Joshua Bell ~ Incognito Busker to Subway Station Superstar


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Even if you’re not into classical music, you’ve probably heard of Joshua Bell. Meg Cabot mentions him in her Princess Diaries series and Vanished series. Or maybe you heard about that guy—the famous musician who played in a train station and no one noticed him. That Guy, was Joshua Bell.

The Urban Legend That Isn’t a Legend

In 2007, Joshua Bell posed as a common busker in a Washington D.C. metro station bell.joshua2012(during morning rush hour) as part of an experiment initiated by Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post. Only seven people, out of thousands, stopped to listen to him. Only one person recognized him. ONE. You can read the full story here.

Since then, Joshua Bell became known as “that guy” who played in a train station. Some people actually told him the story about that guy, not realizing he was that guy. He commented on Twitter that he felt he was in danger of being best known (in his career) as that-guy-who-played-in-the-train-station, and his tombstone would read: “Here he is, underground again.”

The Encore that Packed the Train Station

Union Station Washington DCA cavernous train station is not the usual venue for a classical music superstar. Joshua Bell has played in all the major concert halls around the world. So why would he want to go back to a train station where he was blatantly ignored in 2007?

You can let a situation define you, or you change the situation to reinvent the definition.

That’s just what Joshua Bell did. On September 30, 2014, Joshua Bell turned the tables on DC’s Union Station and created a the ultimate public experience for classical music. This time, his performance at DC’s Union Station was highly publicized and people came out in droves. People who knew the story, but may not have known anything about classical music, packed the gigantic space, pressed shoulder to shoulder, 1500 strong. [image:]

Joshua Bell Encore Concert at Union Station Washington DC Sept 30, 2014

Joshua Bell played the same music he did as an incognito busker (2007), except this time he held a capacity crowd spellbound. You can listen to the entire concert on YouTube Here.

The sheer size of the crowd that greeted him, and the warmth of their reception, made this encore a fitting compliment to his first train station experience. More important, he and the young artists who accompanied him brought beautiful music to the masses. I can’t think of a better ending to the story.

Honesty Hour: I feel compelled to write about Joshua Bell’s encore performance, because I’ve referenced his 2007 busking stint in two other blog posts. I never referred to him as That Guy. Not once. Honest.

PBS NewsHour Interview with Joshua Bell

The following PBS NewsHour video shows footage from Joshua Bell’s first busking experience and clips from his recent encore performance. In the personal interview that follows, Joshua Bell talks about the fate of classical music and the importance of keeping music in schools.


Encouraging and Instructing Young Artists

Joshua Bell puts action behind his words, contributing time and energy to the Education Through Music (ETM) program, among other philanthropic endeavors.

Most recently, he taught a Young Arts Master Class—some of his students accompanied him in his Union Station encore performance—which was the basis for a HBO documentary. See the following trailer for details.

Crazy Colloquialisms: More expressions that make you go, “Huh?”


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Anyone who learns English as a second language is a hero in my book. Seriously. There are so many rules that only apply half the time. And then there are the wacky phrases that get tossed about at whim, that have little or nothing to do with what is actually meant. I was confused by these colloquialism when I was young, and English is my first language.

So here’s a few more translations for idiotic idioms…

The Cat’s Pajamas ~ wonderful, remarkable

Cat in pajamas snuggling a teddy bearThe Cat’s Pajamas is one of the sillier colloquial conundrums. I first heard this expression when I was in grade school, while watching a black-and-white movie from the 1930’s. It’s disturbed me ever since.

The cat’s pajamas describes someone or something that is wonderful or remarkable. The American cartoonist, Thomas Aloysius “Tad” Dorgan, is credited with creating this whimsical phrase. The hipsters in the 1920’s used this expression to describe a person who is the best at what they do, or a person who was fun to be with. More recently it was popularized by the movie The School of Rock, starring Jack Black.

The cat’s pajamas is one of a handful of slang animal-centric expressions that came out of the 1920s. Others include the Bee’s knees, the canary’s tusks, and the flea’s eyebrows. Don’t worry. I won’t go there. (c) Can Stock Photo

Come Hell or High Water ~ a great difficulty or obstacle

Anyone determined to accomplish a task no matter what, will do it “come hell or high water”. It doesn’t matter how hard the task, or the odds against their success. They will get it done. Stubborn to the point of stupidity, but always in their favor.

