Thursday, December 23, 2004

Who's winning battle of the trees?


Thursday December 23, 2004

Who's winning battle of the trees?
* It depends on who is doing the spinning. Everyone agrees: Fewer trees are going up.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

That fresh-cut Christmas tree in your living room has a press agent and a marketing campaign. That's if you've put up a tree at all.

Fewer than 7 in 10 Americans reportedly will bother with a tree this year, and the number who will spring for a fresh-cut tree is in dispute. Reports put the number of people who've embraced faux trees at a whopping 70%.

The people at the National Christmas Tree Assn. prefer to say that the market for "real" trees is on the upswing, that when this season closes they will have sold a million more trees than last year. Still, 4 million fewer trees were sold in 2003 than in 2001. It's enough to cause the St. Louis-based trade association to treat a hallowed tradition -- which in America stretches back to 1747 -- much like a Happy Meal promotion.

The campaign includes a link to Warner Bros.' "The Polar Express" -- a $3 discount per tree, with a movie ticket stub presented at participating Christmas tree lots -- and a "Help Santa Find the Perfect Real Tree" essay contest for kids. (Grand prize: Something even Santa would be hard-pressed to deliver: a $10,000 college scholarship.)

Rick Morris of Smith & Harroff, the Alexandria, Va.-based public relations firm that's trying to get people to warm up to the extra work of a fresh-cut tree, says that if you're concerned about the environment, you should spring for fresh-cut: "Real trees are recyclable; you can use them for mulch, to put in ponds for fish and wildlife."

Real trees, he says, suck up carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, which is pretty important stuff. And nearly all Christmas trees are grown on farms, "just like corn -- it's not as if we're going into the forest or taking down trees in parks." Faux-tree makers counter that their unnatural versions last at least 10 years, so wreak less environmental havoc.

Fresh-cut trees have taken a hit, admits Morris, but the industry is pinning its hopes on the generation coming of age and on future generations. For them, buying a real tree "is almost a kind of retro thing," he says.

Environmental impact aside, the real-tree people are battling an increasingly sophisticated impostor crafted of plastic and silk, and most likely made in Asia. With vintage aluminum trees last popular in the 1960s again in vogue, it's enough to make the fresh-tree growers set up a computer game on their website called "Attack of the Mutant Artificial Trees."


In the game, "the artificial trees have mutated and are sucking the spirit out of Christmas," according to the website. "Help the elf beat these bad guys by hitting them with snowballs!"

There is no fight to join, says Leon Gamze, owner of the artificial tree store, who is declaring more than virtual victory. "Live tree-ers have lost a tremendous amount of business to people like myself."

Since Gamze launched his Web business in 1995, he says it has grown 30% every year. Trees with the lights already wound around the plastic branches are bestsellers, as is a simulated Fraser fur, Gamze says. Others trace the popularity of faux trees to the boom five years ago in prelighted trees.

Still, anecdotal evidence across the country shows signs of resurgence of a tradition that can be traced to pagan ceremonies -- often celebrating rebirth, renewal or the winter solstice -- in ancient Egyptian, Roman, Chinese and other societies.

"At a wholesale level, we've sold about everything we can ship this year," says Ron Hudler, national spokesman for the tree association and owner of a North Carolina tree farm. And every grower he's talked to has "had a better year than they had last year, or the year before."

Both sides say that aging baby boomers are a factor -- once the torchbearers of the real tree tradition, perhaps their backs have grown too weary to wrestle these trees home. The fake-tree folks say that their product is easier on the back and maintains tradition, while the real-tree purveyors argue that in our ever-more-virtual society, a tree that's touched by nature is something worth having.

But why even put up a tree, especially if your nest is suddenly empty? The trend toward having no tree "is alarming, and it's on the upswing," says Jay Smith of Smith & Harroff.

Finally, something both sides agree on: Christmastime without a tree -- whatever it's made of -- is not Christmastime at all.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Her gratitude is ringing true


Tuesday December 21, 2004

Her gratitude is ringing true
* Shaking a Salvation Army bell is tedious, but it's Terri Brown's way of saying thank you.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Sav-on Drugs on Sepulveda at National -- too hot and dry to be nearly Christmastime. Too hot and dry to be standing out in the sun swaying back and forth and ringing a bell at 11 o'clock on a Wednesday morning, but somebody has to ring the bell because if nobody rings it, then people forget to toss their extra pennies and dimes and quarters into the red Salvation Army kettle, and the change ends up on dressers and in laundry lint traps, doing not a whit of good.

