Kal-El, Man of Steel

coverartFor the twelve-year-old boy in me who wrote a fifteen-page paper on the effect of comic books on children during World War II, Superman at 75: A Jewish Hero for All Time is a dream program. Joining together an expert like Larry Tye with Jack Larson (THE ORIGINAL JIMMY OLSEN!!!!), Richard Donner (director of the Christopher Reeves Superman), and Geoff Johns (chief creative officer at DC Comics), means bringing our audience a rare concentration of expertise and celebrity. Honestly, I wouldn’t dare go see the new Superman movie without hearing what the four of them have to say!

I couldn’t even wait ’til the program to grill Larry Tye, author of Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, about his favorite Superman and how he first learned about our favorite superhero’s Jewish roots.

What first drew you to Superman?
Two things: I was intrigued by why we as Americans embrace the heroes we do, and decided one way to explore that would be to look at our longest-lasting hero of the last century, Superman. The other reason was I wanted to be ten years old again, and revisiting my childhood pal let me feel like I was.

What is your favorite Superman plot?
I loved the 1990s series where he fought his most dastardly enemy ever (Doomsday), died in the arms of his beloved (Lois), and, after the requisite funeral and mourning, came back to life. Those stories reminded me that what comic book creators take away, they can give back, and they reminded the world why it loved (and needed) Superman.

How did you become aware of Superman’s Jewish roots?
Partly by reading all the good works on the Man of Steel’s ethnicity that came before, partly by reading Superman creator Jerry Siegel’s unpublished memoir, which no one other than his family and lawyers had seen before. Continue reading

Taking a Ride

bike-sign-1The month of May marks annual National Bike Month, during which people in cities all over the country are encouraged to ride more, learn about bike safety and mechanics, and commute to work. I myself have been a bike commuter for almost twenty years, first when I lived in Seattle, riding through rain, sleet, and hail to get to my high school teaching job, and now climbing through a mountain pass to get from my home in Santa Monica to my job at the Skirball.

I am often asked why I ride my bike to work (and if I’ve totally lost my mind or have a death wish), especially in the last few years during the massive construction project along the 405, which has made the 405 corridor bumpier and more haphazard (and hazardous).

arriving-at-skirbsFor me, riding my bike has always been a mix of personal pleasure and public service. I enjoy the exercise of it, the hour or so of vigorous riding to begin my day. But I also see it as a way to honor that very core Jewish value which we at the Skirball try to impart through our programs and exhibitions: that of taking care of the earth and each other. I feel, perhaps naively, that I’m doing something (albeit a small something) for our planet: a bit less CO2 emitted from a tailpipe, a few more friendly exhales in the direction of the plants along the road, a bit less stress put out into the world.

I start out each early-morning ride pedaling through the dark in Santa Monica with a red light on the back of my bike and a headlamp strung up around my helmet. Continue reading

Thanks for the Memories, Allan Sherman!

It was with a young girl’s excitement that I learned the Skirball would be presenting The Hits, the Life, and the Lost Lyrics of Allan Sherman, a conversation between author Mark Cohen and journalist/film producer Tom Teicholz about the legacy of song parodist and comedian Allan Sherman. Mark Cohen has written the first biography of Allan Sherman and I am excited to learn more about this voice that had such an impact on my childhood. I still remember listening to Allan Sherman’s songs when they were released. We had a record player in the room I shared with my sister, and that’s where we listened to his records. I don’t remember how many albums we had, but we played the songs over and over and laughed ourselves silly—including my parents. Of course, the song I remember most is from the homesick kid at sleepaway camp: “Hello Muddah, hello Faddah, here I am at Camp Granada …”

Listen to Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” here:

We really appreciated this humor for at least two reasons: First, I went away to a girl scout camp and was so homesick and unhappy, Continue reading

Dr. L. Subramaniam’s Global Fusion Knows No Borders

It was 1988, I was living in New York. Mira Nair’s award-winning movie Salaam Bombay! had just been released. I remember its strong impact on me and how I was riveted by the poignant and highly effective soundtrack which gave it another dimension. The score was by Dr. L. Subramaniam, the esteemed master of Karnatic (South Indian) violin.

Here’s the trailer for Salaam Bombay! with music by Dr. L. Subramaniam.

