It's late afternoon at Lucy's El Adobe Café, the well-known entertainment-industry hangout on Melrose. The cavernous place is quiet, but out in back, a light hubbub brews on a pleasant walled-in patio.
Stanley and Cheryl Boone Isaacs, longtime show-business professionals and friends of the restaurant's owners, are hosting a gathering to promote a new product. Stanley is a screenwriter, producer and director, having worked on such films as Raptor Island, Gross Anatomy and Last Gasp. Cheryl is an entertainment publicity executive and former president of theatrical marketing at New Line Cinema.
But the Isaacses are not here to promote a movie. They're here to save lives, and perhaps make a few dollars in the process, with the Grab and Go Vest, a utilitarian red garment with plenty of rugged exterior pockets, which they believe could make the difference between a horrific aftermath and a reasonable recovery after L.A.'s next major earthquake.
"Our motto simply is we don't want to scare you, we want to prepare you," says Stanley, a robust, middle-aged gentleman crackling with energy and focus. "We just want people to be aware that they live on a fault line."
Even with the postquake horrors in Japan, life in L.A. remains so relatively sunny, luxurious and bucolic — so normal — that people who harp on emergency preparedness come across as buzz kills. Looming threats seem low-priority compared to the worries to be found in day-to-day life. Plus, the cynical side of your mind can't help but wonder if the Isaacses pocket a decent profit off the $74.95 vest (shipping included).
But then why would this power couple with years of lucrative entertainment positions behind them go into the emergency vest business purely for bucks? They seem convincingly evangelical about the subject.
"I was living in Santa Monica when Sylmar happened, and it knocked me out of bed," Stanley says. "It's pretty unsettling — if you've never experienced a 6-point-something — when things fall off the shelf, buildings topple and you hear panic in the neighborhood. That's pretty scary. Especially when it happens during night, when you're in the dark."
Last summer, as the couple participated in CERT (Community Emergency Response Training), a program offered by the fire department for any citizen who wishes to take an active hand in helping in a disaster, Cheryl recalled Stanley's actions and accidental apparel choice during the Northridge quake. Having just come back from shooting a film in the desert, he had on the vest he had been wearing on location, which also happened to have been stuffed with all sorts of emergency items.
"The night of the quake, I put the vest on while she was under a table, handed her a radio and a flashlight, and all these years later she didn't forget it," he says.
Their vest comes with essential emergency items that fit handily into the pockets, such as a first aid kit, stainless steel tools, flashlight, AM/FM radio, water pouches, survival blanket, work gloves and duct tape. Although he had the initial samples made in China, Stanley decided against outsourcing, so all the vests are made right here in Southern California.
"The psychological lift that it gives you is amazing," Stanley says. "We've discussed it with psychiatrists, psychologists, and there's this regaining a sense of 'I'm back in control. I can take charge.' "
At the restaurant, a few vests are spread out on folding tables and held up by friends and acquaintances of the Isaacses. While the subject of the event is essentially catastrophic earthquakes, the tone is more polite cocktail get-together than hard-core survivalist seminar, and the attendance is noticeably sparse. If this were even a B-movie premiere party or someone's round-number birthday party, the crowd would be three times the size.
L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge appears. A tall, burly fellow in the requisite sensible suit, and with the presence and build of a retired boxer, he rattles off a list of major quakes. "Besides Japan, you've got Chile, recently, and Mexico, Christchurch, New Zealand, '94 in Northridge, '71 in Sylmar, '51 in Tehachapi, '33 in Long Beach and 1906 in San Francisco. Imagine what happened in Japan. It'd be from San Diego to Santa Barbara. The tsunami would be from Santa Monica all the way past La Brea."
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(Can you imagine? Suddenly Westsiders from Marina del Rey to Malibu would be begging to go east of the 405 for shelter on dry land.)
"The Northridge quake had a message, because it went on for so long and people ended up dead, up in the Valley," says TV comedy writer Doug Steckler, formerly half of the popular L.A. talk radio duo Conway & Steckler. "My Boy Scout handbook is an old one, from the '60s, but there's things about first aid that don't change, and I hope there's room enough in the vest pockets to carry that along, too."
Steckler then gets drawn into a discussion with a distinguished, elderly gentleman who looks like he walked out of a Dashiell Hammett novel, on the tying of various knots.
"There's something bizarre about human behavior," Stanley adds. "You could just have come from drinking a Big Gulp — the minute there's a disaster, the first thing you get is dry mouth. You get thirsty right away." The point sticks, with the large pitcher of icy margaritas next to the tortilla chips suddenly calling out from the nearby snack table.