Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad

nullIt may sound like a nichey adult DVD or a hidden camera show on a women’s cable network, but Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad is something else entirely. The creation of New York City-based performing arts maven Susannah Perlman (one of those rare poly-hyphenates that sandwiches “chanteuse” between “comedian” and “producer”), Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad is part musical and comedy revue, spoken-word and burlesque show that takes the borscht belt and whips your ass with it. The girls go bad this Friday evening, at Guerneville’s Russian River Resort.

Perlman, who has appeared on The Learning Channel and MTV and released the albums Beating Around the Bush and Goddess Bless America, was a good little Jewish girl until her bat mitzvah, which she says devolved into some order of clandestine teen booze fest.

“I went to camp, I went to Israel, I lived in a Jewish co-op, I did Jew-y things my entire life,” she recalls. “I’ve never been good at listening to my mother, even though, sadly she’s always right. Bad is a state of being — going your own way and doing your own thing and swimming against the tide. Does that sound too cliche?”

Perlman is good-humored, pretty and possessed of a self-effacing charm. She is as much a businesswoman as she is an artist and her passion for her production and her performers is palpable over the phone during an interview she squeezed in while preparing for a surprise party.

Two years ago, she began cruising New York’s performing arts spaces for talented women who were also “MOT,” or Members Of the Tribe after she conceived the concept of Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad. “I’d start off the same way — I’d sit down, I cross my arms and say ‘I saw the original cast of Cats’ what the fuck can this bitch do?’ You know that sort of attitude us New Yorkers have towards one another,” Perlman snickers.

“I like the whole burlesque genre but I liked all these different things that sort of fit that sort of Jewish, comedic, quirky, kind of thing. Also, at the time, I was producing a lot of women’s shows, which had different degrees of success,” she recalls. “I’d been doing these eclectic women’s shows for what seems like a million years and I’d be promoting to a very small audience — straight women and lesbians. There’s nothing wrong with that, they’re a great audience, but it was like, all the sudden, when I narrowed the scope and made it Jewish women, then our audience broadened out. All these people said ‘Let’s go see the crazy Jews!’ It’s interesting.”

Since then, Perlman has assembled a garrison of 25 female, Jewish performers from which she culls the various incarnations of Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad. The current line-up features five performers whose talents include, according to Perlman, “Hula hoops, a fat lady singing, kick lines, hilarious comedy.” In short, a burlesque of Old Testament proportions.

“It’s campy, it’s kitschy. Anyone who would like Bette Midler would like this show,” says Perlman. “The show is different every time. I’m the same but my material changes from season to season. I’m the ringmaster, I’m Mrs. Partridge.”

Finding an audience when on the road hasn’t always been easy for the girls as when they last visited Northern California and found themselves Cal State Chico on the wrong day due to a booking error and had to schlep people one-by-one to the gig.

“It was horrible. We were running around the campus essentially looking for Jews. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Chico — there aren’t any. We we’re tapping people on the shoulder and asking, ‘Do you know any Jews?’ No, nobody. We’d say, ‘But you look Jewish.’ It was ridiculous.”

Ultimately, Perlman and cast did find and enthrall audiences and the tour proved beneficial in many ways. At another show, a representative from the Mazal Foundation, a Jewish charitable organization, caught their act and later provided the grant that made their current West Coast dates possible.

“It was a small grant, a modest amount to get us to California and make our shows in San Francisco and Santa Cruz affordable and accessible for students to attend,” says Perlman. The ensemble will also make appearances at the University of California at Davis and a return to Chico State.

Perlman doesn’t outwardly politicize her act — it’s not the kind of material engineered to break cultural stereotypes so much as revel in them with cheeky irony. The group’s press materials crow “These bad-ass chosen chicks boldly dare to deconstruct years of tradition, expectations and guilt.” More specifically, it seems, NJGGB is a parody of the crass caricature implicit in the stereotypes of Jewish women themselves, and is effectively a parody of a parody and all the funnier for it. Moreover, Perlman and her performers shatter cultural preconceptions of them by virtue of the very lives they lead.

“I think most of us in the group, in our own way, are walking examples of breaking-a-stereotype — I think for a lack of money, which is not all that JAP-py,” she wryly explains, referring to the acronym “Jewish American Princess.” Some of us try. Some of us have elements of JAP-piness, but that’s only me as a producer saying ‘Can’t you just stay at my friend’s place?’ or hostel versus a hotel — those sort of arguments.”

