When Cute Isn't Pretty: "Cute With Chris," the Web Show for Misfit Teenage Girls and Women in Their 30s Who Like to Knit
The first thing you should know about Chris Leavins is that he plays serial killers on Canadian TV shows. That’s actually how he earns his living. The next thing you should know is that for the past two and a half years, he’s been posting on YouTube a weekly Internet video show called Cute With Chris from his Los Angeles apartment. His show is based on pet photos — yes, kittens and puppies, plus the occasional parakeet or kangaroo — sent to him from around the world. Killers and kittens: Is Leavins bipolar? Not at all; he’s just Canadian. From Saskatchewan, if you want to be specific.
Each five-minute weekly episode of Cute With Chris (www.cutewithchris.com) is now viewed by 100,000 to a million people, depending on where it lands on global search engines. As a result, Leavins sardonically describes himself as both a cult leader and a microcelebrity.
Leavins records the show from the one bedroom of his Mid-Wilshire apartment, with a $500 Panasonic digital camcorder he bought at Target. He has no production assistants, no assistant director, no crew. The camera sits on a tripod in his closet, aimed at his desk across the room. From that desk, with a microphone clipped inside his shirt, he reads from a script on his MacBook while clutching the camcorder’s remote control. Each shot lasts five to 15 seconds, and he’ll shoot each one two to five times, with slightly different line readings or camera angles. The shoot lasts an hour to 90 minutes. He then spends two to three hours editing the footage, adding visual collages and a soundtrack.
Leavins’ solo, live standup routine, Cute With Chris: Live, which he’s performed at various clubs and theaters in L.A. and Toronto, is a comedic explanation of his Internet mission. He uses his Web casts to promote his live shows, which he uses to promote his Web casts. He uses both formats to promote his Cute With Chris T-shirt and button-merchandising enterprise, which helps to subsidize Leavins’ micro-empire.
Boxes of newly arrived product line one wall of his living room when I visit. Leavins, whose apartment has hardwood floors, an ascetic décor and lots of cardboard boxes, says he has to live frugally in L.A., his adopted home since he left Toronto in 2003.
“I didn’t want to come here, but I didn’t want to regret not coming here,” Leavins says. “I was surprised to discover that I really liked it. I expected L.A. to be fake and shallow, and I discovered it’s a creative magnet for people from all over the world. It’s really exciting to be in a city where nobody knows you. I look back on it to think that I moved here to quit acting on T.V. . . . I go back to Canada to work, but because I don’t live there, I work way less than I used to.”
The shirts, which cost $20, are mostly designed by viewers and manufactured by American Apparel. Leavins holds up a T-shirt designed by one of his regulars, a 24-year-old woman who moonlights from her regular job as a phone-sex operator in Sweden. “I pay her a flat fee,” Leavins says. For the shirts.
“At first, I felt that selling shirts for the show sent the wrong message,” Leavins goes on, “but it’s proved to be sustaining for the show.”
Still, he has to be careful with his audience. One Web-cast segment, called “Theatah News,” drew a complaint from a 22-year-old Milwaukee viewer named Lynette, when Leavins’ face filled the screen giving a newsy report on the stampeding crowds rushing to see a recent Toronto performance of Cute With Chris: Live — “audiences of 125!”
“Hi, Chris,” wrote Lynette on the comments section of Leavins’ Web site. “Your show has really gone downhill. All you do is talk about your theater shows and your T-shirts. You used to keep it real, but now you’re too busy selling out. I miss the old Chris.”
And so, Leavins opens video Episode 180, “Keeping It Real,” by reading Lynette’s complaint. “Thank you for your e-mail, Lynette,” he replies politely, and straight into the camera — before he all but disembowels her, using sarcasm delivered with unwavering cheerfulness:
“I miss the old Chris, too,” he continues. “The old Chris would have taken this opportunity to rip you a new asshole for writing such a rude e-mail. The old Chris might have looked into the camera [here, he looks directly into the camera] and said, ‘Gee, Lynette, I wish I was as awesome as you.’ The old Chris would have said, ‘Thank you, Lynette, for taking a little time away from your job making meatball subs at a Quiznos [in a] food court in Wisconsin to let me know that I’m not keeping it real.’ I truly value the opinion of a grown woman who lives with six hamsters and an iguana named Dumbledore. The old Chris would have turned to the other camera and said, ‘Get out of my cult, bitch.’
