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Hershey Felder Brings Composers to Life Like Few Others Can

July 18, 2018 by Michael Darling
Hershey Felder: Beethoven. Photo Credit: Christopher Ash.

Hershey Felder: Beethoven. Photo Credit: Christopher Ash.

For nearly twenty years, Hershey Felder has brought famous composers to life on the stage. From his 2000 production George Gershwin Alone to 2017’s Our Great Tchaikovsky, Felder’s one-man shows depict these composer’s stories through music and monologue. His only co-star is the piano he plays as he takes on the role of one of history’s greats, illuminating the drama and inspiration behind the music. Felder returns to Los Angeles on July 26 with a reworked production of his 2008 show Beethoven at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

A Montreal native, Felder first came to the United States as a student and soon began developing theater across the country. His love of classical music goes back to his childhood. “The first time I heard classical music, I was three or four years old and I was totally flabbergasted. I thought, okay, this is what I want to do,” he tells We Like L.A.. It was around this time that he also developed a passion for storytelling.

While his desire to be a performer came naturally, his “Great Composers Series” came from something more adult: “a desperate need for money,” Felder half-jokes. So, because knew the stories of these composers and their music, he decided to bring their life stories to the stage. Despite his deep knowledge, it still takes a lot of work for Felder to create one of his productions. Between researching the lives of the composers, practicing the music and writing the script, the commitment to a single story is immense, “It takes a couple of years from once I set out on the journey to when I actually get it out on stage and working,” Felder says. “It’s important, you have to have real facts and not make things up.”

Hershey Felder: Beethoven. Photo Credit: Christopher Ash.

Hershey Felder: Beethoven. Photo Credit: Christopher Ash.

When Felder tours, he usually only stages a single show at each stop, but he’s constantly got the other composers traveling with him. When he’s performing one show, he’s practicing the next. A few weeks before coming to L.A. to do Beethoven, he was performing as Irving Berlin in Cleveland and days before that he was in Chicago doing Tchaikovsky. He says he doesn’t have time to play tourist while on tour, his days are a loop of rehearse, write, perform, sleep, repeat. How does he keep all these composers straight? “I look down at the costume. Ahh, Thursday, must be Berlin,” he kids.

Some days are more complicated. “One day I had a sing-along in the evening, a Beethoven in the day, and a Tchaikovsky for the matinee. It’s crazy, but there is a fun of having spent 25 years preparing for this kind of thing. While the work is hard, there’s something very satisfying about being able to pull it off.”

Felder feels a special connection to Los Angeles’ theater scene because this is where he became a star. “I made my debut there with these pieces, the Gershwin was created there on Sunset Boulevard at the Tiffany Theater.” He thinks highly of L.A. theater, saying that it’s just as good here as anywhere else.

Next year, he’ll premier A Paris Love Story about the life and music of Claude Debussy at Theater Works Silicon Valley in Palo Alto. He’ll then stage it at the Wallis in May. He says this will be the last new show in the “Great Composers Series,” but he’s still planning to write more pieces. For instance, he has an idea for a one woman show for a soprano about Giacomo Puccini and the female characters he created.

When asked if there are any other composers on his wish list, the answer is easy: “Sleep, that’s what’s on my wish list!”

Hershey Felder: Beethoven will run from July 26 to August 12 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are available here.

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Cool Spots, Food

60 Years Of Tiki: An Inside Look at the Tonga Hut in North Hollywood

May 30, 2018 by Michael Darling
Tonga Hut interior

Photo by Christina Champlin / We Like L.A.

Tonga Hut, Los Angeles’ oldest tiki bar, wasn’t the city’s first; when it opened 60 years ago, it was just another bar in the tiki trend. But while countless others have closed, Tonga Hut has survived and thrived.

Tonga Hut opened in 1958 as the brainchild of brothers Edwin and Ace Libby. According to Marie King, the bar’s general manager since 2012, the Libbys “worked at a Polynesian restaurant on Sepulveda Boulevard in Van Nuys and decided they wanted to open their own bar.” Part of the bar’s charm comes from how little has changed since 1958. When the Libbys bought the storefront on Victory Boulevard, they hired an architect who drew chalk lines to create the bar’s original floor plan, including key features like the bar and fountains. Although some changes, including an expansion of the bar and the installation of thatched huts over the booths, have been made over the decades, the original floor plan is still largely intact.

King is responsible for creating and curating Tonga Hut’s current cocktail menu. It’s a mix of classics like the Mai Tai and Blue Hawaiian, as well as more contemporary tiki concoctions like the Bermuda Dunes and Rhumboogie. Additionally, each bartender is allowed to feature their own creations or favorites while on shift.

Tonga Hut drinks

Photo by Christina Champlin / We Like L.A.

“Regulars like that because they know what kinds of drinks each bartender likes,” says King.

When you order a drink at Tonga Hut, you also get a kind of floor show as bartenders often pour several different drinks at the same time.

“I always line the glass up so I know what I’m doing, then I think ‘Which ones get the silver Puerto Rican?’ and I pour it into the tins, then layer the ingredients that way. So you only have to use it once for every drink you’re making,” says King.

