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Thea Walsh: Water polo dreams

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Laguna Beach High School senior Thea Walsh is, like many of her fellow seniors, filled with mixed emotions. There is reluctance to close the chapter on her high school years along with excitement and anticipation for what is to come next. For Walsh, her next chapter officially begins when she realizes her dream and starts as a freshman at Stanford in the fall. “I’m so excited. It was a dream of mine to go to Stanford,” she says. “I didn’t realize I could actually get there until about 11th grade,” she says, still seeming a bit surprised at her good fortune.

A goal of many, realized by very few

As one of the best water polo players in the country, Walsh will play for the Cardinals and be reunited with her fellow Breakers Aria Fischer and Bella Baldridge. Walsh says she has wanted to attend Stanford ever since she played her first Junior Olympics there when she was 12. In that, she is not alone.

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LBHS senior Thea Walsh will take her water polo skills to Stanford in the fall

In age group water polo, the Junior Olympics alternate every other year between southern California and northern California. When they are held in northern California some of the games are held at Stanford’s pool. This experience translates into almost every young polo player declaring at some point, “I want to go to Stanford.” Alas, with a less than five percent acceptance rate, the dream becomes reality for only a very few.

An academic interest in science

Walsh says she hopes to study bio-medical engineering or human biology at Stanford. Clearly, her abilities aren’t just limited to the pool. “I’m excited to get to Stanford because I know I will get the best education and the best treatment (as an athlete),” enthuses Walsh. And her excitement is well-deserved. Her road to get there, and the schedule she has endured to make it a reality, have not been easy.

Surviving the grind

“With water polo you’re always grinding,” she says good-naturedly. “For the high school we have morning practice three times a week so I get up around 5 a.m. Then there’s school from 7:30 to usually around 1:30. Then practice after school every day for two to three hours. Then you have you find time to eat, sleep and do homework.” 

Finding time wherever possible

During club water polo season, the times may be different but the hours put in are the same, even more when you factor in the driving to and from practice. “Those days it’s like a four-hour practice,” she says. “I realized that those were four hours I could have been doing homework,” she says. “So I tried to find the one or two classes where I could do my homework when I didn’t have to do anything,” she admits. 

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The LBHS pool is practically a home away from home for Thea Walsh

The Junior National Team is another commitment

Walsh’s water polo is not confined to just high school and club. She plays on the Junior National Team, as well. Luckily, LBHS girls coach Ethan Damato just so happens to be one of her national team coaches. “If he had to miss something, I had to miss something,” she says of her overlapping commitments to her many teams. “Last year we missed three weeks in December, but other than that I haven’t missed too much of high school (polo).” During those three weeks she competed in the FINA Youth World Championships in New Zealand where the team finished fifth.

Rising to the competition

It is clear Walsh relishes the competition of the national team. “I love the national team because it takes me to the next level. They elevate my play. Every person there is the best from their high school or club,” she says enthusiastically. Plus it has broadened her horizons with trips like the one to New Zealand as well as the chance to play against college teams like UCLA and UCSB. This summer she says her goal is to again make the national team and go to the Youth World Championships in Serbia.

A band of sisters on the LBHS team

That being said, Walsh is equally devoted to her high school team. “Socially, I love the girls on the high school team.” She has played with most of the seniors on her team since she began playing when she was 12 years old. 

Trying just about every other sport before finding water polo

Walsh says she came to polo after playing almost every other sport there was. She was at the pool as part of the swim team when Laguna Beach parent Scott Baldridge began his recruiting. Baldridge, a former collegiate water polo player, along with Erich Fischer, a former Olympic water polo player, can be credited for helping build Laguna Beach into a girls’ water polo powerhouse.

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The encouragement of her community and peers means a lot

A persuasive parent gets credit

“I was on swim team and Scott Baldridge kept pushing (me to try water polo),” she remembers with a laugh.  Back then, Baldridge and Fischer encouraged, cajoled and occasionally begged their daughters’ friends to give the sport, which they coached through the city, a try. 

Two persuasive parents help create a dynasty

The two dads proved to be good coaches and excellent recruiters as many of the girls they coached have gone on to play collegiate water polo, including their own daughters who all went on to play at Stanford. Makenzie and Aria Fischer took it one step further by not only playing in the Olympics, but winning gold medals.  

Finding her place in the goal

For Walsh, once she found polo, she found her sport. “I started out as a field player and I was really bad,” she recalls. “On our 12 and under team we took turns being the goalie. I was pretty good at it and I just stayed there,” recalls Walsh. “I hated swim. I begged not to go. When I started polo I actually wanted to go to practice. That’s why I made the decision to play polo.”

Blocking penalties becomes her “thing”

Saying there was “no question” she was going to play in high school, Walsh got her first taste of big time success when her 14 and under team won the Junior Olympics. “I got MVP of the tournament. We went into a shoot out and I blocked some shots. I realized I liked that. Goalies aren’t really expected to do that and so that kind of became my thing,” she remembers. She adds, “A bunch of other girls could have gotten MVP at that tournament.”

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Walsh hopes to hang another banner, of the Olympic Gold Medal kind, at the LBHS pool someday

Knowing the value of waiting – and learning

Walsh is quick to credit her teammates, both past and present. Her freshman and sophomore years she played behind LBHS goalie Holly Parker. Some girls with Walsh’s pedigree and talent might have complained or transferred to a school where they could get immediate varsity experience. Walsh saw the wait as a positive thing. “I was able to get a handle on things. Holly is really good and she pushed me to compete. She is a big role model for me.” Parker currently plays for USC. 

