Cory Sparkuhl and friends: visionary filmmakers 

By MAGGI HENRIKSON
Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Did you ever wake up in the middle of the night with an idea that you’re sure could become a movie? …Then with the light of day comes the reality that it’s just not going to happen. 

Cory Sparkuhl is the kind of guy who has had those storied visions – in the middle of the night, in the middle of school, while skateboarding, while looking toward Main Beach from his Laguna office. But he’s one of the rare people who actually make those dreams become reality. When you can share that vision and show it to the world, that’s where the rubber meets the road.

These days Cory is one busy guy, working with his film team at Sparkle Films, sorting out crews and locations. He smiles, “I’ve found my right niche.”

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Cory Sparkuhl (right) with Cyrus Polk (left) and Shannon Belknapp, 

of Sparkle Films

A spark is lit

Laguna is the hometown where Cory grew up with not exactly a plan, but rather a passion for the pursuit of his dreams. His pursuit began from the age of eleven. 

“Riddle Field was my stomping ground with Little League, big cassette tapes, and cameras,” he recalls fondly. 

He started filming in earnest by doing skateboarding videos. That makes a young Laguna lad happy, but the ultimate goal would be to make a little money too. “I thought, if only I could make a living at that, I’d be happy.”

He’s happy now – but it didn’t come easy.

“I used to want to be an actor,” said Cory. “Stage plays, and stuff… But I was better at telling people what to do rather than being told what to do.” He adds, “I love it, directing people and telling them what to do!”

After graduating from LBHS in the not-too-distant year of 2002, Cory went on to pursue his passion at Orange Coast, then to post production school, studying in Burbank the latest in film editing software programs. 

“I learned a lot when I was young, like [editing program] Final Cut Pro, but the industry is about learning something new every day.”

He did some of the inevitable “grunt work” in LA, and then found his way back to Laguna and a position with local renowned filmmakers, McGillivray Freeman Films. “It was exciting,” Cory remembers. But he still needed to augment his income by delivering pizza for Gina’s. Ultimately this go-getter did find his niche.

“Finally I got so busy with production, I started Sparkle.”

A collaborative effort

Sparkle Films is the culmination of passion for the project, knowhow, and joining together with likeminded, hardworking visionaries – who just happen to be good friends.

Cory tells us that the team at Sparkle Films is made up of a group of great minds. There’s Trev Howard, “He’s been my coach, and given me good pointers on business tips.” Trev is the man for storyboarding and script. Then there’s Cory’s longtime friend, Cyrus Polk, who is Sparkle Film’s cinematographer, editor and additional drone operator. Growing up, Cyrus was a skateboarding friend who also had a passion for photography and film. “He’s my right hand man,” says Cory.

 “We’ve been friends for more than a decade,” Cyrus chimes in. “Cory started this when I was in school in Utah. We joined forces, and we love what we’re doing.” In the future, Cyrus plans that they’ll just keep on growing. “We want to keep on entertaining everyone. And take it to the next step!”

“He’s a great asset,” says Cory. “I’ve got a great team. Collaborating goes a long way.”

And then there’s another hometown connection: Shannon Belnapp. Shannon helps Sparkle Films with marketing, social media and accounting. She was also one of Cory’s best buddies in high school. 

“One of my best friends!” he laughs now. “Then randomly we got together later – my whole life has changed!” 

Of course it has – they are now engaged to be married.

Cory smiles, “When you get together with your best friend, it’s the best thing in the world.” 

Truer words were never spoken.

A body of work

A big part of real estate promotions, and a big part of Sparkle Film’s work includes filming with drones, a thorny subject in Laguna Beach. Of course Cory has approached it in a legit way, having received a special certification, which incorporates training, guidance, rules and guidelines. His fiancée got her pilot’s license for remote pilot command, “So she could be my spotter,” he explains. “We need two sets of eyes.” Cyrus also serves as a drone operator.

The offices of Sparkle Films are right in downtown Laguna – jammed with equipment and desks overflowing with projects and production notes. There’s a bed on the floor for their other good buddy, Sheba. “She’s our little mascot,” Cory says with a scratch on the doggie’s ears.

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The crew busy at work at Sparkle Films, while Sheba takes it easy

Sparkle Films has been in business now for seven years. Their projects vary – from several films for the Festival of Arts and Sawdust Festival promotions, to commercials, to real estate corporate videos, and everything in between – from Laguna to LA. They’ve got multiple projects going on at once – generally five to six projects simultaneously.

“Every time we think it’s slowing down, it starts up again,” says Cory, grateful for his growing business. 

Cory’s dad, a long time Festival of Arts artist, originally advised his son to spread his wings into regions more friendly to a burgeoning film career. He said, don’t do it in Laguna, go to LA – but Cory followed his heart. He laughs because now his dad says, “You’re pretty much working in spite of me!”

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Cory filming and Cyrus operating a drone for aerial footage

At the ripe old age of thirty-something, Cory has gained film production wisdom gleaned from many years of experience. “After 3-400 videos your eyes open to a way to produce: a formula for each.” 

It’s a kind of alchemy.

A Festival film release

The latest Sparkle Films project is a follow up to one near and dear to the art heart of Laguna – the Festival of Arts. At first they did a film for the creation of the façade two years ago. The follow-up, just released, is a time lapsed video that covers the Festival ground’s yearlong transformation.

Since Cory’s dad has been a sculpture and painting artist at the FOA for more than 25 years, Cory felt the intimate connection to FOA as part of his roots. “It’s so interesting being a part of the progress and evolution – it is evolving.” 

Sparkle Films used aerial imagery, time lapsed footage, and even cameras mounted on the worker’s bodies, giving an in depth perspective of the whole process. The film encapsulates the immense effort and time required to complete the new and improved Festival grounds.

“It’s history unfolding before your eyes,” as Cory puts it. 

The film is the culmination of many perspectives. “It’s one of the best projects we’ve produced,” said Cory. “I’m so proud of it. It was a year long in the making.”

Without further ado, click here to view the FOA film:

 

https://vimeo.com/224088569

 

The latest Sparkle Films project, one year in the making.

A future in features

Cory likes the storytelling part of filmmaking, and ideally he and the team would like to start making feature movies. 

“I have ideas for scripts for full-length movies we have in mind,” he says. “We hope to produce movie trailers and ways we can pitch to big distributors.”

Filmmaking techniques change rapidly in these times, and Sparkle Films is up for it. Digital is what’s taken it to the next level.

Cory says. “Everything is quicker – but it’s all about the story. Indy films, those are the things I’d like to do.

“Indy films are the best – ones that don’t always get seen. Everything is too fancy now. I like that old school feeling.”

A place that’s home

There’s no place like Laguna for Cory and Sparkle Films. 

“I went to Santa Barbara, to LA, but this is just a magical place,” he says.

He enjoys being in the town he grew up in – running into people he knows. On a bad day he likes to go jump in the ocean. 

“Being by the beach is just good for your soul. It’s home sweet home. Always will be.”

In his free time, and even in not-free time, Cory enjoys the company of his fiancée, Shannon. They are what he calls simple people, “We like movies, we like to go to the beach, go hiking, …go the farmer’s market, do juice.”

Meanwhile, look for him with the crew, often at work around Laguna. They’re busy bringing to the screen those visions the rest of us can only dream about.

For more information about Sparkle Films, with some great footage of Laguna Beach, see their website: https://www.sparklefilms.net/


Gail Duncan: She took a long and winding road to get to The Art Hotel

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Although it was a long journey in both time and distance, the road Gail Duncan took eventually brought her to Laguna Beach. It’s not a path she would have chosen to take, but she is happy because it led her to The Art Hotel. 

Apparently, it wasn’t the trajectory Gail envisioned for herself as a young woman. She was born and raised in Detroit, MI, and once she graduated from college, imagined her career would be in the field of counseling. She’s passionate about bringing out the best in people and helping them identify what their gifts are (and aren’t). 

But her father, owner of one of the 104 largest Ford dealerships in the country, had different ideas. He wanted her to head the company. And she did, for over 30 years, starting in 1974. Back then, it was a male dominated culture, a difficult one to navigate, says Gail, “Women couldn’t even be members of the Lions Club or Rotary Club.” 

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Gail Duncan, from president of a car dealership to hotel proprietor

As president of the car dealership, she traveled extensively. “My favorite places are Sydney, the South of France, and Laguna,” she says. While staying at the Ritz Carlton during a Ford junket 17 years ago, she discovered Laguna. On a subsequent trip, and with no hotel experience (and having no idea that she would ever be in the business), she acquired the hotel, which at the time was called America’s Best Inn.

For the next eight years, Gail traveled back and forth from Detroit to Laguna. Then in January of 2009, she dropped the hotel franchise and renamed it, “The Art Hotel.”  Gail says, “Being in Laguna, I was surprised no one had chosen that name. The name draws a lot of artists.” And it attracts more than just artists. During the last Playhouse season when King of the Road was playing, the widow and children of Roger Miller stayed at the property. And she has artists from all over the world check in.

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Murals adorn exterior of The Art Hotel

Once on site (Gail lives on the property), she threw herself into redoing the hotel and being of service to the artist community and the city. From her travels, she knew what she wanted in a hotel experience, and she translated that into The Art Hotel. There are no extra fees, guests pay when they check-in and then turn in the keys when they leave. The prices are affordable and there is no charge for pets.  She reserves rooms 101-107 (out of the 28) for furry creatures. Gail says, “I don’t charge for children or pets.” 

Art exhibited in rooms

To assist in the exposure of artists, Gail transformed the sleeping rooms into what could only be described as private galleries, each featuring six pieces of work from an artist, and the artist’s information. “The artists receive 100 percent of the revenue from their work,” she says.

Both inside and out, the atmosphere of the hotel morphed into what it is today. On the hotel’s exterior, individual murals decorate the upstairs balconies (the first one is of Marilyn Monroe), and a long mural is painted on the left and above when entering the parking lot.

However, the most spectacular murals surround the pool. In September of 2014, award winning local artist Randy Morgan (it’s his mural on the Waterman’s Wall on the side of Hobie’s Surf Shop) came to repair one of the existing murals and suggested that was the pool area was the perfect place for another mural, one honoring Laguna’s history. 

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Main Beach Panorama mural by Randy Morgan (Seal Rock on right)

The bronzed stucco mural took more than a year to complete. Main Beach Panorama, which was dedicated in May 2016, depicts the Hotel Laguna, Main Beach lifeguard stand, Greeter Eiler Larsen, and as an homage to Gail’s father, replicas of cars from his collection (one being an Edsel). On the adjoining wall, Morgan later created Seal Rock, which honors the founders of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. These two murals combine to make Laguna Panorama.

Gail gives back to the community

In her service to others, Gail has devoted no less time and effort to the City of Laguna Beach than to the artistic community. Giving back isn’t new to Gail. She was active in the United Way and the Chamber of Commerce while living in Detroit. 

Shortly after arriving in Laguna, Gail started going to City Council meetings, and eventually became a member of the Housing and Human Services Committee and is now in her third term. She is also on the Development Committee for the Laguna Playhouse. Gail says, “We need people and a village to make us more powerful. You can’t do anything by yourself. Get your mind off yourself and be a blessing to others.”

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The Art Hotel, established in January 2009

In this vein, she’d like to mentor the next generation. “It’s all about legacy. I’d like to teach what I’ve learned at my age to 20-year-olds.”

Currently Gail’s passion is 211 OC, a one-call referral source for free and low cost services county-wide. As a proponent of this resource, she has succeeded in having it added to the Laguna Beach City website under Housing and Human Services.

Evolving atmosphere of The Art Hotel

It’s clear that Gail has changed the atmosphere of The Art Hotel, but in her service to the City of Laguna Beach, she has contributed to its quality as well. And she has more plans for the hotel next year. She’ll be hosting Art Walks and bringing in guest artists.  

When asked if she still travels, Gail says, “I love it here.” But during lulls in business, she travels to visit her two daughters and two grandchildren. 

Gail claims that her passion is finding and encouraging other people’s gifts, but in making the journey from president of a Ford dealership to self-taught proprietor of The Art Hotel, and dedicated servant to the community, it’s evident she has discovered her own gift. 

Gail says, “If you’re going to be here, be of use.” And she is living evidence of her mantra.


Keanu & Zen Mir-Scaer: Writing about riding waves

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

If you want to find Keanu and Zen Mir-Scaer, a good place to look is at the beach. These 10 year-old twins are all about the water: skimboarding, surfing, stand up paddling -- you name it. If it’s in the water, they like doing it. In this way, they’re pretty typical Laguna kids.

A picture book about boarding

What sets them apart from their peers, at least at the ripe old age of ten, is their ambitious undertaking to write and self-publish a book about the sport they love the most: skimboarding.  Titled “Skim Stories: Riding Waves,” this children’s picture book details just what skimboarding is – in rhyme, no less. 

Zen explains that he and his brother were motivated by the questions they got repeatedly from bystanders while skimboarding. “People would always say, ‘Wow! That looks like so much fun. What is it? Surfing…?’ We’d tell them it was skimboarding. This happened so much we decided to write a book about it.” That was two years ago.

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Keanu and Zen Mir-Scaer, ten-year old competitive skimboarders and authors

Tenacity leads to a communal effort

Two years is practically an eternity for kids this age and yet they stuck with it. Their mom, Naz, is clearly a very important factor in this. A guiding force both in and out of the water, she seems to have struck a nice balance between prodding the boys forward and letting them step away from it when they needed a break. The project has grown beyond just the boys and their work, evolving into a truly communal project.

They have a graphic designer (Gabriella Kohr), a videographer (Skyler Wilson), and a photographer (Tyler Brooks) all committed to the project. Laguna residents Blair Conklin, world number one ranked skimboarder, and Paulo Prietto, former world champion skimboarder, have also gotten involved, offering their support and encouragement. Naz says, “To have the number one people in your sport take an interest truly drives a person to do their best.” 

Additionally, Rip Curl in Laguna will be hosting an Art Walk event for the project and the boys’ skimboard sponsor, Exile, has also been supportive of the boys’ efforts. “It became real,” explains Naz. “We didn’t want to let other people down.” 

A successful Kickstarter campaign

As the project became more “real”, Naz and the boys found they needed some extra resources so they started a Kickstarter campaign. Coincidentally, during our interview, they discovered they’d reached their fundraising goal of $2,000. The smiles on Naz and her sons’ faces spoke volumes about how much has gone into this project. 

The money means a lot, says Naz, because even though everyone involved agreed to give their time for free, now they can be paid. She says she and the boys feel really good about being able to compensate them. “It’s just right,” she says. 

Two years of writing and sketching, over and over

No one could have guessed the scope of the project when Zen and Keanu first sat down with this labor of love. It clearly helped that the project became a school project (both boys are home schooled). Nevertheless, it would have been so easy and, frankly, quite understandable if the book ended up being nothing more than a few pages sitting unfinished in a drawer. 

“Our first version was really, really different,” explains Keanu. They would work on it and put it away and then pick it up again when the mood struck. “As they became stronger writers, they’d look at what they did before and go, ‘What?! I wrote this!’” says Naz, while the boys nod in agreement. When asked what was the hardest part of the project both boys unanimously agree that it was both writing and now illustrating the same thing “over and over” until they were satisfied.

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Keanu catches a wave down at Oak St. on the first day of fall

The launch date looms

In the spring of this year, Naz says the writing portion was finally completed.

“Enough is enough. They’re only ten!” she says with a laugh. “We felt we could do the illustrations, but the form was the hardest part. Again, they’re ten so getting things like the shoulder blades and the dimensions right was really a challenge. But the feedback we got was that people liked the way they did it.” 

They’re under the gun to get it all finished so the book can launch before Thanksgiving. Then they can say it’s finally done.

With such looming deadlines, it’s important to note that neither Zen nor Keanu is tied to their chairs furiously fine-tuning their illustrations. The boys are still getting plenty of beach time. They have two skimboard competitions coming up so skim time is essential. 

Skimboarding is not only fun, it’s a good metaphor for life

The boys have been skimboarding for five years. They both remember their first competition well. “I got last in my first heat,” remembers Keanu with a laugh. Naz says she has preached the philosophy of tennis player Rafael Nadal. “He says he doesn’t worry so much about beating the other person, but just trying to be better than himself.” These kinds of lessons are good for all competitors, but especially twins who compete against one another. “I just want them to understand their unique style and focus on being their best as opposed to beating (their) brother.”

“One last good ride” is the family motto

These lessons are paying off. Keanu says after their first competition, “I just wanted to make it to the (medal) stand once.” Both boys have more than succeeded in that goal. More importantly, skimboarding, according to Naz, has taught the boys a very valuable lesson. “It’s not about how many times you fall, because you always fall when you skim. It’s about getting back up and continuing to try. When it’s time to go (home from the beach) we always say ‘One last good ride.’”

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Zen shows his stuff on his first ride of the day

Circumventing “no” is just another lesson learned

The same philosophy of keeping at it not only extends to the creating of the book, but to the publishing of it as well. Publishers and agents, while receptive, were not convinced of the book’s marketability. The boys remained undeterred and self-publishing became the way to get it done. The boys started an Instagram account titled “Skim Stories” to help market their efforts and then, later, their Kickstarter campaign. “Now they’re learning about the whole process,” says Naz enthusiastically.

Shining a light on an “underappreciated sport”

And readers of the book will get a full understanding of what skimboarding really is. “We wanted people to see it’s really people riding waves. It’s an underappreciated sport,” says Naz. The hope is that Keanu and Zen’s book will help change that. If nothing else, Keanu and Zen will have created and shared a lasting work of art they can be proud of. 

“I liked writing the book,” says Zen. “And doing the art was fun.” Keanu adds, summing up the creative process quite succinctly, “I think how easy it is and then also how hard it is to get it right.” The boys are already talking about their next project. “It’s a controversial subject right now,” laughs Naz. 

Whatever the boys decide to do next, one thing is certain: “Skim Stories: Riding Waves” is already a huge success, regardless of how many copies are sold. “This project is such a cool symbol of Laguna Beach. It brings together art and skimming, two things Laguna is really known for. It has all played out so beautifully,” says Naz.


Anneliese Schimmelpfennig, founder of Anneliese Schools: A belief, hard-earned, in things that endure

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photographs by Mary Hurlbut

There are few long-time Laguna residents who haven’t heard of Anneliese Schimmelpfennig. Or, at the very least, heard of her magical Anneliese Schools, which will celebrate their 50th anniversary next year. But her backstory is something most people may not know. She grew up in Germany, under the fog of war, enduring hardships even the strongest adults would find difficult to bear. Her childhood – both heartbreaking and heartwarming – motivates every aspect of her teaching and the philosophy behind her schools.

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Anneliese Schimmelpfennig, a woman with a kind heart after a difficult childhood

Born into a world at war

Anneliese knows what it means to suffer. Two weeks after her birth in 1939, the world went to war. Her father, a German officer in the military, was sent to a Russian gulag in Siberia. He would be gone for twelve years. Some of those years, no one knew if he was dead or alive. 

Her mother in Tussling (Tüßling), a small village in Bavaria near the Austrian border, began taking in refugees. Eleven people moved into their modest home, sharing what little food and space they could find. 

Then, in 1943, Anneliese’s mother made the brave and dangerous decision to harbor three Jewish people (and a cat) in their attic. They stayed for 18 months. “The cat couldn’t even say ‘meow,’” Anneliese says. 

Anneliese brought them whatever food she could – blueberries, oak nuts, apples, potatoes – still not old enough to fully appreciate the risk. When the Americans arrived in 1945, their guests began screaming. “Just screaming,” Anneliese says. “I didn’t understand. But now I know they thought they were caught.”

Growing up in the shadow of the camps

A concentration camp stood nearby in Mühldorf, less than five miles from Anneliese’s small village of Tussling. Mühldorf was a satellite camp of Dachau. As a young girl, Anneliese would steal apples and sneak them under the fence for the prisoners. When caught by the guards, she would act deaf or disoriented. “You had to be very smart,” she says. “It doesn’t help to be an intellectual if you don’t know life.”

 Reading people, and situations, is something she came to rely on very early.

“I saw the people going into the camp. I still remember the sound of the trains that brought them in, all those people looking out at me.” 

Liberated at last

In 1945, the war ended. Anneliese recalls Americans arriving in helicopters, bringing her bubblegum and white bread, delicacies she’d never known. “The Americans were really nice to children,” she says. “Some were only 19 years old, children themselves, and cried when they saw us.” They brought milk powder, and opened the restaurants to give out things to eat. 

“I thought then,” Anneliese says, “I will go to America and teach children to be peaceful. Always talk things out. I’ll teach them not to be nasty and crying and wimpy.”

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Anneliese creates magical and inspiring spaces, a contrast to her own upbringing

Her father’s own fight

At some point, Anneliese’s father escaped and walked his way to the Volga River. He made it, inexplicably, from Siberia to the Black Sea before he was caught, returned to the gulag, and given an additional five-year sentence for his crime. 

Anneliese speculates that the reason he wasn’t shot on the spot was because he had taught himself Russian, and the Russians took note. He would sing and dance for the officers, keeping them entertained. And so, against all odds, they let him live.

“This is why I teach the children so many languages,” Anneliese says. “Even if you only know the basics, and how to say a few things without an accent, it can save your life.” 

Her father’s happiest nights in captivity, he said, were spent in the pigpens. The guards would sometimes throw him in, forcing him to eat with the pigs. Little did they realize he considered this a treat. Pigs were fed potatoes and bits of meat, far better fare than his usual diet of stale bread. 

At night, the Russians drank vodka, ate bread spread with pig fat, got drunk and decided which German they would shoot that night. But he confused them by speaking Russian, and they liked him enough to keep him alive.

Anneliese was twelve the first time she met her father. By the time he came home, he was emotionally and physically spent. He didn’t speak for three days. His feet wrapped only in newspaper, his body starving and skinny. “He taught me to always have hope,” she says. “Even if he had such a sad life, he was never grouchy.”

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Anneliese’s father taught her optimism in the face of adversity

Battle of the books

As a child, Anneliese wasn’t allowed to read. Her mother burned books. She also didn’t allow Anneliese to attend high school, reasoning that school brought no money to the family. Worse yet, imagination and mental escape were dangerous. “Books opened a different world to you, and she didn’t want that,” Anneliese says. The same was true for toys, which also evoked ideas. Practical skills, like mathematics, were the only things of value in a country that had to build itself anew. “I made math problems in the dirt with a stick.”

This austere upbringing shaped the way Anneliese approached teaching, in both the elements she chose to retain and in those she adamantly rejected. “I don’t baby them,” she says. “It’s not good for them.”

 Anneliese considers herself strict with the children. Love, combined with self-discipline, is her governing philosophy. “It’s very hard on me to see children so spoiled here, and not appreciating what they have. They should be happy for every single thing.”

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Anneliese creates the childhood she never had for the children.

An enchanting education

The atmosphere of the Anneliese Schools is magical. And that magic is intentional. Antique furniture and Persian rugs, plenty of plants, art objects and paintings – the spaces look more museum than school. It’s a place out of time, more European than American, free from technology and full of natural beauty. Each campus is nestled in a magical environ around Laguna – the beauty of the beach, the serenity of the canyon, the history of Manzanita Drive.

Anneliese insists on a certain rigor and, within that rigor, she gives the children a lot of room for self-expression. Wooden toys, organic foods, eco-gardening, mud play, an emphasis on multilingualism are all non-negotiable elements of her philosophy. Children are given a wide range of responsibilities, and a deep sense of trust and love.

She also emphasizes etiquette, stressing respect for elders, animals, and each other. And she tries to protect the children from a culture of consumption. “It’s difficult for me here because things get wasted. At restaurants, things get wasted. It’s very hard to see.” This is the reason for the wooden toys. Anneliese believes in things that endure, and rejects buying the latest, greatest gadgets. Simple, basic wooden toys that stimulate a child’s imagination, this is something she believes in.

Around all her properties, you’ll encounter a lot of animals: goats, llamas, pigs, swans, chickens, rabbits, peacocks and a dog named Odie. The animals are both therapeutic and stimulating, and they provide children with another way to communicate with the natural world.

“People always ask when they come from a different school, ‘Is this a hippy school?’” Anneliese laughs. “It’s not. It’s a little freer. Children can make some decisions.” But as you can see, she tells me, she’s not a hippy.

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Anneliese in her Manzanita property with her dog, Odie.

A love (and need) for language

Language is, indeed, an integral part of the Anneliese School’s curriculum. Five native speakers teach Spanish, French, German, Italian and Japanese one day a week. Mathematics is taught primarily in German, as it makes more sense to the students. 

Anneliese speaks three or four languages herself. “English is my worst language,” she says. “It was forbidden in school, the language of the enemy.” It was a language she wouldn’t acquire until she came to the United States at 27 years old.

An optimistic outlook

Anneliese wants to leave her students with a sense of optimism and endurance. Her advice: be independent and take a little risk. “Always be kind and optimistic,” she says. “Negativity destroys you. Don’t ever give up.”

Never has a woman had to practice so much of what she preaches. Anneliese embodies that spirit of optimism and determination. And she will leave that legacy to generations of lucky children.


Leif Hanson and Steve Blue: Friends with a shared cause create the annual Night at The Ranch

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER 

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

It was volleyball that brought friends Leif Hanson and Steve Blue together, way back when they were kids at Thurston Middle School. Hanson arrived from El Morro Elementary, Blue from the since-closed Aliso Elementary. When their paths converged at Thurston, a friendship formed. “When we got to Thurston…well, we’ve just been friends ever since,” says Hanson.

Volleyball sparks a lifelong friendship

The two were teammates at Laguna Beach Volleyball Club and Laguna Beach High School, but as with most high school friendships, upon graduation the time came for them to part ways. Hanson headed off to the University of Hawaii and Blue to Stanford where their volleyball careers continued. 

 

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Leif Hanson, circa 1977 Laguna Beach (submitted photo) and Leif now (this photo by Mary Hurlbut)

Hanson’s volleyball career continued post-college as he played on the pro beach volleyball tour. Blue went a different direction, earning a Master’s degree from Northwestern that had him in Chicago for five years, then the Bay area, before eventually returning to Laguna 12 years ago, where they renewed their friendship. 

Looking for a cause

Surprisingly, that renewal turned out to be a boon for a local non-profit.  Around the time of Blue’s return to Laguna, Hanson says he was feeling compelled to get more connected with his hometown. “I had been looking around to do something. I wanted to get involved and give back,” explains Hanson. With so many great causes, Hanson nevertheless says it wasn’t hard for him to decide where to put his efforts.

Lengthy ties to Laguna and The Boys and Girls Club

“The Boys and Girls Club seemed a natural place. I went there a lot as a kid. It helped keep me off the streets, “ he adds with a laugh. The youngest of five to a single working mother, Hanson says when he was younger the Boys and Girls Club (The Club) provided supervision for him while his mom worked. When he got older, the Club became the place to hone his basketball skills. 

Blue also played basketball at the Club as a kid. Fortuitously, he was also interested in “doing something.” Having put on a large charity event for his company, Blue says he was looking for something more personal.  So when Hanson approached him, it was an easy sell. “I thought it was a great place to give back,” says Blue. “Until I went back and visited I didn’t realize how much the Club does for the kids it serves. It’s amazing,” he says.

Finding inspiration for a very “Laguna” event in Malibu

But what to do? Hanson says the idea for the event came to him when he saw a poster for a Boys and Girls Club event in Malibu. Ziggy Marley was playing at a fundraiser and Hanson thought the casual yet fun vibe would translate well to his hometown. “There they have a lot of celebrities. But in Laguna we know a lot of athletes and people just from growing up here,” he says. Blue jumped on board.

Dinner, music and a totally different vibe from other events

The Boys and Girls Club was enthusiastic about his idea, says Hanson. By the time he approached them it was pretty fleshed out: there would be dinner, “Something a lot more casual than (the Club’s biggest fundraiser held at) the Montage. I’d already discussed doing it with Mark Christy (of The Ranch). I thought we could do something – make it fun, have it be casual and at that beautiful location…all with the live music.”

Thus, Night at the Ranch benefitting the Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach was born.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Leif Hanson and Steve Blue prep for their Night at The Ranch event

While totally on board, The Club cautioned they couldn’t really support Hanson and Blue’s event financially. “They told us ‘We will back you but we can’t give you any money.’” Undeterred, Blue says, “We just felt that a lot of locals would like it, the way we liked it.”

The first Night at the Ranch is deemed a success

Pulling from their volleyball roots, the first year of the event they chose to honor Rolf Engen, founder of the Laguna Beach Volleyball Club. “It was very athlete/volleyball centric,” says Hanson. Pato Banton provided the music. “It was a huge success,” says Hanson. The night brought in $70,000.

On year four, the commitment and enthusiasm is still strong

While undertaking such an event once is a big commitment, “once” was never an option for Hansen and Blue. “I did some research before I started this,” explains Hanson. “I talked to some friends who are really knowledgeable about this kind of thing. They counseled me that if I was going to get involved I needed to keep it going.” And he and Blue have. 

This is the event’s fourth year. Hanson says he figured he and Blue would run it for three to five years and then turn it over to someone else to chair. Surprisingly, “We haven’t thought about letting it go,” says Hanson. “It has been really enjoyable.” And beneficial for the Club. Blue says the event is now factored into the Boys and Girls Club annual budget. “We’re second in terms of their fundraising,” he adds proudly.

From $70,000 to $200,000: every year just more success

Through the years the two have incorporated what they’ve learned, streamlining the “business” of the event (it is, after all a fundraiser) to maximize the fun with the idea that people will want to come back. The strategy seems to be working. The event, deemed a huge success when it grossed $70,000, brought in $200,000 last year.  This year’s event, scheduled for Friday, September 22 at The Ranch, could sell out. 

