Rockin’ Out with Kids

Seeing a child arrive at the Skirball for his or her first rock concert is a perk of my job; knowing they’re getting that jittery feeling you get when you’re about to be in the presence of those voices you’ve spent hours with, at home or in the car, memorizing every word and drumbeat.

In my experience, the people in these amazing bands are always just as excited as the kids to rock out together in person. In just a few weeks, our special Winter Family Concerts bring two creative, kid-friendly acts to the Skirball: two-time Parent’s Choice Award winner Jambo on Saturday, December 28, and 2013 Grammy nominee for Best Children’s Album The Pop Ups on Sunday, December 29. I thought it would be interesting to find out more about these groups as they prepare for their upcoming performances, and they were kind enough to oblige.

Jambo 1

The mission of musical group Jambo has always been to get people of all ages up and dancing. For years, husband-and-wife team Steve Pierson and Melinda Leigh have been using their imaginative performance style to transport audiences through the roots of American music. They’ve made several appearances at the Skirball’s Family Amphitheater Performances series, and they’ve always been a big hit. I spoke with Steve Pierson about Jambo’s beginnings and what inspires him to keep performing.

How did you get started in performance?
I always played music and performed as a kid. I studied piano when I was young, but when my older brother taught me some chords on the guitar, I never looked back. I started out playing acoustic guitar in coffee houses and small venues; playing James Taylor, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Allman Brothers, as well as my original songs. I was always heavily into blues music and played in a few different local blues bands till I put together my own band, Steve Pierson & Blues Head, and started touring around the country playing large blues festivals and small roadhouse bars.

What is one memorable moment from your performing career that stands out?
There have been a few shows that have really stuck with me over my career as a performer, but as it relates to Jambo, one of my first shows was very memorable. I wrote these songs for my own daughter and had no intention of performing them outside of our own home. We played a show at a local elementary school and the experience blew me away. The kids had such unbridled enthusiasm for the music and everyone was having so much fun. The kids were so loud that we couldn’t hear ourselves on stage! jambo2I had a blast and it clicked for me that I could play the music I love for these families and it didn’t have to be “dumbed down.” It became my mission to present young kids with really great musical experiences.

What music inspires you?
Dan Zanes was the first person I heard playing “real” music for kids, and I also really loved the Jack Johnson Curious George record. These were songs for kids that adults really liked listening to as well, and that’s what I wanted to make. After that, my music borrows from my musical heroes: The Band, The Rolling Stones, Ry Cooder, anything Stax or Muscle Shoals, and of course the blues greats including, but not limited to, the three Kings (B.B., Albert, and Freddie), Taj Mahal, Albert Collins … the list goes on.

How did you come up with your group’s name?
I was trying to come up with something that would sound fun, groovy, and inviting. “Jambo” is a combination of “jam,” as in a jam session or party, and “gumbo,” a delicious Louisiana dish that is a combination of rich flavors and ingredients. I felt like the name was kind of like a “roots music stew” where I could stir in influences from Chicago, New Orleans, Texas, and the Mississippi Delta. Of course, Jambo also means “hello” in Swahili, which I love because it is so welcoming and evocative of the cultural diversity that I try to bring to the music.

What influence has your family had on your art?
My family has been a huge influence on my art. I never would have written these songs for children if it hadn’t been for the inspiration my own daughter brings me. I have always tried to write from her perspective and about things that she likes or issues she has struggled with. I wanted these songs to be helpful to her as she is growing up, and it has been a blessing to be able to pass that along to all the kids and families that hear my music. It’s been so great to be able to share this project and perform with my wife as well, making it a true family affair! It’s our mission now to bring “real roots music” to kids and do a little part to fill the void left by diminished school budgets and dwindling music programs.


dsc_0098THE POP UPS

The Pop Ups are not your typical children’s band. The duo’s incorporation of puppets, props, and colorful sets into their show has garnered praise from the Wall Street Journal and a Grammy nomination for Best Children’s Album. We’re excited for The Pop Ups to bring their high energy and wildly inventive tunes to the Skirball. I spoke with Jason Rabinowitz and Jacob Stein about their influences and what we should expect from their upcoming performance.