Looking on the bright side

This year the team didn’t have the season they expected. Admitting that the pressure to keep their undefeated streak alive and win every game “sometimes sucked,” Walsh still sees the her final high school season’s glass as half full. “We overcame obstacles and ended on a positive note,” she says. When asked what she will miss most about leaving LBHS she doesn’t hesitate. “The girls,” she answers emphatically. “They’re like a second family to me now.”

Not afraid to go for her dreams

With her high school days winding down, Walsh can look ahead to a summer filled with “a bunch of different trainings.” And while getting to Stanford checked the box for one of her dreams, there is another one, an even bigger one, out there waiting. “Making the Olympic team is one of my biggest goals right now,” she says. Currently, there are three banners hanging at the LBHS pool in honor of the three LBHS water polo players who became Olympians. Here’s hoping Walsh can make it four.


Corwin Allard (10), calm and confident kid extraordinaire, is a TV and baseball star

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

There’s never been a more dauntless and collected kid than Corwin Allard in my view. During our conversation, I was tempted to ask his mother if she’s certain that he’s not really a small adult masquerading as a ten-year-old. Corwin juggles two demanding pursuits, as a TV actor and as an award-winning pitcher on Big West BPA Travel Baseball Team, while at the same time maintaining straight As in his fourth-grade subjects at Top of the World Elementary. 

All these responsibilities would put even an adult into a tizzy, but Corwin handles them as if it’s life as usual. And for him, it is. Nothing ruffles him, it seems. Just the weekend before, his Travel Baseball Team won the Big West 10U Elite DI Triple Crown Spring Championship Arizona Tournament (a three-day national tournament). 

But he had no time to rest on his laurels.

On the road again

After the tournament ended on Sunday at 6:30 p.m., he and his parents, Chris and Diane Allard, packed up and rushed back to Laguna, arriving after 12:30 a.m. With only time for a quick bit of shuteye, he and his mom then got back on the road at 6:30 a.m. for an 8:30 a.m. call for a guest shot on the finale of the long-running (nine seasons) ABC sitcom, The Middle.Whew!

How he got started on this-fast paced acting track began with a much younger Corwin sitting in front of the television watching live action shows on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, and deciding, “I can do that.” It appears that once he sets his mind to something, it happens.

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With the support of his parents, Chris and Diane, Corwin does it all

Soon after, he got an agent (he still has the same agent and manager). He then appeared in the 2014 movie, All I Want for Christmas, in 2017 as Decker Jr in the Cartoon Network series Decker, and then as Peter Gardiner, neighbor to the Huang family in the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat.

“What television series would you most like to be on?” I ask.

“Stranger Things,” he says. “It never gets old. I’ve watched it over and over again.”

Even though Stranger Things is obviously not a comedy, Corwin admits that, as an actor, comedy is his favorite genre. And some funny unscripted things have happened on set.

“What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened during filming?” I ask.

“During a Firestone Tire commercial, my fake mom was in the car, and she was supposed to pop out of the sunroof with a cake and a piñata, but she spilled the cake all over the windshield and ruined the piñata.” Retake!

Fun on the set

Recently, Corwin finished filming his role as Ben Rogers in The Adventures of Thomasina Sawyer, the story of Tom Sawyer told from a female perspective. The movie was made by USC film grad students and is currently in post-production. 

When you get a bunch of kids together, interesting things occur, it seems.  “Anything weird ever happen during filming?” I ask.

“During a break in filming The Adventures of Thomasina, my friend Jaden was eating a donut, and we were called back on set, and he said his line while chewing the donut.” Another retake?

Jaden has turned out to be a friend Corwin sees outside of acting, though sometimes, as Diane says, “They might be up for the same part.”

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A ring on every finger, Corwin sports his many baseball rings

“Are you ever nervous or get stage fright?” I ask him.

“No,” he says. 

Diane adds, “He doesn’t when he pitches and plays baseball either.”

Without a doubt, “unflappable” is a good quality for both acting and baseball.

Although there are no actors in his family, there must be a sprinkling of performance and athletic genes in Corwin’s makeup. Dad Chris played volleyball on scholarship for USC and went on to play on the AVP (Association of Volleyball Professionals) and MPVA (Midwest Professional Volleyball Association) tours for over 10 years before settling into a management role within the corporate world.

From fitness/figure competitions, Diane segued into a UFC sponsored infomercial and marketing program promoting a set of instructional workout DVDs featured in Shape magazine. A few years back, she also appeared on The Price is Right with Corwin’s older brother, Blake, 22, who is a guitarist with the band Joyous Wolf. 

It’s a big age difference, but brothers still fight, don’t they? 

“There’s not that much to fight about,” Corwin says.

Diane adds. “And they’re both very mature.”

Corwin recalls memories of playing chess, Banjo 1996, and video games on his first Xbox with his brother.

Now Corwin plays the interactive baseball video game “MLB The Show 18” with his baseball coach, Pac Gutierrez, which apparently is helping Corwin with his game. Not only is he a star pitcher, he plays third base as well.

Baseball treasures

Although Corwin’s room is filled with baseball memorabilia, there are two things (or rather 38 things) he’s especially proud of; his 10 baseball championship rings —awarded for being either tournament champions or finalists (second place) — and his 28 bats. “None of the bats are wood,” Corwin says. “You can’t use those until college.”

