Home Improvement: King Kukulele's Tiki Paradise
THE SILLY PUTTY-COLORED PAINT JOB AND PLYWOOD-COVERED DOOR ARE the first things you notice. Stains, cracks, debris all over the place . . . you figure it's just another abandoned building in Echo Park. Then you spot a man in his late 30s with longish red hair, bushy eyebrows and a jaw line that descends into a sharp V dragging a heavy roll of smelly carpet onto the sidewalk. He wears gloves, and as he tugs the roll with a pair of pliers he waves away anyone who tries to help. "You don't want to touch it!" he warns. Until this morning, the carpet had been soaking up rain dripping into a hole in the roof of the fourplex behind him.
In tiki circles, the man struggling with the carpet is known as King Kukulele ukulele player, aficionado of novelty songs from the '20s and '30s, and, after placing the winning bid at a HUD auction last year, proud owner of the decrepit building near the corner of LeMoyne and Sunset that he hopes to make his dream home. Of course, King Kukulele better known to his banker as Denny Moynahan has certain ideas about this crumbling apartment complex that wouldn't occur to most other homeowners. He looks at its sloping roofs and rickety balconies, its curlicue wrought-iron porch, ugly security fence and sad-sack landscaping and pictures a tropical tiki paradise: the LeMoyne Lanai.
Check out the conceptual rendering of the LeMoyne Lanai, drawn by artist and tiki lover Kevin Kidney, and you'll get an idea of what Moynahan has in mind: windows framed in bamboo, the façade painted with abstract Polynesian flourishes, glass globes hanging from beams sticking out of the roof, subtropical ferns and palm trees planted around the complex. If the original Trader Vic had owned an apartment complex, this is how it might have looked.
Onstage, Moynahan dresses up in a grass skirt and rattan crown; his ukulele is attached to a long rubber band so he can throw it toward the audience and have it return like a yo-yo. In 2001, Moynahan figures, he was the highest-paid professional ukulele player on the planet, thanks to a contract at Universal Studios Japan that netted him $70,000. But now the ukulele money isn't flowing as freely. To finance his tiki apartment wonderland, Moynahan has tapped his line of credit, hit up his friends and enlisted the L.A.-based coterie of the Tiki Central message board on the Internet to pitch in with the renovation. A number of exotica artists are helping to decorate the complex with old-school Disney-style tricks like faux wood tikis that have mail slots for mouths. And in the back yard, Moynahan plans to build a small stage and fake volcano out of lava rocks. "In essence, it'll be a little amphitheater," he says. "All my friends are musicians, so we can play here."
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Moynahan has already moved into one of the units, the one with the most visible damage. He wants to spiff up the other units quickly so he can get people to move in and help him pay the mortgage on the place. It's been more than a year since anyone has occupied the building, and the elements have chewed into the structure considerably. The balcony in the back of the building leading to his unit has large holes in it because the wood is rotten.
Moynahan has none of the attributes of a spec home builder. He has few belongings a 1970s-era tiki statue from Hawaiian Airlines, a couple of ukuleles in their cases, framed copies of the LeMoyne Lanai artistic renderings, a few pieces of nondescript furniture and an astonishing amount of paperwork scattered on the floor. And he didn't kick anybody out of the place; he plans on living here permanently. What's more, he is saving his building, not tearing it down and erecting a stucco box in its place.
Even so, he's nervous about his neighbors misinterpreting his motives. "Echo Park is the place that everybody is worried about gentrification. People may get up in arms and say, 'Hey, what are you doing to this neighborhood?'" He hopes to convince his neighbors that he's a good guy by turning the back yard of the LeMoyne Lanai into a kind of weekend public luau where the families can hang out. "I imagine them having parties for their kids or a reception. That would be great."
As it stands, the only things in the back yard are a pad of cracked concrete and a broken-down car, which Moynahan hopes to bring to life again one day. But that will have to wait.
"One of my big inspirations is the unique vibe you get from the Snow White cottages near Griffith Park and Hyperion," he says, referring to the buildings built in 1926 by Walt Disney as his first home and studio. "They're cool enough that I go out of my way a couple of blocks just to drive by it. I hope this place eventually becomes like that for people, so that instead of going over Echo Park Avenue, they'll come up LeMoyne instead."
