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Buy Hand: Retail curated with a conscience – and Reddy charm


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Opening a retail business is always a risky venture. Opening a retail business during a lingering recession, the Great Recession, no less, could be considered complete folly. Despite the obvious timing issues, Kavita Reddy opened her shop, Buy Hand, in 2012. “My background is in tech and communications,” she explains. Her complete lack of retail experience, she believes, may have been helpful. “It’s almost better not to know things,” she says with a laugh. If she had known better perhaps she would have decided not to take the leap. “We haven’t regretted it. It has been great,” she says.

Buy Hand becomes a sister act

The “we” Kavita refers to is she and her sister, Vidya Reddy. Vidya joined Kavita as a partner in Buy Hand after moving to Laguna three and a half years ago. The sisters, originally from Canada, bring very different backgrounds (Vidya’s is in healthcare) and perspectives to their shop. These differences seem to be working out remarkably well for them. The store was voted Retail Store of the Year in 2014 by the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce and is rated the number one shopping destination in Laguna by Trip Advisor.

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Sisters Kavita and Vidya Reddy, owners of Buy Hand in Laguna Beach

“Businesses can do good”

 “I always wanted to do something in retail with a social component,” explains Kavita. The store originally featured only American handmade products. Now, the store’s offerings include globally sourced handmade products, in addition to the USA made items. “We believe businesses can do good in the world,” says Vidya. “We were worried about the impact of technology on work so we focused on selling handmade things. Our goal was for our customers to get a cheery, unique gift, but also to know that they are impacting the lives of real people.” 

A new location brings new energy

The sisters moved from their original location to the one they’re currently occupying in February, and they couldn’t be happier. “We are much more part of the community,” says Kavita. “The space has a great energy; it’s very synergistic. It highlights and showcases the things so well and that makes me happy. The pieces have soul. You can feel that here.”

The sisters share a synergistic partnership

The synergy extends to the sisters’ partnership as well. “We’re best friends,” says Vidya of her relationship with Kavita. “We bring two different skill sets to the table. If she digs in her heels I defer and she does the same for me. We respect each other’s talents.” “I don’t think I’d be doing this with anybody else but my sister,” adds Vidya.

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Kavita and Vidya Reddy show off some of their handmade items

They also respect each other’s taste. Kavita says some of her favorite things are the handmade knit kids’ items prominently displayed in the front of the store. “It brings a cheeriness to the store,” says Kavita. Vidya, on the other hand, is passionate about jewelry and gemstones. Coming from an Indian background, Vidya says, “Jewelry is in my blood!” She is particularly passionate about the healing powers of gemstones. “I really want to emphasize that,” she says emphatically. Both sisters make jewelry for the store. “We make a lot of jewelry!” exclaims Vidya. 

Embracing – and being embraced by – the community

Since moving to their new space, the sisters have been wholeheartedly embraced by the community. Neighbors pop in while walking their dogs to say hello. “That’s my favorite thing,” says Vidya enthusiastically. “I love it when your neighbor drops in and says, ‘I heard you had a headache yesterday. How are you doing?’ That’s the community I was looking for.”

A global holiday party with The Peace Exchange

In support of that community, Vidya and Kavita are partnering with Katie Bond, founder of The Peace Exchange, during Art Walk on December 7 for a global holiday party. “Katie walked into the store and we knew we were kindred spirits,” says Kavita.

The party will be at Buy Hand and all proceeds from fair trade sales on the night of the event will go towards the Peace Exchange’s launching of new endeavors in Bolivia. “The party will be about shopping with good food, music, and a…” Vidya pauses as she searches for the word. “A henna artist!” adds Kavita. The sisters both laugh, “We really do finish each other’s sentences,” says Vidya. 

Meditation? Cooking? Look for it in 2018

One of the things the sisters love most about their new space is the charming back patio. Vidya, who studied Ayurveda in India, says she hopes to use it for things like meditation workshops and cooking classes in the coming year. According to Kavita, Vidya is an excellent cook, specializing in southern Indian fare (most Indian restaurants feature northern Indian food). “I like to feed people,” says Vidya. Stop by the global holiday party and who knows? Maybe you’ll get lucky and be able to sample some of Vidya’s cooking.

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Looking for items that tell stories

While the Reddy sisters will be delighted to see you (whatever your motivation to visit the store) their hope is that once there, you find something you like. “People who come into Buy Hand are buying stories. They get to know the process and the inspiration behind every piece,” explains Kavita. Vidaya adds, “We are drawn to things that evoke a feeling.”

Seeing Laguna for all its charms

A resident with her husband since 2010 when they moved from Irvine, Kavita says she was thrilled by the views and the physical beauty of her new hometown, but it took opening her shop for her to fully appreciate Laguna’s subtler charms. 

“When I moved here I didn’t realize how special Laguna was…After being in business for these past years, I can say that it’s a joy to have a shop in this town even if it took me a while to appreciate it.”  

Vidya’s response to Laguna was more immediate. “I fell in love with it the moment I got here,” she says emphatically. Buy Hand reflects the sisters’ commitment to each other, to Laguna and to the artists they represent. “Ours is a purposeful shop,” says Vidya. “A big thank you to Laguna for giving us such a great place to work and live.”

Steve Bramucci, author/traveler/teacher: His favorite adventures are misadventures


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Steve Bramucci clowns around in front of a combined class of 64 third and fourth graders at Anneliese School, discussing his new children’s book The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo, which was released on August 1 and published by Bloomsbury. 

During a slide show, a picture flashes onto the screen of a five or six-year-old kid wearing a phantom mask and a red cowboy hat. He has the look of a little boy who always has stories on his mind, tales of adventures and pirates and swashbuckling. 

Steve says to the attentive children, “This wasn’t unusual, this is how I dressed for school. I’m wearing a mask, it’s Monday.”

One man in his time plays many parts

Not surprisingly, this boy grew up to be a man who claims, “My favorite adventures are misadventures.” And as a testament to this, his resume has grown considerably since his mask wearing days. A born storyteller, he’s added author, travel and food writer, adventurer, teacher, surfer, husband and soon to be dad to the list. 

Truth be told, he could also add standup comedian and master of accents (British for Jeeves the butler in the book, and pirate-speak) to his qualifications. He’s an expert at both.

Steve keeps the diminutive crowd vacillating between laughter and awe as he tells stories of a confrontation with a flesh-eating Komodo Dragon (“It’s a bad idea to fall asleep on an island of dragons,” he warns), blood-seeking bats (looking for a mosquito meal) that flew into each other over his head as he slept, and how he spent a day with a lioness. He loves exotic animals and endangered species, especially orangutans (a portion of his book sales is donated to saving them). The students hang on his every word. 

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Steve mesmerizes class of third and fourth graders at Anneliese

Standing in front of a class of children isn’t new to Steve. His self-proclaimed, “Favorite school on the planet,” he taught at Anneliese School off and on for 15 years and even lived with Anneliese for six of those, leaving for periods of time to travel and then returning to teach. One of those trips lasted 13 months.

But how he ended up at Anneliese is an experience on its own. 

Steve graduated from UCSD and spent a year teaching in New York, arriving there only three days before Sept 11, 2001. 

On the cross-country-trek back to the West Coast, he bought a VW station wagon and was sleeping in it. He’d always wanted to go to the Sundance Film Festival, so he stopped in Utah. In freezing weather, at 5 a.m. in the morning, he spotted a woman waiting alone in front of a theater. Turns out she was a scout for the NB Film Festival and also the director of the older grades at Anneliese. With no real plan of coming here, he got a job at Anneliese. 

“No matter where you are, life can be an adventure,” Steve says. And he’s living proof of that. “There are always little seeds being planted in your head, and these seeds can be part of the story you tell. The greatest gift a teacher can ever give you is a blank piece of paper.”

