Volume 2 Book 7 Part 1 of Living In The Bonus Round
The Online Diary of Steve Schalchlin

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[ Book 6 ] - [ Part 1 ][ Part 2 ] [ Part 3 ] [ Part 4 ] [ Part 5 ] - [ Book 8 ]

April 2001.
El Lay, CA

El Portal Center for the Arts in North Hollywood.

April 11-20, 2001.
Kulak's! And A New Beginning.
Bobby and I had a blast this past Saturday singing at Kulak's Woodshed on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood.. It's a tiny little performance space that this guy, Kulak, put up. It doesn't have a bar, it doesn't have a cover charge, you get soft drinks in the back and put a dollar in the coffee jar.

Kulak in front of his reptile/fish tank

That's Bobby Cox on the left.

There were several other performers -- first rate performers -- who went ahead of us, most notably Paul Zollo (pictured) and Jeff Gold. Both of them are superb singer/songwriters who've been on the LA scene for a very long time.  Paul, who's also an author, used to work with me at NAS. Before the show, I went back to talk to them and I asked them who was going first. They said, "We're NOT following YOU!"

Then, after Bobby's and my set, Paul Marshall, an original member of the Strawberry Alarm Clock -- Anyone remember "Incense & Peppermints?" -- got up and said, "How am I supposed to follow Steve Schalchlin?" Suddenly I felt like Shawn Decker radiating positoid energy.

I was a little uncomfortable because the piano faced the wall away from the audience. I like being able to see the audience so I spent the who concert singing while looking as far left as possible. But from the first note, every eye was on us and I felt like we totally kicked ass.

For instance, we added a funky guitar rhythm to "James Robison." Anyway, the set list was "Where Is God," "Somebody's Friend," "Near You," "Beyond The Light," "Salvation Song," "James Robison," "Going It Alone," "Friendly Fire," and then "William's Song."

After it was over and we were in the car driving home, we were SHOUTING at each other at how much fun we had just being up there playing and singing. Man, it felt good. Oh, and Lisa Bobesckhklsisko flew all the way from Seattle so it was GREAT cuz the whole family said hi first and then they brought her out!

My life has significantly changed since I started volunteering at El Portal. The basic problem of the place is that, since they don't have any money, a lot of the staff that had been there a long time, is gone. And there's a lot to keep track of.

The reason I'm there is because Jimmy was just becoming overwhelmed with it all. I was fearing for him mental health. So he has brought me in as a kind of -- well, today he called me his "chief of staff."

Three stages, a complicated box office system, money to raise, a Board to satisfy, begging for money to get the new show up, needing to plan the next season, about 80 actors in a resident company (just to scratch the surface). It's a lot. So this week I decided to start from scratch and interview as many people as possible and learn the whole history of this theatre.

I feel incredibly happy and energized by this challenge. Knowing that I'm helping Jimmy and that he trusts me is the first thrill. The second thrill is that since I've run non-profits before, I'm not afraid of it.

Today, when Karen Reed, who's in charge of membership, told me about the structure they'd dreamed of, where the older actors give classes to the younger actors -- and everyone has access to the stages to learn their craft -- I fell immediately in love. Yeah, I'd heard there were classes but I didn't actually understand it in the whole scheme of things. Back at National Academy of Songwriters, my job was to hold workshops and seminars and showcases for new songwriting talent. I've been missing that energy. Y'know?

So maybe this is really fate. That is, if they can keep the doors open, of course. It feels to me like a new beginning. Reader, I'm going to take you with me as we venture into exotic territory.

Hm. A historic theatre, an acting company filled with all ages, sizes, shapes and colors, a crazy office, the drama of fundraising! The make-up, the lights!! Sounds like the opening premise of a TV series. Hm. If the writers go on strike out here, will it be illegal for me to keep my diary?? Well, what if my diary starts to sound like "West Wing" set in a struggling theatre in North Hollywood California?

Hey, we're on to something here.

April 21-24, 2001.
A Tour & First Meeting.
Reader, welcome to Volume 2 Book 7, "Into The Belly Of The Beast." Since I'm diving into this massive theatrical company, I might as well start a new diary book with a big dramatic name. I even took the time to create a fancy new logo!