Inasmuch as being Jewish tent-poles Perlman’s act, she describes herself as “reformed” rather than religious and claims to be “Your standard American Jew.” The same could be said for the rest of the girls. The only departure from the cliche is that they’re all city girls rather than suburban, explains Perlman.

When pressed for her favorite performer among the current line-up, she diplomatically replies “In my mind it’s ‘Who’s the easiest to travel with? Who cares about talent?'” she laughs, then quickly adds “They’re all amazingly talented. This one I really feel is this really crazy, eclectic group of girls.”

Among them is Phat Man Dee who Perlman describes with sisterly affection as being “something like a circus freak.”

“[She’s] this little short, fat, bald girl from Pittsburg who sticks her fist in her mouth and sing L’Chaim. She’s very talented,” Perlman explains, then quickly mentions for the sake of potential blue-hairs in her audience, “She also sings standards.”

Indeed, with this incarnation of Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad, it’s as if Perlman has assembled a cadre of James Bond villainesses, an all-girl version of SPECTRE, each with a special skill used to slay audiences. Like Hula-Hoops.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen someone hula-hoop,” says Perlman by way of introducing the single-monikered Kalki, an Australian performer who generates enough centrifugal force in her hips to keep multiple Hula-Hoops a-spin. “She takes this to a different level. It’s a sort of like a spectator sport. It’s like Olympic proportions. And she’s Jewish.”

Other performers include Cynthia Levin, an alumnus of Chicago’s lauded improvisational comedy company Second City, whom Perlman describes as a “pee-in-your-pants funny — she’s like a female version Lenny Bruce” and singer Michelle Citrin, a five-foot-one singer Perlman bills as a “lil’ grrl with a big sound,” who has opened for pop acts such as Michelle Branch.

“Everyone has a unique story to tell in whatever medium they use. And the hula-hoop girl is the icing on the cake.”

Of course, there are those may kvetch over Perlman’s lampoon of Judaic traditions, like her brother — the rabbi.

“My brother doesn’t talk to me. He talks to my mother who talks to me, who tells me what he thinks. I don’t know if ‘proud’ is the word. I think he admires it. He’s seen it. I don’t know if it was his cup of tea, but I do bring our people together. So, I do what he does to some degree.”

In the end, for Perlman, it’s about getting tushes in seats, Jewish or otherwise.

“We definitely have fans, the more and more we get around. We see people in the audience wearing our t-shirts and people come back especially since the show is different every time. They’ll bring their friends. But when I say we’re the female, Jewish Phish,” she chuckles, “probably not.”

NICE JEWISH GIRLS GONE BAD
Friday September 30 @9pm
16390 4th Street
Guerneville, CA
(707) 869-0691
$10
http://www.nicejewishgirlsgonebad.com

Saddles Restaurant

“Some say Napa is Porches and Mercedes and we’re pick-up trucks and cowboy boots,” said Saddles’ Sandy Weaver, relishing the irony as she passed out the restaurant’s four-star menu. “I love that we’re known for that.”

Indeed, Sonoma has long been a juxtaposition of opposites and Saddles, the top-drawer steakhouse nestled in the grounds of MacArthur Place Historic Inn and Spa, is perhaps the apotheosis of this notion. Its decidedly down-home ambiance (a Western theme expressed in bronzed cowboy boots and porcine portraiture) and its upscale cuisine make for a dining experience that is expertly balanced between hometown charm and world class dining.

On a recent Indian summer evening, a companion and I entered and were led pass the bar and lounge area where the house-band played an enchanting cover of Stand By Me. We were seated in the outside dining area – an enclosed space meant that be opened or shuttered with the seasons that looks like something out of the Restoration Hardware catalog (which is a compliment – I’d live in that catalog if I could).

I began with the Stable Martini, one of a dozen of such signature concoctions that would have James Bond doffing his jodhpurs and donning a ten-gallon hat. I was both shaken and stirred. The drink, or should I say the “swim,” was a heap-big-man size cocktail, and mysteriously, made me feel all the more macho upon having completed it.

For appetizers we enjoyed hearty and crisp portabella mushroom fritters sprinkled with aged-parmesan as well as fresh oysters on the half-shell culled from Washington’s Fanny Bay served with a red-wine infused mignonette dressing. The Saddles Salad (baby greens in a cider vinaigrette tossed with candied walnuts and goat cheese) was a refreshing respite before venturing onward into Saddles’ stellar steak menu.

