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Toni Iseman: Five consecutive terms and still passionate about the City’s business

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Laguna Beach mayor Toni Iseman said she had “concerns” about the direction the city council was headed in 1998. So, when then mayor Bob Gentry called a meeting for some like-minded people to brainstorm for a candidate, Iseman was there and ready. “I didn’t want to run. I wanted someone else to run,” she says. 

The group came up with 25 names. “Everyone said “no,” including me – three times,” she recalls. “Then I was the last one standing. I was working at Orange Coast College at the time. Bob told me, ‘If you can handle college politics, you can handle anything.”

Iseman is on her fifth consecutive term as a city council member

He must have been right because Iseman has been a member of Laguna’s city council for the 19 years since. And while she says she’s looking to pass the baton to the next generation of city leaders, she’s not sitting idly by while they figure it out who wants it. She has plans. She has ideas. And she’s working hard for the residents of Laguna Beach because she loves her hometown.

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Toni Iseman, Laguna Beach mayor and five-term city council member

It was love at first sight

The first time Iseman saw Laguna Beach, she was visiting from Nebraska. A college friend lived in Corona del Mar. “She brought me to Laguna and I fell in love with it. I didn’t even see it by day, just the city lights at night. Because of the topography there’s an intimacy that’s created…”  

Iseman went back to Nebraska to teach school for two years and then headed west, six months in Huntington Beach and then, finally, to Laguna.  “Immediately, I never wanted to leave and I didn’t,” she says.  

She says that of course the natural beauty is part of what she fell in love with, but it’s more than that. “It’s the sense of community, the history, the values.”

“Now what are you going to do?”

In those early years, Iseman undoubtedly could not have imagined she would serve five consecutive terms on the city council.  But here she is. That first election did not go the way she’d thought. “I ran as a total dark horse. I was a sacrificial lamb,” she remembers ruefully. 

When her election party ended at midnight she assumed she had lost. “I got a call at 3:30 am,” she recalls. “They said, ‘Now what are you going to do?’ Somehow I’d won.”

And if you happen to be thinking of running for office, Iseman has something to say about it. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Asking people for money is very difficult. Some people can give easily. Some give $25 from their social security check – that’s who you think about,” she says, nodding her head.

Residents’ needs tops her list of priorities

Regardless of what kind of donor you are, or whether you even voted for her, Iseman says her first priority as a council member is to the residents; the second is to look out for the business community. “We need to have a ‘there’ there,” she says emphatically.  

Third on her list are visitors. With Laguna Beach now a worldwide destination, year round visitors bring positives and negatives. “We can’t let the visitors take away from the quality of life or businesses,” she says.

High praise for the Laguna Beach trolley

Expanding on this, Iseman says that after a particularly busy day recently she decided to check with some local merchants to see if the crowds helped or hurt sales. “They said their sales were down. It’s not benefitting the merchants,” she says.  But what to do about it? 

As Iseman sees it Laguna is the closest beach to thousands of surrounding homes, many of them new developments in cities like Irvine. “The city can’t fix this,” she laments. However, by adding services like the trolley, they are doing what they can. “I can’t envision what it would be like without the trolley,” she says.

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Toni Iseman conducting business during a city council meeting

Not afraid to be a broken record

While she wholeheartedly supports the trolley, Iseman has a tweak she’d like to see made to the system. It runs all the way to the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point. That location provides an easy turn around point. However, so many people hop on there to ride the trolley north into Laguna that it fills up. South Laguna residents who want to use it can’t get on because it’s full. 

If Iseman had her way, the trolley wouldn’t go all the way to Dana Point. Since that’s unlikely to change, she’d like to see a $1 charge for people getting on at the route’s southernmost stop since it’s outside the city limits. Iseman believes the fee would help mitigate the cost of running the trolley. “I’m like a broken record on this,” she says. “No one agrees with me,” she says sounding very unfazed nevertheless.

Yes, she has literally chained herself to a bulldozer

Iseman’s “broken-record-ness” speaks to her determination. If her fellow city council members don’t agree with her, she’ll keep working on them. She’s not one to give up easily, and she’s not one to walk away from something she believes in. Case in point? The time she literally chained herself to a bulldozer. “It took down a 100 year old sycamore. It sounded like bones. I thought, ‘Nope. This is it.’” 

So she took a Kryptonite bicycle lock and chained herself to the bulldozer. The driver, obviously trained for such acts of passion, turned off the machine and walked away.  Iseman, along with seven like-minded companions, wound up in Orange County Jail for their trouble. “I have to wonder: what if everybody had done that? What would have changed? I had to follow my conscience,” she says.

Getting started with helping save Laguna Canyon

This was when she was on the Board of the Laguna Greenbelt, before she was on the city council. She says the incident undoubtedly helped her with some voters and others probably thought she was “crazy.”  And while she was unable to save that sycamore, she and much of Laguna Beach helped save Laguna Canyon because of their dedication to preserving it as open space. 

“Can you imagine Laguna Canyon with an 18-hole golf course? A strip mall?” she asks incredulously.  Thanks to a passionate group of Laguna Beach residents, imagining it is as close as we have to get.

Now working with “the best”

“I’m tenacious,” she says simply. She also says she has an extremely strong commitment to fairness. “The majority of people are reasonable. But a handful of them are not. I think we need to be vigilant.” She’s talking specifically about neighborhoods becoming vulnerable because real estate prices are so high and some people see Laguna as a “profit center.” 

However, she could just as easily be talking about…almost anything. That’s most likely why Iseman is still on the city council: vigilance. Plus it helps that she feels the group of current council members work well together. 

“Now we have mutual respect. There have been times…it was called the ‘Tuesday Night Fight’. Those days are over. This is the best council l’ve worked with in all these years.”

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Toni Iseman and StuNewsLaguna's own Shaena Stabler at the Stu Saffer Celebration of Life

As far as her work on the council goes, Iseman would like to see commercial deliveries made before 10 a.m. to help ease congestion. She’d like to help Laguna beaches. “Measure LL passed and we promised the community we’d make the beaches better.” She wants parking meters on PCH in south Laguna. She wants construction sites to be more vigilantly managed so they don’t negatively impact the quality of life for the neighbors. 

And she will continue to lobby for changes to the trolley. These are things within a city council member’s power to address. However, there are other things she worries about that no city council member can fix, no matter how tenacious. 

Laguna’s biggest issues are not ones a city council can really fix

The biggest thing affecting Laguna is, of course, its evolution into an international destination and everything that comes with that. “I don’t know how we manage that,” she says thoughtfully. Unfortunately, the city, unlike hotel ballrooms or restaurants, has no posted maximum capacity. If it did, for the summer months in particular, it would feel like it’s being exceeded every single day.

Motivated to keep working by love of place

And you can’t blame people for wanting to come visit our lovely town. We have gorgeous scenery, a bustling downtown and some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. For those of us who live here full-time Laguna offers even more than that. It is a community of eclectic and dynamic people. 

“It’s safe to say you can knock on almost any door in Laguna and find an interesting person,” says Iseman. She has lived behind the same door of her quintessential Laguna Beach home since 1973. “I’m so lucky to have found Laguna. People will thank me for my service when I’m at the grocery store. It’s really nice. But I want to say ‘thank you’ for letting me serve.” 

Iseman says her stacks of to-be-read books and magazine are piling up and she has a pretty extensive bucket list she intends to at least make a dent in. In the meantime, you can find her on Tuesday nights, where she has been for the last 19 years, doing the City’s business.


Craig Cooley, manager of Main Street Bar & Cabaret: A place where guys – and girls – just wanna have fun

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

At the age of 14, aware that he was attracted to boys, not girls, Craig Cooley – now the manager of Main Street Bar & Cabaret, often called the “last gay bar” in Laguna – watched from a distance as an associate of his father’s, a man who was married with kids, drove slowly along a country road in his Mustang and picked up a teenage boy.