It takes bartenders some time to get this skill down, but eventually muscle memory takes over and they’re able to mix four or five drinks simultaneously without missing a beat.

But the drinks at Tonga Hut go beyond the posted menu and bartender favorites; there’s also the infamous Grog Log. In 1998, cocktail historian Jeff Berry released the book Beachbum Berry’s Grog Log, a compendium of 78 tiki drink recipes collected from the recipe books of tiki bartenders, including the two fathers of the genre, Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber. At Tonga Hut, guests can try to complete their own Grog Log by drinking every drink in the book over the course of the year, and not all of them are winners.

Tonga Hut grog log checklist

Photo by Christina Champlin / We Like L.A.

If you drink all 78 cocktails within a year, you’ll earn permanent membership in the Loyal Order Of The Drooling Bastard. Perks of membership include a self-designed plaque that will hang next to the bar’s vintage 1958 Drooling Bastard fountain and a dollar off all future drinks. “Lots of tiki bars historically had membership programs like that,” says King.

Tonga Hut Order of the Drooling Bastard

Photo by Christina Champlin / We Like L.A.

So, what’s kept Tonga Hut alive while other tiki bars are long gone? According to King, “The only reason Tonga Hut survived was because we never relied strictly on being a tiki bar. We are a tiki bar with tiki cocktails, but we are also a local bar.” The Loyal Order Of The Drooling Bastard plaques reflect a small sample of the Tonga Hut’s regulars, some of whom have been coming since they could first drink.

The bar’s most touching way of celebrating their status as a neighborhood hang comes in the form of a daily tribute to a woman named Dottie. Dottie was a longtime patron of the bar who lived in the neighborhood with her husband and had been coming to Tonga Hut since 1961. Six days a week, the couple would come by Tonga Hut to drink and socialize.

When Dottie’s husband died in the early 1980s, she continued to come, taking the same seat at the bar as she always did, ordering a happy hour Scotch and Soda and holding court. When Dottie died in February 2010, the staff began a tradition honoring their late friend. So, if you visit Tonga Hut during its four-hour happy hour, you’ll see a “reserved” sign by a bar stool, saving the space Dottie held at the bar for 49 years.

Tonga Hut is located at 120808 Victory Blvd in North Hollywood and open from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily.

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Cool Spots, sightseeing

A Visit to the T.V. Hall of Fame Plaza in North Hollywood

April 17, 2018 by Michael Darling
TV Hall of Fame Plaza

Photo by Michael Darling

In the North Hollywood Arts District, there’s an unassuming plaza dedicated to television pioneers that you can visit any time, any day. Hidden behind the Laemmle’s NoHo 7 movie theater, near the intersection of Lankershim and Magnolia boulevards, sits the headquarters of the Television Academy and its Television Hall of Fame Plaza. If you’re in the area and don’t have access to GPS, you’ll know you’re in the right place when you spot a 27-foot Emmy Award. If you walk in from Lankershim and look past the Emmy you’ll notice a life-sized statue of Johnny Carson extending a welcoming hand, one of many sculptures of legends of the smaller screen contained in the plaza.

The Television Hall of Fame was established in 1980 by then-Television Academy president John Mitchell as a way to honor TV icons; not just actors, but also writers, newscasters, producers and others. The Hall of Fame would not take a physical form until 1991, when the Television Academy moved into its current North Hollywood home. Eleven-time Emmy winning production designer Jan Scott shaped the original look of the plaza, which was redone in 2014 as part of a larger renovation of the Television Academy campus.

TV Hall of Fame Plaza

Photo by Michael Darling

Unlike most halls of fame, the Television Hall Of Fame Plaza is free and wide open to the public, not locked inside a building. This sense of open-air intimacy was a side effect of spatial limitations. According to Television Academy Vice President Laurel Whitcomb, “We don’t have museum or exhibition space inside our main office building…our Plaza and Sculpture Garden are the ‘public’ spaces where all the art pieces can be seen and enjoyed.”

TV Hall of Fame Plaza

Photo by Michael Darling

In addition to the Carson statue, the garden features full-sized statues of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy) and Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton (as All In The Family’s Archie and Edith Bunker), as well as smaller statues of Dick Van Dyke, Carol Burnett and Jackie Gleason. The rest of the Hall of Fame inductees are honored with busts or 3-D wall plaques.

TV Hall of Fame Plaza

Photo by Michael Darling

All of the busts are exceptionally detailed, but each have their touches that make them special. Some are small points, like a CNN pin on the lapel of media mogul Ted Turner. Others are more elaborate; Red Skelton’s bust depicts the comedian shuffling a deck of cards featuring some of his famous clown characters. The cleverest detail on any of the busts can be found on that of composer Earle Hagen. Carved on the side of the Hagen bust’s base are the notes to the theme song from The Andy Griffith Show.

That said, if you’re looking for a free brush with fame or a quiet place to pause from the hustle, drop by the Television Hall of Fame Plaza. It offers plenty of photo ops, loads of T.V. nostalgia, and of course the best part… it’s free.

The Television Hall Of Fame Plaza is located outside the Television Academy at 5220 Lankershim Blvd. Although it’s accessible 24 hours a day, the plaza area may be closed during special events.

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