This is an American expression, yet no one has discovered a clear derivation. Some think it may be an outgrowth of “the devil and the deep blue sea”. But that seems like a stretch, if you ask me.

Flooding street of a old West town, Universal Studios, CA

The earliest reference of “come hell or high water” was in the Iowa newspaper, The Burlington Weekly Hawk Eye, on May 1882. This seems fitting, as the saying rings with hardy Midwestern spirit.

The phrase became popular in movies in the early twentieth century, especially in Westerns. Cattle drives often involved crossing rivers and the large expanses of dry dusty plains. [Photo by moi: Western movie set, Universal Studios (CA) backlot]

Get Down to Brass Tacks ~ hard facts

BrassTacksThis phrase dates back to the turn of the nineteenth century, with its first appearance in January 1863 in a Texas newspaper. Other early occurrences are also from Texas, so it’s assumed that’s its place of origin. There are a couple of possible derivations for the phrase, and both refer to actual brass tacks.

The first theorizes that the brass tacks are the ones used in upholstery. Brass tacks have long been used in making furniture, due to their aesthetic appeal and ability to withstand rust. But that’s as far as the explanation for that theory goes. There’s no logical explanation that relates the meaning of the phrase to the brass tacks used in upholstering.

The most reasonable theory is about the brass tacks used as a measuring device for selling lengths of material in the old haberdashery trade. Measuring fabric by arm length wasn’t very exact. So to be more accurate, shopkeepers inserted brass tacks along the edge of their counters. When a customer purchased fabric, the cloth was measured along the counter using the distance between the brass tacks to determine the price. Hence the phrase, getting down to brass tacks.  (c) Can Stock Photo

Dead as a Doornail ~ devoid of life, unusable

This expression always bothered me. Of all things to compare death to, why a doornail? It made no sense. If it had to be a nail, why not a coffin nail?

Amazingly enough, the first reference of this phrase dates back to 1350. It appears in both the The Vision of Piers Plowman, and a translation by William Langland of the French poem Guillaume de Palerne. By the 16th century, the expression had become popular in England thanks to the lines Shakespeare gave the rebel leader Jack Cade in King Henry VI. Dickens kept the popularity growing by using the phrase in A Christmas Carol.

You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

close up of an old wooden door with a knocker

Doornails are large-headed studs that, in much earlier times, were used for strength instead of decoration. The practice was to hammer the nail through, and then bend the protruding end over to secure it. This process is called clenching, and is probably why a doornail can be considered dead. After a doornail is clenched it can’t be used again. Sounds true to me. How about you?  (c) Can Stock Photo

11 Year-Old Busking Violinist ~ Fifth Avenue’s Newest Star


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Pint-Size Prodigy Surprised by His Idol on National TV

There’s a new star on New York’s Fifth—Dylan Hamme, an 11 year-old busking violinist. But Dylan isn’t just any ol’ busker. No. He’s a child prodigy on the fast-track to becoming a concert violinist. He’s busking to raise money for conservatory training.

But wait. It gets  better.

Dylan has a sign propped up in his open violin case for passerby donations that states he’s following in the footsteps of his idol, Joshua Bell.

So far it’s true…

11 year-old Dylan Hamme playing his violin on 5th Ave NYC

Joshua Bell started playing the violin at the age of three, the same age Dylan picked up the instrument. Joshua Bell went on to become a world-renowned violin soloist. So far, Dylan is heading in that direction as well. His expert musicianship (along with his sign), caught the attention of NBC News, and they featured him on the Today Show, complete with a surprise visit from his idol. If you don’t cry watching the video clip below, I don’t want to hear about it.

Going out of his way to encourage a young musician is not uncommon for Joshua Bell. He regularly supports projects that teach and encourage young musicians around the world. Most recently, his work with the National YoungArts Foundation was the cover story in October Strings.


Joshua Bell’s Busking Experiment

While Joshua Bell is at home in a concert hall, he’s no stranger to playing on the street. Or a metro station to be exact. In 2007, Joshua Bell posed as a common busker in a Washington D.C. metro station (during morning rush hour) as part of an experiment initiated by Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post. The purpose of the experiment was to see how many commuters would stop and listen to one of the nation’s greatest violinist in an everyday setting. Sadly, not many. Only one person recognized him. ONE. You can watch the time-lapse video below, and read the full story here.