With all that’s going on, one wonders if there is anything typical about his life. Well, his fourth-grade class studied Missions (haven’t fourth graders been doing this forever), and his San Pedro Mission was made of colored beans. But, what’s not typical, is that to maintain his grades, when he’s filming, he works with a teacher for three hours a day between takes. His favorite subjects are math and history. 

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A roomful of baseball memorabilia

Along with school, either of his pursuits would keep any kid and his parents hopping. Yet the family appears to seamlessly interweave these two demanding activities. 

If there is a baseball tournament, “We book-out with the agent, so he won’t schedule any auditions for him,” Diane says. “Sometimes he does have to miss baseball practice because of auditions and call backs, but then on weekends, he puts in the work.”

The logistics of two demanding pursuits

Of course, none of this could be accomplished without the support of his parents. The logistics of keeping all these tops spinning requires a substantial amount of planning and driving. Traveling to auditions (which can involve multiple auditions with directors, producers, and writers for one part), and then back again for callbacks isn’t unusual. 

(And that’s not even factoring in the anxiety of waiting for callbacks and “an avail,” which is the step after a callback to determine the actor’s availability.)

Further, by the very nature of being on a Travel Baseball Team, there’s a lot of traveling involved with that too. Sometimes acting and baseball very nearly conflict, but the Allards seem to work that out. On one occasion, they had to leave a baseball tournament in Hacienda Heights to go for an acting call back, but returned for the next game, picking right up where they left off.

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Ready to swing

On March 31, Corwin and his parents were off to the USSSA (the national governing body for elite level players) All-American Showcase in Santee. It was the national tryouts for the Far West Region, in which 25 top elite players are chosen to compete in Florida during the summer. 

Diane reports, “The showcase for the USSSA All-American went very well, we think Corwin definitely has a good chance of making the team! We will not know for sure until June 21. We do know that Corwin had the highest corner infield velocity (60 mph) out of the entire Far West region (which included kids from the Mesa district, the Mira Loma district and the San Diego district) for his work at third base. He also had the second highest fastball pitch speed (58 mph) out of the district that he tried out in (San Diego).”

As competitive as Corwin is, it’s apparent there’s no competition between acting and baseball in his mind. He says, “I want to be a professional baseball player.” His favorite baseball player is José Altuve.

No limits in the future

Whatever he decides, the sky is the limit for Corwin, whether it be acting or baseball (or maybe there will be a third or fourth endeavor). Undaunted, this multi-talented kid extraordinaire can handle it all. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he one day appears on his favorite television series, since once Corwin sets his mind to something, it materializes. 

Stranger things have happened.


A Life Rewritten: How a devastating diagnosis has put 

Summer Tarango’s future into sharper focus

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photography by Mary Hurlbut

Last July, Summer Tarango’s life looked fulfilling, at least from the outside. She was the operations manager at zpizza, a satisfying job she’d held for 14 years. She owned her own catering company. Her relationship with longtime boyfriend, Ed Benrock (a drummer for Jamestown Revival), stood on solid ground. Summer had a posse of good friends, two close sisters, and a strong bond with her mother. “I was happy,” Summer says, looking back. “But nothing was exciting. I was going through the motions.” 

Summer and Ed celebrated the Fourth of July weekend with a bike ride in Austin, Texas. She admits to some trepidation, but – true to her nature – Summer seemed up for anything, and didn’t want to put a damper on the day by confessing any fears. 

The ride ended with a bad fall. Summer suffered a significant laceration on her forehead and a banged-up knee, though nothing that time and stitches shouldn’t resolve. As the months wore on, however, the knee didn’t heal. Doctors suspected an infection. 

When Summer discovered a lump in her armpit, they feared the infection had spread. Afraid to pierce the lump and risk spreading it further, they waited…and waited, treating her with antibiotics. Nothing improved. Finally, before sending Summer off to an infectious disease specialist, her doctor performed a biopsy to rule out anything significant. They weren’t worried, they said, but they wanted to cover their bases.

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Smiling Summer presents a pretty picture worthy of her name

As Summer sat alone in a parking lot on her way to work the Friday before Thanksgiving, the call came. Summer, at 42 years of age, had stage 3C triple-negative breast cancer – and it was aggressive. Further testing revealed she also had the BRCA mutation. Treatment, she was told, could not wait. Within two weeks, Summer had begun her first round of chemotherapy.

A triple-negative diagnosis and the BRCA gene mutation

Triple-negative breast cancer is more common in younger patients, and more common still in women with the BRCA gene. The three typical receptors that fuel breast cancer – estrogen, progesterone, and the HER-2 gene – are not present in these types of tumors. The result is that common treatment methods – hormone therapy and other drugs – that target those receptors can’t be used. This cancer tends to be more aggressive, though still responsive to chemotherapy.

A BRCA mutation is a change in either of two genes – BRCA1 or BRCA2 – that prevents that gene from working properly. Both BRCA1 and BRCA2 are tumor suppressor genes. Summer is the only woman in her family with the mutation.

All this adds up to a complicated diagnosis, and a long and grueling treatment plan utilizing a combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. That would be difficult for any patient to hear. For Summer, coming from a background rooted in holistic medicine, her choice was made even harder.

Mother of all healing

Summer’s mother, Vijaya Stern, teaches and practices Ayurvedic medicine in Laguna Beach. Ayurveda is one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems, developed approximately 5,000 years ago in India. It’s based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a delicate balance between the mind, body, and spirit. 

“When the soul is hindered by the divisive nature of the ego, ‘dis-ease’ begins to manifest,” says Vijaya Stern on her website, www.livingrasa.com. 