Young Craig already understood what that meant. 

“That was the only ‘gay culture’ I knew,” says Craig now. “I thought I was doomed to be like that one day. I remember crying in my father’s pickup truck, feeling so alone. Because at that time, we were taught that being gay was wrong in at least three ways: it was against the law, it was against moral values, and it was an illness.”

That was fifty years ago; that was in a small town, Yreka, near California’s border with Oregon; that was then, and this is now – thank heavens. (Well, we all know of some unenlightened people.)

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Craig Cooley’s warm personality is evident in this great portrait by Mary

When Craig was in his early twenties, he taped himself speaking and singing about his emotions as a gay man, “a kind of self-therapy” he says. His mother found the tape and listened to all 90 minutes of it.

“I think she was traumatized at first but she understood the raw emotion in it, that it was honest, and she accepted that I was gay. We told my father years later and he was accepting also, more than I expected,” Craig recalls.

Later he found out that one of his two brothers was also gay. 

“I like to joke with my straight brother,” Craig says, “I tell him, ‘you know, if you really wanted to change, you could.’”

Craig’s sense of humor, his warmth and his candor are obvious throughout our conversation as we sit on bar stools at the fun, funky Main Street Bar & Cabaret. I want to say that his eyes twinkle, but that would be a cliché, and I try to avoid clichés, but the thing is, they do twinkle.  

Laguna Beach declares June LGBT Heritage & Culture Month

We chatted about his life and his excitement about Laguna Beach’s declaration of June as LGBT Heritage & Culture Month. Craig is especially enamored of Mayor Toni Iseman, who he says has been incredibly supportive.

“There’s no other beach city with this strong connection to the arts, and so much of its character is a result of contributions from gay people in the arts, theatre, restaurants, architecture, everything, over decades,” he says. 

“Before the eighties, Laguna ranked right along with San Francisco and Provincetown as a place for gays to live or visit, actually even better because it was somewhat isolated because of the canyon, and of course, there was West Beach, (still is West Beach). Everyone knew to come here. Then AIDS came and slapped us in the face.  Gay people were marginalized. Gay bars became places of refuge.

“Things were changing here in Laguna too, with that TV show, the sense that the place was becoming gentrified. Over time a lot of the gay population left. And now again, things are changing so profoundly, with gay people getting married, having kids. We’re all adapting.”

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Appropriately, rainbow lights play on Craig at the Main Street Bar & Cabaret

I’d heard that Main Street & Cabaret was regarded as the last “gay bar” in Laguna. How, then, did Craig feel about an influx of straight people coming for a drink in a place that might still be regarded as a refuge for some? Did he, or gay regulars, feel that they were being gawked at, or that their place was being taken over?

This question energized Craig. 

“That’s the thing,” he said. “I don’t want this place to be anything but inviting to everyone. I don’t care, straight, gay, I don’t care about religion, body size, accent, anything like that. For too long, some in our community have not wanted to be inclusive. That is understandable, of course I understand, but it’s time to reciprocate as we become more included in the mainstream,” he says. “That being said, we do feel a special pride in being part of the gay community that has contributed so much. This Proclamation means so much, we were all so emotional at City Hall.”

What Craig would like for the Main Street Bar & Cabaret is this, he tells me: to be a place where people can feel at ease with each other. 

Mostly, though, Craig just wants people to have a great time: that’s why the Bar hosts music, karaoke, bingo, drag shows and weekly talent shows. From all accounts (and I intend to give an eyewitness account soon), the place is a blast.

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Main Street Bar & Cabaret is easy to find, located at 1460 S. Coast Highway at the end of the rainbow flag

“A few guys, straight guys, from our liquor distributors, came in the other night and had the best time dancing,” Craig says. “We get lots of bachelorette parties and also groups from the resorts who don’t want to wrap up their night at 9:30 – we stay open until 2 in the morning. Oh, and the talent nights are really fun. We’ve had singers, saxophone players, tap dancers – we like to showcase any talent that has entertainment value.”

There is so much more that Craig shared with me during our far-ranging and most enjoyable conversation: did you know his father was a mortician? That Craig birthed a foal when he was sixteen? That he has an amazing radio voice? That he once sang Chantilly Lace with Letterman? That he’s passionate about the Human Rights Campaign? That he loves hot dogs and red wine? And so much more…

But let me end with this story, which came up when we were discussing how bars sometimes become a refuge for those who feel alone and scared.

“There’s a real community of regulars in this bar,” he told me. “We rally around to help people who need help. A few years ago, a young man came into the bar, he had run away from home, he had nowhere to go. I gave him a mattress to sleep on, we helped him out with food, and then I didn’t see him for a few years. The other day I see him driving an expensive car, well-dressed, on the phone, obviously successful. I say, ‘Mervyn?’ and he looks at me and sees it’s me, and he gives me a hug and starts crying. A straight guy.”

Craig shakes his head, marveling. “That made me feel good.”

That’s the kind of man he is, Craig Cooley, manager of the Main Street Bar & Cabaret – a man with a great heart, and himself an icon in Laguna’s gay community.


“Born This Way” and grateful for it

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Chris Keller and Amy Amaradio have made their mark in Laguna Beach. Between La Casa del Camino, K’ya, The Rooftop, The Marine Room and the former House of Big Fish, it’s hard to fathom anyone from Laguna not having visited one of these landmark businesses. With their thriving business portfolio, the couple also has a growing family with three kids: Alexis, 18, Rocco, 3 1/2, and Gemma, 11 weeks. Needless to say, they are busy, and for the immediate future, no doubt a little sleep-deprived.

“Born This Way” adds a new cast member

With all they have going on, they recently undertook another, very personal project. They became cast members of A&E’s Emmy Award winning reality series, “Born This Way.” The show follows seven young adults with Down Syndrome as they “pursue their passions and lifelong dreams.” Season three added a new dimension by introducing a family with a young son born with Down syndrome. That new family is, of course, the Amaradio-Kellers. And they couldn’t be more thrilled, both with the show and the opportunity it provides them to speak to the special joys of having a child with Down syndrome.  

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Rocco, son of Amy Amaradio and Chris Keller, stars on A&E’s “Born This Way”

An unexpected condition at birth

When Amaradio and Keller were expecting Rocco, Amaradio says she did the standard preliminary screenings, but didn’t do the more invasive amniocentesis. “We just never even thought about that. We have a typical 18 year-old daughter. We really never thought about it. Plus, we never would have considered terminating the pregnancy.” So, when Rocco was born and they discovered he had Down syndrome, the couple was at a loss. “We were distraught,” admits Keller. “We went through all of that. It was a process.” 

The blessings of Rocco

Keller and Amaradio credit other parents of children with Down syndrome for helping them come to terms with Rocco’s condition. “It took us about a year,” says Keller. They started Rocco in the Early Intervention Program at the Assistance League in Laguna Beach when has was six weeks old. “That helped us tremendously,” remembers Keller. “It was such a blessing. It took us through a mourning process. The parents we met told us, ‘Your life will be blessed. Angels will fall in your path.’” 

Big sister leads the way

If Mom and Dad had to work through some things to come to a place of acceptance (now joy) with Rocco’s Down syndrome, Alexis, their oldest daughter, was already there. When asked to recount how Alexis handled the news of Rocco’s condition, Amaradio says, “I’m going to get emotional…She told us, ‘Mom, Dad, it’s going to be OK. I’m going to be there to protect him.’ She got me out of my shock…she told me, ‘Rocco is perfect just the way he is.’” 

A singular experience for a high school senior

A new sibling can’t help but change a family’s dynamics; a child with special needs only more so. Amaradio says she and Keller were cognizant of that and made a commitment that Alexis, no matter how loving and committed she was to her baby brother, would not spend her high school years as a built-in baby sitter. “I wanted her to enjoy high school,” says Amaradio.  Now, with her high school career almost over, Alexis is interested in studying journalism. “There aren’t a lot of graduating seniors with three and a half year old brothers with Down syndrome,” says Keller. “She has handled it so well. She has impressed us,” he adds admiringly.