So somebody has to ring the thing. And it might as well be Terri Brown, whose debt to the Salvation Army is second only to her debt to the Lord, whose husband, Cedric, is also a bell ringer, who, with her brown-black curls and kind green eyes, tries to remember, with each flick of the wrist, where she's coming from and where she's going to.

God bless you, merry Christmas. God bless you, merry Christmas. God bless you, merry Christmas....

Hers is just one of 299 bells ringing across Los Angeles County, bells that have heralded Christmas for 114 years but may not be ringing as loudly much longer. Volunteers are scarcer than ever, holiday shoppers leave stores with credit card receipts rather than loose change, and Target and some other national chains are sweeping solicitors from their sidewalks, including bell ringers and their iconic red kettles. So it's Sav-on for Brown.

Most people avert their eyes this morning, but that's OK. Brown keeps smiling; she can't afford to look down on anyone. Remember where you're coming from. Remember when you were 17 and your baby girl died and the pain was like a heart attack and you had to run away to keep on standing. Remember being raped, each of four times. Remember smoking crack on Los Angeles' skid row. Remember sleeping with the rats.

The kettle and the bell saved her, the kettle and the bell and Jesus -- when Brown and Cedric and their six kids found themselves homeless in Vegas three years ago, the Salvation Army sheltered and fed them and Brown tossed the crack pipe for good and began shaking a little silver bell. She rang it in Vegas and she rang it in San Francisco, and now she's serenading Angelenos.

Doesn't pay much, minimum wage, but who cares? Try to understand that some day Brown aims to start her own shelter that lifts up homeless people, physically and emotionally and cognitively. Try to understand that some day Brown will fill a book with the lessons she's learned over 37 years. That's why she's smiling, and also because her children are honor students living with their grandmother in Moreno Valley, and because when the Salvation Army van drops her home each evening, she and Cedric watch the news and read the Bible and remember where they've been, beam together at how far they've come.

Staying upbeat

Sure, there are people like the fiftysomething man wearing an American flag cap who flies out of Sav-on at 12:42 and insists to the world that Brown wants to take and take and take everybody's last hard-earned cent.

God bless you, merry Christmas.

Or the homeless guy in a soiled green afghan who sets up camp nearby and explains to Brown and to anybody who stops and roots for change in pockets and purses that Jesus is a punk.

God bless him too. Brown won't ask him to find another sidewalk -- she can't be that person. She can't whitewash this moment of its sadness and ugliness because, even while he slanders her god, she sees herself dressed in his afghan, feels his hunger and desperation deep in her gut, knows his hell.

If anybody will stop at the kettle, children will. They point their tiny fingers at the oscillating bell and yelp and giggle. They pull their grown-ups by jackets and pant legs toward this red-vested woman. And when they leave, their curiosity hardly satiated, they stare back at Brown and she tells each of them goodbye, sweetheart. Merry Christmas, sweetheart. Goodbye.

The Christmas spirit isn't universal; many people walk by and stare straight ahead without giving, without God blessing in return. That's why the Salvation Army can't find enough volunteers this year; it's why many shoppers in the Southeast will be greeted by cardboard bell ringers built with motion sensors that trigger a recording, ding-ding-ding.

When too many people don't believe in Christmas, Brown slides on her headphones and hums and sways to gospel. Today, it's Karen Clark-Sheard who helps her remember, helps her smile. Then an old woman stops and spends six minutes dredging the pennies from the folds of her ancient change purse.

God bless you, merry Christmas.

A retired Verizon executive named Pearl stuffs a bill into the kettle. Target is terrible, she says, never shopping there again, she says, Target ought to be ashamed.

The shrill ding-ding-dinging follows Dana Troubridge and her frizzy purple sweater into Sav-on, it wafts from cosmetics to the candy isle, it echoes in her skull as she waits and waits at the register. Since the brain injury, noises like this hurt her, they puncture her.

It's not fair to make me hear this. She shouldn't be ringing a bell in my face. It's not fair to force your holidays on people.

God bless me? Merry Christmas?

Happy Hanukkah, she tells Brown, and Brown smiles.

Kevin Considine from Amsterdam isn't into that religious thing, either. And the bell ringing is annoying; it makes sense that they're getting kicked out of places, really, but he drops his change into the kettle anyhow, because there are lots of hungry people out there, because he's not one of them.