It’s fortunate Dylan Hamme got more recognition busking than did his idol. Joshua Bell is happy about Dylan’s popularity on the street too.

Dining with Giraffes… Are you game?


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The world’s only giraffe hotel rests in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. Yes, giraffe hotel.

Officially called Giraffe Manor, the estate is located near Nairobi, Kenya. Every morning the resident giraffes stroll up to the house, poking their heads through the windows in search of treats.

Giraffe Manor, exterior with giraffes poking their heads through windows

Can you think of anything more amazing than waking up to giraffes poking their heads through your bedroom window, and then having giraffes join you for breakfast? Seriously. Sign me up!

Breakfast with giraffes at Giraffe manor

The Makings of a Very Tall Tale

The original mansion was built in 1932 for a wealthy British family. But it wasn’t until 1974, when the property was purchased by Betty Leslie-Melville and her husband Jock, that the idea for a sanctuary dedicated to endangered Rothschild giraffes blossomed.

The first giraffe the Leslie-Melville’s took in was an 8-foot-tall (2.4 m), 450-pound baby they named Daisy, about whom Betty subsequently wrote the book Raising Daisy Rothschild that was later made into the film The Last Giraffe. So started the journey to protection for the endangered Rothschild giraffes. Giraffe Manor has been home to as many as 12 Rothschild giraffes at one time; currently there are eight in residence. The following image shows Betty Leslie-Melville having a quiet moment with Daisy Rothschild. [image:]

Betty Leslie-Melville and Daisy Rothschild

In 1983, Betty’s son opened the Manor as a boutique hotel where guests could feed the giraffes from their breakfast table, through the front door, and from their bedroom windows. The Carr-Hartley family purchased Giraffe Manor in 1984 to continue the tradition of offering guests the rare opportunity to hang out with these gentle giants.

The hotel luxuriously caters to the resident giraffes and warthogs, as well the human guests who come from all over the world. A magical stay at Giraffe Manor is not cheap, but the one in a lifetime experience is priceless.

The proceeds generated by the hotel help to support a great cause: the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW). Not only is Giraffe Manor a sanctuary for an endangered species, but they also participate in a breeding program which introduces breeding pairs back into the wild.

The Tallest Living Mammals

The giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) is native to Africa, and is the tallest living terrestrial animal.

Fully grown giraffes are approximately 16–20 ft tall, with an average weight of 2,628 lb) for an adult male and 1,825 lb) for an adult female. Giraffes have a lifespan of  up to 25 years in the wild. Because of their size, eyesight and powerful kicks, adult giraffes don’t have any predators, with the exception of man and lions.

Giraffes at Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya

There are nine subspecies of giraffe, each with variations in markings that make them distinctly unique. Rothschild giraffes (that live at Giraffe Manor), named for Walter Rothschild, are also known as the Baringo or Ugandan giraffe. This subspecies’ natural habitat range includes parts of Uganda and Kenya. Fewer than 700 are believed to remain in the wild. Their endangered status makes the work done at Giraffe Manor for their protection all the more important. [image: Wikipedia, Rothschild's giraffes at Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya]

A Sneak Peak at Giraffe Manor

A real-life sneak peek…

What’s your wildest dream adventure?

What goes around, comes around ~ Stories that come back again & again…


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Girl sitting on the grass reading a bookSome things are destined to return: the seasons, fashion trends, and certain types of stories.

As a race, we have an inherent need for stories. They come from a deep place in our psyche, and shape our lives.

Science is now able to prove that stories affect our psychological make up. The New York Times article, Your Brain on Fiction, by Annie Murphy Paul, shows how reading fiction affects the way we react in social encounters in real life. The ability to internalize the emotions and actions of fictional characters, actually helps us cope with our own world in a more positive way. [image:]

Reading … enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.

Joseph Campbell’s interviews with Bill Moyers on The Power of the Myth discussed the universality of stories (myths), and the similarities in the types of stories told from cultures around the world.

Why We Need Certain Stories

You could write an exhaustive doctorate’s thesis on this topic. You’ll be glad to know I’m not. I was thinking about the recent vampire craze, and wondered  “why” certain story types keep coming back, each time with a huge social impact.

The following is some of my reasoning, totally unsupported by any research whatsoever. Your comments on the topic are welcome and appreciated!