“Unfortunately, Lynette, I’m just too exhausted to do that. I have been trying to sell out for weeks, and let me tell you something, selling out is a lot of work and frankly not very profitable. That’s why I’m not going to say those terrible things about you that I just said. About you. Which are true. You ungrateful whore.
“Let’s look at kittens!”
Behind Leavins’ perennial stubble, hangdog eyes, cryptic tone and meticulously droll timing lies a 40-year-old bachelor-satirist, toying with Internet celebrity while clinging to his privacy. He refuses to discuss his family, or even his brief stint volunteering with the Glendale Humane Society (GHS) during his first few years in Southern California.
But Ellen Leyda, GHS’s volunteer coordinator, remembers Leavins from 2006: “One dog had cancer, and he took her home so she wouldn’t have to spend the weekend in the clinic. He was very compassionate for the animals, a lot of care.”
“Volunteer work is a private matter,” Leavins tells me in a follow-up phone call after the interview at his apartment. “I really don’t want to go there.”
After 15 seconds of dead air, I tersely remind him that I am trying to write a profile, and that asking a guy with a pet show about his volunteer work with animals doesn’t seem to be unduly intrusive. Leavins bursts out laughing, then implores, “Please don’t turn me into the Mother Teresa of the animal-sanctuary movement. I volunteered there a very short time, and after I changed neighborhoods, I never went back.”
Leavins’ MacBook is populated with a treasure chest of thousands of submitted pet photos, which, he says, he doesn’t quite know what to do with. He’s the digital age’s answer to Charles Phoenix, who has also built a cottage industry on found art — in Phoenix’s case, discarded SoCal photographs collected from garage sales and eBay — which he too presents in live performances. Phoenix has perfected a jocular narration to retro slide shows, including, say, snapshots of Disneyland in the early ’60s, or of a young married couple, circa 1973, she with a bouffant (outdated even then), he in bell-bottoms and lacy silk shirt, standing awkwardly by the swimming pool of their West Covina home — all etched in Kodachrome now tinted with age. These subjects are the parents and grandparents of Leavins’ current fan base: “misfit teenage girls,” he says, “and women in their 30s who like to knit.”
Leavins has been posting photos in a subsection called “Sexy Viewers” — benign glamour shots of attractive women, with their pets nestled near or within cleavage. This has drawn complaints from two camps: the gay market, and those women in their 30s, both demanding that cheesecake and beefsteak be served in equal portions.
The following letters, and the video responses to them, were delivered by Leavins, on various episodes of his show and in his deadpan style:
“Yo, Chris, my name is Lars. I am a gay bear, but lately you have been featuring a lot of girls with cleavage on your show. You need to start showing sexy shirtless guys. It is the teen girls and gay bears who made you a star, and if you don’t give us what we want, we will destroy you. Enough sexy girls. More shirtless guys.”
“Thank you for your letter, Lars. Yes, many of my female viewers send me sexy pictures of themselves, like Julie in Arkansas, who was kind enough to snap this photo of herself after a night of drinking, with Sparky, her Chihuahua resting on her bra. I would happily display shirtless male viewers, too, Lars, but how am I supposed to do that when I have no male viewers? Let me clarify that: When I have no male viewers who admit they watch a show about puppies and kittens. You see, the only reason I know I have secret hordes of men is because they send me e-mails asking to see more boobs!”
With the female complainant, Leavins employs a viciousness that recalls Don Rickles’ comic assaults on his own constituents. Here’s Leavins’ response to a writer named Deborah after he had posted some images of “hot male flesh”— at Deborah’s request:
“I’m only doing this as inspiration to the thousands of women like Deborah, single ladies in their 30s, with three or more cats, who watch Cute With Chris. Don’t give up on your dreams. Throw away your clogs, and believe that somewhere in the space between your 11 cats and your six litter boxes and the 39 squeaky toys on your bed, there is room for a man in your life. Unless you want to turn lesbian, which I would totally recommend. I mean, wouldn’t it be easier just to date another crazy cat lady?”