I also started snapping some photos of the surrounding area so you could get a good idea of where we are.

This is from Magnolia Blvd. looking down Lankershim.
El Portal is on the far right at the end.
I love the palm trees. Reminds me I'm in El Lay.

Vavoom! is a clothing store down the block.

Eagles Newsstand Cafe is where we eat lunch a lot.
That's Jenny the new owner. She's Korean.
The hands Jimmy his orders with both hands because she said in her country, that's how you hand food to your "elders." Jimmy wasn't exactly thrilled to be thought of as "elderly." BWAHAHAHA!!!

Across the street is the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

El Portal is on the corner of Lankershim & Weddington.
It was originally a movie palace/vaudeville house built in 1926.

New set for Ray Cooney's "Out Of Order"

This was my first time to attend a meeting of the Actors Alley company of actors. It was on a Saturday morning in the Circle Theatre located inside the main building. These are photos of the company members gathered this day.

JImmy explained that we were undergoing a complete reorganization in order to better incorporate company members to help with jobs around the complex. Jimmy then introduced me, made me sound like I could have saved the Titanic single-handedly and informed them I'd be working with him on this reorganization effort.

Then the President of Actors Alley, Henry LeBlanc, brought up the need for various committees to assist Jim and Pegge in the office and around the theatre. Things like a publicity committee, box office committee, office committee, etc. So that became our first step: Finding out who could and would help.

I next met with the Executive Committee and membership "complaint" committee (MART) to discuss with them how we could proceed. It was Peter Husman, a member of that committee who suggested we start with a master organizational flow chart -- and he volunteered to assist in that endeavor. The goal would be to identify all the jobs that needed to be covered and then write up a chart with all the positions defined. Peter explained how this would open up the lines of communication and provide an easy method of accountability.

Aside from reorganizing man and woman power, I also told them I would be interviewing company members so that I could write up an informal history of Actors Alley to better assist Jimmy in setting a new vision. This group of actors have been around for 30 years. When they began there were a small troupe on Van Nuys Blvd. Over the years, they moved to several other venues and were about to move into this facility in 1994 when the big earthquake nearly destroyed the entire building. But they didn't give up. And in fact were doing plays in a tent across from the theatre during the renovations.

So this is a scrappy bunch of actors. They're not about to just let these financial difficulties bring them down. They do this because they love live theatre and because it gives them a chance to hone their acting skills and be seen on stage.

So here I am. Last week I was the volunteer receptionist; a musician who can't even keep his own aparment clean. And now I've accepted the responsibility for reorganizing the corporate structure of a multi-million dollar non-profit theatre.

I must be nuts.

April 25-27, 2001.
Life & Death at Stanford.

Steve sings for The Wisdom Project at Stanford University.
It was called The Wisdom Project. A weekend created by Christi, a graduate student at Stanford University. The subject? Death. What does it teach us? How do we make it better? Why is it so hard to talk about? I felt very honored because the weekend featured world class professors, scholars, doctors, and a university hospital chaplain.

Staying again at Ken McPherson's place in San Francisco, Bev (sporting a foxy new haircut) drove down from Davis, picked me up in her car and we drove down to Palo Alto, about 45 minutes away. It's always fun to spend time with Bev. She makes me laugh. She's one of those friends with whom you can say ANYTHING about ANYTHING, no matter how rude. Oh, and not about others. We basically slice each other up unrelentingly.

We stayed in the "historic" Cardinal Hotell.
Unlike modern hotels you could actually open the windows. In the picture you can see our open window. It's the first one on the second floor, right of the door.
Pic on right is the lobby.

The street leading up to the big front gates is lined with palm trees.

The big front gates that open to the campus of Stanford University.

The lecture hall. The tuners were getting the piano ready when we arrived.
He had a Mac with an electronic tuner that automatically
calculates the "stretch" in the upper range. Blew my mind.

Christi (left) is the person largely responsible for organizing the weekend.
Omar (right) designed the website, ran tech and introduced me.

On Friday night, the evening began with Dr. James Hallenbeck MD. Medical Director of the VA Hospice Care Center in Palo Alto. His speech focused on "the privilege" he felt at working for a hospice and he had a rather startling statistic about death. At the turn of the century -- and I don't remember the exact numbers -- 80% of Americans died at home. The family was rural and kids grew up with life and death.

