L.A. Confidential

Photo by Abe LevyEverywhere in the world a green light means “go.” That is, everywhere except Hollywood, where a green light means “Take a number, have a seat, the executives will see you shortly. After Eternity.”

Such temporal phenomena permeate every aspect of the entertainment business. Given the molasses movement of time on film sets, production personnel are often heard repeating the koan-like mantra “hurry up and wait.” Hollywood Time goes right up the line to the executive offices at the studios, where, due to some anomaly describable only by physicists, time could quite possible be standing still.

No wonder the entertainment industry fosters such a proclivity for youth, so much time is spent waiting for the phone to ring, that when the call finally comes one could be, say, in one’s early 30s or some other outre age. Recently, my longtime collaborator Jerry Rapp and I, did get the call, in this case from Los Angeles-based media startup helmed by executive producer Tim Scott, late of Comedy Central’s erstwhile series “Let’s Bowl” among other projects. Rapp and I had been digging our own graves so long in Hollywood, we had finally broken through to the other side.

For the better part of a year, my bearded, artfully rumpled colleague and I had been developing Backlot, a series concept that finds two would-be screenwriters who squat a Hollywood studios back lot, live in the sets and wear clothes poached from the wardrobe department, while they angle for the fabled “three picture deal.” They attempt to do this within the walled confines of the studio. Moreover, they can’t leave for fear of never getting back in. It’s “The Player” meets “The Prisoner.”

The idea first occurred to us during the halcyon first years of the millennium. Rapp and I had scripts littering the desks of dozens of studio brass and were shooting a series of short films that would eventually play on Showtime (where, according to our royalty statements, they remain). It was when shooting on the Universal Studios lot that we noticed the craft service trucks, the costumes and the facades of the sets themselves could provide all the food, clothing and shelter we would ever need should our careers go south. We had little idea at the time that Backlot, in many ways, would become the episodic TV version of our lives.

Besides Backlot, Rapp and I had only developed one other television show within the studio context, but it was with a behemoth of the trade, a gentleman named Tommy Schlamme. He was a tough character and had every right to be he explained, having grown up Jewish in Texas with the name Tommy Schlamme. He was part of the triumvirate behind the “West Wing,” flanked by TV rainmakers John Wells and Aaron Sorkin. A dapper fellow, tall, bearded and often donned in sharp black suits with a strand of wooden beads around his wrist, to us he was gravitas personified. His office on the Warner Bros. lot has more Emmys than can be counted in a glance — the expanse of little gold angels actually exceeds the scope of one’s peripheral vision.

For several weeks last year, Rapp and I had been wrestling a book property into a workable TV series for Schlamme’s shingle. It was an anthology of LA stories penned by an author who had been a successful screenwriter before opting out for cooler climes in the pages of the New Yorker. The book had a single recurring character that Rapp and I decided would be Virgil-like presence taking us through the Inferno of Screenland — this is, of course, before I realized Hollywood was a spiritual waiting room. Schlamme was unsure about how we would intersect all the characters and preserve the shattered timeline of the original text — that is until I improvised a diagram on the back of a notebook, which was a really just a spiral with a line through it representing “time” or some crap like that.

“That’s it!” Schlamme roared. “That’s the series!” We were all impressed with his conviction, received hearty pats on the back and were sent scampering back to our offices where we would try to figure out what the fuck the diagram meant. In the end, it was for naught. As soon as Rapp and I had cooked up a credible meaning for the diagram the show was shelved. Schlamme had quit the “West Wing” and focused on other projects. We went back into our perennial scramble to get a film made — any film. We had half a dozen scripts between us but weren’t precious about any of them. One can’t be. What goes on the page seldom gets to the screen after all the notes, rewrites and general overhauls a script endures prior to production. Rapp and I once wrote a spec script about a fruit fly that gets reincarnated as man, but still has a fruit fly’s 24-hour lifespan. Our agent had us rewrite the script 11 times before it would leave their office. At one point he suggested that we put a “blue cape” on our protagonist “to make him standout” as if being a reincarnated fruit fly wasn’t enough.

“The only attachment one should have to a script is an actor,” Rapp would sagely remind. Attaching an actor, that is getting someone recognizable to agree to play a part and then attracting studio interest (read: money) by virtue of the attachment, is par for the course when setting up a project. Unfortunately, our early attempts to attach actors to our scripts were utter failures since, at the time, we had little access to them. The best we could do was keep our eyes open for stray thespians milling about Hollywood and hope to strike up a conversation. Due to the concentration of actors in the area, this method proved moderately effective as when we bumped into Meatloaf coming out of a movie theater.