And evidently these seeds have been accumulating for some time in Steve’s head, since many have blossomed into elements of his book.

The main character Ronald Zupan is a daring swashbuckler, though he hasn’t really had any faraway expeditions until he sets out for Borneo to rescue his parents. And there are pirates, and orangutans, and mosquitoes. Sound familiar?

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Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo

Steve’s parents were both adventurous, but in dissimilar ways. Steve’s life started out in Portland, OR, with a mother (also a teacher) who sometimes wound up getting lost on hikes as she led groups of his nephews and nieces. Perhaps that’s why Steve’s drawn to misadventure. 

While on fishing trips, Steve’s dad would tell him, “Go find whatever you can, and it’ll be your pet.” (Steve’s allergic to cats and dogs). On one search, he wrangled a rough-skinned newt. Unfortunately, its skin gives off toxins. On another occasion, he brought home a pregnant snake whose babies ended up slithering down the stairs, so his mother put the kibosh on his pet adoption phase.

Surfing, jumping off cliffs, and rowing down the Mekong River

Beyond bringing home the random off-beat pet, what Steve loved most while growing up, were comics with pirates who swung on ropes, hopping from crocodile to crocodile, so he translated that into traveling around the world, surfing (his favorite adventure), jumping off cliffs and swinging on ropes (though not from croc to croc). He has rowed down the Mekong River (twice) in a traditional Vietnamese x’ampan, gone into the outback with Aboriginal elders, and spent four months driving a Nissan Patrol in East Africa. 

He says of his excursions, “You never return home the same as you left.”

Then in 2010, Steve won a travel-writing contest at Trazzler with an article about (what else), a pirates’ graveyard in Madagascar. The monetary prize allowed him to concentrate more time on travel and writing. He has written for National Geographic (books), Afar, Outside, OC Register Magazine, and is the founder of the Life section at Uproxx, an online publication with 20 million unique visitors each month. Currently, as his fulltime job, Steve works as the food and travel editor for Uproxx.

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Steve imitates swashbuckler swinging on a rope 

Adventure is stock in trade for his two sisters as well. His older sister is a protection officer for women endangered in war zone areas and lives in Central Africa, and his younger sister is a Glaciologist. 

Now to Steve’s biggest adventure of all, he married Nitka, a fifth-grade teacher he met at Anneliese (the ceremony took place at the school), and their first child is due on Oct 24, a boy. Having globe-trotted extensively, Nitka identifies as a traveler as much as he does. Last year they rowed the backwater of the Mekong Delta, and they’ve been on a road trip, and fished in Alaska.

And on this Wednesday afternoon, it’s Nitka’s class that Steve next visits to discuss his book Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo. This audience, besides being a bit older, has just read the book, and the students are ready and willing to ask questions.

An inquisitive audience

One student says, “Why Borneo?” 

Steve responds, “I wanted to have orangutans, and I spend a lot of time in jungles, and I’m proud of how I describe them.”

“Are you happy with how the book turned out in general?” another asks.

“So far, I like it,” Steve says. “I wrote it to please myself.”

And when questioned as to why he wrote it, he explains that he wanted to write books specifically for kids, and one he would have liked to read at eight years old.

In answer to how long it took him to write it, Steve says, “The first 20 pages I wrote in one night and they didn’t change. The rest went through three years of editing and then it took one year for the illustrations and little details. Four years altogether.” He admits that editing is his favorite part of writing. 

Great questions from fifth grade readers.

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Steve Bramucci at home

Steve just returned home from a book launch tour that included Chicago, Wichita, Denver, Portland, Oakland, and San Francisco, sometimes speaking to auditoriums filled with as many 500 children. The appearance at Anneliese is his first in OC. 

He relates one of the most interesting questions while on tour: “Was writing the book hard?”

To which he answered, “It was the most fun difficult thing, and the most difficult fun thing I’ve ever done.”

And Steve likes to amuse himself in the process by adding humorous parts (possibly not evident to everyone). For example, Ronald Zupan says, “At the tender age of five, I crept inside the Zupan Library and devoured my first book, The Collected Plays of William Shakespeare. As my mother, Helen Zupan, once said, ‘The most adventurous people are carnivorous readers.’ She was right, it was a feast of language.”

Later Ronald repeats words from Shakespeare’s plays, as if regurgitating them. 

Shakespeare untamed and a tale of grand adventure

Ronald ends Chapter One with, “The past is prologue. Now, friends, we venture into the vast unknown!” The “what is past is prologue” comes from The Tempest. Later, Ronald worries that his, “Courage isn’t quite screwed to the sticking place.” “Screw your courage to the sticking place,” is a famous line by Lady Macbeth. Steve says there are at least a hundred of these sprinkled throughout the book.

Thankfully, this is not the last readers will see of Ronald Zupan. On October 1 of 2018, the second in a series of four Danger Gang books will be released, Danger Gang and the Island of Feral Beasts, about Fennec foxes. At Christmas, his new book for National Geographic will be released, National Geographic Chapters: Rock Stars, the true stories of extreme climbing adventures. Steve is currently working on The Fixers, the story of a boy and girl who get into terrible situations and try to fix them. 

Danger Gang starts out, “Hello friend, Are you ready for a dazzling tale of grand adventure?” And that it is! But so is the story of its author quite a dazzling tale of grand adventure - and misadventures. And this one is true.

To that five-year-old little boy in the picture whose head was already full of stories, I’d say, “Don’t ever take off that mask, it’s served you well.”

John Gardiner: The poet, performer and perfectionist at the heart of Laguna’s literary life


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

What happens when two language geeks get together at Zinc Cafe on a Thursday afternoon to talk poetry and prose, Shakespeare, the psychedelic sixties, Wallace Stegner’s plagiarism, and more? They swoon over sonnets, argue about punctuation, and get giddy when inventing phrases like “leering moon,” each of them deciding it’s about time the moon be taken to task.

Time spent with John Gardiner – dramatist, teacher, activist, and author of twelve collections of poetry – is like riding a literary tidal wave. At his core, John is a performer, and a perfectionist who has such a love of the written word that it’s hard not to hang on his every one. When John reads his poems aloud, which he loves to do, his voice is a melodic baritone, his language measured and precise, and his enthusiasm infectious. He can’t help himself from stopping every so often to say, “Let me read you another.”

And when he does you can only sit in awed silence, knowing something magical is happening, then and there.

Poetry in motion

“Poetry in an oral art form,” says John. “There’s the page poem and the stage poem. They both have to work.”

John has a voice made for radio and lyrics made for stage. He was trained in opera in an amphitheater in Maine, his tenor rich and deep.

“When you’re on stage you can dance, gyrate, and draw attention to yourself,” he says. “But then it has to work quietly on the page. It can’t be full of sound and fury.”

Making a show of Shakespeare

In addition to performing at local poetry readings, slams and workshops in Laguna Beach for the past two decades, John regularly tours in a music-infused Shakespearian show called “Shakespeare’s Fool.” He teamed up with Jason Feddy. Together they mix rock ’n roll music along with reggae and acoustic based tunes, performing ten songs and ten speeches from the Shakespeare canon.

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John Gardiner reads one of his poems

Shakespeare speaks to John. He has a deep appreciation for not only the language, but the sounds. “Shakespeare invented more than 1,800 words,” John tells me. “Maybe 2,500 words because he invented so many compound nouns.” This was a result of Shakespeare’s desire to avoid obvious rhymes, preferring pleasurable sounds to be subliminal. 

“He put syllable rhymes in the middle of the words, which resulted in a beautiful fluidity,” says John. “Much prettier than consonants and so subtle you’re not aware of it.”

Another technique Shakespeare favored was to use rhythm and meter to drop the endings of words, giving another meaning to the phrase. For example, “To be or not to be. That is the QUEST-ion.” The reader is hardly aware of it but, when read aloud, the emphasis is on the “quest.”