How did you get started in performance?
We both started very young. Jacob’s father had a kids band called Dino Rock, Continue reading

Rhythm Is Gonna Get You

The mission of music group Rhythm Child has always been to get people of all ages up and moving. For the past six years Rhythm Child founder, Norm Jones, has been inspiring young drummers and their families to get up and move as part of the Skirball’s Family Amphitheater Performances series. If you’ve been to any of the group’s last six performances, you know that once Jones passes out his instruments and lays down a beat, the Amphitheater comes thumping to life! I’ve always loved the energy and enthusiasm of Rhythm Child, so I thought it would be interesting to find out more about this fun and feisty musical collective as they plan for their Amphitheater performance on July 21st.

How did you get started in performance?
I grew up being inspired by the performance of others (my brother’s band, choirs in church, supper club shows that my mom took me to). I watched how these singers moved the audience with style, humor, and emotion. For years I practiced at the mirror in my basement before I ever took the stage and performed for people.

What part of performing for live audiences do you enjoy the most?
I love the immediate feedback that you get from a live audience. There is an exchange of energy that is unquestionable. There is a feeling of being out there on the edge without much of a safety net and usually the audience is open and willing to go for the ride. What I hope for is that everyone walks away feeling connected and inspired.

What is the most memorable moment from your career?
I must say that performing at the White House was pretty cool. I got to have my family with me on stage for one of the greatest days of my career.

What music or artist inspires you? Continue reading

Hello, Gorillas

Azalea-and-gorillasIf you have not met the new mountain gorilla family on Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, I highly recommend a visit! Welcoming these new members of the Noah’s Ark family has been very exciting for all of us at the Skirball. We have had many questions from staff and visitors about the gorillas and how they fit into the harmony we have established on the Ark. So, I thought it would be nice to check-in with my old friend Jennifer Chatfield. We consulted with Jennifer, former gorilla keeper at the Los Angeles Zoo for over twenty-five years and, in my opinion, the undisputed queen of gorillas, during the design process for the gorillas. Now, as the family settles in, I thought it was time to call her up again to see if she would share more of her in-depth knowledge of these wonderful creatures.

What have you learned from the gorillas you worked with?
I’ve learned a lot from gorillas! First, I think that when working with any animal you must be quiet inside. Leave the stress of your commute, an argument with a co-worker, and all your other issues at the door. The gorillas have taught me to be more aware and to pay close attention to body language. Since their vocalizations are limited, they communicate with their actions. This has made me more aware of their desires and moods, and has made me a better reader of people, too.

What is something about gorillas that most people don’t know?
A lot of them are very ticklish and will laugh or giggle when you tickle their belly.

single-gorillaPeople often think of gorillas in a negative way because of films like King Kong. What would you like to change in people’s minds about gorillas?
In spite of their size and some impressive teeth, gorillas are very gentle. They tend to shy away from confrontation rather than fight. Even silverback gorillas (the lead male in a family group)—who get into territorial disputes—fight in a ritualistic manner and there usually aren’t too many serious injuries. Part of the beauty of being a gorilla is that if you stand up, charge, and beat your chest, it scares most interlopers off.

In what ways do gorilla families behave like human families?
While the makeup of a gorilla family is different than a usual human family—with one silverback, several females, and their offspring—there are strong bonds in the group. The silverbacks play a role in child-rearing, often playing gently with infants barely the size of the palm of their hand. Continue reading

Destined to Puppeteer: An Interview with Elizabeth Luce

Elizabeth's "Moon Lady."

Elizabeth’s Moon Lady.

Elizabeth Luce is a puppeteer, storyteller, writer. Her puppet performance “The Emperor and the Nightingale,” based on one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most beloved tales, will be performed at the Skirball’s second annual Family Puppet Festival on Sunday, April 7. I sat down with Elizabeth as she was preparing for the show to ask her about the magical world of puppetry.

How did you get started in puppetry?
I think puppetry and I were destined for each other, and would have come together no matter what, but my first important puppet experiences were because of my kindergarten art teacher, Mr. Blake. He would bring puppets out to talk to us. We were enthralled, sitting in a circle around his chair. There was a puppet show of his with puppets that lit up under black light, which made quite an impression on me. He also was responsible for guiding me to build my first real rod puppet (see below). Pretty funny puppet, right? That’s actually the “improved” version; a year later, I ripped off his hair and taped on smaller eyes.

Elizabeth's first puppet.

Elizabeth’s first puppet.

Also, the local library—hurray for libraries!—had a half dozen books on puppets and puppetry in the adult section. I checked them all out multiple times as a child. In particular, I loved the look of the Czechoslovakian puppets, and that has been a visual influence that’s stayed with me always: clean simple lines with nice stylization.