“Excuse me, uh, Mr. Loaf,” Rapp began. I was mortified.
“Call me Meat,” the singer and actor replied.
“Mr. Meat?”
“No, just Meat,” the singer corrected.
“We’ve got a project, Meat, my partner Daedalus and I…”
“That’s weird a name.”
“Uh, yeah, he’s over there,” Rapp gestured to me. From a few paces back I waved. “And we think that you would be just –”
“Yeah, yeah — send it to my agent.”
“Great. Um, who’s your agent?” Rapp persisted, but Mr. Loaf had already made his exit.

Meanwhile, I had gotten in with some B-list publicists with a roster of C-list clients and was frequently invited to parties as an accredited representative of the media. It was at such a party that Rachael Costa (my then girlfriend and de facto producer) and I met Fabio, the romance novel cover guy gone “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” spokes-model.

Our conversation quickly turned to business and soon he asked for and received my producer’s card. Finally, we had an in with, if not an actor, a margarine icon, but an icon nevertheless. Later Rapp and I ransacked our back catalog for a project that might be appropriate for Fabio. We had nothing, but made up some tripe about Chippendales dancers on a goodwill tour of Soviet Russia in the 80s and called it a Chip Off the Old Block.

A few days later Fabio called Costa and set up a meeting. Seeing as she was our producer, Rapp and I thought nothing of the fact that Fabio hadn’t invited us as well and waited for word in the swelter of my Venice Beach sublet (my absentee sub-landlord had gone to Germany for a three month stay, finally returning three years later). Within an hour, Costa called from the bathroom of some tony Beverly Hills eatery. Her meeting with Fabio was turning into a date and he was trying to get her to take a motorcycle ride with him to his place to look at his 99 other motorcycles.

“But does he like the pitch?” I asked.
“Are you not listening to me? Fabio wants to take me on a motorcycle ride. This is the part where you say, ‘Abort mission!'”
“Right, but…”
“Daedalus!”
“Okay, okay, abort mission.”

In all the hullabaloo to attach a name, any name, to a project, I had inadvertently pimped my girlfriend. To Fabio. Rapp said it was just a sign of the times, or specifically, the End Times, when a smart guy like me could be duped by a six-foot-three hood ornament. “Well, there goes the seventh seal,” he said. “Hello, apocalypse.”

Fortunately, our attempts to attach an actor didn’t end with Fabio trying to seduce my ex-girlfriend. In fact, they picked up speed with Ross Martin, an excitable then New York-based producer who had worked with Spike Lee and was, among other things, a published poet (one critic described him as a “postmodern Hardy Boy of poetry”). Martin set up classy offices in Los Angeles, was animated, brimmed with energy and believed, it seemed, that there was no such thing as “No,” just different shades of “Yes.” A go-getter from conception, he was everything one could want in an independent film producer or, for that matter, a cartoon character.

In grammar school Martin had made a list of all he wanted to achieve in life (marriage, career and sundry other grown-up notions), which he kept tacked to the back of his door of his office on The Lot at Formosa and Santa Monica Blvd. Most of the list had already been scratched off. I hadn’t made such a list in grammar school, but if I did, being a Hollywood hack wasn’t on it. Martin knew my misgivings about the trade and resolved to produce our script Model Citizen, a dark period comedy about the makers of the 1950s educational films. Within a couple weeks, over lunch at the Lot’s commissary, Martin asked “How do you feel about Noah Wyle?”

“Noah who?”
“Dr. Carter from ER.”
“Oh, Noah Wyle. The guy on ER. Right. I thought you meant the other guy,” I said.
“What other guy?”
“Daed doesn’t have cable,” Rapp interceded.
“He’s not on cable. ER is on NBC,” Ross said, searching our faces.
“He’s not on cable?”
“No, he’s on ER, which is on NBC. The network.”
“Good, because I don’t have cable,” I said.
“You’ve never seen the show have you? It’s about doctors.”
“Dr. Carter, right?” Rapp said. “Love that guy.”
“Oh, that guy. I love him too.”
“You love him as the lead of our movie?” Ross baited.
“What’s not to love?” Rapp replied.
“I think I can get a script to him,” Ross continued. “He’s my wife’s cousin.”

Miraculously, Ross did get our script to Noah Wyle, by who knows what means, and the actor apparently found some kismet between himself and the squeaky clean main character, a student teacher who goes into the world of educational films and comes out a hairs breadth left of being a serial killer. He attached to play the lead.

