#POETMOM: Of Pride & Prejudice

By Heidi Siegmund Cuda

The sailors were more drunk than usual that Sunday. It was the third night of the Pride parade in West Hollywood, and what started out on Friday night as a mellow soiree had turned into a place to collectively mourn the massive tragedy in Orlando.

Sadly, the event’s publicist and I were musing on Friday how lousy it was that more major media outlets weren’t covering the festival. I quipped, “Unless there’s a stabbing….” And then I told him about the youth poetry revolution, and how it was taking over, and how because it’s a peaceful movement, you had to know somebody to be aware of it.

But by Sunday, hours after the tragedy, every major outlet had blown through Pride, and the collective mourning involved massive consumption of whatever poison to dim the sorrow.

My son had been waiting for months to see Carly Rae Jepsen, Pride’s Sunday night headliner, and I needed a group hug. So off to WeHo we went…to cut a rug and to hug some sailors.

“We will shine that light in the darkness, bitches!” said Pride cohost Billy Francesca, as he introduced Jepsen, whose gold retro pantsuit was so glittery it could be seen by 53 new angels in heaven.

Carly Rae Jepsen at PRIDE LA

Carly Rae Jepsen at PRIDE LA

Two weeks later, I’m at The Pasadena Playhouse listening to Hershey Felder sing Irving Berlin.

How do I describe it?

Lyrically, there’s nothing Irving Berlin can’t cure—the blues, heartache, loss.

It started with a 1955 “Voice of Music” Hi Fi stereo I found at a yard sale. How do you christen the sweetest sounding vinyl player ever invented? I rifled through the sale section at Amoeba and found a double vinyl set of Ella Fitzgerald singing Irving Berlin. Ella’s silky skills started a love affair with Berlin that continued when I became smitten with that hoofer Fred Astaire, whose feet were never more alive than when following the melody of a Berlin-penned song. Widely regarded as the heart of the American Songbook, Berlin gave us such gems as “Cheek to Cheek,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “God Bless America” and “White Christmas.”

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

When I found out about a one-man Irving Berlin show at the Geffen Playhouse in 2014, I donned my favorite Goorin Brothers hat and headed to Westwood. I didn’t know anything about the show’s star, Hershey Felder, but quickly found out he was a brilliant pianist, playwright and performer, who had embodied such artists as George Gershwin and Franz Liszt, as well as Berlin.

From the moment the show started, out came the waterworks. Berlin was a boy from Imperialist Russia, who watched his house burn down when he was five, and who had to learn to support himself and his family when he was 8, by then peddling newspapers in New York’s Lower Eastside. Throughout his life, he suffered. At the hands of an anti-Semitic Czarist regime as a child, the loss of his young bride just after their honeymoon, and the death of a newborn son. He wrote his songs of “Blue Skies” to soothe his own soul and in turn, helped give a young country its identity.

I had a chance to chat with Felder, who is staging a remount of the show at the Pasadena Playhouse through August 7, about poetry and politics.

HSC: How do I refer to you? You pretty much do it all? Impresario? Virtuoso?

HF: Just as a person. I have no delusions of grandeur. I personally don’t think about it. But I will say, it’s a lot of work, and it takes a great team.

HSC: How does the show differ from the Geffen to the Playhouse? My eyes were too teary through both shows to notice.

HF: The show itself is the same but in the two years I’ve been performing it, I have a greater understanding and depth of character. I too am an immigrant and even though I didn’t leave a bad situation, I know what it feels like to be a stranger in a strange land.

HSC: With all the current immigrant bashing, how important is it to revisit the immigrant experience through this play and Berlin’s contributions?

HF: It’s remarkable. It’s crystal clear it moves people emotionally. Without immigrants where would be? Where would we be without all our Christmas and holiday music?

HSC: What do you think Irving Berlin would think of the youth poetry movement?

HF: I think he did that just in a different way. He captured the sound of his age using the vernacular of the times and if he were alive, that’s what he’d be doing.

HSC: I understand your wife Kim Campbell is a former Prime Minister of Canada. Does she have any words of advice for Hillary Clinton?

HF: Check out her most recent interview. It pretty much says everything.

I not only encourage lovers of the arts to try to make one of Felder’s final shows this weekend at the Pasadena Playhouse, but I also encourage folks to listen to what his wife has to say about America’s current presidential election. “It’s the vocabulary of misogyny,” she notes. This is a vocabulary the youth poets of the Get Lit program are trying to un-hear, as they take on such subjects as female empowerment, bullying, date rape, gay rights, police brutality and mental health.

My daughter, Mila Cuda, and fellow Get Lit Player Jessica Romoff, youth poets who just got back from Washington, D.C. as part of L.A.’s Brave New Voices team, are watching a clip of a poem they wrote and performed at Tim Robbins’ Actor’s Gang Theatre, go viral. (They’re getting fan mail.)

I noted when I first began writing this column a few years ago that philosopher Alain de Botton, who wrote the book Is the News Driving Us Crazy? told me we needed better celebrities. It’s clear the poets are what we need. Their words are resonating. It’s only a matter of time before we see Get Lit poet Vanessa Tahay on national stages (here she is on NPR). As the Guatemalan immigrant performs “A Dream in Five Days,” a moving poem about her experience with coyotes as she and her family crossed the border, the waterworks start again. I saw her when she first began spoken word, so quiet and timid. Two years later, a force to be reckoned with. That’s the power of Get Lit.

Maybe it’s because I’m the daughter of immigrants that I find these stories so moving. No, I didn’t cross borders or flee fascist regimes, but my parents did. And like many immigrant children, I was raised by parents with a profound love of their adopted home.

In the words of Irving Berlin, God bless the land of immigrants and poets. May we continue to live and thrive.

Watch Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.

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Author Heidi Siegmund Cuda

Author/screenwriter Heidi Siegmund Cuda is a veteran L.A. Times Columnist and investigative producer for Fox 11. She is now developing TV shows, garnering development deals with Discovery Studios, and she hosts her own investigative web series, Ripoff Report Investigates, which she also writes and produces.