Seated in her office with signs on the door reading, "Warning: I have flying monkeys and I'm not afraid to use them!" and "What happens over the rainbow stays over the rainbow," C.J. Hirschfield, executive director of Children's Fairyland, beamed as she looked out the window last week and watched toddlers cavorting on the park's newest attraction, Jack & Jill Hill, a six-foot, gently sloped mound covered with high quality AstroTurf.
Some kids slid down the hill on squares of recycled cardboard and ran giggling into their parents' arms. Others raced back up the hill to do it all over again. Three little boys rolled down the hill. And one daring little girl slid down headfirst. All were having the time of their lives.
"There hasn't been a single moment since Jack & Jill Hill opened (on July 27) that it hasn't been in constant use," said Hirschfield, who cheerfully admits she stole the idea from the Santa Barbara Zoo.
"I was visiting there two years ago with my daughter, and I saw kids playing on an AstroTurf-covered mound called The Ant Hill, and I thought, 'Oh boy! It's simple and physical and low-tech and interactive! It would be perfect for Fairyland!'"
As usual, the main obstacle for Fairyland, which perpetually runs on a shoestring budget, was finding the money to pay for it.
"But that was no problem for C.J.," said Ron Zeno, a member of Fairyland's Board of Directors. "She knows everyone in town."
In this case, it was Councilwoman Jane Brunner, who came up with a grant to buy the AstroTurf, and Mike Hester, president of McGuire & Hester, who donated the labor.
"Oakland and Fairyland have been an important part of my life, both personally and professionally, so it seemed like the natural thing to do," said Hester, who spent many happy hours at Fairyland as a child.
Hirschfield is celebrating her 10th anniversary as Fairyland's executive director, having assumed the reins in 2002 after an extremely successful 25-year career in the cable television industry. But she had to take a huge salary cut to make the move.
"I happened to be in New York on 9/11, and it had a profound effect on me," she explained. "I thought about the people who died, and I said, "I hope they were doing what they loved.' And then it hit me: I'm not doing what I love!
"So when I got back to the Bay Area I saw a job listing on Craigslist for Fairyland's executive director, and I thought, 'What greater challenge could there be than to go to work every day at a place I've loved since my daughter was a kid and make it better for the next generation?'"
But she had her work cut out for her.
"Things weren't going very well here," said Zeno. "In a word, they were bad. But she came in here and went right to work."
The first thing order of business was repairing the Pirate Ship, which had been blocked off with yellow police tape for years due to safety concerns.
"I happened to be talking to then-state Senator Don Perata, whom I'd known from my previous life in the cable industry," said Hirschfield. "And he said, 'I love Fairyland. Let me know if there's anything I can to do to help,' and I said, 'Well, since you asked, we need a sizable sum of money to install safety features on the Pirate Ship.'
"The next day he called me and said, 'I think I may have someone who wants to help you.' It was Diane and Ed DaSilva, whose son Doug had recently passed away. Doug had loved playing on the Pirate Ship when he was a little boy, so they donated the funds to fix it up in his memory."
Next up: building the long-delayed Old West Junction.
"I saw a sign saying, 'Old West Junction coming soon,' and, being new on the job, I said, 'Wonderful!' The staff started cracking up, and someone said 'C.J., that sign has been there for 20 years!'"
Next came the transformation of the Thumbelina Tunnel, which had been boarded up and unused for more than two decades, into the Fairy Music Farm, featuring one-of-a-kind interactive musical instruments that kids make sounds on as they go through the tunnel.
Then came restoration of the Puppet Theater and the Chapel of Peace, followed by construction the Little Red Hen House for Fairyland's newest residents, three "heirloom" chickens named Woodstock, Violet and Polyanna.
But Hirschfield's pride and joy, which she labored seven long years to bring about, is Aesop's Playhouse, the region's only children's performing arts theater, a popular venue for groups like the Oakland-East Bay Symphony's Music in the Schools Program as well as home base for Fairyland's own children's theater program.
She's the first to admit she couldn't have done any of this without her loyal staff who, like her, are working for a fraction of what they could be earning elsewhere.
"She doesn't micro-manage," said Zeno. "When she first came here, her attitude toward the staff was 'You know what you're doing, so go do it. I'm going to do what I need to do as executive director to make this park improve.' And that's what she did."
Hirschfield's goal is to remain faithful to the original vision of Fairyland's founders, horticulturalist Arthur Navlet and William Penn Mott, director of the East Bay Regional Parks district, whose motto was "no straight lines and a surprise around every corner."
"They had a very clear concept of what they wanted the park to be, and we're trying hard to channel that intent. We think they'd approve of what we're doing to make Fairyland a sweet, safe place for families."