Wyle, in a word, was shiny. All stars are. The glow is usually attributed to some “inner light” but really it’s just about being scrubbed and polished such that one better reflects the pitiless Hollywood sun. Stars, of course, are less solar than lunar and wax and wane in the public light. That said, Wyle was something of a mensch. He wasn’t actually a doctor (though played one on TV), but retained something of his character’s bedside manner. Rapp once asked him to look at a mole on his back. Wyle was entirely self-made, an autodidact who was easy with conversation and fond of arcane trivia.

“You know, the economy in Holland was once based on tulips,” he mentioned apropos of nothing, thumbing through a copy of Variety, while we waited for a meeting to begin at New Line.

“Much of the economy in Northern California is based on a plant too,” I rejoined. Wyle just stared quizzically back at me as Rapp rolled his eyes from across the conference table.

Despite Wyle’s attachment, the project floundered. Martin eventually took a job at MTV and Wyle went on to another season of ER and then appeared as “The Librarian” for TNT. Wyle was a good attachment, but perhaps not the best for a business that sells of the backs of marquee names, which he was not and apparently being the only original male lead on a decade-old network juggernaut was not enough.

Inappropriate attachments are a hazard for any screen-bound project. It’s very tempting to sacrifice what’s best for the work for what’s best for one’s career (in Hollywood these are two mutually exclusive concepts). Your World War II opus about an American P.O.W. discovering the humanity of his German captor quickly shifts to the Pacific theater when Toshiro Mifune gets in the elevator with you.

This was evident when Rapp and I were pitching a version of John Milton’s Paradise Lost for the big screen. Word on the Walk of Fame was that origin stories, that is plots depicting the genesis of a particular hero or villain (think Batman Begins) were hot. Our pal at Schlamme’s office, A.J. Marcantonio, had just set up a pitch at Disney, wherein he had to say little more than “Zeus” and they cut a check. Figuring the classics were tapped, Rapp and I reasoned that the Bible was next until The Passion of the Christ locked up the market. Finally, we settled on Milton’s tome about the birth of Beelzebub and found ourselves pitching it to, of all people, the producers of the Starksy and Hutch screen adaptation. They were interesting gents, a boisterous father and son team, who reveled in busting our balls for sport.

“We can get it to Snoop Dog, we just worked with him.”
“For Paradise Lost? Who would he play?” I asked, incredulous.
“Who cares, we can get to Snoop Dog.”
“He’s got a point,” Rapp said.”

Our take on Paradise Lost fizzled when we discovered that Warner Bros. had been developing its own Paradise Lost project for the past five years. Rapp thought we could get a jump on the sequel, Paradise Regained, but I suggested we add the blue cape to the bug movie instead.

By far the most bizarre attachment issue we encountered was when a producer friend of ours has secured the film rights to a novelty figurine but was at a loss for a story.

“What’s special about the character?” I asked during an exploratory meeting.
“He glows in the dark. I don’t know, is that special? And he’s got the one big eye — so, you know, he probably sees shit or something. You think there’s a story there?”
“Does he have any special powers?”
“I don’t know. Do you think we need them?” the producer asked, a tremor of worry coming into his voice. He buzzed his assistant. “Ask that asshole if the action figure has any special powers,” he turned back to us. “This little fucker better have some special powers.”
“Dude, we can always make up some special powers, you know.”
“Not contractually,” the producer spat. He then received word from his assistant that the figurine’s special power was that it “glowed in the dark,” to which he responded, “Glows in the dark? Great. So does every kid in Chernobyl. Wait a minute…”

A quiet fell over the room as we searched each other’s eyes as if in a scene from Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Finally, the producer called out “Dibs! I get the Chernobyl story. I said it first.”

Oftentimes, a company is owned by a star — what Variety calls a “vanity shingle.” It’s the job of the development staffs to mine the quarry of pitches for roles suitable for their bosses. Such was the case when Rapp and I were casually asked by an executive at Maguire Entertainment if we had any buddy movie pitches appropriate for Toby Maguire and his pal Leo DiCaprio. Of course we did. Everyone who could say the words “box office” did. Without hesitating, Rapp and I began rifling through any and every story between us that featured more than a single male lead — sometimes improvising new characters on the spot. Finally, we landed on Backlot, our buddy flick about a couple of hacks squatting the sets of a Hollywood studio. The exec thought the premise had legs, but believed Spiderman and his Titanic chum were too famous to make the film plausible.