It's too hot and dry to be standing and ringing, and it stays that way until about 4 o'clock, when the rough concrete wall of the Sav-on begins to throw a shadow over the sidewalk and into the parking lot. If not Jack Frost weather, it's certainly cooler, and Brown and her bell ringing seem less ridiculous because it feels a little like Christmastime, and now maybe one in three people stops to chat or donate, and a few go as far as to God bless Brown too.

At the end of the day the take is $150.85, which isn't bad, but the kettle is locked so Brown can't know this and so this isn't what makes her day. What makes her day, if you really want to know, is the old man wearing tan slacks and a pristine gray sweater -- he could be a banker -- who shows up at 5:30 to do the jitterbug on her sidewalk.

He bobs to-and-fro, bends his knees and sways, taps Brown on the arm and grins. Somebody -- a brother, a friend? -- drops him off every day so that he can hang with the bell ringer. There's something wrong with this guy, definitely, but there's something wrong with most of us, and Brown knows you either like somebody as they are or you don't like them at all.

That's why she'll be here tomorrow. Because people like this are counting on her, counting on her bell and on her smile. That's why she can't give up, on this or on herself, because, as she sits in the van heading home, she remembers to remember all the obstacles that stand in front of her, that she wants to overcome.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Molding, a Paramount production


Thursday November 18, 2004

Molding, a Paramount production
* Looking for a rare pattern, style or period? Insiders head through the studio gates, to the 'best-kept secret around.'

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

When Pacific Palisades architect Virgil McDowell needs classical French moldings that look as if they were made in the 1920s, he takes his drawings and heads to Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, to a shop whose business it is to leapfrog through place and time -- the Paramount Pictures lot.

Most people don't realize that Paramount Wood Moulding is open to those who will never compete for an Oscar or hold a SAG card. In addition to work for Paramount and other studios, about 30% of the shop's projects are for nonindustry clients who hear about it through word of mouth.

"They're the best-kept secret around," McDowell says. "They actually sit down and work with you. Whatever you want in wood, they can do. They are really artisans. Other places hand you a catalog and ask you to pick between a, b, c or d -- and if you ask for custom work, they laugh at you."

Paramount is the foremost of a few remaining industry molding shops (Disney and Fox run smaller operations) where customers can rub shoulders with fully costumed movie and TV stars. After making an appointment, customers drive directly onto the lot, which is its own ecosystem: golf carts instead of cars, trailers instead of houses, a gated community peopled with famous faces and with set designers and craftsmen busy transforming soundstages into alternate worlds.

Mark Goldstein, owner of local Madison boutiques, arrived on the lot clutching glossy cutouts of fireplaces from Decor magazine and Architectural Digest when he was remodeling his Brentwood home in 2002.

"I had gone to fireplace stores, but I just didn't like the fireplaces. They looked too tract-homey," Goldstein says.

Paramount replicated Goldstein's cutouts -- "one fireplace is painted ebony brown and antiqued," he says. "Another is white and looks like it was taken from a 150-year-old house in Connecticut."

Goldstein was so pleased with the work that he ordered his other moldings from Paramount as well.

"They just have interesting moldings that you don't find at any molding stores," he says.

Moldings are priced slightly higher than at Home Depot or other national chains -- per-foot costs range from 21 cents (window stop) to $9.74 (large crown molding) -- but clients say that Paramount's moldings are far more diverse, detailed and have larger profiles than what can be found elsewhere.

The shop itself, near the set for the TV show "Charmed," offers a view of the entertainment industry that few of us get to see: union workers feeding raw lumber into giant machines that chisel it into molding and spew sawdust into tubes snaking up and along the cavernous ceiling; boxes and piles of baseboards and casings and all variety of trim fashioned from sundry hardwoods and softwoods; custom-made doors and window frames and columns leaning against the walls.

"On a busy day, we fill a 16-foot-long dumpster with sawdust," says Mark LeCompte, head of Paramount's wood molding department.

Because there is never a lack of molding, wood turning and custom door and window orders to be filled and filled pronto, and because sets are rarely recycled, most days are busy. All profits are folded into the studio coffer.

Paramount moldings are also sold through Anderson Moulding in Culver City, Topanga Lumber in Topanga, and the lumberyards at Warner Bros., CBS and Sony Pictures.