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The Amaradio-Keller clan: (from left) Amy, Gemma, Chris, Rocco and Alexis

The right place at the right time

With all of this going on and for people who describe themselves as “introverts,” how did the Amaradio-Kellers find themselves on a reality show, especially one that started out specifically about young adults? “We were in the right place at the right time,” explains Keller. “We were involved in the Down syndrome community. Laura (Korkorian), the producer, watched us for awhile and then asked us if we would be interested,” explains Amaradio. “She knew we were friends with some of the cast members and it made sense for the show.” Adds Keller, “She (Korkorian) has an amazing ability. She uses her heart with the show. We knew we could trust her. She is an amazing person.”

A stressful transition works out

While the show is one visible piece of their very full lives, there are other less glamorous, but even more important things they must manage. Finding the right school for Rocco and getting him the therapy and special services he needs, for example. Luckily, according to his parents, Laguna is a great place for that. Once Rocco turned three he transitioned from one set of services and providers to a whole new system. This new system is the Laguna Beach Unified School District. This transition is a big part of the show’s storyline. “It’s stressful and it’s difficult. They wanted to capture that,” says Keller.

A loving team at TOW

Despite the stress, both parents highlight again and again their gratitude for what LBUSD provides Rocco. “It’s a special ed preschool at Top of the World,” explains Keller. “We now have a team there with as much love as we had before.” 

In addition to attending school at TOW three hours a day, five days a week, Rocco attends a private preschool two afternoons a week, plus speech therapy twice a week, another kind of speech therapy and feeding therapy another two times a week. It’s a lot, but Amaradio says it has actually “died down a little.”  With 11 week-old Gemma a new addition to the family, that can only be seen as welcome news.  And what does Rocco think of his baby sister? “He loves her!” says Keller. “They’re going to be the best of friends,” adds Amaradio.

Role models for Rocco

The bond between Rocco and Gemma will undoubtedly continue to strengthen as Gemma gets older, but what does their future look like? Like any two youngsters with their entire lives ahead of them, the sky is the limit – for brother and sister alike. As the older cast mates on “Born This Way” continue to prove, people with Down syndrome can do whatever they set their minds to. “They’re all doing something they’re passionate about, just like us,” says Amaradio. “They’re an inspiration for us. They give us a glimpse of a future for our son.”

And if Amaradio and Keller want people to know one thing about people with Down syndrome it’s that their future can be a bright, beautiful and independent thing. “We want everyone to know that having a child with Down syndrome is such a blessing. It has been the best thing that’s happened to our lives,” says Keller. He remembers in the early days when other parents would tell him that. “I thought, ‘They’re so full of it.’ But it’s so true!” he exclaims. 

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Rocco and dad, Chris Keller, making their way down to the beach

A mission to share the joys of raising a child with Down syndrome

While making a point to say how much they respect every parent’s decision when faced with a diagnosis of Down syndrome, Keller says he and Amaradio feel like it’s their “mission” to share the joys of having a Down syndrome child. “We want to keep pressing for awareness,” says Amaradio. “They will accomplish things. You will be blessed.” While acknowledging that at first Rocco’s condition threw them for a loop, Keller says emphatically, “Little did we know those emotions that we felt turned out to be the best thing in our lives. We are both so thankful Rocco is in our lives. He has changed our lives and we are really thankful for that.”  

Grateful for many things in Laguna Beach

 Their gratitude extends to their hometown, as well. “We are so thankful we’re in Laguna Beach and have such great support,” says Keller sincerely. He gives the fire department, the police department and the schools a heartfelt shout out.  Keller also makes sure to sing the praises of the Assistance League of Laguna Beach. “We now donate all we can to the Assistance League. We encourage others to do the same.” So remember their thrift shop the next time you’re cleaning out your closet (or are looking for something to add to it) or you want to donate to a worthy cause. And don’t forget to check in with Rocco and family, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on A&E. Amaradio promises you’ll be glad you did. “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. It’s a great family show.” Great family, great show…makes sense.


Laguna Life & Pups: The world according to K-9 Ranger

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Since Dr. Doolittle, who hasn’t imagined what it would be like to communicate with animals? Or is it just me, and my animal assignments have gone too far? Ranger is my first dog interview.

“What’s a typical work night like for you?” I ask Ranger. He works from 4:40 p.m. until 2:40 a.m. from Thursday through Saturday, but is on call 24/7. 

I soon find out there are no typical work nights.

“I go on all alarm calls, crimes-in-progress, locate suspects and evidence.” He’s fidgety, this is his first interview too.

It’s a dog’s life. A bad connotation. Not true, according to Ranger, our Laguna Beach Police Department’s K-9. He loves his job, and he loves his life with Corporal Zachary Fillers (and his family), his handler for the past three years. Ranger, named after fallen officer Sergeant Jon Coutchie who was a US Army Ranger, was later nicknamed Ranger Danger by his fellow-officers, but he doesn’t seem dangerous when I meet him at the station. 

“What was your last big case?” I try to make eye-contact, but he’s focused on Corporal Fillers.

Ranger contemplates an answer to my question

Ranger is strictly business. “Sniffing out drugs. We assisted the Newport Beach Police Department in locating several ounces of meth in a compartment under the seat of a car.” 

Before I continue grilling Ranger, I get some background from Corporal Fillers on how they ended up together and what qualities are necessary for a K-9.  Ranger, a Belgian Malinois, was trained in Holland and purchased through Adlerhorst International in Jurupa Valley, a company that specializes in selecting the finest K-9s for police work. In business for over 45 years, they’ve evolved into the largest private police dog school in the world. The Laguna Beach Woman’s Club donated $10,000 and the LB Assistance League donated $12,000 toward his purchase.

“Is Corporal Fillers a good handler?” I’d like to take that inquiry back, since he’s been Ranger’s only handler.

Ranger looks appalled at my stupidity. “No complaints.”

Ranger and Corporal Fillers team up

Ever since he was young and a K-9 officer came to his school, Corporal Fillers has wanted to be a K-9 handler. His love of dogs, combined with his background, made him the perfect match for Ranger. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminology, Law, and Society from the University of California at Irvine. He graduated from the Orange County Sheriff’s Academy in 2009 and has been a Police Officer with the Laguna Beach Police Department since 2011. 

Together, he and Ranger went through an initial eleven weeks of training, consisting of six weeks on patrol and five weeks of narcotics detection. On Wednesdays, they train with the Irvine and Newport Beach Police Departments. Once a month, he and Ranger are trained by their vendor Adlerhorst International (in both patrol and narcotics detection).

“Are there any other jobs you’d like to attempt other than being a K-9?” I ask.

This gets Ranger’s attention. “A dispatcher. I like wearing the headset.” 

I should have seen that answer coming. A photo of him in the dispatcher’s chair was posted on Instagram a few days ago.

The qualities necessary for a K-9 (which are present in Ranger’s breed) are prey drive (hunting, chasing), play drive (desire to interact with others), and defense drive (flight or fight mode). And Ranger has these in aces.

“You have a stressful job.” I say to Ranger. “How do you relax once you’re off-duty?” 

“I’m excited to come to work, and I’m excited to get home and just hang out. I play with Hailey and Zach’s children.”  

I find out that Hailey is an Australian Shepherd Cattle Dog mix that Corporal Fillers had before he got Ranger.

“What’s your favorite part of the job?”

“I love being in the car. At home, I like my kennel.” He seems bored, as if he’d rather be back in the car.

Corporal Fillers and Ranger (wanting to get back to his favorite place at work)

 “Are you ever afraid when you go out on a call?” 

