Monday, September 24, 2012

L.A. Convention Center

I drove my geekish self last week to the L.A. Convention Center in downtown L.A. to attend Stan Lee's Comikaze Expo.  It's an annual event, but it was my first time checking it out.  That, plus the fact that in all the time I've lived in and around L.A., I recall only two or three times that I've been inside this convention center (though I know it's quite active all year with mega events, conventions, and naturalization ceremonies), provided ample reason to spend my Saturday there.
L.A. Convention Center is a multi-block complex that I found somewhat confusing to figure out in terms of which parking entrance to use even though I had detailed instructions from Comikaze's website.  I finally figured it out, and it was late morning by the time I parked and purchased my con pass.
I hadn't pre-purchased my ticket, but this turned out to be a blessing because of this:
This crazy queue is for will-call tickets and Groupon purchases.
This is for walk-up ticket purchases. I had my con pass in less than 2 minutes.
I spent the first hour wandering around the vendor hall and exhibition area which was situated in the convention hall's main auditorium.  It was a huge bazaar with very cool and interesting exhibits and booths.  SF novelists and comic book authors were busy talking to fans. Dozens of comic and graphic novel artists were likewise interacting with fans or sketching to pass the time.  Vendors hawked all things geek-related and were engaging passerby.  There were games and tournaments.
Um...I don't know if these quidditch players know how obscene this looked.
The mood of the crowd was enthusiastic.  Everywhere I looked, there were fans and professionals engaged in cosplay.  Most of the costumes were very cool.  For every homespun costume I saw, there were a half dozen awesome, professional-looking outfits that dazzled.  I and the rest of the normally dressed con attendees gawked and took photos of costumed folks.
The highlight of the main auditorium were a couple of stages where the feature Q&As with various celebrity guests of honor took place.
Kevin Smith interviewing Adam West
An hour wasn't enough to examine everything in the main hall, so during the course of my day at the con, I wandered back numerous times to check out more stuff.  These memorabilia were displayed in the "Stan Lee Museum," a sectioned off area within the auditorium:
But what I mostly enjoyed were the guest panels featuring talks or debates, capped off with audience Q&A, by artists and bigwigs within the SF or comic industry discussing their craft and cultural trends.  I attended about 4 or 5 panels, each about 45 minutes in duration.  I found all of them interesting.
geek panel
Michael Uslin
Sometime during the day, I broke for a bland and expensive meal from the convention center cafe.  I might have wandered outside for a tastier, more reasonably priced meal, but the weather was blazingly hot so I made do.

I concluded my day at Comikaze Expo with a film screening.  The movie was Sushi Girl which stars a slew of B-list actors, one of whom is Mark Hamill playing a Truman Capote-esque character whose hamminess stole the movie.  The film was gruesomely amusing.  It was 8:30pm when the screening ended, and by then, the expo had ended and the convention hall was empty of con-goers.  Likewise, the parking lot was empty so I was able to zip out without queuing.

In total, I spent over 9 hours at Comikaze Expo!  It was a nice respite from the heat wave, but I also enjoyed the convention.

Monday, August 13, 2012


It was HOT in SoCal this weekend, well over the 100s in most parts not near a beach.  Thankfully, I spent a cool reprieve attending an evening Rick Springfield concert at the Starlight Bowl in the hills above Burbank.  It was my first time at the Starlight Bowl, which, until this concert, I hadn't even heard of the venue.  It's an amphitheatre with 5,000 capacity seating and reminded me of a mini-Hollywood Bowl (which seats more than triple that).  Like the Hollywood Bowl, visitors are able to picnic before and during the show and there was that similar festive feeling. 
I discovered this unexpected bee hive near the picnic area.
A picnicker enjoying some tortilla chips.
picnic area
road leading into venue

The concert was fun.  To be honest, I'm not so much a fan of Rick Springfield the Rocker than I am of Rick Springfield the Actor, so I know very few of his songs.  However, the guy, who is unbelievably 63 (!) years old, puts on a lively show. 
Fans--mostly women--of all ages made up the audience.
view behind us
Yup...all demographics were represented at this concert.
My companions and I had mid-tier seats which were pretty good, but the venue is small so my guess is that even the lawn seats probably have a decent view. 
our view (actual)

I'd be interested in other events at the Starlight Bowl, concerts or movies or sing-along screenings.  The venue is a hidden gem in Burbank.

Monday, June 25, 2012


On Mother's Day this year, the Monrovia Historic Preservation Group hosted their 30th annual fundraising home tour to showcase about a half dozen homes and public buildings in Monrovia, CA.  The tour was an opportunity to view some beautiful vintage homes and to get a feel for Monrovia, a sleepy little town (population around 40,000) located in the foothills of San Gabriel Valley.