John’s lessons in Shakespeare are so spirited and enthusiastic, I couldn’t help becoming a renewed fan, going home to crack open a volume and re-read a few passages for myself.

From Bard to beards and back again

John took the drug culture of the 1960s seriously. Far more seriously than most Orange County conservatives were willing to give him credit for at the time, finding himself frequently harassed by the police. He was no stranger to hallucinogens. As he writes in his prose poem, “Just Another Strange Night in the 60s” (in which he describes a party in Floriston, Nevada): “Lots of trucks and VW vans out front, mud and ice on the front porch, rock climbing boots, beards, pony tails, granny dresses, patchouli, weed . . . and a bunch of people on varying elevated levels of externally stimulated and chemically altering psychic-cosmic buzzing caps of mind juice.”

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John’s books are available at Laguna Beach Books: He’s working on a third

But, like everything John does, he operated with intention. The drugs were used for a purpose, as opposed to recreation. “Sure, I took large amounts of acid, mescaline, peyote, etc.,” he said in a 2014 interview with the Los Angeles Times, “but I also had one foot firmly planted in the anti-war movement …The last thing in the world I wanted to do was go to the Sunset Strip and jump around elbow to elbow in what can be called a ‘60s acid-head monster mosh pit. That was too much confusion, and I had no interest in it.”

Everything about John is disciplined. He’s neat and particular. His coins are stacked on his desk, his poetry filed in three-ring binders, rewrites of each verse replacing old work, each binder placed chronologically on his shelves. “Writing is discipline,” he tells me. “Never write while you’re stoned.”

The many creative leaves on John’s family tree

John was born in Manhattan Beach in the 1940s. His father had been a fighter pilot in WWII, their relationship not always easy. As he wrote in a poem entitled “Fathers and Sons,” capturing a fictional dream about his father hunting him with a gun, “You missed me daddy-o, so I guess the fight’s still on.”

His parents had six children in less than eight years. John describes them as a “psychedelic Brady Bunch.” The creativity gene has deep roots in John’s family tree. His late brother, Bob Gardiner, was a multi-talented artist, animator, painter and more who won the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1975 for the Claymation film “Closed Mondays.” Everyone in his family, John says, writes and reads.

He also says it was a matriarchal family, crediting the strength of the women for allowing him to become the male mascot for Laguna Beach’s own Women on Words. “I not only love women,” says John. “I like them.”

Angle of Repose revisited

John’s great-grandmother was Mary Hallock Foote, a renowned 19th and 20th century writer of the American old west. She was a prolific storyteller, writing novels, nonfiction, stories and correspondence. Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, for which he won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize, is based directly upon her personal correspondence. While Stegner gained her family’s permission to use an outline of her life on the promise he would disguise her, he used direct passages of her work without giving credit, an act that has tarnished his reputation in the literary community until today.

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John Gardiner’s constant companion, Maddy

Coyote spirit

John tells me his spirit animal is the coyote, reflected in his 2014 collection “Coyote Blues” and numerous references throughout his work. After spending some time with John, this makes sense. The coyote totem, I learn, is “strikingly paradoxical and hard to categorize.” The coyote’s symbolism is associated with a deep magic of life and creation. He’s a teacher of hidden wisdom with a sense of humor. Perfect for John.

From his poem “Coyote Talk #4”: 

“Two coyotes were greeted the same way we seem to greet

Everything natural, mystical, magical—

Kill it or pave it.


With billions of humans, who stands a chance?

Better to rise from this plane and let your wildness roam free.”

There’s long lament in John’s work, a wistfulness for times past and a certain disgust for where things have ended up. His passages echo the sadness of a fading history, the trampling of nature, the risk that technology will subsume creativity, that social media’s ceaseless noise will drown out the quiet beauty of the written word. John is the coyote. The seasoned man of infinite experience and quiet wisdom, standing at the door of a new generation and perhaps wanting to close it. He seems to see ahead to what’s coming for us, and still finds power in the written word, strength in Shakespeare, and beauty in the natural world.

The legacy of language

In looking across the long arc of John’s life, from the generations that came before him, to the brother he lost and the children he never had, there’s a legacy of language, the specific beauty of the creative mind. 

John tells me he regrets never becoming a father. But it strikes me, in poetry, the white space holds just as much meaning as the written word. There’s great power in what’s left unsaid, and beauty in the silence. 

It also seems, in a world weighed down by the burdens of overpopulation, maybe John leaves an even more important legacy behind.

I ask John what his greatest accomplishment has been, his proudest moment. He considers this for a while before saying, “I hope it hasn’t happened yet.” Another nod to the mystical magic of the great unknown.

Lisa Farber: Capturing Laguna’s “Vibe”


Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Lisa Farber, the woman behind “Laguna Beach Vibe,” admits her  “plate is pretty full.” And that is just how she likes it. With her publication being entertainment and events driven, there’s always something for her to see and somewhere for her to go in Laguna which means she is out – a lot. As someone of seemingly boundless energy, this seems to suit her just fine.

A Canadian by birth, Farber has embraced her adopted hometown with gusto. “I was traveling throughout the States,” she remembers. A companion needed some company from Colorado to San Clemente. “I wanted to live somewhere where it was warm,” says Farber. Finding San Clemente “too slow” Farber looked at Laguna. “It was much more vibrant,” she says. 

Taking a risk pays off

Farber got her start in publishing at another local publication. She worked there as the editor-in-chief for five years, learning by experience. Then, she says, “I wanted to control my own destiny.” So in 2014 she took a leap of faith and started “Laguna Beach Vibe.” “It was a risk. I went out on my own and I’m glad I did. It feels good to be a woman-owned publication. And competition is good.”

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Lisa Farber, owner of “Laguna Beach Vibe Magazine”

A one-woman show with some great help

Admitting she had a lot to learn, Farber now feels she’s at a place where she can focus on growth – but only up to a point. She is, after all, a self-described “one woman show.” Farber is responsible for the editorial content, the publication’s Instagram account and all of the ad sales. However, she does enlist help in other areas, crediting Jules Johnson with graphic design and Mikal Belicove with her online engagement. “He wrote the book ‘The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Facebook’ so he knows what he’s doing,” she says with a laugh.

Creating an online presence to complement her mission

While “Laguna Beach Vibe” is a printed take-away publication, Farber has also embraced the digital age. “People who didn’t live in town wanted to get the information so now I have this great online calendar. It always gets updated,” she says enthusiastically. ( While she tries to make sure she covers it all, it’s understandable that every now and then something gets overlooked. When we met she was still smarting over the fact she missed a local skim board contest that was the same weekend as the Brooks Street Classic. “That won’t happen next year,” she says with conviction.

A list of personal favorites

Covering all of the events in Laguna is not easy. For such a small town, there’s a lot going on. Since she rarely misses anything, when asked to list some of her favorites, her answers are definitely worth noting. Grapes for Grads, the Sip and Shuck, Sunset Serenades and Music in the Park, she says, are all favorites. She’s also hoping the Blue Water Music Festival makes a comeback. And KX93.5’s concerts, she says enthusiastically, “You can’t miss them.” All of these things – and more – get covered in “Laguna Beach Vibe.”

The addition of a local legend

Because she is always thinking about how to improve things, Farber added a restaurant review section. Her reviewer is none other than Glori Fickling, a 91-year old critic and a Lagunan since the 50’s who has been a food critic for over 30 years. “She approached me. She has a flair. It’s very Glori,” says Farber of the column, as if she still can’t believe her luck at having such a fabulous contributor.

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Lisa Farber on her favorite mode of travel: a bicycle

Her travel of choice: her Schwinn Panther

Of course, luck has very little to do with any of it. It really comes down to the details, both big and small. One of Farber’s trademarks, besides her trove of colorful visors she frequently wears, is her devotion to old-fashioned customer service. She hand delivers her publication every month. 

