Taking Center Stage: Downtown San Pedro’s Theatre Renaissance

(left to right) James Blackman (San Pedro Theatre Club, seated), Summer Cacciagioni (Encore Entertainers), Aaron Ganz & Paris Langle (TE San Pedro Rep) (photo by John Mattera)

As downtown San Pedro forges a path to reinvent itself, there’s been a quiet and unexpected renaissance along the way that is fitting for a district whose crown jewel is a landmark art deco theatre. In the past two years, four theatre companies have moved into downtown San Pedro – two in the past five months. Their range of casts and productions means downtown seems to be shaping itself as a unique performing arts district.

“I think these markets are all very shareable and each theatre has a unique experience. Right now they’re in perfect concert with each other,” says James Blackman, former director of the award winning Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities. After the company moved to the Warner Grand Theatre last year and went under not long after, he was considering throwing in the towel.

“I was eating at Niko’s late one night and I could hear “La Vie en Rose” playing on a Victrola up the street, so I walked up and saw people tangoing inside a storefront and thought, ‘There’s no other place in Los Angeles where you’ll find people dressed up tangoing this late on a Tuesday night.’ It was so beautiful. I thought, ‘I want to be part of a town that has this.’”

Blackman decided to stay and start over, building a theatre in a 1920s high-ceiling former department store space on Pacific Avenue between 6th and 7th Streets he named the San Pedro Theatre Club.

The lobby of the San Pedro Theatre Club.

Stepping into the lobby feels a bit like walking into a backstage area with rotating sets. The glimmer of the stage’s backdrop reveals an intimate venue with art deco touches and 78 high-back movie theatre seats.

“We’re trying to champion kind of an old form which is the old nightclubs of the 1920s and 1930s,” he says.

The theatre had its soft opening, a concert by jazz singer Windy Barnes, on First Thursday in August, and had its official premiere in September with the musical comedy, We Will Survive. Last month, it screened films in the second annual San Pedro International Film Festival.

The San Pedro Theatre Club recently held auditions for upcoming plays and musicals, and Blackman plans to have comedy nights, concerts and movie series as well. He says more than 1,500 of his Civic Light Opera subscribers are finishing out their season at the theatre club. When he gives them directions to San Pedro, he tells them to use the “guest entrance.”

“I say we have a service entrance and a guest entrance, and when I describe the route to them, I say, ‘Get off on Harbor Blvd. and you’ll see the San Francisco style bridge, then you’ll probably see passenger ships and the Bellagio-style water fountain and as you turn the corner, follow the row of lit palm trees all the way down to where the Red Car runs past the USS Iowa. Just before you get to the Maritime Museum, turn up 5th, 6th or 7th Street and go past the art galleries and specialty restaurants,’” he says. “It’s a sub narrative that sells the city as a destination, and sure enough, they’ll want to plan an entire day here.”

Blackman thinks San Pedro is on the cusp of an artistic revival that could make it Los Angeles’ newest arts destination.

“As native Angelenos, we go, ‘Let’s go check that out.’ We go to the new place. There are millions of us here and we look for day trips,” he says. “We go to someone else’s environment to enjoy an entire day and that’s an economy that is more than possible to bring in here.”

A few blocks over on 7th and Centre Streets, an acting school and small theatre company has turned a former doctor’s office into an intimate theatre space.

“San Pedro is everything I could’ve wanted in a potential home for a theatre company, there’s something about this rawness here,” says Aaron Ganz, artistic director of the TE San Pedro Rep, which moved to San Pedro in June after two seasons in La Crescenta as Theatrum Elysium.

The TE San Pedro Rep Team (left to right): Managing Director Chris Lang, Artistic Director Ganz, Communications Director Langle, Resident Designer Tamara Becker, Technical Director Richard Dominguez (photo by John Mattera).

The space features exposed red brick and wooden trusses, as well as a theatre library that is open to the public. Since moving in over the summer, San Pedro Rep has held acting classes and rehearsed its first upcoming production in its new home: Hamlet, which opens this First Thursday, Nov. 7.

“As a professional company, we choose works that have incredible meaning challenging the human experience. Everything explores the DNA of what it is to be a human being in the world,” Ganz says, adding that every seat in the tiny theatre is a front row seat. “We have a group of professional artists training around the clock, and we’re developing artists who are unabashed of sharing their soul.”

Tickets for the First Thursday debut of Hamlet will be pay-what-you-can, and regular ticket prices aren’t more than $25. “I don’t think theatres should just be for people who have money, and unfortunately that happens,” Ganz says.

Classes at the acting conservatory max out at 10 students, and the public is welcome to sit in on production rehearsals.

“When I came to Los Angeles, I was shocked to see what a big business acting classes were. We have small classes that allows us to really get to know and nurture our actors’ spirit,” Ganz says. “It’s great to have this community that has so much potential and is betting on the arts.”

San Pedro Rep is just around the corner from downtown San Pedro’s oldest running theatre company: Little Fish Theatre.

“I think it’s exciting to see all these theatres coming into downtown,“ says Lisa Coffi, who founded the theatre in 2002 after the success of Shakespeare by the Sea, which she started in 1998. When she opened Little Fish Theatre, downtown San Pedro was a much different place. “It was a spot that needed something open past 8 o’clock besides bars,” she says. “I felt it was right for theatre.”

Little Fish puts on 11 productions a year and is still thriving at almost 80 percent capacity, and most of its audience comes from the South Bay. Its next production, Every Christmas Story Ever Told and Then Some, opens Nov. 8.

“It’s a fast and furious mélange of Christmas stories performed by a three-member cast. There’s A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas – it’s like a campy abridged book of Christmas stories,” Coffi says.

Downtown San Pedro has also experienced a surge in youth theatre. Encore Entertainers, a Torrance-based all-ages theatre company, will open its seventh production at the Warner Grand Theatre, Peter Pan, on Jan. 10.

Encore Entertainers' production of Oliver!

“We’re starting season tickets this year and that is largely due to the tremendous support we’ve had in San Pedro,” says artistic director Summer Cacciagioni. “We’ve sold more tickets in San Pedro for a first show than most of our shows in Torrance and Redondo Beach, so the support has been tremendous; we love it.”

Encore will bring in a professional flying company for Peter Pan that will lift Peter and Wendy 15 to 20 feet in the air. Auditions for Encore’s spring production of Shrek: the Musical will take place in February or March

Cacciagioni, who has directed more then 60 productions, says the company offers opportunities for families and youth in a time when the arts are being cut from schools. “We’re the only group I know of that has all ages where families can perform together,” she says. “Thirty percent of our students receive some form of scholarship or financial assistance; we don’t ever want to turn anyone away due to a financial situation.”

Encore will have its annual fundraising gala on Nov. 10 at the Torrance Marriot, which will be hosted by Redondo Beach Mayor Steve Aspel.

“Most of our students won’t grow up and become professional actors, but we care about teaching them skills to become accountable, responsible, passionate people,” Cacciagioni says. “Especially with the Internet, the next generation of kids is being robbed of a lot of basic communication skills, and I feel like theatre is even more important than ever for them to learn those skills.”

