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I first met Alden West in January when I was helping direct Taking Care of Mimi, a provocative play being produced as a staged reading by the Script to Stage to Screen (S2S2S) theater. West was playing a lead role as a matriarch with dementia whose death leads to a murder investigation—and I couldn’t believe it when West revealed she was 87 years old.

“Eight-seven and a half!” she proudly proclaims.

West, a resident of Sun City in Palm Desert since 2003, was an only child, born in Washington, D.C.

“I figure I can claim any state,” she says with a laugh, “and I was raised all over the country: West Virginia, Detroit, Buffalo, Baltimore, Richmond and New York City. I went to so many different schools, each with its own teaching styles, that when I moved from Buffalo to Baltimore, I found that they had learned script writing in the first-grade, while I hadn’t. I had a little yellow desk at home, and many tears were shed at that desk!

“It was a challenge going to schools in big cities and then in rural areas. I came from Jackson Heights in New York City, where if you bumped into somebody, you’d never say you were sorry. In rural areas, if you bumped into somebody, they’d say they were sorry—they were very polite.”

West’s father worked at Chevrolet, which moved him around a lot; he also served in the Navy during World War II.

“My mom had married early, at age 18, and was a homemaker until the war, when she went to work,” West says. “I was very close to my mother, even when I was a teenager, and I could tell my dad anything. I not only loved my parents; I liked them.

“My dad was a college graduate, and after I graduated high school in Virginia, where we had lived since I was about 11 or 12, I went to Cornell, where both my dad and granddad had gone. I didn’t stay at college, however, because I had promised to marry my first husband, so I left school at Christmas of my sophomore year. If I had stayed in school, I would have majored in theater arts, but I left too soon to declare a major.”

West proudly proclaims that she had three grandparents in Congress.

“My father’s father was a Republican; my mother’s father was a Democrat. Then when my mother’s father passed away, his wife filled out his term. She had to run for it and was elected.”

West’s jobs over the years included retail; she also worked as assistant in a dental office. In 1980, she studied for and got her real estate license. She sold real estate until she moved to Sun City from Hillsborough, Calif.

West started acting in high school, in Falls Church, Va.

“There was a local community theater, and a friend suggested I audition,” West says. “I got a part and was cast as an Eskimo girl, in a full Eskimo costume, doing a hula. I loved it! I did a little acting before I had my children, and I still remember getting my first stage kiss.

“In college, I got the lead part in my freshman year in The Importance of Being Earnest, and in my sophomore year, in The Madwoman of Chaillot. In that one, I actually had to learn how to whistle! I had always been a little shy; I’d cross the street to avoid someone I didn’t know well. What I found was that when I’m onstage, I’m the character.”

West didn’t start acting in earnest until she came to the desert.

“There was a Panhellenic group meeting I attended, and at the end, they announced an audition was being held for some work at local venues,” West says. “They gave me a part, and that gave me confidence. Then Ron Celona (artistic director of Coachella Valley Repertory) cast me in Driving Miss Daisy. I got a nomination from the Desert Theatre League for that part.

“After that,” she laughs, “I tried out for all the old-lady parts!”

West has subsequently earned more nominations and several wins from the Desert Theatre League—including the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

“When I went up to get the lifetime award, I said, ‘I feel like this is the gold watch,’ but then I thought, ‘You people probably don’t even know what I’m talking about.’” Again, she laughs heartily.

West never formally studied acting, although she has taken some courses locally. She says she can’t do “method acting,” in which an actor digs into personal experience to present a realism-based performance. “I try to think of what is written and who that character is. I try to figure out how that character would deal with the situation being portrayed.

“Truth is, it’s getting more difficult to memorize lines. Sometimes, there’s a word I just can’t get, and I have to substitute one. Lately, I’m noticing that I can only be friends with someone who can complete my sentences,” she says, again with a laugh. “I always have to respond to what’s written and what’s happening onstage in that moment.”

Respond, she does. In the show I helped direct with Script to Stage to Screen, West portrayed an aging woman whose family is at odds about her condition. West’s ability to become that woman and respond to what was happening around her, even when she had no dialogue, was astounding.

West has three children—two daughters and a son. Her second marriage began in 1960 and lasted until her husband died in 2011.

“I’m lucky to have two of my children living fairly close, and the third has a place in Mexico, so it’s a great place for a getaway,” she says.