The tour started at the Monrovia Historical Museum where a friend and I purchased tickets and waited to be picked up by the free trolley service set up for the tour that was to take us to and from each tour stop.  We'd arrived early so I was able to spend 20 minutes (that's all you need) exploring the museum which offers local history as well as a quaint exhibition of random memorabilia and artifacts donated by Monrovia residents throughout the years.
Monrovia Historical Museum interior
Monrovia Historical Museum interior
Monrovia Historical Museum courtyard
Outside the museum, some vendors set up booths to for charity causes.  My friend and I poked around the wares while waiting for the trolley, and I was also able to hang out with Ace, a super friendly and sweet pooch that belonged to a vendor.
Finally, we boarded the trolley to head to our first house.  It was nice that the trolley service was included in the cost of the tour since it was convenient for us to park our car in one location and not have to worry about tracking down the next stop.

The tour covered five locations--four residences and a church.  All of the locations were impressive, but it was a disparate collection of buildings which lacked the overarching architectural uniformity of L.A. Conservancy's Echo Park tour.  Moreover, unlike Echo Park's preservation efforts, Monrovia's city ordinances seem laxer where renovation is concerned such that there was a dichotomy of vintage and modern juxtaposed within the interior design of some of the buildings, a dichotomy I found somewhat aesthetically jarring.
cool plant growing on fence!
Still, it was a very good tour.  The weather was perfect, and we appreciated the house to house transport.  It seemed that Monrovia made the home tour a city event because vintage auto enthusiasts roamed the streets in their roadsters and parked in front of the featured houses to add to the festive atmosphere.  Various vendors were stationed at each house.  There was a goodly turnout of visitors, and everyone--visitors as well as tour volunteers--were super friendly.
Around 1:00pm, my friend and I took a break to grab lunch.  Some quick Yelping directed us to Sunday's Old Town Bistro in downtown Monrovia.  It's a homey, popular joint, and the staff are friendly (the owner's daughter was our waitress).  However, they were clearly overburdened due to the Mother's Day rush so we ended up waiting close to an hour for our order to be prepared.  Since I'd missed breakfast, I was starving by the time I got my "Dirty Fries" order, and I inhaled that sucker in record time.  Despite the wait (or maybe because of it), it was a tasty, filling meal, and it was pleasant lunching outside.
waiting...and waiting...and waiting for our order
"Dirty Fries" with pulled pork!
After lunch, we headed over to the final stop on our tour, the First Baptist Church of Monrovia-Arcadia whose participation in the tour was part of its centennial celebration.  The First Baptist Church of Monrovia-Arcadia is the oldest Protestant church in Monrovia.  It's a very pretty church and features some very beautiful stained glass windows.  We lingered in the church a bit, taking some time to talk to the pastor's wife who told us a few facts about the church's architecture.
First Baptist Church of Monrovia-Arcadia
Finally, we ended our tour day and walked back to our car.  Along the way, we encountered a familiar figure so we stopped to say hello.
impromptu book club meeting
All in all, we spent a superb day in Monrovia, a laid-back little city that I'll no doubt visit again.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Millard Sheets

A couple weekends ago, a friend and I got to learn about 20th century American artist Millard Sheets via the Los Angeles Conservancy's Millard Sheets:  A Legacy of Art and Architecture, a special retrospective tour and panel discussion spanning Sheets' oeuvre, focusing primarily on numerous examples in Pomona and Claremont. 

Millard Sheets began his artistic career as a prodigy and gained prominence as a prolific painter, mosaic artist, architect, and teacher.  Born and raised in the Pomona Valley, Sheets also lived and worked in Southern California for the better part of his adult life, both as a commissioned artist but also as an educator, teaching at Chouinard Art Institute, Otis Art Institute (now Otis College or Art and Design), and Scripps College, among others.

The tour was organized such that participants had to drive to a half dozen tour locations within these two cities, and docents were on hand at each location to offer guided tours of mostly in situ examples of Millard Sheets' art.  This itinerant format, though unusual, provided a nice opportunity to view a decent portion of both cities.
The first stop of our tour was American Museum of Ceramic Art (AMOCA) in Pomona.  Inside the museum, we found some ceramic craft works by Sheets as well as the main attraction, a 77-foot wide mural titled "Panorama of the Pomona Valley," painted by Sheets and his protégée, Susan Hertel.  One of the interesting aspects of this mural is that it resides in the original building for which it was painted--the current AMOCA building is a renovated bank branch, and the mural remained a fixture after AMOCA acquired the structure.
AMOCA interior
mural inside AMOCA
In fact, the most prominent examples of Sheets' art are displayed in the more than 50 former Home Savings and Loan branch bank buildings which Howard F. Ahmanson, Sr. commissioned Sheets to design during the span of a couple decades, from 1953 through the 1970s.  We were able to see a few examples of these buildings during this tour.

