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Dam Christmas

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 Hollywood’s Theater of NOTE (where it’s 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 show’s 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 there’s not many young adults in Lone Pine. Beyond a few service industries, there’s not much to do. Some of the cast were disappointed that only 180 people showed up, but I had to explain to them that’s 10 percent of the town’s 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 Scholl’s show destroys Saugus’ St. Francis Dam every night, spilling 11.4 billion gallons of water (theatrically speaking) onto an audience of about 45 people (NOTE’s seating capacity). There’s also much singing and dancing. To Owens Valley’s 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, you’ll find San Francisco artist John Pugh’s 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 region’s 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 Villaraigosa’s 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 Phoenix’s 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, Bob’s Holiday Office Party, Joe Keyes and Rob Elk’s finely tuned and well-observed portrait of middle America, at Burbank’s 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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