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

A group of kids enjoy the freedom at The Ranch at Laguna Beach

This year a potential milestone: a sell out

 “Our cap is 400 people,” explains Hanson. “We could be selling out which would be very exciting for us.” The English Beat is headlining. Beyond the dinner and the music, there is also a golf tournament (open to the first 36 players who sign up) for $75 and a post-party with local deejay Laura Buckle. The last day to buy tickets is Wednesday, September 20.

More meaningful than just writing a check, and a lot harder

Both men say they have relied on friends to help make this event the success it is. However, the bulk of the work still definitely falls on them. “The month before it gets difficult,” admits Hanson. “We’re both juggling a lot but we’ve gotten it figured out.” However, both men agree it’s much more rewarding than simply writing a check.

Inspired by gestures, large and small

“The best moment I have had doing this,” remembers Hanson, “is when (Laguna Beach resident) Peter Barker bid on (Laguna Beach local) Dain Blanton’s Olympic jersey. He bought it with the highest bid and then turned around and gave it to Dain’s mom who was in the audience.”

 “The idea is to have an unusual experience that you can’t find anywhere else,” explains Blue about the Night at the Ranch event. But as Hanson’s “best moment” shows, it’s really about people stepping up for other people – something Leif Hanson and Steve Blue have done in a very big way.

(For more information about the event and to purchase tickets, visit www.bgclagunabeach.org.)


Catherine Hall – Her model for retirement is service

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Just after sitting down with me, Catherine Hall, who is a past president of the Laguna Beach Garden Club, confesses she plants fake succulents to fill in the blank areas in her front yard planter box. A startling revelation from a prior recipient of The Club’s Gardener of the Year. I immediately like her. 

(She later admits, “I’m nothing if not pragmatic and it is the truth. They are mixed in with live plants where real ones simply would not thrive!”)

 “I am not sure what you are interested in, as my ‘life’ is not that interesting!” says Catherine. “I’m a serial volunteer and a ‘Nana.’” But after two and a half hours talking with her, I beg to differ. 

Catherine relocates to Laguna

No need to explain how she ended up in her role as “Nana” to two grandsons, her daughter took care of that. But how Catherine ended up in Laguna in 1996 to begin her life as a “serial volunteer,” was a result of her husband’s work. For two decades, they lived in Leucadia in North San Diego County in what she describes as her “dream house,” and she thought they’d never leave. She made the move on a five-year plan, determined they would go back to Leucadia.

But plans don’t always work out and here they are, twenty-one years later. And now her daughter and two grandsons live close, in Dana Point.

The relocation to Laguna presented an opportunity for a big change. Although at that point in her career, she wasn’t working full time, Catherine gave up consulting. She was in Engineering, and her last project was designing a three-dimensional graphic display system. 

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Catherine Hall, serial volunteer and Nana

So, Catherine and her husband came to Laguna and purchased a fixer-upper here in town. Yet after investing the time and energy into the remodel (which was her job for a while), she discovered, “Not having a work identity didn’t suit me.” 

She started joining things. “I just threw myself at it,” she says. One of her early dips into the volunteering pool was with the Garden Club. “It was the first organization I was committed to, and I decided that was it. I took a master gardening class and became a master gardener, but once I found the Assistance League, I was fully committed to them.” 

Catherine is still a member of the Garden Club. “I never miss the opportunity to volunteer as a docent at our spring garden tour. We meet monthly and our next garden tour is May 4, 2018. A very friendly group (gardeners are just the nicest people) that meets monthly and has lots of activities whether your thumb is green ornot.”

Finding her passion at The Assistance League 

In 1998,she joined the Assistance League, and that again evolved into more thanvolunteering. Although Catherine is no longer in a leadership position, until recently she served as vice-president of philanthropic programs and chair of their Early Intervention Program(EIP), and she is still a member. She was on the board until this past June.

The current president is Carrie Joyce and the current director of the Early Intervention Program is Marilyn Coll, both local ladies. Living in Laguna is not a membership requirement, however.

“I was fully committed to their service programs,” Catherine says. “I especially love the EIP.”

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Volunteer working with mom and twins at Early Intervention Program

In existence since 1976, the EIP of Laguna Beach is a collaborative program with Assistance League of Laguna Beach and the Intervention Center for Early Childhood. It is designed to provide group-based therapy for developmentally delayed infants from birth to one year. 

Catherine says, “We received the Community Partner Spotlight Award in 2017 from the Down Syndrome Association of Orange County. This was an acknowledgment of our long-term commitment to serving the Down Syndrome community through our Early Intervention Program.” 

EIP is just one of the AL’s many programs, as I find out. 

“If there is a need that someone is not addressing, they try to fill that need,” Catherine says. “They do a lot, but quietly.” 

A busy and rewarding time

Since 1975, the Assistance League has been donating funds for Laguna Beach High School scholarships.  Catherine says, “Last year we gave $35K to graduating seniors at LBHS. In 2016 we gave $25K and we gave an additional $10K in 2017.” 

At the LBHS Scholarship Foundation reception for donors in June, Assistance League received the Outstanding Service Award, which Catherine was on hand to help accept the award for.

“Last year was busy,” Catherine says, “and I’m embracing the breaks.” During August, the EIP closes, so it’s given her a breather.

During this lull, she and her husband went to Pebble Beach for the Concours d’Elegance (a gathering of prestigious cars). They go every couple of years. And apparently, you can take the woman away from the “service,” but you can’t take the “service” out of the woman. Catherine volunteered to work at the event to help a friend who is involved in a charity that benefits from the Concours. 

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Catherine designed her beautiful backyard

“The Carmel-By-The-Sea Youth Center provides volunteers for the Pro-Am Golf Tournament and for the Concours. In return, these events donate to the CYC,” Catherine says. “It is a wonderful way to donate some time and enjoy the events. Check out their website for more information. It is also a great model for hosting big events with volunteers. From shuttle drivers to concessions to planning support, many talents are needed.”

Even with so much of her time devoted to service, Catherine manages to have some fun and relax. She and her husband (who is not fully retired) enjoy going to their cabin in Lake Arrowhead, where she likes to kayak on the lake in the early morning hours. In June, they were there to celebrate the end of high school with two nieces and a nephew, who will soon be leaving for college.

Time for summer fun

She especially loves spending time with her daughter and two grandsons, who are four and eleven. The summer included a trip to Disneyland, Legoland, and a visit to Universal Studios (mostly for the Harry Potter attraction, her older grandson just read two of the books, and the trip was his reward), and then to City Walk, where she watched them skydive indoors at I FLY. 

Aside from all the fun she’s having with her grandsons, Catherine says, “My model for retirement is service. I want to make the world a little better in every way I can. We need a lot of that now.” 

Between the volunteering, which doesn’t at all appear to be “serial,” and her role as “Nana” (which requires a substantial amount of service), Catherine’s life doesn’t sound anything like retirement. And it is an impressive model, to say the least.


Kelly Boyd: Part of a remarkable Laguna legacy

WRITTEN BY: Samantha Washer

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Mayor Pro Tem Kelly Boyd is a third generation Lagunan. Not many people can claim that. He has been here his whole life, minus a stint in Vietnam. “I was there in ’66 for a year and then came back.” Leaving Laguna was never something he contemplated. “Our family has been here since 1871,” he says simply. “It’s home.”

A commitment to “Laguna Beach of Early Days”

To honor his family’s history, Boyd recently re-published a book that his grandfather, J.S. Thurston, wrote back in 1947, “Laguna Beach of Early Days.” It took Boyd two and a half years to get this labor of love back out in circulation, but he did it. 

“He (J.S. Thurston) was a farmer in his 70’s when he wrote that. Ben Brown’s was his first settlement.” The book, according to a blurb from The History Press, tells of Thurston’s  “personal account of growing up in Laguna and presents an intimate look at the settler’s hardships, relationships and perseverance.” Boyd’s connection to this town is long, and it is also deep.

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City council member Kelly Boyd relaxes at his home in Laguna Beach

Making sure the Marine Room stayed in good hands

He is on the final year of his fourth term serving on the city council (the first term was back in 1978-82) the other three have been consecutive. During his third term in office Boyd was diagnosed with bone cancer. “My oncologist told me, ‘Right now, you don’t really need to worry about things.’” In other words, eliminate what stress you can.

So Boyd, who had owned the Marine Room in downtown Laguna since 1987, decided to sell it in 2012. “I decided it’s time; it’s time to sell. I approached Chris Keller because he’s a local guy. He has had it ever since, and he’s a great guy.” 

As for his city council duties, Boyd stayed on. “I’m sure there were some people who were hoping I’d resign,” he says with a laugh. But Boyd fought through his treatment and is now feeling strong (his cancer is in remission).  

All good things must come to an end, even public service

Nevertheless, when his term ends, he says he’s not running again. “I’ve enjoyed being on the council. Eleven years…it’s at the point of burnout.” He and his wife, Michelle, bought a second home in the desert. Boyd says he’s looking forward to spending more time there, without the need to rush back for a meeting or other city business. 

In 70 years, Laguna has changed…a lot

And while he may seek some well-deserved down time in the desert, rest assured he will come back, even if the Laguna he comes back to is vastly different from the one of his youth. With 70+ years under his belt living in the same place, one can forgive Boyd if he looks back fondly on the good old days and a bit skeptically at the present ones. “I think it (Laguna) has changed a lot and not necessarily in a good way, in my opinion,” he says. 

Changes outside the city greatly impact things inside the city 

The things that irk Boyd are pretty much the things that irk all of us: traffic, high housing prices, empty storefronts. It’s just that while some of us may remember when there was less traffic, Boyd can remember a time when there was no real traffic to speak of. 

Back in the day, Boyd says when he and his brothers needed school clothes, it meant driving all the way to Santa Ana. “There was nothing out there but orange groves.” Over time, the orange groves gave way to tract homes. “What’s really affected the city is everything that’s been built up behind us.” And there is just nothing anyone can do about that.

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Some Boyd/Thurston family history (Boyd as a child, lower, far right)

Longevity can provide a different perspective on the City Council

Sometimes his long history with Laguna puts him at odds with his fellow council members. Take the Marine Life Protection Act, for example. A lifelong waterman (Boyd was the Jr. Surfing Champion 1957), Boyd is not a fan of the city’s fishing ban. 

“My brothers and I were fishermen. They’re taking the little guys like us and hurting us,” he says. The problem, as Boyd sees it, is with the boats hauling the big nets. He was the lone dissenting vote in opposition to the ban. “I’m the only one (on the council) who grew up here and knows the ocean. My problem is once the government takes control of something they never let it go. They’re probably never going to reopen these areas and to me that’s wrong.”

Laguna’s one middle school honors Boyd’s family legacy

But one can forgive Boyd if he at times can sound a bit cranky about the state of things. In his lifetime Laguna has grown from a sleepy art and beach community into a global vacation destination. He remembers when the elementary, middle and high school were all on Park Ave. It’s also worth noting his grandfather donated the land for Thurston Middle School and it was named in honor of his grandmother.

Some of the best parts of Laguna never change

And yet some of his favorite things remain the same. “I love the community. I love what it has stood for: the arts community, the Pageant, the Festival. I was in the Pageant when I was a kid – we all were. That was fun! Everybody was into it.” 

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Boyd and his wife Michelle will celebrate 35 years of marriage this month

A big thumbs up for the city’s management

He is also enthusiastic about how the city is being run. “In my opinion, John (Pietig, City Manager) has put together a great management team; the best I’ve seen in 11 years.” He credits Laura Farinella, Laguna’s Police Chief, for her handling of the protest two weeks ago. Apparently, another one is in the works for September. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says about the animus between groups today. “To me, it’s really scary. I don’t think it’s healthy. To quote Rodney King, ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’” he says with a shrug.

Boyd pleased that he’ll be the Mayor when his final term in office ends. “That’s how I want to go out,” he says. “I just hope that in 2018, an election year, Laguna remains civil. The turmoil in Washington DC is drifting to a local level. It’s not good.”

A year to celebrate impressive milestones

Why can’t we all get along, indeed. This a question Boyd will leave for others to solve. “It’s time to let other people, younger people be heard,” he says, As for him,  “I think I’m going to be glad to get out of here,” he says with a smile. He is celebrating 35 years of marriage to his wife, Michelle, this month, yet another thing for which he is grateful.

And that’s not the only celebration he has planned. He’s hosting a 55th class reunion at his house, “For those who can come. There aren’t a lot of us left,” he says with a laugh. 

Boyd’s longevity as a public servant puts him in a very elite group. Laguna is the better for his loyalty and service.


Victoria McGinnis: Living a life of symmetry

WRITTEN BY: Samantha Washer

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

There is a symmetry to Victoria McGinnis’ life. With two homes and two careers, she seems to like things in pairs. But it goes even further than that. Her two careers, though seemingly different, are actually quite similar, at least the way McGinnis approaches them. She has found her place both on center stage as a performer and behind the scenes as an editor/director/producer. The performing part seems to have been pre-ordained; the other speaks to her resourcefulness.

A performer from the start

As a native New Yorker, McGinnis began performing with her father, a big band drummer and orchestra leader, at the age of three. “It was at the Riverboat Room, a posh supper club in the Empire State Building. He had given me the direction, ‘After you finish singing the song, I will gently squeeze your hand and that is your cue to leave the stage.’  Well, I finished the song, he squeezed my hand, but I made like I didn’t notice. He kept squeezing my hand. I looked up at him and he saw in my eyes the way I felt, how much I loved being there. He then turned to the audience and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have a bit of a problem, my daughter doesn’t want to get off stage!’ The audience roared! I loved it!” she recalls. The two began regularly performing as a duo when she was 16. 

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Victoria McGinnis, singer, editor, producer, director and Laguna Beach resident

A graduate of Fordham University, McGinnis studied theater. “I was always in front,” she explains. Center stage is someplace she feels very comfortable. Her introduction to the behind-the-scenes world arrived after she graduated.

Being nice wins her a ticket to the mailroom

 McGinnis says she took a job at a production company doing voice-overs. One day she got a strange request. “They asked me, ‘Can you sit in our mailroom and handle the mail?’ The mailroom person had quit.” Not jumping at the chance to sit in the mailroom, McGinnis says she reminded them she was their voice-over person. “Why did you ask me?” she remembers questioning. “They said, ‘Because you’re nice,’” she recalls with a hint of exasperation.

A poor candy selection is a motivator

Once in the mailroom, McGinnis says, “I was bored. They had a bad vending machine, bad candy. So I started researching vending machines.” She says she found machines that were better and cheaper. The office manager was all for it. 

In her enthusiasm for securing better snack food for herself and co-workers, McGinnis says she decided to take charge. “I sent out a global voice mail asking what kind of candy and stuff people wanted in the vending machines. It went to everyone, the head of the company…everyone. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed do that,” she says ruefully. The office manager was stricken. “She was telling me, ‘You can’t do that! You might get fired.’ I was scared to death!” remembers McGinnis. 

Her quest for better candy pays off

 Later that day, just like in the movies, she saw the head of the company heading her way. This, she assumed, was not going to be good. He approached her, “Are you Victoria in the mailroom?” She says she remembers feeling pretty confident that she was going to be fired on the spot. Instead, she recalls, “He shakes my hand and passes me a slip of paper with a big smile on his face and says, ‘I’ll take M&M’s.’“ After that people started hiring me as a production coordinator,” she says with a laugh.

Editing is an “aha moment”

She didn’t stay a production coordinator for long. An editor at the production company she worked for invited her to watch him edit one of his projects. “It was an ‘aha’ moment. Editing images together is so much like putting two notes together. I couldn’t get enough of it,” she says. In six months after watching and learning, she was hired as an editor. “I was with that company for four years,” she says. She has since added producer and director to her resume, in addition to editor.

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Victoria McGinnis in her element at GG’s Bistro

Victoria’s bicoastal aspirations began in 1997 when McGinnis came to Laguna Beach for the first time after her father passed away. Not only had she lost her father, she had lost the other half of her act. Obviously, it was a very emotional time. A friend, sensing McGinnis’ need to get out of New York, invited her to Laguna Beach.  “New Yorkers think southern California is all just LA,” laughs McGinnis. Her friend convinced her, “’It’s better than LA!’” 

Finding Laguna at the right time

On the drive home from John Wayne Airport, McGinnis says it was nighttime. They drove through the canyon, down Broadway where, ahead of her in the distance, she saw nothing but blackness. Questioning her friend about this strange phenomenon, she was told it was the ocean. “What?!” McGinnis says, recounting her surprise. “I didn’t realize it was right next to the ocean!” If timing is everything, then the timing was right for McGinnis to find Laguna. “It was an amazing week for me to find this town – so lovely, liberal and open.” So she started to seriously consider living here, as well as NYC.

In 2003 she made that a reality and got an apartment in town. She maintained that same apartment until she bought a home here two and a half years ago. She explains she used to divide her time seven months in New York and five months in Laguna. Since the home purchase, however, that ratio has shifted to favor more time in Laguna.  Her partner, Tori Johnston, is a 20-year Laguna resident originally from Scotland. “She had four daughters when I met her so now together we have four daughters. All Laguna Beach girls,” says McGinnis proudly.  

Putting down roots in Laguna inspires a desire to get involved

Since becoming a homeowner, McGinnis says a newfound desire to get more involved in the community promoted her and Johnston to become Board members of Chhahari, a local non-profit that runs an orphanage in Nepal. To hear McGinnis talk about the kids who reside there, whom she hasn’t met personally and only knows through the videos she edits from other people’s footage, is to hear a woman passionate about this cause. “I feel like I need to meet them,” she says emphatically. She and Johnston are looking to do just that in 2019. McGinnis proudly tells me their eldest daughter has already been there.

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Victoria McGinnis is an exceptional multi-tasker, singing and playing percussion

Laguna is becoming her own personal musical

For now, McGinnis is more than content to perform her standing Wednesday night gig at GG’s Bistro in addition to performing regularly at the Sawdust Festival, and other gigs around the southland. “I’ve been at the Sawdust a lot and I love it! There is such anonymity in New York. It can be very lonely. Here, in Laguna, it’s amazing for me. So many people walk by and wave. And at GG’s, with the great locals…There are nights where everybody’s singing ‘You Make Me Feel So Young’…It’s how I’ve wanted to live my life. You walk down the street and everybody’s singing.”

A father’s words ring true

Apparently, her father, who never visited the west coast, was right when he told her, “Dolly, (he called her Dolly) you belong in southern California. You love the sunshine. That’s where you should be.” And while she is by no means relinquishing her New York ties, she says now home is where her house and family are. “I feel like I’m finally a local. I feel like I’m really settling, really enjoying things.”


Kid Crusader:

Eight-year-old Ryan Hickman’s Trash for Cash campaign benefits PMMC to the tune of thousands

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Eight-year old Ryan Hickman entered the world wanting to make it better. From the time he was tiny, he was obsessed with trash – collecting it, sorting it, recycling it, and using large portions of his proceeds to give back. His cause of choice is the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC). In just over a year, he’s donated nearly $5,000 for the care and treatment of the seals, sea lions and elephant seals rescued by the PMMC.

“Ryan’s enthusiasm and commitment to recycling is remarkable,” says Michele Hunter, the Director of Animal Care at PMMC. “He’s like a star. Every time he comes in, we all start shouting, ‘Ryan’s here! Ryan’s here!’”

At age three, Ryan accompanied his dad to the local recycling center to cash in some bottles and cans. That trip transformed his short life. The next day, he announced his plan to distribute bags to friends, family and neighbors, encouraging them to save their recyclables for him. Little did he know where it would lead.

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Ryan is passionate about recycling – and sea lions – luckily for PMMC

Ryan’s passion became infectious. He soon had everyone he knew – and many he didn’t yet know – contributing to his cause. Neighbors told their co-workers, teachers told their friends. Now Ryan has clients all over Orange County. He makes the rounds each week, collecting cans and bottles from businesses. He sorts, cleans, crushes, and packs them to make those regular trips to the recycling center. 

“There’s never a day when he doesn’t want to recycle,” says his mother, Andrea Hickman. “Even in the pouring rain.”

“Except holidays,” Ryan says. “I need to take holidays off.”

All that collecting has translated to more than 251,000 cans and bottles, or 56,000 pounds of recycling. Recently he broke his own record for a single trip to the center, earning a whopping $542. It pays to recycle.

Student as teacher

“Before I met Ryan,” says Andrea, “I didn’t know anything about recycling. Now we just installed solar panels in our home. That’s all because of what Ryan has taught me.” 

Ryan recognized all that trash was ending up in our ocean, threatening the environment and endangering the marine life. And if there’s one thing Ryan loves next to garbage trucks and recycling, it’s animals. So he’s taken his message across the globe, encouraging kids just like him to protect the planet, letting them know – no matter how young or how small – they can make a difference.

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“Whenever he comes in, we all start chanting “Ryan’s here! Ryan’s here!’”

Ryan receives letters, messages and phone calls from around the world. He recently Skyped with students in Bali. They asked him all kinds of questions about recycling—how and where and why—curious about his passion. 

When Ryan and his family visited Belize earlier this year, he was recognized by the locals. A celebrity was in their midst. He was struck by how far Belize has to go in their trash collecting efforts. “If we spent a month there, just cleaning their streets,” says Andrea, “We could have made a real difference.”

So in addition to the money he makes from recycling, he began offering “Ryan’s Recycling” t-shirts for $13. All profits go straight to the PMMC, which he visits every chance he gets (and takes care of his bins, collecting their recycling while he’s there).

“Ryan’s story shows that a little kindness goes a long way,” says Hunter. “You can make a real difference in the world at a very young age.”

We are the world

Above Ryan’s bed hangs a map of the world, filled with colorful pushpins. Every pin represents a place in the world that’s contacted Ryan for a t-shirt. There’s a special breakout map of the United States in the upper corner because there are too many pins for the size of the map. “We’re big in Asia,” says Andrea. “And Europe.” The map bears that out. Europe and Asia are indeed running out of room. 

Kenya, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Australia, Pakistan – they’ve all heard about Ryan and his recycling crusade. There’s even one pin stuck in the center of the Pacific Ocean. It’s from a ship stationed out there, whose crew found Ryan and ordered his t-shirts, so he packed them up and shipped them off to the middle of the ocean. 

The map is not only a great lesson in world geography, it’s also a wonderful way to connect Ryan to the planet he’s trying – bottle by bottle – to save. 

As we talk in the living room, Andrea tells me they just got a video from Dubai.

“Where’s Dubai?” asks Ryan.

“In the middle east,” she tells him. “Near Saudi Arabia.”

Not content with his mother’s lack of specificity, Ryan runs to his room to look at his map. “I gotta know,” he says. “How do you spell it?” He returns to announce that Dubai is in the United Arab Emirates, and confirms there’s a pushpin to mark the spot.

Every pin means more money for the marine mammals at the PMMC. Ryan’s t-shirts translate to food, electricity, medicine and water. “All the things it takes to run the center and care for the animals,” says Hunter. To put it in perspective, he’s donated more than 10,000 pounds of fish to feed the mammals.

Ryan’s recycling goes viral

Sometime in 2016, Ryan’s story went viral. Ellen DeGeneres heard about Ryan and invited him on her show, donating $10,000 to his cause, along with a Ryan-sized trash truck he drives around his cul-de-sac collecting cans. (He’s a remarkably adept driver, and can parallel park better than most adults I know.)

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No job is too big or too small for Ryan’s recycling

He also received a new Dell laptop from Adrian Grenier, which happened to coincide with his birthday in July. Now he can keep track of his business.

Ryan has been profiled by hundreds of web sites, newspapers, and television and radio shows around the world, including CNN, Ryan Seacrest, Bill Handel, PBS, Good Morning America, and ABC World News. He’s had shout outs from Chelsea Clinton, George Takei, and Fabien Cousteau. Congressman Darrell Issa recently visited Ryan in his home. And the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Mayor and City Council of San Juan Capistrano all presented him with awards. 

Next month, the PMMC is honoring Ryan at a gala event for his contributions. “I bought a special shirt with whales on it,” he tells me.

Saving for the future

“Ryan is a saver,” says Andrea. “He doesn’t want to spend a single penny when it can be saved.” Every aluminum can earns him a nickel. Bottles are more. But, he warns, be careful about wine bottles. The recycling centers have too many and they take up too much room, so you’re not going to get as much for them.

How much has he managed to save in his short life? More than $25,000. That’s quite a college fund. “No,” he tells me. “I’m saving to buy a trash truck.” The one he covets is $120,000. Save he must. But he’s well on his way. 

“We’ll talk about that,” says Andrea, winking over at me. “I don’t know what the HOA will say.” 

A head for trash

Even without the real thing, Ryan has a good start with an impressive collection of 18 toy trash trucks around the house. They’re stacked in his closet. He rolls them across the living room floor. “He was just born loving trash trucks,” Andrea says. “All the local drivers know Ryan. They’ll pretend to pick up the wrong can and Ryan goes wild, yelling at them to stop. It’s really cute.”

Ryan also supervises Mr. Jose, the custodian at his school. “He calls me his boss,” says Ryan. “I help him clean the campus, and I get to ride in his golf cart.”

His business has earned him entry into the CarbonLITE and RePlanet Processing facilities tours. There he’s learned how recycling really happens, from start to finish. The process is overwhelming and impressive. His website tells the tale through photos and videos.

What else does he love? SpongeBob, fidget spinners, math (“I like counting money!”), and frogs. Ryan’s room is filled with frogs. Stuffed, plastic, figurines, rugs, sheets, pictures and pajamas. None of them living pets, at least that I noticed. But they represent his favorite color—green.

Planning ahead

I ask Ryan what he wants to do when he’s older. 

“Run your own company?” offers his mom. 

“Drive a trash truck,” he tells her. 

“How about owning the trash company?” she says. 

He looks at her. Apparently there’s more to talk about. But they have time.

In the meantime, Ryan’s entrepreneurial spirit is saving the lives of countless marine mammals here in Laguna Beach. The little man has a plan, and it’s paying big dividends for both our town and our planet.

Kermit the Frog used to lament, “It’s not easy being green.” Not only is it easy it’s fun – and profitable.

To read more about Ryan’s story, purchase a t-shirt, or donate your recyclables to his cause, visit Ryan’s website at www.ryansrecycling.com.


Jason Allemann, new principal of LBHS, can’t wait for the 2017/18 school year to kick off 

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

New principal of Laguna Beach High School Jason Allemann plans to participate in classroom and athletic activities, roam the campus at recess, and generally be a visible presence during as well as before and after the school day. 

Yes, he’s dedicated to developing long-term strategies to improve communications between and among school staff, teachers and parents and the Laguna Beach community. 

Yes, he wants to encourage a positive and non-discriminatory attitude on campus and to celebrate academic and athletic achievements. 

Yes, he knows that time spent on administrative tasks is vital in the smooth running of an educational institution. 

But Allemann is not going to be confined to his office while working on those aspects of his job.

“Does a football coach leave the field when the game begins?” he asked rhetorically as we sit in his office discussing the challenges inherent in heading up a high school in these turbulent, social-media-dominated and sometimes, sadly, drug-addled times. 

“No. He’s on the field, encouraging players, cheering them on, checking for problem areas, devising solutions, seeing what’s going on in real time,” he said. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

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Jason Allemann in his element on the LBHS school campus

Sports analogies come naturally to Allemann, who grew up in Dana Point and most recently was principal of Dana Hills High. He and his family have always been active in athletics, and he counts himself lucky that his three kids are each interested in different sports: daughter Avery, 15, loves volleyball; Caroline 12, enjoys tennis; and son James, also 12, is an avid footballer – Allemann coaches his team – and the entire family, including wife Kristin, a special-ed teacher, enjoy a range of ocean sports.

But it is education that is Allemann’s true passion, though he admits he didn’t spend his youth dreaming about becoming a high school principal.

“Kids don’t, do they?” he said. “It’s not exactly a glamorous job. They dream about becoming police officers or fire fighters or maybe rock stars. But no, it was a winding road that brought me to this place.”

Before I followed up on Allemann’s winding path, I asked him if, as a kid, he had indeed nurtured a passion for a particular career.

Allemann, who has a breezy charm, and whose optimism about the world – not to mention his new job – is quite contagious, turned serious.

“For a while as a kid, I wanted to be a doctor. But people said to me, why would you want to do that? That takes so much work. It takes forever to finish your education. And partly for those reasons I didn’t pursue that.” 

Allemann rolled his Fidget Cube – a gag gift meant to acknowledge his restless desire to be on top of every aspect of his job – between his finger and thumb. “It’s my hope that every student in this high school is encouraged to pursue whatever his or her dreams are, no matter how challenging.”

Yet, he assured me, his enthusiasm palpable, “Doesn’t mean that I wish I had become a doctor. I love what I’m doing now. I’m thrilled with this job and I’m especially excited to be in Laguna. I’m looking forward to understanding the culture here more deeply and becoming involved with the community on every level.”

Jason Allemann

Allemann graduated with a major in Psychology from San Diego State University. Later he would go on to earn his Masters in Social Work at Cal State Long Beach, then a PhD in Educational Leadership at USC.

So, the winding road: “My senior year project at San Diego State addressed issues related to after-school care in the Mira Mesa area. I saw how parents arrived to pick up their elementary school kids, worn out after an exhausting day at work. 

“I talked to a few dads and they told me how much they would love to be able to just spend time kicking a ball around with their kids once they got home, but instead they had to oversee homework,” he said. “They had to take on the role of taskmaster instead of being able to just have fun with their family.”

In response, Allemann devised an afterschool program that incorporated supervised homework and other seemingly minor but important changes that came about after discussing issues particular to working parents. He then approached other afterschool programs and helped them introduce similar programs.