Vijaya has studied this ancient healing practice since the late 1970s, when Summer was a toddler. At her Living Rasa studio, she offers healing, yoga, classes, and retreats. Vijaya’s patients are treated with herbs, not pharmaceutical drugs. Health is managed with diet, meditation, yoga, and other natural practices. 

Western medicine – particularly aggressive and invasive treatments like chemotherapy – is obviously in direct opposition to Ayurveda’s philosophy. Even the antibiotics Summer took for that initial knee infection were her first experience with Western medicine. Vijaya’s beliefs are clear: “Ayurveda sees all of creation as the Mother herself.” 

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Summer finds meditation calming, and combines Western and holistic/ayurvedic approaches to help her heal

“Going through chemo is not what she would have wanted [for me],” Summer says. “I told her, This is what I’m doing, and you have to accept my choice. She does, but she struggles with it.”

Summer’s diagnosis has been an amazing teacher for both mother and daughter, she says. “I thought we were so close, and we are, but we’re getting challenged. I don’t invite her to chemo. I can’t expect her to watch that happen. But I’ve found the places where she can be of assistance: dietary help, or just giving me attention and love.”

East meets west

Summer is embracing both ends of the medical spectrum on her journey to recovery. Perhaps that’s not uncommon. But, in Summer’s case, it feels a bit more urgent and necessary. She draws strength from her mother’s practice, following a strict diet as best she can, incorporating yoga and other spiritual practices. 

Summer works with an integrative medicine specialist, receiving Vitamin C infusions, weekly B12 shots, and other alternative supplements and strategies. She uses an app called “Insight Timer” for guided meditations and relaxing music, which I went home to download and now use myself. 

But she’s also enduring the debilitating rounds of chemotherapy (including a particularly aggressive regimen of a drug called “The Red Devil,” which is even worse than it sounds). And she’s planning ahead for a future full of more chemo, radiation, and surgery. 

“When I was diagnosed my first thought was, I’m going to be so inspirational to people. I’m going to show everyone how to cook. I’m going to stick to the Keto diet my doctor wants me on. I was going to show everyone how you can be so amazing during cancer. But chemo kicked my ass. Most days, I’m just trying to get any food in,” Summer says.

“Now I’m giving myself some grace. That plan didn’t happen, and it’s okay. I’m getting out of bed, getting dressed, and saying ‘yes’ to things. Just getting through is a victory.”

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Summer finds comfort in the natural beauty surrounding her mother’s home

As Summer tells this story, I find her authenticity far more inspirational than her original plan. Strength in the face of crisis takes many different forms, and “success” has shifting definitions. Discovering our limitations, accepting them with grace, and finding new ways to accommodate them…that strikes me as success.

A healing circle: the defining moment

About a month back, Vijaya held a healing circle for Summer. Thirty two women spanning several generations (from their 30s to their 70s), some close to Summer and some close to her mother, gathered in Vijaya’s home. They shared their hopes for her, as well as their observations of how Summer impacts their lives.

One friend told Summer she was the chain in their friendship necklace, gathering beads of women and stringing them together to create something unique and beautiful. “It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever experienced,” Summer says.

A friend of Vijaya’s performed Reiki, a Japanese practice that promotes physical wellbeing through the laying on of hands, using touch to activate the body’s natural healing process. “Because of the Reiki, I was so incredibly present,” says Summer. She describes the music, the incense, the whipping of an eagle feather over her head, transporting herself back to the moment as she’s describing it.

“I’d never been that present in my life,” she says. “Six months ago, I don’t know if I could have taken that in. Now I was able to look in every woman’s eyes and listen. Before, I would have been self-deprecating. Now I need it. I need the love and energy. How else will I get through this?”

It’s clear, in our time together, that this moment marked a defining change in Summer’s life. “I didn’t know an experience like this existed,” she said. “And now I want more. I want to live in that moment.” 

Meaningful conversations: A Soulful Project

Summer also wants more meaningful conversations. Before her diagnosis, she’d been working with Summer Meek from Soul Project on ways to forge deeper connections with women. Summer is part of what she laughingly calls a coven – 13 girlfriends whom she’s carefully strung on her friendship chain. 

The dinners are intended to gather women together for meaningful discussions about soulful topics. In other words, not your typical ladies-night-out-wine-and-gossip. It’s a chance to be real with each other – vulnerable, authentic, and honest.

Summer looks forward to the day when she’s strong enough to make those dinners happen. In the meantime, she stays close to her coven. The women all show up for her in different and important ways. I ask how her diagnosis has changed her relationships with friends. “It’s just exaggerated things that were already there,” she says. For the good and the bad.

Summer’s Backyard Barbecue

In the meantime, before the Soul Project dinners and intense conversations, Summer is celebrating life with a Backyard Barbecue intended to raise money for her treatments. On Sunday, May 20 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., friends, family and anyone interested can join in at the Blinking Owl Distillery in Santa Ana. Ed’s band, Jamestown Revival, will play. Nirvana Grille will support the event (Summer’s sister, Lindsay, is the chef and co-owner of Nirvana). 

To learn more about how to attend or participate, visit www.youcaring.com/summertarango-1171518.

A life being lived, a story being rewritten

Not every narrative has an easy ending, and Summer’s story is still in progress, a new page written each day. There are a lot of unknowns. But there are also a few beautiful certainties. 