“That’s how I make my ‘calls,’” she explains. “If I nurture my customers the deliveries take about a day and a half. Plus I can see what businesses have opened and what has closed. When I get an ad from someone I don’t know…I love that.” An avid cyclist, Faber relishes the days when she can use her Schwinn Panther to make deliveries. “It’s my travel of choice. It’s so easy. I just pull up to the Festival, lock my bike and I don’t have to worry about parking.”

She even does bicycle tours around town

Her dedication to biking extends beyond delivering her magazine. With such limited free time, she nevertheless can be seen leading her own charm house bike tour around Laguna. “It’s only an hour, but we cover lots of points of interest. It was just kind of organic,” she says of how the tour was created. You can find more information about her tour at Laguna Beach Cyclery’s website (

Working wherever she is

Farber says she definitely sees herself biking through Europe when she retires. However, at the moment just taking a vacation is tricky. “Vacations are hard,” she admits. “I have to plan, but I work hard so I don’t feel guilty.” This summer she went back to Canada to visit family. It was a vacation, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t working. “That’s a great thing about this job,” she says noting her ability to do a lot of it from anywhere. On a day-to-day basis, she tries to carve out a little non-work time either ocean swimming or doing yoga in the park. But then it’s back to work.

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Laguna Beach Vibe is a free publication highlighting the happenings in town

Committed to supporting Laguna’s sense of community

Luckily, work is where she loves to spend her time. “What I enjoy doing the most is running my business,” says Farber. “’Vibe’ supports the sense of community that exists in town. A lot of cities don’t have that. That’s why Laguna works so well for what I do,” she says. This feeling of good fortune extends to her hometown, as well. “I don’t take Laguna for granted…yet,” she says with a laugh.

Cory Sparkuhl and friends: visionary filmmakers 

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Did you ever wake up in the middle of the night with an idea that you’re sure could become a movie? …Then with the light of day comes the reality that it’s just not going to happen. 

Cory Sparkuhl is the kind of guy who has had those storied visions – in the middle of the night, in the middle of school, while skateboarding, while looking toward Main Beach from his Laguna office. But he’s one of the rare people who actually make those dreams become reality. When you can share that vision and show it to the world, that’s where the rubber meets the road.

These days Cory is one busy guy, working with his film team at Sparkle Films, sorting out crews and locations. He smiles, “I’ve found my right niche.”

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Cory Sparkuhl (right) with Cyrus Polk (left) and Shannon Belknapp, 

of Sparkle Films

A spark is lit

Laguna is the hometown where Cory grew up with not exactly a plan, but rather a passion for the pursuit of his dreams. His pursuit began from the age of eleven. 

“Riddle Field was my stomping ground with Little League, big cassette tapes, and cameras,” he recalls fondly. 

He started filming in earnest by doing skateboarding videos. That makes a young Laguna lad happy, but the ultimate goal would be to make a little money too. “I thought, if only I could make a living at that, I’d be happy.”

He’s happy now – but it didn’t come easy.

“I used to want to be an actor,” said Cory. “Stage plays, and stuff… But I was better at telling people what to do rather than being told what to do.” He adds, “I love it, directing people and telling them what to do!”

After graduating from LBHS in the not-too-distant year of 2002, Cory went on to pursue his passion at Orange Coast, then to post production school, studying in Burbank the latest in film editing software programs. 

“I learned a lot when I was young, like [editing program] Final Cut Pro, but the industry is about learning something new every day.”

He did some of the inevitable “grunt work” in LA, and then found his way back to Laguna and a position with local renowned filmmakers, McGillivray Freeman Films. “It was exciting,” Cory remembers. But he still needed to augment his income by delivering pizza for Gina’s. Ultimately this go-getter did find his niche.

“Finally I got so busy with production, I started Sparkle.”

A collaborative effort

Sparkle Films is the culmination of passion for the project, knowhow, and joining together with likeminded, hardworking visionaries – who just happen to be good friends.

Cory tells us that the team at Sparkle Films is made up of a group of great minds. There’s Trev Howard, “He’s been my coach, and given me good pointers on business tips.” Trev is the man for storyboarding and script. Then there’s Cory’s longtime friend, Cyrus Polk, who is Sparkle Film’s cinematographer, editor and additional drone operator. Growing up, Cyrus was a skateboarding friend who also had a passion for photography and film. “He’s my right hand man,” says Cory.

 “We’ve been friends for more than a decade,” Cyrus chimes in. “Cory started this when I was in school in Utah. We joined forces, and we love what we’re doing.” In the future, Cyrus plans that they’ll just keep on growing. “We want to keep on entertaining everyone. And take it to the next step!”

“He’s a great asset,” says Cory. “I’ve got a great team. Collaborating goes a long way.”

And then there’s another hometown connection: Shannon Belnapp. Shannon helps Sparkle Films with marketing, social media and accounting. She was also one of Cory’s best buddies in high school. 

“One of my best friends!” he laughs now. “Then randomly we got together later – my whole life has changed!” 

Of course it has – they are now engaged to be married.

Cory smiles, “When you get together with your best friend, it’s the best thing in the world.” 

Truer words were never spoken.

A body of work

A big part of real estate promotions, and a big part of Sparkle Film’s work includes filming with drones, a thorny subject in Laguna Beach. Of course Cory has approached it in a legit way, having received a special certification, which incorporates training, guidance, rules and guidelines. His fiancée got her pilot’s license for remote pilot command, “So she could be my spotter,” he explains. “We need two sets of eyes.” Cyrus also serves as a drone operator.

The offices of Sparkle Films are right in downtown Laguna – jammed with equipment and desks overflowing with projects and production notes. There’s a bed on the floor for their other good buddy, Sheba. “She’s our little mascot,” Cory says with a scratch on the doggie’s ears.

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The crew busy at work at Sparkle Films, while Sheba takes it easy

Sparkle Films has been in business now for seven years. Their projects vary – from several films for the Festival of Arts and Sawdust Festival promotions, to commercials, to real estate corporate videos, and everything in between – from Laguna to LA. They’ve got multiple projects going on at once – generally five to six projects simultaneously.

“Every time we think it’s slowing down, it starts up again,” says Cory, grateful for his growing business. 

Cory’s dad, a long time Festival of Arts artist, originally advised his son to spread his wings into regions more friendly to a burgeoning film career. He said, don’t do it in Laguna, go to LA – but Cory followed his heart. He laughs because now his dad says, “You’re pretty much working in spite of me!”

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Cory filming and Cyrus operating a drone for aerial footage

At the ripe old age of thirty-something, Cory has gained film production wisdom gleaned from many years of experience. “After 3-400 videos your eyes open to a way to produce: a formula for each.” 

It’s a kind of alchemy.

A Festival film release

The latest Sparkle Films project is a follow up to one near and dear to the art heart of Laguna – the Festival of Arts. At first they did a film for the creation of the façade two years ago. The follow-up, just released, is a time lapsed video that covers the Festival ground’s yearlong transformation.

Since Cory’s dad has been a sculpture and painting artist at the FOA for more than 25 years, Cory felt the intimate connection to FOA as part of his roots. “It’s so interesting being a part of the progress and evolution – it is evolving.” 

Sparkle Films used aerial imagery, time lapsed footage, and even cameras mounted on the worker’s bodies, giving an in depth perspective of the whole process. The film encapsulates the immense effort and time required to complete the new and improved Festival grounds.

“It’s history unfolding before your eyes,” as Cory puts it. 

The film is the culmination of many perspectives. “It’s one of the best projects we’ve produced,” said Cory. “I’m so proud of it. It was a year long in the making.”

Without further ado, click here to view the FOA film:


The latest Sparkle Films project, one year in the making.