“The parents were super happy,” he says. “That project, this job – it’s all about talking, and mostly listening, and being willing to try something new. Communicating with everyone involved.” 

Which is exactly the approach he plans to bring to his new role at LBHS. “I love the intimacy of this community,” he added. “I can’t wait to get to know more about Laguna and get involved.”

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Jason Allemann is Southern California born and bred

After graduating from SDSU, Allemann worked to help developmentally disabled adults with living skills. 

“We’d teach them how to handle basic but important tasks such as creating a grocery list, shopping at a store – what goes in the refrigerator and what doesn’t, for example, as simple as that,” he explained. “Our goal was to help them live independent lives. It was very rewarding to feel we were making a difference. It reinforced that small changes can have a huge impact.”

Later in his career, Allemann was employed as a school counselor helping kids with severe emotional diagnoses. Then counseling evolved into a job with administration and from there to becoming an assistant principal. 

Allemann served as principal at Katella High School in Anaheim for four years and most recently spent six years as the principal of Dana Hills High.

How transparent does he plan to be about the challenges that LBHS, like all high schools, face?

Allemann shrugged, clearly unfazed. “I see problems as learning opportunities,” he said. “I’m not going to be shy about addressing issues publicly and engaging the community in finding solutions, whether it’s racism or unintended discrimination or any other matter. There are problems in every industry. I’m lucky to have a range of resources at my fingertips.”

He paused a moment and then said, “You know, it’s a luxury to have this job, to work with kids. You never stop learning.”

At this point in the interview, the Fidget Cube was getting a workout. I could tell that Jason Allemann was ready to return to his computer to check his emails and get going on projects much more rewarding than talking about himself. 

Clearly, for him it was nearly game time and his inner coach was raring to get going.

I have a feeling that his energy, enthusiasm and insights are going to bring a whole new dimension to a high school that is already one of the finest in the country.

Tuesday September 5 the school year kicks off, and Jason Allemann is ready to roll.


Ron Pringle: Of service to the music and his community

WRITTEN BY: Samantha Washer

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Ron Pringle says he was “never not making it happen,” at least in regards to his music. As the lead singer for reggae band World Anthem, Pringle, perhaps better known as Ron I, says he knew from an early age where his future lay. “I was always singing. At three years old I made the declaration that I would be a singer,” he says. 

While attending El Morro Elementary he met his best friend Nick Hernandez who, remarkably, is also a lead singer (for the band Common Sense). Both bands are Laguna Beach fixtures, but they have audiences well beyond Laguna Beach.

A progression from rock to reggae

Pringle started his first band Albatross in seventh grade. It was a rock band. As he got older, Pringle says his musical tastes widened. “I started getting into (bands like) Black Uhuru, Steel Pulse. It was a natural progression, coming from this area, living where I lived.” What he mentions, but does not detail, is a period of time where he exercised his wilder impulses. But those days are behind him.

A champion of sobriety

“I haven’t had a drink in 29 years,” he says matter-of-factly. As a devoted member of Alcoholics Anonymous, Pringle says, “My primary purpose is to stay sober.”  On the day he decided enough was enough, he remembers, “I had a moment of clarity. Nothing good happened until I gave up drinking.” 

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Ron Pringle, aka Ron I, singing with his band World Anthem

Now, he sees his life with a purpose beyond making music. “I work a lot in the community to help young men live the life they want to live without using drugs or alcohol.” He cherishes the “victories of people choosing life” and he truly mourns those who were unable to attain them.

Reggae is more than just music, it is a philosophy

It is clear Pringle is a man of deep thought and feelings. His immersion into reggae music is more than just an appreciation of its rhythms. He has whole-heartedly embraced its philosophies. “Reggae became one with my soul and spirit,” he explains passionately. “It became part of my DNA.” 

He credits the late Eric “Redz” Morton as having a big influence on him. Morton was one of the co-founders of the iconic Laguna band, the Rebel Rockers in the late 70’s. He died in 2013. “I honor him,” he says solemnly. For Pringle, reggae’s sense of community is particularly powerful. “The positive vibrations…there is no separation. That’s why it is ‘I’ and ‘I,’ not ‘me’ and ‘you’.”

Seeking information in a quest for freedom

When we met, Pringle joked that he was going to enjoy the interview process because it gave him a chance to talk about his favorite subject: himself.  However, that declaration could not have been further from the truth. 

Pringle, while not reluctant to talk about himself, was much more interested in discussing his thoughts on the Federal Reserve. It was not a direction I’d imagined our conversation going, but Pringle spoke eloquently about his distrust of that institution, its history and his version of its impact on the world.

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Ron Pringle and his cherry Skylark 

He is a student of a book titled “The Creature From Jekyll Island” by G. Edward Griffin. While some label this book a conspiracy theory others, like libertarian idealist Ron Paul, see it as “a superb analysis.” Pringle clearly agrees with the latter. “I encourage people to seek information. I want the truth and rights. It all comes down to freedom,” he says. 

Devoted to his message: love and unity

Despite his somewhat dark vision of geo-politics, Pringle says for him it’s all about love. “My message is one of love and unity. There is no problem in the world that more love on top of love and more love can’t overcome. It truly is the magic. And music is love. Togetherness and unity is love. Kindness is my religion.”

A passion for the waves and water

Pringle also holds a soulful connection with the ocean. “I will be in the water until my dying day, when I’m 140,” he says with a smile. “I spent my life skim boarding.” Listing off the giants of the sport who he would try and emulate when he was younger: Tex Haines, Chris Henderson, Kyle Treadway, Pringle says admiringly, “We learned from them.”  And getting older hasn’t dimmed his enthusiasm. “I’ve always been pushing the limits. The summer of my 50th birthday I tried to get the biggest waves I could,” he says proudly.

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Ron Pringle takes a moment at Blue Lagoon beach

Laguna is a good place to call home

With his love of music and the ocean Laguna is a pretty good place for Pringle to live with his family, something he is very much aware of.  “I love my life. I love Laguna. I love music. I’m so grateful. I’m grateful to be placed in this time and space in Laguna Beach. I’m just here to be of service. If anyone needs anything they can count on me to be of help.” 

And if anyone just wants to listen to some great music, World Anthem is here to service that need, as well. The Sandpiper, The Cliff, the Sawdust…on a given night you’re likely to find them someplace in our town, and Ron I will be there embracing the community that comes to hear the music.


Tristan Abel: a mixed media artist blurs the lines between art and life

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL

Photographs by Mary Hurlbut

Tristan Abel’s art teems with passion and power, from his popular waves done on wood with colored pencils and ink, to the large guns, and ominous battleships. Yet he also paints giant roosters and diminutive watercolors, one of which combines bullets and flower blossoms. The pieces in his booth at The Sawdust Festival suggest a split personality. “I paint whatever comes into my head,” he says, smiling.

“Mixed media is a blending of fields,” he explains. “You see all the tools available, get an image or a feeling, and don’t be afraid to blur lines.” Tristan is also an illustrator, sculptor and woodcarver, and he combines all his talents in a stunning way, utilizing wood, colored pencils, oil, and more. One of his experimental pieces, an animal skull with horns painted on Masonite, then carved out in relief, results in a striking smooth versus painted texture. 

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Tristan working on underpainting of a battleship

And Tristan is certainly not afraid to blur the lines between art and life.

As a member of the well-known multigenerational Abel family in Laguna, Tristan comes from a long line of artists. He is the great-grandson of Carl Abel, a master woodcarver who came here in 1937 from Denmark, grandson of architect Chris, and son of Gregg, who owns an architectural design and construction firm, and is also a painter and woodcarver. His mother is an interior designer. 

“I always knew Laguna was a special place to live,” he says. “If you go anywhere away from Laguna on vacation, and come back, even though you were somewhere beautiful, you come home to something beautiful. It’s just a treasure to live here and to be surrounded by art all the time.” One of his fondest memories is going to Hapi Sushi for frequent lunches with his father and grandfather.

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Tristan Abel, painter, illustrator, sculptor, woodcarver

At fourteen, Tristan started working at his dad’s construction firm. “Working with my dad was time well spent,” he says.  “He always emphasized hard work.” And Tristan hasn’t stopped. He’s the embodiment of movement, he’s never still, it seems, and he puts quite a lot into the mix. Not only is this his third year at The Sawdust Festival, he is a senior at LCAD, works for his father’s construction company (he has three sites going on now), and is husband to his wife Sarah. 

He will complete his BFA the end of this year in Painting and Drawing with an emphasis on sculpture, and has endless compliments for LCAD. “I fought going to school for a while, but I love it. I learn something new each class. It’s all classical,” he says, “the way the old masters learned, figure and life drawing. The teachers are so good.” His sister Lea, also an artist, graduated from LCAD, and coincidentally, the building was designed by his grandfather Chris.

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Completed battleship

Not surprisingly, since art and creativity run in his family, Tristan has always been interested in art. “I remember sitting on the floor of my dad’s architectural office, and drawing on Xerox paper with ink pens for hours. My parents always encouraged me, and from grades one through four, I attended the Community Learning Center, an alternative school that focused on creativity.”

 Tristan is the fifth-generation woodcarver in his family, starting with his great-great-grandfather in Denmark who taught his great-grandfather, then it was passed down to his great-uncle, and his father. And to carry on the family legacy, at age eight, his dad taught him to carve on mahogany and oak, and Tristan still uses his great-grandfather and great-uncle’s tools in his work and to do traditional wood carvings for his dad’s Bungalow and Craftsman style projects. 

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Tristan and Sarah anticipating new journey, parenthood

And Tristan has a new project – one he is over the moon about. He and Sarah, who he describes as his best friend, are expecting a baby in December, conveniently two days after he graduates from LCAD, and he can’t wait to be a father. “I’m so happy to be starting a family with my wife Sarah.”  On Valentine’s Day, they were married under the Pepper Tree in front of City Hall. Sarah, who he met at a friend’s birthday here in town, is a pre-school teacher at Newport Coast Child Development Preschool.  

“Now that we’ve found out we’re going to have a baby, it seems like the most important thing in the world,” he says. “I want to give my kid everything, the safety and nurturing, that my parents gave me. Even with my art, I have a whole new drive, a new purpose.”

Tristan in rare moment of repose, contemplating art, life, and fatherhood

However, Laguna may lose Tristan and Sarah next year (for a while anyway).  They plan to go to Omaha, NE, where Sarah is from and where her family still lives. “Omaha has a good art scene and art museums,” he says. “And maybe we’ll go back and forth between there and Laguna.” 

Time for Tristan to get back to his construction project. I ask if he ever takes wood from the sites to recycle or carve and use in his art, and he points out an incredible bench and counter top in his booth, a redwood tree cut down from a construction site, a beautiful and perfect example of blurring life and art.


Scott Tenney and Mariella Simon: The “parents” of Bluebird Canyon Farms

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Remember when you could stroll down the road to the local farm on a warm summer evening and pick up some fresh, ripe tomatoes for dinner, and maybe some of their own batched honey? Me neither. 

Well, now you can. And a whole new generation will grow up in Laguna Beach with that kind of locally produced farm-fresh food available just a stone’s throw down the road. Welcome to Bluebird Canyon Farms, a place that requires the same loving care as a baby, and is the brainchild of Scott Tenney and Mariella Simon.

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Mariella Simon and Scott Tenney

It began in a garden

Scott and Mariella met, appropriately enough, while Scott was putting in a garden for Mariella’s neighbor. Twenty-five years and two children later, the pair have a made a home and farm in Laguna Beach. Their sons, Liam (a student at Chapman University) and Sam (in San Diego studying to be a paramedic) may be grown up, but the farm is the baby of the family, and requires constant tending. Often the whole family pitches in to lend a hand, along with full-time staff including Farmer Leo (aka Ryan Goldsmith) who farms the market garden which provisions the weekly downtown Farmer’s Market, Kathy Tanaka who handles education and artist programs, communication and product development, and a whole bevy of volunteers. 

It takes a village.

A garden, and beyond

“We love nature. We grew up in nature. We always had our hands in the soil,” says Scott, who grew up in a rural part of New Jersey. 

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Bluebird Canyon Farms’ fresh ripe tomatoes

Seven years ago, the couple drove by a plot of almost 15 acres that was for sale in Bluebird Canyon. “We drove by and saw the ad – it was not for the faint of heart,” Scott laughs. Mariella, who grew up near the Alps in Germany agrees, “Scott and I looked at it and thought it would be an amazing garden – we were very naïve!”

It was a rust bucket of hilly land; no roads, no connection to sewerage, no retaining walls. But it was affordable. Mariella, a laboratory scientist (she just received her PhD in mitochondrial research), said they walked the property on the weekends and found above ground water pipes broken and electric lines just strung about. “It was in horrible shape,” she said. Scott reflects, “We knew what we were in for!”

It took four years to wrestle the land into workable and sustainable shape. But it wasn’t just for the growing of organic fruits and vegetables, bees and honey production. They had Big Plans.

“We wanted to share that love of land, and local food,” says Scott. “I hoped we’d grow and share food – and share knowledge.”

As stated on their website (www.bluebirdcanyonfarms.com), “Bluebird Canyon Farms strives to be a community resource and to be recognized as a model of sustainable urban living.”

Growing fruits, veggies and skills

The farm vision includes not just the delicious and organic. The community resource part that Scott and Mariella are passionate about also includes education, science, and art. One aspect of that is their Growing Skills program – a program to educate and train the next generation in the multi-faceted world of farming. The Growing Skills concept is geared toward youth and individuals with developmental challenges so that they can learn about sustainable agriculture and about working together as a team. 

In his science-y way (he is an engineer, after all), Scott explains running a farm like this: “It’s a rich sync of technical and non-technical labor demand. It’s a perfect place to provide hands-on training. You solve electrical issues, plumbing, irrigation, soils technology…” 

Yes, farm work isn’t easy, or one-dimensional. 

Growing Skills is a program that Scott and Mariella would like to see including educators and perhaps non-profit grants in order to oversee and track each participant’s success. For these young people, it’s ultimately about learning technical skills, working as a team, and building a relationship with the land. 

“There’s a hunger, yet lack of training that kids have now,” said Scott. He’s envisions a bountiful future with the program.

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Some of the farm products including their own honey, and herbal salt scrubs 

Another important focus at Bluebird Canyon Farms’ is community outreach including their co-op market, an ongoing lecture series, cooking and gardening classes, and featured artists and art programs. In the next couple of weeks, for example, there’s the Gourmet Gardener Cooking Class, Brunch with Sue Bibee, a Robust August Farm Dinner, and Artist Paint Day. (More information, sign ups, and volunteer opportunities can be found on their website).

If you’ve wanted to get a glimpse inside the incredible goings on at the farm, stroll on down and check it out during their Farm Tours, usually offered on Thursday mornings.

Bluebird’s hippie past

Art is not only a present-day feature at Bluebird Canyon Farms, it’s in its DNA.  Before it fell into disrepair and was reincarnated by Scott and Mariella and their team, it was actually an artist’s colony like much of Laguna. This one was spearheaded by Roger Van De Vanter, a multi-media artist whose work is exhibited in collections worldwide, including the White House and the Guggenheim Museum. (He was also an original member of the Sawdust Festival, and created a style of multi-layered rubber sandals that was the inspiration behind the Rainbow Sandal Company).

Van De Vanter’s artist colony hosted merry gatherings including the likes of Ken Kesey, Jimi Hendrix, Sonny and Cher, and the Brotherhood of Eternal Love.

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“Farmer Leo” getting produce ready for market

In those days, and certainly in the decades preceding them, there were ranches and farms scattered around Laguna. Today, Bluebird Canyon Farms stands alone as Laguna’s local operational farm. It represents a fresh, new link in the chain of Laguna’s rich history.

“We wanted to keep it in the Laguna spirit,” says Mariella. “Re-built in kind.”

A farm and a home by the sea

The connection to history, the connection to community, and the connection to native flora and fauna are paramount for Scott and Mariella as they progress at the farm. There’s a sense of respect for the past – to learn from it – so that it can be sustained into the future.

“You evolve; it’s the thread that runs through our lives,” says Scott. 

The farm nods to Laguna’s past with board and batten architectural elements, lending a cottage feel. But behind the scenes, the pair have scienced it up. 

“The site has a very sophisticated water system, cleans run-off before it is released, and there’s a solar electric system,” said Scott. “We minimize waste, compost everything that can be, use cistern conservation, and irrigation evaporative controls.”

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A view from the top at Bluebird Canyon Farms

Ultimately, the couple reflects on their farm’s soul: “We started slow and restored the site. We honored the buildings that were here. We honored the hippie past,” said Mariella. “It grew organically, with people and their talents. We just put it together.”

“We love nature, arts, science,” says Scott. Mariella, of course, concurs, “It’s sort of consistent!”

The farm, and Laguna, has become the home dreams are made of. “I wanted to be in a place that had a town, by the sea – neighbors with connection to each other,” Scott says. “It feels good.” 

It feels good to have you both here, too. Your baby, Bluebird Canyon Farms, is the local farm down the road we would all like to grow up with. May the baby grow up healthy and strong.


 

Adam Neeley: “Painting with gemstones”

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Adam Neeley and his dad set out on a road trip ten years ago. Their quest? To find the perfect spot for Neeley to open his jewelry design studio. He was 23 years old. The plan was for him and his dad to start in Carlsbad and drive all the way up the coast to San Francisco. They figured somewhere along the way they’d find the right place. The trip ended much sooner than planned. 

“When we got to Laguna I said, ‘I don’t need to go anywhere further,’” remembers Neeley. And he didn’t. He set up his eponymous gallery in north Laguna and, other than moving across the street, he has been there ever since. North Laguna is both his literal and figurative home.

His studio and the FOA offer two different clienteles

Arriving too late to enter the Festival of the Arts when he first arrived in Laguna, Neeley managed to do so the following year and has participated every year since, making this year his 10th. “The gallery is for more custom and couture pieces,” he says. “The Festival showcases pieces in my Design collection. It’s more for visitors and tourists.”  

The two sites provide crossover, despite their different focuses. “We get clients in the studio that we met at the Festival. They may start out with a $2,000 piece and then come to the studio for the next level.”

The “next-level” pieces are his couture pieces. They can be priced at more than $100,000 and are one of a kind, museum quality pieces. “They’re larger, on a grander scale, with rare stones. I push myself with the design. Sometimes I will have a stone in the safe for five to ten years before I come up with the right design.” It’s a long way from his silver and turquoise southwestern designs he hawked throughout the west during his middle and high school years.

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Adam Neeley, of Adam Neeley Fine Art Jewelry in Laguna Beach

A hobby becomes a profession early on

A Colorado native, Neeley says his father was a “rock-hound.” 

“We spent our weekends rock collecting. I’d find a crystal or a stone and I’d want to know what was inside. So I started hanging out at rock shops. I was doing this since I was ten years of age.” 

After a while, Neeley says he collected so many stones that his mother suggested he do something useful with them and make her some jewelry. “So I started silver-smithing at ten.” This is where the southwestern style evolved. “When I was 14 I entered my first art show in Telluride. I priced my pieces at $60 which seemed like a lot to a 14 year old kid. They were turquoise, smoky quartz…I sold out in two hours!” It was then that Neeley and his parents realized the hobby could actually become a profession.

“From then on, middle school through high school, I did art shows every weekend.” 

A focused and thorough education

Eventually, he moved away from his southwestern roots to develop his own unique style. Now, he says he prefers pieces that are “…clean, modern and asymmetrical,” but getting there was a process. First, he apprenticed in gold work in Colorado, then he moved to Carlsbad and attended the Gemological Institute of America, becoming a graduate gemologist. From there he attended Le Arti Orafe in Florence, Italy, one of Europe’s most prestigious gold-smithing institutions. 

After that he traveled to New York to refine his platinum-smithing skills and learn computer-aided design, then he returned to Carlsbad, ultimately landing in Laguna. They were busy and highly focused years. But there were difficult decisions along the way.

Finding the path that let him do it all

In the beginning of his career, Neeley says he wanted to be a designer for a big company, like Tiffany’s or Cartier. However, he also likes to craft individual pieces. Designers at these companies don’t get that opportunity very often. He also contemplated becoming a gemstone buyer. That job entails travel and spoke to his love of selecting the perfect gemstone.  

However, that career would not have fulfilled his love of design. So there was only one path that allowed him to do it all: his own studio. “Now what I do involves all the other aspects of these other careers: buying, cutting, designing.”

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Adam Neeley with one of his newest creations

His process is like “painting with gemstones”

As his design aesthetic developed, Neely found his signature style. “I draw a lot of inspiration from nature,” he explains. “The curves of a flower blossom or the colors of a sunset. I do a modern interpretation of those kinds of things. I like clean, fluid lines that showcase the gemstones.” One of his goals is that his pieces are recognizable as an “Adam Neeley piece.” 

“A lot of people get stuck in trends. I’m sensitive to trends, but want to keep my aesthetic.”  He sees his process as “painting with gemstones.” A particular favorite stone is tourmaline. It comes in so many colors,” he says enthusiastically. “I have these boxes filled with accent stones. I pour them out next to the main stone and see what harmonizes with it.”

A signature process: Spectra gold

Besides his “painting with gemstones” Neeley has also developed a gold that, according to his website is a “unique and time intensive alloy” called Spectra gold. It can never be poured into a mold and so must be crafted entirely by hand. When used, the Spectra gold piece starts out a vibrant gold color and gradually lightens to an almost white gold color.

“I love the effect of ombre,” says Neeley. “It creates movement.”

Awards for acclaim and motivation

This attention to detail and innovation has resulted in Neeley winning many awards for his jewelry pieces. When we spoke he was about to create a bracelet for a show he has already won twice. “It’s kind of like a Wonder Woman bracelet,” he says, describing the piece made up of yellow diamonds that fade to white diamonds, like the Spectra gold. “I’m excited to see what happens,” he says.  

The shows provide necessary publicity, especially when he wins. However, that’s not the only reason he enters them. “I like to personally push the envelope,” he says. 

A gallery in San Francisco is a work in progress

And that’s why he opened a gallery in San Francisco in 2012. Unfortunately, as is extremely common in San Francisco these days, his rent doubled. “We moved to a new location, but it wasn’t our cup of tea. We are in the process of looking for a new space,” he says. The San Francisco clientele offers exciting possibilities. 

“The city is so involved in dining and dressing up. People do dress for the red carpet. Sometimes, in Laguna we want it more casual. There (San Francisco) the more sparkle the better.” For a jeweler, it’s clear why the combination of the two locales is so appealing. 

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Adam Neeley at his studio at 352 N. Coast Highway

Aspiring to reach lofty heights in his field

Neeley’s ambitions don’t stop at the west coast. He’d like to expand to New York one day and grow his business, specifically his couture business. He mentions Wallace Chan and JAR (Joel Arthur Rosenthal) as designers whose careers he aspires to follow.

“I would hope to jump to their levels. Their pieces are incredibly dramatic and push the boundaries of what is technically possible. I would be very happy to be at that level.”  

As far as his couture collection goes, Neeley says he wondered, “If we build it will they come?” Apparently, the answer is “yes.”  Neeley says his couture pieces are selling “very well.” 

Jewelry as “wearable art”

Regardless of how far Neeley takes his creations, he will continue to push himself and his chosen medium of expression. “As far as design, I’m always looking to do something I’ve never done before. I encourage people to see jewelry as wearable art, like a sculpture.” 

To see Adam Neeley’s creations you can visit his studio at 352 N. Pacific Coast Highway or at the Festival of Arts through the summer.


Fate favors the fearless: Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Laura Henkels

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Necessity isn’t just the mother of invention. It’s also the mother of reinvention. And Laura Henkels, Executive Director of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, has mastered the art of reinventing herself over and over again. Though some of her prior careers may not seem like natural stepping stones to her current role as director, every field she’s mastered has honed her skills, expanded her knowledge, perfected her approachable style, and made Laura the ideal fit for a very fun job.

Hair today, gone to work tomorrow

The year was 2011 and the country was still suffering under the effects of the recession. Laura, a single mother of two sons, had been laid off. Panic started to settle in.  A childhood friend worked as a hairdresser at Tiare Hair Design on Forest Avenue, and offered to do her hair. But fate had more than a great hairstyle in store for Laura that day. A woman sat next to her and overheard Laura’s story. “There’s a job opening at the Chamber of Commerce,” she said. “Come work with me.” 

Within days, Laura was the Marketing and Event Manager for the Chamber of Commerce. 

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Laura Henkels, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce

A year later, without even applying for the job, she was promoted to Executive Director. “I had no idea when they called me into the office that they were offering me the job,” she says. 

Laura had always worked in the private sector. “The traditional path would involve city or government background, experience with nonprofit organizations, or working with member-based groups,” says Laura. “But when I look back, everything I’d done had prepared me well for this job.”

Looking at Laura’s resume, filled with sales and marketing experience for newspapers, banks and businesses, it makes sense after all that she was prepared to be an effective Director for the Chamber of Commerce.  

Laura is a people person. Her ease with every kind of personality is remarkable. She’s a natural conversationalist, engaged and curious. She’ll chat with the homeless as easily as she’ll talk to the town’s mayor, business leaders, or the fire chief. Her skills cut across industries, subject matter, and time. 

“I started over at 50. Everything about this job is so different,” Laura says. “But I pick things up quickly. And I absolutely love what I do.”

She’s happy taking risks and trying new things. In a word, Laura is fearless. 

From philosophy to finance

The fearlessness started young. Laura put herself through college, working at Lake Tahoe as a blackjack dealer. Self-sufficiency is another theme that’s played throughout Laura’s life. “I’m really proud of that,” she says. She double majored in philosophy and political science, setting her sights on law school.  She credits those degrees with honing her critical thinking skills.

Shortly after college, while working in retail in the Bay area, she was recruited to Citibank, starting as a teller in a satellite branch out of a grocery store. “I was recruited right off of the retail sales floor at The Broadway…by a president of the bank,” says Laura. 

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Laura Henkels with Nia Evans, events & marketing manager – an awesome team

Within two years, she was one of the first females chosen by Citibank California to be licensed as a CFP (Certified Financial Planner) and, sponsored in earning both Series 7 and Series 63 licenses, qualified as a fully licensed Private Wealth Manager. 

From there, Laura was recruited by the Los Angeles Times to “work the wire-houses” in Manhattan and their agencies in order to make their business section profitable. Within a year, she was promoted to events manager for the Los Angeles Times and all of its national offices.

Laura never had to look for a job. She was sought after and recruited, again and again. Each time she took the challenge, leaving lucrative and stable careers in favor of trying something new.

History repeats itself

Laura’s love of local businesses, entrepreneurship, and adventure may have come naturally. Her grandfather was a partner in the oldest retail store in downtown Los Angeles, Dearden’s. 

In the 1940s, Laura’s grandfather, who spoke only Spanish, had a vision. He convinced his partner to cater their business to the Hispanic market. Seventy years ago, Latinos were not a target audience for retailers. But Dearden’s offered a sales staff that spoke Spanish, and an in-store credit program for their clients. They sold electronics, furniture and, more recently, cookware, watches, perfume and more. They weathered recessions, adapted to trends and market changes, and cultivated a culture of loyalty among their customers.

Dearden’s department store celebrated 108 years in business this year, making it one of the longest running institutions in L.A. Sadly, however, after suffering from the recent recession and crippled by competition in the online market, the store was forced to close its doors—and all eight branches—last week. 

Her grandfather’s legacy lives large in Laura’s mind. “Laguna Beach is unique,” she says. “There’s so much support from all the businesses and members. That support is critical because retail is tough.” Laura brings that respect for her grandfather’s model to her work. She laments how much business now goes either online or out of town, and sees the impact of those consumer decisions on our local shops.

Memory Lane intersects Laguna Canyon Road

Memories of her grandfather mingle with her earliest memories of Laguna Beach. Laura began coming to the town as a child in the 1960s. Her family had a house near Ben Brown’s. She has vivid memories of Laguna Canyon Road in the 1970s. “People sold stuff out of their vans—incense, rugs, macramé plant holders. It looked like the Sawdust Festival stretched down the street.” The town always drew artists, bohemians, hippies, and entrepreneurs. Some of those early years in Laguna still remain among her favorite memories. 

Santa’s chauffeur

Now Laura makes memories for her own children. One notable opportunity came a few years back, when Laura acted as driver for Santa Claus on Laguna’s annual Hospitality Night.  2013 was her first year as Events Manager at the Chamber, and she was tasked with transferring Santa to the firehouse. Her son, Dillon, was eight at the time and still a firm believer in all things Christmas. Clearly, his mom had the coolest gig in the world. She even let him bring his best friend along for the ride. 

“Santa pulled up in a Toyota Camry,” Laura recalls. “Dillon looked a little worried, wondering why Santa wasn’t in his sleigh. I told him Santa was trying to stay under the radar.” Dillon seemed to accept this, particularly because this man had to be the real deal. His beard was 100 percent authentic. 

“Dillon’s eyes were like saucers,” Laura says. “He couldn’t even speak. Then his friend asked, ‘What kind of job does your mom have?’ and Dillon told him, ‘She’s the lawyer in charge of Laguna.’”

Let’s face it. Laura’s cooler than any lawyer. Among other things, she’s Santa’s chauffeur.

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The Chamber works hard to inform residents and visitors about local businesses

The Chamber of Commerce is hard at work all year round. But there are a few notable events Laura encourages residents not to miss.

Small Business Saturday: Held the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Small Business Saturday encourages the community to “think local, be local, and buy local.” Businesses take to the sidewalks, offering special deals and promotions. Guests carry a passport, stamped by each business they visit. They can submit that passport into a raffle for prizes. Last year, that included a two-night stay at The Ranch.

