger the antidote.”

Flipping the Script

Cedering Fox and Darrell Larson have been trying to mix things up too, with their WordTheatre, which brings big-name actors together to read short stories by big-name writers in intimate settings. Fox and Larson began the event 15 years ago as a way to combat isolation in this sprawling city. “We don’t even use the phone anymore,” notes Fox, “we have e-mail and BlackBerries and long drives alone on the freeways, and very rarely do we see each other. It’s just incredibly isolating.” A typical WordTheatre evening will present Jeff Goldblum reading Arthur Miller’s “Bulldog” or Bill Nighy reading Ron Carlson’s “The Gold Lunch” or Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden performing Pamela Painter’s “Reading in His Wake,” or any other such combination. So popular has the series become that this year HarperCollins has begun releasing audio CDs of the performances (under the WordTheatre name), but it’s the live evenings that Fox feels are a real draw. “WordTheatre has always been a way to deepen our sense of community and simultaneously celebrate the oral storytelling tradition. There’s something very primal about hearing a story told aloud, and people really respond to that. It’s not like any other form of entertainment in Los Angeles.”

Self Love and Starlet Burlesque

“With so much of Los Angeles becoming really corporate,” says writer/director Paul Feig (Arrested Development, Freaks and Geeks), “it’s getting harder and harder to get across something that’s different. I understand that Hollywood’s a business, but what’s great about these literary salons is that it allows those of us in the business an outlet for just this sort of wanton creativity.” To this end, Feig recently read an excerpt from his new book, Superstud: Or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin — about a time when he did severe bodily harm while trying to give himself a blow-job as a teenager — at The World Explained, a quarterly salon series sponsored by Dave Eggers’ literary magazine McSweeney’s. On the evening Feig read, the event was held at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Hollywood, but “The World, Explained” has been steadily growing since. (The next one will be held at Barnsdall, seating 350 people, in June.) Feig wasn’t the only entertainment alum to take part in that inaugural show; also featured were readings by David Letterman’s former head writer, Rodney Rothman; McSweeney’s (and the Weekly’s) own Joshuah Bearman (co-creator of the series, with TV producer Will Reiser) and Trinie Dalton; stand-up interludes by Emmy-nominated writer/comedian Paul F. Tompkins (Mr. Show with Bob and David, Real Time with Bill Maher); and mildly burlesque musical interludes by actresses Zooey Deschanel and Samantha Shelton, in turn backed up by Maroon Five guitarist James Valentine — to say nothing of the agents, producers, directors, actors and other industry flotsam that have packed the audience.

Teach the Children

In 2000, with the megasuccess of his A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers suddenly found himself with a serious cash influx. Much of that money has been funneled into the creation of a nonprofit elementary- and high-school student-tutoring project called 826, after the first center’s San Francisco address, 826 Valencia St. Now there are six centers, including 826LA, which just celebrated its one-year anniversary. “The whole point of these centers,” says CAA’s Sally Wilcox, who, alongside other industry denizens including E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison, sits on the board at 826LA, “is to engage kids with the notion and possibility of a writer’s life.” But since tutoring is free of charge and all of the centers are self-supporting, each 826 hosts regular literary evenings.

Not too long ago, on a Saturday night at 826LA, John Doe, L.A. punk pioneer and co-founder of the band X, and author Rick Moody (Ice Storm, Demonology) crooned a duet of Doe’s See How We Are to an audience of some 50 people packed into the main tutoring room — essentially a classroom complete with crayon drawings on the wall and origami animals hung from the ceiling. The rendition was amazing, made more so by the fact that Moody hasn’t quite mastered the idea of singing in public, so he was instead quietly plucking two or three chords on his guitar while softly mumbling the words. This was a bit beyond what Moody signed on for. The evening was originally billed as a discussion, moderated by author and music critic Josh Kun, between Moody and Doe (who met his X co-founder Exene Cervenka at a poetry workshop at L.A.’s longest-running literary gathering spot, Beyond Baroque) about the impact of writing on music and vice versa, but salons being what salons are, a little improvisational entertainment is never beyond the realm of possibility.

“I think people come out for evenings like this for just this reason,” says former 826LA executive director Pilar Perez, “because anything can happen. There’s a real sense of the unexpected, and that’s not something you can find at most places in L.A.”

Dinner and a Reading

Since 1996, actress and author Delauné Michel has run “Spoken Interludes, a now bicoastal dinner party where the meal is accompanied by a reading, and the reading followed by a discussion. Since average Spoken Interludes readers include the likes of Aimee Bender, Alice Sebold, Arianna Huffington, Harry Shearer and Bruce Wagner, it’s a level of discussion rarely found in L.A. “It’s almost like theater,” says Michel, “but in a party environment. People are encouraged to talk to strangers. They’re encouraged to talk about the writing and the ideas and their reverberations — which is kind of rare in a town where ‘listen to my great pitch’ is the expected topic of most conversations.”

No wonder so many people are starting to pay attention. Spoken Interludes(914) 422-1869,  www.spokeninterludes.com

Smart Gals/SpeakeasyMt. Hollywood Underground, 4607 Prospect Ave., Los Feliz, www.smartgals.org

WordTheatre www.wordtheatre.com

The World Explained http://mcsweeneys.net/links/events/theworldexplained.html

826LA685 Venice Blvd., Venice,  (310) 305-8418,www.826la.com

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