Where There's Smoke ...

Topanga is a quirky community. When we decided to decamp to the hills from tony Santa Monica a friend quipped “You’re moving back to the 60s?”

Most of what I knew of Topanga was by reputation: bosky, aging hippies and artists, tree huggers, the place time forgot.

When we moved to the top of the mountain we only had a fairy-tale notion of what to expect. We’re still acclimating. People are friendly; some will talk your arm off. They take their time and there’s very little of the self-importance or smugness you find in West LA.

As peaceful as it is, you’re still reminded of the vast metropolitan area beneath your feet. Just a few steps from our front door is an overlook that commands a majestic view of the San Fernando Valley, which is especially impressive at night with millions of twinkling lights and the beacons of jetliners overhead – the Santa Susana Mountains hulking in the distance.

Wildfires are a constant threat here, and Topanga practices the art of evacuation religiously. We first learned about the annual fire drill when Mary ran into John Stevens, who chairs the committee and lives down the street. Tall and lanky with a booming voice, John has an air of easy self-confidence, who treats you as if he’s known you his entire life. His house is mysteriously cloaked in all manner of shrubbery and vines, which makes one wonder what really goes on inside. There’s an old GMC van parked out front and in the back a small forest of Ham radio antennas.

“Are you doing the drill next Saturday?” he asked enthusiastically.

Mary answered that she’d be out of town but she’d be sure to tell me about it.

The next day’s mail brought an impressive packet of information.

“Ready Set Go!” it proclaimed. “Practice your plan!”       

We’ve all seen wildfires in these tinderbox hills on TV but I’d never seen them up close, and it was a little sobering when our insurance agent scoped our house and took pictures before issuing a policy. Naturally one gets a bit nervous when the Santa Anas kick up and it hasn’t rained in months. (Actually, it rained the night we moved in – a rare occurrence, we were told.)

So, I decided to do my civic duty and was up on alert that Saturday morning, eagerly awaiting the phone call that never came. I did receive text messages warning that the “fire” was advancing on Topanga and ordering various neighborhoods to head for the valley. So, I leashed up Bella and we jumped in the car.

Switchbacking our way down the hill, it was difficult to see if anyone else was an evacuee. In this big city it’s easy to blend into the crowd. Soon we were zooming down Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Woodland Hills and turning right on to Ventura with all the other Saturday errand-runners. As we made our way into the staging area in the parking lot of Taft High School I didn’t see any VW busses or vans with Grateful Dead stickers. Maybe I’d taken the stereotype too far.

We were met by volunteers in orange vests who directed us to a parking space. I signed in, filled out a short survey and let them know I hadn’t received a phone call while Bella did her usual thing making new friends and attracting adoring children. It was more like a festival. I wondered if we’d be this cheerful in a real emergency.

I heard a voice I recognized and turned around to see Jeff Ippolito, who had hooked up our washer-dryer and installed a light fixture for us. Mary found Jeff by Googling “Topanga handyman” and it turns out he grew up in St. Louis and is a fellow University of Missouri alum. A local now for nearly 20 years, Jeff is an eternally-smiling, self-effacing guy who always has a story or two to relate, with great aplomb. A onetime set dresser for TV shows and commercials, Jeff’s true bliss is fashioning art out of junk in his spare time. He recently volunteered to build a scale replica of an old California mission for his kids’ elementary school. I’ll ask him for a photo and share it.

Today there’s a brush fire in Pacific Palisades, about six miles from us as the crow flies. The smoke is drifting past us and fire engines have been tearing down the road. John tells me we’re in no danger, but it’s hitting a little too close to home. At least we know the evacuation route. Next step is to assemble our wildfire/earthquake survival kit.


From Laptop to Segway

So, I used to make fun of people on Segways. Who hasn’t scoffed at a bunch of tourists puttering down the street like lemmings? I mean, why not walk? It’s just more evidence we’re growing lazier and out of shape.

That all changed when I got an e-mail from my director buddy who was doing another video for my CEO Double.

We have a shoot in San Diego next week. Can you come and pretend to be Dan (not exec’s real name), he asked.

Remembering I had a blast on the standup scooter in Phoenix, I said yes and wondered what I’d gotten myself into.

“This time we’re gonna have you ride one of those bicycle taxis, except there won’t be any passengers,” he said.

I had a hard time visualizing this assignment, so all I could do the night before was send up a prayer to the Transportation Gods to spare me a broken ankle.

At USS Midway. No idea what to expect.
Up with the sun the next morning, we were off to the USS Midway. This is an aircraft carrier and there was no bicycle taxi. Just a helicopter buzzing overhead. Hmmm. It shall be revealed, I kept telling myself. Just trust the director.

Chris briefs crew on deck of USS Midway
And it was. First sequence of the day: exec parachutes onto the deck, rips off helmet, gives thumbs up. Luckily, I only had to do the second and third thing; they got a real skydiver for the tricky part. (Check out the video.)