Under the “specialty cuts” portion of menu are featured a number of fine steaks all served a la carte. A terse survey includes a Niman Ranch Filet Mignon (“naturally-raised, hormone free and fed a strictly vegetarian diet” boasts the menu), a Dry-Aged New York steak and an exquisite American Kobe New York steak, a cross of Japanese Kobe and American Black Angus beef, well-marbled and excellently prepared in a ten ounce portion that could well be Saddle’s crowning achievement.

Now, some may think it brash to smother such a nuanced meat with peppercorn sauce (Saddles has numerous toppings from a classic Bernaise sauce to a Cabernet demi glaze from which to choose), but like life, strange collusions of events often lead to revelation, or in this case, deliciousness. The steak and sauce combination was both heavenly and devilish. In fact, I dare say that this steak is fine enough to tempt vegetarians of weaker conviction to the dark side (my dining partner, herself a former vegetarian, claimed it was steaks like this – and bacon – that brought her back into the world of carnivores).

My palate having been roped in by Saddles’ all-American motifs, I continued down the happy trail of meat and potatoes, and accompanied the steak with a hearty side of potatoes au gratin. The side was comprised of at least two members of the tuber family – I detected the ambrosial whisper of a sweet potato amidst the melted cheddar – and the serving was copious enough to be shared.

At our behest, Weaver selected a 2001 Benziger “Reserve,” Sonoma County cabernet from the extensive wine list where area wines are well-represented. The wine, a tart number with notes of dried currant and cedar contrasted wonderfully with the mellow, luxuriant flavors of the meat and like the Saddles experience itself, proved a stellar pairing of opposites all ’round.

Saddles Restaurant
29 E Macarthur St
Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 933-3191

Fourth Grade Dads and a mom rock the house

For many people, getting the responsibilities of family and career to harmonize is a challenge. For a group of Peninsula parents with a penchant for rock ‘n’ roll, harmonizing — literally — is the challenge. Meet the Fourth Grade Dads, a cadre of professionals, four fathers and one mother, who rock.

The Fourth Grade Dads — an architect, an environmental engineer, a doctor, a software producer and an educator — all have daughters attending Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a Catholic elementary school in Redwood City. When each new school year begins, the band’s name changes accordingly.

The band has upgraded its name every year since it formed at a backyard barbecue when the girls were in the first grade. Like the other members, architect Eric Rohlfing had played in bands in his youth. When planning to attend the school-related barbecue, Rohlfing decided to buck convention and transform the event into a sort of hootenanny for closet rock stars.

“I didn’t want to sit around the house, eating hors d’oeuvres and trading war stories with all the other parents. I felt like going in the backyard, having a beer and playing some music,” Rohlfing recalls. He was convinced he wasn’t alone in his thinking and invited others to bring their instruments. A jam session ensued and a proto-version of the band was born.

“We each came from different bands in our past and had this music background. We just seemed to find each other. I don’t know how it worked,” recalls guitarist Sean Kennedy, an environmental engineer.

The band’s set list, composed mainly of covers, reads like a survey course in the popular music of the Baby Boom from which the bandmates all hail. They play tunes by artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Bob Marley, Van Morrison to Van Halen — with a little Green Day and Flaming Lips thrown in for good measure.

“We play some borderline bluegrass stuff, some hard rock and everything in between. Whatever people bring in — as long as it’s a good song, we’ll play it,” says Mark Fassett, an audio and video producer for a software company who plays guitar, bass and drums.

The band’s song selection process sounds like a case study from a political science class. As Fassett explains, “It’s not democratic — I’m not sure how you would describe it, but everyone has veto power. A single vote, and it’s gone.”

Rohlfing attributes the Fourth Grade Dad’s disparate catalog to the various interests of the members, all of whom boast both broad and eclectic tastes.

“All the people in the band are very unique individuals with careers and interests of their own and come from a variety of backgrounds, so the diversity of music is a reflection of that. Sometimes there are songs that maybe not everyone enjoys. Usually, the consensus is, if we don’t all enjoy playing it, we won’t do it,” he says.

The Fourth Grade Dads’ first gigs were at private parties and backyard barbecues, which soon gave way to block parties and eventually nightclubs, country clubs and art and wine festivals.

Physician and singer Sherry Perkins had played with educator and drummer Mike Claire at their church and was happy to be recruited as a backup vocalist by the dads a couple of years ago.

