Photo by Bill RobensI spoke by phone last week with playwright/musician Bill Robens, who was in Bishop, California, preparing for the second and final show of the two-town, Owens Valley tour of his holiday musical, A Mulholland Christmas Carol,presented by Hollywoods Theater of NOTE (where its now playing through Dec. 17; call (323) 856-8611). The night before, Robens troupe had scored big at the Lone Pine High School auditorium, but Bishop would be the big test. A week earlier, the shows producers (Owens Valley Committee) were referring eager ticket buyers from the oversold Bishop show to the Lone Pine performance. There were about 180 people in the [Lone Pine] audience, Robens said, with a median age of 75. There were also a few kids under 10, but nothing in between. I guess theres not many young adults in Lone Pine. Beyond a few service industries, theres not much to do. Some of the cast were disappointed that only 180 people showed up, but I had to explain to them thats 10 percent of the towns population. That put things in a different light. A Mulholland Christmas Carol was developed at the 2001 Edge of the World Theater Festival/L.A. History Project and has been an annual fixture at NOTE ever since. With production values almost as cheesy as the motives of engineer William Mulholland (a.k.a. Scrooge) and his contemporaries (former L.A. Mayor Fred Eaton and federal double-agent J.B. Lippincott), director Kiff Scholls show destroys Saugus St. Francis Dam every night, spilling 11.4 billion gallons of water (theatrically speaking) onto an audience of about 45 people (NOTEs seating capacity). Theres also much singing and dancing. To Owens Valleys old-timers, the pain of the betrayal by the big boys from L.A. and Washington, D.C. still stings true. The Valley once had ambitions to be an agricultural wonderland, until, in 1905, L.A.s Department of Water and Power contracted to funnel the water from Owens Lake to the growing but still dusty city of Los Angeles, via a land purchase that many still regard as theft. (For a fictionalized account, see the 1974 film, Chinatown.) On the side of a Bishop store, youll find San Francisco artist John Pughs mural, The Drain, which was painted in October. It depicts a bucolic Owens Valley smeared by a rusty drainpipe emblazoned with the letters, LADWP. In response, the L.A. water agency to which the mural refers one of the regions largest employers canceled its $500 donation to the Bishop Mural Society (which commissioned the mural for $30K), with a warning from DWP regional manager Gene L. Coufal that the agency will more closely scrutinize all requests for assistance throughout the Owens Valley. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosas office characterized the letter as an unfortunate overreaction, and praised such public art projects, but the controversy indicates the raw, colonial emotions that linger. In L.A., Robens reported, when we have Mulholland, Eaton and Lippincott colluding on stage, the audiences are interested in the history, but up here they were going nuts; the characters were getting boos and hisses, and when we bombed the aqueduct, people cheered. A Mulholland Christmas Carol is one in a handful of particularly imaginative local holiday shows that are neither seasonal chestnuts nor anti-holiday rants (which have become a cottage industry unto themselves). See theater listings for details on other such shows, including also in Hollywood Charles Phoenixs Retro Holiday Slide Show,a wistfully narrated collection of antique photos that illuminate who we are through who we were, at the Egyptian Theater, (866) 754-3374; and, in the Valley, Bobs Holiday Office Party, Joe Keyes and Rob Elks finely tuned and well-observed portrait of middle America, at Burbanks Third Stage, directed by Justin Tanner, (818) 842-4755. Click here to read Behind the Garb: The 99-cent costume crew by Seven McDonald Click here to read Seven McDonald's accompanying article on Ken Roht.
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