But now 80% of people die in a hospital. People grow up without ever truly seeing death, without realizing that it's a normal part of life, so to speak. People used to die of heart disease, influenza and infections. Now they die of cancer and heart disease, but technologically, we can keep people "alive" almost interminably -- and usually in pain because, "Doctors get little or no training in pain management."

The question increasingly becomes, "How long is too long? When do we shut the machine off? What is a 'good way to die?'" He asked provocative questions and said with the baby boomers headed toward senior citizen-land, hospice care would start to become the norm as people choose the time and place of their own natural deaths.

My place on the program was to represent the patient. A person who (essentially) wrote about his own death and then came back from the brink. I told them how my one desire at "the end" was to not be forgotten -- and then, dramatically (and absolutely spontaneously), I whipped out the picture of Dickie I carry in my pocket. "One of my best friends died a year ago January but I carry his picture when I sing so he is always with me."

I also talked about the absolute peace I felt when I thought I was dying -- a zone of wisdom one comes to when one is near death. Dr. Hallenbeck sent me an email and said this:

"...As you express in music, far better than some scholarly text, there is a wisdom that shines through the experience of being very ill or dying.  While I have not been as ill as you were, in caring for many sick and dying people, I could recognize that wisdom in your work - the mystical place of peace,  the 'switch' where you can actually choose to live or die, the re-framing of what is important in the face of death - I have heard these themes before, although rarely so eloquently."

Bev took these shots of me me gesticulating madly, telling more stories.
The feeling I get from singing for health care professionals and students is more exhilarating for me than just about for any other group. If I could do nothing but sing for doctors, nurses and patients, I think I would.

Saturday morning featured more speakers, but the one who caught my ear was man who sat in the front row the night before with a big grin on his face. He is the chaplain at Stanford University Hospital. And as he put it, when he first began inquiring into chaplaincy, "I didn't know there were Jewish chaplains, much less lay Jewish chaplains."

His name is Chaplain Bruce D. Feldstein M.D. and vividly described a moment early in his career as a doctor when he had to deliver bad news (that she would die of cancer) to a Catholic woman from Central America. As a doctor he saw her becoming more stressed as he tried to find the right words to say to her. Finally, impulsively, he said, "Would you like to pray together?"

And he saw her face light up. So he tried to remember words to The Lord's Prayer from his time interning at St. Joseph's Hospital. And he found that by taking that time with her, it ministered to her in ways being a doctor could not. That incredibly generous act of kindness on his part became his first step toward chaplaincy.

He had so many good stories, I told him about the Hannah stories at bonusround.com and asked him if he would like to join us here with his own stories. I hope he says yes.

At the end of Saturday's presentations, I sang a few more songs in the student lounge part of the meeting hall. After singing "A Simple Faith," this guy named Michael came up, said he was from Denver, and wanted to know if I knew Ryan Meisheid. Of COURSE I know Ryan. He's one of the tls group members. Ryan apparently played "A Simple Faith" at one of his high school retreats and Michael remembered it.

Left: Chaplain Bruce D. Feldstein, MD; Christi, Steve.
Right: Michael & Steve.

Weekends like this are a treasure to me. Not only do I get to meet great physicians and other nurturers, but I get a chance to thank them for caring about their patients. As one doctor said, the worst thing that has happened to modern healthcare is the devaluation of doctors into "health care providers" -- as if doctors and nurses were equally replaceable parts in some big machine.

And as death becomes an increasingly distant "thing" that people avoid talking about, as technology gives us the ability to prolong lives well beyond what's natural and normal, and unless hospice and palliative medicine become increasingly accepted, people will die horrible, painful deaths in hospitals, hooked up to machines, isolated from their families without the chance to share the incredible wisdom that comes from a comfortable, natural passing at home surrounded by friends and family.

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[ Book 6 ] - [ Part 1 ][ Part 2 ] [ Part 3 ] [ Part 4 ] [ Part 5 ] - [ Book 8 ]

© 2001 by Steve Schalchlin.
You have permission to print from this diary and distribute for use in support groups, schools, or to just give to a friend. You do not have permission to sell it.