Then, we were off to the Segway store, where Rhonda gave me a quick course. (I was tempted to say “crash course.” Not a good idea.) I thought if senior citizens can ride one, so can I. Turns out it’s pretty easy and doesn’t require the balance of a gymnast. I can do this, I thought.

Rhonda calibrates my Segway. Help me, Rhonda!
First stop, San Diego Zoo, where I turned heads crossing in front of the main entrance – with the light, of course. From what I recall, only one insult was hurled at me. Something like “Hey, Segway Man!” You see, it’s one thing to wear shorts and a t-shirt on a Segway, another thing to wear a suit.

Next location, Petco Park, where we discovered it’s best to take the thing out of Training mode because I was having trouble getting up a 3-degree incline. I actually had to perform an emergency dismount once. Embarrassing.

Anyway, there’s a beautiful plaza in front of the stadium, which I traversed over and over, stopping to whip out my smartphone to take a photo of the field. By now, I’d lost all pride and was oblivious to the curious stares of onlookers.

Last stop was Coronado Island, where I spent 45 minutes zooming up and down the sidewalk with the bay and skyline in the background. It was a beautiful day and I had a gentle breeze at my face. Nice work if you can get it! I have a photo to prove it.

Smiling now, because it's over!
Since then, I’ve traded in the Segway and returned to my laptop, where I do my best work. But one day I just may get on that horse again for fun – and remember to take it out of Training gear.


I'm Not a CEO, but I Play One on TV

I work with executives, helping them develop and deliver their messages, but I never thought I would play one.

Awhile back I had registered with a company called Central Casting, which provides background actors to the film and television industry. Just for fun, mind you. Friends who are really serious work the system feverishly – some going so far as to hire an agent and join the union hoping to one day land a speaking role and – who knows – achieve minor celebrity status.

I have no such aspirations. I just thought it would be a fun experience to spend a day on a set standing in the background at a cocktail party. Knowing I have the look of a middle-aged lawyer or accountant I figure someday a casting director will be looking for a guy in a suit to walk through the lobby of an office building.

After months of not playing the system, I got a voicemail from Central Casting out of the blue. A director had picked me from a group of headshots to appear in a … well, the booker said it’s kind of complicated so would I please call him back. When I got Walid on the phone, he said the shoot was for a large company and well-known brand. The job involved flying out of Orange County with the crew to Phoenix for the day.

“That’s so exciting, honey!” my wife Mary exclaimed. She’s my biggest fan.

“I’m gonna be in a commercial for <unnamed company>!” I uttered, breathlessly. (I knew the company’s name at this point; I’m just protecting their name out of professional courtesy.)

On the phone with Kris, the director, I learned this wasn’t a commercial, but a video for an all-employee meeting. I would be a double for one the executives. “I assume you’re ok jogging and stuff like that,” he said. 

“Sure,” I replied. Little did I know …

One morning, then, bright and early, we boarded a Southwest flight to Phoenix. As we made our way down the aisle Kris spoke to a woman sitting in row 10. “That’s Candice. She’s the client,” he said. Uh-oh, I thought. Added pressure.

We touched down in Phoenix about an hour later, and soon I was riding in a van with people I barely knew, being asked to do things I wouldn’t normally do (some at risk of life and limb).

I was Talent!

The video would be shown to set up the executive’s entrance at the employee meeting. Here’s the premise: he’s on the treadmill when he gets a call from a colleague asking why he’s not at the meeting. He’s forgotten he’s in a different time zone and it’s an hour later than he thinks. That’s where I come in as the double – as we portray the executive’s frenzied attempt to make it to the arena.

Dialing up the comic value, the decision was made to put executive on a little motorized scooter! Picture a middle-aged guy in a black track suit and helmet, riding a Razor. Balance required. Something I’m not exactly blessed with. But, what the heck.

In my first scene, I was supposed to come zipping through the double doors of an office building. I’d never ridden one of these things and there was no time to practice, but this wasn’t the time to back out. We were on a tight schedule and the video was to be shown in two days! My first few passes were a little wobbly, but I quickly got the hang of it. The biggest challenge was revving up from a standstill. I couldn’t completely get my balance until I gathered a little speed so I learned how to push off with one foot like Bart Simpson. Hey, this is pretty cool, I thought: motoring across a parking lot on a beautiful Arizona morning, just me and the gentle desert breeze.

We did probably 15 takes, and thank goodness I get to the gym regularly because the day was about to get more and more physical.

We were going to show the executive (me) traversing the city on the scooter, so Candice – a Phoenix native and our driver – had made a list of locations that are unmistakably Phoenix. On to Papago Park, nestled between the city and the desert, with gorgeous views of mesas and cacti and scrub. Up and down the bike path I went, following Kris’ instructions and exhortations. Bless him, he kept telling me every take was great. I couldn’t have made it through the day without his encouragement.

Wrapping at the park, we loaded the van and hustled to Tempe Town Lake, where I puttered up and down a concrete plaza, trying not to hit pedestrians, while Kris and Tim positioned themselves for different angles – high and low, left and right. I had stopped counting takes at this point.