“You need nobodies,” the executive suggested. “Like you guys. You guys are nobodies.”
“Totally,” Rapp agreed.
“I’m just saying consider it,” the exec continued.
“But then we wouldn’t be nobodies anymore,” I said, looking toward Rapp.

Something sparked. We immediately conspired with our ally Ross Martin to shoot a promo for Backlot as if it were a documentary and opted to play the disheveled writer characters ourselves. A DVD of the Backlot promo circulated throughout the business and word was people thought it was real, that we really had been squatting a lot. The promo eventually found its way to the desk of Tim Scott, a grand man with generous Midwestern bonhomie, who had just left a major television production company to start his own independent shingle.

Scott and his partners leapt on the Backlot concept, created a budget, schedules, courted cable TV outlets, but not without first asking:

“Any attachments?”
“Well, we first pitched it as a vehicle for Toby and Leo…” Rapp began, but was interrupted.
“Over-exposed.” The word sounded like the buzzer on a game show.
“…But we attached ourselves instead,” Rapp continued.
“You attached yourself to your own project?” Scott considered this a moment, then smiled broadly. “Brilliant. Let’s do this.”
“When do we start?”
“We’ll call.”

It’s a popular parlor game in Northern California to criticize Los Angeles, like a prettier but vapid kid sister, who gets all the attention and pony rides on her birthday. I couldn’t count the times some wag thought he was being witty by expressing his “condolences” after learning about my time in LA. Then there’s the facile conflation of Hollywood and Hell, which many are wont to make (the Devil doesn’t live in Hollywood, he lives in Washington, but you knew that). If Hollywood were to be any locale in Judeo-Christian mythology it would be Purgatory — a place where one waits and waits and waits. And then is finally judged.

What I’ve learned, however, is that one needn’t wait entirely in Los Angeles. Emancipated by a 310 area code cell phone and the geographical anonymity of email, Rapp and I can giddily slum it in the North Bay, biding our time, warming our hands by the glow of our green light — waiting for the call.

Frankenstein Goes to Hollywood

Edison FrankensteinIn honor of “Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus” author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s August 30th birthday, below is the first of a handful of Frankenstein-themed miscellanea soon to appear in this blog. It may be worth noting that Shelley would have been 208. Her novel, incidentally, is 189, which means she wrote it at the tender age of 19. By contrast, I’m now 33, which is when one begins to use phrases like “tender age” in earnest and with only the slightest whiff of lechery.

That said… For the past few weeks, editor Carrie Schreck and I have been cutting my documentary film “Part of Me,” a whimsical look at the body parts modeling industry (when a magazine ad claims “you’re in good hands with Allstate,” for example, you might notice that you’re also in very good looking hands). I had the fanciful notion that the film should open with stock footage of the Frankenstein monster, seeing as he is made of various body parts, paired with some wry V.O. about being more than the “sum of one’s parts” versus having a whole career based on just “some of one’s parts.” Or some such tripe. A recurring lament from my subjects has been that their hands and feet have made it in Hollywood, which leads them to ask, as the song goes, “Why not take all of me?”

Anyway, I embarked on a search for Frankenstein footage and discovered that the license fees for scenes from the classic 1931, Boris Karloff “Frankenstein” are an arm and a leg. When I explained to Universal Studios’ licensing department that my budget was nil, they suggested I forgo using the Karloff interpretation (the most iconic and expensive) and instead use footage from a less popular version of which there are dozens. Their titles, too many to list, are all along the lines of the character’s name preceded by “Bride of,” “Son of,” “House of,” “Car Wash of.” Other versions from what can be termed the “Meets” series include tete-a-tetes between the monster and hirsute pal the Werewolf, comedy duo Abbot and Costello and perhaps most improbably, wild west outlaw Jesse James.

Even with these cut-rate Frankensteins, I couldn’t afford the license fee, but I soon discovered that inventor Thomas Edison produced an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s source work in 1910, making it not only the monster’s cinematic debut, but also public domain. Or as we say in the biz, “free.” But where does one find 95 year-old Frankenstein footage?

Apparently nowhere. A visit to the Library of Congress’ online archives deadended when I learned to my dismay that the footage banks of its Edison collection had everything the inventor’s motion picture department ever shot (from cats donned in boxing gloves to a silent rendition of Faust), but no Frankenstein. I trolled a few links and discovered that I could have a live online chat with a librarian. Here is the transcript:

[Librarian 15:27:04]: Hello, thank you for contacting the Library of Congress’s American Memory Collections Reference Service. It will take me just a moment to review your question. Have you had a chance to check the Library’s American Memory online collection, “Inventing Entertainment: The Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies?”