Whereas Charles Phoenix straddles the divide between nostalgia and parody, Leavins’ purpose has three streams: The first is a spit-in-the-wind mission to counter the cultural flood tides of “cute.” The second is wading through the detritus of pet photos that hold almost no inherent interest to anybody but the pets’ owners, and then, using interactive storytelling, finding a narrative infused with more universal meaning than the pet owners could ever have intended. And, finally, Leavins is trying to fathom new ways to use performance to connect to people in the 21st century. He says this aim comes from his experiences as a stage performer in Toronto during the late ’90s, playing to audiences in the mere dozens, or less. His experiment with the Internet grapples with the possibilities of Web technology that’s potentially predatory and brutishly isolating, yet, paradoxically, contains a means of bringing us together and talking to each other in numbers like never before. These are the three lanes of Leavins’ Internet highway.
The origins of “cute” come from a concept in animal behavior called pedomorphism, a preference for faces and images of animals and people who resemble infants, explains Charles T. Snowdon, Hilldale Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin. “Many breeds of pets have more humanlike features than their wild ancestors — pug-nosed dogs have flatter faces, rounder faces than the foxes or wolves from which they evolved. Cartoon characters — Tweety Bird, Mickey Mouse, etc., — are often drawn to have very human features, and we find them more attractive than we would natural pictures of mice or birds,” whose eyes are located on the sides of their heads, not in the front, as in their more humanoid cartoon images.
Snowdon also talks about how women’s makeup highlights their eyes to make them seem bigger “and thus more infantlike.” Rouge leads to rosy cheeks, which appear bigger and more infantlike as well. It’s unclear, he says, whether this is innate, “but it is likely that there is both an innate aspect and a cultural aspect in our preference for infantile-looking faces of both animals and people.”
“Cute,” of course, should be distinguished from “beauty.” “Cute” derives from the quality of infantile vulnerability that may be part of an innate survival mechanism. (Anthropologists have observed Pygmy Marmoset babies babble like humans, but when older marmosets are stressed or threatened, they will engage in similar babbling — a form of submission designed to ratchet down the threat, Snowdon explains.) “Beauty,” however, resides on a pedestal, a coveted quality of regal perfection that can be undone by the intrusion of a pimple or a roll of fat. “Cute” and “beauty” are both magnetic qualities, but “cute” is huggable, whereas “beauty” is a dare shrouded in mystery. “Cute” is an invitation to the party. “Beauty” stands aloof, intimidating and envied. The simplicity of “cute” is for children. The sadomasochism of “beauty” is for grown-ups. The biggest paradox of Cute With Chris is that Chris actually prefers beauty to cute. He prefers Julie from Arkansas, languishing on her bed, wearing a bra and gazing into the camera with a boozily detached expression, to her Chihuahua, Sparky, who sits on her breast. This would explain Leavins’ gradual drift in the direction of “Sexy Viewers.” The dramatic tension within his weekly broadcasts is, in a sense, Chris Leavins at war with his own concept.
“Never in the history of the world has there been such an array of ‘cute,’” Leavins proclaims in his live show. “After Episode 45, I realized I don’t like ‘cute.’ . . . If you’re not ‘cute,’ nobody will love you,” he says with the sunny moral authority of a minister.
He uses the lectern of his live show to tell the story of teenage sisters in foster care, both desperate to be adopted. It’s one of his many attempts to unmask the diabolical cruelty of “cute.” One sister is slim and “cute,” the other overweight. The slim sister gets adopted. The story closes with the image of the sister left behind, on a treadmill, bathed in sweat and working to shed the pounds it will take her to find a family that wants her, or, as Leavins describes her circumstance, “She’s now running for her life.”
That story holds hands with the recurring, ironic anthem, “All your dreams are dead,” which accompanies photos of the losing pets in Leavins’ weekly “Cute-Down” contest.
In his live show, when Leavins beams up a photo of a baby kangaroo being nestled by a teenager, the room is awash with the sound of “aaaaaaaahhhhhhh.” Leavins glares back at the mostly teenage crowd, with pinched lips and a withering expression of fatigue.
Then there’s Kiri, the kitten with glaucoma in one eye — protruding and “the size of a Chicken McNugget.” Kiri became one of Leavins’ favorite submissions, and one of the show’s mascots. A viewer designed a button in Kiri’s honor — a cat face with a button eye marked with an “X.”
