Continuing Education

Who hasn’t picked up the Learning Annex course catalog and dreamed of attending such self-improvement classes as “Understanding Your Aura,” “How To Start a Vending Machine Business,” “All About Champagne!” or the meta-seminar, “How To Be, Do or Have Anything”?

While “America’s leader in Adult Education Since 1980” has divisions in select cities around the U.S., the Los Angeles “campus” provides a genre of academia not found elsewhere: celebrity-taught courses. These are most often one-off seminars, billed as “An Evening With Ellen DeGeneres” or “An Evening With Mariel Hemingway” or, for the HBO-obsessed, “Think You Know Meadow Soprano? Fuggedaboudit!: An Evening With Jaime-Lynn Sigler.”

When I learned that my all-time-favorite TV mom, Shirley Jones, and her husband, comedian Marty Ingels, were teaching a class on “The Value of Separation and Therapy in a Marriage,” I knew I had to enroll. Couples receive a discount, so I invited Giddle Partridge, the high priestess of the Partridge Family Temple (a religious cult whose devotees believe that Shirley is the Virgin Mother of all creation. Their proof? There was no father on the ’70s sitcom.).

Months into their trial separation, Jones and Ingels have joined with their marriage counselor, Dr. Ron Podell, to educate the masses — or at least the 50 or so pupils who are gathered at the Santa Monica Doubletree Hotel’s conference room. The audience includes members of the famous duo’s entourage: their publicist, Ed Lozzi; their real estate agent, Elaine Young; and other hangers-on, including Jones megafreak Janet Strauss, the Webmaster of ShirleyJones.com.

Jones is fashionably dressed in black: black blazer, black turtleneck, black stretch pants tucked into her black, knee-high boots and a black fanny pack she uses as a purse. Her bleach-blond husband seems slovenly in comparison, stuffed into an ill-fitting off-white Western shirt.

According to Podell, Jones and Ingels’ marriage has devolved into a “fused relationship,” characterized by “constant blaming, anger and loss of boundaries” and the emergence of “circular disturbed communication patterns.” His cure? “Therapeutic separation,” during which there is no communication whatsoever between the couple for the first three months, so that the individuals may experience “life without fusion” (Phase I). Following this period of incommunicado, there is a “gradual connection” (Phase II) after which the couple attempts “resolution and maintenance” (Phase III). Jones and Ingels have broken their vow of silence for this enlightening evening.

Why people would want to receive relationship advice from these two is unclear, especially since their marriage is on the rocks. More curious is why these two would want to spend an evening with this audience. Don’t famous people have better things to do? Granted, the $39 class fee, multiplied 50 times, produces a tidy sum, even after the Learning Annex takes its cut, but the Academy Award–winning Jones could make more from a concert.

Perhaps money isn’t the motivating factor. Learning Annex profs MacKenzie Phillips and Lou Ferrigno might need the extra dough, but fellow faculty Larry King and Jerry Lewis clearly do not. Maybe Jones and Ingels are so removed from the spotlight that it’s nice to know that people are willing to shell out hard-earned cash, not to hear Shirley sing or see Ingels do whatever he does, but just for the honor of being with them for who they are.

Tellingly, the less-famous Ingels dominates the seminar, which quickly digresses into a Marty Ingels standup routine. For those unfamiliar with Ingels’ oeuvre (as many are), he is a comedian who starred in the 1960s TV comedy I’m Dickens — He’s Fenster and provided the voice of the cartoon version of Pac-Man. After a couple of hours of edutainment, Ingels presents his wife with a surrey — a four-wheeled, pedal-powered vehicle for two — which the couple takes for a short spin around the hotel lobby. Jones and Ingels seem to be somewhere between Podell’s Phase II and III.

Throughout, Jones is visibly uncomfortable and seems to wish she weren’t there. In fact, we learn in the seminar that embarrassing stunts — like teaching Learning Annex courses? — are a major source of the couple’s marital problems.

I look forward to another such star-studded event. Unfortunately, I just missed an evening with the “articulate, passionate, unpredictable and more than a little bit offbeat” Ed Begley Jr. And it was only 19 bucks.

—Dan Kapelovitz

Missing Panties

Not long ago Jen Abercrombie, the owner of the Silver Lake boutique Panty Raid, received a frantic early-morning call from her landlord.

“Get down here! Someone broke into the store!”