[Patron 15:29:42]: Yes and unfortunately, although the archives have many clips, they do not contain Frankenstein.

[Librarian 15:30:19]: So you’ve searched this collection already? If you have a moment, I’m going to give a quick look myself… Yes, I’ve just looked quickly and I didn’t find it either…

[Patron 15:32:41]: Told you.

[Librarian 15:32:49]: I would suggest that you contact the Library’s Motion Picture Specialists directly: either by Phone: (202) 707-8572, or by using their online webform (unfortunately, they don’t do chat, but they’re generally pretty quick to respond) http://www.loc.gov/rr/askalib/ask-mopic2.html

[Patron 15:33:32]: Thanks for the tip. Um… So… What are you wearing?

[Librarian 15:34:58]: Your chat session has ended.

I called the number the librarian-bot had given me and spoke with a gentleman who explained that the only print of Edison’s Frankenstein still in existence belonged to a cantankerous Wisconsin man named Alois F. Dettladd, who I could contact had he not died last month. An account printed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explained that the 84 year-old Dettlaff was found dead in his bathroom on July 26. He had laid undiscovered for weeks. Likewise, Andre Soares reported in Cinema Minima that “Dettlaff’s body was badly decomposed; his daughter and son-in-law lived across the street from him, but they had not seen him in more than a month. Dettlaff, was obsessively protective of his copy of Frankenstein. …The 15-minute Frankenstein, produced by Edison’s company and directed by J. Searle Dawley, was thought lost until the mid-1970s, when Dettlaff announced he owned a copy of the film. The discovery didn’t lead to many screenings, for Dettlaff feared that the print — already in the public domain — would be bootlegged.”

Dettlaff’s fears were not entirely unfounded. I, in fact, had planned on bootlegging the film, but only part of it for “Part of Me” the parts documentary.

After some inquiries in the shady backwaters of the Internet, I finally found a company that was discretely producing DVDs of the film and immediately ordered one. Watch a preview (with Real Player): http://www.cinemaminima.com/ccount/click.php?id=5

There, flickering like Prometheus’ stolen flame, Frankenstein comes to life for the first time on the silver screen — only to be parted out in the chop shop of Final Cut Pro and sutured into my film. Filmmaking is such gorey business.

Mayo Family Winery

The Mayo Family Reserve Room is more than just another roadside attraction meant to net tourists traveling Highway 12 en route to the Plaza. Since April, it’s been a veritable appetizer to the wine country, offering a delectable tasting menu of wine and food pairings that surprise both the palate and the pocket book — in a good way.

The location is bright with a bistro-like atmosphere and has classic rock ‘n’ roll emanating from the sound system. Behind the counter is Jeffrey Mayo, an affable, sturdy-framed man who works the room with charisma seldom seen outside of election years. He alighted on the notion of a wine and food pairing stop when a contractor pointed out the advantages to his location’s zoning and the fact that, with some general upgrades, he could add a kitchen. The idea aged in his mental cellar for 7 years while the space served as a co-op tasting room.

“We had kind of grown up and were beyond the tasting room co-op concept, our label was pretty well known. We had a pretty good following and had built our new winery right down the road with our own tasting room,” Mayo explained. “I wanted a situation where people would be comfortable, they could sit down and relax. And we charge a fair price.”
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The pairing menu features seven wine and food couplings for a flat fee of $20. The wine list runs the gamut of varietals and includes Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.

“People love it. There’s a small segment that love food and wine and want to sit down and enjoy it without being elbowed out at the bar,” says Mayo, who printed a postcard that crows “chairs” are the latest innovation in wine tasting.

“I don’t want to go wine tasting anymore where I have to stand at a bar. If I can sit down and have food and wine, I’d pay $40 for this frankly.”

Mayo boasts that he’s had “no complaints yet” and is quick to differentiate his roadside brasserie from a typical restaurant: “There’s no tipping, two full glasses of wine and a medium to large appetizer – at a restaurant you’d spend fifty bucks on it.”

Chef Billy Oliver, likewise, has enjoyed making a professional home at the relatively new venue.