Sheets was also commissioned for other private and public buildings throughout the U.S.  Though he wasn't a licensed architect, he is credited as the architect for these structures, as he was responsible for every aspect of the buildings' designs and embellished each structure with his signature mosaics and sculptures on the exterior and murals in the interior.  In fact, I learned from this tour that two structures--the Scottish Rites Masonic Temple in Los Angeles and a bank in Anaheim--which I'd driven by countless times and whose exterior art always caught my eye were Millard Sheets works!  

After our tour of AMOCA, we drove downtown to Pomona Mall which Millard Sheets designed.  Here, we examined Chase Tower (formerly Home Savings and Loan) building, which anchors the mall.  Though tarped for renovation, we were able to examine the bank's architecture for some of Sheets' stylistic traits.  We also peered into the bank interior (the building wasn't open for visitation) to admire another Sheets/Hertel mural.
Chase Tower
mural inside Chase Tower
Other areas of the mall also offered some Sheets' mosaics, such as this fountain:
fountain in Pomona Mall
We took a break after Pomona Mall to have lunch.  We chose Kickback Jack's in Claremont since the rest of our tour stops were in Claremont.  The joint was hopping, but my companion and I snagged a couple of open counter seats so our wait wasn't long.
We both opted to order a breakfast meal for our lunch--the ham steak and eggs for me which come with three ginormous pancakes, two of which I didn't touch because it's so much food, even for this healthy eater.  The ham and eggs, though good, weren't anything to write home about.  The pancakes, however, were fantastic, fluffy and crisp on the outside because they were so fresh off the griddle.  Service was also exceptional.  This place is a winner.

After lunch, we drove over to a U.S. Bank on Foothill Blvd.  Unlike Pomona's Chase Tower, which was tarped and closed for renovation, this building is an active commercial structure.
U.S. Bank
mosaic on U.S. Bank exterior
Being a Sunday, the bank wasn't open for business; however, tour groups were allowed entrance to view the interior design and mural.  No photos were allowed inside, but what's interesting to note is how U.S. Bank, in honoring Millard Sheets' original design for the structure, preserved not only the mural but also the decor and fixtures.  For instance, mosaic logos that read "PFF" (for Pomona First Federal, the original bank that commissioned Millard Sheets) were peppered throughout the bank lobby.  We were amused to learn that these logos are discreetly covered with well-placed signs during business hours but are revealed again when there are tours such as ours.
mosaic on U.S. Bank exterior
Indeed, a common theme throughout this tour is the civic pride that these Pomona and Claremont businesses have, recognizing the significance of Millard Sheets' contribution to their communities' heritage and so they preserve and bring awareness to his art by freely opening their doors to thousands of tour attendees every year. 

From U.S. Bank, we drove to Garrison Theater at Scripps College where Sheets was Professor Emeritus for a number of years.  Sheets designed the theater stage area as well as the façade where mosaics depict scenes from Shakespearean plays.
Garrison Theater at Scripps College
Garrison Theater at Scripps College
Garrison Theater at Scripps College
The last stop of our tour was Claremont Eye Associates that used to be the site of Millard Sheets' design studio.  This was the location where Sheets and his assistants designed and executed their commissioned murals and mosaics which were prepped at the studio before final application at the designated buildings and sites. 
Claremont Eye Associates retained Sheets' design studio placard
exterior former Millard Sheets design studio
interior former Millard Sheets design studio
The current owner of the medical building represents a great example of the aforementioned civic pride.  After purchasing the property directly from Sheets, the landlord kept many parts of Sheets' studio and ceramic kiln unaltered and opens his business during off-hours for conservancy tours.

Finally, we attended a panel discussion of Millard Sheets' life and work, held at Claremont United Church of Christ which Sheets also designed.  The panel consisted of two of Sheets' children, both artists, plus associates who worked with Sheets. The discussion started off slow but soon got interesting.  It was very enlightening to hear from people who worked with Sheets who provided insight into Sheets' inspirations for his wide range of artistic styles and mediums.
Millard Sheets panel discussion
By the time we were done with our Millard Sheets day, it was around 7:00pm, a long day since we'd started at 10:00am.  We capped our Claremont visit with dinner at the local Viva Madrid, a self-described "authentic Spanish tapas bar & restaurant."  It was good, but the tapas we ordered weren't anything like what I'd had when I visited Spain.  Plus, it was pretty pricey.  Between the two eateries we enjoyed in Claremont that weekend, Kickback Jack was the winner which deserves a return visit.
This graces Viva Madrid's interior
We headed home after dinner.  It was a long, educational, and satisfyingly full day--we definitely got our money's worth on the tour.  I am pleased that I learned about an artist whose ubiquitous work I'd seen and admired around SoCal but never identified until this week.  I also liked Claremont, a very pretty city that begs a return visit, if only for Kickback Jacks.