A future in features

Cory likes the storytelling part of filmmaking, and ideally he and the team would like to start making feature movies. 

“I have ideas for scripts for full-length movies we have in mind,” he says. “We hope to produce movie trailers and ways we can pitch to big distributors.”

Filmmaking techniques change rapidly in these times, and Sparkle Films is up for it. Digital is what’s taken it to the next level.

Cory says. “Everything is quicker – but it’s all about the story. Indy films, those are the things I’d like to do.

“Indy films are the best – ones that don’t always get seen. Everything is too fancy now. I like that old school feeling.”

A place that’s home

There’s no place like Laguna for Cory and Sparkle Films. 

“I went to Santa Barbara, to LA, but this is just a magical place,” he says.

He enjoys being in the town he grew up in – running into people he knows. On a bad day he likes to go jump in the ocean. 

“Being by the beach is just good for your soul. It’s home sweet home. Always will be.”

In his free time, and even in not-free time, Cory enjoys the company of his fiancée, Shannon. They are what he calls simple people, “We like movies, we like to go to the beach, go hiking, …go the farmer’s market, do juice.”

Meanwhile, look for him with the crew, often at work around Laguna. They’re busy bringing to the screen those visions the rest of us can only dream about.

For more information about Sparkle Films, with some great footage of Laguna Beach, see their website:

Gail Duncan: She took a long and winding road to get to The Art Hotel


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Although it was a long journey in both time and distance, the road Gail Duncan took eventually brought her to Laguna Beach. It’s not a path she would have chosen to take, but she is happy because it led her to The Art Hotel. 

Apparently, it wasn’t the trajectory Gail envisioned for herself as a young woman. She was born and raised in Detroit, MI, and once she graduated from college, imagined her career would be in the field of counseling. She’s passionate about bringing out the best in people and helping them identify what their gifts are (and aren’t). 

But her father, owner of one of the 104 largest Ford dealerships in the country, had different ideas. He wanted her to head the company. And she did, for over 30 years, starting in 1974. Back then, it was a male dominated culture, a difficult one to navigate, says Gail, “Women couldn’t even be members of the Lions Club or Rotary Club.” 

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Gail Duncan, from president of a car dealership to hotel proprietor

As president of the car dealership, she traveled extensively. “My favorite places are Sydney, the South of France, and Laguna,” she says. While staying at the Ritz Carlton during a Ford junket 17 years ago, she discovered Laguna. On a subsequent trip, and with no hotel experience (and having no idea that she would ever be in the business), she acquired the hotel, which at the time was called America’s Best Inn.

For the next eight years, Gail traveled back and forth from Detroit to Laguna. Then in January of 2009, she dropped the hotel franchise and renamed it, “The Art Hotel.”  Gail says, “Being in Laguna, I was surprised no one had chosen that name. The name draws a lot of artists.” And it attracts more than just artists. During the last Playhouse season when King of the Road was playing, the widow and children of Roger Miller stayed at the property. And she has artists from all over the world check in.

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Murals adorn exterior of The Art Hotel

Once on site (Gail lives on the property), she threw herself into redoing the hotel and being of service to the artist community and the city. From her travels, she knew what she wanted in a hotel experience, and she translated that into The Art Hotel. There are no extra fees, guests pay when they check-in and then turn in the keys when they leave. The prices are affordable and there is no charge for pets.  She reserves rooms 101-107 (out of the 28) for furry creatures. Gail says, “I don’t charge for children or pets.” 

Art exhibited in rooms

To assist in the exposure of artists, Gail transformed the sleeping rooms into what could only be described as private galleries, each featuring six pieces of work from an artist, and the artist’s information. “The artists receive 100 percent of the revenue from their work,” she says.

Both inside and out, the atmosphere of the hotel morphed into what it is today. On the hotel’s exterior, individual murals decorate the upstairs balconies (the first one is of Marilyn Monroe), and a long mural is painted on the left and above when entering the parking lot.

However, the most spectacular murals surround the pool. In September of 2014, award winning local artist Randy Morgan (it’s his mural on the Waterman’s Wall on the side of Hobie’s Surf Shop) came to repair one of the existing murals and suggested that was the pool area was the perfect place for another mural, one honoring Laguna’s history. 

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Main Beach Panorama mural by Randy Morgan (Seal Rock on right)

The bronzed stucco mural took more than a year to complete. Main Beach Panorama, which was dedicated in May 2016, depicts the Hotel Laguna, Main Beach lifeguard stand, Greeter Eiler Larsen, and as an homage to Gail’s father, replicas of cars from his collection (one being an Edsel). On the adjoining wall, Morgan later created Seal Rock, which honors the founders of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. These two murals combine to make Laguna Panorama.

Gail gives back to the community

In her service to others, Gail has devoted no less time and effort to the City of Laguna Beach than to the artistic community. Giving back isn’t new to Gail. She was active in the United Way and the Chamber of Commerce while living in Detroit. 

Shortly after arriving in Laguna, Gail started going to City Council meetings, and eventually became a member of the Housing and Human Services Committee and is now in her third term. She is also on the Development Committee for the Laguna Playhouse. Gail says, “We need people and a village to make us more powerful. You can’t do anything by yourself. Get your mind off yourself and be a blessing to others.”

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The Art Hotel, established in January 2009

In this vein, she’d like to mentor the next generation. “It’s all about legacy. I’d like to teach what I’ve learned at my age to 20-year-olds.”

Currently Gail’s passion is 211 OC, a one-call referral source for free and low cost services county-wide. As a proponent of this resource, she has succeeded in having it added to the Laguna Beach City website under Housing and Human Services.

Evolving atmosphere of The Art Hotel

It’s clear that Gail has changed the atmosphere of The Art Hotel, but in her service to the City of Laguna Beach, she has contributed to its quality as well. And she has more plans for the hotel next year. She’ll be hosting Art Walks and bringing in guest artists.  

When asked if she still travels, Gail says, “I love it here.” But during lulls in business, she travels to visit her two daughters and two grandchildren. 

Gail claims that her passion is finding and encouraging other people’s gifts, but in making the journey from president of a Ford dealership to self-taught proprietor of The Art Hotel, and dedicated servant to the community, it’s evident she has discovered her own gift. 

Gail says, “If you’re going to be here, be of use.” And she is living evidence of her mantra.

Keanu & Zen Mir-Scaer: Writing about riding waves


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

If you want to find Keanu and Zen Mir-Scaer, a good place to look is at the beach. These 10 year-old twins are all about the water: skimboarding, surfing, stand up paddling -- you name it. If it’s in the water, they like doing it. In this way, they’re pretty typical Laguna kids.

A picture book about boarding

What sets them apart from their peers, at least at the ripe old age of ten, is their ambitious undertaking to write and self-publish a book about the sport they love the most: skimboarding.  Titled “Skim Stories: Riding Waves,” this children’s picture book details just what skimboarding is – in rhyme, no less. 

Zen explains that he and his brother were motivated by the questions they got repeatedly from bystanders while skimboarding. “People would always say, ‘Wow! That looks like so much fun. What is it? Surfing…?’ We’d tell them it was skimboarding. This happened so much we decided to write a book about it.” That was two years ago.

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Keanu and Zen Mir-Scaer, ten-year old competitive skimboarders and authors

Tenacity leads to a communal effort

Two years is practically an eternity for kids this age and yet they stuck with it. Their mom, Naz, is clearly a very important factor in this. A guiding force both in and out of the water, she seems to have struck a nice balance between prodding the boys forward and letting them step away from it when they needed a break. The project has grown beyond just the boys and their work, evolving into a truly communal project.

They have a graphic designer (Gabriella Kohr), a videographer (Skyler Wilson), and a photographer (Tyler Brooks) all committed to the project. Laguna residents Blair Conklin, world number one ranked skimboarder, and Paulo Prietto, former world champion skimboarder, have also gotten involved, offering their support and encouragement. Naz says, “To have the number one people in your sport take an interest truly drives a person to do their best.” 