 “Never to the point of being not willing to go out. I told you, I love my job.” He looks away. “But big waves scare me.”

I give Ranger a break for a moment and ask Corporal Fillers if Ranger wears a bullet proof vest. He soon will. They’ve acquired a state of the art vest thanks to the Vest-A-Dog Orange County. Jenny Conde from CDMHS started the group, and with the help of Officer Mike Fletcher from the Newport Beach Police Department, they secured the funds for Ranger’s vest, as well as several others for K-9s throughout Orange County.

Back to the interview. “What noise do you love?”

Do dogs eye-roll? If they do, I’m getting one. “The sound of my food going into the bowl.”

“What noise do you hate?” 

“The lawnmower.”

The only time Ranger barks at home, Corporal Fillers explains, is when the gardener comes.

I’m starting to feel a bit like James Lipton on Inside the Actors’ Studio asking questions originating from Bernard Pivot.

“What’s your favorite word?”

He’s smiling. “Find it.” And dogs do smile.

After locating evidence, Ranger is rewarded with his toy, a jute roll, to chew on and play with before continuing the sniffing.

A reward for “finding it”

“What’s your least favorite word?”

“No.”

A universal answer, he’s not so different from humans. 

“Does Corporal Fillers use hand signals or verbal commands?” I say.

No response. He’s done.

Corporal Fillers answers for him. “Both.”

Before Ranger (who is the department’s third police dog), it had been 10 years since the department had a dog program. 

Corporal Fillers expands on the value of a K-9 to the department. “Ranger’s job is finding people and things. He has a superior sense of smell (30,000 better than ours) to find bad guys and drugs. He’s a big locating tool that allows us (the officers) to keep a safe distance away. He can also move faster, which saves man hours, and allows us to better serve the community.” 

Once a year, they are recertified in patrol (a three day class) and narcotics detection (a two day class).

K-9 experts say that the bond between a K-9 and handler is unbreakable. The inevitable thought of Ranger’s retirement comes to mind. “Retirement usually comes after 5-7 years of service, but it depends on the health of the dog. We want them to have a good retirement,” Corporal Fillers says. When that time comes, he’ll be able to purchase Ranger for a dollar to alleviate liability for the department.

Corporal Filler and Ranger are inseparable

To help with the vet bills for retired police dogs and for the purchase of police dogs for other departments, the Orange County Police K-9 Association puts on a spectacular themed event each year. The 29th Annual Police K-9 Demonstration will be held on Sat, Oct. 14, at Glover Stadium in Anaheim. It includes helicopters, dog competitions, fireworks, and a meet and greet with the K-9s. (For more information, go to www.ocpa.org.) 

I “paws” to reflect. There are a few questions that I didn’t get to ask Ranger, “Do you have a bucket list?” and “If dog heaven exists, what would you like God to say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?” But these questions must wait for another conversation. 

Thank you, Corporal Fillers and Ranger for your dedicated service and for a window into what life is like for a K-9 and his handler. The world “according to Ranger” is a good one.


Laguna Fitness’s Cora Kasperski believes that  tough love works

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Cora Kasperski is undoubtedly her business’s best advertisement. As owner of Laguna Fitness, Kasperski embodies everything she preaches to her clients – times ten. She started Laguna Fitness almost on a whim. Last week she celebrated her business’s new space at 1999 South Coast Highway (just down the street from the old space) and 15 years of helping people reach their fitness goals.

Working out for herself as well as helping others

Kasperski, a native of the Philippines, came to Laguna 15 years ago via San Diego when she and her first husband got engaged. Kasperski took over a personal training business that was closing and she has been up at the crack of dawn training clients ever since. Kasperski’s days have gotten even longer in the past year since she started competing in body building contests. This has her up at 4:15, three mornings a week so she can tend to her own fitness routine which is, needless to say, intense.

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Cora Kasperski, owner of Laguna Fitness, in her studio

Motivated to compete

While acknowledging she has always worked out, Kasperski credits her first husband who was a Marine and her best friend from the Philippines for prompting her to reach the next level of fitness. “My friend competed. She had muscles. It was attractive, being fit and healthy. I just like that look,” she says of her motivation. She competed in her first contest at age 28 and came away with the first of her three Best-in-Class Championships. The next two would arrive 22 years later when Kasperski decided to start competing again at 50.

Committed to winning

Such a decision is not taken on lightly. To look like Kasperski and, especially to win like Kasperski, is not a part-time thing. To prepare for a competition means Kasperski goes on a 90-day plan with her coach. “He helps a lot,” she says emphatically. It’s somewhat encouraging to know that even the most disciplined people can use a little extra help in attaining their goals. 

Organization and discipline in addition to the work outs

For these 90-day periods Kasperski wakes up in the dark for her cardio-walk and then spends five hours, three days a week working out in her gym. She works clients in around her workout. She eats six to seven times a day and spends Sunday cooking an entire week’s worth of food. As her husband Clay marvels, “The organization and discipline needed for this is even harder than the working out.” 

Closing in on a goal

Kasperski’s discipline is impressive. She competed three times last year and has a competition coming up in July. That’s 360 days dedicated to this very intensive regime. No sugar, no alcohol, every food measured; clearly, Kasperski is not just competing for the fun of it. She has lofty ambitions. “My goal is to win the overall competition,” she says. 

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Cora Kasperski at work with a private client

This means winning each of three divisions in her particular category, which is called “Figure.” There are four categories: Bikini, Figure, Physique and Body Builder, with each category getting a bit more muscular. The Body Builder category would be the most muscular. Each category has age divisions (i.e. 35+ years, 40+ years) so Kasperski has to compete against women who are considerably younger. At her last competition in December Kasperski achieved first place in two divisions and then a third place. She just missed out on winning the overall competition, but it’s very much in her sights. 

A loyal clientele sees results

Her commitment to her goals is obviously an inspiration to her clients. When we met at her studio one of her clients was there working out, and he couldn’t help but offer his unsolicited praise of Kasperski. He’d been working out with her for three months, had lost 20 lbs. and gained muscle. His enthusiasm was infectious. His devotion to Kasperski and her methods was very apparent.

Tough but not mean

Kasperski’s husband also sings her praises as a trainer. He would know. Before he married her he, too, was a client. Kasperski says she fired him as a client once they got serious. “I had to because it’s not good if I’m telling him what to do all the time,” she says laughing. 

And while Kasperski has a very bubbly personality, apparently she’s not all sweetness and light when she’s training someone. “Cora is very motivating,” explains Clay, her husband. “She doesn’t baby you; she challenges you.” He goes on to explain that both men and women, (her clients are about 50 percent male and 50 percent female) appreciate her toughness. “Some women have been treated delicately before they get here. They like it that she’s tough…but she’s not mean,” he adds emphatically.  Kasperski says she’s a believer in “tough love” for her clients. Is she complimentary? “If they deserve it,” she says smiling.

15 years in business is a result of being attentive

Her approach must be working. Laguna Beach has more than a few personal trainers and Kasperski has managed to stay in business – and even grow her business – over the past 15 years. Her secret is pretty simple: “When I train people I’m with them. I give them a little touch. It’s a small thing, but it lets you know somebody’s there for you. I’m very attentive.” 

She’s so attentive that she texts her clients what to eat daily and does a general check-in with them. If they’ve been over-indulging, she has no problem calling them out. She also has no problem calling them out if they’re not focused during training. One of her catchphrases around the studio is “Just listen!” She gets serious for a moment. “It’s so annoying when they don’t listen,” she says with exasperation, then smiles broadly. It’s very clear that if you’re in her gym, you’re not messing around.