After the lake, Candice had a brainstorm: let’s have our “executive” stop for Girl Scout cookies! She had a couple of nieces and their mom (her sister) who were happy to comply. They met us at a strip mall armed with a card table, poster board and boxes of cookies. It was really a team effort, everyone contributed great ideas and the girls were excellent actors!

By now we were racing the clock. It was after 3:00 and we still had to shoot in downtown Phoenix and inside U.S. Airways Arena and wrap in time to make a 7:30 flight. Working her connections, Candice got Kris and photographer Mike on a hotel balcony across the street so they could shoot me crossing the street (multiple times), winding my way through the plaza and into the front doors of the arena.

By now, I was one with my Razor. So what if people thought I was a lunatic, puttering down the sidewalks of downtown Phoenix at rush hour?

Once inside the arena, the script called for me to negotiate a narrow corridor, make a sharp left turn, then a quick right into a waiting elevator with Jorge, the marketing rep for the Phoenix Suns, holding the door for me. There’s no way I can do this, I thought. But, I somehow managed without looking too clumsy. The only problem was remembering to hit the brakes once I entered the elevator because it was barely large enough to accommodate the scooter.

For the final shot, I had to emerge from a hallway, buzz past a concession stand, ditch the scooter and sprint to the entrance of the arena floor, fist-pumping all the way. Jorge would stand by, pretending to talk on his cell phone, which he quickly stuffs in his pocket when he sees me flying toward him and catches the scooter – all in one fluid motion.

“I hope I don’t break your wrist,” I said, because the last thing I was thinking about was the scooter and I ditched it and slung it at him, my momentum carrying me forward.

“No worries, I’ve got this,” Jorge said calmly. He was about half my age and athletic. Caught the scooter every time without breaking a sweat.

I, on the other hand, was heavily perspiring and winded by the end of the shoot from sprinting down the hallway and backtracking for each subsequent take. How do stunt people do this day in and day out? Somewhere along the way I think I pulled an oblique muscle. But it didn’t produce a miserable hurt, just a feeling like I’ve been pushing my body.

Really, the whole day was about pushing ourselves and each other to get the best location, the best angle, the best sequence of shots.

We’ve always heard the saying about having to walk a mile in someone’s shoes to appreciate what they do. Well, in this case, I traveled a good mile as a stunt double and I have even greater admiration and respect for the people who tell stories on film and video. And while it was fun to portray an executive, I think I’ll keep my day job. 


Portrait of the Actress as Activist

The young woman wears a dark, strapless, floor-length dress. She sits with her legs crossed and hands folded. Her long hair, pulled across her breast, flows to her waist. Eyes downcast, she looks pensive and expectant. The painting is almost Chekhovian, evoking the feeling of turn of the century Russia.

This is the portrait of a young Polish actress – not at the turn of the century but during the 1980s. Beata Pozniak is a timeless soul; she could thrive in any era. Years before she was discovered by Oliver Stone, Pozniak earned her way modeling and posing. Allowing herself to be the artist’s subject only deepened her acute sensibility and sensitivity.

The somber expression she wears in the painting speaks of the trouble she witnessed in her native Poland. Pozniak lived at the epicenter of the Solidarity movement and witnessed the oppression of friends and relatives under martial law.

That experience fueled Pozniak’s sense of social justice and commitment to activism. The actress/artist/writer/filmmaker almost singlehandedly convinced Congress to recognize International Women’s Day in 1994 – 79 years after it came into existence.

I met Beata Pozniak Daniels at a function on the Westside a few nights ago and was captivated by her energy and fire. She’s married to an architect and they have a son. She told me about her work on behalf of women around the world, so was it coincidence that she once played the President of the Earth Alliance on TV’s Babylon 5? She was also Marina Oswald in Oliver Stone’s JFK on the big screen and you may also recognize her from Mad About You and Melrose Place.

International Women’s Day was founded in revolutionary Russia in 1915 and spread throughout Europe and Asia. Celebrated on March 8, it’s a day to recognize women in positions of leadership and influence. In some cultures you’ll also find husbands, sons, brothers and fathers making gestures of appreciation to wives, mothers, sisters and daughters.

Today, with so much talk about leaning in, marriage equality and reproductive rights, Pozniak Daniels’ message is especially relevant.

When I asked her if she encounters skeptics who think an international women’s day is patronizing of women, she exclaimed “It’s not patronizing, but almost shameful that we still need to have a special day to recognize the contributions and potential of women. I hope there will come a time when we can dispense with the title and have a People’s Day!”

And so, the pensive actress in the painting has evolved into an indefatigable champion of women as well as the underserved and oppressed.

With LA Mayor Eric Garcetti
On March 8 in Los Angeles, Pozniak Daniels will be recognized for her efforts at a luncheon celebrating International Women’s Day, sponsored by the Women's International League for Peace & Freedom. She’ll be joined by actress Mimi Kennedy and activist and screenwriter Lila Garrett. More information is available here.