There’s also the Chihuahua named Roo, missing two front legs, hopping around like a miniature kangaroo. And El Vez, the bunny whose head grew on sideways — a sweet, fluffy fellow who’s expert at making left-hand turns but is challenged by attempts to veer in the other direction. Squiggles is the half-paralyzed guinea pig whose owner strapped him to a tiny cart in order to give him mobility.
Leavins’ imposition of deformity upon “cute” has resulted in the misfit creatures often winning his “Cute-Down” contests, not unlike Elphaba Thropp, the misunderstood green-skinned girl who won the hearts of thousands of teens in the Broadway musical Wicked.
Yet, as Internet sites go, even his average of 400,000 to 500,000 hits per week is a modest accomplishment, and Leavins has been fathoming why his efforts remain commercially marginal.
“I haven’t quite found a portal like mine on the Web. It’s hard to sustain because it’s not about sex, or celebrities,” Leavins explains. “I’m reacting to what the viewers of the site send me.
“It’s not a popular site because it’s female-based,” he believes. “And the teen girls who watch my show are the edgy teen girls who hate other teenagers, so it never makes it into the mainstream. The most successful sites are male-based. And the successful female sites tend to revolve around cosmetics, sharing feelings, raising kids.”
There’s also the possibility that Cute With Chris would fare better if Leavins were more of a “cute” purist. He acknowledges that his traffic doesn’t compare to pet sites that celebrate “cute” without Leavins’ undertow of snarkiness. (See dailypets.co.uk, thepuppychannel.com or cuteoverload.com.)
The co-host of Cute With Chris is a plastic horse named Pervy, who’s about 4 inches tall and moves across the table where Leavins sits broadcasting, via the high-tech device of an almost invisible piano-wire leash, by which Leavins pulls Pervy across the table. With a woman’s voice, Pervy makes all kinds of comments laced in double entendre (“Ride me, I’m a horse,” “Lotion makes one slippery” and “Jugs are for juice”) — another means by which Leavins reveals his personal tedium with the “cute” at the heart of his show, like a Santa who’s spent a few too many winters in a department store.
A more minor challenge to his Web hits may come from petty censorship, revealed in the opening of Episode 154, in which Leavins reads a viewer letter from 14-year-old Madison in Iowa:
“Dear Chris, Last week I was watching your video in the kitchen, and when Pervy said ‘Jugs are for juice,’ my mom made me stop watching and also she flagged the video. Now I can’t watch your show, but why? Because jugs are for juice.” (In his live show, Leavins mentions that being flagged by any self-appointed censor can knock out 90 percent of the potential Web hits, because the flagged posting becomes accessible only through special permission.)
Leavins then answers the e-mail: “Thanks for your letter, Madison. Yes, jugs are for juice, and also, lotion does make one slippery. But every parent has the right to decide what their child can or cannot watch, and you need to respect your mother’s decision. However, the flag button on YouTube is meant to protect people from graphic depictions of sex, violence or hate speech. It’s not meant to protect people from plastic horses. In any case, Madison, I think we’ve all learned something from this experience. We’ve learned that when you say innocent things like “jugs” or “Ride me, I’m a horse,” your mother’s mind goes to some very weird places. [Brief pause.] Hey, mama!”
In a junk shop, well before he conceived of Cute With Chris, Leavins stumbled across an old photograph of a woman with a dog — a boxer. He had no idea who the woman was, and he’d never before seen the dog. Since it was a photo from years earlier, he presumed that both were now dead. Why else would such a photo be for sale in a junk shop? He was struck by how such a photo would hold value only for the woman, or her family, or one of her very dear friends. He reflected on the many photographs he had of his own dog, a (now-deceased) Shetland Sheepdog named Luke, and what would happen to the images after he dies. Who would possibly be interested in them? Who is really interested in anybody’s else’s photos of their pets? His own pet photos would surely end up in the trash, like the detritus of all our lives, and deaths.
Leavins tells this story in Cute With Chris: Live. It’s the story of the origins of his Internet experiment.
He stared at the photo for a long time, trying to imagine the life of the woman within it. He grew so attached to the story he was inventing, he couldn’t stomach the idea of the photo being relegated to the incinerator — and with it, his fiction, which surely had only the most precarious bearing on the reality of this woman’s life, and that of her dog. He observed a perplexed expression on the shopkeeper’s face when he bought the photo, an unspoken interrogation: Did you know this woman in the photo? Was she some relative? Why else would somebody purchase such a relic?