State of the City: The annual State of the City luncheon takes place each spring at the Montage Resort. It gives attendees the opportunity to hear the city’s activities, including planning and infrastructure projects, customer service enhancements and the city’s financial condition.  It’s one of the most well attended events in town, bringing together citizens, non-profits, businesses, city council members and others.

Taste of Laguna: The event takes place in the fall on the Festival of Arts grounds. Thirty-five local restaurants participate, recreating their unique dining spaces in a beautiful environment, and allowing chefs to interact with the guests. “It feels like you’re a tourist in Italy, stumbling into this incredible night. It’s one of those experiences that stay in your mind the rest of your life,” says Laura. “It’s just that magical.”

A few of Laura’s favorite local businesses

Who better to ask about local shops and restaurants than the Director of the Chamber of Commerce? Laura agreed to share a few favorites:

With two teenage boys in her house, Laura can’t stay away from Hobie Surf Shop. “There’s always something in there for all three of us,” she says. 

Then there’s Buy Hand. Everything in Buy Hand is made—yes—by hand. From jewelry to home goods, pet bling to baby clothes, every piece is unique and one-of-a-kind. “A perfect shop for gifts,” says Laura. “I love that it’s owned by two sisters and features the work of local artists.” 

Laura is a self-proclaimed bibliophile. Her weekends are spent in libraries and bookstores. Laguna Beach Books, with its knowledgeable staff and on-point recommendations, topped her list of places she loves.

 Then there’s the farro salad dish at the Lumberyard. And the $10 lunches at Skyloft. The list goes on – far too long to print all her favorites here. 

Laguna is Laura’s kind of town

There’s something about Laguna. It’s energetic while it’s tranquil. It’s inspiring while it’s healing. It’s bold while it’s beautiful. It’s social and soulful, vibrant and peaceful, artistic and entrepreneurial. And it rewards the person who craves reinvention. Laura seems drawn to all those things. 

19th century poet James Russell Lowell once said, “Fate loves the fearless.” That rings true for Laura. It was fate, every time, that led her to something new. And fearlessness that allowed her to make the leap.


Joselyn and Todd Miller: Global Grins, and a gritty fight against a rare disease

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Todd and Joselyn Miller have deep roots in Laguna Beach. Joslyn’s great aunt built one of the first homes in Emerald Bay; her grandfather owned Village Liquor on Thirdand PCH; and her grandmother (on the other side) lived on 5tth Ave.  

Todd’s grandmother lived in Emerald Bay and his parents met on Emerald Bay beach in 1957. 

Now Joselyn and Todd are carrying on the family tradition of living in Laguna (Emerald Bay specifically), but it took a trip to distant lands for them to meet.

A Semester at Sea becomes a transformative event

“We were both at USC but didn’t know each other,” explains Joselyn. Both had signed up for the Semester at Sea program. “Sailing around the world will change your perspective,” says Todd. Now, many years out of college, he is still such an enthusiastic proponent of the program he serves on its Board of Directors. And the program continues to impact his outlook. 

Through his work with the Semester at Sea program Todd says, “I’ve met Desmond Tutu, Sandra Day O’Connor…” These introductions were the spark that ignited the couple’s desire to launch a non-profit.

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Todd and Joselyn Miller, Laguna Beach residents and founders of Global Grins

Simple and impactful translates into Global Grins

In 2010, with their two kids, both LBHS graduates, well on their way to adulthood, Joselyn says she and Todd had been really trying to come up with an idea for an impactful non-profit. “We knew we wanted to help people world-wide, but we didn’t know what we wanted to do,” she says.  Todd credits Joselyn with coming up with the idea that has since become their charity, Global Grins. 

Joselyn explains that they were inspired by the effectiveness of mosquito nets in the sense that providing mosquito nets is a simple, low-cost solution to the complex problem of preventing malaria. 

Thinking along these lines she came up with the idea to deliver toothbrushes to needy people. “We realized no one was doing this,“ Todd explains. “No one was just focusing on the toothbrush.”

More cellphones than toothbrushes

“There are more cell phones than toothbrushes in the world,” adds Joselyn, quoting a UN study. “Two billion people don’t have a toothbrush. There is a profound relationship between poor oral hygiene and all kinds of health problems: cancer, diabetes, stroke.” She brings out four carved sticks that resemble rustic unsharpened pencils and serve as toothbrushes in some parts of Africa. “These are what some people view as toothbrushes,” she says ruefully.

100 percetn of money raised goes to the mission

With their mission established, the Millers launched Global Grins with a kick-off fundraiser in Emerald Bay. The event raised approximately $35,000 that night. “The majority of people there that night were Laguna people and they have continued to support us,” says Todd. “It’s very rare, but with Global Grins 100 percent of the proceeds we raise goes to the cause. We are 100 percent volunteer-driven. 0 percent goes to salaries,” he says proudly.

A milestone is near: Almost one million toothbrushes delivered

The way it works is pretty simple. Volunteers make up their Delivery Squads. “Every day we get emails from people who want to take a free box on their travels,” explains Todd. “All we ask in return is a photo of the delivery.” 

The photos, explains Joselyn, are used in the group’s social media campaign. Because the toothbrushes are packed in a small, shoebox-sized box, they’re easy to travel with. Todd explains that often members of the Delivery Squad (and anyone can be part of the Delivery Squad) say that delivering the toothbrushes is often the most impactful and memorable part of their trip.

“For some, it’s a first time philanthropy for people. It provides them with a special emotional experience.”  

The formula is working. Seven years in and they are about to hit an impressive milestone: one million toothbrushes.

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The Millers with some happy toothbrush recipients in Los Angeles

At home and abroad, Global Grins has delivered toothbrushes

The Millers recently returned from New Zealand where Todd was playing a Masters event in volleyball. (His team won the National Adult Championships in 2015 and 2016 where he was voted All-American. He also played at USC.) They had planned on visiting a homeless shelter in Auckland to deliver some toothbrushes. Todd says he asked if any of his teammates were interested in going along. 

“Everyone said ‘yes’. Their wives came. It was so cool. Everyone helps everyone. Every city has a need.” Adds Joselyn, “From the Friendship Shelter and the youth shelter in our hometown to the most remote areas, we’ve delivered toothbrushes. A lot of times it’s the first time they’ve seen one. Every day I get photos (of the deliveries) and I say, ‘Wow, this is amazing. These people are beyond stoked to get a toothbrush!’”

From adventurer to adrenaline junkie

In addition to delivering toothbrushes and playing volleyball, New Zealand provided Joselyn with the opportunity to do some bungee jumping. While she says she has always been adventurous, she is now a full-fledged adrenaline junkie. The reason for her evolution? Coming out the other side of a two-year battle with two life-threatening illnesses undoubtedly has something to do with it.

Something was not right

In the spring of 2012, Joselyn says she knew something was not right. It took seeing 12 doctors before she was finally diagnosed with Shulman’s Syndrome. Never heard of it? That’s probably because there have only been 300 documented cases.  

While undergoing treatment for Shulman’s Syndrome, Joselyn developed aplastic anemia. Basically, her red blood cells failed. “I needed a blood transfusion every 48 hours,” she explains. After more than 100 transfusions, doctors’ decided they needed to do something else. A bone marrow transplant was ordered. Fortunately, Joselyn’s only brother was a match, something that happens only 25 percent of the time. 

A renewed commitment to her bucket list

Fortunately, Joselyn’s transfusion was a huge success, which isn’t always the case. “A lot of people die during the process or end up with a bad quality of life,” explains Todd. For Joselyn, she says she started feeling “normal” in 2014. “I just ran a couple of 5K’s and I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do that,” she says. “My bucket list is a huge focus of my life.” 

And while Todd was with her every step of the way during her illness and recovery, he did not acquire her passion for things like bungee jumping and skydiving. “He had a very busy schedule when I went skydiving,” she says laughing.

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A Global Grins box, ready for distribution anywhere around the world

Advocating for “Be the Match” bone marrow registry

This life-altering saga presented the couple with another mission: Be the Match, a bone marrow registry. Because of Joselyn’s illness they have become huge advocates for bone marrow donations. In typical Miller-fashion, in 2014 the couple recruited more than 200 registrants during the Fourth of July festivities in Emerald Bay. 

“The City of Hope holds a big event and they don’t get 200 attendees,” say Todd proudly.  

From that registry they know first-hand of two people who have gone on to save lives with their bone marrow donation. Their son, Rex, was one. “He donated to save a man’s life in Italy,” says Todd beaming. 

Global Grins has impressive partners

Through it all, the couple has maintained their commitment to Global Grins. While Todd says he kept it “limping along” with Joselyn in the hospital for 100 days, once she returned home it started up again in full force. 

“I was quarantined. So I had nothing to do but get it going again,” she says with a laugh. And it is going. They have partnered with Semester at Sea (the students visit orphanages and deliver toothbrushes); the US military (on their humanitarian missions) the Peace Corps as well as local organizations. 

Recently, the group was awarded Organization of the Year by Operation School Bell, an LA-based philanthropy that provides at-risk and needy children new school clothes and supplies.

A blog, a book and the gift of a new attitude

Next up, Joselyn is turning her blog of her fight back to health into a book (joselynsbrawl.com). “It has gotten over 100,000 hits. If it helps people with health battles…” she says with a hopeful shrug. Todd adds, “It’s pretty powerful. I think it gives people who are battling some hope. They think ‘if she can do it, I can do it.’” And she certainly has done it. She beat the odds and has made a very conscious decision to make the most of it. “I’m glad it happened. So much good has come of it. This new attitude is a gift.”

For more information about Global Grins or to become part of the Delivery Squad go to globalgrins.com.


Toni Iseman: Five consecutive terms and still passionate about the City’s business

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Laguna Beach mayor Toni Iseman said she had “concerns” about the direction the city council was headed in 1998. So, when then mayor Bob Gentry called a meeting for some like-minded people to brainstorm for a candidate, Iseman was there and ready. “I didn’t want to run. I wanted someone else to run,” she says. 

The group came up with 25 names. “Everyone said “no,” including me – three times,” she recalls. “Then I was the last one standing. I was working at Orange Coast College at the time. Bob told me, ‘If you can handle college politics, you can handle anything.”

Iseman is on her fifth consecutive term as a city council member

He must have been right because Iseman has been a member of Laguna’s city council for the 19 years since. And while she says she’s looking to pass the baton to the next generation of city leaders, she’s not sitting idly by while they figure it out who wants it. She has plans. She has ideas. And she’s working hard for the residents of Laguna Beach because she loves her hometown.

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Toni Iseman, Laguna Beach mayor and five-term city council member

It was love at first sight

The first time Iseman saw Laguna Beach, she was visiting from Nebraska. A college friend lived in Corona del Mar. “She brought me to Laguna and I fell in love with it. I didn’t even see it by day, just the city lights at night. Because of the topography there’s an intimacy that’s created…”  

Iseman went back to Nebraska to teach school for two years and then headed west, six months in Huntington Beach and then, finally, to Laguna.  “Immediately, I never wanted to leave and I didn’t,” she says.  

She says that of course the natural beauty is part of what she fell in love with, but it’s more than that. “It’s the sense of community, the history, the values.”

“Now what are you going to do?”

In those early years, Iseman undoubtedly could not have imagined she would serve five consecutive terms on the city council.  But here she is. That first election did not go the way she’d thought. “I ran as a total dark horse. I was a sacrificial lamb,” she remembers ruefully. 

When her election party ended at midnight she assumed she had lost. “I got a call at 3:30 am,” she recalls. “They said, ‘Now what are you going to do?’ Somehow I’d won.”

And if you happen to be thinking of running for office, Iseman has something to say about it. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Asking people for money is very difficult. Some people can give easily. Some give $25 from their social security check – that’s who you think about,” she says, nodding her head.

Residents’ needs tops her list of priorities

Regardless of what kind of donor you are, or whether you even voted for her, Iseman says her first priority as a council member is to the residents; the second is to look out for the business community. “We need to have a ‘there’ there,” she says emphatically.  

Third on her list are visitors. With Laguna Beach now a worldwide destination, year round visitors bring positives and negatives. “We can’t let the visitors take away from the quality of life or businesses,” she says.

High praise for the Laguna Beach trolley

Expanding on this, Iseman says that after a particularly busy day recently she decided to check with some local merchants to see if the crowds helped or hurt sales. “They said their sales were down. It’s not benefitting the merchants,” she says.  But what to do about it? 

As Iseman sees it Laguna is the closest beach to thousands of surrounding homes, many of them new developments in cities like Irvine. “The city can’t fix this,” she laments. However, by adding services like the trolley, they are doing what they can. “I can’t envision what it would be like without the trolley,” she says.

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Toni Iseman conducting business during a city council meeting

Not afraid to be a broken record

While she wholeheartedly supports the trolley, Iseman has a tweak she’d like to see made to the system. It runs all the way to the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point. That location provides an easy turn around point. However, so many people hop on there to ride the trolley north into Laguna that it fills up. South Laguna residents who want to use it can’t get on because it’s full. 

If Iseman had her way, the trolley wouldn’t go all the way to Dana Point. Since that’s unlikely to change, she’d like to see a $1 charge for people getting on at the route’s southernmost stop since it’s outside the city limits. Iseman believes the fee would help mitigate the cost of running the trolley. “I’m like a broken record on this,” she says. “No one agrees with me,” she says sounding very unfazed nevertheless.

Yes, she has literally chained herself to a bulldozer

Iseman’s “broken-record-ness” speaks to her determination. If her fellow city council members don’t agree with her, she’ll keep working on them. She’s not one to give up easily, and she’s not one to walk away from something she believes in. Case in point? The time she literally chained herself to a bulldozer. “It took down a 100 year old sycamore. It sounded like bones. I thought, ‘Nope. This is it.’” 

So she took a Kryptonite bicycle lock and chained herself to the bulldozer. The driver, obviously trained for such acts of passion, turned off the machine and walked away.  Iseman, along with seven like-minded companions, wound up in Orange County Jail for their trouble. “I have to wonder: what if everybody had done that? What would have changed? I had to follow my conscience,” she says.

Getting started with helping save Laguna Canyon

This was when she was on the Board of the Laguna Greenbelt, before she was on the city council. She says the incident undoubtedly helped her with some voters and others probably thought she was “crazy.”  And while she was unable to save that sycamore, she and much of Laguna Beach helped save Laguna Canyon because of their dedication to preserving it as open space. 

“Can you imagine Laguna Canyon with an 18-hole golf course? A strip mall?” she asks incredulously.  Thanks to a passionate group of Laguna Beach residents, imagining it is as close as we have to get.

Now working with “the best”

“I’m tenacious,” she says simply. She also says she has an extremely strong commitment to fairness. “The majority of people are reasonable. But a handful of them are not. I think we need to be vigilant.” She’s talking specifically about neighborhoods becoming vulnerable because real estate prices are so high and some people see Laguna as a “profit center.” 

However, she could just as easily be talking about…almost anything. That’s most likely why Iseman is still on the city council: vigilance. Plus it helps that she feels the group of current council members work well together. 

“Now we have mutual respect. There have been times…it was called the ‘Tuesday Night Fight’. Those days are over. This is the best council l’ve worked with in all these years.”

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Toni Iseman and StuNewsLaguna's own Shaena Stabler at the Stu Saffer Celebration of Life

As far as her work on the council goes, Iseman would like to see commercial deliveries made before 10 a.m. to help ease congestion. She’d like to help Laguna beaches. “Measure LL passed and we promised the community we’d make the beaches better.” She wants parking meters on PCH in south Laguna. She wants construction sites to be more vigilantly managed so they don’t negatively impact the quality of life for the neighbors. 

And she will continue to lobby for changes to the trolley. These are things within a city council member’s power to address. However, there are other things she worries about that no city council member can fix, no matter how tenacious. 

Laguna’s biggest issues are not ones a city council can really fix

The biggest thing affecting Laguna is, of course, its evolution into an international destination and everything that comes with that. “I don’t know how we manage that,” she says thoughtfully. Unfortunately, the city, unlike hotel ballrooms or restaurants, has no posted maximum capacity. If it did, for the summer months in particular, it would feel like it’s being exceeded every single day.

Motivated to keep working by love of place

And you can’t blame people for wanting to come visit our lovely town. We have gorgeous scenery, a bustling downtown and some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. For those of us who live here full-time Laguna offers even more than that. It is a community of eclectic and dynamic people. 

“It’s safe to say you can knock on almost any door in Laguna and find an interesting person,” says Iseman. She has lived behind the same door of her quintessential Laguna Beach home since 1973. “I’m so lucky to have found Laguna. People will thank me for my service when I’m at the grocery store. It’s really nice. But I want to say ‘thank you’ for letting me serve.” 

Iseman says her stacks of to-be-read books and magazine are piling up and she has a pretty extensive bucket list she intends to at least make a dent in. In the meantime, you can find her on Tuesday nights, where she has been for the last 19 years, doing the City’s business.


Craig Cooley, manager of Main Street Bar & Cabaret: A place where guys – and girls – just wanna have fun

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

At the age of 14, aware that he was attracted to boys, not girls, Craig Cooley – now the manager of Main Street Bar & Cabaret, often called the “last gay bar” in Laguna – watched from a distance as an associate of his father’s, a man who was married with kids, drove slowly along a country road in his Mustang and picked up a teenage boy.

Young Craig already understood what that meant. 

“That was the only ‘gay culture’ I knew,” says Craig now. “I thought I was doomed to be like that one day. I remember crying in my father’s pickup truck, feeling so alone. Because at that time, we were taught that being gay was wrong in at least three ways: it was against the law, it was against moral values, and it was an illness.”

That was fifty years ago; that was in a small town, Yreka, near California’s border with Oregon; that was then, and this is now – thank heavens. (Well, we all know of some unenlightened people.)

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Craig Cooley’s warm personality is evident in this great portrait by Mary

When Craig was in his early twenties, he taped himself speaking and singing about his emotions as a gay man, “a kind of self-therapy” he says. His mother found the tape and listened to all 90 minutes of it.

“I think she was traumatized at first but she understood the raw emotion in it, that it was honest, and she accepted that I was gay. We told my father years later and he was accepting also, more than I expected,” Craig recalls.

Later he found out that one of his two brothers was also gay. 

“I like to joke with my straight brother,” Craig says, “I tell him, ‘you know, if you really wanted to change, you could.’”

Craig’s sense of humor, his warmth and his candor are obvious throughout our conversation as we sit on bar stools at the fun, funky Main Street Bar & Cabaret. I want to say that his eyes twinkle, but that would be a cliché, and I try to avoid clichés, but the thing is, they do twinkle.  

Laguna Beach declares June LGBT Heritage & Culture Month

We chatted about his life and his excitement about Laguna Beach’s declaration of June as LGBT Heritage & Culture Month. Craig is especially enamored of Mayor Toni Iseman, who he says has been incredibly supportive.

“There’s no other beach city with this strong connection to the arts, and so much of its character is a result of contributions from gay people in the arts, theatre, restaurants, architecture, everything, over decades,” he says. 

“Before the eighties, Laguna ranked right along with San Francisco and Provincetown as a place for gays to live or visit, actually even better because it was somewhat isolated because of the canyon, and of course, there was West Beach, (still is West Beach). Everyone knew to come here. Then AIDS came and slapped us in the face.  Gay people were marginalized. Gay bars became places of refuge.

“Things were changing here in Laguna too, with that TV show, the sense that the place was becoming gentrified. Over time a lot of the gay population left. And now again, things are changing so profoundly, with gay people getting married, having kids. We’re all adapting.”

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Appropriately, rainbow lights play on Craig at the Main Street Bar & Cabaret

I’d heard that Main Street & Cabaret was regarded as the last “gay bar” in Laguna. How, then, did Craig feel about an influx of straight people coming for a drink in a place that might still be regarded as a refuge for some? Did he, or gay regulars, feel that they were being gawked at, or that their place was being taken over?

This question energized Craig. 

“That’s the thing,” he said. “I don’t want this place to be anything but inviting to everyone. I don’t care, straight, gay, I don’t care about religion, body size, accent, anything like that. For too long, some in our community have not wanted to be inclusive. That is understandable, of course I understand, but it’s time to reciprocate as we become more included in the mainstream,” he says. “That being said, we do feel a special pride in being part of the gay community that has contributed so much. This Proclamation means so much, we were all so emotional at City Hall.”

What Craig would like for the Main Street Bar & Cabaret is this, he tells me: to be a place where people can feel at ease with each other. 

Mostly, though, Craig just wants people to have a great time: that’s why the Bar hosts music, karaoke, bingo, drag shows and weekly talent shows. From all accounts (and I intend to give an eyewitness account soon), the place is a blast.

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Main Street Bar & Cabaret is easy to find, located at 1460 S. Coast Highway at the end of the rainbow flag

“A few guys, straight guys, from our liquor distributors, came in the other night and had the best time dancing,” Craig says. “We get lots of bachelorette parties and also groups from the resorts who don’t want to wrap up their night at 9:30 – we stay open until 2 in the morning. Oh, and the talent nights are really fun. We’ve had singers, saxophone players, tap dancers – we like to showcase any talent that has entertainment value.”

There is so much more that Craig shared with me during our far-ranging and most enjoyable conversation: did you know his father was a mortician? That Craig birthed a foal when he was sixteen? That he has an amazing radio voice? That he once sang Chantilly Lace with Letterman? That he’s passionate about the Human Rights Campaign? That he loves hot dogs and red wine? And so much more…

But let me end with this story, which came up when we were discussing how bars sometimes become a refuge for those who feel alone and scared.

“There’s a real community of regulars in this bar,” he told me. “We rally around to help people who need help. A few years ago, a young man came into the bar, he had run away from home, he had nowhere to go. I gave him a mattress to sleep on, we helped him out with food, and then I didn’t see him for a few years. The other day I see him driving an expensive car, well-dressed, on the phone, obviously successful. I say, ‘Mervyn?’ and he looks at me and sees it’s me, and he gives me a hug and starts crying. A straight guy.”

Craig shakes his head, marveling. “That made me feel good.”

That’s the kind of man he is, Craig Cooley, manager of the Main Street Bar & Cabaret – a man with a great heart, and himself an icon in Laguna’s gay community.


“Born This Way” and grateful for it

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Chris Keller and Amy Amaradio have made their mark in Laguna Beach. Between La Casa del Camino, K’ya, The Rooftop, The Marine Room and the former House of Big Fish, it’s hard to fathom anyone from Laguna not having visited one of these landmark businesses. With their thriving business portfolio, the couple also has a growing family with three kids: Alexis, 18, Rocco, 3 1/2, and Gemma, 11 weeks. Needless to say, they are busy, and for the immediate future, no doubt a little sleep-deprived.

“Born This Way” adds a new cast member

With all they have going on, they recently undertook another, very personal project. They became cast members of A&E’s Emmy Award winning reality series, “Born This Way.” The show follows seven young adults with Down Syndrome as they “pursue their passions and lifelong dreams.” Season three added a new dimension by introducing a family with a young son born with Down syndrome. That new family is, of course, the Amaradio-Kellers. And they couldn’t be more thrilled, both with the show and the opportunity it provides them to speak to the special joys of having a child with Down syndrome.  

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Rocco, son of Amy Amaradio and Chris Keller, stars on A&E’s “Born This Way”

An unexpected condition at birth

When Amaradio and Keller were expecting Rocco, Amaradio says she did the standard preliminary screenings, but didn’t do the more invasive amniocentesis. “We just never even thought about that. We have a typical 18 year-old daughter. We really never thought about it. Plus, we never would have considered terminating the pregnancy.” So, when Rocco was born and they discovered he had Down syndrome, the couple was at a loss. “We were distraught,” admits Keller. “We went through all of that. It was a process.” 

The blessings of Rocco

Keller and Amaradio credit other parents of children with Down syndrome for helping them come to terms with Rocco’s condition. “It took us about a year,” says Keller. They started Rocco in the Early Intervention Program at the Assistance League in Laguna Beach when has was six weeks old. “That helped us tremendously,” remembers Keller. “It was such a blessing. It took us through a mourning process. The parents we met told us, ‘Your life will be blessed. Angels will fall in your path.’” 

Big sister leads the way

If Mom and Dad had to work through some things to come to a place of acceptance (now joy) with Rocco’s Down syndrome, Alexis, their oldest daughter, was already there. When asked to recount how Alexis handled the news of Rocco’s condition, Amaradio says, “I’m going to get emotional…She told us, ‘Mom, Dad, it’s going to be OK. I’m going to be there to protect him.’ She got me out of my shock…she told me, ‘Rocco is perfect just the way he is.’” 

A singular experience for a high school senior

A new sibling can’t help but change a family’s dynamics; a child with special needs only more so. Amaradio says she and Keller were cognizant of that and made a commitment that Alexis, no matter how loving and committed she was to her baby brother, would not spend her high school years as a built-in baby sitter. “I wanted her to enjoy high school,” says Amaradio.  Now, with her high school career almost over, Alexis is interested in studying journalism. “There aren’t a lot of graduating seniors with three and a half year old brothers with Down syndrome,” says Keller. “She has handled it so well. She has impressed us,” he adds admiringly.

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The Amaradio-Keller clan: (from left) Amy, Gemma, Chris, Rocco and Alexis

The right place at the right time

With all of this going on and for people who describe themselves as “introverts,” how did the Amaradio-Kellers find themselves on a reality show, especially one that started out specifically about young adults? “We were in the right place at the right time,” explains Keller. “We were involved in the Down syndrome community. Laura (Korkorian), the producer, watched us for awhile and then asked us if we would be interested,” explains Amaradio. “She knew we were friends with some of the cast members and it made sense for the show.” Adds Keller, “She (Korkorian) has an amazing ability. She uses her heart with the show. We knew we could trust her. She is an amazing person.”

A stressful transition works out

While the show is one visible piece of their very full lives, there are other less glamorous, but even more important things they must manage. Finding the right school for Rocco and getting him the therapy and special services he needs, for example. Luckily, according to his parents, Laguna is a great place for that. Once Rocco turned three he transitioned from one set of services and providers to a whole new system. This new system is the Laguna Beach Unified School District. This transition is a big part of the show’s storyline. “It’s stressful and it’s difficult. They wanted to capture that,” says Keller.

A loving team at TOW

Despite the stress, both parents highlight again and again their gratitude for what LBUSD provides Rocco. “It’s a special ed preschool at Top of the World,” explains Keller. “We now have a team there with as much love as we had before.” 

In addition to attending school at TOW three hours a day, five days a week, Rocco attends a private preschool two afternoons a week, plus speech therapy twice a week, another kind of speech therapy and feeding therapy another two times a week. It’s a lot, but Amaradio says it has actually “died down a little.”  With 11 week-old Gemma a new addition to the family, that can only be seen as welcome news.  And what does Rocco think of his baby sister? “He loves her!” says Keller. “They’re going to be the best of friends,” adds Amaradio.

Role models for Rocco

The bond between Rocco and Gemma will undoubtedly continue to strengthen as Gemma gets older, but what does their future look like? Like any two youngsters with their entire lives ahead of them, the sky is the limit – for brother and sister alike. As the older cast mates on “Born This Way” continue to prove, people with Down syndrome can do whatever they set their minds to. “They’re all doing something they’re passionate about, just like us,” says Amaradio. “They’re an inspiration for us. They give us a glimpse of a future for our son.”

And if Amaradio and Keller want people to know one thing about people with Down syndrome it’s that their future can be a bright, beautiful and independent thing. “We want everyone to know that having a child with Down syndrome is such a blessing. It has been the best thing that’s happened to our lives,” says Keller. He remembers in the early days when other parents would tell him that. “I thought, ‘They’re so full of it.’ But it’s so true!” he exclaims. 

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Rocco and dad, Chris Keller, making their way down to the beach

A mission to share the joys of raising a child with Down syndrome

While making a point to say how much they respect every parent’s decision when faced with a diagnosis of Down syndrome, Keller says he and Amaradio feel like it’s their “mission” to share the joys of having a Down syndrome child. “We want to keep pressing for awareness,” says Amaradio. “They will accomplish things. You will be blessed.” While acknowledging that at first Rocco’s condition threw them for a loop, Keller says emphatically, “Little did we know those emotions that we felt turned out to be the best thing in our lives. We are both so thankful Rocco is in our lives. He has changed our lives and we are really thankful for that.”  

Grateful for many things in Laguna Beach

 Their gratitude extends to their hometown, as well. “We are so thankful we’re in Laguna Beach and have such great support,” says Keller sincerely. He gives the fire department, the police department and the schools a heartfelt shout out.  Keller also makes sure to sing the praises of the Assistance League of Laguna Beach. “We now donate all we can to the Assistance League. We encourage others to do the same.” So remember their thrift shop the next time you’re cleaning out your closet (or are looking for something to add to it) or you want to donate to a worthy cause. And don’t forget to check in with Rocco and family, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on A&E. Amaradio promises you’ll be glad you did. “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. It’s a great family show.” Great family, great show…makes sense.


Laguna Life & Pups: The world according to K-9 Ranger

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Since Dr. Doolittle, who hasn’t imagined what it would be like to communicate with animals? Or is it just me, and my animal assignments have gone too far? Ranger is my first dog interview.

“What’s a typical work night like for you?” I ask Ranger. He works from 4:40 p.m. until 2:40 a.m. from Thursday through Saturday, but is on call 24/7. 

I soon find out there are no typical work nights.

“I go on all alarm calls, crimes-in-progress, locate suspects and evidence.” He’s fidgety, this is his first interview too.

It’s a dog’s life. A bad connotation. Not true, according to Ranger, our Laguna Beach Police Department’s K-9. He loves his job, and he loves his life with Corporal Zachary Fillers (and his family), his handler for the past three years. Ranger, named after fallen officer Sergeant Jon Coutchie who was a US Army Ranger, was later nicknamed Ranger Danger by his fellow-officers, but he doesn’t seem dangerous when I meet him at the station. 