Few calls are as dreaded by your average small-business owner as one announcing a disaster, be it natural or otherwise. Where big businesses can shoulder the financial burden of insurance covering fires and floods and bombs and burglaries, smaller businesses usually cannot. For a small business like Panty Raid — a recently opened retail store trying to gain the slightest of footholds in a recessionary economy — a small-scale disaster can be devastating. It can mean a sudden, cruel end to both a livelihood and a dream.

 

For Jen Abercrombie, that dream had to do with women’s underwear.

“I’ve lived in Silver Lake for a really long time, and I like to stick to the neighborhood,” the 28-year-old brunette — and former member of local indie-pop band Rizzo — explains. “I’ve always liked lingerie and nice underwear, but I’d have to go to the Westside, or go to the mall, to get it. So, for a long time I’ve thought a lingerie store was something we needed here. I was just like, either this is a really stupid idea and that’s why no one’s done it, or I’m gonna be the first person to do something that we really need here.”

That morning, as Abercrombie raced the four blocks from her home to Panty Raid (located on Glendale Boulevard, just down the street from the famous Red Lion Tavern), the store flashed before her eyes: the mannequins in various states of undress, the racks of Cosabella lingerie, the “Hot Rod Girl” screen-printed panties, the “Panties cannot be refunded” sign, the stripper pole rising from the display table in the middle of the store. It’s the kind of place where women get to feel girly, while men feel slightly lecherous.

“I’m just a small business — I don’t have an elaborate security system with cameras. So I’m driving over here, picturing the place ransacked: My computer gone, the cash register gone, the PlayStation gone, everything gone. The mind reels when you think about it. And, I get here and the only thing that was stolen was . . . underwear.

“They’d broken the glass from the door, went in and just indiscriminately grabbed everything off the table in the middle of the store! High-end Italian lace bras from Cosabella that cost $79, pairs of plain silk bikini underwear panties that retail for $8, Mary Green silk things. And screen-printed stuff, like the tank top with matching panties that says ‘Start your engine’ and has a picture of a hot rod on it. I don’t think it was about the type of underwear, it was just where it was in the store — on the table in the middle, where we keep the more popular, basic everyday things that we keep in stock. They didn’t take the specialty things. They just took the same thing in three sizes, and in three colors.”

A tripped burglar alarm let investigators know that the burglary happened at 2:30 a.m. the previous night. With no security-cam footage and no fingerprints, the police have been unable to make progress in solving the crime. Fortunately, the store was insured for theft, and the landlord has since installed a security gate. Panty Raid will survive to sell “On Your Mark Get Set”–sloganed panties another day. Still, the nature of the theft — $7,000 of ladies’ underwear — leaves one wondering as to what exactly happened. Who, after all, would steal ladies’ lingerie and leave the cash?

“I can’t understand it, I really can’t,” laughs Abercrombie. “We called some local used-clothing stores like Wasteland and Squaresville, but for the most part they don’t sell underwear. Someone suggested you could sell it at a swap meet . . .”

She chuckles, then starts reeling off some more theories: Something about stolen panties lends itself to a bit of whimsical fantasizing.

“A panty gang? Maybe it was laundry day — but they could’ve just taken one clean pair, if they were that desperate! I don’t know, I can’t get inside their criminal minds. They were probably interrupted, because this is a well-lit, busy street. It just doesn’t seem very well-planned. Maybe it was an impulse thing.”

Her eyes light up. The dream is still alive.

“Maybe,” she says, “the panties were just irresistible.”

—Jay Babcock

Drinking Games

In downtown Ojai, at the turnoff just past the palmistry center, on land that backs up to the Six Million Dollar Man’s horse ranch, the good people at the Deer Lodge, a refurbished ex-biker hangout now turned steakhouse, are hosting a gathering to celebrate their second barrel of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Whiskey. Around 240 bottles come out of every barrel, give or take the angel’s share (the 20 percent that evaporates). Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller Jimmy Bedford has flown out from Lynchburg, Tennessee, to join the Deer Lodge in its good fortune. At this soiree, $65 gets you a hunk of prime rib or seafood medley cooked with genuine 80 proof Tennessee sippin’ whiskey, plus your own $40 bottle of Single Barrel to take home with you.

 

But I’m here because tonight threatens to become a gathering of the Tennessee Squires, the secret fraternal order of Jack Daniel’s drinkers, whose numbers are legion, if unrecorded, and whose lifetime membership is united not only in its brand fealty, but as an actual landed gentry, since everyone who joins is granted “one square inch of property on the distillery ground.” New members can only be recommended by existing Squires — kind of like the Masons or the Magic Castle (no solicitations, please) — and their identities are zealously guarded. Famous Squires who have gone public include Frank Sinatra (tapped by Bogie and Bacall, and buried with a bottle of Black Label), Lyndon Johnson, Boris Yeltsin and Harrison Ford.