Additionally, Rip Curl in Laguna will be hosting an Art Walk event for the project and the boys’ skimboard sponsor, Exile, has also been supportive of the boys’ efforts. “It became real,” explains Naz. “We didn’t want to let other people down.” 

A successful Kickstarter campaign

As the project became more “real”, Naz and the boys found they needed some extra resources so they started a Kickstarter campaign. Coincidentally, during our interview, they discovered they’d reached their fundraising goal of $2,000. The smiles on Naz and her sons’ faces spoke volumes about how much has gone into this project. 

The money means a lot, says Naz, because even though everyone involved agreed to give their time for free, now they can be paid. She says she and the boys feel really good about being able to compensate them. “It’s just right,” she says. 

Two years of writing and sketching, over and over

No one could have guessed the scope of the project when Zen and Keanu first sat down with this labor of love. It clearly helped that the project became a school project (both boys are home schooled). Nevertheless, it would have been so easy and, frankly, quite understandable if the book ended up being nothing more than a few pages sitting unfinished in a drawer. 

“Our first version was really, really different,” explains Keanu. They would work on it and put it away and then pick it up again when the mood struck. “As they became stronger writers, they’d look at what they did before and go, ‘What?! I wrote this!’” says Naz, while the boys nod in agreement. When asked what was the hardest part of the project both boys unanimously agree that it was both writing and now illustrating the same thing “over and over” until they were satisfied.

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Keanu catches a wave down at Oak St. on the first day of fall

The launch date looms

In the spring of this year, Naz says the writing portion was finally completed.

“Enough is enough. They’re only ten!” she says with a laugh. “We felt we could do the illustrations, but the form was the hardest part. Again, they’re ten so getting things like the shoulder blades and the dimensions right was really a challenge. But the feedback we got was that people liked the way they did it.” 

They’re under the gun to get it all finished so the book can launch before Thanksgiving. Then they can say it’s finally done.

With such looming deadlines, it’s important to note that neither Zen nor Keanu is tied to their chairs furiously fine-tuning their illustrations. The boys are still getting plenty of beach time. They have two skimboard competitions coming up so skim time is essential. 

Skimboarding is not only fun, it’s a good metaphor for life

The boys have been skimboarding for five years. They both remember their first competition well. “I got last in my first heat,” remembers Keanu with a laugh. Naz says she has preached the philosophy of tennis player Rafael Nadal. “He says he doesn’t worry so much about beating the other person, but just trying to be better than himself.” These kinds of lessons are good for all competitors, but especially twins who compete against one another. “I just want them to understand their unique style and focus on being their best as opposed to beating (their) brother.”

“One last good ride” is the family motto

These lessons are paying off. Keanu says after their first competition, “I just wanted to make it to the (medal) stand once.” Both boys have more than succeeded in that goal. More importantly, skimboarding, according to Naz, has taught the boys a very valuable lesson. “It’s not about how many times you fall, because you always fall when you skim. It’s about getting back up and continuing to try. When it’s time to go (home from the beach) we always say ‘One last good ride.’”

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Zen shows his stuff on his first ride of the day

Circumventing “no” is just another lesson learned

The same philosophy of keeping at it not only extends to the creating of the book, but to the publishing of it as well. Publishers and agents, while receptive, were not convinced of the book’s marketability. The boys remained undeterred and self-publishing became the way to get it done. The boys started an Instagram account titled “Skim Stories” to help market their efforts and then, later, their Kickstarter campaign. “Now they’re learning about the whole process,” says Naz enthusiastically.

Shining a light on an “underappreciated sport”

And readers of the book will get a full understanding of what skimboarding really is. “We wanted people to see it’s really people riding waves. It’s an underappreciated sport,” says Naz. The hope is that Keanu and Zen’s book will help change that. If nothing else, Keanu and Zen will have created and shared a lasting work of art they can be proud of. 

“I liked writing the book,” says Zen. “And doing the art was fun.” Keanu adds, summing up the creative process quite succinctly, “I think how easy it is and then also how hard it is to get it right.” The boys are already talking about their next project. “It’s a controversial subject right now,” laughs Naz. 

Whatever the boys decide to do next, one thing is certain: “Skim Stories: Riding Waves” is already a huge success, regardless of how many copies are sold. “This project is such a cool symbol of Laguna Beach. It brings together art and skimming, two things Laguna is really known for. It has all played out so beautifully,” says Naz.

Anneliese Schimmelpfennig, founder of Anneliese Schools: A belief, hard-earned, in things that endure


Photographs by Mary Hurlbut

There are few long-time Laguna residents who haven’t heard of Anneliese Schimmelpfennig. Or, at the very least, heard of her magical Anneliese Schools, which will celebrate their 50th anniversary next year. But her backstory is something most people may not know. She grew up in Germany, under the fog of war, enduring hardships even the strongest adults would find difficult to bear. Her childhood – both heartbreaking and heartwarming – motivates every aspect of her teaching and the philosophy behind her schools.

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Anneliese Schimmelpfennig, a woman with a kind heart after a difficult childhood

Born into a world at war

Anneliese knows what it means to suffer. Two weeks after her birth in 1939, the world went to war. Her father, a German officer in the military, was sent to a Russian gulag in Siberia. He would be gone for twelve years. Some of those years, no one knew if he was dead or alive. 

Her mother in Tussling (Tüßling), a small village in Bavaria near the Austrian border, began taking in refugees. Eleven people moved into their modest home, sharing what little food and space they could find. 

Then, in 1943, Anneliese’s mother made the brave and dangerous decision to harbor three Jewish people (and a cat) in their attic. They stayed for 18 months. “The cat couldn’t even say ‘meow,’” Anneliese says. 

Anneliese brought them whatever food she could – blueberries, oak nuts, apples, potatoes – still not old enough to fully appreciate the risk. When the Americans arrived in 1945, their guests began screaming. “Just screaming,” Anneliese says. “I didn’t understand. But now I know they thought they were caught.”

Growing up in the shadow of the camps

A concentration camp stood nearby in Mühldorf, less than five miles from Anneliese’s small village of Tussling. Mühldorf was a satellite camp of Dachau. As a young girl, Anneliese would steal apples and sneak them under the fence for the prisoners. When caught by the guards, she would act deaf or disoriented. “You had to be very smart,” she says. “It doesn’t help to be an intellectual if you don’t know life.”

 Reading people, and situations, is something she came to rely on very early.

“I saw the people going into the camp. I still remember the sound of the trains that brought them in, all those people looking out at me.” 

Liberated at last

In 1945, the war ended. Anneliese recalls Americans arriving in helicopters, bringing her bubblegum and white bread, delicacies she’d never known. “The Americans were really nice to children,” she says. “Some were only 19 years old, children themselves, and cried when they saw us.” They brought milk powder, and opened the restaurants to give out things to eat. 

“I thought then,” Anneliese says, “I will go to America and teach children to be peaceful. Always talk things out. I’ll teach them not to be nasty and crying and wimpy.”

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Anneliese creates magical and inspiring spaces, a contrast to her own upbringing

Her father’s own fight

At some point, Anneliese’s father escaped and walked his way to the Volga River. He made it, inexplicably, from Siberia to the Black Sea before he was caught, returned to the gulag, and given an additional five-year sentence for his crime. 

Anneliese speculates that the reason he wasn’t shot on the spot was because he had taught himself Russian, and the Russians took note. He would sing and dance for the officers, keeping them entertained. And so, against all odds, they let him live.

“This is why I teach the children so many languages,” Anneliese says. “Even if you only know the basics, and how to say a few things without an accent, it can save your life.” 