“What was your last big case?” I try to make eye-contact, but he’s focused on Corporal Fillers.

Ranger contemplates an answer to my question

Ranger is strictly business. “Sniffing out drugs. We assisted the Newport Beach Police Department in locating several ounces of meth in a compartment under the seat of a car.” 

Before I continue grilling Ranger, I get some background from Corporal Fillers on how they ended up together and what qualities are necessary for a K-9.  Ranger, a Belgian Malinois, was trained in Holland and purchased through Adlerhorst International in Jurupa Valley, a company that specializes in selecting the finest K-9s for police work. In business for over 45 years, they’ve evolved into the largest private police dog school in the world. The Laguna Beach Woman’s Club donated $10,000 and the LB Assistance League donated $12,000 toward his purchase.

“Is Corporal Fillers a good handler?” I’d like to take that inquiry back, since he’s been Ranger’s only handler.

Ranger looks appalled at my stupidity. “No complaints.”

Ranger and Corporal Fillers team up

Ever since he was young and a K-9 officer came to his school, Corporal Fillers has wanted to be a K-9 handler. His love of dogs, combined with his background, made him the perfect match for Ranger. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminology, Law, and Society from the University of California at Irvine. He graduated from the Orange County Sheriff’s Academy in 2009 and has been a Police Officer with the Laguna Beach Police Department since 2011. 

Together, he and Ranger went through an initial eleven weeks of training, consisting of six weeks on patrol and five weeks of narcotics detection. On Wednesdays, they train with the Irvine and Newport Beach Police Departments. Once a month, he and Ranger are trained by their vendor Adlerhorst International (in both patrol and narcotics detection).

“Are there any other jobs you’d like to attempt other than being a K-9?” I ask.

This gets Ranger’s attention. “A dispatcher. I like wearing the headset.” 

I should have seen that answer coming. A photo of him in the dispatcher’s chair was posted on Instagram a few days ago.

The qualities necessary for a K-9 (which are present in Ranger’s breed) are prey drive (hunting, chasing), play drive (desire to interact with others), and defense drive (flight or fight mode). And Ranger has these in aces.

“You have a stressful job.” I say to Ranger. “How do you relax once you’re off-duty?” 

“I’m excited to come to work, and I’m excited to get home and just hang out. I play with Hailey and Zach’s children.”  

I find out that Hailey is an Australian Shepherd Cattle Dog mix that Corporal Fillers had before he got Ranger.

“What’s your favorite part of the job?”

“I love being in the car. At home, I like my kennel.” He seems bored, as if he’d rather be back in the car.

Corporal Fillers and Ranger (wanting to get back to his favorite place at work)

 “Are you ever afraid when you go out on a call?” 

 “Never to the point of being not willing to go out. I told you, I love my job.” He looks away. “But big waves scare me.”

I give Ranger a break for a moment and ask Corporal Fillers if Ranger wears a bullet proof vest. He soon will. They’ve acquired a state of the art vest thanks to the Vest-A-Dog Orange County. Jenny Conde from CDMHS started the group, and with the help of Officer Mike Fletcher from the Newport Beach Police Department, they secured the funds for Ranger’s vest, as well as several others for K-9s throughout Orange County.

Back to the interview. “What noise do you love?”

Do dogs eye-roll? If they do, I’m getting one. “The sound of my food going into the bowl.”

“What noise do you hate?” 

“The lawnmower.”

The only time Ranger barks at home, Corporal Fillers explains, is when the gardener comes.

I’m starting to feel a bit like James Lipton on Inside the Actors’ Studio asking questions originating from Bernard Pivot.

“What’s your favorite word?”

He’s smiling. “Find it.” And dogs do smile.

After locating evidence, Ranger is rewarded with his toy, a jute roll, to chew on and play with before continuing the sniffing.

A reward for “finding it”

“What’s your least favorite word?”

“No.”

A universal answer, he’s not so different from humans. 

“Does Corporal Fillers use hand signals or verbal commands?” I say.

No response. He’s done.

Corporal Fillers answers for him. “Both.”

Before Ranger (who is the department’s third police dog), it had been 10 years since the department had a dog program. 

Corporal Fillers expands on the value of a K-9 to the department. “Ranger’s job is finding people and things. He has a superior sense of smell (30,000 better than ours) to find bad guys and drugs. He’s a big locating tool that allows us (the officers) to keep a safe distance away. He can also move faster, which saves man hours, and allows us to better serve the community.” 

Once a year, they are recertified in patrol (a three day class) and narcotics detection (a two day class).

K-9 experts say that the bond between a K-9 and handler is unbreakable. The inevitable thought of Ranger’s retirement comes to mind. “Retirement usually comes after 5-7 years of service, but it depends on the health of the dog. We want them to have a good retirement,” Corporal Fillers says. When that time comes, he’ll be able to purchase Ranger for a dollar to alleviate liability for the department.

Corporal Filler and Ranger are inseparable

To help with the vet bills for retired police dogs and for the purchase of police dogs for other departments, the Orange County Police K-9 Association puts on a spectacular themed event each year. The 29th Annual Police K-9 Demonstration will be held on Sat, Oct. 14, at Glover Stadium in Anaheim. It includes helicopters, dog competitions, fireworks, and a meet and greet with the K-9s. (For more information, go to www.ocpa.org.) 

I “paws” to reflect. There are a few questions that I didn’t get to ask Ranger, “Do you have a bucket list?” and “If dog heaven exists, what would you like God to say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?” But these questions must wait for another conversation. 

Thank you, Corporal Fillers and Ranger for your dedicated service and for a window into what life is like for a K-9 and his handler. The world “according to Ranger” is a good one.


Laguna Fitness’s Cora Kasperski believes that  tough love works

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Cora Kasperski is undoubtedly her business’s best advertisement. As owner of Laguna Fitness, Kasperski embodies everything she preaches to her clients – times ten. She started Laguna Fitness almost on a whim. Last week she celebrated her business’s new space at 1999 South Coast Highway (just down the street from the old space) and 15 years of helping people reach their fitness goals.

Working out for herself as well as helping others

Kasperski, a native of the Philippines, came to Laguna 15 years ago via San Diego when she and her first husband got engaged. Kasperski took over a personal training business that was closing and she has been up at the crack of dawn training clients ever since. Kasperski’s days have gotten even longer in the past year since she started competing in body building contests. This has her up at 4:15, three mornings a week so she can tend to her own fitness routine which is, needless to say, intense.

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Cora Kasperski, owner of Laguna Fitness, in her studio

Motivated to compete

While acknowledging she has always worked out, Kasperski credits her first husband who was a Marine and her best friend from the Philippines for prompting her to reach the next level of fitness. “My friend competed. She had muscles. It was attractive, being fit and healthy. I just like that look,” she says of her motivation. She competed in her first contest at age 28 and came away with the first of her three Best-in-Class Championships. The next two would arrive 22 years later when Kasperski decided to start competing again at 50.

Committed to winning

Such a decision is not taken on lightly. To look like Kasperski and, especially to win like Kasperski, is not a part-time thing. To prepare for a competition means Kasperski goes on a 90-day plan with her coach. “He helps a lot,” she says emphatically. It’s somewhat encouraging to know that even the most disciplined people can use a little extra help in attaining their goals. 

Organization and discipline in addition to the work outs

For these 90-day periods Kasperski wakes up in the dark for her cardio-walk and then spends five hours, three days a week working out in her gym. She works clients in around her workout. She eats six to seven times a day and spends Sunday cooking an entire week’s worth of food. As her husband Clay marvels, “The organization and discipline needed for this is even harder than the working out.” 

Closing in on a goal

Kasperski’s discipline is impressive. She competed three times last year and has a competition coming up in July. That’s 360 days dedicated to this very intensive regime. No sugar, no alcohol, every food measured; clearly, Kasperski is not just competing for the fun of it. She has lofty ambitions. “My goal is to win the overall competition,” she says. 

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Cora Kasperski at work with a private client

This means winning each of three divisions in her particular category, which is called “Figure.” There are four categories: Bikini, Figure, Physique and Body Builder, with each category getting a bit more muscular. The Body Builder category would be the most muscular. Each category has age divisions (i.e. 35+ years, 40+ years) so Kasperski has to compete against women who are considerably younger. At her last competition in December Kasperski achieved first place in two divisions and then a third place. She just missed out on winning the overall competition, but it’s very much in her sights. 

A loyal clientele sees results

Her commitment to her goals is obviously an inspiration to her clients. When we met at her studio one of her clients was there working out, and he couldn’t help but offer his unsolicited praise of Kasperski. He’d been working out with her for three months, had lost 20 lbs. and gained muscle. His enthusiasm was infectious. His devotion to Kasperski and her methods was very apparent.

Tough but not mean

Kasperski’s husband also sings her praises as a trainer. He would know. Before he married her he, too, was a client. Kasperski says she fired him as a client once they got serious. “I had to because it’s not good if I’m telling him what to do all the time,” she says laughing. 

And while Kasperski has a very bubbly personality, apparently she’s not all sweetness and light when she’s training someone. “Cora is very motivating,” explains Clay, her husband. “She doesn’t baby you; she challenges you.” He goes on to explain that both men and women, (her clients are about 50 percent male and 50 percent female) appreciate her toughness. “Some women have been treated delicately before they get here. They like it that she’s tough…but she’s not mean,” he adds emphatically.  Kasperski says she’s a believer in “tough love” for her clients. Is she complimentary? “If they deserve it,” she says smiling.

15 years in business is a result of being attentive

Her approach must be working. Laguna Beach has more than a few personal trainers and Kasperski has managed to stay in business – and even grow her business – over the past 15 years. Her secret is pretty simple: “When I train people I’m with them. I give them a little touch. It’s a small thing, but it lets you know somebody’s there for you. I’m very attentive.” 

She’s so attentive that she texts her clients what to eat daily and does a general check-in with them. If they’ve been over-indulging, she has no problem calling them out. She also has no problem calling them out if they’re not focused during training. One of her catchphrases around the studio is “Just listen!” She gets serious for a moment. “It’s so annoying when they don’t listen,” she says with exasperation, then smiles broadly. It’s very clear that if you’re in her gym, you’re not messing around.

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Cora Kasperski with husband Clay in Laguna Fitness’s new space

A former pro seeks out her help

With a very full calendar, Kasperski is pretty much maxed out right now. “I don’t know if I want to get any busier,” she says. “Maybe someday I’ll read a magazine,” she says doubtfully. One thing she would like to make time for is working with older people. “I love old people,” she says. She gives away a lot of her time for charity events and even offers a free Booty class on Sundays (call for availability). She did take on a new client recently and she couldn’t be more excited. “Sean Ray was a top body builder, top five in the world for ten years in a row. He came to my open house and said, ‘I think you can help me.’ He’s been on the couch for a while now,” she says laughing.

A trainer, a competitor and a matchmaker

While her goal is to help her clients reach their goals, be they former professional body builders or just people wanting to look and feel better, Kasperski offers another service that doesn’t come standard with most personal trainers. “I’m a matchmaker,” she says proudly. Apparently, she’s a successful one, at least according to her clients. The exact number of couples matched was up for debate, but like everything Kasperski does, the number was more than you’d expect.


The Blue Hour: Mitch Ridder’s Artistic Eye

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Mitch Ridder embraces the blue hour. Those rich moments of twilight, just after dusk, when the sun sits low below the horizon and the indirect light of the sky takes on a vivid blue hue. In those betwixt minutes, the world seems to hold its breath. For Mitch, an award-winning photographer and photojournalist, it’s not always as serene as you might imagine.

One Sunday evening, hovering precariously above the 110 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles, only a narrow one-foot strip of cement beneath him for false protection, Mitch stands ready. Cars navigate around the blind corner of the Third Street onramp at 30 mph in the near dark, inches away from Mitch and his camera. He positions his tripod on the curb, his foot in the street, and focuses both his mind and his lens. 

“It was very similar to many shots by other photographers,” Mitch says. “The challenge I set for myself was to find a new angle.” 

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The Blue Hour: in this photo, a time to feature Mitch Ridder himself

The image is stunning. A snake of red taillights beneath him, a streak of white headlights coming toward him, the majesty of the L.A. skyline at twilight framed by palm trees whose every frond is highlighted by the backdrop of that intense blue hue.

“There are always two people in every picture,” Ansel Adams once said. “The photographer and the viewer.” Mitch’s quiet stillness behind the camera is just as visible as the rush of the freeway below. The fluorescent-lit metropolis, random sequences of sporadic light, so dense it feels lonely; and a photographer, alone with his lens, as cars whiz within inches. At least that’s what this viewer sees, standing metaphorically beside Mitch, months after the fact.

The Road (& Track) to Art

Mitch developed his appreciation for art early. Throughout his childhood Mitch’s father, a local architect, subscribed to Road & Track Magazine, which contained a significant amount of art—illustrations, drawings, photographs. Mitch was hooked. As a senior at Laguna Beach High School, he took an art class from Hal Akins. 

“[Akins] had an amazing way of analyzing and comparing my pencil drawing to the source photo,” Mitch says. “My work went from some of my best efforts to I-can’t-believe-what-I’ve-done. That set the path for art and illustration.” Akins would send Mitch back to his desk—again and again—to review, refine, and revise. 

That patience and persistence paid off. His work eventually appeared in Road & Track and, in 1998, Mitch juried into the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts for his watercolors of IndyCars.

Mitch studied commercial art at Orange Coast College before transferring to Cal State Long Beach to study illustration. He received scholarships from both the Festival of Arts and Sawdust Festival to complete his education. He was able to apply those skills to t-shirt graphics and apparel design for ASICS athletic wear, a sponsor for the New York City Marathon. 

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Mitch Ridder is also an accomplished marathon runner

Did I mention Mitch is also a marathon runner? Fifty of them. Including both Boston and New York, a marathon he finished in 2:59:12. Mitch started running at the age of 27, following a serious injury he suffered to his ankle playing softball. After surgery, he wanted to test the new hardware in his foot and began running. And running. And running. Like everything Mitch tackles, he didn’t do it half way. 

 

Water, Water, Everywhere

Throughout it all, Mitch was also a competitive swimmer. Beginning at age nine and continuing into college, Mitch took easily to the water. And, at 17, he started serving as a lifeguard—not just in high school and college—but for 38 years. Only recently did Mitch hang up his whistle.

All that time in the water may have worked its way into his art. Before Mitch was a photographer, he was a watercolor artist. For 24 years, Mitch produced meticulous paintings that looked like photographs. The detail is just that vivid.

“I measured my work in weeks and months,” he says. “Never in hours or days.” Mitch worked like an airbrush artist, masking off sections of work to prevent bleeding, and applying multiple layers of paint to build opacity and contrast. He harnessed the focus, perseverance and patience that are prevalent in everything he does. His watercolor work showed at the Festival of Arts from 1999-2008. After 24 years, though, painting became more work than reward. That’s when he trained his eye on the camera.

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Those medals of Mitch’s deserve a close-up

While photography had always been part of Mitch’s life, he didn’t devote full attention to it until 2008. His grandmother passed, leaving Mitch some money. She’d always been a supporter of his art, and he reflected on how best he could honor her memory. He used his inheritance to buy his first professional camera.

A Man About Our Town . . . And Others

At some point in Mitch’s photography career, he realized he had taken more pictures of Los Angeles than Laguna Beach. As a lifelong resident, Mitch felt oversaturated by the iconic images of Laguna—in galleries, on postcards, and in tourist shops—the town felt overdone. He decided to use his knowledge of Laguna to his photographic advantage. “I could see familiar landmarks in a different way,” he said. “And depict the town from a different perspective.” 

Mitch shares that intimate familiarity in every image. The cottages on Park Avenue, photographed during the blue hour, with the Hotel Laguna rising behind. Getting inside the ocean with the lifeguards during training. Laguna’s every season, angle, and mood—from celebrations to crises—caught inside his camera. Mitch creates visual love letters to our town.

He’s taken that love to Italy and, most recently, to Cuba where he captured the vivid colors, the friendly people, the rich architecture, and the dilapidated cars of Havana and Trinidad. An island outside time and technology, seen through the unique lens of Mitch’s eye. His work will be on display this summer at the Festival of Arts.

Open Doors

Doors, and windows, are prominent in Mitch’s work. Maybe it’s the architectural influences of his father. Maybe it’s Mitch’s rich subconscious always at work. He often portrays people on the precipice of coming or going, or simply standing on the threshold of the open world, and what lies intimately within. That quiet blue hour that resides in us all. Or maybe, as Ansel Adams suggests, that’s just this viewer’s perspective, looking inside Mitch’s work.

But his life feels like a testament to the power of opening oneself to the world. To let life in—artistically, athletically—however it arrives. And to capture its beauty when it does.

To learn more about Mitch, visit his website at www.mitchridderphotography.com 


Ernest Hackmon and “The Importance of Being”

WRITTEN BY: Samantha Washer

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Ernest Hackmon was looking for a change. “I was in telecom management. I got to a plateau in my career. I was driving to work and I realized where I’d be at that time for the rest of my life. It was unsettling,” he says with a laugh. “I reevaluated my life. I decided I should think bigger.” So in 1995, Hackmon opened his business, Web Wave Village, “an internet café without coffee,” on Forest Ave. 

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Ernest Hackmon, host of KX93.5’s ‘The Importance of Being”

Trying to strike it rich during the “gold rush”

Hackmon describes this time as the “gold rush” of the Internet. “Everybody thought they were going to get rich,” he muses. As for Hackmon, “My intention was to quickly become rich and embark on a life of frivolous spending like Justin Bieber. Instead, I ended up working almost 80 hours a week and becoming a pillar of the community,” he says with mock despair. “It was a work avoidance plan gone horribly wrong,” he laughs, something he does easily and often. This “plan” lasted ten years. 

Giving LBUSD a much-needed introduction to technology

In those years, Hackmon made a lot of contacts in the city. He credits those relationships for helping his business survive when “the bubble burst.” They also led him down his path to community pillar-dom. The first step was with the schools. “I did an eight year modernization project for the schools. I helped set the foundation for what they’re doing now. They viewed me as a godsend because they didn’t have any money,” he remembers. Technology in the classroom is so ubiquitous now, it’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t that long ago when teachers didn’t use, or even have computers in their classrooms. Hackmon helped with that first step.

From the schools to SchoolPower

He also helped modernize the schools’ largest benefactor, SchoolPower. “Before they were using a ton of volunteers to manage their Dinner Dance auction. I agreed to help them so I designed an auction management system. They went from using spreadsheets to automated tools. It helped change their culture into a much more modern organization. It changed their focus from volunteer management to next level fundraising,” he says proudly.

Inspired by President Obama to get involved

Hackmon didn’t just stop with the schools. He began working with city issues, as well. It was right before President Obama was elected. Hackmon says he was inspired to get involved. In addition to contracting with the Laguna Beach Water District, a venture, he says he embarked on in order to have some much-needed free time, he also joined the Parking, Traffic and Circulation Committee. We both chuckled at the name. Can it sound any less exciting? But there aren’t many things that concern Laguna Beach residents more on a daily basis than parking and traffic. 

The Parking, Traffic and Circulation Committee makes headlines

“We’re most famous for the skateboarding issue,” he explains. The “skateboarding issue” Hackmon is referring to took place several years ago when downhill skateboarding was extremely popular in Laguna. It fell to his committee to figure out how the skateboarders, drivers, bikers and pedestrians could all coexist on Laguna’s narrow roads. What started out as a meeting with a handful of people soon grew into a 400 - 500 person event, according to Hackmon. “We did what any good committee does: we gave people a chance to speak.” 

 It had become such a big issue that reporters and TV crews were at the meeting. Hackmon says he remembers a reporter from Channel 5 news leaving in disgust.

“People discussing their views in an orderly and cordial manner isn’t newsworthy. The (city of) Bell hearings were going on at the same time. There were people throwing chairs and screaming. That’s better TV,” he says with a shrug. Hackmon sat on the committee for seven years.

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Ernest Hackmon in the studio with last week’s guest, Caroline Bruderer

Changing the culture on the Irvine Valley College Foundation

Continuing with his commitment to education, Hackmon joined the Irvine Valley College Foundation. “I help businesses modernize so it was a good fit for me. I became president and changed the culture. I brought in new people with new experiences which developed a culture of winning. They’re a very good school. They hadn’t had a lot of experience being successful fundraisers, but they had a great product to sell,” he explains.  

After three years on the Board, Hackmon says the Board went from 12 members to 25 when he stepped down. Now, there are 40 members with an endowment of over $1 million. “They’re well on their way,” Hackmon says with satisfaction.

Doing the people’s business because it needs to be done

And personal satisfaction is what it’s about for Hackmon since, as he acknowledges, he doesn’t really have a personal agenda regarding his causes. He simply does what is needed because it is needed. “Most of the stuff you’re going to do is not stuff you’re passionate about. It’s stuff that’s important to other people,” he admits.  However, this isn’t true for everything he does. 

“The Importance of Being” is born

For just over three years Hackmon has hosted a radio show on KX93.5 called “The Importance of Being.” Talk about a happy accident of events that helped bring this show to the air.  “When the radio station started I connected with the music,” he says. “I wanted to volunteer, but I could never catch up with Tyler (Russell, KX93.5 Program Director).” 

Then, one day out of the blue, Russell called Hackmon because, “He said I was on a list to do a show.” Hackmon says he had filled out an application to volunteer at the station, and he had mentioned – because it was part of the application – that if he were to do a show it would focus on people in the community.  

Hackmon says he definitely thought of himself as a behind-the-scenes guy. “I’d won a tape recorder back in elementary school. I heard the sound of my voice and never used it again,” he says shaking his head. “I had no desire or want to do that ever again,” he adds with a rueful laugh.

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Laguna’s KX93.5, where Ernest Hackmon connects listeners to their community

A behind-the-scenes guy gets a slot on prime time radio

Russell must have been very persuasive because he convinced Hackmon to give broadcasting a try with a primetime, two hour slot. “It was a pretty rough the first couple of weeks,” laughs Hackmon. Now, in his fourth season, he’s clearly smoothed out all the kinks.

Music and conversation mix to make compelling radio

Every Saturday from 8 -9 a.m. Hackmon interviews someone who is making a difference in their community. “I try to provide examples of how people are making the most of their time in in their life.” He likens the interview to a cocktail party version of their story. “I’m trying to explore the person and who they are.” He uses music to relax his guests. 

Originally, he admits, he used it as “water wings” in case he found himself stuck live on air. Now, he uses it to set the mood. “Plus it makes the show more listenable,” he says. He also says his friends don’t appreciate his taste in music. “I love alternative music. My friends won’t let me play it for them!” he says with mock indignation.

A gift he gives to himself and his listeners

While the musical part of Hackmon’s radio show could be viewed as a way to indulge his musical tastes, the interview part indulges something much deeper in him. He is certain that the people who are the happiest are the people who give the most.

“They have an enduring satisfaction that’s unrivaled,” he says with certainty. His interest in sharing these people’s stories is what drives his radio show. “I love it. It’s a gift I give myself. I get to spend an hour every week with someone amazing. That’s pretty special. I get to live in this world populated by people doing wonderful things, and that’s not too bad.” he says emphatically. After this interview, I know just how he feels.


As a kid, Jeff Rovner wanted to be Ricky Ricardo, but life had other plans for this multi-talented man

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

It takes more than sleight of hand to become an expert in multiple endeavors: lawyer, technologist, professor, magician, and photographer. However, Jeff Rovner, although he is an accomplished magician, doesn’t need the magical arts to attain success. Granted, there is a bit of performance in each of his diverse roles, but he claims there is another common thread; if he discovers a final effect worth achieving, he’ll put in the time and behind the scenes preparation to bring it about. 

Jeff is married to Marrie Stone, a writer and co-host of KUCI’s Writers on Writing radio show, and father to fifteen-year-old Haley, a sophomore at Sage, and a hula hoop performer with Le PeTiT CiRqUe, an all-kid humanitarian cirque company. 

He’s also master of the house to Theo, a beautiful Ragdoll cat.

How does someone who, as a child, wanted to be a band leader in the style of Ricky Ricardo and had the red sport coat with black lapels to prove it, become a multi-award winning technologist, a professor at George Washington University, a member of The Academy of Magical Arts, and an exhibitor of Fine Art Photography at the 2017 Festival of Arts? 

Jeff was born in 1957 in Washington D.C. and took up magic at the age of seven, when he found a magician’s number in the telephone book and called him. The magician turned out to be a professional who performed at the White House for the Kennedy children. He sold Jeff his first magic paraphernalia, and during Jeff’s childhood and early teen years, he performed at various events. 

In 1995, he was inducted into The Academy of Magical Arts (aka Magic Castle). On Halloween, he treats the neighborhood to performances at his door, and he still does magic for his students in the Master’s Program in Law Firm Management course.

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Jeff’s Collection of Magic Memorabilia

With the intention of becoming a doctor like his father and older brother, Jeff earned a BS in Zoology and worked briefly at NIH. But along the way, he switched career paths from medicine to law. In 1982, he graduated with a law degree from GW and practiced for 14 years. In 1996 he made another career change, this time to the field that came to be called knowledge management. He is currently the Managing Director for Information at the global law firm O’Melveny and Myers. 

In this role, Jeff organizes vast quantities of information to make it accessible and useful to the lawyers in his firm. Jeff says he enjoys the challenge of bringing order to chaos. “The more complex and messy a subject is, the greater the payoff when you finally organize and simplify it.” 

In 2007, Jeff was named one of the Top 100 Global Tech Leaders; in 2014, he was chosen Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management; and since 2015, Jeff’s litigation efficiency software, called OMMLit, has received four innovation awards, most recently from the Financial Times. 

This talent for innovation has translated into his photography. On his photography website, www.jeffrovner.com, he says, “The camera is my preferred tool to extract order, beauty and meaning from a chaotic world.”

Mesmerized by Haley and photography

His interest in photography began in earnest in 2011, when he was determined to take better pictures of daughter Haley and knew he was on borrowed time to document her childhood. “She just endlessly fascinated and delighted me,” he says. “I was determined to take better pictures of her. One of my photographer friends insisted I learn how to shoot without relying on my camera’s automatic settings. I bought a camera from Leica, a retro model that requires the photographer to choose focus and exposure manually. While that made shooting pictures more difficult at first, the results were so much better. It’s the only art form in which I’ve been able to produce results that satisfy me.”

Haley was also the inspiration for the fine art photographs Jeff will exhibit at this year’s Festival of Arts. When she joined Le PeTiT CiRqUe, Jeff frequently drove her to her practice sessions and performances. With the blessing of the troupe’s owner, Jeff conducted a formal portrait session with all the young performers, shooting them in the style of Irving Penn’s famous portraits. 

“Based on the success of those photographs, I was given more access to the troupe, and was able to document the kids at their rehearsals and shows,” he says.

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In the midst of magic, Le PeTiT CiRqUe and Haley (in a photo on the wall)

Once he had accumulated a large body of Cirque photos, he recalled the advice of his mentor Robert Hansen, another photographer at the Festival, who had suggested he choose a photography project and perhaps produce a book. So he planned the finishing touch for the project – a dramatic portrait of each artist performing his or her circus art, including trapezes, hoops, and stilts. 

Jeff will exhibit that portfolio of portraits at this summer’s Festival. The portraits are also included in Jeff’s book, The Values of Le PeTiT CiRqUe. All profits from the book are donated to the purchase of supplies and equipment for the troupe. “The book was a labor of love,” Jeff says, “my attempt to capture the beauty of the costumes, the nostalgia of the circus, the skill of the performers, and the growth of all the kids, including my own.” 

Three of these portraits are on exhibition at Wells Fargo Bank’s third floor gallery, as part of the Festival’s Fresh Faces exhibit (featuring artists recently juried into the Festival), which runs until June 14. A reception will be held at 11 a.m. on Sat, May 13.

Hometown performance

Adding to Jeff’s excitement at exhibiting during the Festival’s 85th year, the troupe from Le PeTiT CiRqUe will perform twice on Family Day on July 16 at the Festival. Between shows, they will mingle and interact with the crowd. “It will be wonderful to watch Haley perform with her troupe in her home town,” he says.

Laguna Beach became Jeff’s town in 1994. What drew him to Laguna? “It just feels good here. It’s kind of a healing place, there’s something very special about it. For people who need some repair, it offers that, and the small scale of the architecture compared to the mega mansions in other communities reminds people of their humanity,” he says. “The small beach cottages also encourage people to get out of their homes and into the town. It’s a real place, a community, more like what I was accustomed to back east.” 

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In all endeavors, Theo serves as Muse

Fortunately for us, he made Laguna his home, but he does love to visit other places. Jeff, Marrie, and Haley have traveled extensively via house swapping, which they started doing in 2005, the first time in Paris. They’ve been back there several times, and it turns out that is Jeff’s favorite city. They also liked Leiden in the Netherlands and Forte dei Marmi in Italy. He dreams someday of orchestrating an arrangement with two other families, one in Paris and the other in some other wonderful city, and have each family rotate through the three homes during the year.

Looking to the future

That conversation takes us into the future -- what projects, what chaos is out there for him to simplify. “New ideas excite me,” Jeff says. “I’m lucky to work in a job that gives me the time to read and look for new ideas, including ideas from other disciplines that can be adapted for use in my law firm.” 

Jeff’s interest in ideas led him to a new project he calls “Concept Cards.” He plans to produce a deck of cards, each explaining an important concept and showing how it can be useful. “People need concepts to attach their experiences to, to give meaning to those experiences. So I’m assembling the concepts that have been most useful to me, and soliciting others from my friends. With a deck of Concept Cards, one can learn valuable ideas that would otherwise require a lifetime to gather.” He has already crowd-sourced 200 concepts.