San Pedro’s Scalawag Productions has put on three musicals at the Warner Grand Theatre since its founding in 2011. The company trains teens and young adults ages 14 to 22 for musicals. “Our high school and college kids want to perform, and there wasn’t a program for them,” says Scalawag Productions co-producer Gale Kadota.

The cast trains under a team of music, dance and theatre professionals for one musical production each summer. “We try to keep it as close to a Broadway experience as possible, and the casts are usually 35 to 40 members tops,” she says. “We believe they’re able to receive much better instruction in a smaller group rather than throwing 100 kids on stage.”

After performing Fame over the summer, the company is putting on a few fundraisers including a screening of White Christmas at the Warner Grand Theatre on Dec. 7. Auditions for next summer’s Guys and Dolls will take place in February.

Kadota thinks the theatre renaissance in downtown is much needed. “The whole idea with Scalawag was not only to have a home for kids, but to get downtown San Pedro active with theatre. We just need to keep bringing in productions and keep it alive.” spt

For more information and tickets, visit www.thesanpedrotheatreclub.com, www.sanpedrorep.org, www.littlefishtheatre.org, www.encoreentertainers.org and www.scalawagproductionco.org.

Horror Soundtracks Come to Life at the Warner Grand

The Golden State Pops Orchestra will kick off their 11th season in spook-tacular fashion on Oct. 19, when the group’s Halloween-themed concert at the Warner Grand continues its yearlong tribute to noted film music record label Varese Sarabande.

Currently celebrating its 35th anniversary, Varese Sarabande has to date released thousands of film scores, soundtracks and original cast recordings, more than 1,100 of which have been produced by Robert Townson, the label’s vice president of soundtracks. Townson will serve as host of the Halloween Gala at the Warner Grand, which will see maestro Steven Allen Fox conduct the GSPO as it performs excerpts of scores from such films as Halloween, Alien and The Omen.

This is not the GSPO’s first collaboration with Townson and Varese Sarabande, as earlier this year, the Warner Grand hosted a sold-out performance commemorating the label’s anniversary that featured such prominent guests as Danny Elfman (The Simpsons, The Nightmare Before Christmas) and Hans Zimmer (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Dark Knight). That was just the tip of the iceberg, says Fox. “The largest hurdle that everyone immediately noticed was the enormous catalog of music Varese Sarabande has and that we would never be able to appropriately represent it with one concert,” he explains. “As we began development of our 2013-14 concert season, we realized the answer was to do more than one concert.” (A holiday-themed event will take place in December.)

As of mid-September, five guests beside Townson had been publicly announced for the Oct. 19 concert, including composers Christopher Young (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser) and Nathan Barr (Hostel, True Blood). At least five more guests are in the works, Fox notes. “Many will be conducting music they’ve composed or arranged, while some are performers,” he says.

Fox believes that music is a critical part of setting the mood for Halloween, both on and off the screen. “Think about the two notes from Jaws, the shrieking strings from Psycho or the haunting melody from Halloween,” he says. “Do you feel that shiver down your spine?”

Fox calls working with Townson an honor and privilege, and believes the Halloween Gala will set “a great pace” for the GSPO’s 11th season. “People can expect more iconic special guests from the industry, superb music – some they know, and some they should know – and evenings they will never forget,” he says.

The Golden State Pops Orchestra’s Varese Sarabande 35th Anniversary Halloween Gala takes place at the Warner Grand Theatre (478 W. 6th St.) on Oct. 19 at 8 p.m. Tickets ($28-$60) are available at GSPO.com.

The Grand Annex kicks off a busy fourth quarter calendar of events on Oct. 5 with a performance by Calé, a group that describes its music as “a spicy blend of Gypsy flamenco and Spanish classical guitar mixed with South American rhythms.”

Anchored by Spanish-born guitarists Jose Priesto and Victor Torres, Calé has been together for nearly a decade, during which they’ve performed live in a wide variety of settings, from weddings and tapas bars to traditional venues like The Grove of Anaheim, where they opened for Kenny G this summer. The Grand Annex concert will mark the group’s first San Pedro performance, although Torres notes that Calé has played nearby shows in both Long Beach (Cafe Sevilla) and Rancho Palos Verdes (Terranea Resort Lounge).

“I really believe our music transcends and translates across all platforms,” he says. “That’s why we have performed in almost every possible scenario throughout the country, with good response.”

For the uninitiated, Torres explains that the flamenco and Spanish classical guitar styles are “very different, yet similarly beautiful. Flamenco is more sentimental and aggressive, so you have to really express your passion, fire and feelings through the guitar or vocals or even dancing. We like to take people to a musical experience where passion, energy and sentiment are mixed together, and they can feel that they are part of it.”

Calé plays the Grand Annex (434 W. 6th St.) on Oct. 5 at 8 p.m. $20 advance tickets are available at GrandVision.org. For more information on the group, visit CaleMusic.com. spt

Runaway Production: A State of Emergency

The production and distribution of films and television programs is one of California’s most valuable cultural and economic resources, responsible for nearly 200,000 direct jobs and $17 billion in wages in the state. This doesn’t even include the value of seeing your backyard in a movie: priceless.

As a young boy, I remember going to Ports O’ Call to meet Tattoo (Hervé Villechaize), on set while filming Fantasy Island, and seeing Poncharello (Erik Estrada) of CHiPs ride his motorcycle down 19th Street.

More recently, I visited actor Joe Mantegna on the set of Criminal Minds as they filmed a flashback scene in front of the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro, and just last week Clint Eastwood stopped by my office for a visit while filming scenes for the movie version of Jersey Boys in the San Pedro Municipal Building. FilmLA, the nonprofit organization that coordinates and processes permits for on-location motion picture, television and commercial production in the Los Angeles region, reports the 15th Council District alone saw a total of over 600 permitted filming days last year.

The City of Los Angeles, including San Pedro and the Port, have often been the star setting of many productions, but in the last decade we have been losing that status and the jobs that come with it. Runaway film production continues to worsen, so much that our new Mayor, Eric Garcetti, has called the situation a “state of emergency” in a recent Variety magazine cover story.

As an example, the movie Battle: Los Angeles was not shot in L.A., but rather Louisiana, a state where film industry employment is up 76% in the last decade. The amount of on-location filming in Los Angeles has plummeted 60% since it peaked 15 years ago. Production of television dramas saw a significant 20% decline in 2012 compared to 2011. This is the largest decline on record and a hard blow to the local economy. Only eight percent of last fall’s new network television dramas were made in LA, compared to 79% seven years ago.

Making one $200 million movie in California has an economic impact greater than six seasons of Lakers home games, so we must do everything in our power to keep these productions here.

While the City Council has already passed a set of initiatives to waive fees for TV drama pilots and Mayor Garcetti has promised to name a “film czar” in his office, we must do more.

“These days studio chiefs insist that filmmakers they work with take advantage of out-of-state incentives to lower production costs, which on a single major motion picture can amount to savings of tens of millions. Those savings are crucial in a franchise-obsessed era when big-budget movies commonly cost north of $200 million to produce,” reports Variety.

According to Entertainment Partners, California lost $3 billion in film crew wages because of runaway production. As reference, a single $70 million movie sustains 928 jobs and generates $10.6 million in state and local tax revenue.