When he got home, he placed the photo on his mantel, as though the woman and her dog were members of his family. And in a way, they now were. The photograph’s new owner and the photographed woman were now inexplicably connected, the living and the dead, the present to the past. And when people would come to visit his home and they saw the photo on his mantel, his story — his fiction of the woman and her dog — grew increasingly elaborate, the story triggered by a visual image and now being expanded into a kind of folklore.
This is, after all, how we create history, when the memory of experience becomes a kind of snapshot, loosely tethered to reality. And this is the core of Leavins’ desire to create a project based on pet photos.
“When I look at a photo,” he explains as he sets up the video shoot in his apartment, “I want to know the life story of the owner and the pet, I’m fascinated by the relationship. I love the notion of my computer, my MacBook, being this seething digital archive of all these people’s lives and stories, and it just keeps growing and growing.”
One particularly striking image from Leavins’ live show comes from a screen on which he’s broadcasting computer projections, taken from his archive: one pet, a lingering snapshot, then another — a girl holding a dog, then another girl lying next to her kitten on a floor. A procession of people and the four-legged loves of their lives moves ever more quickly, until it becomes a blur, a cosmic swirl of affection between children and beasts, which spirals up and out into the sky. You can almost hear the cry of the children craving attention as much as they’re craving affection: Hi. This existed.
Franco Boni is artistic director of the Theatre Centre in Toronto and has been an ardent fan and patron of Leavins since 1997, when he first saw him on the stage in what used to be called “performance art” pieces. Boni was running a couple of festivals at the time and programmed Leavins’ work.
Boni cites two factors that combine to make Leavins so engaging: his timing and his real affection for a live audience. Because of Leavins’ sardonic attitude, Boni argues, his affection for the crowd “can be perceived as coming from a place that’s not genuine . . . but it is genuine. He really does want to make that connection with the audience and get to know his audience. It could easily be the opposite of that. I think part of my attraction to his work is his interest in connecting to an audience that would otherwise not tend to go to a live performance.”
Boni says he was particularly taken by the sight of a Cute With Chris: Live audience in Toronto in April 2008, and by how many of them had been drawn to the theater by the Web site.
“It struck me that the audience was there for him,” Boni recalls, “but they were also there for each other, to meet each other. That was kind of a remarkable moment, when I think of what live performance is. It’s precisely that: an audience gathering to see each other to be entertained and to be challenged, but mainly to be together in a room. It was quite an amazing moment.”
Still, Leavins says, he hasn’t yet cracked the code of using Web technology to connect people, to get the audience to really participate with him online. “Now they’re submitting their own pictures for the show, which I like,” Leavins explains. “And I can post them on my site and make them stars, or I do a video message from the stage, but my instincts tell me that there’s a way to go deeper with the form.”
Twenty-three-year-old Rhonda of Hollywood, California, would agree. In her letter, which Leavins reads in Episode 149, “Reserved for Rhonda,” the young woman asks for his advice.
“Dear Chris, I am an actor, too (a stage actor). I am thinking of starting an Internet show to spread my talents, but I worry it will affect the way I’m seen as a stage performer. Your show is charming but often strikes me as very amateur. Am I wrong to say there are huge differences between the Internet and the stage? I would like to be taken seriously as an actor.”
Leavins replies in two different successive episodes, in T-shirt and disheveled hair, staring straight into the camera. Playing defense, he argues that his Web show is not amateur but retarded, and that she should understand the difference. Just because a show looks cheap and retarded doesn’t mean it’s not professional. Perhaps it’s meant to look cheap and retarded.