“I don’t see the point of working my way through this just to go back to a mundane life. What’s the point?” she says. “This is really hard. Chemo is hard. Here’s the chance to work through relationships, create the life I want, and explore my wildest dreams. What brings me deep joy? How can I bring these experiences that I’ve had to other women? I won’t finish this and go back to life as it was. I’m already seeing glimpses of it. It already looks totally different.”

Now and again, life forces us into a wormhole. Challenges arise that push us through some painful portal that changes us forever. Looking back from the other side – 

with the perspective gained from an intense experience, instead of the inevitable slow roll of time – our old lives can almost seem unrecognizable. Call it wisdom, call it personal growth, call it a gift. Not everyone gets it. 

It’s not easy to learn vicariously through others’ obstacles. But it’s worth reminding ourselves to pay attention, and to stop accepting the status quo if it’s no longer serving us. Other ways of living are within reach, if only we’re willing to stretch ourselves, take risks, and seize opportunities. That seemed to be the lesson embedded in Summer’s story. 

As Summer faces life’s biggest question – What’s the point? – I’m certain she won’t stop until she finds her answer. In many ways, maybe she already has.


Larry Ricci: Embedded in Laguna’s LGBTQ culture, then and now

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

During the time Larry Ricci owned his interior design firm, he was known as the “Spaceman,” because when he walked into a space, he knew, “It’s my canvas, I see what it’s going to be, and I execute it.”

Odd, and yet an apt nickname. In 1972, when he came to Laguna Beach, it’s as if he decided this would be the space, the canvas upon which he was going to design and build his life; one that included being an artist, musician, singer, songwriter, producer, original member of the Board of Directors for the Orange County Chapterof ISID, original board member of The Heritage and Culture Committee, and founder of Club Q. (And more endeavors that he didn’t get around to talking about during our interview.)

Creation of Club Q

We meet at Susi Q, where almost five years ago, he presented the idea of a club for LGBTQ seniors, a now thriving group, Club Q, whose slogan is, “A social club for the LGBTQ community and friends.” 

When I first interviewed Larry, a year ago, a monumental event had just taken place, one that affected him deeply. On May 9, 2017, the Laguna Beach City Council proclaimed June as LGBT Heritage and Culture Month. Larry says that as the last sentence of the proclamation was read, “Forever the month of June is recognized as LGBT month…” it was very emotional. The forever did it for him. “It was the first time I felt respected for who I am instead of being discriminated against for who I am.” 

And it’s apparent the words still resonate with him. He’s been waiting to hear them for a long time.

Arriving in Laguna Beach in 1972

Larry landed in Laguna after moving from his birthplace, Seattle, WA, to Huntington Beach in 1971, arriving here a year later. “This is where I came out in my adult gay life,” he says. “I met all these wonderful people and a huge community and within it, magnificent art and artists.” During the 1970s and 1980s, he was very involved in the art world and knew most of the LGBTQ artists. 

Recently, he found a way to celebrate them, with the first exhibition to feature art provided by LGBTQ artisans, “Harmony Art Exhibit.” 

Larry says, “I approached Susi Q when I knew the exhibit’s theme would be harmony, peace and unity. A lot of LGBTQ artists certainly helped shape the art culture in Laguna Beach. The idea was extremely well accepted by Susi Q and Gallery Q. The exhibit will feature current pieces, as well as historical works, from LGBTQ artists in the community. I was able to acquire many pieces from the 1960s forward to honor those decades in which the LGBTQ artists really did help shape the art colony as it exists today.” 

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Larry gets snacks ready for Club Q’s Movie Day

Scheduled in conjunction with Laguna’s Pride Month, “Harmony Art Exhibit” will be presented by Gallery Q at Susi Q (in the multi-purpose room) from May 7 - June 29, with the official reception on Friday, May 11 from 5 - 6:30 p.m. 

Three pieces from Larry’s own collection – by artists Pegi Wear, Barbara Brown, and Orlando Botero – will be included in the exhibit. His close friends, Wear and Brown (who are both now deceased), owned Contemporary Arts Gallery on the corner of Myrtle and PCH (the A-frame building) in the 1970s. Larry admits he drove by there not long ago, and thought, “Well, girls, we have one more show to do.”

Time now measured in decades

“I talk of time now in decades,” Larry says. And admittedly, he’s done quite a lot in over four of them.

During the ‘80s, he painted abstract mixed-media pieces that were shown in two galleries. As if that’s not enough, every Friday and Saturday for four years in the mid-‘80s, Larry and Jim Harding performed at Main Street Café, which was a piano bar at the time, sporting a grand piano, no less. Larry played the piano and sang, and Jim played the bass guitar and sang. “We did cover music from the ‘80s and some of my original songs,” Larry says. “I can still picture the crowd around the piano.”

In the ‘90s, he was a production designer on a short film and a feature film (for which he wrote the title song). 

For 25 years, he owned an interior design firm in Corona del Mar, and traveled all around the country designing: shopping malls, gourmet markets, funeral homes, retirement homes, yachts, and corporate buses. He freelanced for another 10 years after that, and while on a lengthy assignment in Alabama, he owned a 26,000 square foot Antique Mall and Consignment store. He now consults, proving true the adage he relates, “Designers never quit, they die.”

Stepping away as facilitator of Club Q

Now he’s embarking on yet another chapter. As of June 1, the fifth anniversary of Club Q, Larry has decided to “step away” from his position as full time facilitator. “Due to new commitments with work responsibilities,” he says. “It was an extremely difficult decision to make, because I’ve had this up and running for five years. And having been its founder, it’s hard to let go.”