“We have a lot of the same philosophy,” said Oliver, who occasionally emerges from the kitchen to help Mayo serve customers in what is generally a two-man operation. “When I do the menu, I see the attributes that we want to show off in the wines, what is naturally there. Like the fullness of the Viognier, for example, there’s a lot of honeysuckle and floral-ness in there, which I want to showoff. Basically, what I do is smell all the wines, before I even try them,” says Oliver. “I could pretty much pair all the wines without even trying them. Then I taste them for the finish, acidity and tannins and decide what I’m going for.”

What Oliver seems to have gone for is a virtual land, air and sea tasting safari – small portions of beast, fowl and fish are gracefully paired with selections from the Mayo cellar. Consider the “Molasses Glazed Smoked Duck Breast & Cherry Kabob with Arugula Hazelnut Pesto.” The duck is paired with the “2003 Pinot Noir, Piner Ranch Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Reserve Holly’s Block.” Another interesting combination is the “Southwest Porkloin & Polenta with Blackberry and Pecan Compote” matched with the Mayo’s “2002 Zinfindel, Ricci Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Reserve – Old Vines”

“I want to do some contrast pairings and some complimentary pairings,” says Oliver. “Everyone enjoys a complimentary pairing and they’re easier to do. The contrast pairings are a little more challenging for us.”

By way of example, Oliver explained that the “2003 Viognier, Sunny View Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Henry’s Cuvee,” a complex and opulent white wine that has both floral and toasted almond characteristics, could pair easily with paella due to its “grassiness from the saffron and earthiness.” He opted instead to contrast the wine with a “Pancetta and Bee Pollen Crusted Grilled Scallop Lollipop with Mango Honey Coulis.”
The effect is dazzling and holds up with each bite-sized appetizer, each of which are rather like entire entrées squeezed down to the size of —

“Snacks,” Oliver drolly interrupts.

— And snacks they are, but of such exquisite execution one might be spoiled on the more conventional cheese and crackers forever.

“I think you can do really intricate things, I don’t think you have to be so hung up on it. You can deliver a high-end product and still be relaxed,” says Oliver of the morsels he handcrafts from local providers such as cheese maker Laura Chenel. “It makes people more receptive to learning things about food and wine, which is the whole reason why we want people to come here.”

And sometimes people come just to rub elbows with men in white coats. In the midst of interviewing Oliver a middle-aged woman approached and gestured to her male silver-haired male escort. “He has a five year-old granddaughter whose favorite meat is lamb,” she said, apparently inspired to share this tidbit family lore by Oliver’s “Rosemary Lamb Burger with House made Roasted Tomato Ketchup,” a spicy number which was well-paired with a 2003 Merlot Laurent Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, Nellie’s Block.”

Oliver asked the woman wryly “Do you ever sing ‘Mary had a little lamb’ to her?”

“I never have, I’m not really into children,” the customer confided, then added, “But you’re lamb burger is excellent.”

“Do you want to know how to make it?” Oliver offered, sparing the woman the awkward moment of asking for the recipe. He then proceeded to share preparation secrets before inviting them to bring the grandkid into the kitchen to learn how to make the dish first hand.

“I’ll put you to work, I have no qualms. I had a five year-old in here two weeks ago who was bored to death, he was just dying, so I said ‘C’mere,’ we put him in the back and had him pick the leaves off the celery – gave him a chef coat to put on – he was so happy.”

While Oliver is doling out chef coats to tykes, Mayo is busy putting on various hats – at any given moment his is a sommelier, maitre ’d, wine salesman and general master of revels. To hear him tell it, it seems like Mayo never planned to be as entrenched in the wine trade as he is. The enterprise seems the result of a like-father-like-son affinity for wine and some advantageously-located family real estate. And as they say, blood is thicker than water, but wine is better to drink.

“My dad planted the vineyard and was going to sell the grapes,” Mayo recalled of his father Henry Mayo’s ambition to make wine a family business. A local winemaker encouraged the senior Mayo to make his own wine instead. Meanwhile, after studying finance in Southern California and participating in a series of successful real estate ventures, Jeffrey Mayo found himself in the peculiar position of needing a hobby. A series of wine classes stoked his resolve that wine would be it.

“I never had a hobby. I took a class every Wednesday night. It was like Germany one night, Italy one night, France, Burgundy, the whole thing. Once I took that class, it became my hobby so I started buying wine. That’s how I got into it,” he said. “My dad was like ‘Why don’t you come back and sell wine for me?’ I said ‘Well, when?’ He said it was going to take about a year in barrel, so I moved to France for a year and learned as much as a could about wine by traveling to all the wine regions. I didn’t want to be the winemaker, but I at least wanted to know the whole process and where it came from,” recalled Mayo. “For me it was the appreciation of wine, then my father wanted to grow grapes and this winemaker wanted to make wine. It was this sort of organic process.”

