Celebrity Justice: Winnobega Driver, Estrella

Backstage at Point Loma High School’s Larry Zeiger Performing Arts Center in San Diego, 90 minutes before curtain on Friday night’s final performance of Sticky Fingers: A Tale of Saks, Lies, and Videotape — an original musical inspired by the Winona Ryder shoplifting trial — the show’s cast and crew gathered around a big-screen TV to watch themselves on Celebrity Justice. In one corner of the room, somebody’s dad stood on a chair with a camcorder pressed to his eye, videotaping the kids watching the videotape. When the segment was over, there were hollers of “More!” and “Let’s watch it again!” and “We’ve already seen it, like, 20 times!” and someone pressed the rewind button.

“We hated Celebrity Justice,” explained Emily Greer, 17, a pert blond gymnast who played Ryder. “They kept trying to get us to say something bad about Winona. We said, ‘It’s a satire.’ It was like they couldn’t hear or something. They kept asking the same question over and over: ‘Why don’t you like Winona Ryder?’”

Greer said that her role had given her empathy for the actress. “The moment I put on that wig I just acted so different. Above everyone.” She assumed a faux-British 1940s Warner Bros. leading-lady accent — ”Oh, hello . . . Yes, yes . . . ,” and purred. “Just totally, ‘Kiss my ring, kiss my feet.’ You know? The only thing about being famous is, you definitely get annoyed by the press. I mean, it’s exciting because it’s pretty much the first time when everyone’s, like, really like wanting to know about you, you know. But I can definitely see how it could get really old and you just wouldn’t want to see very many people.”

In the theater, where empty Saks Fifth Avenue shopping bags were propped up on all the seats, the play’s creator, 55-year-old Larry Zeiger — Sticky Fingers is the 27th original musical he has written and directed in 29 years at Point Loma High — described his interview schedule in the three days that had passed since the AP wire carried an item on the show. “The BBC put us on for 20 minutes. I was interviewed by my hometown paper in Cleveland. Phoenix, St. Paul, Boston, London. Rick Dees. The York Theatre in New York City is looking for a developmental project, a couple of producers have called me, interested in movie things. This is hilarious: We were on Radio Islam. Someone sent me a news article — a fairly big one, from Sydney, Australia. One came from Paris. It was all in French.”

“Zeiger,” as the kids call him, wore a white shirt, burgundy tie, and black trousers held up by suspenders printed with the masks of comedy and tragedy. His large, narrow-set eyes, aquiline nose and sly grin suggest what John Waters might look like if rendered as a plush toy. He said that Sticky Fingers had become “an outrageous media event.”

“Everyone loves the celebrity gone bad,” Zeiger said. “I also think that a lot of people are tired of standardized testing in the schools, and so when they see an arts program get international press, it makes people really excited and they just want to back it.”

Still, the one person whose attention the kids most craved had yet to throw in her support. Outside the theater, a canvas banner bordered with red stars read, “Point Loma WELCOMES Winona Ryder.” Two seats in the center of the front row were reserved for the actress, who had been invited but did not show up. After the performance it was rumored that a strange man with a blond beard and baseball cap sitting alone on the left side of the theater looked suspiciously like Winona Ryder. And word started going around that she had sent a camera operator to record the show. Zeiger confirmed that Henry Alex Rubin, an assistant director of Girl, Interrupted, had arranged for Sticky Fingers to be taped for possible use in a documentary that Rubin is making, with Ryder’s cooperation, about her trial. (Reached by phone a few days later, Rubin said, “We are not making a documentary”; the next day Zeiger said that Rubin called to ask that he keep quiet about the project: “Evidently, she’s still on probation, and she doesn’t want it to get out that this is being made.”

It’s hard to guess what Ryder might think of the play, which had 19 musical numbers and ran to about three hours. The central character, Winnobega Driver, lives in the only Spanish village in North Korea and dreams of becoming an “estrella grande” like her favorite actress, Winona Ryder. When she wins a tango competition judged by Fidel Castro, she leaves for Hollywood where she enters a beauty contest and wins a $1,000 shopping spree at Saks Fifth Avenue. At Saks, when she realizes how little $1,000 will get her, Winnobega begins cutting the sensor tags off the other items she wants — a black Natori handbag, a Marc Jacobs thermal top — and then runs into her hero, who has just finished a fully-paid-for shopping spree of her own. The two women mistakenly switch shopping bags, and Ryder is arrested for Winnobega’s crime. Winnobega fesses up at the trial and Winona goes free. Meanwhile, Winnobega is sentenced to six months of community service in Point Loma.

After the final curtain call, Emily Greer was mobbed with hugs: “You’re not Winona anymore!” one girl exclaimed, and Greer looked a little sad. She said that she was disappointed that Ryder hadn’t shown up. “I wanted her to, and I guess I actually thought she would.”

