Monday, December 26, 2011

Art and Booze

A couple of Fridays ago, I had a hot date with culture.  The Bergamot Station Arts Center in Santa Monica had an open house, and I ventured over to see what it was all about.  This wasn't my first time at Bergamot Station, but it had been at least a decade since I'd last been there (and never for an open house) so it seemed like an ideal opportunity to check it out again.  Also, an advantage of exploring the galleries during an event like this is that crowds offer invisibility--there's no pressure to talk to artists or to curators who tend to glom onto visitors when things aren't busy.
Bergamot Station consists of clusters of art galleries, plus the Santa Monica Museum of Art, located in what used to be a former rail station and industrial complex.  My previous visits to Bergamot Station were during normal daytime hours, and it was fairly deserted on both occasions.  On this night, however, the complex was packed full of cars and teeming with meandering visitors.  The museum and most of the galleries were open for viewing.  It was a pretty hopping event, and there were gourmet food trucks, a dj rocking out, carolers, and random people in costume.  A karaoke machine was set up for anyone who wanted to belt out a tune (anyone who did got 10% off at the museum store!).  Everyone seemed in a good mood and happy to be there to look at and to purchase art.
However, I soon found out why everyone was so cheerful...there was free wine EVERYWHERE.  Almost every gallery I visited offered complimentary wine so most people took advantage and helped themselves.  I should point out that this open house was free admission (entry into Bergamot Station and the galleries during normal hours is also no charge), so it was a free event with free booze.  How awesome is that??  If I hadn't been the driver that night, I probably would have partaken of some vino myself.  Alas.
I attended the event with a friend.  At some point, she and I took a break from our "culturing" to forage for dinner, and so we ended up queuing at the Crêpes Bonaparte food truck.  We ordered both savory crêpes ("SouthWestern Spice" for me; "In Da Club" for her) and dessert crêpes ("PCH" and "Spicy Apple Bottom").  The truck got my savory crêpe order wrong, and I ended up with what I'm guessing was the "Baby Bleu."  It was okay, but I was annoyed.  However, the desserts, which we shared, were delicious.  If I must judge, PCH (peanut butter/Nutella/banana) was much better than the Spicy Apple Bottom (cooked cinnamon apple/caramel/whipped cream).
So what of the art?  It was eclectically interesting and ranged from the cool to the funny to the "wtf."  As expected, I liked some works and didn't like others.  Likewise, I thought I understood some pieces and were baffled by others.  I did not purchase anything (as if I could afford it!). 
the plants growing in a car planter!
the funny--"most fuel efficient car," it had pedals for sweat-powered locomotion
the wtf--Romeo & Juliet by way of stuffed, real canaries
We spent a solid couple hours at Bergamot, and I think we were able to visit most, if not all, of the galleries within that time.  I enjoyed my evening, and my friend said the same.  We plan on coming again when there is another open house, whenever that might be.  Next time, however, my friend will be the designated driver.
"hand" soap bidding adieu

Monday, December 19, 2011


I spent some time in Sylmar, the northernmost district of L.A, on Saturday.  Sylmar hit my radar because the Nethercutt Collection and Museum came up among my internet searches for cool things to do for free in Los Angeles.  On the surface, the museum appeared purely to be an automobile showcase.  I'm not a car person, but I can appreciate the aesthetic of a big, shiny machine as well as the next person, and the collection sounded intriguing.
Museum showroom
However, the Nethercutt Collection and Museum is far more varied and impressive than I imagined.  J.B. Nethercutt, co-founder of the Merle Norman Cosmetics empire, had a passion for purchasing and restoring vintage cars, and he started his collection in the 1950s.  His hobby lasted until his death in 2004, and his heirs share and continue his passion.  To date, there are over 250 vehicles in the collection, all of which are in working condition.
Collection showroom
1923 Duesenberg..."it's a Duesy!"
In addition to automobiles, the Nethercutts collect automated mechanical instruments, most notably the musical kind.  There are massive nickelodeons, orchestrions, and grand pianos, as well as every manner of music box.  The crown jewel of the musical collection is their 5,000-piped Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ which is still used on a regular basis for events.
ballroom full of musical instruments
self-playing xylophone
Mills Double Violano Virtuoso, a self-playing violin
5,000-piped Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ
I made a reservation for the 2-hour tour that's offered twice daily.  The Nethercutt Collection and Museum is actually housed in two buildings.  The museum building is open every day, and visitors are free to roam there at their leisure.  However, the more significant "collection" building can only be accessed via guided tours which one must reserve at least a day in advance.  The tour, as well as the museum admission, is free.

I enjoyed my visit.  The docent was engaging, and I especially liked the Wurlitzer organ demonstration.  (I plan on attending one of the "Silent Movies and Organ" events in which silent movies are accompanied by a live organist!)  The depth of the amassed treasures is jaw-dropping, and it's equally impressive that the Nethercutts choose to show off their enormous wealth so freely.