The process seems to be working. The younger Mayo’s innate marketing ability helped grow the family venture from an early foray of 1100 cases to its present 8000 cases within ten years. Moreover, his hands-on approach inspires customer loyalty — his phone never ceases ringing and more than one devotee stopped by within the course of an hour “just to say hi.”

“You should have a winery that suits your personality. I don’t want to travel around and have a big winery and have to sell my wine to distributors in all these far-flung states. I want to be small, be local and focus on quality and interact with people who come here for good wines. That’s what we want to do.”

A gentleman from a party of five Air Force personnel who had spent the afternoon at Mayo’s joint shared in the air of bonhomie its proprietor, if not the wine, naturally occasions. He and his companions were apparently conducting their own informal wine country reconnaissance mission. When asked his name for the record he kindly declined, presumably for reasons of national security – if not job security. He did, however, allow that he “Just ordered four cases of wine that are going back to Tacoma with me.” Within a beat, chef
Oliver scuttled up to him with a telephone in hand and asked that he authenticate a $1000 charge with his creditor’s customer service people. The man obliged and an earlier observation of Mayo’s was echoed in the transaction.

“Making wine is the most important thing,” said Mayo. “But if you can’t sell it, you don’t get the chance to make it.”

Mayo will surely be making more wine.

The Mayo Family Winery Reserve Tasting Room is located at 9200 Sonoma Highway in Kenwood. (707) 833- 5504. Hours are Thursday through Monday, 10:30am to 6:30 pm. Reservations are not required, but recommended during peak season.

Darrell DeVore and the Gospel

Darrell DeVoreDarrell DeVore, musician, composer, experimental instrument-maker and progenitor of “Universal Music,” died of lung cancer July 9 surrounded by family and friends in his rural Petaluma music bungalow dubbed “Studio Um.”

Although his house was not far away, DeVore, 66, chose to spend his final time at the converted chicken coop that was his studio and, in many ways, his home.

In his lifetime, DeVore mapped much musical terrain, beginning with a stretch as a jazz pianist in his native Missouri, a peek into San Francisco’s psychedelic music scene during the 1960s, and turns as a self-described “itinerant flute-maker” and respected creator of experimental music and the instruments upon which it was played.

Born July 11, 1939, in Saint Joseph, Mo., DeVore showed an aptitude with the piano as a youth despite little formal training. As he recalled in an interview several years ago: “One time, I went to see the Claude Rains version of ‘The Phantom of the Opera.’ I loved the music in it. So I went home and played that sucker. Suddenly, I had my family around me going, ‘Yeah, that’s far out.’ ”

DeVore studied music privately with a tutor. As a pianist, he became a fixture in the Missouri jazz scene and buttressed his musical education gigging in nightclubs.

“Bass player Al Viserca took me to Chicago to introduce me to the jazz scene there and some real players,” DeVore reminisced to his son shortly before his death. “There I discovered both drugs and my musical limitations. I returned to Kansas City and checked myself into the Conservatory of Music, where the great George Salisbury taught me theory and chord structure.

“George wanted to hear where I was at as a player, so he asked me to play him something. I threw down some standard, and I played it well because I was already a respected player locally. But I played by ear.

“He said to me, ‘What do you want me to teach you, Darrell?’ And I said, ‘Man, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.’ ”

The maelstrom of musical innovation in 1960s San Francisco drew DeVore to the coast, where he clocked time at the keyboard with seminal psychedelic rock outfit the Charlatans (of which Dan Hicks was also a member), the lesser-known neo-primitive group Pygmy Unit and numerous other musical endeavors.

As a Charlatan, DeVore recorded for Mercury Records, but the band dissolved soon after. In the aftermath, DeVore was courted by a major recording label for a pop solo project but was put off by the industry’s marketing machine. He strolled out in the middle of a meeting with the label honchos.

“I walked out of there into a real nice sunny day in San Francisco. I said, ‘That’s it — no more commercial music,’ ” he said in a previous interview.

DeVore turned his attention to his own compositions as well as creating instruments, including his popular “wind wands” (twirled wooden devices that suggest the sound of a didgeridoo) and the bamboo xylophone.

Through much of the ’70s he was known in the Bay Area music community as “the Flute Man” for the hand-tooled bamboo flutes he created and peddled at arts fairs and music events. DeVore accrued several monikers during his career, among them Dr. Um, shorthand for “Doctor of Universal Music,” and “Mr. Sound Magic,” his preferred appellation with students in Petaluma public schools, where he frequently made appearances to introduce kids to sounds and musical notions not in the curriculum.

