A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Saturday, August 9, 2014


                                             (Above: Ben Brady as the Pirate King)

I suppose I shouldn't be have been surprised by how much fun The Lamplighters' sparkling new production of Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance" was when I saw it last weekend at the Lesher Theater in Walnut Creek.
After all "The Pirates" is probably G&S's funniest operetta, boasting some of their most hummable tunes, including "Poor Wandering One," "With Cat-like Tread" (whose tune was stolen for "Hail, Hail, The Gang's All Here") and that perennial show-stopper, "A Policeman's Lot Is Not A Happy One."
Besides, The Lamplighters are the world's best G&S troupe. That distinction used to belong to the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, which was founded by Gilbert and Sullivan themselves. But, alas, D'Oyly Carte went belly-up in 1982, and since then The Lamplighters have been the class of the field.
But I was still taken aback by how much sheer pleasure they managed to cram into three hours. Kudos to the leads, particularly Chris Uzelac as Samuel, Sonia Gariaeff as Ruth and, especially, Ben Bradey as the Pirate King.
With his strong voice, commanding presence and impeccable comic timing, this young man – he's only 23 – bestrides the stage like no Pirate King I've seen since Kevin Kline. He's going to be a big star.
And all praises to the great Lawrence Ewing, who has played the Major General so many times he practically owns the part, but he has never played it the same way twice.
But the best thing in the show was the chorus, who are usually overlooked in theater reviews. The chorus has always been one of the Lamplighters' strong suits, but this time they took it to a whole new level.
Which means the real stars are the stage director, Jane Erwin Hammett, and the music director/conductor, Baker "Little Bo" Peeples, one of the finest conductors in the Bay Area.
Under his baton, the orchestra was tighter than the Rolling Stones, and the chorus's harmonies were tighter than the Beach Boys. It was exquisitely beautiful, especially when they sang "Hail, Poetry." Ahhh! It doesn't get any better than that.
As for Hammett, I won't spoil it for you by revealing the many hilarious bits of stage business she gave the actors to do, but trust me: You're in for a rollicking good time.
The Lamplighters have evolved over the years as they keep improving the product. Today, most of them are professional opera singers.
But a few are throwbacks to the old days - extremely talented amateurs such as Steve Goodman, who played the Sergeant of Police (and very nicely, too). His day job is professor of medicine and associate dean at Stanford.
Finally, I was especially heartened by the large number of kids in the audience, and they seemed to be having a great time, too. After the final encore, Ewing stepped to the edge of the stage and addressed them directly.
"You are the audience of the future, " he told them, "and the performers of the future, too."
"The Pirates of Penzance" has finished its run in Walnut Creek, but you can see it August 14-17 at the Yerba Buena Center of the Arts in San Francisco, just a short walk from the Montgomery Street BART station. Catch it if you can.

A Store For All Seasons

I've been getting anxious phone calls from people all over Berkeley because of rumors that Berkeley Hardware, one of the most beloved stores in the city, is going out of business just a year short of its 120th birthday.
Relax, folks. Berkeley Hardware isn't going anywhere.
Actually, I take that back. It is going somewhere. The landlord has decided to develop the space as a five-story apartment building, so the store will have to move.
"We're looking for another spot in downtown Berkeley, preferably with parking," says Virginia Carpenter, whose family has owned the store since 1945. "We want to continue to serve Berkeley for another 120 years."
I'd better explain why people are taking this so personally. First, it's just a terrific store – one of those old time hardware stores that always have whatever you're looking for, no matter how obscure.
Then there's the longtime manager, Quentin Moore, a man whose sunny disposition makes Santa Claus look like The Grinch. And the other employees take their cue from him. They're all friendly and helpful, and the customers think of themselves as part of an extended family.
But it's also a symbol of a larger issue. For years, Berkeleyans have watched in dismay as the mom & pop stores that made Berkeley so Berkeley disappeared one by one: Edy's, where we ate Sundaes after movies on Saturday nights; Wilkinson's, where we munched waffles on Sunday mornings; the Blue & Gold Market; Bolfing's Elmwood Hardware; Radston's Office Supply; Cody's Books – the casualty list goes on and on.
Berkeley Hardware is one of the last survivors, along with the Darling Flower Shop and Moe's Books. It's now the oldest store in the city.
When it was founded in 1895, Grover Cleveland was president. Cars, planes, radio, TV, movies, computers, smart phones – none of them had been invented yet.
"But our inventory really hasn't changed much," says Virginia. "You still need a hammer, still need a nail, still need a knife to cut your meat with."
The heart and soul of the store, from 1945 to his death in 1997, was Virginia's father, Charles Judy, the most respected man in town.
"There was nothing phony about Charlie," an old-timer told me. "He was the most honest man I ever met. A shake of his hand was better than any contract."
Every day, he brought his dog, Rhoda, a tiny mutt with enormous ears, to work with him. Rhoda would take up her station at the top of the stairs leading up to the electrical department and, with great dignity, survey her realm like the monarch she was.
"When she was here, we knew he was here," says Moore. "Man, he loved that little dog!"
One Christmas Eve, Judy got a frantic phone call from a man who had bought a model train for his child. A part was missing. It was well past midnight, but Judy got out of his bed, met the man at the store, and gave him the part so his child wouldn't be disappointed on Christmas morning.
"That's the kind of guy he was," says Virginia. "We still try to do that today, if we can."
If you hear of a good spot available in downtown Berkeley, send Virginia and her husband Bill an email at berkeleyace@berkeleyace.com/