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Cora Kasperski with husband Clay in Laguna Fitness’s new space

A former pro seeks out her help

With a very full calendar, Kasperski is pretty much maxed out right now. “I don’t know if I want to get any busier,” she says. “Maybe someday I’ll read a magazine,” she says doubtfully. One thing she would like to make time for is working with older people. “I love old people,” she says. She gives away a lot of her time for charity events and even offers a free Booty class on Sundays (call for availability). She did take on a new client recently and she couldn’t be more excited. “Sean Ray was a top body builder, top five in the world for ten years in a row. He came to my open house and said, ‘I think you can help me.’ He’s been on the couch for a while now,” she says laughing.

A trainer, a competitor and a matchmaker

While her goal is to help her clients reach their goals, be they former professional body builders or just people wanting to look and feel better, Kasperski offers another service that doesn’t come standard with most personal trainers. “I’m a matchmaker,” she says proudly. Apparently, she’s a successful one, at least according to her clients. The exact number of couples matched was up for debate, but like everything Kasperski does, the number was more than you’d expect.


The Blue Hour: Mitch Ridder’s Artistic Eye

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Mitch Ridder embraces the blue hour. Those rich moments of twilight, just after dusk, when the sun sits low below the horizon and the indirect light of the sky takes on a vivid blue hue. In those betwixt minutes, the world seems to hold its breath. For Mitch, an award-winning photographer and photojournalist, it’s not always as serene as you might imagine.

One Sunday evening, hovering precariously above the 110 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles, only a narrow one-foot strip of cement beneath him for false protection, Mitch stands ready. Cars navigate around the blind corner of the Third Street onramp at 30 mph in the near dark, inches away from Mitch and his camera. He positions his tripod on the curb, his foot in the street, and focuses both his mind and his lens. 

“It was very similar to many shots by other photographers,” Mitch says. “The challenge I set for myself was to find a new angle.” 

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The Blue Hour: in this photo, a time to feature Mitch Ridder himself

The image is stunning. A snake of red taillights beneath him, a streak of white headlights coming toward him, the majesty of the L.A. skyline at twilight framed by palm trees whose every frond is highlighted by the backdrop of that intense blue hue.

“There are always two people in every picture,” Ansel Adams once said. “The photographer and the viewer.” Mitch’s quiet stillness behind the camera is just as visible as the rush of the freeway below. The fluorescent-lit metropolis, random sequences of sporadic light, so dense it feels lonely; and a photographer, alone with his lens, as cars whiz within inches. At least that’s what this viewer sees, standing metaphorically beside Mitch, months after the fact.

The Road (& Track) to Art

Mitch developed his appreciation for art early. Throughout his childhood Mitch’s father, a local architect, subscribed to Road & Track Magazine, which contained a significant amount of art—illustrations, drawings, photographs. Mitch was hooked. As a senior at Laguna Beach High School, he took an art class from Hal Akins. 

“[Akins] had an amazing way of analyzing and comparing my pencil drawing to the source photo,” Mitch says. “My work went from some of my best efforts to I-can’t-believe-what-I’ve-done. That set the path for art and illustration.” Akins would send Mitch back to his desk—again and again—to review, refine, and revise. 

That patience and persistence paid off. His work eventually appeared in Road & Track and, in 1998, Mitch juried into the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts for his watercolors of IndyCars.

Mitch studied commercial art at Orange Coast College before transferring to Cal State Long Beach to study illustration. He received scholarships from both the Festival of Arts and Sawdust Festival to complete his education. He was able to apply those skills to t-shirt graphics and apparel design for ASICS athletic wear, a sponsor for the New York City Marathon. 

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Mitch Ridder is also an accomplished marathon runner

Did I mention Mitch is also a marathon runner? Fifty of them. Including both Boston and New York, a marathon he finished in 2:59:12. Mitch started running at the age of 27, following a serious injury he suffered to his ankle playing softball. After surgery, he wanted to test the new hardware in his foot and began running. And running. And running. Like everything Mitch tackles, he didn’t do it half way. 

 

Water, Water, Everywhere

Throughout it all, Mitch was also a competitive swimmer. Beginning at age nine and continuing into college, Mitch took easily to the water. And, at 17, he started serving as a lifeguard—not just in high school and college—but for 38 years. Only recently did Mitch hang up his whistle.

All that time in the water may have worked its way into his art. Before Mitch was a photographer, he was a watercolor artist. For 24 years, Mitch produced meticulous paintings that looked like photographs. The detail is just that vivid.

“I measured my work in weeks and months,” he says. “Never in hours or days.” Mitch worked like an airbrush artist, masking off sections of work to prevent bleeding, and applying multiple layers of paint to build opacity and contrast. He harnessed the focus, perseverance and patience that are prevalent in everything he does. His watercolor work showed at the Festival of Arts from 1999-2008. After 24 years, though, painting became more work than reward. That’s when he trained his eye on the camera.

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Those medals of Mitch’s deserve a close-up

While photography had always been part of Mitch’s life, he didn’t devote full attention to it until 2008. His grandmother passed, leaving Mitch some money. She’d always been a supporter of his art, and he reflected on how best he could honor her memory. He used his inheritance to buy his first professional camera.

A Man About Our Town . . . And Others

At some point in Mitch’s photography career, he realized he had taken more pictures of Los Angeles than Laguna Beach. As a lifelong resident, Mitch felt oversaturated by the iconic images of Laguna—in galleries, on postcards, and in tourist shops—the town felt overdone. He decided to use his knowledge of Laguna to his photographic advantage. “I could see familiar landmarks in a different way,” he said. “And depict the town from a different perspective.” 

Mitch shares that intimate familiarity in every image. The cottages on Park Avenue, photographed during the blue hour, with the Hotel Laguna rising behind. Getting inside the ocean with the lifeguards during training. Laguna’s every season, angle, and mood—from celebrations to crises—caught inside his camera. Mitch creates visual love letters to our town.

He’s taken that love to Italy and, most recently, to Cuba where he captured the vivid colors, the friendly people, the rich architecture, and the dilapidated cars of Havana and Trinidad. An island outside time and technology, seen through the unique lens of Mitch’s eye. His work will be on display this summer at the Festival of Arts.

Open Doors

Doors, and windows, are prominent in Mitch’s work. Maybe it’s the architectural influences of his father. Maybe it’s Mitch’s rich subconscious always at work. He often portrays people on the precipice of coming or going, or simply standing on the threshold of the open world, and what lies intimately within. That quiet blue hour that resides in us all. Or maybe, as Ansel Adams suggests, that’s just this viewer’s perspective, looking inside Mitch’s work.

But his life feels like a testament to the power of opening oneself to the world. To let life in—artistically, athletically—however it arrives. And to capture its beauty when it does.

To learn more about Mitch, visit his website at www.mitchridderphotography.com 


Ernest Hackmon and “The Importance of Being”

WRITTEN BY: Samantha Washer

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Ernest Hackmon was looking for a change. “I was in telecom management. I got to a plateau in my career. I was driving to work and I realized where I’d be at that time for the rest of my life. It was unsettling,” he says with a laugh. “I reevaluated my life. I decided I should think bigger.” So in 1995, Hackmon opened his business, Web Wave Village, “an internet café without coffee,” on Forest Ave. 

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Ernest Hackmon, host of KX93.5’s ‘The Importance of Being”

Trying to strike it rich during the “gold rush”

Hackmon describes this time as the “gold rush” of the Internet. “Everybody thought they were going to get rich,” he muses. As for Hackmon, “My intention was to quickly become rich and embark on a life of frivolous spending like Justin Bieber. Instead, I ended up working almost 80 hours a week and becoming a pillar of the community,” he says with mock despair. “It was a work avoidance plan gone horribly wrong,” he laughs, something he does easily and often. This “plan” lasted ten years. 

Giving LBUSD a much-needed introduction to technology

In those years, Hackmon made a lot of contacts in the city. He credits those relationships for helping his business survive when “the bubble burst.” They also led him down his path to community pillar-dom. The first step was with the schools. “I did an eight year modernization project for the schools. I helped set the foundation for what they’re doing now. They viewed me as a godsend because they didn’t have any money,” he remembers. Technology in the classroom is so ubiquitous now, it’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t that long ago when teachers didn’t use, or even have computers in their classrooms. Hackmon helped with that first step.

