The Los Angeles Times, which recently termed California’s energy-deregulation debacle a “soap opera,” outdid even that trivialization in its recent review of the trouble-plagued Ford Explorer. Seems the boys on “the blue-oval team,” as Timesman John O’Dell calls Ford Motor Co., are about to restore public confidence in their cash-cow gas-guzzler, which has been prone to rollovers. Big improvements in the 2002 model, O’Dell opined in his Highway 1 consumer-review-section article, may be “enough, perhaps, to eliminate the unwarranted but frequently used pejorative ‘Ford Exploder’ from the language.”

Expunged from fawning L.A. Times consumer-speak, but not from the argot of hard news, which one could peruse a day later in a front-page story, “Study of Ford Explorer’s Design Reveals a Series of Compromises,” by The New York Times’ indefatigable Keith Bradsher. While O’Dell was extolling the “bigger, smoother, more powerful, easier to use and . . . harder to get into trouble with” 2002 model, Bradsher was prying under the hood of the Ford Explorer to reveal the shaky biography of a car glued to a truck chassis. In 1986, Ford realized that designing the vehicle from the ground up “would be far too costly,” so its engineers “would simply bolt a roomy passenger cabin, stocked with leather seats and other family-friendly amenities, to the underbody of the existing Ranger pickup truck,” Bradsher reported. As a result of that original decision, Ford’s profits soared from $1,000 on an average sedan to $8,000 a unit on the Explorer.

“Executives at Ford,” Bradsher reported, “under great pressure to be in on the coming sport utility boom, decided to build their entry in a hurry and on a shoestring, but with only moderate attention to stability.”

O’Dell’s column admittedly was a review, not an investigative or even a news story. Still, shouldn’t even consumer reportage reflect the nasty realities of front-page news, including the L.A. Times’ own revelation just Monday that tire manufacturers, under cost-cutting pressure from automakers, declined to use decade-old safety features that could have prevented tread peeling that contributed to rollovers and other deadly accidents? Yes, agrees O’Dell. However, in an e-mail response to the Weekly’s inquiry, he also avers, “My review was not of the model year 2000 or earlier Explorers that have had the problems described . . . Unless you are arguing that there is now sufficient data to brand all Ford engineers, designers and program directors as dishonest and universally unbelievable and thus to automatically reject every claim they make for a new vehicle, I can’t agree that I was too soft on Ford.

“However, a review is merely the considered opinion of one person — not a news story or news analysis — and thus is subject to disagreement by those with other points of view.”

In fact, Bradsher informed his readers that the 2002 redesign is part of Ford’s strategy “to position itself as the industry’s safety leader” — in short, to overcome all the bad news. Luckily, Ford has a credulous gearhead assessing its product. O’Dell gushed, “If new-model recalls are minor and federal crash test data . . . are positive, Ford has another winner.” But Bradsher had the last word. His page-long investigation ends with a quote from Donald F. Tandy, “an engineer who oversaw much of the early work on the Explorer. ‘Light trucks in general will have a higher rollover rate because of all the things that make an SUV an SUV.’”

—Greg Goldin

Homeless for the Holidays

By 9 p.m. the night before Teamsters Local 848’s Christmas giveaway, thousands of people were starting to line up in the urine-and-rotting-fruit-scented air of Skid Row’s Nickel (Fifth Street). The crowds were down about 15 percent from previous years, organizer Rick Middleton told us Sunday as we stood in the bright sunlight in front of the Fred Jordan Mission watching mostly Hispanic families shuffle past rows of gift-laden tables that stretched for at least a block. Middleton attributed the lower turnout to the still-strong economy, as well as to the five other charity handouts that trumped the Teamsters’ event the day before.

We shudder to think what the scene might be like next year, after George W. Bush gets ahold of an already stumbling economy he shows no signs of understanding. How will he deal with the enduring, grinding poverty of welfare recipients (yes, they still exist) like Joylyn Williams, a single mother with six children who faced Christmas with only two presents in her closet?