So, we found out how the boy who wanted to be a band leader ended up in Laguna Beach as the master of many roles. Although the one thing he hasn’t mastered that he would like to, he says, “…is playing the piano.” Of course, I immediately pictured him someday in Paris, playing the piano in a lounge, and wearing a red sport coat with black lapels. 

“When you were young, did you expect you would have a good life?” I ask, and he responds, “As a child I always expected I would have a good life. I still do. (And by God, I have!)”


Jill Gwaltney, Rauxa’s founder. on working harder, being nicer, and the challenges of businesswomen

WRITTEN BY: Samantha Washer

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

When Jill Gwaltney, founder of Rauxa, graduated from Stanford, she interviewed with companies like Merrill Lynch and Xerox for a sales position. Her father, who owned a printing company, suggested that if a career in sales was what she wanted, then she should come sell for him.  

Gwaltney accepted, but was mindful of her position. “When you’re the boss’s daughter you have to work harder and be nicer,” she says. That mindset, working harder and being nicer, is one she has carried with her throughout her career, long after leaving her father’s employ. And this attitude has paid off. Rauxa, the full service marketing agency founded by Gwaltney, was just ranked as the third largest agency in Orange County by the Orange County Business Journal.

A life built in Laguna, but with offices all over the country

Jill and her husband, the well-known artist Chris Gwaltney, moved to Laguna in 1979. Her parents had recently moved to Laguna Niguel and Gwaltney says she and Chris just “liked the area.” They’ve been here ever since. Now, however, less of their time is spent here than in years past. Rauxa has offices all over the country which means Gwaltney is frequently on a plane somewhere. However, since turning the day-to-day reins of Rauxa over to president and CEO Gina Alshuler, Gwaltney says she is spending time “taking care of myself. When the kids were at home it was work-family. That was it. Now there is more time for friends, more vacations.”

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Jill Gwaltney, founder of Rauxa, one of OC’s largest marketing agencies

Learning business from a reliable source: Dad

The road to this more relaxed stage of Gwaltney’s life is paved with hard work. She worked her way up the ladder of her father’s company: from sales to sales manager to VP of sales to president. “Everything I know about business I learned from my dad,” she says. One piece of sage advice he imparted to her was that in the then very male-dominated world of the printing business, if certain customers were to ask her for more than printing services, she needed to be mindful of the potential fragility of their egos. 

“He suggested I say something like, ‘I’m so flattered, but I really don’t think it’s a good idea to mix business with pleasure.’ I was 22 then. Now, I’m 61 and still no one has made a pass at me!” she says laughing. “The likelihood of me getting to use this line is not increasing. I should have worked for Bill O’Reilly,” she adds wryly.

Choosing to make the glass half full

While she laughs at the lack of opportunity to rebuff male customers’ unwanted advances, Gwaltney’s early success in a male-dominated field has impacted how she runs Rauxa. “I tweeted the other day, ‘Come to Rauxa where there is no glass ceiling to shatter,’” she says good-naturedly. Gwaltney knows what it’s like to be the only woman, something she says she saw as an advantage back in the early days. And this might be her secret: what others see as a hindrance she sees as an advantage.

The side project doesn’t stay part-time for long 

She and her father sold the printing company in 1996. She was asked to stay on as president for three years. However, Gwaltney says she didn’t really have any authority so she left after 18 months. “I thought I was going to retire,” she says, amused at the thought. “I coached (son) Cooper’s soccer team. I did Ladies Golf Day…then I started this little agency. I thought of it as maybe a part-time thing.” The “little agency” was Rauxa, of course, and Gwaltney should have known better. She can’t do “part-time.” “Well…I’m super competitive,” she admits with a laugh, “Plus I really like to take care of people. I really enjoy fulfilling the needs of others.” The combination of those two personality traits meant Rauxa was not going to be a side project for very long.

Seeing the advantages of being a woman in business

“We kept adding things based on what people needed,” she says of Rauxa’s growth. “Marketing is so data driven. The question becomes how do we personalize that data?” Asking questions and, even more challenging, being willing to listen to the answers is something Gwaltney practices personally and professionally. “Now, there are a lot more women in business. Back in the old days it was all men. I always felt being a woman was an advantage because the client wants help. It’s easier for me to be open, vulnerable, and help them do better in their jobs.”

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Jill Gwaltney in her Laguna Beach home office. Rauxa is located in Costa Mesa.

The importance of women at the top

While there may be more women in business today, Gwaltney still bemoans the lack of women in leadership positions. “There’s still not enough women at the top,” she says. “So much is based on relationships. A man in a key position brings people along because he trusts them. If you’re a woman it makes it harder to break in because of that.” In typical Gwaltney-fashion she adds, “When I was younger I never gave it any thought. I just thought I’ll work harder and stay after it until it’s done.” And she did.

Finding a true partner

Gwaltney’s commitment to her career is only matched by her dedication to her family. She credits her husband with helping her create that ever-elusive work/life balance. “It all starts with the husband, a true partner,” she says. Gwaltney remembers seeing Chris, a former tennis professional, on the court at the Laguna Niguel Racquet Club. “He was teaching these four and five year old kids. I thought he was adorable,” she says with a laugh. “I was always an outlier, always very outspoken. He enjoyed that...He never tried to shush me.” 

Committed to work, dedicated to family

The couple, married for 34 years, has two grown children, Dylan and Cooper. Dylan is completing her pediatric residency at Children’s Hospital LA. “I happen to think she’s the smartest, cutest and most empathetic doctor the world has ever seen,” says her proud mom. Her son Cooper is listed on Rauxa’s’s website as the “Lead Account Guy” for Cats on the Roof, a division of Rauxa that focuses solely on video content. Showing that her pride is equally shared between her children, Gwaltney recounts a recent pitch Cooper and his team made for Linzess, a treatment for opioid-induced constipation. “They came in with 16 ideas! The client was amazed. They were like, ‘Who can come up with 16 ideas about this?!’” 

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The view from the Gwaltney’s Emerald Bay home

The next chapter is coming, but not just yet

With her kids excelling in adulthood and the daily management of her company in very capable hands, what’s next? Gwaltney says she is pondering that question. “My next step is figuring out what I can do in the community to give back, maybe start a foundation…but I’m not quite there yet.” And the reason she’s not quite there yet is because she’s at a place with Rauxa where she gets to do what she likes best: work with clients and work with Alshuler on Rauxa’s vision and business development.   

So while she may be spending some more time on the golf course, and taking family vacations and visiting friends, she’s still very committed to her very full-time project.  Those philanthropic endeavors will have to wait. “Whatever I do, I do 100 percent,” she says, stating the obvious.  And that is clearly another secret to her success.


Brooks Street Books’ Sarah Vanderveen: Poet, philosopher, publisher

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Author and photographer Sarah Vanderveen, former editor of a literary journal, searched Southern California for a small independent press compatible with her values and aspirations (and I will add, talent), but she couldn’t find one that matched her publishing goals and those of her creative friends and colleagues. 

So in 2012 Sarah founded one: Brooks Street Books, which for the moment primarily publishes art and gift books steeped in the culture and natural history of Laguna and its surrounds. 

“Every day I wake up and think how lucky I am to live here,” Sarah says. “I wanted to capture the wonder of living somewhere so inspiring, and that’s how my book came about. Also, it made sense to use it as a way to figure out the challenges of the publishing process.”

Sarah Vanderveen

Sarah’s first book, Once by the Pacific, showcases her poems and photography and is beautifully produced. The contents are a paean to the wonders of our coves, wildlife and trails as well as the quirkiness of local characters. 

Two of my favorite poems are Hike and Coyotes (you’ll have to buy the book to read them…it’s available at Laguna Beach Books, Tuvalu and Areo, as well as traditional booksellers).

The essence of creating poetry

Like most of Sarah’s poems, both Hike and Coyotes capture the essence of what it means to live in Laguna, while subtly referencing more universal themes, even the mystery of life itself, in a form that invites the reader in, and doesn’t intimidate, as some poems tend to do – whether intentionally on the part of the poet or not.

“There’s a quote I love, though I’m not sure of the source,” Sarah says. “’[People should] love poems the way they love snow,’ in other words, viscerally. Poems should resonate emotionally, not present a wall the reader can’t get in.”

As, we agreed, is the case with quite a few poems published in The New Yorker.

Inspiration from an early age

Sarah’s sense of wonder about the natural world is a product, she says, of having lived in several inspiring places, from Mendocino to Napa Valley to Seattle, as well as the result of her childhood with parents who loved nature and the written word.

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Sarah’s and other author’s books published by Brooks Street Books 

 “My father used to read us poetry,” she says, recalling in particular a book of poems called Reflections on the Gift of Watermelon Pickle. I had never heard of it, and when I looked it up on Amazon, I was sad that I had never read it as child. (So, always willing to revert to childhood pleasures, I ordered the book.)

“I remember as a kid living in the Bay Area, collecting shells in the tide pools, how frigid the water was, the scent of the native plants on the hillsides, the fog rolling in, how incredibly mysterious the world became. I remember seeing huge sea lions, smelly but so awesome, sunning themselves, just ruling the beach, and they were so close,” Sarah recalls. “That image has stayed with me.”

Sarah’s instinctive connection with nature, combined with the presence of many books in her childhood home, seemed to point her toward a career in the creative arts…“which I resisted at first,” she says, “not wanting to be predictable, I suppose, wanting to be different from everyone else in the family.  So as a kid I thought I’d like to be an architect.”

But both nature and nurture have conspired to turn her into a poet and writer, with a dash of entrepreneurship thrown in.

A special place in her heart

Why Brooks Street Books, I asked?

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Working on new ideas

Turns out that Brooks Street has a great deal of emotional resonance in Sarah’s life. “It’s my husband’s favorite surfing spot, for one thing,” she explains. “Anytime I go down to Brooks Street beach, I’m likely to see friends or people I recognize there, and there are always people at the lookout watching the sunset in the evening, still amazed at the beauty, because it never gets old, even after living here for decades.”

The Vanderveens ended up in Laguna in part because one of their dearest friends, Mark Metherell, lived here with his wife. 

“We found a house across the road in Brooks Street. Those were wonderful times. Tragically Mark, a former Navy Seal, died in Iraq in 2008,” Sarah explains. “So I have a strong emotional connection with Brooks Street. There’s not a day we don’t think about Mark.”

Creativity, good fortune and gratitude

Brooks Street Books has also published the popular 101 Things to Love about Laguna, compiled by writer Sally Eastwood and illustrator Helen Polins-Jones. This book coincidentally arrived in my hands at the same time as a visit from my long-time friend Carol, who is now living in Australia. We happily perused it together, learning more about Laguna than I had known even after all these years living here – did you know that John Steinbeck wrote Tortilla Flat while living on Park Ave?  

As I write this, Carol is wandering around Laguna, seeking out as many of the 101 things that she can fit into her visit. 

The company also recently published The Accidental Naturalist, created by Jo Situ Allen, an adult coloring book which Sarah points out also contains a glossary of the flora and fauna represented on the pages, providing education along with fun.

These are books that represent Laguna, yes, but also the quintessential Sarah Vanderveen – a generous, creative, warm person who loves to walk the trails, surf, and hang out with her college-age sons and friends and family on the beach – and who doesn’t for a minute take for granted the good fortune that has led her to this place at this time, but instead has made it her mission to celebrate the wonder of our world in words and pictures.


Chris Olsen’s crazy busy world: wine and family life

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When he was a young guy in college, Chris Olsen had a fortuitous friendship. Chris was studying business and finance with the aim of going into the mortgage business, while his friend, whom he had known since high school, was researching a way to go into the wine business. Chris went on to pursue the world of mortgage financing, working for a large company, but a little voice inside his head kept reminding him about his love of wine and that friend’s thesis, and how fun and rewarding it would be to be in business independently.

He dropped what he was doing, contacted that friend, partnered up and launched The Wine Gallery. 

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Chris Olsen

Business on your own? Not always so easy.

“There are times I wish I wasn’t, but this is what I signed up for!” Chris says with a smile, as he checks his phone while answering vendor’s questions, inspects an order of shrimp, and still manages to give me the time to get to know him better. Oh, and he threw his back out, but that doesn’t stop him from loading supplies into the kitchen at their Woods Cove restaurant.

The entrepreneur is born

It was once upon a time, in 1999, that the partners opened that first little business – a boutique wine market in Corona Del Mar. Chris was 26 years old. That small space expanded into neighboring property, and then added a kitchen to the delight of their devoted customer following. But as time went on, Chris hankered for a full kitchen, not simply the electric one that they had been using.

“We were organically growing as we went along,” Chris says. “But I wanted to build on that – add a full kitchen.”

One of his customers happened to own property in Laguna that would be a perfect fit. Chris signed on for that space in 2012, and Wine Gallery Laguna Beach was born. It quickly became a happening place, both for wine and for the food. 

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Chris laughs, “[Corona Del Mar] that’s my day job, this [Laguna Beach] is my night job.”

In Laguna Beach alone, he manages 18 employees, some part-time, some full-time. Between the two locales, Chris says he’s something of a moving target these days.

Enter the wine world

Chris entered the wine world in an unconventional fashion. Growing up in Corona Del Mar, he would bring his high school dates to Laguna. He’d take the girl to a restaurant and order a bottle of wine.

“My date spot was Las Brisas,” he says. “My go-to spot.” 

Having a “baby face,” he knew he would command better attention and respect, and get away with it, ordering by the bottle (“The least expensive bottle”). At any rate, going to Laguna Beach, and going out to its restaurants, most likely launched Chris’ career.

“I love going out to eat, and cooking. I’ve always had an affinity for wine,” he says. “I just had a palate for it. And I always loved Laguna Beach.”

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As far as wine, Chris says he knows what he likes, and especially, “I know what sells.” One wine that is both his favorite and a best seller, is actually his own wine. Yes, he makes wine too! It’s a Pinot Noir varietal, called Mile 216 (named for the distance of the drive to the vineyards).

A family guy

A special girlfriend he brought to Laguna changed his life, one restaurant at a time. Chris and Heather loved to go to Javier’s, Sushi Laguna, and Tabu Grill often. Dating for almost nine years, they married and are now the happy parents of daughter Tyler, seven, and their four-year-old son, Tanner. And not only are they busy parents, they’re re-modeling their Laguna Beach home – another sort of full-time job.

The family is anchored in Laguna.

“I’m going to raise my kids here start to finish,” Chris says with pride. “Good friends, great schools, the beaches… we’re embedded in this community.”

And then he’s off to his son’s T-ball game, where he is the assistant coach.

“They’re learning to catch the ball ‘like a bulldozer’ and throw ‘like a cobra.’”

Just getting started

Before his “day job and his “night job,” Chris’ day goes like this: “I drop my kid at pre-school every day. Go check on the remodel, check emails, and work out… weights and run. If I’m lucky, I’ll get in the water and surf.”

How does he manage to juggle so many things in his life? He’s barely scratched the surface. Ahead are further plans to expand the business, and launch new lunchtime hours at the Laguna Beach locale.

“And I’d like to plant a vineyard.” 

Of course he would!

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If there was one word to describe Chris Olsen, it is energetic. He’s not one to let his back spasm slow him down; he’s a can-do guy, and he’s always ready with a quick smile. You can catch that smile just about every evening at Wine Gallery.

As the man says, “People know where to find me!”


LBPD Detective Cornelius Ashton is a “Top Cop”

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Detective Cornelius Ashton has been with the Laguna Beach Police Department for just two years. His brief tenure has, however, hardly hampered his ability to make an impact, not just on the police force, but in the wider community as well. In June 2016, after being on the force only a year, Ashton was awarded Laguna’s “Top Cop” award along with fellow officer, Dave Gensemer. The award was created to publicly recognize officers who exemplify exceptional dedication to their communities. 

After spending time with Detective Ashton it is easy to see why he was recognized: he is passionate about his job and committed to having a positive impact on everyone he meets, regardless of the circumstances.

The Juvenile Crimes Detective for LBPD

As the city’s Juvenile Crimes detective, Det Ashton is responsible for investigating all crimes involving juveniles including sex crimes, child abuse, narcotics and burglaries. It’s a big job because he works with children who are victims as well as perpetrators. “I deal with not only kids who commit crimes, but I’m also a school resource officer. I do what I can to build trust between the police department and our youth,” he explains. 

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Detective Cornelius Ashton of the Laguna Beach Police Department

Well-suited for detective work

One of only four detectives in the Laguna Beach Police Department, Det Ashton says each detective has an area they handle: crimes against persons, property crimes, fraud and juvenile crimes. If a juvenile is involved in any of the aforementioned crimes, Det. Ashton will become involved, depending on his caseload. As a newcomer to the department, Det. Ashton says he has two more years as a detective. Then, because Laguna has such a small force, he will rotate out and go on patrol. 

Every detective follows this rotation. Det. Ashton says it’s to ensure the younger officers in the department get a chance to be a detective. “I prefer being a detective,” he explains. “I can connect with people more effectively. On patrol you’re there and then you’re off to the next patrol. When my time is up I will be really sad.”

Committed to impacting people in a positive way

Connecting with people comes up frequently in Det Ashton’s conversation about his work. Whatever role someone plays in a crime, victim or perpetrator, Det. Ashton’s goal is for that interaction to be constructive. 

“I feel like my purpose is to affect people in a positive light. What better way can you do that than as a police officer? Helping people with their problems, it’s the most rewarding thing. The Top Cop award, or any award, doesn’t thrill me as much as impacting people in a positive way,” he says sincerely.

An empathy born of experience

A San Diego native, Det. Ashton brings a level of empathy to his position that comes from a challenging upbringing. Without elaborating, Det. Ashton says he grew up around drug addiction and homelessness. 

“I left home in my early teens and began working,” he says. “I met a police officer who told me about the Explorer program at the Chula Vista Police Department. It had a sense of family that I was looking for. I stayed three years. When I was 20 and half I got hired on as a police officer,” he says.

Building trust in difficult situations

His history gives him a credibility that the people he interacts with feel. “I’ve grown up around those situations (drugs and homelessness). I have a way of making people believe and trust in what I say to them. I always make a point of shaking hands with someone I’ve arrested. It’s powerful. When they hear me tell them ‘they can do it and turn it around’…sometimes they’ve never heard that from anyone before. It’s a good day.”

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Detective Cornelius Ashton in front of the Laguna Beach Police Department

Looking for – and finding – the right community

Before coming to the Laguna Beach Police Department, Det Ashton was with the San Diego Community College Police for 15 years. He left because it was such a small force and there wasn’t a lot of room for advancement. He may not have known exactly where he wanted to end up, but Det Ashton knew what he wanted in a force: “I wanted to work in a vibrant community where I’d have a positive impact and work for a police department that had a feeling of a family environment. The Laguna Beach Police Department definitely won me over,” he remembers enthusiastically. “I went on a ride along and there’s just this positive vibe in the air here. It doesn’t feel militant. People truly care about you – totally different from the policing I was accustomed to.”

The importance of teaching youth to trust the law

The position that was available is the one he holds now, juvenile crimes. Because he had worked on college campuses that had child development centers he found his new position to be compatible with his old. 

“I was very familiar with how school services worked and how they expected it to work with the police department. Having children of my own I feel it’s important to connect with youth at an early age to have them trust law enforcement and understand the importance of respect and following the rule of law.” Det. Ashton lives in Irvine with his wife and children.

On call 24-7 all summer long

One thing that surprised Det. Ashton about Laguna Beach was how many people come to visit all year round. This presents problems with traffic and “bad elements” coming in, in addition to the normal crime that happens in any community. However, while being a vacation destination poses challenges (Det. Ashton says he is on call 24-7 all summer long), he and his fellow officers strive to be what he calls a “service oriented department.” “We take time and we go above and beyond to help people. That coincides with my values. It was something I paid attention to before I transferred to the LBPD.”

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The Laguna Beach Police Department at 505 Forest Ave

Determined to change negative perceptions

Something he is determined to fix is some of the negativity directed towards police officers, especially right now. “I’m an African-American…” he begins thoughtfully, “So…I take it as a challenge. As police officers, we’re parents, we have loved ones just like everyone else. Our interest is to keep people safe, solve crimes – solve problems.”  

Det. Ashton is determined to defy negativity. If people walk by and give him a bad look, he will intentionally smile and try to engage them in a conversation. He says that frequently, after such efforts, the response he will get is a somewhat surprised, “You’re a cool cop.” 

More than a job: a calling

Working in law enforcement is not an easy job. Det. Ashton says the only time he really relaxes is when he’s away from his job with his family. However, while it is stressful, he says he can’t imagine not doing it. “This is my calling. This is my purpose. I can’t think of any other profession where I can use my strengths --communication, problem solving -- to such an extent,” he says. 

And Laguna Beach is a great place for Det. Ashton to use those skills. “There’s more diversity here than people think. That’s what I love about Laguna. Laguna Beach Police Department is good about finding people that fit their values. I’m definitely happy that I came here.”


Frets, strings, and jumping fleas: Tom Joliet, ukulele player and teacher, tells all

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Whether ukulele is pronounced “oo-koo-lay-lay” or “yoo-ka-lay-lee” the word and the instrument it describes almost inevitably makes people smile. Why?  Most musical instruments don’t evoke that response. No grin follows the mention of a guitar, or piano, or cello. 

Tom Joliet, beloved teacher of the classes at the Susi Q, thinks that the smiles occur primarily because people associate sing-alongs with the instrument, nor are there expectations that players should be musical geniuses, so there’s a comfort level with the instrument. 

“Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s an accompaniment to singing,” Joliet says. “And the melodies are fun, they’re universal, catchy tunes.”

Also most folks can at least imagine themselves learning to play the instrument, because its simplicity, small size and portability make it appear much less daunting than, let’s say, a harp.

Why fleas?

Joliet then began to speak of frets and strings and fleas. He is fascinating on the subject of his favorite instrument, even to someone as musically challenged as I am.

“The word ukulele means ‘jumping fleas,’” he tells me. “They say when Portuguese sailors arrived in the Hawaiian Islands, the locals were fascinated by the speed of their fingers on the strings of a small guitar that would later evolve into the ukulele. That’s how the name came about.” 

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Tom Joliet and Jack Morse: Ukulele players extraordinaire

“Here in Laguna Beach in the forties, if you were strolling along the old boardwalk, you might encounter Jack Morse playing melodies along with Hawaiian transplant beach boy Hockshaw Paia,” Joliet says. 

Morse is now 82 and still teaches beginner and, sometimes, intermediate classes at the Susi Q.  

For a while, Joliet says, the ukulele became an object of some derision, when Tiny Tim “killed it on the mainland.” 

Fortunately, Beatle George Harrison was a big supporter. “I’m told he composed Here Comes the Sun on the ukulele,” Joliet says.

Then, in the early nineties, the instrument regained popularity when Hawaiian Israel Kamakawiwo’ole recorded Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World with a reggae beat. 

From sutures to strings

Joliet didn’t set out to be a ukulele maven.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, he lived in an orphanage until his first birthday. Then he and his sister were adopted and the family moved to Reseda and then Huntington Beach – the nearly perfect place for a wanna-be surfer. 

But not as perfect as Maui, where he headed after high school.

“I realized that odd jobs in construction would not pay for college so I joined the U.S. Army from Wailuku to get surgical tech training and four years of college paid by the GI Bill,” Joliet explains. “Army Basic was at Fort Ord, and I was sent to Advanced Combat Medic/Operating Room Technician training at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas.”

His on-the-job surgical skills were put to use in Long Binh, Vietnam. “I learned to sew stitching soldier’s wounds. I won’t detail the mass casualty triage or medevac situations, but I did catch choppers to surf in the South China Sea at Vung Tau with the Aussies who were based there, where the sea snakes were plentiful!” Joliet adds.

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This great shot shows Tom Joliet in action during his ukulele class

Back in Maui, he led hikers through Haleakala Volcano, surfed, spear fished, played tennis and guitar. Further adventures followed in Europe, where he hitchhiked with his surfboard, after which he returned to Hawaii, working as a tour guide.

“A job in Hollywood writing scripts and imagineering amusement park rides moved me back to California,” Joliet tells me. Turned out, though, that much of the work had to be done on spec, so he looked for alternatives.

His surgical training resulted in a job as South Coast Medical Center. He then earned a degree in social ecology at UCI, working as a wilderness tour guide to pay for school, and also gained a teaching credential and later a Masters degree. He spent many years teaching and also coached surf and golf teams. In 2007 he was named Teacher of the Year. 

He and his wife Gayle are focused on social justice and recently he got an enormous kick out of leading his ukulele players on a rendition of “If I Had a Hammer” in front of approximately 1,000 people at the Women’s March on Main Beach.

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Tom Joliet has strong connections to Hawaii

Our conversation turned again to ukuleles. I wondered if his skill with sutures was perhaps related to his skill with strings. Joliet said that could be the case, because dexterity is important to playing the instrument well.

“That’s the great thing about learning to play the ukulele,” he said. “It helps with hand-eye coordination, stimulates your synapses and sharpens your ability to memorize. And it’s a lot of fun.”

Joliet and his wife Gayle lived in a small home in Treasure Island for years. “Gayle is my soul mate,” he says. “We got married on the beach, March 24, 1984, accompanied by the spouts of migrating whales.”

In addition to teaching at the Susi Q, the retired Joliet also volunteers at the local youth shelter and he is a volunteer co-host of The Radio Neighboring Show on public radio KX 93.5 FM in Laguna. 

And how does he plan to spend the rest of his days on this planet? (As if he isn’t already busy enough!) 

Cruising to the finish line

“I love to play guitar at beach bonfires, longboard, golf, play paddle tennis, hike the Sierra and ocean kayak with Gayle. As members of the garden committee, Gayle and I have helped build and maintain the South Laguna Community Park,” he says. “And travel, we love to travel, we’ve been to all seven continents. We have a cabin in Huntington Lake in the Sierras where we love to stay also.”

Then Joliet leans across the table, his eyes bright with mischief. “And then, when we get too old to be active?” he says. “We’re going to go on endless cruises instead of to a nursing home. They’re half the price, you get clean sheets every day, there are valets, and doctors on board and great food that they’ll serve to you in your room, and then when you’ve had enough of it all, you just throw yourself overboard!”

Sounds like a plan to me – though I imagine (and certainly hope) that there’ll be a lot more ukulele playing and adventuring for the cheerful, generous, multi-talented Joliet and his wife before those days come to pass.


Lori Kahn: Teaching, coaching and sharing at Om

WRITTEN BY: Samantha Washer

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

When Lori Kahn, owner of Om Laguna Beach, moved to Laguna full time from Los Angeles in 1999, reluctant might be the word to describe how she initially felt about it. “I didn’t know what I was going to do down here,” she remembers with bemusement. A former clothing manufacturer and stylist, she felt that Laguna did not present a lot of options for her in those areas at the time. 

However, it didn’t take long for her reservations to be put at ease. “When I finally surrendered (to living here) and we could just walk down the street to the beach it was such an amazing way to raise kids. I fell in love with the town, the community. The other moms, they became like my family,” she says.

Trusting in Om Laguna Beach

Kahn opened Om Laguna Beach in 2012. Her vision was to create a space to “introduce people to all different kinds of meditation. Originally, I envisioned a ‘Yoga Works’ of meditation,” she explains. However, five years later, while her studio is certainly a hub of meditative practice, Kahn finds that her business of teaching and coaching has grown beyond its four walls. 

“I approached my business like meditation,” she says, explaining that when she first opened, “I’d sit and wait for people to come in. That’s what mindful practice does. You trust the moment even if it’s uncomfortable. Show up. Trust. Things will happen as they should.”

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Lori Kahn, owner and founder of Om Laguna Beach

Fashion, yoga and “moving meditation”

This faith in things falling into place is something Kahn has developed throughout her years of first practicing yoga and then meditation. The fashion business, she explains, was stressful. The intensity of that industry led her to seek an outlet for that stress which led her to yoga. “I didn’t like gyms. I’m not athletic. A friend got me to try yoga and I totally fell in love with it,” remembers Kahn. 

She was so enthusiastic about it her friend convinced her to do a yoga training program. Her teacher, Erich Schiffman, taught “moving meditation.” So while yoga was the primary focus, Kahn says for her, “the fundamentals (of meditation) were already there. I always had that meditation component.”

Health woes bring meditation front and center

Kahn began teaching yoga when her then husband took a job in Vancouver. Kahn could not continue working in fashion but she still wanted to work. Teaching yoga was a perfect fit. “I could get paid in cash,” she says with a laugh. It didn’t matter if I was legal.” Unfortunately, after the birth of her second son, Kahn’s health began to decline. 

“I had headaches, joint pain, fatigue. I had to stop teaching,” she says. “My health had become so unmanageable all I had left was my meditation practice. It saved me. I had a husband who traveled all the time, two boys ages five and two and I was sick all the time. The only thing that kept me moving forward was meditation.”

Meditation leads to “integrative coaching”

The more committed Kahn became to her meditation practice the more she wanted to learn about it. “I started really getting into it,” she says, “As the kids got older I started going to workshops and that kind of thing. My health got better. I didn’t want to teach yoga, only meditation.” Then in 2007 Kahn went to the Ford Institute and became a certified Integrative Coach. “I very much blended meditation in my approach to my coaching practice,” she says of the progression.

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Lori Kahn in her studio preparing for her next client

Helping make meditation do-able

Kahn believes that meditation is slowly making its way to the mainstream as yoga has, but it’s not there yet. “One of the obstacles is people feel they are too busy or too stressed. It’s a double-edged sword.” She likens it to exercising; something easy to put off but once you push through you see the results and it becomes a habit.  “When it comes to doing stuff that’s good on an emotional or psychological level we resist. A lot of people think it’s hard. I’m not saying it’s always easy, but it’s a lot more do-able than people think.” 