Paranormal: Vampires

Vampires existed in folklore for centuries, and became world-renowned in the 19th Vampirecentury. Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (1897) was one of the first novels in the vampire craze. In recent decades, “Interview with a Vampire” by Anne Rice, “Twilight” by Stephenie Meyer, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer created by Joss Whedon, boosted the vampire pop culture phenomena.

Why the mass market fascination with blood sucking immortals? I think immortal is the operative word, with the monster factor playing a close second. [image:]

We are afraid of the unknown, and what happens after death is one of life’s biggest mysteries—one that makes us face our worst fear, extinction. We idolize vampires, because of their beatific immortality. They have been glamorized to such an extent that we overlook the fact that they are blood sucking monsters. In recent fiction, some vampires sparkle in sunlight and are portrayed as humanitarian—the Twilight series, for example.

In truth, vampires are at best monsters who enjoy the glamour of killing. Why do we crave stories about monsters? It’s kind of sick, if you think about it.

Or, maybe not…

I wrote an earlier blog post on this topic, titled Monsters We Love to Hate. To put it simply, we need something horrible onto which we can project our fear of the unknown—a monster that can be destroyed. The ability to vanquish monsters in a story, gives us a sense of control over our fears and conquering the unknown.

For an in-depth study of vampires in pop culture, check out “The Changing Vampire in Film and Television: A Critical Study of the Growth of a Genre” by Tim Kane.


Hunger GamesThe dystopian story—post apocalyptic, degenerated society—provides a venue for managing another type of fear. The primal fear of survival.

Survival is the crux of a dystopian story. Surviving under the worst possible conditions.

Dystopian stories are usually characterized by dehumanization (“1984” by George Orwell, and the 1980’s films Road Warrior and Blade Runner), totalitarian governments “(The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, “Divergent” by Veronica Roth), environmental disaster (“Under the Never Sky” by Veronica Rossi), and other characteristics associated with a severe decline in society.

The hero in a dystopian tale give us courage by showing us how to survive at all costs. How they cope with and overcome the hardships in their brutal world, helps us to face and overcome our own battles for survival, both real and imagined. In essence, dystopian stories teach us how to be our own hero. Everyone needs that type of encouragement at one time or another. There’s nothing more empowering than knowing you can save yourself. [image: The Hunger Games (movie)]

What are the stories you can’t get enough of?

Confounding Colloquialisms: Expressions that make you go, “What?”


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A colloquialism is a word, phrase or other form used in informal language.

Parents can say some pretty weird things. My father grew up in Iowa, the heart of the Midwest, so some of the things he said seemed weirder than normal to us California-kids. Like the time he scolded my sister at the dinner table, saying she was “As independent as a hog on ice.”

Our reaction: “Huh?” (Could’ve been, “WTF?” but we weren’t allowed to swear.)

Hog on ice

Seriously. We’d lived in Southern California all our lives and had never seen ice or hogs in real life. We just stared. He took our stunned silence for acceptance and compliance, which was probably a good thing. For a lot of years, I assumed the hog-on-ice thing was an my dad’s own home-grown Iowanism. That is, until I started on my writing journey.

When I started writing, I started to notice all the odd informal sayings we used every day. I knew the implied meanings from the context in which they were used. But the meaning itself? Not so much.  That’s why I decided to take on a handful of these oddball sayings…

“As independent as a hog on ice” Flailing about

Strangely enough, I’m not the only one who has been confused by this saying. This phrase has been baffling people for decades. Yes, decades! Etymologists started searching for an explanation from the time it first appeared in the mid 19th century. In 1948 Charles Earle Funk titled his first book of word origins “A Hog on Ice”. His foreword contains a seven (7!) page narrative of his inconclusive quest for the roots of this phrase.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase as “denoting independence, awkwardness, or insecurity.” That about sums it up for a hog that’s slip-n-sliding across the ice, much like Thumper and Bambi in the Disney animated feature. “You’re doing it your way, and making a mess of it,” was what my father meant by his independent-as-a-hog-on-ice speech.

Time magazine usage in 1948, “They like to think of themselves as independents … independent as a hog on ice.”

