The only thing missing at the Music Center's Very Special Arts Festival, according to one participant, were tissues.
She said this as she dabbed her eyes, adding: "It's so sweet, what all these kids are doing."
This is the seventh year the Arts Festival has been held on the plaza of the Music Center. Sponsored by the Center's Education Division, its purpose is to bring together disabled and non-disabled children from more than 30 school districts around the Los Angeles area for a half-day of arts-related activities that they can watch and take part in. Events included dance and music performances, workshops and crafts projects, plus the chance to meet celebrities.
Saturday morning the entire plaza, from the Mark Taper Forum to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, was taken up with some 7,500 people, including children, parents, teachers and the curious who came to check out the action. On one side were crafts, including silk-screening, courtesy of the Exceptional Children's Center, where kids daubed paint on screens, squeezed it through and came up with mottled hearts on white paper.
Members of the Los Angeles Mask Theater taught the art of mask making, working with strips of gauze and plaster and creating intricate gargoyle faces. Japanese ink painting from the L.A. County Museum of Art was at another table, and faces were brightened with hearts and rainbows painted by students and teachers of the UCLA Extension ARTSREACH program.
Over on another side were workshops such as puppetry, mime, improvisational drama and music, where children banged on drums, tambourines and other instruments to their heart's content, without anyone telling them to keep it down.
Performances on two stages went non-stop from 9 a.m. to the festival's end at 1:30 p.m. Square dancing, sign-language singing, drill team routines and interpretive dances were interspersed with greetings from celebrities. Henry Winkler was an obvious favorite, still indelibly etched in children's minds as Fonzie.
"I'm proud to be here," he told the crowd, "because you are the most wonderful people I ever met. You are such wonderful artists in your own way, and you give everyone a lot of courage because you're so courageous. I hope I get to meet every single one of you."
Winkler, in his sixth year with the festival, must know by now that he'll always get his wish. From the moment he left the stage at 10:30 to the very end, he was swamped by children and adults anxious to get an autograph, handshake or picture with the star.
"You see how wonderful these children are? These are a super bunch of human beings, and how wonderfully triumphant," he said while signing his name to pieces of paper thrust in front of him. He tweaked the nose of a little boy and asked him, "You like the Fonz?"
Winkler noticed a young man standing in the crowd, turned to him and said, "You were great. I heard you singing with the tribute to the group Chicago. I'm telling you, you were wonderful. And I love your suit," he added, patting a lapel. "You look snappy, buddy."
The young man, Gilbert Allen, 19, of Lanterman High School, grinned and said of Winkler, "He's cool. I wish I was on TV with him."
Barbara Haig has been the coordinator of the festival for the last four years and has watched it grow as more schools participate every year. "You work like a crazy fool and come down here . . . it's like holding a hurricane in your hands and then throwing it out and letting it go. This is a great chance for families to be proud of their kids--maybe for the first time in their lives. It's a great event for the non-disabled community to interact with disabled people in a very positive environment."
Minnie Mouse and Mickey Mouse traipsed through the crowd signing autographs and waving, always with their perpetual smiles. Lauren Tewes took the stage with Karate Kids from Lincoln School and joined them in a demonstration of karate moves. Jon Baumann, better known as Bowser from the group Sha Na Na, sang a couple of numbers and then was mobbed for autographs and pictures, a la Winkler.
Children learned the basics of rhythm in "The Music Box," an inflatable plastic bubble where Larry Stein and Michael Marks played songs like "Beat It" while the audience tapped out the beat with maracas and plastic jugs filled with sand. They also taught the children rhythm by having them listen to the cadence of words, in this case Mexican foods. "TAcos, enchiLAdas, tosTAdas" became the rallying cry of the new percussionists.
Zina Bethune's Dance Outreach Program was part of the bill on one of the outdoor stages, where children with learning disabilities went through complicated dance routines with amazing grace. "I was labeled medically disabled from the time I was very young," said Bethune, who was taking a few minutes away from her dancers to talk. "I was told I'd never dance, that I'd be in a wheelchair. I've been hearing that all my life." Her Outreach program, now in its fourth year, teaches disabled children how to dance. "My whole concept is that art transcends limitations. Performing like this is very positive. It gives them an opportunity to show what they've accomplished not only with friends and family but with the world at large. Mainstreaming is a long and arduous process, but it's necessary."