We must rival the out-of-state incentives. The California Film and Television Tax Credit Program has helped support local production since 2009 and has brought new projects to the Los Angeles region, but we must do more.

Evidence continues to mount that California can easily outmatch major competitors like Georgia, Louisiana or Canada for only a fraction of what they offer. Solutions to the problem of runaway production are available, if we want them.

I agree with Mayor Garcetti that the State Film Credit cap must be lifted. This will be the work of our State Legislature. I will urge my colleagues in Sacramento to also see this as a “state of emergency” and help us offer even more incentives for our entertainment industry to remain in Los Angeles.

On a municipal level, we must do what it takes to make it cheaper and easier to film in Los Angeles. I will continue to fight to keep Los Angeles the entertainment production capital of the world, and to preserve the jobs and economic benefits that come along with it. I urge you to support me in this effort.

I launched a redesign of my website www.LA15th.com. This new site will allow residents access to more information and is equipped to accept your suggestions and requests in making our city a better place to live and work. spt

Our Creative Corridor to a Stronger Economy

Last spring, on a local campaign stop, Mayor Eric Garcetti was asked for ideas on boosting San Pedro’s economy. He cited the usual harbor-related stuff you’d expect, but then he added another point that pleasantly surprised me; make San Pedro one of the creative corridors that exist in Los Angeles.

It shouldn’t have surprised me. According to the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Business Policy – “The creative industries are a major player in the regional economy, generating more than 640,000 jobs and over $200 billion in annual sales revenue.” Being creative is big business in L.A. and San Pedro has many of the necessary elements to be poised for making good on the mayor’s idea.

Much of the talent is already here. As a local filmmaker, I’ve personally collaborated on numerous projects with San Pedrans. As a matter of fact, I’m even developing a TV idea with San Pedro Today’s own Joshua Stecker (how many of you knew Joshua freelances for entertainment publications such as The Hollywood Reporter?) Our partner, Matt Misetich, manages Script Pipeline, a company that discovers and connects writers from all over the nation with Hollywood’s top producers and managers.

My greatest local collaboration to date was with San Pedran, Chris Burke, and his partner, Jared Cotton, on Bloody Thursday, a PBS documentary film that chronicles how West Coast longshoremen fought to win the ILWU. The film garnered us an Emmy, which has allowed us to go on and do numerous other projects.

It’s probably apropos that my first meeting with Chris was at San Pedro Brewing Co. because he and Jared just premiered a show called Brew Dogs for the new Esquire Network about a pair of hilarious Scottish brewers that travel America in search of great craft beer. And SPBC is at the center of numerous scenes in my documentary, A City Divided, about the USC vs. UCLA football rivalry, which premieres on Fox Sports in November. (And btw, Misetich has an office above SPBC, which seems to be fast becoming the center of the creative universe).

A great thrill in making Bloody Thursday was having a song in the film performed by Mike Watt. Ask almost any alt-rocker about San Pedro and they’ll tell you that it’s Watt’s hometown. Watt, the bassist in Iggy and the Stooges, was in the Minutemen, a seminal punk band at the forefront of a rock revolution that allowed musicians to control their own career fate with a do it yourself (DIY) ethos, which exists to this day. In fact, San Pedro’s Recess Records, headed by Todd Congelliere, has for over 15 years kept our town on the punk map with its DIY approach to promoting music.

However, punk isn’t the only form of music that’s emerged from San Pedro. For example, 2003 SPHS grads proudly watched the Grammys last February as one of their classmates took home a trophy. San Pedro’s Miguel Pimental won a Grammy for Best R&B Song, “Adorn,” and electrified the audience when he performed the song in a live duet with Wiz Khalifa.

In addition to all of the great talent that’s already here, I’m also heartened by the numerous opportunities that exist for local youth to help build our creative corridor. Marymount is constructing a state of the art production facility on 6th Street that will attract film students from all over the world. The Boys & Girls Club features an amazing studio that allows its members to record music, shoot short films, and create animation and 3D projects. San Pedro City Ballet nurtures the talents of young dancers and includes prima ballerina Misty Copeland as an alumna. And the Warner Grand Theatre is home to youth theatre company Scalawag Productions and Encore Entertainers.

We often discuss linkage between our downtown and the waterfront as a key factor in a sustainable economic future for San Pedro. I would propose that we also begin to include linkage between our local talent, youth and the creative industries of Los Angeles as a key strategy in developing San Pedro into one of the prosperous creative corridors that make L.A. the entertainment capital of the world. spt

A Film Festival For The Community

Ziggy Mrkich and Renee O'Connor, co-directorsof SPIFF (photo by John Mattera)

It was founded to celebrate the diverse culture and community of San Pedro, and after its successful inaugural event last October, the San Pedro International Film Festival is back for its second annual event.

San Pedro has always had a rich film history, in fact, several movies — the original King Kong, Chinatown, The Usual Suspects, Pearl Harbor, and (500) Days of Summer — and television shows — NCIS, Mad Men and Dexter — have been shot on the streets of the city.

It’s the films, and the community of San Pedro, that the San Pedro International Film Festival was founded to celebrate, and founder Ziggy Mrkich proved last year that she is up for the job.

Mrkich is no stranger to the film festival circuit, she has more than a decade of festival involvement on her resume, and after a successful inaugural event, she is “very excited,” for this year’s festivities.

“We had a very successful first year,” she says. “And I am dedicated to continuing this festival and continuing to showcase films, really good films, from the festival circuit.”

“San Pedro has a long and rich history in the cinematic arts. With dozens of feature films, television shows and commercials shot here every year, it’s fitting that we now are host to a festival that celebrates the city’s diverse culture and community, and its contributions to film,” says Los Angeles City Councilman, Joe Buscaino.

Last year’s event, which drew more than 700 people, was the Los Angeles premier of Silver Linings Playbook, starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. The film went on to win several major awards, including Lawrence’s Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.

“I was very surprised, but extremely happy to acquire the film as part of our first year,” Mrkich says. “We were very proud to have had the opportunity to be the first in the area to screen it.”

This year’s festival will feature screenings of both documentaries and short films. Mrkich says they received more than 550 submissions. One of the hardest parts of the festival planning is securing feature films for the weekend, she says.

“I handpick the feature films based on the attention the films are getting at other festivals, namely the Toronto Film Festival,” she says. “In addition, I really try to include films that are already getting Oscar buzz.”

She says oftentimes it is difficult to secure the films, but it’s this that makes her job “exciting.”

“It’s actually really very hard to secure feature films,” she says. “I do get a lot of ‘No’s,’ but programming isn’t easy at any festival, but it all works out in the end, you just have to know going into it that you will not get to screen every film you want.”

The workload lightened a bit this year for Mrkich when she brought Renee O’Connor on board.

The duo says the goal of this year’s festival is to “provide a service to the community by attracting new visitors to San Pedro, and exposing them to films they may otherwise not see.”

O’Connor, a director, producer and actress best known for her role as Gabrielle in the television series Xena: Warrior Princess, is facilitating the filmmakers for various panels. She says the panels will include information on producing small and large budget independent films.

