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Clown Power 

Stilt walkers and activists step up for a day of "national climate action"

Wednesday, Apr 18 2007
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We found the first of the stilt walkers crawling up a thin mountain trail on his belly, pushing ahead of him the carcass of a red toy truck. His long legs, bound to wooden sticks, dragged loosely behind him, as if they had lost all feeling.

As he clawed and pulled his way up the slope, three more stilt walkers came around the bend on the road above him, laughing. Two of the three, including a woman named Jesster, known to the circus crowds of Burning Man, had toy cars draped over their shoulders; another, Noah Veil, had turned himself into a Fisher-Price gas pump, with a nozzle he kept sticking into the toy cars’ pretend tanks.

“Hello!” said one of the toy-car stilt clowns, a handsome black-haired man in striped pants. “I’m Mondo-Mondo, at your service! Would you like a ride? Don’t worry, my car runs on air, except when I have gas. Then it flips into turbo.”

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That’s when we knew we’d come to the right place.

Francis DellaVecchia and I had each arrived in the parking lot just north of the Greek Theatre a half hour late. The plan was to gather at 4:30 p.m. with impresario David Newsom for a hike up to the Griffith Park Observatory to honor Step It Up ’07, a day of “national climate action” ordained by author and environmentalist Bill McKibben. But since we’d hit traffic traveling all the way from Santa Monica — where people had come out in droves for a Step It Up fest on the Promenade — the hike’s main column had already left by the time we ran into each other in the parking lot.

“What a way to protest climate change,” I said to DellaVecchia as we scanned the hills for Newsom’s crew. “Stuck in our cars.”

Many people in Los Angeles know DellaVecchia from his Los Angeles mayoral bid seven years ago (he promised his tenure would be webcast), but since then he’s done a lot to fight the drug war and defend the planet. He tends to be inordinately upbeat about everything (he runs a newsletter called The Joyful Activist), which almost always makes me combative.

“Did you hear they’re melting a block of ice on Hollywood Boulevard?” I asked him.

“I heard,” he said patiently.

“How much refrigeration did that take? How much water? How much fuel to get it there?”

DellaVecchia smiled and redirected the conversation to the day’s other compelling stunts he’d heard about, like the blue people filling Manhattan to show how far the sea would rise were the Arctic ice to melt, and the truck some people in Florida were lifting to the predicted sea level. “They’re having a party underneath it,” he said brightly.

“What we’re forgetting,” I muttered, my voice as brittle as the last thin sheet of ice in the Beaufort Sea, “is that climate change is not the problem. Climate change is a symptom of the problem. It’s like the planet has cancer and we’re treating one sore.”

A man sitting in a chair directing foot traffic to the observatory overheard us. “That’s right,” he called out to us. “The planet has a bad case of humans!”

I asked him his name and thanked him for the quote. “Tré Gibbs,” he told me. “But I didn’t make that line up. I got that from a cartoon in the L.A. Times.”

There were a lot of events Angelenos could have attended on Saturday to raise awareness about the climate. We could have marched down Glendale’s “Avenue of Cars” protesting high-emission vehicles, or watched An Inconvenient Truth a few more times at any number of venues, or taken in the panel discussions on climate in Claremont. For that matter, we could have shown up for Newsom’s hike on time and stood for the group photo with everyone else. As it happened, though, DellaVecchia and I had, with extraordinary serendipity, stumbled upon what we soon came to believe was the coolest action in town: working support for clowns on stilts, themselves a little late (and slow) for Newsom’s crowd. The toy cars even bore bumper stickers: “Don’t Fry Our Planet in Oil!”

After we helped hoist the truck back over the shoulders of the fallen clown, John Pedone, the six of us picked our way together up a rocky trail to Dante’s View, 1,500 feet above the parking lot and a couple hundred above the observatory. On the way up, we talked about how to run performance spaces and nightclubs on alternative energy and exchanged ideas about how to stay up to date on environmental news. We wondered whether the city of Los Angeles would ever solve its storm-water runoff problem.

Honest, we did.

When we arrived at the peak, all but two of the 100-some hikers Newsom had lured had cleared out; only Variety reporter Anne Thompson and a friend were still enjoying the sunset, which settled like the glow of a dying fire against the wild streaks of clouds that would seem threatening if this city ever got rain. But in a few minutes, Newsom himself appeared with a hand-painted “Step It Up” banner snapping in the wind. The sky pulsed with streaks of lavender and gray, the clowns towered over L.A.’s distant downtown, and a lone coyote lurked in the chaparral around us, no doubt puzzled by the sight of 9-foot-tall humans. DellaVecchia and I happily held down the banner’s corners for a photo shoot in front of the clowns. We examined the shot in Newsom’s camera. It looked like something out of a Fellini movie.

“What a great day,” I said to Francis as we headed down the mountain.

“Truly,” he said. “I guarantee you we’ve had one of the best Step It Up experiences in the country.” He was beaming. For once, his enthusiasm didn’t piss me off.

“I think you’re right,” I allowed. “Never underestimate the power of four clowns on stilts to change the world.”

For photos of the stilt walkers and Newsom’s 100 hikers, visit Judith Lewis’ blog at http://blogs.laweekly.com/judith_lewis.

Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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