Her father’s happiest nights in captivity, he said, were spent in the pigpens. The guards would sometimes throw him in, forcing him to eat with the pigs. Little did they realize he considered this a treat. Pigs were fed potatoes and bits of meat, far better fare than his usual diet of stale bread. 

At night, the Russians drank vodka, ate bread spread with pig fat, got drunk and decided which German they would shoot that night. But he confused them by speaking Russian, and they liked him enough to keep him alive.

Anneliese was twelve the first time she met her father. By the time he came home, he was emotionally and physically spent. He didn’t speak for three days. His feet wrapped only in newspaper, his body starving and skinny. “He taught me to always have hope,” she says. “Even if he had such a sad life, he was never grouchy.”

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Anneliese’s father taught her optimism in the face of adversity

Battle of the books

As a child, Anneliese wasn’t allowed to read. Her mother burned books. She also didn’t allow Anneliese to attend high school, reasoning that school brought no money to the family. Worse yet, imagination and mental escape were dangerous. “Books opened a different world to you, and she didn’t want that,” Anneliese says. The same was true for toys, which also evoked ideas. Practical skills, like mathematics, were the only things of value in a country that had to build itself anew. “I made math problems in the dirt with a stick.”

This austere upbringing shaped the way Anneliese approached teaching, in both the elements she chose to retain and in those she adamantly rejected. “I don’t baby them,” she says. “It’s not good for them.”

 Anneliese considers herself strict with the children. Love, combined with self-discipline, is her governing philosophy. “It’s very hard on me to see children so spoiled here, and not appreciating what they have. They should be happy for every single thing.”

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Anneliese creates the childhood she never had for the children.

An enchanting education

The atmosphere of the Anneliese Schools is magical. And that magic is intentional. Antique furniture and Persian rugs, plenty of plants, art objects and paintings – the spaces look more museum than school. It’s a place out of time, more European than American, free from technology and full of natural beauty. Each campus is nestled in a magical environ around Laguna – the beauty of the beach, the serenity of the canyon, the history of Manzanita Drive.

Anneliese insists on a certain rigor and, within that rigor, she gives the children a lot of room for self-expression. Wooden toys, organic foods, eco-gardening, mud play, an emphasis on multilingualism are all non-negotiable elements of her philosophy. Children are given a wide range of responsibilities, and a deep sense of trust and love.

She also emphasizes etiquette, stressing respect for elders, animals, and each other. And she tries to protect the children from a culture of consumption. “It’s difficult for me here because things get wasted. At restaurants, things get wasted. It’s very hard to see.” This is the reason for the wooden toys. Anneliese believes in things that endure, and rejects buying the latest, greatest gadgets. Simple, basic wooden toys that stimulate a child’s imagination, this is something she believes in.

Around all her properties, you’ll encounter a lot of animals: goats, llamas, pigs, swans, chickens, rabbits, peacocks and a dog named Odie. The animals are both therapeutic and stimulating, and they provide children with another way to communicate with the natural world.

“People always ask when they come from a different school, ‘Is this a hippy school?’” Anneliese laughs. “It’s not. It’s a little freer. Children can make some decisions.” But as you can see, she tells me, she’s not a hippy.

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Anneliese in her Manzanita property with her dog, Odie.

A love (and need) for language

Language is, indeed, an integral part of the Anneliese School’s curriculum. Five native speakers teach Spanish, French, German, Italian and Japanese one day a week. Mathematics is taught primarily in German, as it makes more sense to the students. 

Anneliese speaks three or four languages herself. “English is my worst language,” she says. “It was forbidden in school, the language of the enemy.” It was a language she wouldn’t acquire until she came to the United States at 27 years old.

An optimistic outlook

Anneliese wants to leave her students with a sense of optimism and endurance. Her advice: be independent and take a little risk. “Always be kind and optimistic,” she says. “Negativity destroys you. Don’t ever give up.”

Never has a woman had to practice so much of what she preaches. Anneliese embodies that spirit of optimism and determination. And she will leave that legacy to generations of lucky children.

Leif Hanson and Steve Blue: Friends with a shared cause create the annual Night at The Ranch


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

It was volleyball that brought friends Leif Hanson and Steve Blue together, way back when they were kids at Thurston Middle School. Hanson arrived from El Morro Elementary, Blue from the since-closed Aliso Elementary. When their paths converged at Thurston, a friendship formed. “When we got to Thurston…well, we’ve just been friends ever since,” says Hanson.

Volleyball sparks a lifelong friendship

The two were teammates at Laguna Beach Volleyball Club and Laguna Beach High School, but as with most high school friendships, upon graduation the time came for them to part ways. Hanson headed off to the University of Hawaii and Blue to Stanford where their volleyball careers continued. 


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Leif Hanson, circa 1977 Laguna Beach (submitted photo) and Leif now (this photo by Mary Hurlbut)

Hanson’s volleyball career continued post-college as he played on the pro beach volleyball tour. Blue went a different direction, earning a Master’s degree from Northwestern that had him in Chicago for five years, then the Bay area, before eventually returning to Laguna 12 years ago, where they renewed their friendship. 

Looking for a cause

Surprisingly, that renewal turned out to be a boon for a local non-profit.  Around the time of Blue’s return to Laguna, Hanson says he was feeling compelled to get more connected with his hometown. “I had been looking around to do something. I wanted to get involved and give back,” explains Hanson. With so many great causes, Hanson nevertheless says it wasn’t hard for him to decide where to put his efforts.

Lengthy ties to Laguna and The Boys and Girls Club

“The Boys and Girls Club seemed a natural place. I went there a lot as a kid. It helped keep me off the streets, “ he adds with a laugh. The youngest of five to a single working mother, Hanson says when he was younger the Boys and Girls Club (The Club) provided supervision for him while his mom worked. When he got older, the Club became the place to hone his basketball skills. 

Blue also played basketball at the Club as a kid. Fortuitously, he was also interested in “doing something.” Having put on a large charity event for his company, Blue says he was looking for something more personal.  So when Hanson approached him, it was an easy sell. “I thought it was a great place to give back,” says Blue. “Until I went back and visited I didn’t realize how much the Club does for the kids it serves. It’s amazing,” he says.

Finding inspiration for a very “Laguna” event in Malibu

But what to do? Hanson says the idea for the event came to him when he saw a poster for a Boys and Girls Club event in Malibu. Ziggy Marley was playing at a fundraiser and Hanson thought the casual yet fun vibe would translate well to his hometown. “There they have a lot of celebrities. But in Laguna we know a lot of athletes and people just from growing up here,” he says. Blue jumped on board.

Dinner, music and a totally different vibe from other events

The Boys and Girls Club was enthusiastic about his idea, says Hanson. By the time he approached them it was pretty fleshed out: there would be dinner, “Something a lot more casual than (the Club’s biggest fundraiser held at) the Montage. I’d already discussed doing it with Mark Christy (of The Ranch). I thought we could do something – make it fun, have it be casual and at that beautiful location…all with the live music.”

Thus, Night at the Ranch benefitting the Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach was born.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Leif Hanson and Steve Blue prep for their Night at The Ranch event

While totally on board, The Club cautioned they couldn’t really support Hanson and Blue’s event financially. “They told us ‘We will back you but we can’t give you any money.’” Undeterred, Blue says, “We just felt that a lot of locals would like it, the way we liked it.”

The first Night at the Ranch is deemed a success

Pulling from their volleyball roots, the first year of the event they chose to honor Rolf Engen, founder of the Laguna Beach Volleyball Club. “It was very athlete/volleyball centric,” says Hanson. Pato Banton provided the music. “It was a huge success,” says Hanson. The night brought in $70,000.

