Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
Karyne Steben, the lead aerial instructor at Kinetic Theory Theatre in Culver City, won't hound you about your unpointed toes. She won't correct the posture in your tango turn around the trapeze ropes, nor will she insist that you keep your legs straight when you straddle up on the aerial tissu for a double-star drop. She will only insist that you have a heart, and allow your audience see it in your face.
After, that is, you do five sets of 15 crunches and two sets of 20 pushups, then submit to a pull-up contest with your peers until one of you hits the wall. Next, Steben will ask you to climb the aerial rope three times, pretending with each ascent and descent that it's someone you love, or hate. ("Have a relationship with the rope," she insists.)
It used to be that the only way to learn the skills of circus professionals was to be born into a family full of them. Now Greater Los Angeles has some sort of aerial setup in every quadrant, each with different qualities to recommend it. Hollywood Aerial Arts in Inglewood charges reasonable prices for two-hour classes taught by working professionals, who emphasize serious, hardcore skills. FocusFish (where, in the interest of full disclosure, I teach), holds family-oriented classes skewed toward play and fitness over professional finesse. Absolution in West Hollywood will teach you how to be a spy in addition to perfecting your single-foot hang on the aerial hoop. At the New York Trapeze School on the Santa Monica Pier, they fly.
The classes at Kinetic Theory, by contrast, are all about self-expression. Steben, half of the twin-sister team that created and performed double-trapeze routines in Cirque du Soleil's Saltimbanco and O, leaves time at the end of every class for a short performance session; afterward, she critiques her students like a director giving notes at a dress rehearsal. Spectacular tricks earn fewer rewards than vulnerability in the air; perfection matters less than emotion. Her harshest critique: "I didn't see anything in your eyes."
Steben's method is in keeping with the philosophy set down by Kinetic Theory's owner, Stephanie Abrams, who founded the studio less than a year ago to nurture performers of all ages and levels of experience. In her airy, clean and mat-lined studio, Abrams teaches classes in contortion, stretching and, yes, even mime (it's back!). She also trains a select troupe of serious performers, culled from her classes, and holds daytime and afterschool sessions for children.
"I want to redefine the way people train for circus," Abrams says. "So many people think it means spending all day in a gym, training like an athlete. But if you don't learn the performing element, you're not really learning circus. What's the point if you're not going to show it?"
Abrams' philosophy does not make classes easier than a gym workout. Performing requires endurance and practice until a five-to-10-minute routine feels like second nature. But self-expression, as it turns out, is a wonderful distraction from pain and exhaustion, and an excellent motivating force — we're all hams at heart. "I'm always surprised at the number of people who come to the conditioning classes for a workout and end up asking what it takes to perform," Abrams says. "Once they see what they're capable of, they want everyone to see it."
Comic book geek or hip alt-comedy scenesters? The line is pretty blurred on the fourth Friday of the month at Meltdown Comics. That's when the back room stays open after hours for a nonglamorous, harshly lit evening of standup comedy. The show is free, as is the plentiful Asahi beer, which is notable not only because the talent lineup is cover-charge/drink-minimum-worthy, but also because the show takes places only blocks from the Laugh Factory and Comedy Store, where parking costs almost as much as half a tank of gas. There's no valet for Comedy Meltdown, and you should arrive early to fight for a space, but you can peruse Alison Bechdel's latest graphic novel while you wait. You'll be rewarded with intimate performances by such established comics as Craig Anton, Blaine Capatch, Jackie Kashian, Morgan Murphy, Howard Kremer, Duncan Trussell, Melinda Hill and Maria Bamford. The show's put on by Linda Pine, who longs to book Eddie Izzard, Louis C. K., Emo Philips and Tom Kenny. Says comic Melinda Hill, a Meltdown regular, "I love performing at Meltdown because Linda packs the room with comedy fans equipped with all the free beer they can handle, sells your merch online for you, and hands you a scarf she knitted herself. It's like doing a comedy show run by your grandma, if your grandma was a comedy-loving hipster with a cute haircut."—Libby Molyneaux
It buggers the imagination that any sane person would consider running a record label in this chaotic environment. Why not play it safe and open a sub-prime brokerage, instead? In this landscape, a hearty huzzah to those who channel their musical passion into pumping the sounds of others. Labelwise, Los Angeles 2008 is a hearty place: Everloving Records outta Los Feliz has been globetrotting this year, putting out thrilling music by Germans, French, Japanese and Angelenos (the labyrinthine An Invitation collaboration between Inara George and Van Dyke Parks); PPF has tossed out sloppy dirgy smellpunk; Vanguard set the standard for songcraft (the Watson Twins, Greg Laswell); Plug Research, Dangerbird, Hellicopter, Ipecac, Aquarium Drunkard, anticon, Dim Mak and IHEARTCOMIX — all release music that's consistently inspiring.