In 1865, a 13-year-old Jack Daniel inherited what was then known as “the Lincoln County process” — filtering corn whiskey through sugar-maple charcoal, an idea that may have come from African slaves — from a Lutheran minister whose wife and congregation agreed the reverend should choose between his weekday and weekend callings. When the small regional brand was sold by Lem Motlow (still listed as proprietor on the label) to Brown, Foreman in nearby Lexington, Kentucky, in 1954, enthusiastic converts began to write in begging for “Old No. 7,” much like the Adolph Coors/Smokey and the Bandit craze of a generation later. Shortly after my own induction in August 1986 (Member #a1628 in good standing), I received two black-and-white photos of “some of the countryside surrounding your land,” a brushy expanse stretching to the horizon. Soon after, I was being invited to the annual “coon hunt,” which my square-inch of land, incidentally, “sits right in the middle of.” Weeks later I got a photo of 15 gentlemen posed with shotguns and hound dogs who looked like the Ale and Quail Club from Palm Beach Story.

From then on, roughly twice a year, I would receive folksy greetings or cagey offers from residents of Lynchburg, many of whom have become recurring characters: County executive Carl Payne keeps me informed on land-use rules and my right-of-way easement. Herb Fanning of the General Store has assured me that local flooding did not erode my topsoil (he checked), offered to remove the horseweed worms from my land if he could use them as fishing bait, and once coyly suggested my white-face bull might be behind the moon-faced calves emanating from his pure-bred Black Angus cattle. More recently, Randall Fanning (Herb’s nephew) reported he saw a coon dog stretched out on a low branch of the elm tree that overhangs my property.

The letters have touched on free-market enterprise (growing loblolly pines; harvesting General Patton’s empty artillery ‰ shells as souvenirs), civil disobedience (protesting parking meters on the town square) and impending ecological disaster (confronting the musk thistle challenge by introducing the musk thistle weevil). The cumulative effect is like a private-label Prairie Home Companion, except that the characters — dutifully depicted in calendars, ads and the occasional newspaper story — are all apparently real.

Owners Lisa and Jerry Kenton spent $8,600 on this evening’s barrel, but figure they’ll just about break even. “It took us eight months to get through the first one,” says Jerry. “I bet this one goes tonight.” Just in case, he’s got Roseanne Barr’s ex–tour bus parked out front, which he recently bought and retrofitted with Jack Daniel’s paraphernalia (he left the tabletop Buddha, though), and they’ve already landed one booking for an upcoming golf tournament as a consequence. According to Bedford, about 1,500 barrels of Single Barrel have been sold intact since the brand was introduced in 1997; Bellagio’s in Las Vegas has been through eight, and country music stars George Strait and Gary Morris have each bought their own.

Of the approximately 150 guests in attendance, roughly half seem to be Squires: There’s Dave, a union rep for heating and cooling workers, up from L.A. with his business partner. “I’d give it all up and take your job in a second,” he tells Bedford, his eyes dancing over the Master Distiller’s prized signature. There’s Jim, a gunmaker from Agoura Hills who ran moonshine in his youth (alcohol, tobacco and firearms being the cornerstones of our national character). “My grandfather was a shiner, and I used to haul the swill from the press and dump it out in the woods,” he says. “He always told me Jack Daniel’s was the finest whiskey made.” And then there’s Dana, an archconservative lawyer and ardent Joan Armatrading fan, now in her second year of Squirehood, who assures me that “George W. Bush is by far our hottest president.”

 

None of the Squires gathered here have been out to inspect their land in person, although the Lynchburg distillery is host to a quarter-million visitors annually and maintains a special Squires Room through which only cardholders may pass. But all are quick to flash their membership cards and trade drinking stories — the conviviality of an AA meeting without the guilt. Those, like me, who have left the drinking life far behind, seem no less enthusiastic. (In fact, one of my prized possessions is still an empty Jack Daniel’s bottle signed by Keith Richards.) It’s as if the values latent in the Tennessee soil and limestone spring water, or implicit in the advertising, now radiate from the product itself to form a consensual community, where Lem Motlow is always the proprietor and the population is always 361. Like they say in their first letter to you after you become a Squire: “It is just our feeling that too little time is spent in this day and age enjoying the friendship of others. The Tennessee Squire Association is our small attempt to speak up.”

The Squires here tonight will drink to that — even the ones who don’t drink.

—Paul Cullum


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