“Dad just had all the patience in the world for them,” says Los Angeles filmmaker Cain DeVore, the musician’s oldest son. “He’s like a preacher of sound magic, sharing the gospel of Um. That’s how I often saw my father.”

Many of DeVore’s musical instruments are being donated to North Bay schools.

“The music never stops. You just can’t always hear it,” DeVore remarked on more than one occasion. Cain DeVore is seeing to that notion by digitizing his father’s copious archive of original music to make it available online at Dr-Um.org, a Web site set to launch later this month. He is also organizing the writings and drawings generated by his father as well as photos and documentary footage of him. The family intends to make the collection available to scholars and fans.

“He wanted to give it away — that’s what universal music is,” said Cain DeVore of his father’s aesthetic philosophy, which the musician espoused upon in the liner notes for “De-Fusion,” his 2004 album:

“Anyone involved in making modern music is making fusion music. The fusing of primitive Aboriginal spirit with modern technology and synthesis derived from all the world music cultures, results in ‘Universal Music.’ ”

By that token, Universal Music is represented in hundreds of recordings (among them DeVore’s live solo piano performances on Berkeley’s KPFA radio station), appearances with various groups, including the Lingua Quartet with his second son, Trane DeVore, a poet and professor at Japan’s Osaka University.

It’s easier to identify Universal Music as a philosophy than as a sound. At times it shirks the conventions of Western music, edging toward avant-garde with a primitive aspect. In the past decade, DeVore had been exploring an improvisational style of composition, often in the company of several collaborators, among them Tom Waits, experimental instrument pioneers Bart Hopkin, Richard Waters and Tom Nunn, as well as musicians Mike Knowlton, Zeno and Steve Shane.

“I’m not into nostalgia. So I never play anything twice,” DeVore once said. It was an apt summation of his trajectory as an artist and one of the many koan-like aphorisms he was known to make.

Upon visiting DeVore shortly before his death at Studio Um, Marvin Kirkland, an ally from the mid-’60s Kansas City music scene, said, “Thanks for showing me the world, man.” DeVore replied, “I think we are all pointing out the world right here.”

In DeVore’s later years, it was nearly impossible for visitors to leave his studio without acquiring a book or a recording newly burned to CD of original tunes. This generosity also resonated throughout his music. As he said, “I gave up self-expression 30 years ago.”

Jam session pal Waits wrote in a recent e-mail: “There was a silence before Darrell DeVore came into this world and now there is a great silence left by his passing, and in the time between, Mr. DeVore made a strange and beautiful music. He was a teacher, composer and instrument builder — a curious and inventive eccentric and wizardly musician who touched all who had the pleasure of hearing him. From the ‘tank’ to the ‘wind wand’ to the ‘circular violin,’ Darrel could play anything and make music on it. He will be deeply missed by his family and loved ones and we who had the privilege to play along with him while he was here.”

George Brooks, a longtime friend and colleague, with whom DeVore created the recording “Brooks/DeVore,” observed: “I spent Friday up there in Petaluma, with him, but Darrell was struggling and I am not certain that he was aware of who was with him. However, holding his beautiful hands seemed to give him a great deal of comfort. I went back Saturday evening and had a late-night vigil with his body and his oldest son, Cain. It was a beautiful night with a big Milky Way, great blue herons and plenty of shooting stars to speed Darrell on his journey. He was a great beatnik, neo-primitive, shamanistic spirit and a sadhu who helped hold together the musical matrix. I miss him.”

DeVore is survived by his sons Cain, Trane and his daughter Oma DeVore, his sister Marjie Sansone and brother Glenn DeVore.

“My dad referred to Oma, Trane and me as his ancestors,” recalls son Cain. “And he would profess to want two things in life, other than making music, which was a constant. He wanted to ‘eventually become weightless, like a hummingbird’ and ‘to become an ancestor.’ He achieved both in his art and music in life. And he certainly has achieved both in death. He now plays with the ancients.”

Indeed, for many, DeVore was a model old soul and his passing suggests something of a coda to his spiritual and musical journey rather than an early departure. Or as DeVore was fond of saying, “Find out where you’re at — and be there on time.”

A memorial for Darrell DeVore will be held at 4 p.m., Aug. 27 at Studio Um, 602 Cleveland Lane in Petaluma. Friends and fans are welcome.