Exploring further, I discovered not only Subramaniam’s Indian classical recordings, but also his East/West fusion works and cross-cultural collaborations. The recipient of many awards since a young age, and equally trained in classical Indian and Western music, Dr. L. Subramaniam is a prolific recording artist who has worked with musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Larry Coryell, Stéphane Grappelli, Yehudi Menuhin, Ali Akbar Khan, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanley Clarke, Zubin Mehta, and the New York Philharmonic, to name a few. Continue reading

Behind the Scenes

The Skirball’s Learning for Life program is always looking for new and fun ways to engage adult learners. When UCLA instructor Marc Milstein approached me about teaching a course explaining the science behind TV crime shows, I was hooked. I have always wondered about the accuracy of the crime-solving science on these shows. Entertaining Science: Simply Explained will explore forensics, DNA evidence, cloning, and much more. Hopefully, this interview with Marc Milstein will whet your appetite.

If I take this course, will I be able to identify the killer on TV crime shows?
Great question! We could do an experiment and see if detective skills improve after taking the course. I’ll get back to you on the results of that one. You will definitely have a greater understanding and appreciation of what your favorite TV characters are talking about when they discuss the latest DNA-based and fingerprinting technology. You will also be able to catch when your favorite TV characters are talking about using a technology that doesn’t quite work in the way they are discussing it!

Can we do anything to improve short-term memory?
Absolutely! In just the last few years there has been a lot of extremely exciting research on how our memories are made and formed. We are going to discuss that, as well as the most effective methods researchers have found to increase one’s memory. One tip is to learn new things and challenge your brain in areas you might not feel completely comfortable with. Whether it be learning a new language or learning about science, that type of brain workout seems to be the most beneficial. We are also going to talk about some fascinating studies of people who have lost their ability to make any new memories. These are people who completely live in the present moment, much like the main character in the film Memento. There is one famous case about a man who couldn’t form any new memories, yet he could still remember how to play the piano. Continue reading

Be Still My Bleeding Heart

Champagne and roses may be synonymous with Valentine's Day, but this year, we recommend celebrating with Say the Word!

There’s a bit of a lull after the flurry of celebrations and activities of the holiday season, until suddenly, thoughts of Valentine’s Day begin to come into mind (or loom ahead, as the case may be).

At the Skirball we’re excited to celebrate Valentine’s Day with a special edition of our popular Say the Word comedic reading series entitled Bleeding Hearts, a little twist on the typical hearts-and-flowers motif. Whether you love Valentine’s Day or dread it, there’s something for you in this show. Say the Word: Bleeding Hearts is February 8—about a week before Valentine’s Day—so you have time to find a date!

I asked our Say the Word host, resident comedy maven, and goddess of love, Beth Lapides, to share some of her insights into the holiday and the Bleeding Hearts program.

Valentine’s Day: fake holiday or important day dedicated to expressing love?
Totally fake. But also, a very important day for expressing love! So, both. And that’s what keeps us interested in Valentine’s Day or any of the other Hallmark holidays—the contradiction of the authentic urge and the repulsive fake commerciality. The trick is to find ways to satisfy the one part while making fun of the other. And Say the Word is all about combining the heartfelt and the ironic twist. So, speaking of Cupid, it’s a match made in heaven!

I have one theory about Valentine’s Day. It’s actually a manifestation of our desperate longing for red in the midst of winter bleakness. Continue reading

“Persian Lioness” Meets “American Soul/Blues Master”

While working for the Skirball, I long hoped to curate a concert series entirely dedicated to cross-cultural collaborations. This idea was propelled into action when I first heard Scent of Reunion: Love Duets Across Civilizations by Mahsa Vahdat and Mighty Sam McClain. I was moved by the beauty of the songs, their soulful vocals and the unforced rapport between a Persian singer and an American blues artist, each securely anchored in their respective traditions.

The blues has influenced a number of Persian musicians, most notably Mohsen Namjoo, Kiosk, and Rana Farhan (click on the links to see video clips I especially like from each artist). But in the case of Mahsa and Mighty Sam, the encounter takes the form of a musical conversation. For me it works because melancholy, nostalgia, and longing are at the core of both traditional Persian and blues singing. Although stylistically different, it is the emotion conveyed by both singers that makes this musical marriage so fruitful. Mahsa and Mighty Sam explore the connection between their musical heritages with grace and fluidity.

Their collaboration goes beyond two people and in fact spans three continents: Norwegian producer and poet Erik Hillestad met Mahsa on a journey to Iran while working on the album Lullabies From the Axis of Evil. They ended up working on several recordings together and eventually met and befriended Persian poet Mohammad Ebrahim Jafari. The lyrics of Scent of Reunion and the newly released follow-up, A Deeper Tone of Longing, were written by the two poets, in Farsi and English, and set to music composed by Mahsa and Norwegian musicians Sigvart Dagsland and Knut Reiersrud. To give the English lyrics just the right voice, they could not have come up with a better collaborator than Mighty Sam McClain.