“I am passionate about helping fellow filmmakers,” she says. “These panels will allow for future filmmakers to be in the same room as current filmmakers — it’s oftentimes hard to get into the industry, and this will provide an opportunity for people to share their experience of how they did it.”

The San Pedro International Film Festival is featuring screenings at the historic Warner Grand Theatre, as well as new outdoor screenings, pop-up screenings and a special screening aboard the newest addition to San Pedro, the historic Navy battleship, the U.S.S. Iowa.

In addition, Mrkich and O’Connor will be paying tribute to legendary filmmaker Tony Scott, who died in San Pedro last August.

Scott, a renowned presence in Hollywood, spent over 40 years working in the business, carving out a career as both a director and producer. Top Gun, arguably his best-known film, starring Tom Cruise, grossed more than $350 worldwide.

Scott also directed Days of Thunder (also starring Tom Cruise), Beverly Hills Cop II, True Romance, Crimson Tide (starring Denzel Washington), and Spy Game (starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt), among many others.

“The tribute will include a brief retrospective of Scott’s work and his contributions to the San Pedro community,” O’Connor says. “Tony Scott shot several films in San Pedro, and has a very strong tie to this community and we want to honor that, and thank him for his contributions to the city.”

Scott’s family, including widow, Donna Scott, is expected to be in attendance.

O’Connor and Mrkich say they are “overly excited” about this year’s festival. “This is the community’s festival,” Mrkich says. “We have an open door for people who want to volunteer or be involved — this is a festival for the community, and that is why we are including a local program.”

O’Connor says that anyone who has never been to a festival should experience it just once. “This is a great opportunity to come and experience what a film festival can create,” she says. “You can come in off the street and sit down and be right next to the person who wrote and directed the film you are about to see — it’s wonderful.”

Mrkich adds, “The San Pedro International Film Festival is a win-win for audiences and filmmakers. We support filmmakers by providing an audience and platform for films, and the audience can see films they otherwise might have missed.” spt

The San Pedro International Film Festival will take place the weekend of October 4-6 at various venues in downtown San Pedro. This special edition of San Pedro Today includes the complete program and schedule for the festival. For more news and info, visit www.spiffest.org.

Golden State Pops Bring ‘Star Wars’ to the Warner Grand

On the heels of its sold-out May celebration of noted film music label Varese Sarabande Records, the Golden State Pops Orchestra – which focuses on live concert performances of film music – will return to the Warner Grand on June 15 to perform the music of Star Wars, the same iconic canon the city’s only year-round pops orchestra tackled during its inaugural performance 11 years ago.

With founding conductor Steven Allen Fox at the helm, the 50-plus member GSPO will focus not just on the famous themes of the original Star Wars trilogy, but also its prequels and spinoffs such as video games and cartoons.

“The idea of developing a concert that represents Star Wars beyond the films was intriguing to us,” Fox says. “We knew that to make this concert truly represent the universe of Star Wars, we needed to hit everything we could.”

Still, the program’s highlights are sure to include the John Williams-scored “Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)” and main title theme, which are instantly recognizable to even casual fans of the Star Wars franchise. Accordingly, Allen – who has been a disciple of Williams since he heard the score to Steven Spielberg‘s 1991 fantasy Hook as a teenager – is excited about the GSPO’s return to its intergalactic roots.

“John Williams is arguably the best film composer ever, and Star Wars is one of the best scores ever,” Fox says.

During the fifth annual Cars and Stripes Forever! event on June 28, booming fireworks won’t be the only noises heard along the L.A. Waterfront. That night, Southern California-based Rumble King, who describes their sound as “New Orleans rockabilly,” will be among the acts providing the evening’s soundtrack – the non-explosive portion, at least.

This won’t be Rumble King’s first time playing the Port of Los Angeles, as two years ago, the group – which has shared the stage with such notables as B.B. King, Chuck Berry and James Brown over its 17-year history – performed as part of the Summer Concerts on the Waterfront outdoor concert series.

Vocalist and tenor saxophonist Shannon Scott Ramirez says the band is looking forward to making its Pedro return, especially considering the classic car-theme of Cars and Stripes Forever! “I think in every generation, you have certain kinds of people with old souls, and when growing up, you find people that have the same interests who seem drawn to one another,” he says. “That’s how Rumble King basically formed – old cars, old music and old souls.”

Ramirez is one of five members of Rumble King; the other members play baritone saxophone, piano, upright bass and drums, creating a “juke joint” sound – or, as Ramirez calls it, “rock n’ roll with no guitar” – that recalls the likes of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Last year, Rumble King – which will also perform at this month’s Ink-N-Iron Festival in Long Beach, another of the 50-100 gigs Ramirez says the group will play this year – filmed an impressive music video/short film for their song “I Still Adore You” (tinyurl.com/RumbleKingVideo), which Ramirez says has earned recognition at independent film festivals. Expect to hear that track performed live at Cars and Stripes Forever!, an event that seems tailor-made for a band like Rumble King.

“We all own rides and bikes and love the old soul vibe,” Ramirez says. “They don’t make ’em like they used to.” spt

 

The Golden State Pops Orchestra’s “Music From The Star Wars Universe” takes place at the Warner Grand (478 W 6th St) at 8 p.m. on June 15. Tickets, which range from $22.50 to $60, can be purchased at tinyurl.com/StarWarsGSPO.

“Cars and Stripes Forever!” takes place from 5-10 p.m. on June 28 at Harbor Blvd. and the Vincent Thomas Bridge. Admission is free. (Rumble King’s set time was undetermined at press time.)

Lights! Camera! Action!

Councilman Joe Buscaino and LAHIFF’s Stephanie Mardesich at the festival’s 10th anniversary press launch

Stephanie Mardesichloves movies.

If not for her passion for the cinema, the ebullient director and founder of the Los Angeles Harbor International Film Festival may not have been able to carry the event through to its 10th anniversary this year.

“A decade is a significant epoch and though I don’t feel older, clearly ten years has passed,” she says of the milestone.

As Mardesich describes it, the LAHIFF has always been a celebration of film. Unlike more relevant film festivals like Cannes, Sundance, South by Southwest or Toronto, which are geared towards new and independent films looking for distribution, the LAHIFF prides itself on celebrating films from both past generations and more contemporary times, with a strong focus on children’s education thrown in.

“The motivation to continue corresponds to the values instilled by my parents to persevere, to strive for excellence as its own reward, to be an individual of conviction, and to never give up on something or someone as long as there is some hope for a positive outcome,” says Mardesich. “It’s better to try and fail than succeed at nothing, as a friend once told me. In spite of challenges we have continued and now have a ten-year record.”

Back in 2003, the idea of establishing a film festival in San Pedro wasn’t a far-fetched one. The town already had an iconic theater to host it, perfectly set in the heart of downtown. Not to mention, San Pedro already had a rich history of being used as Hollywood’s backdrop. From classic films such as Chinatown, to popular current television series like Mad Men, San Pedro has become synonymous with film production.

“Stephanie and I were at a San Pedro Chamber mixer at Ports O’ Call Restaurant and we were chatting with the late Gary Cox about how San Pedro should have a film festival,” recalls Jack Baric, an original co-founder of the festival who has since stepped away. “Stephanie really took the conversation to heart and immediately started working on getting a festival launched. She has been generous enough to include calling me a co-founder, but truthfully she put forth all the effort in launching the festival and has kept it going since then.”