“In two shakes of a lamb’s tail” Fast, really fast

In general usage, it is easy to infer that this phrase means “a very short period of time”.LambsTail

But why a lamb’s tail, of all things, to measure time by? Seriously. A little historical sleuthing uncovered that this is phrase is a distinct Americanism that dates back to the early 1800’s.

Apparently, a lamb can shake its tail pretty darn fast, much faster than other animals. Who knew? The term crossed “the pond” during the World War I, and became popular as British army slang.

“Bite the dust” ~ To die

Tomb stoneI always associated this phrase with westerns. So I was not too surprised to discover that it was made popular by American westerns of the 1930’s. Picture a cowboy falling to the ground after being shot, and quite literally biting the dust when he lands face down. Because of its association with westerns, I was completely taken aback that the phrase actually dates  back thousands of years before, to Homer’s Iliad. The following  translation was made by American poet, William Cullen Bryant, in 1870:

His fellow warriors, many a one, fall around him to the earth and bite the dust.

Some might say that Bryant introduced the phrase in his interpretation of Homer.  But I’m not going to argue that point. It works for m.

The phrase also appeared in the mid 1700’s in Tobias Smollett’s translation of Alain-Rene Lesage’s novel “Gil Blas (1715-1745):

…we make two of them bite the dust.

Again, the accuracy of the translation could be open to debate. However, I think it’s interesting that traces of the phrase date so far back.

“Till the cows come home” ~ A very long time

If you grew up in a city with no exposure to cows or farm life, this phrase makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. That’s because the expression alludes to cows’ fondness for extended leisure time out at pasture where there is lots of green grass to munch on. The cows would only rush back to the barn when their udders hurt and needed milking.

The phrase originated back in the late 1500s to early 1600s. But again, it was the cinema of the 1930s that made the expression popular. Groucho Marx used it in Duck Soup (1933) when he said to Margaret Dumont,

I could dance with you till the cows come home. Better still, I’ll dance with the cows till you come home.

Cows in a green pasture


What’s your favorite confounding colloquialism?

A Very Grumpy “Cat Summer” ~ Kitty Compassion in Action


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Grumpy … for the Good of All Cat-Kind

Grumpy Cat (Tardar Sauce, herself) isn’t as grumpy as she’d like you to think she is. In fact, she’s a little sweety. Her Grumpiness recently reunited with her celebrity cat friends to make a music video for the good of all cat-kind. Friskies has promised that for each video view (click video window below) before September 1, 2014, they will donate a meal of dry cat food to cats in need—up to ONE MILLION meals!

Grumpy Cat, Tardar Sauce herself

“Cat Summe” stars  Grumpy Cat (Tardar Sauce), Nala Cat, Oskar (the Blind Cat) Klaus, and Hamilton (the Hipster Cat). All donations are made in memory of their late friend Colonel Meow.

Grumpy Cat supervising BBQ

Each Video View Feeds a Hungry Cat

The plight of homeless cats is close to my heart. I work in Silicon Valley, where many of the high-tech office parks have become dumping grounds for unwanted cats. I took on feeding a small colony of “feral cats” near where I work, along with the responsibility of trapping and getting them fixed (TNR, trap-neuter-return). I had to help these cats once I realized they were homeless because of the negligence of people.

Now you can help homeless cats by watching a video and sharing it with your friends and family. You’ll be surprised by how good that (not so) little action will make you feel. Spread the “Cat Summer” loving …

Watch and share the following video

For every video view through September 1, 2014,
Friskies is donating one meal of dry cat food to cats in need.
Up to ONE MILLION meals!
You can make a difference!

“Cat Summer” Grilling and Chilling ~ Fun in the Sun

Historic Hollywood Bowl: Hosts The Beatles to Beethoven


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I was excited about attending a recent concert at the Hollywood Bowl (Joshua Bell and Friends), in Los Angeles, and couldn’t help sharing the news with whoever would listen. I was shocked when two different people asked, “What’s the Hollywood Bowl?” It was all I could do not to say, “Are you kidding?” I grew up on Southern California. But still. The Hollywood Bowl is an American icon, and has been used as a setting in films and television for years.

I would have dismissed one person not knowing about The Bowl. But two was a cry from the universe to write this post. Attending a performance at the Hollywood Bowl is a bucket list kind of thing.

