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Royal couple visit skid row

William and Catherine paint with students and see dances at arts center

July 11, 2011|Alexandra Zavis and Kate Mather and Tony Barboza

Growing up poor in South Los Angeles, Lorenzo Perez never imagined he would one day dance for British royalty.

"I didn't think there was still kings and queens," said Perez, 19, who got his chance on Sunday. "It's like a Disney movie."

On the last day of their whirlwind visit to the United States, Prince William and his wife, Catherine, saw a less glitzy side of Southern California, visiting a children's arts center in the heart of downtown Los Angeles' skid row and a job fair for military veterans and their families in Culver City.

The appearances highlighted some of William's charitable interests: helping homeless youth, promoting the arts and supporting troops. Sunday's itinerary contrasted with the couple's previous engagements, which included a charity polo match near Santa Barbara and red-carpet dinners with Hollywood celebrities.

The day began with a morning reception in Beverly Hills to raise money for the Tusk Trust, an African wildlife conservation group.

The couple then rode across town, escorted by Cynthia Harnisch, president of Inner-City Arts, a nonprofit that provides free arts instruction to poor children. The drive ended in the gritty neighborhood that has become known as the country's homeless capital.

As the motorcade of SUVs and motorcycles passed San Julian Street, Harnisch said, the royal couple seemed "astonished" by the number of people on the streets.

When they pulled into the leafy campus, they were greeted by half a dozen elementary school students holding hand-painted a welcome banner. Catherine wore a navy and white crochet top over an ivory pleated skirt by the British retailer Whistles.

Sneh Chachra, who studies at the center with her fifth-grade class from Frank Del Olmo Elementary School, escorted the couple to the center's black box theater. She was so nervous, she and her mother had practiced what she would say.

"I was thinking, 'Oh my gosh, what if they don't like me?' " the 10-year-old said. But the couple quickly put her at ease. "They are just like regular people; regular people in these really important positions."

The royals put on aprons and worked with the children on ceramics projects and painting Hindu and Buddhist mandalas.

In the visual arts studio, with a blank canvas in front of her, Catherine turned to William and said, "William, do you know what you're doing? Start from the center."

After a few moments, he turned to his wife and said, "Catherine, what are you supposed to do?" She laughed and showed him again.

In the ceramics studio, the couple left their handprints and signatures in slabs of clay that will be displayed on campus.

They clapped along as a troupe of 16 teenage dancers performed two pieces: a high-energy display of urban youth culture and a plea to end world poverty.

"I never imagined myself dancing for one of the most famous couples," said 15-year-old Iliana Samaniego. "It means ... anything is possible in life."

William gave the performance two thumbs up. And Catherine told Harnisch she was "moved to tears."

Dozens of fans gathered outside the arts center in hopes of catching a glimpse of the royal visitors.

Even in Los Angeles, where encountering celebrities isn't out of the ordinary, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were worth waiting for.

"We see celebrities all the time," said Shannon Tompros, 37, "but we never get to see royalty."

Also in the crowd were a mother and daughter who woke up early to drive from Mission Viejo. Julie Collins, 39, carried a picture of herself shaking hands with Princess Diana while on a trip to London when she was 18. In the photo, Collins is wearing the same tiara that her 9-year-old daughter Emily was wearing Sunday.

As the motorcade swept by en route to Culver City, they spotted William waving out the window.

"We were a little sad that they didn't stop, but we had a blast," Collins said.

Some skid row residents were less impressed.

"It's a dog and pony show," said Victor Greenwood, 53, who sat on a piece of cardboard in a patch of shade on 7th Street. "It's not going to change anything."

At their last stop, William and Catherine attended a job fair for veterans, active military and military families at Sony Studios hosted by the group Mission Serve.

Addressing a crowd of hundreds from a stage draped with floor-to-ceiling U.S. and British flags, William, a rescue helicopter pilot in the Royal Air Force, gave a brief speech that focused on his commitment to the armed forces and "our other halves -- the half that makes their loved one's duty and sacrifices possible and worthwhile."

"As this is my last opportunity before we leave this afternoon, I would just say on behalf of us both how grateful we are to be welcomed so warmly in the Golden State and City of Angels," William said. "Thank you so much."

The visit was over late Sunday, less than 48 hours after it began, when the couple and their entourage boarded a British Airways commercial airliner at LAX bound for London. After saying their goodbyes, the duke and duchess paused at the top of a staircase leading to the plane to pose for one last photo.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

kate.mather@latimes.com

tony.barboza@latimes.com

Times staff writers Samantha Schaefer, Nicole Santa Cruz, Rick Rojas and pool reports contributed to this article.

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