Left: Russ Tamblyn and Academy Award winner George Chakiris, co-stars of West Side Story, at the 2009 festival. Right: Mardesich with actress Betty Garrett and host Tom Hatten at the inaugural festival in 2004

The inaugural festival launched on April 30, 2004, and included such films as The Perfect Storm, the 2000 drama starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, based on Sebastian Junger‘s best-selling book, the 1949 musical comedy Neptune’s Daughter, starring Esther Williams, Betty Garrett and Ricardo Montalban, and an afternoon screening of Disney’s The Little Mermaid for the kids.

Other films featured at the festival throughout the decade include The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), South Pacific (1958), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), and West Side Story (1961), among others.

In 2006, the LAHIFF hosted the world premiere of Baric’s San Pedro documentary, Port Town, which brought a near capacity crowd to the Warner Grand that year.

“When I think of what the festival has become, I just think of Stephanie and how she has persevered in keeping it going,” says Baric. “It is not an easy thing to keep a festival running year after year and yet she has done it, which is a compliment to her passion.”

Mardesich’s other passion is education. Her late mother, Lee, was a teacher at Bandini Street Elementary School and instilled in her family the importance of reading. Mardesich used that inspiration to establish the “Read the Book, See the Movie” (RBSM) program, which has become the cornerstone of the film festival.

“From the beginning, it was clear LAHIFF should have an education element for students,” remembers Mardesich. “It’s so simple. Pick a book that has a film attached. We’ve been focusing on classic literature, but the choices are infinite. Read the book and talk about the differences in the two genres. It’s a more thoughtful way to encourage literacy.”

Every year, one film adaptation of a classic novel is chosen for the RBSM program. Publishing sponsors Penguin and Puffin Classics donated 1,200 paperback copies of the book that are distributed to students from middle school to adult education classes. Participating schools include: John & Muriel Olguin Campus of San Pedro High School, Dana Middle School, Rolling Hills Renaissance School, Pacific Lutheran School, Port of Los Angeles Charter High School, Mary Star of the Sea High School, and the Harbor Service Center (formerly known as San Pedro Adult Learning Center).

For newly-elected L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino, the RBSM program is what separates this film festival from the rest.

“‘Read the Book, See the Movie’ is my favorite element of the film festival,” he says. “My wife, who is a teacher at White Point Elementary, has participated in this program, and we understand the educational value that it delivers. LAHIFF’s commitment to San Pedro, its culture and its history, is important.”

Clockwise L to R: The LAHIFF’s 10th annual festival programing includes There’s No Business Like Show Business (1953) starring Donald O’Connor and Marilyn Monroe, Chased by the Dogs (1962) and Disney’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1993)

This year, the four-day festival takes place May 2-5 at the Warner Grand Theatre in historic downtown San Pedro, the heart of the Port of Los Angeles, beginning with a free screening of the RBSM film, Disney’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1993), starring Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy), on May 2 at 10:30 a.m.

“The story of Huckleberry Finn and his friend the runaway slave Jim, speaks to friendship, loyalty, and courage with an anti-slavery theme,” says Mardesich. “The timing of this classic choice with regard to the recent films Lincoln and Django Unchained is relevant considering issues of social responsibility and morality with historical reflection.”

The festival continues on Friday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m. with the opening night screening of Chased By the Dogs (1962), the film adaptation of the Egyptian novel The Thief and the Dogs by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz.

Saturday, May 4, marks the annual Hollywood Nostalgia Tribute night featuring Irving Berlin’s 1953 classic, There’s No Business Like Show Business, starring Ethyl Merman, Dan Daley, Donald O’Connor and Marilyn Monroe. The screening is preceded by the “Show Biz and Red Carpet Gala” at the Arcade Building, directly across the street from the Warner Grand. Tickets for the pre-show Gala are $75 ($65 if purchased before April 18), which includes admission to the film, an open bar, appetizers and buffet supper homage to 1950s cuisine. General admission to the film is only $10.

The festival concludes on Sunday, May 5 at 1 p.m., with its traditional “DocSunday” programming featuring the New Filmmakers LA (NFMLA) “On Location Program,” showcasing 22 short films made to promote the City of Los Angeles.

With its eclectic lineup, Mardesich is hoping to pull in audiences who appreciate various genres and who are open to viewing films they might never have seen before.

“Bringing out the audience is probably the greatest challenge of this festival,” admits Mardesich. “[My dream] would be to have a full house — that’s at least one third of the 1,500 seat capacity of the Warner Grand — at the programs. We’ve been fortunate to have several capacity crowds. That’s exciting, though not realistic in current times. When the movie palaces were built, there was an audience to fill the huge space. It’s rare for that to happen any longer, thus theatres like the Warner Grand have become multi-use venues.”

Even with a handful of loyal volunteers, the LAHIFF is still Mardesich’s baby. It’s rare that you spot her around town not wearing one of her many multi-colored LAHIFF t-shirts. Come marketing season, that shirt is usually accompanied by a handful of postcards and posters that she single-handedly distributes across town and throughout Los Angeles.

With continued community support from Congresswoman Janice Hahn and Supervisor Don Knabe, plus local business sponsorships, the LAHIFF continues to stay alive, even through challenging times. With a decade of experience, Mardesich still expresses hope that the festival will become ever grander and more relevant during the next ten years.

“It would be wonderful if an entity or sponsor had the interest to give their name above the title and bring an infusion of funds so there could be a paid administrator and staff and the festival could perhaps go to another level,” she says. “I would still want to be involved and advise so the mission is not distorted, however, the effort it takes now is very consuming and one of these days I might like to take a voyage elsewhere than on the cinematic bridge.” spt

The Los Angeles Harbor International Film Festival takes place Thurs-Sun, May 2-5. Tickets for all programs and reception will be sold online through Brown Paper Tickets, Williams’ Book Store (443 W. 6th St., Downtown), and at the box office (cash only) during the festival one-hour before programs start. General admission is $10 per program; $8 with discounts from select affliliations: GVF, LAMM, IDA, CMA, BAFTA LA and ILWU, and seniors and students. Prices subject to change. For full details, visit www.laharborfilmfest.com.

A Victory For Waterfront Development

On a Tuesday evening in September of 2009, I had the honor of spending a long evening together with many hundreds of San Pedrans, all passionate about the future of a town we love. We all crowded into a meeting room at Liberty Hill Plaza and stayed well past midnight for a Harbor Commission meeting on adopting a proposed development plan for our waterfront.

The 400-acre project was designed to give the community better access to the water – and it included a promenade that ran alongside the water’s edge, water cuts and downtown-adjacent boating slips, various pocket parks, fountains and plazas, an extended Red Car line, and several other public features that would create a great waterfront experience for locals and visitors alike. The plan passed unanimously.

This was not just a plan to beautify the area, but to aid regional economic development through the introduction of various new shopping, dining and convention facilities that would give Los Angeles a waterfront that could compare to places such as Baltimore, Seattle, and San Francisco. At its core, the plan created a pathway for the Port of Los Angeles to redevelop Ports O’ Call Village with 300,000 square feet now zoned for shops, restaurants, a convention hall and other establishments that would make our waterfront a regional attraction.