Sally Foster, 17, who played Cameron Diaz, was the only cast member who said she was glad Ryder didn’t come. “It would have been tense. Everybody would have been looking at her and not at us.” She giggled, interrupted by a boy who flicked her stiff, vertical, Something About Mary–inspired forelock. “It would have been good publicity, but I’d rather have fun.”

—Michael Joseph Gross

Protest This!: FCC’s Communications Breakdown

The rally was super heartfelt, but the chants kinda sucked. “Free communication! Not conglomeration!” and “Hey hey! Ho ho! Media conglomerates have got to go!” don’t exactly trip off the tongue. Fuck it. Last Thursday’s hastily planned rally in Koreatown against FCC media deregulation — one of many held across the country — marked the humble beginning of a new era in American activism. Four days before the FCC would bow to corporate conglomerates and vote to dismantle various media-ownership laws, it was clear that all kinds of activists are finally rallying around the issues of media consolidation — that is, who is going to control popular culture and political debate?

In Washington, groups ranging from the NRA to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have joined to oppose deregulation. Locally, trade unionists, music fans, news junkies and plain old citizens stepped out for Thursday’s protest. In fact, this small rally, held outside the
K-town offices of KFI (owned by radio blob Clear Channel Communications), was
a kind of birthing party for a movement that could only have happened in the digital age.

“Whose airwaves? Our airwaves!” the crowd of about 60 chanted, standing on the sidewalk on Ardmore Avenue, squinting against the afternoon sunlight. Signs and banners read: “Why Does the FCC Want You Uninformed?,” “Clear Channel Is Bush League,” “FCC: Fascist Corporate Control.” (Aw, nuts. Why do lefties always gotta bring out the fascist stuff?) Someone with a sense of humor hung a large paper banner precariously across the front of the building that read, “Give the Airwaves to the Rich.” Female members of rally organizer Code Pink, the activist group that sprang up in opposition to the Iraqi war, wore scraps of lingerie dyed various shades of fuchsia. The crowd, comprised of college-age kids to grandmothers, was small but hardly embarrassingly so. Everyone, it seemed, had a private reason for coming.

There was Cassandra Dawn, 24, an inner-city schoolteacher in a jeans skirt and sunglasses, who was on her third day of a hunger strike against the FCC. “This is what I live for,” she said, clutching a bottle of water to her breast. “George Washington said, ‘If there is no free press, then dumb and silent we might be led like lambs to the slaughter.’” Dawn had held a protest outside the CNN building Tuesday and took the opportunity to talk to passersby about the issue. “Everybody who walks by cares. Every single last person. They find it very, very disturbing that they don’t know about what’s going on.”

Then there was Katie Springer, a Cal State Northridge student who’s obsessed with music. “It would be a great fucking day if I could turn on the radio and not hear the same five songs,” she said.

The new rules will enable a broadcaster to reach 45 percent of the TV market (up from 35 percent), and also own a newspaper in the same town. That bothers George Shea, 62, a marketing guy who took off work for the rally. “Just look at the ownership of the L.A. Times since it was purchased by the Chicago Tribune. It’s becoming more and more of a Republican newspaper.”

Vicki Di Paolo works for the Communication Workers of America: “I represent reporters at the Daily News and the
Press-Telegram in Long Beach. And this is really going to affect journalists — as soon as a newspaper is bought by a TV station they’re going to consolidate, and there go jobs.”

Employees of Clear Channel, the company that ate radio under similar deregulation, stood around the station’s entrance gate, ogling, but wouldn’t talk. “I wish I could be your unnamed source,” said one. “If we weren’t here, I could talk to you.” Someone pointed to a video surveillance camera trained right on us.

Speakers like L.A. Weekly founder Jay Levin, however, pointed out the canary-in-the-coal-mine nature of Clear Channel’s effect on radio. Levin called Clear Channel “the poster child of bad media ‰ conglomeration,” and addressed the decay of local news in the megamedia age: “L.A. is the poverty and hunger capital of the United States. According to the Health Department, 1.3 million people in Los Angeles County don’t know where their food is coming from on any given day. Do we hear these things on KFI or local TV networks?

“Thomas Jefferson said if he had a choice between free elections and a free press, he would have to choose a free press.”

Radio activist David Barsamian listed the numerous pretexts Bush used to invade Iraq, faithfully reported as fact by TV news — “not a single one turned out to be true, all the way from saving Private Jessica Lynch to the al Qaeda connection in Iraq.”

At the end of the rally, the Code Pink chicks held up a “pink slip” for KFI’s owners — a pink negligee bearing the words “Clear Channel, you have failed to respect our airwaves.”

Freda Shen, wearing a neat business suit and heels and holding a parasol, stood cheering. She had a uniquely personal take on the issue. “It’s the base of our democracy, whether or not we’re going to have free speech and free information. And I’ve seen that happen to my cousins in China. You don’t even know it’s happening, because you keep getting just one part of the information.