Everything is better at the Bowl. It just is…

Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, CA

[image: Wikipedia, by Mathew Field]

From Rustic to Iconic

The Hollywood Bowl is the largest natural amphitheatre in the United States, located in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles, California. When the Bowl opened to the public in 1921, it was used in its natural state with only makeshift wooden benches for the audience to sit on, and a simple awning strung up over the stage.

The popularity of the venue grew with the boom of the film industry, and by 1926 designs for a permanent stage were underway. For the 1927 season, Frank Lloyd Wright‘s son Lloyd Wright built the first of the iconic shell structures. By 1929, the Allied Architects built a shell that stood on the site until 2003. A larger and acoustically improved shell debuted in the 2004 summer season, incorporating design elements from the 1929 shell and the first shells designed by Lloyd Wright.


First known musical event at the current site of the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles

[image: public domain, USC digital Library]

The two women in the photograph above are performing on the barn door (1920) to test the acoustics of the site, the first known musical event at the Hollywood Bowl. The barn door was placed approximately where the band shell was built.

Classical to Rock and Roll

A common misconception about the Hollywood Bowl is that it caters solely to the classical music crowd. The LA Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl Orchestra both make their home there, but each season hosts productions from a wide variety of musical styles. For a complete list of upcoming performances, visit the Hollywood Bowl website.

The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl album cover artRock and Roll has a long history at the Bowl. In fact, The Beatles appeared at the Hollywood Bowl on April 23, 1964, just months after their US debut. Tickets for the show sold out in 3 1/2 hours, with the only sales being through select ticket offices, no online sales. Over 18,000 people packed the Bowl that night. To keep The Beatles safe from the overzealous fans, a smooth getaway scheme was devised. A decoy limo was used to attract the fans, while the band members slipped away in a nondescript Plymouth Valiant. In later appearances at the Bowl, a Brinks armored truck was used to escort The Beatles to and from their hotel to avoid a panic situation.

The screaming crowd at The Beatles first concert was so loud that no one could hear the music. However, it was recorded (as were their two Bowl concerts in August of 1965) and later released as an album under Capitol Records (US) and Parlophone (UK). [image: Wikipedia]

The Beatles 1964 concert became the bench mark for rock and roll concerts at the Bowl, but many famous rockers have played there before and since. To watch The Beatles performing at the Hollywood Bowl on April 23, 1964 go here.

Pre-Concert Picnic Tradition

One of the most engaging customs at the Bowl is the tradition of pre-concert picnicking. Some of the surrounding picnic areas open as early as 4 hours before each concert. Tables are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Those in the private boxes nearest the stage, can choose to enjoy a luxurious dinner served to them by professional wait staff. Whether it’s a casual picnic or box dining, you can’t beat the delightful al fresco dining under the stars. For more information, see the Hollywood Bowl website.

Dining at the Hollywood Bowl


What’s Your favorite outdoor concert venue?


Staging and Props ~ Building Character and Depth Into a Story


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Props for Props

Creating a believable set for film and television is similar to creating believable settings in fiction. It’s all about staging and props. To be honest, but I didn’t realize how much time and attention went into building and dressing a set until I took the Universal Studios VIP Tour. Who knew there’s an entire warehouse filled with every type of prop you can imagine? Seriously.

Universal Studios LA props department

The VIP Tour provides an intimate behind-the-scenes view of how they create television and movie magic. An amazing treat, since I love films. But I was surprised that it also gave me insights into how to craft stories with more character and depth. [photos by moi, Universal Studios Hollywood]

Establishing the Setting

Sound Stage 44 on Universal Studios back lot is where the television show, Parenthood, a NBC family dramedy, is filmed. I learned that it took one day, 12 hours for a team of carpenters to build out the entire set.

Set for Parenthood, Universal Studios, LA

The Craftsman bungalow in Parenthood is set in Berkeley, California. The architecture and location establish the mood and tone of a story, as well as setting expectations for the family that lives there. Their morals, values, even their environmental and political beliefs. If it was a ranch house in Texas, we’d project an entirely different set of expectations on the family. When a setting is fully developed it becomes a character in the story, such as the graveyard in Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book”.

Dressing the Set

Dressing a set is the process of making it believable, giving it depth that reflects the characters. The Parenthood set took a skilled set designer six weeks to fully dress. The furniture, draperies, books on the bookshelves, pictures on the walls, and the knickknacks were all chosen to reflect the personalities of the people who inhabit the house. Subliminally, those items convey personality and quirks without having to say a word.