THE CEILING IN THE BASEMENT CONFERENCE room at the Pasadena Sheraton is oppressively low. I hand a dressed-for-church young woman my confirmation letter for "The Essentials of Credibility, Composure and Confidence, a One-Day Seminar for Working Women," and in return am given a packet titled "Pick a Destination and Grow." Along the back wall is a groaning table laden with books and courses on tape "The 12 Secrets of Self Esteem" and "Power Phrases!"
Today's "3 C" seminar promises to teach each participant how to "feel good about yourself even when you're not getting any positive feedback" and to "stop running after unattainable 'super woman' ideals."
By 9 a.m., the room is packed with women (and, inexplicably, two men) of all ages, races and sartorial stripes, yet it is easy to spot the speaker. Carolyn is over 6 feet tall, and verily swaggers as she shakes a hand here and laughs about bad hair days there. She makes her way to the lectern, where her erect, energized body language emits the message Time to settle down.
"This is a self-indulgent day focusing just on you," Carolyn says, her voice both didactic and sympathetic. "I've taught this course for seven years, and I know people do not feel appreciated. What do we do when we don't feel appreciated go to a spa?"
The room murmurs, though to my eye, the women in attendance look more likely to indulge themselves at Claim Jumper than Burke-Williams. After filling out the 21-point checklist, "Is Your Self-Esteem Working for You?" (Yes or No: "I'm not intimidated by loud, overbearing people"), Carolyn runs down a few basics: Always stand when you meet someone; make direct eye contact; don't give a fishy handshake. She has us shake hands with our neighbors, and tell each other why we are taking the course.
Nancy, who looks alarmingly like the farm wife in American Gothic, whispers, "I've come to become a confident woman."
"I have a new boss and I just . . . can't . . . deal," says Diane, who has a large bust encased in a colorful top.
Not wanting to lie, I say, "Curiosity."
We are asked to shake hands again, and this time to give the person a compliment. For some unfathomable reason, I tell Diane, "You have an alluring blouse."
She gives a short frantic laugh and says, "You have a sparkling personality."
For the next 90 minutes, we sit back and watch The Carolyn Show. Her shtick is not unlike an extended episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, the delivery peppy and earnest as she tells self-deprecating tales about her wacko Italian family, her long-suffering husband and dead relatives. Also like a sitcom, each tale has its complementary lesson: Daddy didn't pay attention to you? Become a better listener by carrying a pad and taking notes. Kids shunned you because you were fat/lisped/laid a terrible fart at your first boy-girl party? Accept that other people's opinions of you are that and no more.
"You need to access your own personal wisdom," says Carolyn, as she reaches for a stack of books that will inspire and touch the hearts of would-be 3-C women like us, available for only $361 . . .
I lunch with Diane, who tells me her employer requires she take two self-improvement courses a year. Does she think they help?
"No," she says, over a plate of cheap Chinese food. "Maybe you remember one thing. For me, it's a day off with pay."
Does she think the speakers are required to sell tons of ancillary stuff?
"Oh, yeah, and I'm sure they get a commission," she says. "They're like Mary Kay saleswomen for your head instead of your face."
After the break, I see the book table has been picked clean. Carolyn congratulates us on making a commitment, and then makes good on a point she'd teased us about earlier: instructions for how to "die before you cry."
"You will lose all credibility if you cry," commands Carolyn, "so here are my five tear tips. One, you can address the emotion. Say, 'I am very passionate about this, and a little water may escape, but if you can ignore it, so can I.' Two, before the meeting, get yourself a glass of water; you cannot drink water and cry at the same time. Three, drop your pen; when you pick it up, the blood will rush up and you won't cry."
Pens scribble furiously.
"Four, look up and you won't cry," she continues, "and five, have something in your hand and focus on squeezing it. And if you really don't like someone, write their name on the bottom of your shoe, and while you're talking to them, rub your foot into the ground."
And if that doesn't work, rub chewing gum in their hair, I think but do not say. At 3 p.m., Carolyn asks us each to mark a questionnaire rating her performance, then reads aloud a poem by Maya Angelou, "Phenomenal Woman." It's a pleasant paean to being amazing rather than perfect, and participants who are not moved to tears appear to be levitating. I leave the questionnaire blank.
THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA LOCAL COUNCIL of the Covenant of the Goddess held its Winter Witches' Ball on Saturday not at a dark and sultry underground club or even Griffith Park at midnight, but at the Culver City Elks Lodge.
"Oh, the Elks are very open," says an attractively ample woman who calls herself Lady Mariah. "They don't care who you are, as long as you pay for the hall!"
Indeed, at first glance you'd hardly know you were in the company of ragin' pagans. The courtyard is tastefully decorated with red and white Christmas lights, and the back hall looks for all the world like a church social long tables demurely attired in white tablecloths and basic potluck fare (witches do eat roast chicken, salad, gumbo and marble cake). A DJ in black jacket and pants shares the stage with the American flag, spinning everything from sock hop to salsa.
Then, in the low-key dimness, you begin to notice the guy in the long monk's cassock, painted face peeking out from his cowl; the woman in a floor-length black cape and a large glittering pointed hat that would make the Wicked Witch of the West drool with envy; the towering transvestite in top hat and vinyl; the gal with the pointy ear.
"The thing about pagans is, they tend to have a really good sense of humor," explains Lisa, an animated Wiccan who hangs out at that Hollywood bastion of the occult, Pan Pipes, and is a journalist in her other life. "They like to play with the stereotypes."
And the stereotypes abound. Satan worshipers. Blood gulpers. Baby eaters. The Rosemary's Baby crowd: Watch out for a chalky undertaste in that White Russian . . .
"So many people think we're Satanists," laughs Lady Mariah. "Satan's part of the Christian tradition, not ours. We don't even know who he is! We're a nature-friendly religion; we worship a god and goddess, we respect everything on the Earth, we honor both male- and female-based energy."
When you think of the path of environmental destruction blazed by certain Christians in the White House, paganism begins to look better and better. The Society of the Goddess is a nonprofit national "federation of covens and solitaires" dedicated to the legal protection of witches and the protection of religious freedom in general. Its members are actively involved in fund-raising for charity organizations like Children of the Night, RAIN and the no-kill animal-rescue organization Best Friends. A few days after 9/11, they raised $5,000 for the New York Fireman's Relief Fund and the New York City Fraternal Order of Police.
And they know how to sew! Lord Orion, Lady Mariah's significant other, says that he made every stitch of his lavish Celt Magistus costume, from the flowing cloak and intricate lace-ruffled jabot to the little ivory skull buttons on his silver silk vest. "I do jewelry too," he shyly admits. Another couple, John and Greg, who head up a coven in San Francisco, are the stars of the evening in their 17th-century Beefeater attire; John's outfit features a silk doublet, jewel-encrusted jerkin, black-and-gold velvet-and-satin "slops," or pantaloons, and velvet hat with plume.
"I designed it from a 1653 portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh," he explains. "I made the whole thing in 24 hours! I mean, I do have a $1,200 embroidery machine."
Do they do costume design for a living? "I wish!" roars Greg. "No, I'm a statistician for an Internet company."
"And I handle Lufthansa's mileage program," adds John.
In the long, snaking food line, conversations are animated. "Did I tell you about my witch experience in Jamaica?" "Awesome!" There's the usual gossip: "Did you hear? She was hauled in for having sex with young boys and claiming it was part of her religion!"
The guy in the cloak and cowl is now doing MC duty. Jumping up on the stage, he warms up the crowd.
"Are we all having fun?"
A big cheer.
"Who among us would like to be groped and fondled?"
A bigger cheer.
"And who among us would like to be flogged and beaten?"
Not such a big cheer.
"S&M isn't all that big here," explains Lisa, who goes on to talk about Pan Pipes. "We have lots of courses a basic introductory course on Wicca, then there are courses in wand making, spell casting, hexes and curses, alchemy . . . "
Just like Harry Potter!
"Yeah, kind of."
Do the spells really work?
"Listen," she confides, "I got my husband with one!"
Pagans need love too.
Mary Beth Crain
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Carlos Fuentes on U.S. intervention in Central America, March 9, 1984
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