On year four, the commitment and enthusiasm is still strong

While undertaking such an event once is a big commitment, “once” was never an option for Hansen and Blue. “I did some research before I started this,” explains Hanson. “I talked to some friends who are really knowledgeable about this kind of thing. They counseled me that if I was going to get involved I needed to keep it going.” And he and Blue have. 

This is the event’s fourth year. Hanson says he figured he and Blue would run it for three to five years and then turn it over to someone else to chair. Surprisingly, “We haven’t thought about letting it go,” says Hanson. “It has been really enjoyable.” And beneficial for the Club. Blue says the event is now factored into the Boys and Girls Club annual budget. “We’re second in terms of their fundraising,” he adds proudly.

From $70,000 to $200,000: every year just more success

Through the years the two have incorporated what they’ve learned, streamlining the “business” of the event (it is, after all a fundraiser) to maximize the fun with the idea that people will want to come back. The strategy seems to be working. The event, deemed a huge success when it grossed $70,000, brought in $200,000 last year.  This year’s event, scheduled for Friday, September 22 at The Ranch, could sell out. 

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

A group of kids enjoy the freedom at The Ranch at Laguna Beach

This year a potential milestone: a sell out

 “Our cap is 400 people,” explains Hanson. “We could be selling out which would be very exciting for us.” The English Beat is headlining. Beyond the dinner and the music, there is also a golf tournament (open to the first 36 players who sign up) for $75 and a post-party with local deejay Laura Buckle. The last day to buy tickets is Wednesday, September 20.

More meaningful than just writing a check, and a lot harder

Both men say they have relied on friends to help make this event the success it is. However, the bulk of the work still definitely falls on them. “The month before it gets difficult,” admits Hanson. “We’re both juggling a lot but we’ve gotten it figured out.” However, both men agree it’s much more rewarding than simply writing a check.

Inspired by gestures, large and small

“The best moment I have had doing this,” remembers Hanson, “is when (Laguna Beach resident) Peter Barker bid on (Laguna Beach local) Dain Blanton’s Olympic jersey. He bought it with the highest bid and then turned around and gave it to Dain’s mom who was in the audience.”

 “The idea is to have an unusual experience that you can’t find anywhere else,” explains Blue about the Night at the Ranch event. But as Hanson’s “best moment” shows, it’s really about people stepping up for other people – something Leif Hanson and Steve Blue have done in a very big way.

(For more information about the event and to purchase tickets, visit

Catherine Hall – Her model for retirement is service


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Just after sitting down with me, Catherine Hall, who is a past president of the Laguna Beach Garden Club, confesses she plants fake succulents to fill in the blank areas in her front yard planter box. A startling revelation from a prior recipient of The Club’s Gardener of the Year. I immediately like her. 

(She later admits, “I’m nothing if not pragmatic and it is the truth. They are mixed in with live plants where real ones simply would not thrive!”)

 “I am not sure what you are interested in, as my ‘life’ is not that interesting!” says Catherine. “I’m a serial volunteer and a ‘Nana.’” But after two and a half hours talking with her, I beg to differ. 

Catherine relocates to Laguna

No need to explain how she ended up in her role as “Nana” to two grandsons, her daughter took care of that. But how Catherine ended up in Laguna in 1996 to begin her life as a “serial volunteer,” was a result of her husband’s work. For two decades, they lived in Leucadia in North San Diego County in what she describes as her “dream house,” and she thought they’d never leave. She made the move on a five-year plan, determined they would go back to Leucadia.

But plans don’t always work out and here they are, twenty-one years later. And now her daughter and two grandsons live close, in Dana Point.

The relocation to Laguna presented an opportunity for a big change. Although at that point in her career, she wasn’t working full time, Catherine gave up consulting. She was in Engineering, and her last project was designing a three-dimensional graphic display system. 

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Catherine Hall, serial volunteer and Nana

So, Catherine and her husband came to Laguna and purchased a fixer-upper here in town. Yet after investing the time and energy into the remodel (which was her job for a while), she discovered, “Not having a work identity didn’t suit me.” 

She started joining things. “I just threw myself at it,” she says. One of her early dips into the volunteering pool was with the Garden Club. “It was the first organization I was committed to, and I decided that was it. I took a master gardening class and became a master gardener, but once I found the Assistance League, I was fully committed to them.” 

Catherine is still a member of the Garden Club. “I never miss the opportunity to volunteer as a docent at our spring garden tour. We meet monthly and our next garden tour is May 4, 2018. A very friendly group (gardeners are just the nicest people) that meets monthly and has lots of activities whether your thumb is green ornot.”

Finding her passion at The Assistance League 

In 1998,she joined the Assistance League, and that again evolved into more thanvolunteering. Although Catherine is no longer in a leadership position, until recently she served as vice-president of philanthropic programs and chair of their Early Intervention Program(EIP), and she is still a member. She was on the board until this past June.

The current president is Carrie Joyce and the current director of the Early Intervention Program is Marilyn Coll, both local ladies. Living in Laguna is not a membership requirement, however.

“I was fully committed to their service programs,” Catherine says. “I especially love the EIP.”

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Volunteer working with mom and twins at Early Intervention Program

In existence since 1976, the EIP of Laguna Beach is a collaborative program with Assistance League of Laguna Beach and the Intervention Center for Early Childhood. It is designed to provide group-based therapy for developmentally delayed infants from birth to one year. 

Catherine says, “We received the Community Partner Spotlight Award in 2017 from the Down Syndrome Association of Orange County. This was an acknowledgment of our long-term commitment to serving the Down Syndrome community through our Early Intervention Program.” 

EIP is just one of the AL’s many programs, as I find out. 

“If there is a need that someone is not addressing, they try to fill that need,” Catherine says. “They do a lot, but quietly.” 

A busy and rewarding time

Since 1975, the Assistance League has been donating funds for Laguna Beach High School scholarships.  Catherine says, “Last year we gave $35K to graduating seniors at LBHS. In 2016 we gave $25K and we gave an additional $10K in 2017.” 

At the LBHS Scholarship Foundation reception for donors in June, Assistance League received the Outstanding Service Award, which Catherine was on hand to help accept the award for.

“Last year was busy,” Catherine says, “and I’m embracing the breaks.” During August, the EIP closes, so it’s given her a breather.

During this lull, she and her husband went to Pebble Beach for the Concours d’Elegance (a gathering of prestigious cars). They go every couple of years. And apparently, you can take the woman away from the “service,” but you can’t take the “service” out of the woman. Catherine volunteered to work at the event to help a friend who is involved in a charity that benefits from the Concours. 

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Catherine designed her beautiful backyard

“The Carmel-By-The-Sea Youth Center provides volunteers for the Pro-Am Golf Tournament and for the Concours. In return, these events donate to the CYC,” Catherine says. “It is a wonderful way to donate some time and enjoy the events. Check out their website for more information. It is also a great model for hosting big events with volunteers. From shuttle drivers to concessions to planning support, many talents are needed.”

Even with so much of her time devoted to service, Catherine manages to have some fun and relax. She and her husband (who is not fully retired) enjoy going to their cabin in Lake Arrowhead, where she likes to kayak on the lake in the early morning hours. In June, they were there to celebrate the end of high school with two nieces and a nephew, who will soon be leaving for college.

Time for summer fun

She especially loves spending time with her daughter and two grandsons, who are four and eleven. The summer included a trip to Disneyland, Legoland, and a visit to Universal Studios (mostly for the Harry Potter attraction, her older grandson just read two of the books, and the trip was his reward), and then to City Walk, where she watched them skydive indoors at I FLY. 

Aside from all the fun she’s having with her grandsons, Catherine says, “My model for retirement is service. I want to make the world a little better in every way I can. We need a lot of that now.” 

Between the volunteering, which doesn’t at all appear to be “serial,” and her role as “Nana” (which requires a substantial amount of service), Catherine’s life doesn’t sound anything like retirement. And it is an impressive model, to say the least.

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