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Club Q Movie Day, the third Friday of each month

Larry explains the plan for Club Q after he steps aside, “There have been multiple conversations and networking with other LGBTQ organizations. Three other groups, Shanti OC, LGBTQ Center OC, and the LGBTQ Heritage and Culture Committee, will be involved in upcoming gatherings of the Club. In co-partnering with these other organizations and services, each will take over one of the designated time periods a month. We have the first and third Friday afternoons of the month, and these groups will be woven in at these times to bring in more people. They will rotate in on the first Friday, and the third Friday will still be Club Q movie day. Susi Q will facilitate until a new steering committee is created.” 

He says of the new format, “It’s the arms and fingers of five years of networking, bringing these organizations in to Susi Q to be with LGBTQ family and friends.”

The Club Q members look forward to new and exciting adventures with Club Q, but, of course, they will miss the leadership they had with Larry. 

And, yes, he will still be part of Club Q, but as a member.

A time of celebration, a time of sorrow

The more one learns about Laguna’s rich gay culture of the past 40 plus years, the more it appears to embody periods of absolute joy or absolute grief. As described by Larry, it was a dizzying and dazzling life in Laguna in the ‘70s, a mecca of energy and artistry, and then came the impenetrable sorrow of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Larry recalls those times, “In 1984, along with Ed Smith, Jim Reed, and Rick Hernandez, we put on a musical review in Jim Reed’s house from 11 p.m. to midnight and raised $26,000 as seed money for AIDS Services Foundation (ASF). The next year, we held it at the Woman’s Club and raised $100,000 for ASF. We skipped a year, and then in 1987, we raised $150,000 for them.”

An unforgettable walk

On December 1, 2017, I had the privilege of going on an unforgettable walk with Larry and members of Club Q to the police station to deliver toys for Spark of Love, and then to Main Beach for the commemoration of World AIDS Day. The day and evening, (which also included Hospitality Night), involved a strange juxtaposition of emotions. In the amount of time it took to reach the cobblestones at the beach, joy melded into sadness, as Larry and Ric Uggs related the stories of what it was like back then. 

Larry said, “I’ll never forget that 10-15 years of constant loss. In the early 1980s, we worried when someone said they weren’t feeling well. Because it seemed to happen quickly after that. They’d be gone in 30, 60 or 90 days. I was in the interior design business and many of design shops closed because the proprietors died. We’re here to celebrate those lives and grieve their deaths.”

Attendees at the ceremony were asked to write the names of friends and family members who died from AIDS on small pink hearts. 

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On June 1, Larry steps away as Club Q facilitator

Visibly shaken, Larry told me, “I started writing down the names of my friends, and I got to six, and I couldn’t go on. Back when they started dying, and the number got to 30, I said I don’t know what to do. A friend gave me some good advice. ‘Larry, stop counting.’”

Then a group of four people read the names of those who died, and a small bell rang after each name. And then the moderator asked for people to call out the names of those they knew who hadn’t been mentioned. Between Larry and Ric, they called out another 30 or more names. 

“These were sons, children, husbands, and wives. It’s not just a gay disease and never was,” Larry said.

Since 1972, Larry has both lived as part of and been witness to the LGBTQ culture in Laguna, a historian of the times. And his achievements – the founding of Club Q and now the co-partnering with other LGBTQ organizations, the first exhibition of LGBTQ art, and his role as one of the original board members of the Heritage Culture Committee – speak to the multifaceted life he’s led, the joy and grief of it all. 

In every case, he saw what could be, and he made it happen.


Pastor Rod Echols: Raised in Memphis, he loves Laguna and the Neighborhood Congregational Church

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Just when Pastor Rod Echols decided he was ready to become a full time pastor, Laguna’s Neighborhood Congregational Church reached out to him. “I was approached by this church right when I started my search,” recounts Pastor Rod. Not intimately familiar with Laguna Beach, Pastor Rod says it did check one of his non-negotiable boxes: it was in southern California. So he did some research. “I started looking into the community. It was so strong, so progressive...It was evolving onto everything I wanted to be as a pastor. I was honored to be hired.” 

Finding the right place to make a big change

Now, with almost a year of full-time ministry behind him, Pastor Rod is nothing if not enthusiastic about the future. “I feel, especially being so new in my role, like a kid in a candy store.” He has embraced the city’s quirks, and is delighted to be in a community that is so close-knit. “I’ve never served in a town like Laguna. It’s a town that values conservation, healthy living; it has strong connections and values. You can feel it here; it’s so strong. I really love that.”

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Pastor Rod Echols of the Neighborhood Congregational Church

Finding it easy to honor his mother’s wishes

Pastor Rod is a member of the United Church of Christ (UCC). The UCC is a mainline Protestant Christian denomination. It is known for being socially progressive with an emphasis on interfaith efforts. As for how he came to be a pastor, he says with a laugh, “I was toldI was going to be a pastor.” Raised in Memphis, Echols says his mother had plans for her son. Those plans included him being part of the church, albeit a different church than the one he represents now, and not just as member of the congregation. It didn’t take long for his mother’s wishes to take root. “I had the desire very early,” he recalls. 

Leaving Memphis for Brown University

Another one of his mother’s wishes was that he seize his opportunities. This meant leaving Memphis to attend Brown University in Rhode Island. Echols originally planned on becoming a doctor. However, once there he says his eyes were opened to a wider world-view. All of this newness profoundly affected him. “There were so many different people and beliefs. I found myself going back to where I started.” He became an informal, in-house pastor to his fellow classmates, and this planted the seed. 