“I’ve known the guys in the band for a while. My daughter went to the same school that their children go to now,” she recalls. “I sing, and they felt like it would be kind of nice to have a backup singer. I was very enthusiastic about joining them, so I did. One thing led to another, and now here I am, a permanent part of the band.”

Perkins’ permanence notwithstanding, the patriarchal moniker of the act persists, a fact not lost on the singer who shrugs it off with a wry, “Yeah, uh-huh, it does.”

“It’s their idea — they are the dads, I think it’s a very interesting concept they have, and I’ve never argued with it. I don’t look like a guy so, of course, people realize I’m not when I’m onstage with them,” she says with a laugh. “We just kind of go along with the program, so to speak.”

The program includes Perkins lending her voice to classic numbers as “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Summertime” as well as the occasional Norah Jones cover.

“I’m kind of more of the slower ballads, jazz kind of singer, so I do leads on those,” explains Perkins, who relishes the opportunity to regularly let her inner musician express itself. “It’s something I always wanted to do and I love it. There are very few things that come close to it in my experience. I’ve done some fun things in my life, but music is such a wonderful outlet. To be up there, onstage surrounded by that sound is something I’ve dreamed about all my life, and in the past few years I’ve been able to do it, it’s a dream come true for me. I consider myself very lucky.”

Rohlfing suggests the musicians’ commitment to the band comes from their collective need to work off the pressures of their day-to-day lives.

“It’s a byproduct of stress, whether it’s a personal thing, where our lives are complicated by children, careers, marriages and all these different things relative to something on a larger scale like a war or a great depression, or something like that. Great forms of art come out of those trying times, so maybe it’s a way for us to release a little tension,” Rohlfing dryly says.

When rehearsing, the band is all business — a premium is put on honing the band’s repertoire in the time allotted, given members’ other responsibilities.

“We really look forward to it. Our lives are busy so we don’t have a lot of spare time to sit around and just dwindle the time away,” says Rohlfing. “When we get together, it’s a great time. Once you’re in that situation and just rehearsing, four or five hours can go by, and I won’t remember what was going on in the world. I’m just completely absorbed by the momentum of the sound we’re creating. It’s like riding a wave and it just carries you along.”

The band benefits from the fact that many of the players are multi-instrumentalists and will change gear throughout the set.

“Eric and I switch guitar and bass and Mike and I switch drums. I play drums on about 10 tunes,” says Fassett, who credits his ability to play so many different instruments to a “totally short attention span.”

“We just are out there to have fun. Playing different instruments to me makes it more interesting,” he says. “Every two or three songs, we switch it.”

Fassett is involved with a number of music projects that he considers more “serious” endeavors. That said, he enjoys his time with the Fourth Grade Dads, which has become something of a special artistic outlet for him.

“I have to honestly say that the snobby musician in me is kind of embarrassed about it,” Fassett says, “but at the same time the truth is that we have a lot of fun.”

The Fourth Grade Dads perform 7-9 p.m. Sept. 23 at Micha’s BBQ Restaurant, 1754 Laurel St. in San Carlos. To book the band, visit www.3rdgradedads.com.

Sonoma daVinci’s Una Mundus

Richard Johnson is a bespectacled man, with white, downy hair. He is often clad in plaid shirts and rests in an easy-chair nestled in the corner of his mobile home that nearly envelops his slight frame. He will be 99 years-old on October 19, which seems to impress everybody but him. Foremost on his mind are unifying the peoples of the world under a single federalist government — and ice cream.

The sweet-toothed Johnson is an inveterate inventor and big-picture thinker. In many ways he’s a latter day daVinci, who, like his forebear has drafted plans for dozens of innovations that are ahead of their time. Many of his inventions — from a circular winged air plane called the Uniplane (a prototype was actually built, tested and crashed) to his continuing passion for the World Federalist Party — reflect a theme of “unity,” which suggests itself in, mandala-like images, or specifically circles, that effervesce like a leit-motif throughout his life’s work.

Johnson speaks slowly, perhaps a bit from his advanced age, though it’s more likely he is choosing his words carefully. Such deliberation comes from a lifetime of trying to make his occasionally arcane conceptualizations graspable by the lay-people in his midst. It is also clear that Johnson understands the power of words — two in particular had significant impact on his life during World War II: “conscientious objector.”