“Clear Channel’s controlling all the information in so many of the small towns. That’s not democracy — that’s fascism.”

When you put it like that, fascism doesn’t seem like such a bad choice of words.

—Kate Sullivan

The Acting Life: Quasimodo Bites the Cheez-It

Last week I was asked to be a fire-breathing, 1930s-style weightlifter, miming to a parody of a tune from Moulin Rouge. It was a carny thing promoting the California State Fair, y’see. The day before, I was a cell-phone-using Neanderthal man for Verizon. Welcome to my life as a commercial actor. My son’s birth was paid for by Prestone antifreeze residuals, but I probably book just one job out of 50 tries. From the standpoint of lucrative, it’s like playing the lottery — you never know when you’ll draw a winning number.

The auditions themselves can be dishwater dull: Show up, give name, turn in profile, repeat maybe a handful of lines or give one look, then leave please. Not only is it anti-Shakespearean, it’s also completely random, because no one has any idea what the clients or casting directors are looking for. You get a few seconds of direction and that’s it, so it can be a real head scratcher when you stumble out of these places. Sometimes, the auditions can get pretty bizarre. Occasionally they’re even fun.

One recent morning I staggered into an audition at TLC/Booth Casting, which is located in a residential house across the street from the LAPD station on Wilcox. The product was Cheez-Its; the setup, some kind of medieval festival. Out on the lawn were a juggler, a sword swallower and a fire-eater practicing their bits, along with various other actors in full medieval dress; inside, women were decked out in “fair maiden” regalia. Naturally, I was in straight-up tee and jeans.

I am not an ordinary-looking cat, what with the gapped teeth and wide torso, so I figured my head shot is what inspired some basic idea outside the realm of the obvious in getting the call to audition. But upon signing in and inquiring about my bit, I got a quizzical look from the lady who runs the joint. That meant trouble — trouble as in they weren’t quite sure what they wanted, trouble as in the dreaded E word . . . extra!

Mama didn’t raise no wallflower, so I had to think fast or be cast as another face in the crowd. Spying copy for the role of “Quasimodo” on the wall, I carefully made my way to the studio door and appeared before the director. I told him I was Quasimodo. He nodded and smiled — sad to say, it really wasn’t that much of a stretch. Grotesque is doable.

Luckily, the director, looking like one of those wild-eyed hippie reprobates one sees in Topanga and sitting amid a sea of conspiracy books all over what is surely his study when not a studio, couldn’t have been more different from your garden-variety moonlighting quasi-yuppie actor on the other side of the lens. Scraggly-haired and totally disheveled, he was the antithesis of the scared bunnies that quake in their boots at these gigs, resenting the pushy and desperate actors on the one hand, walking on eggshells around the suits on the other.

Others trying out for the scene shuffled in, and the director put on some appropriate Renaissance-sounding music for us to act all peasantlike to. Smart-arsed music critic that I am, I told the director, “I bet I’m the only person you’ll see all day who knows what song you’re playing.” He looked up. “‘Steve’s Song,’ a 1966 track by the Blues Project,” I offered. The director was floored. “What ever happened to Al Kooper?” he asked, referring to the New York band’s leader. I told him that the famous organist now teaches at Berklee, in Boston. An obvious ’60s psych buff, the director then quizzed me about the origin of the Arthur Lee and Love tune “Signed D.C.,” which is no mystery to me (it’s about Lee’s heroin-addicted drummer Don Conka).

For all my cleverness, I didn’t get to be hunchback No. 1 in the first read-through — a cat from Texas named George got that honor. I stood in as Terrified Townsperson while George, scrunch-faced and scowling, rampaged past fair maidens and the like — a Laughtonesque nightmare. The director then dismissed everyone but George and me so we could do the Quasimodo scene individually.

The gag was that Quasimodo’s hump was really a box of Cheez-Its that he whipped out and noshed on like a couch potato. George did a great turn, morphing into the archetypcal crotch-scratching male at the end of the bit. How to top that sucker? Well, I got down and dirty, in major bell-ringer mode, then after yanking out the Cheez-Its box from beneath my shirt, I plonked down, stared at an imaginary TV and babbled, “Go Lakers, dude!” Big laughs.

On my way out, the director and I gabbed about the connections between the Nazis and Prescott Bush, Bechtel’s role in Iraq, the greatness of Nick Drake and of Joy Division. He’d never heard of the latter group, but loved finding out that the name comes from the section of concentration camps set aside for prostitution. Of course, being angry old lefties, we feverishly discussed Dick Cheney’s right-wing Project for a New American Century as the actors in waiting stared nervously at the audition-room door. He was a cool cat, that director. I felt as if I’d made a friend.

If only I had gotten the job.

—Johnny Angel


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