A coach is an ally

The same goes for coaching, something that has really taken off for her. “For my integrative coaching I use meditation to help people get through whatever it is they’re going through. It’s more of an ongoing relationship,” Kahn explains. “People often don’t know what to expect. They think it’s like therapy. It isn’t easy to change, but wouldn’t you rather have an ally who supports you as you go through challenging times?”

Working with groups and individuals

Besides the individuals she coaches, Kahn also works with groups like Fisher-Paykel, United Capital, The Whole Purpose Company and Lululemon. She really enjoys the challenge of developing programs for her corporate clients, as well as those for a one-on-one environment. “My corporate clients are probably my biggest area of growth which is really exciting, but I also really enjoy designing practices for just one client. It’s so intimate. I love teaching,” she says enthusiastically. It’s the most natural thing in the world. Something clicks and it’s not about me. No ego, no pressure…it’s so satisfying.” 

“Om at Home” on KX93.5

Her love of teaching is what prompted her to do a radio show, “Om at Home,” on KX93.5 every Sunday from 7:00-7:30am. “It has been three and a half years, a couple of hundred shows,” marvels Kahn. She describes her show by saying, “It all starts with the basics of meditation, learning to focus and direct our attention to simple things (like the breath and the senses), and what to do when we can’t! “OM at Home” is an opportunity to give ourselves the permission to stop for 30 minutes and do nothing, just listen and breathe and practice what it feels like to relax and let go, a natural sense of peace of just being in the moment starts to grow and becomes something we want to spend more time doing!”

NeurOptimal Neurofeedback

In addition to meditation and coaching (in person, via Skype, FaceTime or on the radio) Kahn provides NeurOptimal Neurofeedback. “It’s an incredible program,” she says. “It treats nervous system disorders like PTSD, depression, anxiety.” It is offered as a stand-alone service or in conjunction with coaching and/or meditation.

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A wall helps clients remember to “breathe” inside Om Laguna Beach

An “unbusiness-like” approach to business

So while Kahn’s business now may not exactly resemble her original plan, she couldn’t be happier with its path. “What’s funny about my approach to business is that it’s not very business-like,” she says good-naturedly. “I had no idea what to expect, only what I wanted and what my vision was. I trusted the intention and I never questioned the challenge. I learn as I do.”

A full-time mom and full-time teacher

Learning by doing seems to work quite well for Kahn. “Being a mother and teacher, they’re both who I am. My work has always had to accommodate me being a full-time mom. It makes sense to realign my goals when my kids go to college,” she says, which isn’t too far off. 

Taking Om outside of the studio

While Kahn loves her studio and what it represents, once her youngest son leaves for college she envisions a practice beyond the studio. “It’s kind of fantastic. My business has grown to not need four walls. I didn’t plan it this way, but I really like it. I’d love to find ten more teachers to teach (in the studio) while I am out traveling, teaching, Skyping one on one with my clients,” she says enthusiastically. 

From “Om at Home” to “Om Anywhere.”


Ann E Wareham: A woman for all seasons – or the wizard behind the curtain? Both.

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

See Ann E Wareham arrive at the theatre on the opening night of Our Great Tchaikovsky looking stunning in a black lace dress, her blonde hair shining, her expressive blue eyes beautifully accentuated with liner and mascara, and watch her deliver a heartfelt thank-you from the stage to Playhouse supporters in the sold-out audience, who in true Laguna style have kept this dream of a theatre going.

Listen to the applause of the crowd, who know a heroine of the arts when they see one. Hear the confidence in Ann’s voice as she welcomes the audience.

Think to yourself how poised Ann looks onstage, and how inaccessible and impossible to emulate she must seem to people who aspire to a position such as hers – artistic director, Laguna Playhouse – just as, when she was a teenager, her future mentor and boss Gordon Davidson had appeared to her at the Mark Taper Forum.

Ann Wareham behind the scenes

But recall Ann just two days earlier being very accessible indeed: warm, and friendly, and funny. Behind the scenes, she chats easily as as we sit on a faded couch in the dressing room that has provided respite for many famous actors and will soon host the talented Hershey Felder. 

Still, on being invited to go up to her office, I half-expect to see signed portraits of a sophisticated Ann photographed with the rich and famous along, perhaps, with a spread of shiny theatre programs artistically arranged on a table. Flowers. Maybe a tableau of awards. 

But no, that’s not what I see at all. Ann Wareham is as unpretentious an achiever as you could wish to meet, and appropriately, she has an unpretentious (but very productive-looking) office.

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Ann E Wareham, artistic director of Laguna Playhouse

“I keep an open door,” she tells me, “and when I want to have private meetings, I’ll say, follow me to my office, and guests will find themselves on our very tiny balcony overlooking Broadway.”

When she says open door policy, Ann is not being metaphorical. Inside her upstairs office, crammed with desks and chairs and filing cabinets, I find her smiling assistant Sarah along with Ann’s five-pound Yorkie, Sailor, and much larger black lab mix named Murphy, and during the short time I’m there, several staffers wander in and out with messages or issues that need Ann’s attention.

And then there’s that open-roof thing in the next-door office, though that’s not a choice, it’s the result of recent rains.

The wall above her desk is a-flutter with yellow Post-it notes adorned with the names of productions. “That’s how I figure out the seasonal schedules,” she tells me. 

However chaotic that incidental Post-It poster art may appear, those sticky notes represent thoughtful and packed days, weeks, months, years of conversations with actors, directors and producers. They’ve led to terrific season line-ups. 

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Inadvertent poster art: Wareham plans for new seasons with an unconventional, but very successful approach

Plus of course Wareham spends a great deal of time watching plays and musicals and shows of all kinds, figuring out what productions will most please the Laguna community. “We have a great team, working together, which makes my job so much easier,” she emphasizes.

She loves every moment on the road – well, almost every moment.

“Once in a while, if I’m tired or just not intrigued by a show, I’m tempted to leave at intermission, but I never do, because that’s so disrespectful to the actors,” she says. “Plus I’m recognizable…But no, I wouldn’t anyway, I have too much admiration for all the work that goes into a production.”

Her job often entails a commute to LA, where she used to live.

“I’m probably the only person you’ll meet who will tell you she felt nostalgic seeing the scene on the 405 in La La Land,” she says. “Well, I miss LA sometimes, but not enough to live there. I love Laguna Beach. I feel like a local now after six and a half years in this job.” 

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Ann Wareham is most at home at the theatre: here she enjoys the set for Our Great Tchaikovsky, currently playing

LA is where Wareham grew up, and where she first experienced the magic of the theatre. As a 16-year-old, she worked as an usher at the Music Center, watching in awe as her future mentor Gordon Davidson worked onstage. (Sadly, Davidson passed away last year in October.)

“Gordon’s energy and passion impressed me so much,” she says. “I wanted to be him. It still amazes me that 10 years after first seeing him, I had become his assistant. Gordon was my boss for 27 years, my mentor and guiding light. There will never be another like him.”

Energy and passion are also evident in Wareham’s packed schedule and lively presence. She practically lives at the Playhouse (and so do her dogs).

Her “sacred space” is Monday evenings, she says, or early mornings. “I like to be in my garden, or play or watch tennis, that’s my other great love.”

Wareham likes to mingle with the audience after opening night, trying to pick up the odd comment, spontaneous and uncensored, that might give her a sense the audience’s true feelings. So far she hasn’t donned a disguise to do so, though she’s been tempted.

Ann has many favorite productions: some of the finest are soon to arrive on stage

She’s excited that the Laguna Playhouse is thriving, with tremendous community support and great productions – a favorite of hers was the recent Billy & Ray production, of course the currently running Our Great Tchaikovsky with Hershey Felder, and Ann’s thrilled that up soon will be the world premiere of King of the Road: the Roger Miller story, directed by the accomplished Andrew Barnicle. 

Deaf theatre is one of her greatest passions, particularly the work of LA’s Deaf West Theatre, which recently received three Tony nominations for their production of Spring Awakening.

“I would love to bring a deaf musical to Laguna,” Wareham says. “Watching those productions can be a life-changing experience.”

I’d guess it won’t be long before Lagunans are privileged to experience such a show. Indeed, Ann E Wareham’s creative mind and exquisite taste have brought Laguna some of the finest productions in the Playhouse’s long history.


Planes, pickup trucks and a pickle jar: A history that led Dr. Jorge Rubal to CEO at the Community Clinic

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photography by Mary Hurlbut

A few moments in Dr. Jorge Rubal’s company is enough to know he has a wonderful bedside manner. His smile is infectious. His style is professional but laid-back. Dr. Rubal treats the whole patient, and considers their whole circumstance. 

While his caring nature is certainly inborn, his ability to communicate his deep compassion was no doubt fine-tuned as a result of his early experiences with the neediest of patients. During his pre-med years, still undecided on a career, Cuban-born Dr. Rubal was offered a rare opportunity. 

Rubal’s first language is Spanish. That asset, combined with his then-burgeoning interest in medicine, made him a natural choice for a volunteer medical translating position in the remote locales of Mexico. 

“I was told if I could afford a seat on a Cessna, I could accompany doctors on their volunteer medical missions to Sinaloa, Mexico,” Rubal says. 

And so that’s what he did. For three years. That experience solidified his commitment to medicine, and to serving the underserved.

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Dr. Jorge Rubal, director of the Laguna Beach Community Clinic

With LIGA International, known as the Flying Doctors of Mercy, Rubal traveled to Mexico two days a month. In the 48 hours they spent on the ground, their medical staff served as many as 500 patients. When their plane touched down, patients were already waiting. 

“We’d land on dirt fields,” Rubal says. “The pick-up trucks were lined up on the landing strip, waiting for us.” 

Doctors provided primary, pediatric, psychiatric and surgical care for people who otherwise had no access to medical care. Some doctors performed surgeries 24 hours a day. Others caught snatches of sleep on the roof of the surgical center in makeshift tents, or in homes offered up by locals.  

Not only did his experiences with LIGA solidify Rubal’s commitment to medicine, it sparked his interest in marrying both the art and science of medicine, and to serving the under-privileged. 

From flying doctor to family medicine: Meeting Dr. Bent

After graduating from University of California, Riverside, Dr. Rubal obtained a joint MD/MBA degree from UCI, specializing in family medicine. During his years at UCI, Rubal met Dr. Thomas Bent, then director of the Laguna Beach Community Clinic. They worked together in the early 2000s, and kept in touch. 

“I’d always wanted to work with Dr. Bent,” Rubal says. “I remained interested in the patient population and who we serve.” In 2013, that goal became a reality. And, in September of last year, Dr. Rubal took over as CEO and Medical Director of the Laguna Beach Community Clinic.

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Dr. Rubal’s consulting room is as welcoming as the man himself

The clinic began forty-six years ago as an entirely free provider. Its mission was to care for artists and local workers. “They would pass around a pickle jar, asking people to contribute whatever they could,” Rubal says. In the 1980s it changed to a nonprofit, seeing patients on a sliding scale basis.  

“Back in the 80s,” he says, “it was the only clinic in Orange County servicing HIV patients.” In fact, many patients went on to become healthy, employed and insured, but still chose the clinic for their healthcare needs. Now their office accepts most insurance, and helps patients on a sliding scale.

But Dr. Rubal laments the changes the Affordable Care Act have brought upon them. “With every patient we treat, we lose money,” he says. “Imagine. You call a plumber to fix your pipes and every time he comes out, he loses money.” 

This has been Dr. Rubal’s biggest frustration. Through grants, fundraisers, and community support, the clinic has been able to close the financial gap each year. But it’s one of the last true community clinics. “If we didn’t have the full support from the community,” he says, “we couldn’t sustain our work.” 

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The Rubal family, L- R: Lauren, Blake (2), Jorge and Christian Rubal (5)

While in the first year of their medical internship at Harbor, UCLA Medical Center, Rubal met his wife, Dr. Lauren Rubal, now an OB/GYN who specializes in reproductive endocrinology and infertility. The couple has two boys, Christian (5) and Blake (2), and they hope for more.  

Dr. Rubal is proud of his Cuban heritage. Although born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, he didn’t begin speaking English until age six. “With so much family, so many cousins, we never watched TV.  From sunrise to sundown, we were running around the neighborhood. No one spoke English.” 

He still loves Cuban music, and has traveled to Cuba three times, hoping to go back again with his grandfather before he passes away.

In his spare time (at 5 a.m.!), Dr. Rubal is a cross-fit fanatic. He’s always been an athlete, playing baseball throughout high school and into college.  

He practices what he preaches to patients: stay healthy and stay active. 

There’s no question that Dr. Rubal has those bases covered.


Madison Sinclair and Wyatt Shipp: Why they’re Patriot’s Day Parade Junior Citizens of the Year

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The Laguna Beach Patriot’s Day Parade is Saturday March 4. More than a hundred residents (at least!) are expected to participate in the 51st annual event. A slice of Americana if ever there was one, the parade features marching bands, floats and enthusiastic marchers from a myriad of civic groups.  

The Patriot’s Day Parade honors many

The Patriot’s Day Parade also features a host of honorees ranging from the Parade’s Grand Marshalls (this year, gold medalists Aria and Makenzie Fischer), an Honored Patriot of the Year (Robert W. Sternfels USAAF), Citizen of the Year (Doug Miller), Artist of the Year (John Barber) and two Junior Citizens of the Year (Madison Sinclair and Wyatt Shipp). Clearly, much could be written about every honoree whose stories are as compelling and different as the recipients themselves.

Junior Citizens of the Year are proven leaders

The stories of the Junior Citizens of the Year, Madison Sinclair and Wyatt Shipp, are quite different from each other’s. However, they have some obvious similarities. Both are 12th graders at Laguna Beach High School and both were selected by the LBHS faculty and staff “on the basis of their achievements in leadership, scholarship, athletics and service” according to the parade’s website.

In other words, both students have managed to fit more into their high school years than seems humanly possible.

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Madison Sinclair and Wyatt Shipp, Patriot’s Day Parade Junior Citizens of the Year

Energy drinks are a necessity for Madison Sinclair

“I live on energy drinks,” explains Sinclair good-naturedly. This fact seems like an understatement when she runs through her schedule. Currently taking six Advanced Placement classes while editor-in-chief of the school paper, “Brush and Palette,” and acting as Secretary General of the school’s Model United Nations (MUN) one can certainly understand why Sinclair might need a caffeine boost.  

As our conversation continues, it seems unbelievable that a double latte could be close to enough to get her through her day. 

So many activities but a special love of horses

In addition to her scholastic, editorial and MUN duties, Sinclair is on the varsity track team, she is a Juntos liaison (Juntos is a program that tutors children in order to help their English language skills), she is in this year’s LBHS production of “Cinderella,” she coaches and referees AYSO soccer as well as coaching basketball at the Boys and Girls Club, and she volunteers at UCI Medical Center. And, because “horses are (her) favorite thing – ever,” she barrel races outside of school and teaches riding to younger children. 

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Cowboy boots are a must for Madison Sinclair’s favorite activity

A desire to try everything

So, why does Sinclair choose to come home from school around 9:30 p.m., frequently stay up until 3 a.m. only to be at school at 7:30 a.m. the following morning and do it all over again?  

“I really wanted to try everything,” she says simply. “A lot of the things I tried for fun I really liked doing.” Take track, for example, “It has been one of my favorite high school things,” she says enthusiastically. She joined track her sophomore year after playing soccer and basketball. 

“I could make my own workout schedule,” she explains. With a schedule like hers one can see how this would be attractive. She also says her coach, Lance Peterson, “is the nicest man I have ever met.”

Making a difference is one of Madison Sinclair’s career goals

“MUN,” she says, “is what I want to do with my life. I have a strong interest in global awareness.” Her goal in college is to major in International Relations or Political Science and minor in Spanish. “Senor Garvey, my tenth grade Spanish teacher, is one of the most dedicated teachers. He cared so much he made me love Spanish.” 

She hopes to meld the two interests and make a difference in the world.

“Being on my feet and talking to people I want to help, that’s my dream job,” she says emphatically.

Leaving her family will be tough

Like most high school seniors, Sinclair is waiting to hear if she got accepted into her dream school, (for her, it’s either Duke of Vanderbilt). It seems unfathomable to me that she, with her 1,200 hours of community service and her 4.6 GPA would hear anything but yes, but just in case, she can relax a little knowing she has already received a scholarship to USC. 

The thought of leaving her parents with whom Sinclair says she is “super tight” is a daunting one. Nevertheless, she says she’s ready to give it a try. And that is a word Madison Sinclair is well-versed in. She has literally tried just about everything. “I put my whole heart into everything. Nothing is for the resume,” she says sincerely. 

Nothing can keep Wyatt Shipp down

Wyatt Shipp also knows a lot about putting his heart into everything. He also knows a lot about overcoming obstacles. Diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age three, Shipp has worked tirelessly with the help of his parents to not just manage his disorder but to achieve success by anyone’s standard. 

Working to help others and give them hope

His experience has prompted him to spend countless hours helping children cope with their own disorder as well as working to help find cures. Shipp works with Talk About Curing Autism in various capacities, volunteering at each of the group’s events. Shipp also formed a club, the Spectrum Superheroes, that works with kids on the autism spectrum and helps them learn to skateboard, for example.  

“We were thrust into unchartered territory,” he says about his diagnosis 15 years ago. “Back then autism was a relatively new field…I’ve been able to give hope to other families just like others were there for me,” he explains.

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Wyatt Shipp, LBHS senior, and frequent Park Avenue Player lead

One door closes but another, more meaningful one, opens

“The Hidden Voice” is a powerful Youtube video Shipp created to tell his inspiring story. It also highlights two of Shipp’s other passions: acting and making videos. He is hoping to study film production and acting at UCLA, Arizona State, Northwestern or Chapman. 

This love of performing, in typical fashion for Shipp, was born out of adversity. As a freshman, Shipp had planned on playing baseball for the Breakers. “I thought I was going to be a centerfielder,” he says somewhat ruefully. 

When he didn’t make the team, a sad but determined Shipp found something else to put his time into: LBHS’ Park Avenue Players. This endeavor turned out to be a much greater calling than baseball ever was.

A leader on the stage

Shipp says he has auditioned for every single show in the last four years. “I usually get a lead role. This puts me in a leadership role. You have to take on this role-model persona. I’ve tried to do that since I’ve been in the program. I’ve tried to stay true to myself.”

A nomination to American Legion Boys State

Between his community service work and his commitment to the Park Avenue Players, Shipp is president of the Film Club, was a Link Crew leader, (Link Crew is a group that helps freshman acclimate to high school) and was nominated for the very prestigious American Legion Boys State. He has managed all of these activities while maintaining a 3.94 GPA.

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Wyatt Shipp behind the camera with his aspirational Oscar

Overcoming hurdles, both literally and figuratively

There is one more activity that fills up Shipp’s already full plate: running hurdles on the track team. Shipp credits his coach, Mark Harris, and the entire track community for “allowing (me) to discover my passion for running hurdles.” He is one of the team captain’s this year and last year he got second place in League. However, for Shipp this sport carries significance beyond the track. 

“I’ve overcome hurdles myself,” he says. “I like to use the hurdles as a metaphor for life. You just have to make it to the end of the race.” For anyone who has been told “no” Shipp’s determination to find so many “yeses” should be quite inspiring.

Two remarkable LBHS seniors get ready for what’s to come

For Wyatt Shipp and Madison Sinclair, the future stretches out brightly. However, one thing that will soon be in their rear view mirror is their high school years. The close-knit community is something Shipp says he will miss. 

“Laguna is such a small community. It’s so easy to connect with people,” he says.

The Laguna Beach Patriot’s Day Parade exemplifies Shipp’s sentiments. And Shipp and Sinclair exemplify the best of Laguna’s citizens, junior or otherwise.


Sound Spectrum: 50 years of music in Laguna

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Jim Otto opened Sound Spectrum in Laguna Beach 50 years ago this year. While it’s remarkable for any storefront business to last 50 years, it’s even more remarkable when that business is a record store. It’s hard to think of an industry that has undergone more changes than the music business, and these changes have not been kind to storefront businesses that sell music. Otto’s theory for his store’s longevity? “The format changes, but we don’t.”

A real record store

When you walk into Sound Spectrum and you’re of a certain age (basically any age that grew up pre-digital music) there’s an almost overwhelming sense of familiarity to it. It’s a real record store. There are vintage concert posters on the wall, incense, t-shirts and other somewhat random memorabilia for sale. The centerpiece of it all, of course, is the music. 

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Laguna’s Sound Spectrum owner, Jim Otto

With real records

And just to show how things go full circle, Sound Spectrum is brimming with vinyl albums, some old and some brand new. Otto explains that when he and his partners (long since gone) built the store it took them awhile to get it finished. “We were typical 60’s people, not the most efficient, but we managed to get it done.” 

The wooden racks are the same original racks they built back in the day. Then those racks housed vinyl albums, later CDs and now they’re back to displaying predominantly vinyl albums again. “Seven or eight years ago records started coming back,” Otto explains. Of course there are used classics, but record companies are releasing new vinyl as well, and Otto carries it all.

Crediting a long list of dedicated employees

Sound Spectrum was started because, Otto says, he loved music and “I really love dealing with people.” He credits much of its success to his employees, many of whom he told me about in great detail. Clearly, working at Sound Spectrum is like being part of a family. He speaks glowingly of two current staffers, manager Wave and Greg White, whom Otto calls a “musicologist.” 

Wave has been at Sound Spectrum for 15 years; White eight to ten, Otto isn’t exactly sure. Not only does the store have staying power, but its employees do too. 

A fountain of youth

Wave says that when he came to Laguna in 1972 ,“The Sound Spectrum became my ‘musical home.’” He explains that his “job description” is “harmony, love, friendship and fun.” The record store, for him, is a “fountain of youth” and he has a special shout out regarding the return of records, “And thanks to the kids who brought vinyl back!”

Changing while staying the same

White views the store as “a beautiful 60’s-themed environment which preserves and extends the legacy of the past for the new generation of music lovers.”  And while the store definitely is the epitome of a flashback, there is music from every decade, past and present. As Otto explains it, “The customers, both old and new, they like things not to change, but you do have to change.”

Jim Otto with Sound Spectrum manager, Wave, and “musicologist,” Greg White

A former employee makes it big

Another former employee from years back, Robert Santanelli, “showed up from New Jersey. He wanted to be a music writer and write bios,” explains Otto. “So he came here, following the hippie trail, so to speak. He went on after about one to two years.”

According to Otto, Santanelli moved on to work at The Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, he wrote a book about Springsteen, and is now the executive director of the Grammy Museum at LA Live.  “He came to the store recently. He told Greg, ‘I wish I had my old job back.’”

A master of the electric stereo

There have been lots of celebrity sightings over the years. And Otto knows his musicians. When asked if he himself is a musician, Otto replies in his deadpan manner, “I play the electric stereo. I have a really wide repertoire.”

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The “stacks of racks” inside Sound Spectrum

The college of musical knowledge

Otto’s eclectic musical appreciation is something he takes pride in and it pervades the store. “The element of being here opens up people’s third ear,” he says, riffing on the idea of the third eye. “People who come work here usually have developed a singular interest in music, but as they work here and play different music and talk to different people their musical tastes change. This is the college of musical knowledge, with mounds of sounds, and stacks of wax,” says Otto, as only someone who off-handedly uses the expression “far out” can.

The comeback of vinyl records

The fact that these “stacks of wax” (that are now vinyl) have made a comeback clearly pleases Otto as much as it does Wave. He thinks they came back because people like the way records sound and they value the information on the liner notes. However, for him the best part about records is that you get the whole story. 

“A true album is like a book. There is a beginning, middle and end. You wouldn’t skip to the best chapter in a book and just read that. You have to get what you need to get from the whole record. You have to go in order. It opens your ears to the other parts of the album.” 

This kind of experience, argues Otto, can’t be created by listening to a digital byte. 

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Jim Otto taking in the view outside Sound Spectrum

Sound Spectrum brings generations together

Just like downloading a song can’t replace the experience of going into a record store and flipping through records to find the one you want. Otto tells me one of his favorite things is when a grandfather comes in with his grandchild. The grandfather has “all these cool memories” and the grandchild is absorbing this knowledge. 

As if on cue, when I went to meet Otto at Sound Spectrum on a recent rainy morning, a father and son walked in together. No sooner had they walked in Otto began talking to them and a conversation ensued with music as the cross-generational conduit.  

Music can bring us all together

Music, according to Otto, can do more than just bring families together; it can bring everyone together. “The times we’re in now, people can’t agree on anything. One thing they can agree on is the music they like. We might not be able to agree on big issues, but music is something we can all agree on,” says Otto.

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The “new” business card for Sound Spectrum, circa 1967

50 years and still hanging on

Another thing we can all agree on is how lucky Laguna is that Sound Spectrum is still thriving. When Otto decided 50 years ago that a record shop was what the town needed, he couldn’t have realized just how much. He may not have been the most efficient businessman when he started, but what he built he built to last -- right down to the racks. Clearly things have changed in the 50 years Sound Spectrum has been around. Otto says the traffic is worse (of course) and he laments that the expense of living here makes it harder for Laguna to hold on to some of the things that make it…Laguna. “People are hanging on for dear life,” he says.  

Fortunately for us, Sound Spectrum is holding tight.


Betsy Jenkins: an advocate for learning continues to make Laguna a friendlier, flourishing arts haven 

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Betsy Jenkins has a special sensitivity to the care and needs of people around her. I first met her many moons ago while I was walking in our same neighborhood with my new baby in a Snugglie. Betsy came right up to me and said, “I can see how much you love your baby. I see you walking with him every day.” I beamed, as I felt her kind nature wash over me. 

Since that day, I have witnessed Betsy continue spreading her kind and generous ways in almost every facet of life in Laguna. She is involved with many philanthropies and arts programs including being on the board of the Laguna Beach Art Museum, Laguna Beach Live!, Laguna Playhouse, and the Laguna Beach Sister Cities Association. Her husband, Gary, is on the board of the Friendship Shelter.

“Our focus is to think globally and act locally,” says Betsy. “We support organizations trying to make Laguna a richer, more diverse, more exciting place to live.”

Education is for everyone

Betsy was originally a high school teacher, and continued on in academia not only by being an involved parent in the PTA while her two sons, Kyle and Christopher, were in the Laguna Beach schools, but also by serving on the Laguna Beach High School’s Scholarship Committee, followed by a 12-year tenure with the Board of Education. She just retired as president of the School Board two years ago.

Even with her participation in many arts organizations, as she reflects on her life’s passion, her commitment has continually zeroed in on education.

“I’m still passionate about education,” she says. “Now it’s adult education!”

Betsy Jenkins

It is her passion, and it’s also a gift to future generations that Betsy has devoted so much of her time and talents to education. 

“It’s such a cornerstone of our democracy,” she says, as we veered off topic and into the current political scenario of public education. She’s clear-sighted on the need for equal educational opportunities. Her bright blue eyes light up, “We need free, public, quality education for every kid – ESL, special needs, gifted. All kids!”

The place to be, for many reasons

Betsy and Gary met when she was a young high school teacher in Fullerton, and Gary was a young doctor practicing in Orange, on staff at CHOC. They had both signed on for a Sierra Club ski trip to Sequoia. 

“It was instant. We knew,” laughs Betsy. “Although it took him a year to propose!”

Betsy grew up in Pasadena, and Gary – “he’s from a tiny little rodeo town in Idaho,” she says. Together, they visited a friend in Laguna and knew that Laguna Beach was the place for them.

“We were at some fundraiser,” said Betsy. “There were local musicians – including Beth and Steve Wood – and we knew, this was not only the place, but the people we want to live with and grow old with.”

For Betsy, that is still the special cherry atop Laguna’s sundae, “There have always been vibrant and fascinating people here.”

Travel, culture, and lifelong learning

At first, Betsy thought that after 12 years on the School Board she’d be a little bereft – unsure where her feet and mind would take her. But then, of course, she had all those other organizations vying for her time. It’s the Laguna conundrum: so many charities, so little time. With more time on her hands, “retirement” has kept Betsy Jenkins very busy.

The Sister Cities Association has steered her in a southerly direction as she helped out San Jose del Cabo especially after the devastating hurricane. Laguna stepped in to send a ton of supplies. 

“We actually sent a whole house kit,” Betsy said. She’s headed there again soon and will report back on the progress they’ve made since that dark time.

The Sister Cities’ intention is to foster learning about other cultures. In France, the Laguna Beach group met with the Menton mayor, and made many friends. “Twinning” they call it, Betsy tells me.

I happened to run into Betsy and Gary at LAX this past October as they were heading off on a trip with the Laguna Art Museum. “We loved Spain!” she now says emphatically. 

The Art Museum is near and dear to Betsy’s heart as they promote learning both abroad and at home. “There’s a large focus on education: family art days, teaching kids to experiment with creativity, and art appreciation.”

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Betsy and Gary’s home is filled with works of art – most from local artists and most acquired at charity fundraisers, a win-win situation

Then there’s Laguna Beach Live!, which is something that Betsy gives her time and heart to. “It’s quality music at affordable prices,” she says. “We do bluegrass, jazz, classical…” And, of course, it’s educational. “We had 60 people seated here at the house. The president of the Orange County Philharmonic was talking about Bach. There was a cellist. So cool!”

A flourishing community

Betsy Jenkins has walked the talk every step of the way, putting in countless volunteer hours to further learning. She has enriched Laguna with her generous soul, giving back to the community particularly by promoting culture and education. She’s one of those quiet heroes working often behind the scenes, making us all the better for it.

She and Gary were deservedly honored at the Patriot’s Day Parade in 2012 as Citizens of the Year. In every way, they both embody the best of Laguna.