Seeing religion through a new lens

What helped the seed flourish were some of Echols’ professors at Brown. “They blew my mind,” he remembers. “They exploded the categories. Christ, salvation, love, grace…they made them more inclusive, more colorful.” This inspired him to go to Boston University for graduate school where he received a Master of Divinity. “Without them, without their persistence – and it was very strong persistence – I would not be here now,” he says with a laugh.

Despite his faith and the calling to serve, Echols’ paying job was that of a professional fundraiser. He has worked for universities and non-profits, like the United Way. A job with the University of California San Diego brought him west. 

Seeking counsel to take a very big step

Then he had an epiphany, of sorts. “In 2010 I shared my heart with the pastor at Fairview Church in Costa Mesa,” he says. He had been a volunteer pastor there for many years. “I opened up to her and expressed my feelings and my story to her. I started as a conservative, fundamentalist, black preacher and had become an open, affirming man of faith.” And he wanted to preach. “I knew my calling was to make this step.”

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Inside the lovely Neighborhood Congregational Church at 340 St. Ann’s Drive

A love for something greater, kindness and social justice

He believes he is well-suited to make an impact as a church leader because of his focus on three things: one is a “proactive” commitment to loving and worshipping something greater than one’s self; the second is a focus on kindness; and the third is a fierce belief in social justice. “I feel strongly for people who don’t have the built-in advantages that other people have. People of color, the homeless, the LGBQT community…I want to help people searching for wholeness. These are the things that drew me into being a pastor as opposed to staying where I was.”

These tenets of his belief fuel his ambitions for the Neighborhood Congregational Church. “I want this church to be an indispensable part of the community. I want our kids to have a safe place for nurturing. Here, we are seeking wisdom together.”

The World Peace and Justice Weekend, June 9-10

To that end, the weekend of June 9 and 10, the church is hosting its first World Peace and Justice weekend. Pastor Rod describes the weekend as “an embodiment of seeking wisdom. It’s active. You are embodying peace in action.” There will be interfaith dialogue and meditation, a hands-on justice initiative and a concert benefitting world causes, as well as a presentation on compassionate parenting.

A deep gratitude for his parents

Pastor Rod speaks devotedly about his own parents. “My mom is so proud of me. Her strong faith is now my strong faith. Her passion for helping others is my passion, Her kind soul is what I’m trying to be for the church,” he says. He is equally grateful to his father. “He has been a real rock for me. He is my practical guide. He has been so tremendous.” Pastor Rod hopes to pass on their example to his own family someday, but first he needs to find the right woman. And it would be a plus if she loved IMAX movies and comic books, as he does, though it’s certainly not a requirement.

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Historic plaque welcomes congregants to the Neighborhood Congregational Church

Making the NCC a vibrant part of the community

In the meantime, Pastor Rod will put his considerable energy into growing the Neighborhood Congregational Church and making it a vibrant part of the community.

When I ask him to describe the United Church of Christ he says this, “An old pastor friend of mine used to tell this joke: UCC stands for Unitarians Considering Christ.’” Pastor Rod insists that it’s funny (my religious ignorance made glaringly obvious by the fact that he had to assure me of its humor). But he went on to explain that while we could debate the joke’s humor, it was a fairly accurate description of the UCC. 

“It’s not rigid or closed off. It speaks to the idea that Christ is a unifying force. Some call it Buddha, some call it a spirit, some call it light. We call it Christ.” 

This is what Pastor Rod believes. He also believes in the power of his church to be a unifying voice in these fractured times. “What we are seeking to do, our goal, is to orient ourselves as the sacred gathering space for seeking wisdom in Laguna Beach and the wider community,” he explains. An ambitious goal, to be sure, but one to which Pastor Rod is committed.


By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

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Ron Reno – 32 years – 1,636 weeks – 10,000 days

As his regulars cross the Andree’s Patisserie threshold, he is already bagging their favorite item.

He greets each customer with a happy grin, and gestures with the bakery bag in hand, filled with flaky goodness. This person always wants a Bear Claw. That one prefers the plain croissant. This one is in for his turkey sandwich (no cheese).

As I step up to the worn counter, it is only my third visit in as many months. Ron eyes me momentarily and says, “You’re the decaf Au Lait with not so much milk, right?” I grin and feel important. Heavens, I think … I drop into a large chain coffee shop in Dana Point at least three times a week, and they still look at me as if I’m a newcomer from Kansas. 

For Ron Reno, sole proprietor of Andree’s Patisserie, this is what running a small town bakery is all about. “I have an appreciation for the people who choose me,” he says. “It’s important that every person who walks in my door knows that.”

For 32 years …1,636 weeks … and nearly 10,000 days, Ron Reno has been mixing, baking and serving his famed pastries and coffee in this Laguna Beach historic location. 

He is, quite literally, chief, cook and bottle washer. On the rare occasions that he’s chosen to take a weeklong vacation or been forced into a 4-week leave for ACL surgery, he simply closes his blue door and attaches a note to its front with the date of his return. 

Ron Reno is, otherwise, the one and only person you will see at Andree’s Patisserie, from 7:35 a.m. to about 2 p.m., every day of the week but Sunday. On Sunday, Ron rests. 