“My children are so happy,” said Williams, walking away with a large, blue-and-white Sears, Roebuck and Co. bag of toys. “This really helps.”

A band on a makeshift podium regaled Williams and other gift seekers with Christmas jingles. “Nice to see you,” said one volunteer. “Merry Christmas,” chimed another.

“Does anyone want to make a phone call to Mexico or Canada?” queried a young Hispanic woman with a cell phone in hand standing in a booth nearby. “It is free,” she added. A few feet away, Santa Claus uttered a long-winded ho ho ho.

“How old are you?” asked a young volunteer. “Six,” answered a shy Hispanic girl. “This is for you.” The volunteer handed the beaming child a bag with a Barbie doll, a Disney plush toy and crayons. Her 2-year-old sister, clutching her older sibling’s hand tightly, carried away a Sing-Along Barney.

A few feet down the line, a Hispanic girl anxiously awaited a pink Barbie sports car, as her brother proudly examined his Star Wars action figure and hot-rod car. A few feet away, their mother picked up a multicolored blanket and a bottle of water.

Outside the heavily guarded exit fence, dozens of other families regrouped, seemingly oblivious to the two-story-high stack of empty boxes, orange peels, puddles of water and rows of homeless men seated on blankets. One repeat customer tried to re-enter through the back. Security guards pleasantly turned the man away. Another, older man tried to come in the exit by claiming his car was parked on the other side of the charity display. A guard apologized but told the man he’d have to walk around.

Williams made her way toward the shampoo-and-conditioner pack, then, with her shopping cart full and niece Tracy asleep among the toys, picked up her final gift: a bag of groceries including a whole chicken, macaroni and cheese, rice, beans, oranges, and peanuts.

“Everybody gets something today,” she said exuberantly as she strolled off down the street.

“It was a blessing,” said Terry Valenzuela, waiting for her children next to a stack of ripped-up cardboard boxes. “I just got laid off from work. I really appreciate the people taking the time. I really couldn’t have gotten my kids gifts otherwise.”

—Christine Pelisek

Have Yourself a Fairy Little Christmas

“Basically, it’s a smut fest,” impresario Ronnie Larsen says of his new production, The XXX-Mas Show, at St. Genesius Theater in West Hollywood. “The dildo budget alone was over a thousand dollars.”

With the debut, also this year, of The Queer Nutcracker (“Dance of the Butches,” “The Dyke Ballet” and “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”) at Celebration Theater, L.A. does not lack for transgressive holiday entertainment. But The XXX-Mas Show brings don-you-now-your-gay-apparel fare to new levels of — well, the show’s poster probably says it best:

“There’s a new Christmas show in town and it’s nastier than the Grinch, nuttier than the Nutcracker and more hateful than Scrooge.”

The ads proclaim the “rude, crude and disgusting celebration of the holidays.”

Larsen’s extravaganza features the Love-Doll Tabernacle Choir in strap-on dildos and Larsen’s alter ego, TruckStop Sally, as the Virgin Mary, re-creating the birth of Jesus. The program carries a unique adult-content warning label (“Contains shocking displays of lesbian love acts and male nude figure skating”).

“Hell yes, there’s nudity,” Larsen guarantees. “And it’s gratuitous, too.” Oh, Mary.

TruckStop Sally bears some resemblance to the late, lamented Divine.

“I spent like two hours choreographing the numbers,” Larsen brags. “The show is totally disgusting and tasteless . . . I wanted to eat dog shit in the show, but I couldn’t find a dog willing to do six shows a week for no money.”

Queer Nutcracker director Derek Livingston, also Celebration Theater’s newly named managing artistic director, predicts his show will “appeal to everyone in our community.”

Larsen’s show is a bit less inclusive. “Jesus Christ used to hang out with whores, so I thought this show was a good way to honor him,” he says.


—Michael Kearns

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