Mocking his victim as “Rhonda of the Stage,” he goes on to ridicule himself, assuming a posture of actorly arrogance: “Do you know who I am?! Let me rephrase that. Do you know who I think I am, Rhonda? [He holds his right foot in front of his face.] Do you see this right foot that I recently had reattached to my leg? I have set this foot on many a stage, Rhonda. I have used this foot, and the rest of my body parts, for many, many stage performances. I’m happy to tell you there is a difference between stage performance and Internet performance. Onstage, you don’t have some chick, Rhonda, e-mailing you to tell you that you look amateur. You know what, Rhonda, I have been meaning to resurrect my stage career, so thank you for pissing me off. Do you know what I’m going to do? I am going to find a theater in Hollywood and I am going to rent it. I am going to do a show called Cute With Chris: Live, and anybody who watches me on the Internet is welcome to come and watch me on the stage. I will upload crap on the Internet from the stage. And you know what, Rhonda? In the front row there will be one empty seat with a piece of paper on it. And do you know what that piece of paper will say? ‘Reserved for Rhonda.’”
Leavins went on to perform Cute With Chris: Live at the Hudson and Elephant theaters, both on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Besides crossing the line between the Internet and the stage, Leavins has a history of blurring the divide between play and life, which is what the late comedian Andy Kaufman used to do with his obnoxious alter ego, lounge singer Tony Clifton.
Not unlike the antics of Kaufman, Leavins hired his own groupies to attend his show, Rock Star, telling them where to sit, what to do and when to scream.
One of Boni’s favorite pieces from his five years of running the festival was called Posterchild, derived from a period when Leavins was in an acting class in Los Angeles, and all the students were developing monologues based on their lives. In Leavins’ show, he claimed to have survived a rare form of brain cancer.
“It became about what cancer meant to him and his life,” Boni explains. “None of it was true. Some viewers who came thought he was an ass. I was on a jury at the time with two jurors who were going through cancer treatments, and they hated it. I loved it because he was making fun of cancer plays.”
Rage lies in the fabric of Leavins’ shows. A running motif in CWC is “Thank you for my rage, Jesus.” And though Leavins says he doesn’t brood, “it doesn’t get any darker than me,” he claims. “I came out of the womb as a 35-year-old man.”
If he had to do it again, he wouldn’t have done a show about puppies and kittens, “because it’s extraordinarily difficult to produce content in that milieu without it being nauseating. I’ve done it, but it’s a Herculean task.”
There’s another regret: “I wish I’d done a show about celebrities, like everyone else; it would have been so much easier.”
Still, there is something unparalleled about the way Leavins has made connections all the way to the other side of the globe from the isolation of a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles, one of the most isolating cities in the world.
One day, on a lonely stretch of highway outside Sydney, Australia, a driver hits a kangaroo and leaves her for dead. It’s a road barely traveled, but on this day, a few hours later, a teenager named Rayne also happens to be driving the same stretch of road and notices the carcass. She does something Australians, like everyone else, rarely do at the sight of roadkill: She stops, she investigates, and in the pouch of the dead kangaroo, she finds an infant, dehydrated and dying, whom she names Oliver. Rayne drives Oliver to a veterinarian. After Oliver returns from the brink of death, Rayne takes him home and rears him like her own child. She sends a photograph of herself, with Oliver, to Chris Leavins, who posts it on his Web site, and tells the story, on the Internet and onstage, in Los Angeles and Toronto. Oliver and Rayne are now a part of international folklore.
Back in his apartment, there’s a letter with a sweet, childlike drawing of a dog lying on a table. Both are a testament to the isolated connectedness that’s really the hallmark of Leavins’ remarkable enterprise. “Dear Chris,” the letter says, “thank you so much for the time and care you put into packaging my T-shirt! I’ve never been so excited to receive something in the mail!!! The stickers and note made it so special! Thank you also for posting my pugs Hollia and Rosie on CWC. I was ecstatic when I saw them there. I wanted to send you my ‘aht’ as my thanks. I hope you like it. Amber Hendricks.”
Such tenderness arriving in his L.A. mailbox from Ohio still can’t thaw the ice of solitude that hangs from the wires of the Internet, regardless of e-mails and Web sites and listservs. Computers may have made the world even more lonely and solipsistic than television.
“I’ve never felt so isolated in my life,” Leavins says right after I read that letter. “That’s got to change. I’ve been working alone for two and a half years now. It’s difficult to sustain because it’s become so insular. And, I guess, that’s why I did the live show. But it’s a solo show. It’s the same shit, different pile. I’d like to move back into television and have a production team, to facilitate ideas that I’ve learned from doing this project. We’ll see if that happens. What I learned from TV acting is that it isn’t about the show, it’s about the experience of making the show.”
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