Inside the set of Parenthood, Universal Studios, LA

Props are also used to hint at a plot thread or character trait, such as items that are in a bedroom closet, or on display around the room. In an episode of Glee one character was going to enlist in the service, and the set was dressed with patriotic props.

Patriotic props used in an episode of Glee

In fiction, we’re always told “show, don’t tell”. What they fail to say as often is that “what” we show is just important. Too much detail slows a story down. A smattering of well-chosen detail—describing items that convey reflect character and give their personality depth—moves the story forward while keeping the reader engaged.

Staging and props are a craft focus for me in my current project. So, I guess this post is a reminder to myself more than anything.


How do you approach staging and props in your stories?



Who’s Your Yoda?


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The Magic of a Mentor

YodaI used to believe that I had do everything on my own. If I didn’t, then I couldn’t take credit for the results. Luckily, I met someone who clued me in on an insider secret of the successful:

If you want to be successful at anything, apprentice yourself to someone who’s mastered the art.

Kind of like Yoda, the little green guy from Stars Wars with the pointy ears. Without Yoda mentoring him, Luke Skywalker never would’ve become a Jedi.

I’ll be straight up honest. I didn’t go looking for a mentor. I kinda sorta just bumped into him. By accident, in the most serendipitous of ways. It was one of those serendipitous meetings that changed your life. I wish I could say  that over a few short months I became a shining success in my area of study. But that would be a flat out lie.

The reality took a whole lot longer, and turned out to be better than anything I ever could have imagined. At the time, I wanted to become a computer animator—back when the industry was in its infancy. Along the way, I discovered my passion for writing for young people. Sometimes the wrong path brings you to the right place. And it was my mentor who paved the way for that transition through the (snail mail) letters we exchanged over the years.

The magic of the written word ~ Letters from Frank

I met my mentor, Frank Thomas, in 1983 at a glitzy computer graphics symposium at UCLA. I wandered up to the tradeshow area after one of the panel discussions, and ended up standing next to an old man. I overheard him telling the young woman demonstrating one product that he’d worked at Walt Disney Studios as an animator. He looked pretty old (ancient to a twenty-something-year-old), so I asked, “Did you know Walt?”

“Yes,” he replied. “If he were alive today this is where he’d be”

Me, to myself: You’re my new best friend.

At the time, I didn’t know that Frank Thomas had joined The Walt Disney Company in 1934 as employee number 224. Or that he had animated dozens of animated Frank and Jeanette Thomasfeatures and shorts, including The Brave Little Taylor, Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, to name a few. I knew he worked with Walt, and that was good enough for me. Our 21 year conversation, started with a single handwritten letter that I sent to Frank, care of the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank.

Over the years, I continued to pursue computer animation, and worked on projects with Silicon Graphics and Dreamworks. Through it all, I  exchanged letters with Frank, and came to  meet his lovely, and amazing wife Jeanette. In a sense, they became like family.

Frank was generous in his letters with his expertise in traditional animation, as well as what he was learning about applying that knowledge to new technology. But it was the “storytelling style” of Frank’s letters that made the biggest impact on me. Early on, I realized I couldn’t write just anything in a letter to him. I had to write a story. I worked to make my letters as entertaining as the ones Frank always sent. He was teaching me about story structure and humor, without realizing it.

Tips on stalking a mentor

If you think “a successful person would never want to help me”, you’re wrong. Not everyone may be as accommodating as Frank Thomas, but if you have a genuine passion for their field and show an enthusiasm for learning, your mentor-of-choice will most likely take you under their wing.

FACT: People like to talk about their passion with others who share their enthusiasm.

Here are a few guidelines you might want to follow:

  • Call to ask for an “informational interview”. This works especially well for high school and college students.
  • Or, write a letter (yes, on paper) stating your purpose and why you chose them a your hero. You can include an email address as a convenience for a return reply.
  • Always be polite and courteous of their time.
  • Be professional (in accordance with industry standards) in dress and speech.
  • If they do meet with you, follow-up with a thank you letter (on paper) expressing an appreciation for their time.
  • If you want to continue working with a mentor, always bring something of interest, such as information about the industry they might not know. Anything that *shows them* you are actively working toward attaining your goal.

Have you Ever worked with a mentor?



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