The Bakery With the Robin-Blue Door

Andree’s, with its blue awning in the tiny alley behind what is now Selanne Steak Tavern, has seen thousands of people cross its threshold. Initially, the small bakery was put in place in the 1940s as an auxiliary baking kitchen for the first restaurant that stood in Selanne’s location, Andree’s. Its namesake – the independently minded woman, Andree Davis – believed that every restaurant’s foundation stood upon the quality of its baked goods. While she had an executive pastry chef and staff in place, she was often seen in the bakery’s kitchen herself, mixing up her famed steamed pudding. In 1962, she introduced her bakery to Laguna Beach by officially opening to the public. 

When Ron Reno first heard of Andree’s Patisserie, he was a new graduate in 1979 with a 2-year baking school certification under his arm. Where most people would not wish to engage in an occupation whose workday begins at 4:45 a.m., Ron had quite the opposite opinion.  

“I decided about halfway through college that I wanted to transfer to baking school,” says Ron. “Baking just seemed like a fun thing to do. People are always happy when they come into a bakery. It’s a happy place to be. Who wouldn’t want that job every day?”

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At that time in 1979, one of Ron’s teachers had been moonlighting at the then-downtown Laguna Beach bakery, Renaissance, and hired Ron to take his place at the all-night job. For two years, Ron worked the graveyard shift, endlessly rolling, twisting, pouring and baking every delectable item from donut holes to towering wedding cakes. 

In 1981, Ron heard that the owner of Andree’s Patisserie was looking to retire. He hot-footed it over to the blue awning storefront and agreed, as a term of sale, to learn how to bake the man’s “family recipe” Lemon Squares and Copenhagen Squares. To this day, the lemon squares are offered daily, and the Copenhagen – a puff pastry bottom with rich custard and Danish pastry on top – makes its appearance every Saturday. 

“It’s important to pay respect to a baker’s lineage,” says Ron. “At that point, though, I had developed several of my own favorite recipes so, for the most part, I rolled my program into play. 

“The former owner’s muffins were good,” Ron notes as an example, “But I use buttermilk and honey in my muffins for more moisture and texture. So, it was a combination of carrying the tradition along, and improving on pastry favorites to create my own signature.” 

271 Decadent Pastries & Breads Baked Daily

Every pre-dawn morning, Monday through Saturday, Ron bakes “271 items” for weekdays, and doubles the amount for Saturdays… A variety of muffins. Three kinds of croissants. Three kinds of cookies (Almond Biscotti counts as one). A crowd of Danishes. The inimitable Bear Claw. Elephant Ears. Three kinds of sandwiches, their ingredients piled high inside freshly baked slices of Ron’s secret recipe potato bread. The baked riches neatly stack themselves, shelf upon shelf, readied for another day of happy buyers.   

Longtime fans will call from L.A. to have Ron set their favorite pastry aside. A woman from Brea drives into Laguna Beach to pick up a Bear Claw, and then beelines back to Brea – it is her only stop. Once a week, another woman stops in for a loaf of his potato bread. Ron learns his clients’ schedules and timetables, welcoming clients who troop in for their annual visit from Europe, and prepping 16 sandwiches each workday morning so that they’re ready for his usual crews. 

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Not even recognizing that his thoughtful sandwich prep has now crossed the line into what moms do for their kids on school day mornings, Ron talks about the motherly advice he dispenses (“usually to women”) as they stand before his pastry bins, half-giddy and half-guilt ridden. 

“Sometimes, you just have to walk people through it,” he says with a grin. “This is non-serious food; it’s an indulgence. But sometimes, you just have to assure them that occasional indulgences are good for the soul. 

“There’s nothing like eating a pastry or cookie that was just baked that morning,” he continues. You just owe it to yourself … it’s part of what makes life great.”

“Old Friends” at the Holidays

At the holidays, Ron’s faithful followers spread the love by buying up hundreds of his fabled holiday cookies and pies to share with family, coworkers and friends. 

Freshly baked cutout cookies with thick frosting shoulder their way into the store’s pastry bins at all the major holidays, even the Fourth of July. He creates cookie stacks in cellophane wrap, and they disappear as quickly as they’re bagged and gift-tied.

Even when it’s pie-making season, Ron never resorts to electric appliances or mixers to mix his dough. “The key to great dough is to never over mix,” he says. “I might start with a mixer to create a crumble, but then I work the dough by hand. You have to feel the dough in your hands to get a sense of it. You have to know how “too wet” or “too dry” feels like, and then know how to scale your ingredients in each batch to create that perfect consistency. There’s just no way you can do that with a big commercial mixer,” he says, adding a tiny shrug.

The Always-Changing Movie

Where many Laguna Beach bakeries have been vanquished by larger commercial organizations, and where bakeries everywhere have come to rely on third-party sourcing to fill their daily pastry bins, Ron Reno will continue to wake at 4:00 a.m. and roll his doughs by hand until he’s simply not able to perform the work any longer. 

“I can’t imagine retiring,” he says. “Last year, when I had ACL surgery, I spent four long weeks sitting on my couch, watching each day go by. I’d watch the light change by degrees as it made its way across my backyard until it was dark. I’d go to bed, and I’d get up again to go sit on the couch. It was my own personal Groundhog Day movie.”

“This place …” he gestures to his pastry bins, the window counter with its sentry stools, “This place here in Laguna Beach is the movie I want to see every day of my life.” 

“Laguna Beach offers this unique niche of people who are doing things in a different way,” he continues. “So many people here approach life from a different angle and they’re doing it successfully. They’re interesting …they’re engaged in life … they have great stories to share,” he says. “That’s the movie I get to be a part of every day. I wouldn’t be anywhere else, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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