The Paramount shop is a favorite of architects and designers who are looking for rare and custom molding -- and the workers' set-designing expertise makes them uniquely suited for these jobs, says Paul Staheli, production designer for the WB's "Charmed."

"Generally speaking, the molding we get out of here has a lot more detail to it than what you would normally get in your houses," says Staheli.

Filming requires exquisitely detailed molding, he says, because the camera picks up variation, and if the molding doesn't clue you in to place or period, a room is "nothing but a square or rectangular box. My office, for example, is nothing, a zero space. But if I were to trim out the windows and doors, I could turn it into a Victorian room, an Art Deco room. Name your period."

If you've watched TV or movies in the last 90 years, you have undoubtedly seen molding and other woodwork by Paramount. Angelenos may have also seen the shop's work around town, such as at Pasadena's Castle Green, an 1898 Moorish Colonial and Spanish-style structure refurbished last year with Paramount detailing.

Or at the former SAG office building at Sunset Boulevard and Sherbourne Drive in Hollywood, which was restored in 1999 using Paramount moldings.

Alan Graybill, whose carpentry company C Six contracted the Sunset and Sherbourne job, says he removed all deteriorating moldings and asked Paramount to duplicate them exactly.

On a recent morning, LeCompte demonstrates the process of creating a custom molding.

"Because we're so in tune with doing one-of-a-kind things for movies, we don't mass produce anything," he says, trudging up a sawdust-covered staircase into the storage room where he keeps a scanner and computer-controlled saw called a router.

Hundreds of custom knives and sample wood moldings spill out of dozens of boxes emblazoned with the Paramount logo. The Hollywood sign is visible from a nearby window.

"This used to be the breakaways glass room," LeCompte explains, where the studio manufactured faux-glass items like windowpanes and bottles that shattered without injuring actors.

First, LeCompte scans the molding he is duplicating or the customer's drawing into a computer-aided design program, and the router cuts a fiberglass knife template. The template is sent downstairs to the grinder, a sandpapered wheel that works like a key cutter to shape a steel plate and sharpen its edges.

The customized knife -- or knives, if it's an intricate molding -- is mounted onto a cutter head, which fits into one of four molding machines. LeCompte and his workers use rip saws to size lumber down to a fraction larger than the intended molding, then feed the planks through the molder, which cuts all sides at once.

And that's the easy stuff. Complicated wood turnings, such as ornate radius castings, have to be carved precisely by hand on a lathe. "They know how to turn and mill columns, how to do what people did in the '20s and '30s that nobody else does anymore," says McDowell, the architect. "When we use their moldings in a new room, people come into the room afterward and say, 'Wow, this looks old. A fine restoration.' "

Seems like a lot of work considering that many of their creations are blown up in action scenes or for special effects, and that even surviving sets eventually land in the trash.

But LeCompte, who has clocked 26 years in this industry and whose father ran the now-defunct Universal Studios molding shop, doesn't mind. "Putting them in the trash is good for business," he says with a chuckle. It keeps the orders coming.

For clients outside of the industry, Paramount moldings are more than quality detailing -- they're also conversation pieces.

"You feel special," says Michelle Smith of Cypress who ordered a set of oak double doors. "You get to see a realm that we've all wondered about.... And when somebody asks me where I got my doors, and I say 'Paramount Studios,' they look at me dumbfounded."



How to get on the lot

Paramount Wood Moulding is open by appointment only -- call (323) 956-4242 and arrange to drop by 555 Melrose Ave. in Hollywood between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. You can also view the catalog online at (click on the links "enter the studio group," "production" and then "wood moulding").

Thursday, December 9, 2004

Web will do the walking


Thursday December 09, 2004

Web will do the walking
* My Personal Shopper

By Steven Barrie-Anthony

Wouldn't it be nice if somebody would do your holiday shopping for you? That's the idea behind My Personal Shopper (, a new computer program that does just that. Download and install the free software, fill out a form for each gift recipient -- name, birthday and what kind of gifts he or she likes (say, favorite authors or clothing designers). Enter your budget, and the program scours the Web and returns the best deals to your desktop.

The program, which docks on the right of your screen and works like a rotating billboard, will annoy those who don't want consumerism invading their space, but you can always hit "minimize." And be sure to peruse the privacy policy before installing. For the spam-phobic, the admission that "Some ... vendors are given access to ... your e-mail address" is not reassuring. Advertising could migrate from desktop to inbox.