It was great, except for one glaring problem. We were smack dab in the middle of a recession and there were very few development projects being launched anywhere. I recall a sobering dinner during this period with a friend on the real estate board at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management who told me that he saw no chance of Ports O’ Call being redeveloped.

However, as the economy slowly started to rebound, the Port finally felt optimistic enough to put out a request for real estate groups to submit their qualifications to be chosen to negotiate the right to redevelop Ports O’ Call. Although the Port was optimistic, it was a cautious optimism – as one Port source told me, they realistically hoped for two or three groups to submit. However, much to their delight, the Port received eight bids.

Among the seven bids they reviewed (one group dropped out); the Port chose a group dubbed the Los Angeles Waterfront Alliance to earn the right of negotiating a development deal with them. In my opinion, it was a great choice.

The lead member of the group is real estate developer Wayne Ratkovich. I first became familiar with Ratkovich when I noticed his name on the Wiltern Center in the Mid-Wilshire neighborhood where I lived in the late ‘80s. I became interested because I automatically assumed that with his “ich” last name, he must share my Croatian heritage, but I later found out he was actually Serbian (can’t win them all).

Our ethnic differences aside, I experienced firsthand the positive effect of Ratkovich’s redevelopment of the Wiltern. It created a great place in my neighborhood to see a concert in a grand music venue, or eat dinner and have drinks in hip restaurant establishments. It became a must-visit destination for me and tons of my friends that lived and worked throughout Los Angeles and Hollywood.

I later learned that Ratkovich has a great reputation for redeveloping places that had seen better days, but doing so without losing the authenticity of what made those places special in the first place. I’m excited and can’t wait to see how he and his team will make Ports O’ Call new again while giving a nod to the heritage of our waterfront and community.

Ratkovich’s local partners on the project, the Johnson brothers, Eric and Alan, are also fantastic choices. Their company, Jerico Development owns several properties in downtown San Pedro that both retain historical authenticity and are well kept. Ask the business owners that occupy their buildings and you will learn that these are great guys that deeply care about our town and do their part to contribute to the shared success of the downtown community. For example, Alan’s wife, Liz, runs Grand Vision, the non-profit that played the lead role in the restoration and administration of the Warner Grand Theatre.

Congratulations to the Port and to the Los Angeles Waterfront Alliance. I, and all of San Pedro, can’t wait to see you make Ports O’ Call great again. spt

Jack Baric can be reached at jackbaric@hotmail.com.

2012: A Year in Review (December 2012 Cover Story)

Photo by John Mattera

It was a year of incredible change and transformation for San Pedro.

A year of gains, losses and continued tradition. The waters brought us a new resident, a home for artisans was built, and a new councilman was chosen to lead us. We faced the challenge of the land sliding beneath us, out of control skateboarders, and the constant threat of crime. We saw a lighthouse and a church reborn, milestones surpassed, and parking meters meeting their maker. Even through the good and the bad, when 2013 rolls around, history will look back on 2012 as the year it all started coming together for San Pedro.

The previous year did not end well. We were still reeling from the Paseo del Mar landslide that happened in November 2011. At the time, no one had any answers as to why the land toppled into the sea and we were still getting used to having a neighborhood divided by the ocean cliffs. And then things got worse.

Eva Tice

San Pedrans were stunned and saddened by the killing of Eva Tice, a 60-year-old mentally disabled woman who was stabbed walking home on Pacific Ave. from a Christmas Eve church service. Police would later announce a $50,000 reward for information leading to her killer, who fled the scene and still has yet to be found.

Photo by John Mattera

The good news arrived, when, after months of campaigning and a special run-off election against Assemblyman Warren Furutani, former LAPD Harbor Division Senior Lead Officer Joe Buscaino was sworn in as councilman of the city’s 15th District on January 31, replacing Janice Hahn, who won a seat on Congress the previous year.

Residents also freaked out for a bit when false rumors of a serial killer in the Harbor Area spread on Facebook. It turned out to be the end result of a game of telephone after a young woman was found slain in Wilmington.

Later in January, talks began about a proposed a skatepark in Peck Park. After months of planning, the project got a monetary boost from the Tony Hawk Foundation in October. Construction bids should go out this month. Supporters hope the project will be completed before overpass construction will temporarily close the existing Channel Street Skatepark later next year.

Speaking of skating, the increasingly familiar sight of packs of un-helmeted skaters “bombing” hills at high speeds in traffic around town became a forefront issue this year when Caleb Daniel Simpson, a 15-year-old from Palmdale, became the second teen to die engaging in the activity in San Pedro. A few months earlier, 14-year-old Michael Borojevich died after he crashed skating near 25th St. and Western Ave. The deaths gained widespread media attention and prompted officials to eventually ban bombing throughout the city in August.

In February, the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities announced its new home at the Warner Grand Theatre. In November, the theatre company announced an indefinite suspension, pulling out of the Warner Grand and leaving existing subscribers in the dark.

Photo courtesy of Boys & Girls Club

Students at San Pedro High School and the Boys & Girls Club got a visit from ballerina and alumnus Misty Copeland, a soloist in the American Ballet Theatre. Copeland returned to her hometown in February to share her experiences getting her start at the Boys & Girls Club and rising to the top of the ballet world, where she is ABT’s first African-American female soloist in decades.

After months of restoration work, St. Peter’s Church, San Pedro’s oldest place of worship, reopened its doors on Easter Sunday at its new home at Green Hills Memorial Park. Originally built in 1884, the church was moved to Green Hills in 2011, where it underwent badly needed repairs.

A much-improved Angels Gate Lighthouse was unveiled in April after a six-month restoration project spearheaded by the Cabrillo Beach Boosters, who fixed the lighthouse’s rusting exterior. Steel reinforcements, a new paint job and zinc coating were just some of the repairs made to help protect the lighthouse from erosion for another 25 years. The Boosters also hope to restore the crumbling interior in time for the lighthouse’s centennial next year.

Point Fermin Lighthouse also made headlines this year when in May, the federal government declared it to be surplus property, basically putting it up for grabs for new ownership. A handful of groups and nonprofits have applied, including the L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks and the Point Fermin Lighthouse Society. We’re still waiting to see who will be chosen to run one of San Pedro’s iconic landmarks.

Arguably, the biggest story of the year for San Pedro was May’s arrival of the historic battleship USS Iowa in the Port of Los Angeles. Only two years ago, the Port had rejected a proposal to berth the ship as a floating museum and tourist attraction. Robert Kent, who founded the nonprofit that spearheaded the effort, got the community to rally around the project, eventually getting the Port to come around. With funding in place and the Port’s blessing, the Pacific Battleship Center made a bid for the ship, and was later granted it by the Navy. Repairs were made in Northern California before the ship was towed to Los Angeles.

On June 9, the ship made its final journey down the main channel to its permanent berth as thousands of spectators on shore lined Harbor Blvd. The ship hosted a Veteran’s reunion and opened for public tours in July.