Does West have a guilty pleasure? “Sweets,” she answers immediately. “My kids tell me I’m indecisive, but I’ll take a cookie over a drink any day.”

How has the current stay-at-home policy affected West? “Being an only child, I’ve had no problem at all,” she says. “I walk every day and do my cardio exercises. I’m used to being alone. I even prefer it sometimes. I’ve learned to adapt to whatever is going on.”

That is a reaction worth emulating.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Bruce Fessier has seen the Coachella Valley’s arts and entertainment culture completely change—repeatedly—during the 40 years he’s worked as the entertainment writer at The Desert Sun.

On June 3, Fessier’s column will be appearing for the last time before he heads into retirement.

“The industry has changed quite a bit, and it’s not as satisfying as it used to be,” Fessier said during a recent interview at The Desert Sun’s offices. “I still have some brain cells, so I would still like to do some other things before I no longer have those brain cells. I never wanted to spend my entire life as a journalist. It just kind of worked out that way. Having the opportunity to take an early-retirement benefit gives me enough of a cushion that I can try some other things.”

When Fessier arrived at The Desert Sun in 1979, there wasn’t much to cover.

“I often say that the difference between now and then is that when I first started, there wasn’t enough entertainment to have a calendar,” Fessier said. “Now there is so much entertainment that they don’t want me spending my time assembling a calendar. So I don’t do a calendar anymore, and I’m back to where I started. I covered the nightclubs, and I covered the lounge scene. They had concerts at Palm Springs High School, and most were either big band or classical.”

Fessier said skater culture was helping launch a local music scene when he started at The Desert Sun.

“There was a guy named Myke Bates who started a company called Bates Skates. That became the centerpiece for this skating culture,” Fessier said. “There was a rebellion that was happening right after I got here. A lot of the people were skateboarding and roller-skating on sidewalks in Palm Springs. The city of Palm Springs created ordinances to prohibit them from skating. This guy Bates was the head of the skating culture and was a punk-rocker. He was in the band Target 13. That generated this punk-rock culture, and I started covering a lot of that. Most of that was in Desert Hot Springs and not in Palm Springs itself, but there was a real scene that was developing. I covered that in the early days, and it was always the alternative to the classical stuff you’d see at Palm Springs High School and the lounge scene.”

Fessier was around when the desert generator scene developed. Bands such as Kyuss and Fatso Jetson played shows in the middle of the desert as they cut their teeth—and Fessier doesn’t agree with the modern romanticization of those desert parties.

“I went out to one generator party, and it was just terrible conditions,” he said. “Never mind how dangerous it was; it was the type of thing where there was so much sand blowing. It would get in your face and all the instruments, and it was just not enjoyable. … I would see some of those guys at Adrian’s Dance Club or something like that, but I can’t say I was a participant in the generator scene.

“Back in 1989, you could hear this music coming out from the middle of nowhere, and you didn’t know where it was coming from, because they never told anybody. Jesse Hughes (of Eagles of Death Metal) recently posted on Facebook about how I covered him in the early days. I saw him and one of his bands at this drive-through Italian restaurant in Cathedral City where you could get spaghetti for $2, and he was playing there. That’s the thing: You’d see these people playing in little nooks and crannies. Even though I didn’t go out and hang out in the hills, I was still aware of what was going on.”

There was one name in town that you couldn’t avoid back then.

“Everybody idolized Sinatra in those days,” Fessier said. “I wrote a column one time back then about how you could go to every bar in town and hear ‘New York, New York.’ I got so sick of that song. That came out in 1979, and everybody was singing it. That’s what it was like in 1979 in Palm Springs. They were all close personal friends of Frank and all had stories about him, and I’d run into him at all these different places. That was kind of fun, actually.

“I wasn’t really a big Frank Sinatra fan at the time, but just seeing the impact he had on all the people and discovering his generosity in person—it made me a big fan of his. Once I stopped getting over the generational thing that I had and started appreciating his music, I became a big Frank Sinatra fan.”

Fessier remembered seeing both the good side and the bad side of the Chairman of the Board.

“He was mercurial. If you caught him on a good day, you were intoxicated by him. If you caught him on a bad day, you were scared to death of him. I saw him on both sides,” Fessier said. “The first time I was in a room with him was the first week I was entertainment editor. This PR guy decided he was going to take me around town and show me all the lounges and restaurants. He told me he was going to take me to Don the Beachcomber, because that was where Sinatra hung out. I had a friend with me at the time who was a real drunken kind of friend. I wasn’t expecting this to be any big deal, and the last thing I expected was to see Sinatra at this place.