But for sheer good taste and hometown pride, the best L.A. label these days is Stones Throw Records, founded by L.A.'s best DJ, Peanut Butter Wolf. The label has fueled our stereos with smart, deep, rich beat-based music from a variety of artists this year. They dug into the crates to celebrate the 1980s sounds of electro-rap pioneer (and former N.W.A DJ) Arabian Prince; threw us a curveball with the odd, ethereal Koushik record — which created a new subgenre: nitrous rap. And where the hell did that James Pants record come from? Who knew Stones Throw dug fucked-up postdisco? Need more proof? The Madvillain Box, which came out a few weeks ago, is a beautiful limited-edition set from L.A. beat genius Madlib (a.k.a. Beat Konducta, a.k.a. Madvillain, a.k.a. Quasitmoto). The label's propping legendary filmmaker and badass Melvin van Peebles by hooking him up with Heliocentrics, and has been instrumental in sealing the late hip-hop producer J Dilla's legacy. To say nothing about Stones Throw's regular podcasts, which could probably be sold as mixtapes; or PBW's eight-night VJing spin in August. Combined, a record label of the perfect sort: one that follows its heart and gut, trusting that good taste and bottom line aren't mutually exclusive ideals.—Randall Roberts
It's not hard to picture what Steve Meltzer must have been like as a little boy. The puppeteer, who mans the box office before jumping onstage to work the puppets for Puppetolio! every weekend, has a big, goofy grin and exudes the energy of an 8-year-old inviting you to play in his room. Puppetolio! is delightfully old-fashioned, a low-tech puppet show with Meltzer's zany cast of stringed characters and really corny jokes that add up to the equivalent of being tickled for an hour.
"I wanted to do what I am now doing when I was 4," Meltzer says. "Paul Winchell was a huge TV star back then, and my idol. I knew his partner, Jerry Mahoney, was not a living person, but Paul acted as though he was, and he made me believe it. The reason I do this is for the sheer joy that I have with the audience as we laugh ... and sing ... and believe together."
In an age where family entertainment has gone through the technology stratosphere, Meltzer's show might be a throwback, but the kids in the audience laugh like little loons. "I love all the modern technologies, but my experience has taught me that humans haven't really changed all that much. We still love to gather together and find the common joy of any kind of fantasy or illusion. In this tech-saturated time, I wish the purveyors of pop culture would realize that 'low-tech' can actually be a selling point."
This month, Meltzer will present the first-ever Santa Monica Puppetry Festival, which will conclude with an appearance by Leslie Caron, who earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a poor French orphan in the heart-wrenching 1953 movie Lili, in which a lovelorn puppeteer and his puppets play a major role. Meltzer is currently searching for Carrot Top, the cute little boy hand puppet who sang "Hi Lili, Hi Lo" in the movie. Carrot Top was last seen at an MGM props auction in 1971. Meltzer would love to hear from anyone who might know Carrot Top's whereabouts.—Libby Molyneaux
"You are the entertainment capital of the world," says Ray Courts with a slow and polite Southern drawl from his home in Spring Hill, Florida. "We thought there were other people besides us who come to Hollywood and would like to meet some of your favorite celebrity guests. OK, I grant you that we don't have your Tom Cruises or Kevin Costners or your Will Smiths, but dog gone it, ma'am, there are so many of them I'm looking forward to meeting that I just watched on TV and the silver screen."