From the schools to SchoolPower

He also helped modernize the schools’ largest benefactor, SchoolPower. “Before they were using a ton of volunteers to manage their Dinner Dance auction. I agreed to help them so I designed an auction management system. They went from using spreadsheets to automated tools. It helped change their culture into a much more modern organization. It changed their focus from volunteer management to next level fundraising,” he says proudly.

Inspired by President Obama to get involved

Hackmon didn’t just stop with the schools. He began working with city issues, as well. It was right before President Obama was elected. Hackmon says he was inspired to get involved. In addition to contracting with the Laguna Beach Water District, a venture, he says he embarked on in order to have some much-needed free time, he also joined the Parking, Traffic and Circulation Committee. We both chuckled at the name. Can it sound any less exciting? But there aren’t many things that concern Laguna Beach residents more on a daily basis than parking and traffic. 

The Parking, Traffic and Circulation Committee makes headlines

“We’re most famous for the skateboarding issue,” he explains. The “skateboarding issue” Hackmon is referring to took place several years ago when downhill skateboarding was extremely popular in Laguna. It fell to his committee to figure out how the skateboarders, drivers, bikers and pedestrians could all coexist on Laguna’s narrow roads. What started out as a meeting with a handful of people soon grew into a 400 - 500 person event, according to Hackmon. “We did what any good committee does: we gave people a chance to speak.” 

 It had become such a big issue that reporters and TV crews were at the meeting. Hackmon says he remembers a reporter from Channel 5 news leaving in disgust.

“People discussing their views in an orderly and cordial manner isn’t newsworthy. The (city of) Bell hearings were going on at the same time. There were people throwing chairs and screaming. That’s better TV,” he says with a shrug. Hackmon sat on the committee for seven years.

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Ernest Hackmon in the studio with last week’s guest, Caroline Bruderer

Changing the culture on the Irvine Valley College Foundation

Continuing with his commitment to education, Hackmon joined the Irvine Valley College Foundation. “I help businesses modernize so it was a good fit for me. I became president and changed the culture. I brought in new people with new experiences which developed a culture of winning. They’re a very good school. They hadn’t had a lot of experience being successful fundraisers, but they had a great product to sell,” he explains.  

After three years on the Board, Hackmon says the Board went from 12 members to 25 when he stepped down. Now, there are 40 members with an endowment of over $1 million. “They’re well on their way,” Hackmon says with satisfaction.

Doing the people’s business because it needs to be done

And personal satisfaction is what it’s about for Hackmon since, as he acknowledges, he doesn’t really have a personal agenda regarding his causes. He simply does what is needed because it is needed. “Most of the stuff you’re going to do is not stuff you’re passionate about. It’s stuff that’s important to other people,” he admits.  However, this isn’t true for everything he does. 

“The Importance of Being” is born

For just over three years Hackmon has hosted a radio show on KX93.5 called “The Importance of Being.” Talk about a happy accident of events that helped bring this show to the air.  “When the radio station started I connected with the music,” he says. “I wanted to volunteer, but I could never catch up with Tyler (Russell, KX93.5 Program Director).” 

Then, one day out of the blue, Russell called Hackmon because, “He said I was on a list to do a show.” Hackmon says he had filled out an application to volunteer at the station, and he had mentioned – because it was part of the application – that if he were to do a show it would focus on people in the community.  

Hackmon says he definitely thought of himself as a behind-the-scenes guy. “I’d won a tape recorder back in elementary school. I heard the sound of my voice and never used it again,” he says shaking his head. “I had no desire or want to do that ever again,” he adds with a rueful laugh.

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Laguna’s KX93.5, where Ernest Hackmon connects listeners to their community

A behind-the-scenes guy gets a slot on prime time radio

Russell must have been very persuasive because he convinced Hackmon to give broadcasting a try with a primetime, two hour slot. “It was a pretty rough the first couple of weeks,” laughs Hackmon. Now, in his fourth season, he’s clearly smoothed out all the kinks.

Music and conversation mix to make compelling radio

Every Saturday from 8 -9 a.m. Hackmon interviews someone who is making a difference in their community. “I try to provide examples of how people are making the most of their time in in their life.” He likens the interview to a cocktail party version of their story. “I’m trying to explore the person and who they are.” He uses music to relax his guests. 

Originally, he admits, he used it as “water wings” in case he found himself stuck live on air. Now, he uses it to set the mood. “Plus it makes the show more listenable,” he says. He also says his friends don’t appreciate his taste in music. “I love alternative music. My friends won’t let me play it for them!” he says with mock indignation.

A gift he gives to himself and his listeners

While the musical part of Hackmon’s radio show could be viewed as a way to indulge his musical tastes, the interview part indulges something much deeper in him. He is certain that the people who are the happiest are the people who give the most.

“They have an enduring satisfaction that’s unrivaled,” he says with certainty. His interest in sharing these people’s stories is what drives his radio show. “I love it. It’s a gift I give myself. I get to spend an hour every week with someone amazing. That’s pretty special. I get to live in this world populated by people doing wonderful things, and that’s not too bad.” he says emphatically. After this interview, I know just how he feels.


As a kid, Jeff Rovner wanted to be Ricky Ricardo, but life had other plans for this multi-talented man

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

It takes more than sleight of hand to become an expert in multiple endeavors: lawyer, technologist, professor, magician, and photographer. However, Jeff Rovner, although he is an accomplished magician, doesn’t need the magical arts to attain success. Granted, there is a bit of performance in each of his diverse roles, but he claims there is another common thread; if he discovers a final effect worth achieving, he’ll put in the time and behind the scenes preparation to bring it about. 

Jeff is married to Marrie Stone, a writer and co-host of KUCI’s Writers on Writing radio show, and father to fifteen-year-old Haley, a sophomore at Sage, and a hula hoop performer with Le PeTiT CiRqUe, an all-kid humanitarian cirque company. 

He’s also master of the house to Theo, a beautiful Ragdoll cat.

How does someone who, as a child, wanted to be a band leader in the style of Ricky Ricardo and had the red sport coat with black lapels to prove it, become a multi-award winning technologist, a professor at George Washington University, a member of The Academy of Magical Arts, and an exhibitor of Fine Art Photography at the 2017 Festival of Arts? 

Jeff was born in 1957 in Washington D.C. and took up magic at the age of seven, when he found a magician’s number in the telephone book and called him. The magician turned out to be a professional who performed at the White House for the Kennedy children. He sold Jeff his first magic paraphernalia, and during Jeff’s childhood and early teen years, he performed at various events. 

In 1995, he was inducted into The Academy of Magical Arts (aka Magic Castle). On Halloween, he treats the neighborhood to performances at his door, and he still does magic for his students in the Master’s Program in Law Firm Management course.

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Jeff’s Collection of Magic Memorabilia

With the intention of becoming a doctor like his father and older brother, Jeff earned a BS in Zoology and worked briefly at NIH. But along the way, he switched career paths from medicine to law. In 1982, he graduated with a law degree from GW and practiced for 14 years. In 1996 he made another career change, this time to the field that came to be called knowledge management. He is currently the Managing Director for Information at the global law firm O’Melveny and Myers. 

In this role, Jeff organizes vast quantities of information to make it accessible and useful to the lawyers in his firm. Jeff says he enjoys the challenge of bringing order to chaos. “The more complex and messy a subject is, the greater the payoff when you finally organize and simplify it.” 

In 2007, Jeff was named one of the Top 100 Global Tech Leaders; in 2014, he was chosen Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management; and since 2015, Jeff’s litigation efficiency software, called OMMLit, has received four innovation awards, most recently from the Financial Times. 