“We get there, and there was Sinatra. Don the Beachcomber was a tiny place. He was at the bar with about 20 friends, and he’s entertaining them all. This red light came on, and he said, ‘When that red light comes on, I sing.’ This PR guy said, ‘You do not talk to Frank Sinatra.’ My friend was drunk and said, ‘I don’t care what you say; I know people who are big shots, and I’m going to go up to him and say hello.’ (My friend) brushed us aside and said, ‘Hey Frank,’ and Frank said, ‘Hey pal, how you doing?’ and shook his hand.

“Frank had this charisma, and it would hypnotize you a bit.”

Fessier also covered the local theater scene extensively.

“I saw the big change coming, and that was the McCallum Theatre (which opened in 1988),” he said. “When I got here, there was an organization called the Valley Players Guild, and they were always looking for their own home. Then there (was) the Palm Desert Community Theatre, and that was pretty much it. College of the Desert did their own shows. Then the McCallum (began) doing fundraising and the performing-arts series that they did at Palm Springs High School and the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum. It became apparent that would not only dwarf community theater, but take up all of The Desert Sun’s resources: I was going to be covering what was going on at the McCallum instead of community theater.

“That’s the reason I co-founded the Desert Theatre League in 1987, because there were more groups that were starting, and there were other splinter groups. I thought they needed some sort of a promotion that I wasn’t going to be able to provide, and an award show would be that kind of promotion. I wanted it to also be a networking opportunity for people to share their resources. My co-founder was an actor in town who also worked in the advertising department for The Desert Sun, so some of these splinter groups that didn’t have nonprofit status could get the lower nonprofit advertising rate by being a member.”

Fessier and I were two of the five journalists invited to cover Paul McCartney’s 2016 show at Pappy and Harriet’s. I remember seeing him disappear and reappear many times throughout the show.

“I had an early deadline,” Fessier explained. “We are always trying to be first, and so Robyn (Celia, the venue’s co-owner) let me use their office. Their office got so crazy with people coming in to where I went to the back of the office in this closet where I had my laptop, and I’d be writing and walking out to see what the commotion was. We didn’t get a photo pass, either, and I was trying to take pictures. That was crazy! … It was certainly historic, and I didn’t really appreciate it as much as I should have at the time.”

Fessier said covering the valley’s big festivals, Coachella especially, can be tiring and strenuous—but wind up being worth the trouble.

“Even today, the press accommodations are bad,” Fessier said. “I did an interview with (Coachella founder) Paul Tollett a week ago, and I was telling him how the press accommodations always suck. I told him, ‘You know what the sports guys get?’ The second year we were there, a colleague said that the press tent was four sticks and a canvas. The first year, they didn’t even have electricity in there. But at the time, it was so magical, because you could just walk up to people. I walked right up to Moby and did an interview. There was nobody setting up any press interviews. It was magical from the very beginning.”

Fessier made a prediction about Coachella’s future.

“It’s going to be international,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if J Balvin is the first international headliner not to use English as his primary language. That’s the direction it’s going in. It had more international stars this year than there were acts from the United States. Paul Tollett likes to nurture those guys and bring them up.”

Considering all the changes taking place in the media world, I had to ask: Do you feel that what we do will still matter in the future?

“I just did a talk to a class of broadcasters at College of the Desert, and I told them, ‘You’re living in an exciting time when you won’t need radio stations, and you won’t need newspapers, (but) you will need entrepreneurial skills to monetize your work. You have an opportunity to find out what you want to do and make a living at it without corporate ties,’” he said. “Working for a corporation is very frustrating. I’m happy to not have to be worried about rewriting some story from TMZ about herpes breaking out at Coachella.”

Fessier explained why he stayed at The Desert Sun for four decades.

“I got an offer at the San Francisco Chronicle, and I’m from San Francisco. I went to college there, and I always dreamed of going back to the Bay Area. But the salary they were offering me was not significantly more than what I was getting here,” he said. “I’ve always had other income opportunities and have never had to rely just on The Desert Sun. It’s between not being offered enough money and my wife saying, ‘I’m not going to live in Cincinnati!’