After the Nethercutt visit, I had lunch at Buffalo Bruce's Mercantile, a small, eccentric hole-in-the-wall that I found on Yelp.  The lunch was delicious.
Buffalo Bruce's Mercantile
pulled pork sammy, coleslaw, & potato salad w/ iced tea--YUM!!
Besides the great food, the restaurant itself was a trip.  I have to emphasize how super small the place is--there are only two tables inside the restaurant and a couple of tables out back in the patio area.  Besides food, the restaurant sells sundry goods.  I saw incense and fashion accessories and the property was stacked with Christmas trees.  One of the Yelp reviewers alleged that the joint (pun intended) also dispenses "herbal" medicine, though I didn't ask nor did I smell anything suspect.  During my meal, I chatted with the cheerful owner, and she invited me to look around the property after I was done eating.
What's visible in the pic is the entirety of the restaurant interior.
Vivian, the B.B. Mercantile's proprietress
After lunch, I headed over to the Wildlife Learning Center.  It's open to the public as a kind of zoo, though apparently, its primary focus is as an educational center. 
Wildlife Learning Center entrance
bald eagle
American alligator
The organization's website states that it "rescues wildlife and provides outreach and onsite education in wildlife biology."  It further states that its outreach program is the largest in Los Angeles.  However, the zoo itself is tiny, with probably at most a couple dozen species on display for the public.  The location of the center is also very inconspicuous, in the middle of a residential area and not particularly noticeable from the street unless one were looking for it. 

Admission to the center is $6, but for an additional charge, one is able to choose special one-on-one tours or to interact with various animals.  I initially intended to try one of the animal meet-and-greets, but I ultimately opted not to when I saw how frightened one of the animals was during its interaction with another group.  However, adolescent visitors seemed delighted to be able to pet wild animals so I might take my nephew to the center some day for the experience.  
barn owl meet-and-greet
fennec fox meet-and-greet
In total, I spent about 5 hours in Sylmar which includes the time I spent at lunch.  As much as I researched, I couldn't find much else to see/do there.  However, I absolutely think that the Nethercutt Collection and Museum is worth a visit.  And while you're at it, try some fantastic bbq and interesting conversation at Buffalo Bruce's Mercantile!

P.S.  Here are some parting animal photos:
This bobcat first hissed at me, and then he ignored me.
Eurasian lynx
snoozing serval
snoozing fox
fennec foxes--so cute!
prairie dog
No joke--this little guy was scratching to wear away the wood in an obvious attempt for freedom.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Reflections on Nixon

This weekend, I found myself exploring the life and legacy of Richard M. Nixon, the 37th President of the United States.  I use the word "found" because this wasn't my intention when I started out.  My initial plan was to explore Whittier, CA, a city about 12 miles southeast of Los Angeles.  Some googling highlighted Whittier College and the Whittier Museum as points of interest so I set off to intending to visit both and perhaps to do some shopping in uptown Whittier to end my day.

I first went to Whittier College.  It's a small, private, liberal arts college of approximately a couple thousand students, founded in 1887 by the Religious Society of Friends, aka Quakers.  It's a pretty campus, and I strolled through it for a leisurely hour.  Since I was there on Sunday, the campus was serene.
Whittier College
Whittier College
The weather was great--breezy and sunny--so I stopped by the student cafeteria to pick up a cup of coffee which I sipped on a bench by this fountain:
Whittier College
that's adjacent to this monument:
Whittier College
I knew that Richard Nixon was an alumnus before I visited the campus, but that fact was incidental to my visit there.  Yet it was portentous because when I finished with Whittier College and drove over to Whittier Museum, I discovered that the museum was closed because the presumably sole docent was out sick!
Whittier College Class of '34
As I sat in my car wondering what I should do next, I remembered a conversation I had with a friend a couple days earlier who mentioned the Nixon Library, located in Yorba Linda.  My trusty guidebook read that the library was only 17 miles away, and so I headed out on my revised itinerary.
The Nixon Presidential Library and Museum (full name) is part of the presidential libraries system administered by the National Archives and Records Administration, a federal agency.  But it wasn't always so.  It was initially a private institution, which, according to my guidebook, was problematic because the Nixon Foundation--the organization that initially funded and opened the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace (original name)--both sugarcoated and misrepresented the Watergate scandal, painting it as a conspiracy and political coup by Nixon's opponents to discredit, smear, and oust a sitting President rather than as an impartial record of Nixon's wrongdoing.  When the National Archives took over the library in 2007, among the changes they implemented was to replace the old Watergate presentation with the current, more truthful gallery.  The new Watergate gallery opened earlier this year.
Watergate Gallery at Nixon Library
However, despite Watergate, I was drawn in by Nixon's biography...his poor Quaker upbringing to his political rise and fall and rise again before the infamous denouement.  That final scandal overshadows his political and humanitarian accomplishments, and I admit that up until my visit, what little I knew of Nixon was just an overarching and simplified image of his hubris and his ultimate failing as a public servant.  He also seemed like an eccentric, vacant nutbar based on the lauded portrayal of him in the recent film, Frost/Nixon.  (The Watergate gallery also showed excerpts from his actual interview with David Frost, and Nixon didn't appear even half as dotty as Frost/Nixon portrayed him to be.)