Thanks to Courts and his wife, Sharan, meeting celebrities other than Tom Cruise or Kevin Costner or Will Smith is as easy as showing up at the Burbank Airport Marriott for the Hollywood Collectors & Celebrities Show. Sure, they're mostly stars from TV and film's bygone era. But for pre-eBay baby boomers who fondly remember their idols as a fraternity of actors and not the paparazzi bait and tabloid headlines of today, these shows are the equivalent of Grauman's Chinese come to life.
Originally from West Virginia, the couple began as collectors and dealers who were inspired to start their own show after frequenting early movie memorabilia gatherings that didn't allow celebrities to attend. For 13 years, the Courtses initially operated out of North Hollywood's Beverly Garland Holiday Inn, fittingly owned by Garland, who starred in My Three Sons. Once the show took off, it was the celebs who approached the husband-and-wife team. And to date, they've wrangled thousands of major and minor stars, retired actors, bit players, Western heroes and the voices behind some of Disney's early animations (Adriana Caselotti, the original Snow White, used to appear in character), all of whom are more than eager to pose for pictures, talk to fans and autograph photos for $15 or $20.
Charlton Heston, Mickey Rooney, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, Angie Dickinson, Barbara Eden and Adam West have all had fans lining up for their John Hancocks. And who wouldn't want to meet Jeannie or the original Batman? Or if it's current celebrities you're hounding, Val Kilmer not only attended in 2003, but signed guitars, while Hilary Duff appeared on behalf of a children's charity back when she was still a teen Disney star.
They also stage mini cast reunions from various films and TV shows, from Westside Story and Star Wars to Little House on the Prairie, The Partridge Family, Welcome Back, Kotter and even The Three Stooges. And dealers from as far as Argentina come to sell more photographs, posters, scripts, lobby cards, movie props and costumes, some dating back to silent films, ranging from a few bucks to upwards of $20,000.
"Even now I collect autographs," says Courts. "Holy smokes, you oughta see our family room. It is wall to wall of our heroes and heroines." Courts' first piece of memorabilia was a knife used by Gordon Scott, who played Tarzan in the '50s, while some of his other prized possessions include studio chairs from The Andy Griffith Show, starring Courts' favorite comedian, the late Don Knotts.
"For us, it is still a thrill," says Courts. "We got the legendary Jane Russell coming to our show. Wow! Howard Hughes discovered this young lady!" Did he say "young"?—Siran Babayan
Like a little razzle-dazzle when you're getting smashed in the face? At UpHigh/DownLow, the Silver Lake chapter of LADS (Los Angeles Dodgeball Society), you're sure to get a glimpse of sparkly purple tights, perhaps under a gorilla suit, right before a big red ball knocks you into next Tuesday. Although, says UH/DL founder Matty Pipes, those moon boots are just for showboaters. "The flashier people are just there for distraction and usually can't throw for crap," Pipes says. "It's the people with the plain tees waiting in the wings that you need to watch out for." Pipes, who also captains team Bandana Rama, says the Silver Lake division has gotten so much response that he actually has to audition people before they're assigned to a team. "It's $50 to join, but, unlike the other LADS leagues, you must be approved by a captain and me. We have to turn away a lot of people." The chapter's roster of teams features such motley crews as WW4, FAGS (Fun Active Gentlemen's Society), Prom Night Dumpster Babies, etc. But don't be fooled by the silly monikers; the competition gets pretty fierce, especially toward the end of the season. Sometimes the action spills into the stands and spectators are forced to dodge left and right, occasionally futilely, to avoid the ferocious flying bombardment. At the end of the game, though, UpHigh/DownLow is all about the "high-five mentality," Pipes insists. "It's also great to have a place to meet people where you don't feel like you have to be wasted. A lot of people thank us for that the most."—Rena Kosnett