On the heels of the Iowa’s arrival, the Historic Waterfront Business Improvement District (commonly known as the PBID) put on a Swingin’ Salute Block Party in downtown San Pedro. Residents decked out in their 1940’s best came out for free swing music and dance lessons under new decorative lights crisscrossing over 6th St. The San Pedro Bay Historical Society also put together a series of historical window exhibits displayed in shops downtown.

Also in June, nonprofit Harbor Interfaith Services opened a new, three-story facility on 9th Street, where it relocated its headquarters and expanded services supporting struggling families.

Seven months after a 600-ft. stretch of Paseo del Mar slid into the ocean after a rainstorm, the City released a geotechnical report assessing the causes of the landslide and future of the site. Both natural and manmade factors like irrigation and wave erosion played a role in the slide, but no further ground movement was detected. The City later secured funds to stabilize and grade the area and install drains. Whether or not the road will be re-routed is to be determined with the input of a new 50-member community advisory committee appointed by Councilman Buscaino.

Photo by John Mattera

Another major story of the year happened in late June, when the first of two WWII-era warehouses near 22nd Street Park re-opened as Crafted, an indoor craft marketplace dreamt up by the same developer as Santa Monica’s successful Bergamot Station. With a 35-year lease, dozens of vendors and far-reaching media coverage, Crafted has already proven to be a one-of-a-kind regional draw. After gripes about its $5 parking fee, Crafted gave away free one-year parking passes to local residents and later offered free parking on Fridays.

After planning this year’s Taste in San Pedro festival for Ports O’ Call Village, the Chamber of Commerce announced its cancellation in July. It would be the first summer without one in more than a decade. The Taste wasn’t the only foodie event cancelled this year. Weeks later, organizers of the Ćevapčići Festival announced its cancellation due to lack of funds. It was especially a bummer since the Balkan sausage fest had some big press lined up. The Port’s annual Lobster Festival went on as usual, drawing thousands of sea foodies to the waterfront.

In early August, an 18-year-old former Mary Star of the Sea High School running back confessed to stealing cash registers from several businesses on Western Ave and Gaffey St. He ran into a slight problem when his dad recognized him on the surveillance video that made the media rounds and convinced his son to turn himself in.

More than 600 parking meters were axed in downtown San Pedro and Wilmington this summer, a move by Councilman Buscaino’s office after a study concluded they did more harm than good. Rates on remaining meters also went down. Business owners had long complained that the overabundance of meters and rate hikes discouraged consumers from shopping downtown. The issue was a talking point in the special election to replace former Councilwoman Janice Hahn.

This year’s Navy Days went much smoother than last, drawing 5,000 people over the course of two days (2011’s event was longer and larger, causing a traffic nightmare and long lines). Tour goers got an inside look at the USS Wayne E. Meyer destroyer and the Coast Guard Cutter George Cobb.

The same weekend, reports came pouring in of a man spotted jumping off the Vincent Thomas Bridge shortly after 12:30 p.m. on August 19. A few hours later, Port police announced they had recovered the body of Top Gun director Tony Scott, whose car was found on top of the bridge with a note left inside. His suicide drew national media attention. A coroner’s report later confirmed that contrary to reports, he was not battling cancer at the time of his death.

Photo by John Mattera

Thousands of young San Pedrans went back to school weeks earlier than usual this year, part of an early start schedule adopted by the L.A. Unified School District that’ll have them out for summer in early June (they were originally slated to get out by the end of May, but Prop. 30 changed that). This was also the first year for the new John M. and Muriel Olguin Campus of San Pedro High School, an environmentally innovative annex campus built to relieve overcrowding at SPHS. Shortly after school started, there was a bit of a traffic controversy in the surrounding neighborhood.

Also in August, San Pedro native and LAPD Deputy Chief Patrick Gannon announced his retirement after 34 years on the force. A few months later, he took a new job as Chief of Airport Police at LAX.

Seventeen-year-old Monica Bender, a senior at Mary Star of the Sea High School, made headlines when she swam the 20-mile Catalina Channel the last week of August.

After a string of residential burglaries over the summer had residents on edge, eight new police officers were assigned to LAPD Harbor Division to help curb property crime. Police eventually arrested an 18-year-old San Pedro man linked to one of the crime scenes.

Astronaut and first-mom-in-space Anna Fisher returned to her hometown in September for the fundraiser opening of Harbor Day Preschool. She also took time to speak with students at several high schools. In other San Pedro space news, the ashes of Allyson Diana Genest, an avid Star Trek fan from San Pedro who died in 1999, were sent to outer space with Space X’s Dragon launch in May. It was her dying wish.

Who could forget the refinery burn-off freakout on September 15? When a power outage set off a controlled burn-off at the ConocoPhillips Refinery in Wilmington, shooting flames and smoke high into the air, many residents wondered if there was a raging blaze to worry about. Some later filed complaints about pollution emitted during the burn-off.

On a related note, the Rancho LPG facility on North Gaffey Street – those two big gas tanks across from the Home Depot – got in trouble with air quality officials after neighboring residents reported smelling what turned out to be a gas leak in October. The facility has been subject to criticism and protest from neighboring residents for decades. Councilman Buscaino held a hearing addressing their concerns earlier this year.

Also in October, the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Los Angeles Harbor and Point Fermin Elementary School celebrated milestone birthdays, turning 75 and 100, respectively.

On Columbus Day, eight new inductees were honored at the annual San Pedro Sportswalk to the Waterfront. Later that the day, hundreds gathered outside the Italian-American Club for the councilman’s first Buscaino Block Party and Spaghetti Dinner.

After the Port put out a call over the summer for commercial developers to fix up Ports O’ Call Village, it announced in October that eight had taken interest. A decision on a developer should arrive early next year.

The San Pedro International Film Festival made its debut in October, screening dozens of films and hosting workshops.

On October 10, San Pedro Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, Betsy Cheek, announced her resignation after not having her contract renewed by the Chamber Board of Directors. The Chamber will begin the search for a new president/CEO early next year.

Many San Pedrans were bummed when organizers of the Railroad Revival Tour announced its cancellation weeks before it was set to roll through town (2011’s sold-out Mumford and Sons performance drew thousands to the waterfront). Willie Nelson, Band of Horses, Jamey Johnson, and John Reilly and Friends were set to perform at Ports O’ Call Village on October 27. Band of Horses still wanted to play however, putting on a show at the Warner Grand Theatre the same night instead.

Congresswoman Janice Hahn defeated Congresswoman Laura Richardson in early November in the race to represent California’s newly drawn 44th Congressional District.

Yet another version of the proposed housing development for the long-abandoned Navy housing property along Western Ave. surfaced in early November. The new Ponte Vista is more scaled back than previous incarnations and includes additional lanes to address traffic concerns that have shot down the project in the past.

This month, of course, marks two San Pedro holiday traditions, the 32nd Annual Spirit of San Pedro Christmas Parade, and the 50th L.A. Harbor Holiday Afloat Parade.

We know we missed a few items of note from the past year, but we couldn’t fit everything in. Needless to say, it’s been a year of intense change and challenges. Let’s hope 2013 is just as exciting and full of positive, forward thinking progress as we continue to push San Pedro towards a more prosperous future.