Yet, I learned that during his political career, many social and political landmarks were achieved which he directly or indirectly influenced.  Some examples of them:  he enforced desegregation of schools in seven Southern states; he established the Environmental Protection Agency; he enforced legislation of the 1973 Endangered Species Act; he signed Title 1X prohibiting gender bias at colleges and universities receiving Federal aid; he created the Office of Minority Business Enterprise (now called Minority Business Development Agency) that promotes growth and competitiveness of minority-owned businesses.

As a whole, my visit was a very thoughtful one.  I left the Nixon Library with a previously absent respect for Mr. Nixon who, despite his tarnished legacy, did accomplish much that was positive during his presidency.

Richard Milhous Nixon birthplace in Yorba Linda, CA

Monday, December 5, 2011

Space, the Final Frontier

This week, I visited two points of interest situated in different parts of SoCal but which have a common theme:  the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey and the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

I started off at the Columbia Memorial Space Center.  It's a sleek, tiny, two-story structure situated on what used to be the Rockwell NASA plant in the city of Downey.  Some history:  Downey is the birthplace of the Apollo space program and the Space Shuttle, and for over 70 years, NASA had a test facility there.  In 1999, cutbacks put an end to the city's NASA affiliation, but the center opened in 2009 to honor Downey's place in the history of space exploration.
Columbia Memorial Space Center

time line display inside center

The center offers a hands-on, educational experience and engages its mostly adolescent visitors to marvel at the history and the future of space science.  There are many interactive exhibits that allow visitors to sample technology utilized during space exploration.  For example, there are working robotic arms that one can control to pick up objects.  And there are simulation booths where one can pilot and land a space shuttle or maneuver modules on/off a space station.  It's all pretty cool, but the facility as a whole and its exhibits are obviously designed towards engaging little kids.  If I were still in the 3rd grade, I'd find this place pretty neat.  Still, I found many displays and demonstrations fairly educational and cool.  The staff are very patient with kids and enthusiastic when explaining things.
hydrolic rocket launcher

flight simulator
creepy life-size space suit

But the facility is tiny.  So tiny that I probably only spent a total of a half hour there which was ample time to examine everything.  Still, I don't begrudge the $5 admission because the center clearly attempts to promote wonder and enthusiasm about space science so I'm happy to contribute.

After I was done with the Columbia Center, I drove to Los Feliz (the affluent neighborhood in which the observatory resides) for lunch where I learned that it's impossible to find parking.  There were three eateries in my guidebook in proximity that sounded promising, but I drove the same 5-block radius for about a half hour before I gave up and ended up eating at a random Thai restaurant I chanced upon in neighboring Hollywood.  Still, my lunch was okay.  I ordered the bbq chicken (not bad) and a papaya salad (pungent & refreshing). 
The papaya salad was very good.

After lunch, I headed to Griffith Observatory.  This was my first visit inside the observatory though I've been in its proximity many times.  (I occasionally hike in Griffith Park and when I do, I park my car in the observatory lot).
Griffith Observatory

The observatory was built in 1933 after industrialist and philanthropist, Griffith J. Griffith (yes, his first name is the same as his last name)--who'd already donated over 3,000 acres to Los Angeles to build a municipal park--willed additional funds to build an observatory, exhibit hall, and planetarium on the donated land.  The observatory sits atop a slope on Mount Hollywood, and one can see the Hollywood sign nearby.


I was pleased to recognize the Art Deco architecture.  Inside, I likewise recognized the Hugo Ballin murals decorating the main lobby walls and ceiling (his art also decorated One Bunker Hill that I'd seen during my Art Deco tour).  But in the main lobby, the big attraction was this:
Foucault's Pendulum
another view

This is the 2nd Foucault's Pendulum I've seen.  The first occasion was in Paris, and I immediately thought of my friend, Fluffycat, when I saw the Griffith Observatory version since she missed the opportunity to see the Parisian one, to her regret.  Perhaps she can visit Griffith Observatory when she is next in L.A.  Anyway.

Where to start describing the awesomeness that is the Griffith Observatory?  I could list everything that I saw, but that would be boring.  How does it compare to Columbia Memorial Space Center?  There is no comparison.  Though earnest, the Columbia Center is an amuse-bouche to the 15-course banquet that is the Griffith Observatory.  I mentioned above that I spent only a half hour at the Columbia center whereas I spent 4 hours at Griffith Observatory.  2 of those hours were spent watching an introductory film narrated by this gentleman:
Mr. Nimoy narrating a film presented in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater

and taking in a planetarium show, and then queuing for an unreal view of the moon's surface via the twelve-inch Zeiss refracting telescope.  I enjoyed my time at Griffith Observatory immensely, and I know that I want to come back, if only to catch the other planetarium shows (there are several).  Did I mention that admission to the observatory is free?  Though one has to pay $7 for each planetarium show.

My favorite parts of my Griffith Observatory visit:  Tesla coil demonstration; Foucault's Pendulum; scale model of solar system, including the controversial Pluto (poor Pluto); Zeiss telescope; night-time view of L.A. from observatory roof.  Overall, I had a very educational day.

Some parting images:

Scale model of solar system--can you find Pluto in this photo?
Tesla coil
Zeiss telescope