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When the Jenkins’ have a little time off as good-deed-doers, they are often out enjoying nature. Betsy is a big fan of walking the hills, while Gary takes the hills on his bike. Their neighborhood, like a microcosm of greater Laguna, feels like family. “Our neighborhood gets together at the park. We all help parent,” says Betsy. “This community embraces our kids.”

Even as an empty nester, Betsy still helps parents. 

She’s a little surprised with what retirement looks like. “Now we’re out so much!” she smiles. “We get out and have great conversations, watch a play at the Playhouse, enjoy music – all these arts flourish in Laguna.”

Thanks to people like Betsy Jenkins, the arts will continue to flourish and the people of Laguna Beach will grow closer in community.



Effervescent, English, and wildly energetic: Our food writer, Laura Buckle, is in love with Laguna

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Once upon a time, and thankfully for a short time only, Stu News Laguna’s effervescent, fun-loving columnist Laura Buckle earned her living by cleaning the toilets at the offices of the Ministry of Agriculture in Cheshire, England. She was just 16 years old at the time, attending drama college. 

Not surprisingly, “That was the worst job of my life!” British-born Laura tells me as we drink our coffee at Moulin on Forest Ave. “But I still had fun those days!”

Mesmerized by her passionate utterances, I see capital letters and exclamation points dancing in front of my eyes. (That’s what being an editor does to you.)

Indeed, if people were punctuation, Laura would be an exclamation point – bolded, brightly colored, and italicized, what’s more. Listeners can’t help but smile.

As Laura herself says, “I’m a super-happy person.” 

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Laura makes sure to support local businesses: here she is styled by Jill Watson at The Shop, with hat by nbrhd Laguna

After working hard all week scrubbing and sweeping, she and her two best friends would jump on a train and head to the clubs in Manchester, where she learned to love dance music along with acting. Laura had been involved in theatre since the age of five.

At the age of 11, she won Best Actress Under 21 while playing the role of a mother – of all things – at the Potteries Theatre Company.

Then, at 17, she toured Sicily playing the role of Jocasta in Oedipus Seneca. Before and after her marriage, she taught drama, also while pregnant in her (very) early twenties.

Later she worked at a rehab center for ex-offenders, putting her degree in psychology (which she earned while taking care of two small children; she has a degree in performing arts also) to good use.

Laura has a work ethic that has to be experienced to be believed. 

“My family was full of love but short on money,” she says. “I started work in a kebab shop when I was 12. I’ve done all kinds of jobs since then.”

Right now she holds down five – or is it six? – jobs, not including mothering two great kids, Jesse (14), known in Laura’s food reports as “the bottomless pit” for his voracious appetite, and young Lula, nearly 11, an aspiring, already accomplished singer and actor with a few sophisticated taste buds, developed while devouring aioli for breakfast with her mother when the family lived in Ibiza, Spain, for a while.

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Laura is in love with Laguna Beach, and the feeling is mutual

So, the five jobs? Well, Stu News food writer, of course, for a start.

“I love to tell stories,” Laura says. ”And that’s what Stu and Shaena wanted in a food writer, so it’s not just about the restaurants or my opinions, it’s about the people who work there and what my guests think about the food also.”

Her grandmother and mother are both excellent cooks, Laura says, which didn’t always please her. “I would say to my mum, why can’t we have chicken nuggets for dinner? Why must we have ratatouille? When I had friends over, they hadn’t even heard of half the dishes she cooked. They weren’t fancy but they were different.”

Laura is also extremely thrilled about her role on KX 93.5 FM radio. 

“I was literally just unpacking my boxes here three years ago when I heard a northern English accent on the radio,” she tells me. “Almost right away I contacted Jason Feddy, which led to a DJ spot from 11 to midnight on Saturday nights. Now my show SMASHED, dance music, airs every Friday evening from 7 to 9 p.m. Even more exciting, I’m going to have a new show targeted at the after-school crowd.”

Every Wednesday from 3.30 – 5 p.m., Laura will be playing a variety of music including rock, pop, dance, hip hop and global sounds as well as broadcasting school announcements. As well as games competitions and lots of fun, Laura will be giving students the opportunity to join her on air with their very own 10 minute takeover, a chance for them to share their chosen music with other KX listeners.

“I love radio, it’s great, I love to DJ, and I love to eat!” she says. “That’s why I’d never do TV. I have the figure for radio, I put on eight pounds after I became a food writer,” – though truth be told, Laura’s hiking, swimming, yoga, and Pilates workouts keep the thirty-something blonde quite svelte.

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Laura spins dance music on Fridays, and soon will be DJ’ing an afterschool program on Wednesdays from 3:30 – 5 p.m.

Number three job (though the numerical order doesn’t imply that she prefers one over the other): Being an event DJ, spinning tunes at local happenings. 

Number four: Laura is putting together drama workshops for the young adults who live at Glennwood, a residential home for those with development disabilities. “Acting is a great outlet to express emotions that you are struggling with,” she says. “I think it’s going to be fun.”

And her number five job, another example of Laura’s initiative and ebullience, is as director and founder of an events company, Laguna Beach Luxury Events, which she runs with her business partner Stephanie Quarles. (www.lbluxuryevents.com).

Laura is quick to point out that “luxury” means different things to different people. The company is happy to plan any event, from a picnic to a large corporate gathering in an upscale restaurant, she says.

“The important thing is that we benefit local businesses and workers,” Laura emphasizes. She’s a terrific supporter of all things Laguna.

You’ll notice that Laura while works a lot of jobs, not all of them are paid – or they don’t pay much. She can’t help herself: it seems she was born to volunteer her energy and generosity. Ask James Pribram, founder of Eco Warriors, how much she’s helped with local beach cleanups. Ask the Glennwood folks. Ask Patrick DiGiacomo of The Kitchen in the Canyon, a place she adores not just for breakfast but because of their outreach to the homeless population. Ask her kids…

But what we most love about Laura at Stu News, of course, is her ability to turn meals into adventures and bring restaurateurs and “the help” to life every week on our Front Page II food column as she tells of our latest local dining sensations.

“When I first heard of Laguna, I associated it with that TV show,” she says. “I thought I’d never want to live here. But when I visited, I knew it was my soul place. Now I have a deep love affair with Laguna.”

Which is pretty much how Laguna feels about Laura.

Though there is one more thing Laguna could do to show its affection, “Someone, open a great Indian restaurant!” Laura urges, in full exclamation mode. “Please!!” 

I couldn’t agree more.


Bob Whalen takes pole position, working to make a great Laguna better and safer every day

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Since moving to Laguna Beach in 1984 Bob Whalen has made a lasting imprint on every facet of civic life he has involved himself in. Currently serving a second term on the City Council, Whalen has been involved locally with youth sports, education, the Boys and Girls Club and the city’s Planning Commission.  

And the word “involved,” as it pertains to Whalen, means making a lasting imprint through leadership roles. His contribution to just one of these causes would fulfill almost anyone else’s checklist for civic involvement. However, that’s not how he seems to approach things. 

As he says, “There was no long range vision” to his involvement.  “You get involved in one thing and it leads to another.” And so it has.

Looking for a town with good schools and personality

Whalen and his wife Kirsten chose Laguna Beach because it checked a lot of the boxes they deemed important. Before coming to Laguna, the young family (their daughter was one year old), was living in “a beautiful, old neighborhood” in Santa Ana.  They decided to move because they wanted a community that offered what most people with young children are looking for: good schools. 

There was one more thing on their wish list: “We wanted good schools, but we also wanted something with character, individuality.” 

This meant Irvine was out. Laguna Beach, on the other hand, fit the bill, since it had good schools, character and, something else that was important to the Whalens: an artists’ community.  

“My wife is an artist,” explains Whalen, so living in an artists’ community was a huge plus. The Whalens purchased a house on Holly St. and they have lived there ever since, albeit with three remodels under their belts.

Bob Whalen, City Council member, attorney and community volunteer

It all began with coaching youth sports

With three active kids, Whalen says he coached soccer, baseball, and basketball at the Boys and Girls Club. “I loved youth sports,” he says enthusiastically. “The best reward is running into a kid you coached 25 years ago. That’s really fun. You get to help some kids along the way; you get to know kids along the way. That was a great period of time.” 

In addition to coaching, Whalan was president of Laguna Beach Little League. He also got involved in SchoolPower. “I was active in that for several years and was president for a year,” he says.

Using his expertise to help the schools in a modest way

However, it was not SchoolPower or youth sports that really got him involved in Laguna civic life. “Back in ‘95/’96 the school district was facing an extreme financial crisis. The state was thinking of putting the schools in receivership,” he explains. “The people on the School Board knew I did a lot of public finance in my work (Whalen is a public finance attorney). Whalen helped the Board do a ‘relatively small transaction’ borrowing $200-250,000 so “the schools wouldn’t get taken over.”  

Then the School Board had an opening…

In 1997 there was a vacancy on the School Board because one of the board members moved away. Whalen was appointed to the position, then ran in 1998 and was re-elected in 1992. “That was a really great period of time,” says Whalen. “There were a lot of new, exciting things: new superintendent, new principals, just a new energy and focus in the district.” 

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Bob Whalen working at his home in Laguna

Using his expertise to help the schools in a major way

Despite this great new energy, Whalen says the schools were in terrible fiscal shape.  “Drawing on my professional experience it seemed that what the community needed was a bond issue to rebuild the schools.” 

The bond passed in 2001 with 80 percent approval, something Whalen says he found “extremely rewarding.” The Board spent $55 million over the next four years rebuilding all four schools. 

“It made a huge difference,” says Whalen. The money funded technology, the Black Box Theater at Thurston Middle School, and new libraries, to list just several of the improvements. “It touched every classroom in one way or another.  That was a great long term investment in the community.” 

A break from civic life means more time for the B&GC 

All of this took Whalen to 2006 when, he says, “I was ready for a little break from civic life.” He may have needed a break from civic life, but that didn’t mean he stopped giving of his time. “In ’04 I’d gotten involved with the Boys and Girls Club…I’d been involved with my own boys and was very happy to get involved at the Board level,” says Whalen who served as Board president. His involvement with the schools helped enhance the collaboration between them and the Club. Additionally, the Boys and Girls Club, like the school district before it, was going through some “fiscally trying times,” according to Whalen. The economic downturn in 2008 did not help. 

“We worked really hard to get the Club on good footing. Now it has expanded through the city. It’s one of those Laguna organizations that’s so critical to kids and families. We’ve very lucky to have it.” 

Some forward thinking friends bring him back to civic life

At this point, Whalen had been away from government for a couple of years. Some friends, Elizabeth Pearson and Anne Johnson, prodded him to “get back involved.”  “That,” he says, “led me to my appointment on the Planning Commission.” Whalen served for four years. Then, “Ann, who is always thinking two steps ahead, said, ‘Let’s get this guy to run for city council.’ Whalen first served in 2012 and was re-elected in 2016. “That’s’ how it all strings together,” he says modestly.

Arts and public safety are focuses for his second term

Now that he’s firmly entrenched in governance of the city, Whalen says his focus is on two issues: the arts and public safety. Whalen has served on the Board of Directors of the Laguna Art Museum and with his wife an artist, Whalen’s interest in maintaining or expanding Laguna’s thriving art community is not surprising.  

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Kirsten Whalen, a long-time exhibitor at the Festival of the Arts

Kirsten Whalen helps with the art cred

Kirsten Whalen has, herself, an inspiring story. After embarking on a second degree in Fine Arts from the Laguna College of Art and Design (she had been trained as a graphic artist) she was diagnosed with breast cancer her senior year. Despite this, she managed to not only finish her degree, but graduate as valedictorian. 

An exhibitor at the Festival of the Arts for many years, Kirsten Whalen is an accomplished artist and someone very familiar with the art community.  Clearly, art matters in the Whalen household.

Finding ways to help artists thrive in Laguna

Councilman Whalen speaks highly of the Arts Commission and the work they’ve done on things like public art installations. Another thing he says the city council is working on is “finding ways to allow local artists to thrive.” The council hired a consulting firm to “find more artists’ work space, for example. As the community has gotten more expensive it is hard for them to stay here and work here,” he explains.

Electrical poles and public safety

Whalen’s other “big focus” is public safety. Calling the possibility of a fire the city’s “biggest catastrophic risk,” Whalen feels strongly that the aboveground utility poles should be moved underground.  

Recently, several fires have been sparked as a result of the wires. “Thanks to the fire department we’ve been able to keep them under control, but we may not always be so lucky.”

Formulating a plan to take the issue of the poles to the voters

The poles present another safety problem: collisions. “There have been 50 collisions in ten years of cars and poles,” he says. “We have to get those things out of the way.” Acknowledging that such an undertaking is no small feat, Whalen says. 

“My hope is we can present a plan to do the whole community for $150-175 million. Laguna Canyon Road alone is $40-50 million.” 

The expectation, according to Whalen, is that state and regional funds in addition to contributions from Southern California Edison would help ease the financial burden. “It’s a big ticket item,” he acknowledges. “We will have to go back to the voters.”

Managing Laguna’s six million annual visitors

There are many other issues Whalen, and the other members of the city council, concern themselves with, of course. An ongoing topic is how our small city of 23,000 people absorbs sometimes 150,000 people over a busy summer weekend. “We are constantly trying to figure out how to manage the waves of visitors,” says Whalen. “It’s not a problem you solve, but a problem you manage.”

Bringing some small-town, east coast sensibilities out west

Managing problems is something Bob Whalen excels in, although I doubt he looks at things that way. He is unfailingly modest and speaks as someone who just likes to contribute. He credits his mother and his small-town upbringing. 

“I grew up in a small town outside of Boston, smaller than here,” he says. There they run town meetings. “It’s a real direct democracy. I got a lot of it from their commitment to civic engagement.”

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Bob and Kirsten Whalen in front of the Festival of the Arts grounds

A model of making a difference in one’s community

While things are run differently in Laguna than the hometown of Whalen’s youth, he hopes the next generation is ready for their entrance into civic engagement. 

“We have something pretty special here, and it will only stay this way if people work to preserve the great qualities we have in Laguna Beach. The arts we support here are unique, but also the environment, the open space. We have to take care of that as well. 

“So I hope there is a whole new generation ready to get involved and carry Laguna forward,” says Whalen, a man whose efforts for doing just that should definitely serve as an inspiration to us all.



Best-kept secret, hidden treasure: that’s Bill Atkins, unique in Laguna for his brilliant graphic art skills

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Bill Atkins’ art is visible all over California, not only on the walls of art- and poster-lovers, but on the byways and highways of our state. Many know his work, but few are aware of the talented man behind the iconic license-plate “whale-tail” image seen around California. 

This achievement came about because the California Coastal Commission chose Atkins to design the license plate graphic after he won the CCC design competition in 2011. He was delighted to be able to work on a project promoting our oceans and sea creatures, a cause dear to his heart.

To be quite clear, Atkins is quick to point out, “I won the contest itself, but along with another artist, Elizabeth Tyndall, from Northern California, who was also then chosen to contribute to the license plate. She did not help in the design, but I included a portion of her painting in the ocean background layer.”

The plate is the newest and among the most popular choices for drivers who are proud of our state and who care about the health of its oceans. (Profits are donated to the Commission’s education program.)

“The design is deceptively simple,” Atkins notes, showing me several of the more than 50 versions that he completed as part of his commission to develop the design. “There are layers upon layers, if you look carefully.” 

The winning design, now adorning many a vehicle, shows a humpback’s fluke against the blue of the ocean and scudding white clouds. “I needed to pay attention to the tiniest detail, for example, tilting the tail to make sure the last two letters of California are visible,” he explains.

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Bill Atkins shelters from the recent rain

“Deceptively simple” is a description that applies to much of Atkins’ work, which requires significantly more artistry and attention to detail than most people realize.

“Marrying images and typography for the kind of result I want, and that my clients want, can be tricky,” Atkins says. “Poster art is sometimes not given the same respect as other art forms, maybe because here in Laguna plein air has ruled for so long, but it has a rich history and demands a lot of focus. I love the challenge.” 

Atkins’ posters depict iconic local places and events, including Crystal Cove cottages and the Festival of the Arts, as well as famous performing artists such as Cyndi Lauper. Atkins is also a long-time teacher, and has taught digital imagery and art at LCAD and Irvine Valley College among other schools.

Posters are unique, he says, because they tend to carry explicit messages through images and typography, images that transcend international and cultural barriers. Think of travel posters, and film posters, or of Atkins’ Sister Cities series, featuring scenes from Laguna’s sister cities: Menton, France, San Jose del Cabo, Mexico, and St. Ives, England. The detailed graphics and colors reflect the commonality and shared appreciation of our ocean-side communities. 

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Bill Atkins contributes his time and talents to many nonprofits

These images are among his favorites, especially as they helped win a grant from the City for the Sister Cities nonprofit, which, as he mentions, “brings an international flavor to our town.” He’s an active member of Sister Cities as well as many other Laguna organizations, including the Garden Club, the Beautification Council and, more recently, helps with Susi Q’s Gallery Q. 

He’s donated his time and talent to graphic arts campaigns benefiting the Art Museum, AIDS Services Foundation and the Human Rights Campaign. His generosity and warm spirit are legendary among those in the know.

Atkins’ love for his work, Laguna Beach, and the outdoors, is evident to me as I chat to him on the deck of his apartment, surrounded by greenery, including native plants and succulents and a plate of fruit that looks ready to be turned into a still-life.

Hummingbirds dart among tree branches in this super-serene setting, and Atkins shows the same high energy as he jumps up and down to find various examples of his art to answer my questions about his award-winning work, which includes attractive bronze plaques honoring legendary figures such as Harry Lawrence, “Mr. Laguna.”

Atkins has wanted to be an artist since he was a young boy. “My father was fine with that, as long as I had a career like a friend of his, a commercial artist who made money – ‘not the other kind,’ my dad said,” he laughs.

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Bill in his studio, holding the whale-tail license plate

His immediate goal is to improve his social media skills and rework his website, www.lagunaposter.com, to raise his visibility locally. “I don’t think many people know about me,” he notes. “That’s partly because marketing isn’t my favorite thing to do. Most of my business comes through word-of-mouth and that’s the way most of my teaching jobs have come also.”

Atkins’ work has been on display on the walls of the Wells Fargo Building and, for the past 18 years, at Vintage Poster Gallery on Coast Hwy, where his work has proved popular among locals as well as visitors looking for vibrant art.

Like so many Lagunans, Bill Atkins, a Philadelphian by birth, says he visited here with a friend and was so charmed that within three months or so, he’d packed his things and moved, back in the early seventies. “Somehow I knew this was my home,” he says.

It’s a decision he’s never regretted. While he would love the time (and resources) to travel more, for the moment he feels content in his secluded eyrie in the woods, his small but cosy apartment inland from Crescent Point and close to Dartmoor, his favorite wilderness trail. 

“Posters are history, they’re cultural icons,” he says. “People need posters. They always will. They fill eyeballs!”

And by extension, the public needs artists who create posters, and plaques, and banners, and who are uniquely sensitive to creating meaningful, beautiful synergy between the written word and images.

Especially artists as talented, generous and sweet-natured as Laguna’s Bill Atkins.


Don’t go big, go small, says Aaron Talarico: Laguna’s future will depend on the presence of young families

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

I interviewed Aaron Talarico at his home office on a rainy Wednesday morning, finding my way to his place by putting one careful sneaker in front of another on the narrow muddy sidewalk abutting Coast Highway, traffic swishing past me within what felt like inches. Even professional tightrope walkers would have found it a challenge. (Here I exaggerate.)

“Those sidewalks need to be fixed,” Aaron said immediately when he met me at the bottom of his yard and led me up to his office overlooking the Pacific, the ocean’s surface silkily silver on that wet January day. 

“But this view – it’s so wonderful,” we both agreed. 

And that’s Laguna, right? We have our problems, but boy, do they feel insignificant given all our advantages. Doesn’t mean we can’t improve matters, though, as Aaron strongly believes.

Aaron Talarico, Laguna born and bred, is personable, amiable, and involved

Young by Laguna standards – our population is definitely aging – Aaron opened his eyes and saw the world, or at least bright lights and white walls, for the first time in 1980 at what was then South Coast Hospital, now Mission Hospital, only a few miles from where he now lives with his wife Catherine, young daughters Caroline and Claire, and in-utero son, who is scheduled to arrive in May.

Aaron attended Laguna schools, winning many awards for tennis, and, until his sophomore year in college at Notre Dame, he had a singular ambition: to join Andre Agassi and company as one of the sport’s greats. Finally, after several injuries, he realized the impossibility of his dream, though he didn’t give up easily.

Singles tennis taught Aaron personal responsibility

“Tennis taught me how to lose,” he notes wryly, though his current success in the real estate business suggests that he doesn’t have to rely on that particular skill too often these days.

Aaron wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. (A personal aside: that’s a very uncomfortable image, is it not? For the mother, if not the baby. But I digress.)

“I feel lucky that my parents moved here when they did, in the early seventies,” he says. “My dad was a county planner and my mom a kindergarten teacher. People in those kinds of professions can’t afford to live here anymore, especially young families with kids. That’s a problem.”

This generational gap is only going to get worse, Aaron believes, as Laguna becomes an increasingly desirable destination internationally, resulting in extremely wealthy people buying second and third homes here, visiting only once in a while. This is already happening.

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Rain or shine, the view from Aaron’s home office is spectacular

“Laguna has fantastic schools. But you have to have school-age kids for them to continue to flourish in the future,” he says.

Aaron knows there’s no easy answer, but he does have a suggestion or two. 

“I’d rather see four one-million dollar homes built than one four-million dollar home,” he says. “There are plenty of young families out there who would choose a smaller house in Laguna over a bigger place in Irvine or Ladera Ranch, if only more [such homes] were available, more easily approved, and more effectively marketed. We need Laguna to stay multigenerational.”

True to his beliefs, Aaron and wife Catherine and family live in a 900 square foot home now and so far have never lived anywhere larger. 

Also, in 2004, Aaron bought the land behind his house and after four years of bureaucratic challenges, built two stunning but small homes on the property, each 1000 square feet. 

There are other ways to attract young families, Aaron believes: “I think we need more small kid-friendly open spaces scattered around the neighborhoods, pocket parks, especially in South Laguna.” 

Young, old, and in-between: Laguna will benefit from a multigenerational mix of locals

Aaron also wants to make sure that older Lagunans have the ability to continue to live here. While he’s a big supporter of the Susi Q aging in place initiative, he feels that a couple of assisted living facilities, perhaps close to Mission Hospital, would be a welcome addition.

His love for Laguna is absolute, but it frustrates him that so many decisions are tied to parking, for example. “It’s a dated way of looking at things,” he says. “We need to welcome fresh thinking. Be more flexible.”

Locals also need to listen to each other more, he feels. Aaron has done just that for years, serving as a board member of the Chamber of Commerce and on a variety of civic committees since 2000, including the Recreation Committee, where he was in part responsible for the overhaul of the kids’ playground off Main Beach. 

“I love to take my kids there, knowing I helped improve it so much,” he says. “It feels good to make a difference, however small.”

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True to his beliefs, Aaron built two small homes on land behind his house

A few years ago Aaron founded the NextGen group with the goal of encouraging his generation, especially those in their thirties and forties, to become more involved in the decision-making that now, and in the future, will affect the tenor and ambience of our town.

“At plenty of City Council or committee meetings, I’ve been the youngest one there by 20 or 30 years,” he says. “My wife and I are encouraging our friends to do what they can, even just to show up, because that’s so important, though we know ourselves how hard it is to find time with kids and work commitments.”

In Aaron’s mind, Laguna’s “greatest generation” consists of those who saved the Canyon, encouraged the arts community to flourish, and beautified Main Beach and Heisler Park, among other major accomplishments. 

“What will our generation’s legacy be?” he asks.

You can bet that whatever that legacy turns out to be, Aaron Talerico’s name will be mentioned when our town’s history is told. That man was born to serve, I can tell, and I’m not just talking about his tennis game.


Carla Tesak Arzente: Her saltfineart gallery adds zest and an international flavor to the Laguna art scene

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The woman in the painting gazes out of the train window. The light falls faintly on her arm; her expression is inscrutable. Is she arriving somewhere with hope in her eyes? Or leaving a place in sadness? 

Both interpretations of this work of art by famous El Salvadorian artist Rafael Varela, known as one of the master realists of Latin American art, feel deeply personal to Carla Tesak Arzente, on whose wall at home the painting hangs. 

Carla, owner of saltfineart & raw salt gallery, at 346 N. Coast Hwy, is an immigrant, born of Hungarian parents who lived most of their adult lives in El Salvador. She knows the melancholy that comes with leaving home and family and friends; but she also knows the joy of arrival in a place that warms the wandering soul and feels instinctively the right place to settle. 

In Carla’s case, as for so many of us, that place is Laguna Beach, which also provides the perfect setting for her passionate love of art. 

Carla Tesak attributes her deep passion for art to her father’s influence

“My earliest memories are of my father taking anyone who crossed our doorstep on a tour around our house. Each of the hundreds of paintings had a story. When he was dying and lost his ability to speak, when people were visiting for my wedding, he would point to each one knowing I could tell the story in his place,” she says. “Varela’s Girl on a Train was my favorite as a young girl.” 

The painting spent a brief period of time “lying next to the bathroom scale in his home, awaiting a place to hang,” she says, “because he had such a huge collection and had run out of space on his walls. I begged him to send it to me, but at first he was reluctant. Like me, he wanted to keep all the art pieces he bought.”

Her late father’s influence on Carla’s life has been profound, though except for Varela’s work, Carla says that her taste differs from his in most regards. 

But she shares his pleasure in stimulating conversation through art. And that’s exactly what happens when passersby wander into the gallery: conversations.

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Saltfineart features an intriguing selection of pieces by famous Latin American artists as well as emerging local artists

“We love to educate people. We live off our windows,” she says. “Where we are located now is perfect; we have Sue Greenwood, JoAnn Artman and Kelsey Michael as neighbors, to mention just them for a start. They’re terrific, and there’s a kind of cross-pollination that goes on, an energy that happens from our collective presence here on this block. 

“Of course the Art Museum is close by too. I wish I’d known how vital location is when I first started the gallery back in 2009,” she adds. “That was a tough time for us. But of course there was also the recession then. Still we managed to survive even though I knew nothing about business, I’d barely seen a balance sheet.”

For many years Carla worked as a copywriter for Young & Rubicam, one of the top advertising firms in the world, rising to the executive level as a creative director and working on national campaigns ranging from Wrigley’s to Chevron. 

So Carla has always been an ideas person, with plenty of passion and heart and generosity in the mix, all qualities that served her well despite her former lack of business acumen. 

These traits of hers are evident as I chat to Carla, whose excitable flow of words reminds me of a popcorn machine in full popping mode. Her charm is irresistible.

“When we moved here, I thought I might work in a gallery. Then I thought, why not open a gallery?” she explains.

So she did. The pristine white walls of saltfineart provide a backdrop to a mix of conceptual, pop and a little representative art, some works created by famous artists – famous in many parts of the world, that is, yet little known in the States, particularly in California – and some by locals just beginning their careers.

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All are welcome in Carla’s gallery, from first-time art buyers to collectors: here Carla chats with gallery director Suzanne Walsh and me, hiking shoes no problem

“Maybe three out of 35 artists came with collectors in tow,” she says. “We actually like first-time art buyers. Some of them stay for hours talking about the work on the walls. Over time some of our artists gather collectors. There’s almost a chemical reaction that occurs, which is great, one thing leads to another and suddenly we’re helping fill an entire house with art. 

“From the artists’ point of view, we want to provide space for Latin American but also emerging artists, and we love to educate people about background and style and the symbolism in some of the more abstract pieces, seen in the context of history and culture – why a kitten in a painting might be telling us something about violence, for example,” she adds. “Mostly what we hope for is an emotional response.”

The “we” in question includes her elegant gallery director, Suzanne Walsh: “It’s a tale of two girls,” Carla notes. “Suzanne is indispensable. I love what is weird, and passionate, and interesting. She understands, she has the same passion, but knows we have to pay the rent too. There has to be a balance in the art business to stay alive.”

The two met when Carla’s dog “busted” into Peter Blake’s gallery, where Suzanne was working at the time. 

“We had lunch and bonded over my salami and butter sandwich,” Carla explains. “Suzanne’s parents are from Poland. We talked about this funny thing Americans do, putting mayonnaise on their sandwiches instead of buttering the sides of the bread. Then of course we talked so much about art.”

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Carla loves to discuss the stories behind each of the pieces she chooses

Saltfineart gets its name from Carla’s belief that, like salt, art adds zest to life and crosses all boundaries. 

“As a gallery owner, I know I have to keep things fresh and interesting,” she says. “Here in Laguna, there is such a wide swath of support for all kinds of art, so we can all follow our passion. That’s what makes this town so great, along with the energy and goodwill I feel.”

And Carla is giving back to the community, working with Ryman Arts, the Laguna College of Art and Design, the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach and the Laguna Art Museum, to mention just a few nonprofits – and of course, she plays a significant role through her gallery in expanding our horizons internationally, one artwork at a time. 

Saltfineart is clearly not just the flavor of the month. The gallery, and Carla Tesak Arzente, and her husband George and children Georgie, Charlotte and Henry – her “magnum opus” as she describes her family unit – are thankfully here to stay.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner and Publisher.

Lynette Brasfield is our Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor.

The Webmaster is Michael Sterling.

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Alexis Amaradio, Cameron Gillepsie  Allison Rael, Barbara Diamond, Diane Armitage, Laura Buckle, Maggi Henrikson, Marrie Stone, Samantha Washer and Suzie Harrison are staff writers.

Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Laura Buckle and Suzie Harrison are columnists.

Mary Hurlbut, Scott Brashier, and Aga Stuchlik are the staff photographers.

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