This talent for innovation has translated into his photography. On his photography website, www.jeffrovner.com, he says, “The camera is my preferred tool to extract order, beauty and meaning from a chaotic world.”

Mesmerized by Haley and photography

His interest in photography began in earnest in 2011, when he was determined to take better pictures of daughter Haley and knew he was on borrowed time to document her childhood. “She just endlessly fascinated and delighted me,” he says. “I was determined to take better pictures of her. One of my photographer friends insisted I learn how to shoot without relying on my camera’s automatic settings. I bought a camera from Leica, a retro model that requires the photographer to choose focus and exposure manually. While that made shooting pictures more difficult at first, the results were so much better. It’s the only art form in which I’ve been able to produce results that satisfy me.”

Haley was also the inspiration for the fine art photographs Jeff will exhibit at this year’s Festival of Arts. When she joined Le PeTiT CiRqUe, Jeff frequently drove her to her practice sessions and performances. With the blessing of the troupe’s owner, Jeff conducted a formal portrait session with all the young performers, shooting them in the style of Irving Penn’s famous portraits. 

“Based on the success of those photographs, I was given more access to the troupe, and was able to document the kids at their rehearsals and shows,” he says.

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In the midst of magic, Le PeTiT CiRqUe and Haley (in a photo on the wall)

Once he had accumulated a large body of Cirque photos, he recalled the advice of his mentor Robert Hansen, another photographer at the Festival, who had suggested he choose a photography project and perhaps produce a book. So he planned the finishing touch for the project – a dramatic portrait of each artist performing his or her circus art, including trapezes, hoops, and stilts. 

Jeff will exhibit that portfolio of portraits at this summer’s Festival. The portraits are also included in Jeff’s book, The Values of Le PeTiT CiRqUe. All profits from the book are donated to the purchase of supplies and equipment for the troupe. “The book was a labor of love,” Jeff says, “my attempt to capture the beauty of the costumes, the nostalgia of the circus, the skill of the performers, and the growth of all the kids, including my own.” 

Three of these portraits are on exhibition at Wells Fargo Bank’s third floor gallery, as part of the Festival’s Fresh Faces exhibit (featuring artists recently juried into the Festival), which runs until June 14. A reception will be held at 11 a.m. on Sat, May 13.

Hometown performance

Adding to Jeff’s excitement at exhibiting during the Festival’s 85th year, the troupe from Le PeTiT CiRqUe will perform twice on Family Day on July 16 at the Festival. Between shows, they will mingle and interact with the crowd. “It will be wonderful to watch Haley perform with her troupe in her home town,” he says.

Laguna Beach became Jeff’s town in 1994. What drew him to Laguna? “It just feels good here. It’s kind of a healing place, there’s something very special about it. For people who need some repair, it offers that, and the small scale of the architecture compared to the mega mansions in other communities reminds people of their humanity,” he says. “The small beach cottages also encourage people to get out of their homes and into the town. It’s a real place, a community, more like what I was accustomed to back east.” 

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In all endeavors, Theo serves as Muse

Fortunately for us, he made Laguna his home, but he does love to visit other places. Jeff, Marrie, and Haley have traveled extensively via house swapping, which they started doing in 2005, the first time in Paris. They’ve been back there several times, and it turns out that is Jeff’s favorite city. They also liked Leiden in the Netherlands and Forte dei Marmi in Italy. He dreams someday of orchestrating an arrangement with two other families, one in Paris and the other in some other wonderful city, and have each family rotate through the three homes during the year.

Looking to the future

That conversation takes us into the future -- what projects, what chaos is out there for him to simplify. “New ideas excite me,” Jeff says. “I’m lucky to work in a job that gives me the time to read and look for new ideas, including ideas from other disciplines that can be adapted for use in my law firm.” 

Jeff’s interest in ideas led him to a new project he calls “Concept Cards.” He plans to produce a deck of cards, each explaining an important concept and showing how it can be useful. “People need concepts to attach their experiences to, to give meaning to those experiences. So I’m assembling the concepts that have been most useful to me, and soliciting others from my friends. With a deck of Concept Cards, one can learn valuable ideas that would otherwise require a lifetime to gather.” He has already crowd-sourced 200 concepts.

So, we found out how the boy who wanted to be a band leader ended up in Laguna Beach as the master of many roles. Although the one thing he hasn’t mastered that he would like to, he says, “…is playing the piano.” Of course, I immediately pictured him someday in Paris, playing the piano in a lounge, and wearing a red sport coat with black lapels. 

“When you were young, did you expect you would have a good life?” I ask, and he responds, “As a child I always expected I would have a good life. I still do. (And by God, I have!)”


Jill Gwaltney, Rauxa’s founder. on working harder, being nicer, and the challenges of businesswomen

WRITTEN BY: Samantha Washer

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

When Jill Gwaltney, founder of Rauxa, graduated from Stanford, she interviewed with companies like Merrill Lynch and Xerox for a sales position. Her father, who owned a printing company, suggested that if a career in sales was what she wanted, then she should come sell for him.  

Gwaltney accepted, but was mindful of her position. “When you’re the boss’s daughter you have to work harder and be nicer,” she says. That mindset, working harder and being nicer, is one she has carried with her throughout her career, long after leaving her father’s employ. And this attitude has paid off. Rauxa, the full service marketing agency founded by Gwaltney, was just ranked as the third largest agency in Orange County by the Orange County Business Journal.

A life built in Laguna, but with offices all over the country

Jill and her husband, the well-known artist Chris Gwaltney, moved to Laguna in 1979. Her parents had recently moved to Laguna Niguel and Gwaltney says she and Chris just “liked the area.” They’ve been here ever since. Now, however, less of their time is spent here than in years past. Rauxa has offices all over the country which means Gwaltney is frequently on a plane somewhere. However, since turning the day-to-day reins of Rauxa over to president and CEO Gina Alshuler, Gwaltney says she is spending time “taking care of myself. When the kids were at home it was work-family. That was it. Now there is more time for friends, more vacations.”

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Jill Gwaltney, founder of Rauxa, one of OC’s largest marketing agencies

Learning business from a reliable source: Dad

The road to this more relaxed stage of Gwaltney’s life is paved with hard work. She worked her way up the ladder of her father’s company: from sales to sales manager to VP of sales to president. “Everything I know about business I learned from my dad,” she says. One piece of sage advice he imparted to her was that in the then very male-dominated world of the printing business, if certain customers were to ask her for more than printing services, she needed to be mindful of the potential fragility of their egos. 

“He suggested I say something like, ‘I’m so flattered, but I really don’t think it’s a good idea to mix business with pleasure.’ I was 22 then. Now, I’m 61 and still no one has made a pass at me!” she says laughing. “The likelihood of me getting to use this line is not increasing. I should have worked for Bill O’Reilly,” she adds wryly.

Choosing to make the glass half full

While she laughs at the lack of opportunity to rebuff male customers’ unwanted advances, Gwaltney’s early success in a male-dominated field has impacted how she runs Rauxa. “I tweeted the other day, ‘Come to Rauxa where there is no glass ceiling to shatter,’” she says good-naturedly. Gwaltney knows what it’s like to be the only woman, something she says she saw as an advantage back in the early days. And this might be her secret: what others see as a hindrance she sees as an advantage.

The side project doesn’t stay part-time for long 

She and her father sold the printing company in 1996. She was asked to stay on as president for three years. However, Gwaltney says she didn’t really have any authority so she left after 18 months. “I thought I was going to retire,” she says, amused at the thought. “I coached (son) Cooper’s soccer team. I did Ladies Golf Day…then I started this little agency. I thought of it as maybe a part-time thing.” The “little agency” was Rauxa, of course, and Gwaltney should have known better. She can’t do “part-time.” “Well…I’m super competitive,” she admits with a laugh, “Plus I really like to take care of people. I really enjoy fulfilling the needs of others.” The combination of those two personality traits meant Rauxa was not going to be a side project for very long.