These days the loaded phrase is printed on draft registration cards that require little more than checking a box to make a stand. In Johnson’s day he had to literally take the stand, in a court of law, which eventually led to imprisonment in Seattle for his pacifistic views. At the time, Johnson was actively germinating his World Federalist Party, a world government movement that by 1942 he organized into 90 members representing 17 different nations. Given the political climate of the early 40s, it’s likely Johnson’s intentions were misconstrued by skittish US authorities as something more akin to world domination than the world peace for which he strove.

“My stand was so complete that anybody would come to that conclusion because it was all pacifistic. In fact, I organized it our of the Seattle group that was for interracial and peace organization,” Johnson said in an interview with his friend and neighbor Linda Tomback, the “Roving Reporter” of a neighborhood newsletter dubbed “Whisperings.”

After his two-year incarceration, Johnson eventually settled in Sonoma in the 1950s where he operated a Richfield gas station on Broadway across from the old police station. On his ranch on Hyde road, however, he continued to labor on the World Federalist Party through his publication “Sphere,” (note the circle reference) which he began circulating in the latter part of the decade. According to the back matter on at least one of the polemical chapbooks, “Sphere” was an “independent bi-monthly federalist publication,” with the intent of “fostering [a] Universal Democracy through the development of a World Federalist political party.” The budget was tight for the nascent political publication; as one edition parenthetically explained on its cover, “this issue is necessarily a ‘tri-monthly’ because the ‘shoestring broke!'”

By the 1980s, Johnson moved to the DeAnza Moon Valley Mobile Home Park where he now lives alone. His daily routine involves typing his thoughts, inventions and general inquiries into a computer. A peak over his shoulder any particular day could reveal a means of tapping the “endless amounts of energy under the surface of the earth” or chiding automakers to affix solar panels on the surfaces vehicles. He has also been drafting a letter to Fani Palli-Petralia, Greece’s minister of culture, to request that the World Federalist Party constitutional convention be hosted at an unused Olympic Games building complex.

Whether Palli-Petralia writes back or not is anyone’s guess. But Johnson surely is no slouch when corresponding with the denizens of the world. When the phone rings during the course of our interview he is quick to answer. In this case, it’s a telemarketer that intends to help him refinance his home. At first it seems that Johnson is too polite to hang-up and Tomback and pal Robert Potter, frequent visitors, encourage him to do so. After a moment, however, it becomes clear that Johnson is taunting the telemarketer with his snappy rhetorical observations. “Why would you want to help me?” he asks. The telemarketer is apparently stumped and the conversation ends.

The moment belies much of what Johnson sees wrong with contemporary society — chiefly an ignorance of the interconnectedness of all things, telemarketers and latter-day daVinci’s included. Ideas, for Johnson, work on the same principle.

“They just come. Something I see may suggest an idea because ideas are close to each other,” he says. He can tell when an idea is “good” by “how well it fits in with other ideas that haven’t been exploited.”
Some of Johnson’s inventions are patented, others sit moldering in the copious archives stowed throughout his home. As Potter has diligently sifted the contents of dozens of boxes and perused hundreds of index cards jotted with the results of various experiments (for reasons yet known Johnson recorded the melting points of various fats) he has discovered both the farsighted and the far out. Among them are blueprints from 1946 for the UniHome, a domelike domestic structure intended to provide affordable housing for the peoples of the world. An aerial view of the home reveals that it too is in the shape of a circle.

“These are ideas that I hope will get out to the public so they can make the most of them. That’s what I hope the most,” he confides. “I’ve delayed publishing about them because I want to improve on them. I don’t want to have wrong information get out.”

Johnson admits to being a perfectionist, but adds that it makes his work “more pleasurable.” And throughout, the concept of unity — whether represented as circular, cyclical, spherical or otherwise — recurs as a theme.

“It’s unity that makes things work the best. Even a car is properly unified. And people are properly unified, this mobile home is properly unified. Teachers and professors are constantly studying how to unify the subjects they teach. That’s why I pushed the World Federalist Party, because how would we have a United States of American if we didn’t have a constitution that made us one.”

Tomback attempts to clarify Johnson’s remarks when she asks, “We don’t all have to think alike, we can all be individuals, right?”

“We’re limited in thinking alike,” Johnson replies sagely.

Indeed, Johnson doesn’t think like most people and certainly doesn’t limit himself, despite the occasionally quixotic aspect of his endeavors, or frankly, the time he has to pursue them. He believes he can improve the world and intends on bringing his conviction full circle.