They Shall Be Missed

Sadly, we also lost a number of notable San Pedrans this year. Here’s a list of noteworthy deaths:

Steve Saggiani, longshoreman
Rudy Svorinich Sr., community leader and father of former Councilman Rudy Svorinich, Jr.
“Cheerful” Al Kaye, owner, Union War Surplus
Dr. H. Michael Weitzman, optometrist and philanthropist
Tom Phillips, painter of iconic San Pedro scenes and landscapes
Joseph M. Mardesich III, entrepreneur
Stancil Jones, longtime fire captain
Joe Caccavalla, Tri-Art Festival founder
Ray Patricio, community leader and nature preservationist
Dr. Jerry Blaskovich, dermatologist
Tony Perkov, owner, Ante’s Restaurant
Geoff Agisim, sea chantey singer
John Greenwood, school board member, community leader
Cindy Rutherford, owner, Century Motorcycles
(apologies to those we may have omitted by accident)

Check My Custom Machines

Ron Binkley photographed with his latest project, a canary-yellow 1938 Cadillac La- Salle, 2-door Opera Coupe. (photo by Valerie Electra Smith-Griffin)

The layers in-between the lip-smacking cake that’s our town are its people, such as Pedro-blooded Ron Binkley, a non-stop cars and electronics tinker who once played a mean electric keyboard and danced the night away with an alluring woman known only as Midnight at the now vanished Canetti’s Restaurant.

It’s a typical gray mist-laden morning, and Binkley replaces the baritone, two-tone foghorn once known as “Moaning Maggie” with the commanding startup of his most reliable 1971 Ford Torino Station Wagon, its wheels whirling off to San Pedro’s Sacred Grounds, his personal haunt for his ritualistic cup of high octane. It’s a happening destination where he celebrates the day with relished camaraderie consisting of long-time friends and his kids who enjoy sharing the day with Pappy. After toasting the sunrise with Columbian and cream, he returns to his home that’s chockfull of cars, a mish-mash of machinery and a plethora of photographic memories spread across a thick wooden table that is laden not with salt and pepper shakers, placemats and artificial fruit, but hundreds of faded Kodacolor, sepia-tone and grainy black and whites of cars, machinery, wars past and family, collaged and creating a watercolor wash that are the festive colors of Binkley, whose lead foot is glued on the accelerator pedal of life; his fervor for all things cars, and the restoration of engines and drive trains ever-smoldering.

The Gilbert Electric Train Set, Slinky, or that extra special toy packaged with a barrage of sexual curiosity questions, the Doctor and Nurses Kit, magnetized many kids of the 1940s but not necessarily so for our mechanical-minded Binkley. Reflecting on his mother’s memory, Binkley says, “In 1940, at the age of three, I found car parts in an alley and, using a board, rolled them up into my crib.” For Binkley, his fascination with vehicles and machinery visibly evolved from a curious childhood habit into a lifelong emotional, and some might add, spiritual attachment.

In his early teens, Binkley worked as an usher at the Warner Grand Theatre where he played piano for the 1950 movie premier, South Sea Sinner, which also starred Liberace. Other jobs included Howard Cross Auto Repair and 7th Street Garage. In 1959, his strong interests in electronics and aerospace were further stimulated at Ryan Aeronautical Company, best known for building Charles Lindberg’s “Spirit of St. Louis” for his illustrious 1927 transatlantic flight. Always one that harbored a now realized yearning to witness man’s flight to the moon and beyond, he worked on the Doppler Radar for the Lunar Lander until he was drafted into the army, then returned to Ryan and onto Vickers Aerospace as an instrumentation technician on the Gemini Space Capsule. He retired in 1998 as foreman of the Radar and Antenna Restoration Division in the Electronics Weapons Facility at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard.

Binkley’s cars read like classic commercials from Cal Worthington and his fantasy dog Spot, but unlike Worthington, he won’t stand on his head, and don’t expect to see a Smart Car, which to Binkley, is an abomination of the greatest kind. As we peruse his aisles we see his 1968 Buick Special complete with a Buick 350 V-8. Interested in a 1931 Model A, or perhaps a Ford 1955 F100 Truck? The head-turning 1947 Cadillac Fleetwood Convertible that was advertised last week flew off the lot, but that snazzy 1938 Cadillac 75 series Coupe that was one of forty-two cars ever built, and survived the London Blitz, is waiting for you to drive it away, as is the 1964 1/2 Mustang and the 1940 Cadillac ’62 series with a L-Head V-8.

“My cars must have noise, that’s why I install duel exhaust and headers on all of them. It’s like beautiful music to my ears,” says Binkley.

Perhaps a 1974 Plymouth Gold Duster is more to your liking, or a head-turning 1969 purple Cadillac El Dorado with a no-nonsense 472 engine. Yearning to nourish your inner diva? Try an eye-popping 1961 Chevrolet Impala Convertible, it’s the one Binkley used to chauffeur former Councilwoman Janice Hahn in the San Pedro Christmas parades, and it comes complete with a 348 V-8 engine and 4-barrel carburetor. Still perplexed as to what honks your horn? Try a 1938 Cadillac La Salle Opera Coupe, complete with a 1942 military tank engine, or its earlier LaSalle cousin from 1937. If you crave a 1936 Ford 4-door sedan with the 1949 Olds V-8 and 1937 LaSalle transmission, sorry pal, that one flew off the lot as fast as its scorching wheels could go.

In addition to the artful cars just mentioned, Binkley is also the proud owner of two, 700 pounds each, solid stainless steel, early model nuclear submarine periscope foundations, complete with floor plates that display 360 degree markings. Perhaps they’ll eventually come in handy as lawn statues. Seriously, pink flamingos are so yesterday.

Binkley reflects on his prize car. “Without hesitation, one of my favorites was the one I purchased from Cecil Thomas and Sons on Pacific Avenue in San Pedro. A 1936 Ford 4-door sedan for $49.” Being the modification surgeon that he is, he rebuilt the engine with an Oldsmobile overhead valve V-8, a rear-end from a 1941 Cadillac LaSalle transmission, duel 4-barrel carburetors and a drive shaft from a 1932 Cadillac V-12. The track of Lions Drag Strip (1955-1972) in the Wilmington district, adjacent to Long Beach, whose slogan was “Drive the Highways, Race at Lions”, paved the way for the revamped car. “My lifelong friends, Billy Stecker, the late Jack Stecker, Frank Iacono and Tom Taros are 1940s and 1950s drag racing world icons and without Taros, all the hot rodders wouldn’t have a place to go.”

Lions Drag Strip is now a ghostly image in Binkley’s rearview mirror and his Canetti’s nights are kept alive in lively remembrances at Sacred Grounds with friends who frequently slip in a friendly barb of, “Can’t you find another subject besides cars to talk about?” Ignoring the question, he downs his final sip of Columbian and cream, eager to make a mad dash home and determined to breathe new life into his latest project, a canary-yellow 1938 Cadillac LaSalle, 2-door Opera Coupe. Care for a ride anyone? Take Binkley’s word for it, once you hear the engine roar and caress that velvety burgundy mohair interior, you haven’t lived! spt