The songs on both albums are about love, longing, separation, reunion, and hope. In an interview, Mighty Sam explains how Mahsa’s singing touched him to the core and that he did not need to understand the words to hear and feel her. He chokes up when he reveals the project’s emotional and spiritual meaningfulness for him. In turn, Mahsa explains that both styles of music express sadness and yearning but also hope and aspiration. She discovered through this project that the human heart is one and this oneness is the conduit allowing them to sing so easily together.

Mahsa Vahdat and Mighty Sam McClain live in concert.

Such is the beauty of music, an art form so fluid and universal that it speaks to us across, time, cultures, geography, politics, and language barriers. Music is healing, and in these times, a series based on the notion of connections without boundaries gives us more reason for hope and rejoicing. It is with anticipation that I look forward to the California premiere of Mahsa Vahdat and Mighty Sam McClain’s at the Skirball on Thursday, November 8.

Continue reading

Rough Draft

Thomas Jefferson. Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence, June–July 1776 (detail). Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Thomas Jefferson. Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence, June–July 1776 (detail). Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Visiting Mount Vernon, Virginia, recently, I had a good look at George Washington. His original terra-cotta likeness, by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, is on display there. Washington was looking down at me. (He was six foot three.)

Our usual image of the father of our country is conjured from the dollar bill or the stiffly posed portraits of his day. But this likeness is different. It dates from 1785, when Houdon followed Washington around for weeks, waiting for the moment that would capture the great man’s character. It came when Washington was negotiating the price of a horse. The seller apparently asked too much. Washington’s expression, as captured by Houdon, is priceless: imperious, dubious, somewhere between high and mighty—and so lifelike that, standing there beneath his gaze, I was glad I wasn’t the one selling the horse. Not even the King of England could stand up to George Washington.

Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co.The British Surrendering Their Arms to Gen. Washington After Their Defeat at York Town in Virginia October 1781 (detail). Philadelphia: Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co., January 28, 1819. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co.The British Surrendering Their Arms to Gen. Washington After Their Defeat at York Town in Virginia October 1781 (detail). Philadelphia: Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co., January 28, 1819. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

To capture the living person before he became an icon—this is just what the Library of Congress exhibition now at the Skirball, Creating the United States, sets out to do. Visitors are invited to witness the founding of the nation as it happened, before it was set in stone. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were once rough drafts, with cross-outs and add-ons you can still see. Before they were ratified, they had to be debated;  before they were proposed, they had to be composed. Continue reading

Nice Work, Simon Rodia (An Italian American Who Could’ve Been the Grand Marshal of Any Columbus Day Parade)!

From afar or up close, the Watts Towers are visually splendid… and the story of its maker, Simon Rodia, is an inspiration.

From afar or up close, the Watts Towers are visually splendid… and the story of its maker, Simon Rodia, is an inspiration.

Of all the famous L.A. landmarks—the Capitol Records Building, the Hollywood Bowl, the Santa Monica Pier—perhaps none has a more fascinating origin story than the Watts Towers. This monument to one individual’s creativity and community activism is a fascinating place to visit, both because of the physical scale of the towers and their importance to L.A.’s art community.

For these reasons, a number of us in the Education department took a field trip to the Watts Towers to see them close up, learn about the community programs presented there, and find out more about Simon Rodia (1879-1965), the Italian immigrant, construction worker, and self-made artist who built the towers all by himself over some thirty-three years.

Skirball educators pose for a snapshot in a cozy corner of Simon Rodia’s triangular lot.

Skirball educators pose for a snapshot in a cozy corner of Simon Rodia’s triangular lot.

Ten of us ventured to Watts on a sunny Friday morning. The towers are tucked in a neighborhood filled with houses, schools, and nearby Metro tracks. We parked and entered the Watts Towers Arts Center and Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center, located in a building adjacent to the towers. The center serves as a space for art workshops, gallery exhibitions, and school programs (one of which was underway when we entered). First we watched a video about Simon’s life, which helped us understand the nature of his unusual undertaking: an immigrant from Serino, Italy, feeling far from home and missing familiar cultural traditions, who took it upon himself to express that longing through the creation of an ambitious work of art.

Examples of how the immigrant experience inspires artistic expression pervade our culture: novels by E.L. Doctorow, songs by Bruce Springsteen, paintings by Jacob Lawrence. As our Education team explores in many of the Skirball’s school tours and school performance programs, the immigrant story is one of the universal experiences in American life. Simon did not express his yearning for Italy or his relishing of opportunity in America in couplets written in a notebook or by painting a watercolor of stars and stripes.

Instead, Simon went big, creating a seventeen-part structure that includes three towers connected by interlocking arches. Continue reading