Which puppet or puppeteer captured your imagination when you were younger?
I loved, loved, LOVED “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,” and to this day I think they are special. The show played during the early days of television (1947–1957) and Burr Tillstrom, the puppeteer, would arrive at the TV studio with only a loose plan in his head for the show, but mostly he just improvised, even though the show was broadcast live! This would never happen nowadays, of course. There was a set of puppet characters and also Fran Allison, a warm and gracious lady who often stood out in front of the stage and talked with the puppets. Although Fran served as “straight man,” she was what made all the funny puppet characters and their special world work so well. Because she believed in them, we did too.

Watch a scene from “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie”—Fran, Madame Ooglepuss, and Buelah Witch rehearse a song from The Mikado:

Where do you get inspiration for your shows?
Continue reading

Schoolhouse Rock Turns the Big 4-0

This Schoolhouse Rock film “Preamble” makes viewing the Constitution in Creating the United States
that much more meaningful and fun.

The suite of exhibitions and programs we’re currently presenting at the Skirball under the thematic umbrella Democracy Matters has gotten me thinking about the way I learned some of the fundamentals of American history and government as a kid in the 1970s.

Growing up in San Diego, I was light years away from Washington D.C. and all those historic sites of colonial wars and document signings—and from the key museums and libraries that house the most noteworthy foundational documents. Instead I learned the basics of American history primarily from a series of short animated music videos that aired as interstitial programs on ABC: Schoolhouse Rock (which turns forty today according to the Washington Post and NPR)!

Come now, all you forty-somethings out there. Didn’t many of you, too, learn the Preamble to the Constitution from a Schoolhouse Rock film with an unbelievably catchy tune sung by Lynn Ahrens… Continue reading

Hanukkah Family Festival through a Photographer’s Lens

Come rain, come shine, the Skirball’s annual Hanukkah family festival always draws a crowd of diverse generations, backgrounds, and smiles. Photographer and first-time festival attendee BeBe Jacobs was impressed with this year’s Hanukkah festival, Americana Hanukkah, which took inspiration from our campus-wide “Democracy Matters” initiative to celebrate the Jewish holiday. “No matter what activity [people] were doing,” she told me, as we looked over the images she shot that day, “the fact that families were spending time together made all the difference.”

For both of us, the Hanukkah festival not only brought families together but also brought out creativity that visitors did not realize they had. There was plenty to do all day, like watch Marcus Shelby and his quintet perform beautiful freedom songs… or hear Story Pirates act out original Hanukkah tales on stage… or join a tour focusing on the Skirball’s collection of Hanukkah lamps (the last couple of these Lights of Hanukkah Family Tours take place today and tomorrow, so be sure to swing by this weekend). But it was at the hands-on art workshops where people got a chance to create something themselves.

Here, BeBe shares ten of her favorite photos from that fun-filled day with reflections on the people and moments that made them so special.

BeBe was amazed at how each visitor could create beautiful art pieces out of plain materials. Here, a visitor displays a menorah he made out of plastic tubes, colorful tape, and stickers.

BeBe was amazed at how each visitor could create beautiful art pieces out of plain materials. Here, a young visitor displays a menorah he made out of plastic tubes, colorful tape, and stickers.

BeBe found this young girl patiently waiting as her brother worked on an art project of his own. BeBe placed a tiny menorah on the glue stick in front of the girl. Immediately she looked down and started to blow out the “candles” in the menorah.

This young girl patiently waited as her brother finished his art project. In a moment of silliness, Bebe placed a tiny menorah on the glue stick in front of the girl. Immediately she looked down and started to blow out the “candles”.

According to BeBe, this young visitor was very proud of the Hanukkah pin she crafted. Her glee shines through in this photo!

This young visitor was very proud of the Hanukkah pin she crafted. The glee that shines through in this photo makes it an easy favorite!

Continue reading

Two Benjamins

Military uniform (jacket, epaulets, waistcoat, breeches, tricorn hat, and wig) and leather satchel of Jonathan Bancroft of Massachusetts, 1777-ca. 1789. From the collection of Dr. Gary Milan

Military uniform (jacket, epaulets, waistcoat, breeches, tricorn hat, and wig) and leather satchel of Jonathan Bancroft of Massachusetts, 1777-ca. 1789. From the collection of Dr. Gary Milan.

The day I planned to bring my eleven-year-old son, Benjamin, to Creating the United States, I called my dad. My parents still live in the house I grew up in, just a few towns over from where the shot heard ‘round the world rang out (this is how Schoolhouse Rocks memorialized that event, remember?) and only a short trip from where Paul Revere rode his famous ride. Dad, who grew up in Lexington, MA, is a man who has always been surrounded by—and fascinated with—history.

In fact, it was my dad whom I thought most about when I first walked through Creating the United States. I looked closely at the old documents, the artifacts, and the photographs, and took a journey through the American Revolution. As I stood in front of the uniform of a Continental Army officer (which also caught the eye of The Family Savvy, in this enthusiastic write-up), I thought of Dad and the stories he told about Revolutionary War muskets that our family once housed as part of a collection.

A historical artifact from my family’s own American story: Danforth Maxcy's canteen.

A historical artifact from my family’s own American story: Danforth Maxcy's canteen.

The old satchel displayed alongside the uniform reminded me of things that men carried to war, like the Civil War−era canteen that still sits in my parents’ living room. It once belonged to Danforth Maxcy (my great-great-great-great-uncle), who was injured at the Battle of Gettysburg and died on the train ride back home to Maine. He was twenty-one. Continue reading

Perfectly Imperfect Art

I’ve been interested in contemporary art since college, and it’s been a dream of mine to one day display a small but significant collection of art. In fact my husband and I recently contemplated the purchase of a piece by Ed Ruscha and Raymond Pettibon just last weekend, at the Pasadena Museum of California Art 10th Birthday Auction (if you click through, BTW, that’s me and the hubby in that top pic!).

But like most of my friends, our desire for an art collection had to take a backseat to an even stronger desire for food, shelter, and clothing, so we make due with home-sourced works of art and other creative endeavors. That’s one reason why I am a huge fan of the Skirball’s art studio. Visiting the studio offers a great way to unlock the special creative genius within your own family or circle of friends.

Nieces hard at work in the Family Art Studio, while their Aunt Jenn snaps pix.

My nieces hard at work in the Family Art Studio, while their Aunt Jenn snaps pix.

The Skirball’s drop-in art studio, a.k.a. Family Art Studio (or Studio Schmoodio, as a smarty-pants colleague once suggested for a name), is ideal for a group of friends or family wanting to partake in the artful assembly of recycled and repurposed ordinary materials, turning misfit minutiae into mini-masterpieces.

I’m not a parent but have regularly brought all six of my nieces since the Skirball started offering the drop-in art studio during busy summer and holiday weeks. You definitely don’t need to have kids to enjoy the studio, but kids always raise the bar when it comes to fearless innovation in hands-on art making.

I’m proud to share the story of a recent sleepover at my house with Ava and Claire, two of my six nieces, who were at a loss for sufficient dolls.  Looking around our place, they expressed to me their wish to have baby dolls for their bigger dolls to hold. Finally, Ava glanced over at the book shelf, full of the miscellaneous detritus of my life (don’t judge), and she suggested using a set of tiny spools of thread in a rainbow of colors as the “babies.” The girls even matched the color of the thread spool to the outfit worn by the “mama doll.” In true Skirball studio style, it was good fun for us to repurpose stuff that was right in front of us.

I’m also totally captivated by the story of Caine’s Arcade.  He’s another young guy who reminds the adults in his world about repurposing simple materials and cultivating our desire to create.  I had the chance to meet Caine and play in a “pop-up” version of his arcade at a recent Unique LA show. [And for those wanting to follow in Caine’s footsteps, stop by the Skirball on Saturday, October 6, to take part in the Global Cardboard Challenge.]

Left: That’s Caine back there behind his cardboard creations. Right: My husband, Victor, lines up to meet the famous Boyle Heights artist.

Left: That’s Caine back there behind his cardboard creations. Right: My husband, Victor, lines up to meet the famous Boyle Heights artist.

Continue reading

Step Right Up for Family Fun

I can’t believe it’s Labor Day Weekend! There hasn’t been a dull moment here in Family Programs all summer long. What has been so wonderful is to see families come in for one of our Family Amphitheater Performances, check out the Family Art Studio, pop over to our archaeological dig site, and play games as part of our Game On! program….all in one afternoon. One day, there was a family from Miami who had never been to the Skirball. When they arrived at the art studio, their eldest daughter (there were three kids total, and I’m guessing the eldest was around eleven) was feeling a bit grumpy. She just didn’t want to be there (there was even some tears). But by the time they left, the whole family was all smiles. The mom let me know how grateful she was that they had visited such a wonderful and special place. That’s music to my ears!

Just one more weekend to enjoy summer family fun at the Skirball. To get you excited about coming over, check out some highlights that I (along with a few from photographer friends) captured from the past few weeks.