Seeing the advantages of being a woman in business

“We kept adding things based on what people needed,” she says of Rauxa’s growth. “Marketing is so data driven. The question becomes how do we personalize that data?” Asking questions and, even more challenging, being willing to listen to the answers is something Gwaltney practices personally and professionally. “Now, there are a lot more women in business. Back in the old days it was all men. I always felt being a woman was an advantage because the client wants help. It’s easier for me to be open, vulnerable, and help them do better in their jobs.”

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Jill Gwaltney in her Laguna Beach home office. Rauxa is located in Costa Mesa.

The importance of women at the top

While there may be more women in business today, Gwaltney still bemoans the lack of women in leadership positions. “There’s still not enough women at the top,” she says. “So much is based on relationships. A man in a key position brings people along because he trusts them. If you’re a woman it makes it harder to break in because of that.” In typical Gwaltney-fashion she adds, “When I was younger I never gave it any thought. I just thought I’ll work harder and stay after it until it’s done.” And she did.

Finding a true partner

Gwaltney’s commitment to her career is only matched by her dedication to her family. She credits her husband with helping her create that ever-elusive work/life balance. “It all starts with the husband, a true partner,” she says. Gwaltney remembers seeing Chris, a former tennis professional, on the court at the Laguna Niguel Racquet Club. “He was teaching these four and five year old kids. I thought he was adorable,” she says with a laugh. “I was always an outlier, always very outspoken. He enjoyed that...He never tried to shush me.” 

Committed to work, dedicated to family

The couple, married for 34 years, has two grown children, Dylan and Cooper. Dylan is completing her pediatric residency at Children’s Hospital LA. “I happen to think she’s the smartest, cutest and most empathetic doctor the world has ever seen,” says her proud mom. Her son Cooper is listed on Rauxa’s’s website as the “Lead Account Guy” for Cats on the Roof, a division of Rauxa that focuses solely on video content. Showing that her pride is equally shared between her children, Gwaltney recounts a recent pitch Cooper and his team made for Linzess, a treatment for opioid-induced constipation. “They came in with 16 ideas! The client was amazed. They were like, ‘Who can come up with 16 ideas about this?!’” 

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The view from the Gwaltney’s Emerald Bay home

The next chapter is coming, but not just yet

With her kids excelling in adulthood and the daily management of her company in very capable hands, what’s next? Gwaltney says she is pondering that question. “My next step is figuring out what I can do in the community to give back, maybe start a foundation…but I’m not quite there yet.” And the reason she’s not quite there yet is because she’s at a place with Rauxa where she gets to do what she likes best: work with clients and work with Alshuler on Rauxa’s vision and business development.   

So while she may be spending some more time on the golf course, and taking family vacations and visiting friends, she’s still very committed to her very full-time project.  Those philanthropic endeavors will have to wait. “Whatever I do, I do 100 percent,” she says, stating the obvious.  And that is clearly another secret to her success.


Brooks Street Books’ Sarah Vanderveen: Poet, philosopher, publisher

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Author and photographer Sarah Vanderveen, former editor of a literary journal, searched Southern California for a small independent press compatible with her values and aspirations (and I will add, talent), but she couldn’t find one that matched her publishing goals and those of her creative friends and colleagues. 

So in 2012 Sarah founded one: Brooks Street Books, which for the moment primarily publishes art and gift books steeped in the culture and natural history of Laguna and its surrounds. 

“Every day I wake up and think how lucky I am to live here,” Sarah says. “I wanted to capture the wonder of living somewhere so inspiring, and that’s how my book came about. Also, it made sense to use it as a way to figure out the challenges of the publishing process.”

Sarah Vanderveen

Sarah’s first book, Once by the Pacific, showcases her poems and photography and is beautifully produced. The contents are a paean to the wonders of our coves, wildlife and trails as well as the quirkiness of local characters. 

Two of my favorite poems are Hike and Coyotes (you’ll have to buy the book to read them…it’s available at Laguna Beach Books, Tuvalu and Areo, as well as traditional booksellers).

The essence of creating poetry

Like most of Sarah’s poems, both Hike and Coyotes capture the essence of what it means to live in Laguna, while subtly referencing more universal themes, even the mystery of life itself, in a form that invites the reader in, and doesn’t intimidate, as some poems tend to do – whether intentionally on the part of the poet or not.

“There’s a quote I love, though I’m not sure of the source,” Sarah says. “’[People should] love poems the way they love snow,’ in other words, viscerally. Poems should resonate emotionally, not present a wall the reader can’t get in.”

As, we agreed, is the case with quite a few poems published in The New Yorker.

Inspiration from an early age

Sarah’s sense of wonder about the natural world is a product, she says, of having lived in several inspiring places, from Mendocino to Napa Valley to Seattle, as well as the result of her childhood with parents who loved nature and the written word.

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Sarah’s and other author’s books published by Brooks Street Books 

 “My father used to read us poetry,” she says, recalling in particular a book of poems called Reflections on the Gift of Watermelon Pickle. I had never heard of it, and when I looked it up on Amazon, I was sad that I had never read it as child. (So, always willing to revert to childhood pleasures, I ordered the book.)

“I remember as a kid living in the Bay Area, collecting shells in the tide pools, how frigid the water was, the scent of the native plants on the hillsides, the fog rolling in, how incredibly mysterious the world became. I remember seeing huge sea lions, smelly but so awesome, sunning themselves, just ruling the beach, and they were so close,” Sarah recalls. “That image has stayed with me.”

Sarah’s instinctive connection with nature, combined with the presence of many books in her childhood home, seemed to point her toward a career in the creative arts…“which I resisted at first,” she says, “not wanting to be predictable, I suppose, wanting to be different from everyone else in the family.  So as a kid I thought I’d like to be an architect.”

But both nature and nurture have conspired to turn her into a poet and writer, with a dash of entrepreneurship thrown in.

A special place in her heart

Why Brooks Street Books, I asked?

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Working on new ideas

Turns out that Brooks Street has a great deal of emotional resonance in Sarah’s life. “It’s my husband’s favorite surfing spot, for one thing,” she explains. “Anytime I go down to Brooks Street beach, I’m likely to see friends or people I recognize there, and there are always people at the lookout watching the sunset in the evening, still amazed at the beauty, because it never gets old, even after living here for decades.”

The Vanderveens ended up in Laguna in part because one of their dearest friends, Mark Metherell, lived here with his wife. 

“We found a house across the road in Brooks Street. Those were wonderful times. Tragically Mark, a former Navy Seal, died in Iraq in 2008,” Sarah explains. “So I have a strong emotional connection with Brooks Street. There’s not a day we don’t think about Mark.”

Creativity, good fortune and gratitude

Brooks Street Books has also published the popular 101 Things to Love about Laguna, compiled by writer Sally Eastwood and illustrator Helen Polins-Jones. This book coincidentally arrived in my hands at the same time as a visit from my long-time friend Carol, who is now living in Australia. We happily perused it together, learning more about Laguna than I had known even after all these years living here – did you know that John Steinbeck wrote Tortilla Flat while living on Park Ave?  

As I write this, Carol is wandering around Laguna, seeking out as many of the 101 things that she can fit into her visit. 

The company also recently published The Accidental Naturalist, created by Jo Situ Allen, an adult coloring book which Sarah points out also contains a glossary of the flora and fauna represented on the pages, providing education along with fun.

These are books that represent Laguna, yes, but also the quintessential Sarah Vanderveen – a generous, creative, warm person who loves to walk the trails, surf, and hang out with her college-age sons and friends and family on the beach – and who doesn’t for a minute take for granted the good fortune that has led her to this place at this time, but instead has made it her mission to celebrate the wonder of our world in words and pictures.

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