“This is a nice place to not only live but raise kids. I’m very proud that both of my kids are doing very well now. One is an animator for Bob’s Burgers, and the other one is managing a cannabis dispensary.”

Published in Features

Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins—From Desert Rose Playhouse

This comedy is set in 1977 and focuses on 15-year-old Horace Poore’s sexual awakening, hastened by images of Olympic champion Mark Spitz and anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant; at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 19. $28 to $30. At 69260 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage. 760-202-3000; www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Broadway D-Lights—From Desert Ensemble Theatre Company

Three of the valley’s top vocalists—Keisha D, Charles Herrera and Jerome Elliott—perform at 7 p.m., Friday, Oct. 17. A portion of the proceeds go to Desert Ensemble’s high school scholarship fund. $30. At the Pearl McManus Theater in the Palm Springs Womans Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, Palm Springs. 760-565-2476; www.brownpapertickets.com/event/848586.

The Chosen—From CV Rep

The award-winning play tells the story of two boys, two fathers and two different Jewish communities in 1940s Brooklyn, N.Y., at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, from Wednesday, Oct. 29, through Sunday, Nov. 16. $45; $40 previews on Oct. 29 and 30; $55 opening night on Oct. 31. At the Atrium, 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, Rancho Mirage. 760-296-2966; www.cvrep.org.

CV Rep Luminary Luncheon: Millicent Martin

The well-known star of both stage and screen—you may know her as Daphne’s mother on Frasier—is interviewed by Don Martin at noon, Wednesday, Oct. 22. $45; includes lunch catered by Lulu/Acqua Pazza. At the Atrium, 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, Rancho Mirage. 760-296-2966; www.cvrep.org.

Desert Theatre League Star Awards

Celebrate the best of the most recent theater season, starting at 4:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 5. $50. At Sun City Shadow Hills, 80875 Avenue 40, Indio. 760-772-9617; deserttheatreleague.org.

Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein—From Theatre 29

The musical comedy based on Mel Brooks’ classic film is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, from Friday, Oct. 3, though Saturday, Nov. 1, with additional matinees at 2:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 12 and 26. $12 regular; $10 seniors and military; $8 children and students. At 73637 Sullivan Road, Twentynine Palms. 760-361-4151; theatre29.org.

Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein—From Palm Canyon Theatre

The musical comedy based on Mel Brooks’ classic film is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, Oct. 24, through Sunday, Nov. 2. $36. At 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. 760-323-5123; www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

Noises Off!—From Desert Theatreworks

Desert Theatreworks re-imagines what’s been called the funniest farce ever written for their intimate Arthur Newman Theatre space, at 7 p.m., Friday; 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, Oct. 24, through Sunday, Nov. 9. No shows on Oct. 26 and Oct. 31. $25 regular; $23 seniors and students with ID. At the Arthur Newman Theatre in the Joslyn Center, 73750 Catalina Way, Palm Desert. 760-980-1455; www.dtworks.org.

The Rocky Horror Show—From COD Theatre

The campy rock musical that made “The Time Warp” famous is performed at 7 p.m., Friday, Oct. 24; 7 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 25; 3 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 26; 7 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 30; 7 p.m. and midnight, Friday, Oct. 31; 7 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 1; and 3 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 2. Most shows $30 general, with discounts for students, COD staff and seniors; call to confirm times. At Theatre Too at College of the Desert, 43500 Monterey Ave., Palm Desert. 760-773-2565; collegeofthedesert.edu.

Sundays in Summer Series

Jan Abrams sings songs from World War II at 2 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 5. Sheldon Craig performs Unforgettable: The Nat King Cole Songbook at 2 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 12. Julie Esposito sings songs in a range of musical styles from the 1960s to today at 2 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 19. Diane Pancel pays tribute to Day, Garland and Monroe in Ladies of Hollywood at 2 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 26. Each show is $11; cash only at the box office. At the Arthur Newman Theatre in the Joslyn Center, 73750 Catalina Way, Palm Desert. 760-325-2731; www.lesmichaels.com/joslyn.

The Who’s Tommy—From Palm Canyon Theatre

In this famous rock musical, Tommy is traumatized into catatonia after he witness his father commit murder. As an adolescent, he discovers a natal knack for pinball, and becomes an international pinball superstar; at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 12. $36. At 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. 760-323-5123; www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance