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The Alternatives

The river's dance

Atop the old city jail, Friends of the L.A. River entertain environmentalists with a lascivious cabaret.

July 17, 2003|Dave Shulman | Special to The Times

If, for any reason at all, you find yourself heading up to the D-Block Exercise Yard on the roof of the old City Jail, Lewis MacAdams is the elevator companion you want.

Chairman of the board and co-founder of the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), MacAdams, a writer, filmmaker and historian, remembers well the semibustling '80s downtown arts scene, the days of Scott Kelman and Pipeline, the old Wallenboyd Theater, the bicycle-bound parking fellow at the homeless recreation center across the street. He's just the man who can put the evening's festivities -- FoLAR's Summer Solstice Rooftop Cabaret -- in perspective.

"This is almost certainly the first time in the history of the environmental movement that an event is hosted by a transvestite," he says. "It's an evolutionary moment, I'd say."

And it's evolution with a view.

The elevator operator doesn't take tips, but after letting passengers out onto the roof, a kindly host requests a sliding-scale admission fee of $10 to $250 -- whatever you can afford, just like good therapy.

And you're in. The rooftop periphery is fenced with high chain links, barbed wire and harsh, static floodlights. There are incredible views of horrible traffic to the north and east, and the stubborn river to the immediate west, with the extraterrestrial glow of Dodger Stadium leaking over the hilltops above and beyond.

Here, in the D-Block Exercise Yard, a small, brightly lit stage faces a foodless banquet of round tables and anomalous Naugahyde booths half-filled with abrasively illuminated river-fans. Two very white stilt-people -- members of the Mums circus troupe -- wander between the tables. One Mum, the male, juggles what appears to have once been bowling pins; the other, far less male, doesn't, but provides several upright audience members with the opportunity to admire, out loud, a well-fitting pair of chaps.

Host(ess) Erica Valentine, close to 7 feet tall herself (with pumps and big yellow hair), takes the stage, does some wry Vegas shtick-and-tease, croons a few classics (including "Luck Be a Lady" while holding a Sinatra photo-mask-on-a-stick) and then introduces a dead ringer for young Roy Orbison, George Willis.

Willis does many things, including construction and cinematic special effects. Tonight he plays the ukulele and sings "L.A. River," a song he wrote with his friend Kelly Bass. It goes: "May not be very long or wide, famous, fast or zippy / But no movie ever had a car chase on the mighty Mississippi / Some people like the Amazon, the Nile, or the Thames / But if you can't ride your skateboard on it, you're river's ... lame."

Built in 1931 and housing its last inmate after the Watts riots of 1965, the city-owned jail building now is home to the L.A. Youth Athletic Club and is rented out frequently for movie production and miscellaneous festivals of merriment. This function is one in FoLAR's monthly "Third Thursday" series held at semi-industrial riverside venues.

On the second floor, well-preserved, '30s-style incarceration chambers line the corridors. Toward the end of the main corridor, six flights directly beneath the stage, is the performers' dressing cell.

"Hey, come here and zip me up."

It's artist Kari French, performing tonight as burlesque artist Frenchi Fontaine. Her hair's even bigger than Valentine's, and rip-roaring magenta. She's wearing some sort of loud, vinyl ... something, with a high collar and a cape, and ... whatever it is, 10 minutes later and six flights above, the ensemble comes off, leaving the crowd of 5- to 80-year-olds cheering for Fontaine's sparkling pasties and G-string.

In the wake of Ms. Fontaine's rousing spiritual, Harvey Sid Fisher and his enthusiastic ensemble take the stage and calm the lascivious crowd into a pleasant groove with ballads of riparian tribute and astrology.

Later, after Valentine has returned to her alto stage banter, MacAdams stands happily alone, his collar turned against the gathering wind. Seems happy with the evening's festivity. A bit worn out, but happy.

"What we [FoLAR] do is build a constituency," he tells me, squinting in the floodlights. "And these people are part of the river's constituency. These are almost all new people. There's only about 10 I've seen before, at any environmental event. And this neighborhood is about to shift, really quickly. An artist just bought that four-story building, right there. It's gonna be artists' lofts, a hundred-five units."

Perhaps, then, if the location is not yet perceived as hip, actual artists might be able to afford to live there?

MacAdams nods, staring off through the crowd and into the moonlit cement banks of the river. "This," he says, "is the new River District."

*

FoLAR's 'Third Thursday'

What: The next in Friends of the Los Angeles River's "Third Thursday" series features jazz by Vinny Golia and Adam Lane and the sale of "river-related artwork" by Frank Romero, Brett Goldstone, Julius Shulman, Richard Godfrey and Extremo the Clown.

When: Today, 6:30-9 p.m.

Where: Gallery 727, 727 Spring St.,

Los Angeles

Info: www.folar.org

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