Best Of :: People & Places
It's takes a powerful person to silence big-mouth local GOP hack Jon Fleischman, but during political debates on Rick Reiff's KOCE-TV show, Inside OC, Melahat Rafiei pulls it off. The unapologetically progressive, always-energetic Rafiei, who has served as the director of the Orange County Democratic Party, nowadays runs her own campaign firm. She seems to be mastering the art of grassroots campaigning, and she's not afraid of uphill battles: Her client is Beth Krom, the Irvine city councilwoman challenging incumbent Congressman John Campbell in the Irvine-based, Republican-loaded district.
Founded in 1986, the Someone Cares Soup Kitchen serves meals to more than 300 people, seven days a week. The Costa Mesa-based nonprofit's mission is to feed a daily nutritious meal to the homeless, the unemployed, the working poor, the mentally challenged, the physically challenged, senior citizens and, most important of all, children. 'Cause it's all about the children. They were among those Someone Cares founder Merle Hatleberg noticed were coming to the door for food when she ran an Orange County seniors' program. Those needy folks did not qualify for meals under that program, so Hatleberg would slip them some food when no one was looking. She went on to pool her meager funds to buy a large pot for the first soup she served to the needy on June 15, 1986. Much has changed since then: 30 people were served that first pot of soup, and Someone Cares moved from local churches to a community center in Costa Mesa to, finally, a former Chinese restaurant owned by the parents of the founders of the Wahoo's Fish Taco chain. And there's now a staff, plus more than 150 active volunteers. Unfortunately, the need has grown as well.
If you're one of those people who thinks every month should have its own Oktoberfest, then fret not because there is room for your beer-swilling self over at the Phoenix Club, home to the largest outdoor festhalle in the country. Every May 1, the club opens its doors to the public for a daylong celebration of all things Germanic: sauerkraut, sausage, polka music, maypole dancing—sorry, fellas, not that kind of pole dancing, but rather the medieval-era one involving a tall pole, lots of ribbons and walking in circles—and beer. Lots of beer, and it goes for about half of the ridiculously overpriced Oktoberfest brews they sell at Huntington Beach's Old World Village. Long tables provide plenty of room underneath propeller-size fans hanging from the ceiling of the tent, while a never-ending parade of dancers in folk costumes struts its stuff in front of the white-haired polka band onstage. There's even a lady who stands in the middle of the floor with an unnaturally happy smile and cracks a whip just inches from your face. Achtung, baby!
How could a public radio station be better than KPCC? Okay, we know what you're going to say: by not playing public-radio programming. But that's wrong; KPPC's lineup is consistently fascinating and varied enough that it's worth tuning into at most times of the day. The personalities are who make it, from the nebbishy-but-bold Larry Mantle to the affably anti-jargon Kai Ryssdahl (whose nationally syndicated Marketplace is recorded in the same building as KPCC). But forget everyone else: The rock of the station is afternoon-news anchor Alex Cohen, who manages to be adorable yet authoritative while occasionally poking fun at the national programming or dropping references to her own passion for roller derby. Even KPCC's pledge drives are sometimes entertaining—not that we'd miss those if they were gone.
If you ever listen to classical music on the radio, chances are you've heard the host who sounds how a classical-music host would sound if he were a character on The Simpsons. Get beyond the funny voice, and you quickly realize that KUSC's Jim Svejda is probably the most knowledgeable (and opinionated) radio host in the country when it comes to classical music. His Sunday-evening show The Record Shelf has been around for decades and never fails to break new ground on old music, exposing listeners to both obscure works by well-known artists (okay, Gustav Mahler's Resurrection Symphony isn't that obscure, but you won't find it on most classical stations) and underappreciated gems by also-rans, such as Bohuslav Martinu's Piano Quartet No. 1, which opens Svejda's show. He rules the airwaves weeknights from 7 to 10 p.m., artfully letting the tinkling piano of his theme music fade away before he mellifluously transitions into the night's programming. If Charles Bukowski were alive, he'd purposefully delay his day's work of drinking and writing to take full advantage of Svejda's show.
In Marty Smith's capable hands, Orange Coast magazine continues to improve over the days when the publication was largely content-free. Smith loves a good story and has been sharing them with his readers. Sure, there are all the "best" lists (like, uh, this one), but nowadays, those are leavened with interesting profiles and local crime mysteries. The story of James W. Whitehouse, the husband of Susan Atkins, the convicted murderer from Charles Manson's gang, was one for the history books.
The Teri Sforza reporting tsunami continued this year with The Orange County Register's OC Watchdog reporter nailing lazy and dishonest government officials for abusing tax dollars, hiding public documents, ignoring budding crises, causing budding crises and the like. One of our favorite Sforza stories was her relentless showcasing of corruption and incompetence at the county executive level and Orange County Sheriff's Department, which—surprise, surprise!—vigorously attempted to pretend violent, deceitful deputies were angels in an attack on an unarmed female citizen in her own home.
From "Donald Bren's Intensely Private Life Becomes Public As Child-Support Trial Begins" in the Los Angeles Times, Aug. 20, 2010: "Billionaire Donald L. Bren walked into a Los Angeles courtroom Thursday wearing a suit and sneakers. His footwear may have been comfortable, but the occasion certainly wasn't: A lawyer representing two of his children peppered the intensely private Irvine Co. chairman with questions about his wealth and personal life."
Orange County's colleges have some of the better coed reporters in the country, between the literary-journalism department at UC Irvine run by Pulitzer Prize winner Barry Siegel, Chapman University's bachelor's program and the student-run The Hornet of Fullerton College, which dominates community-college newspaper awards like USC used to win Heismans. But it was Cal State Fullerton's Tusk that won the much-coveted Best Overall Student Publication award this year from the Western Publishing Association, which represents all journalistic efforts west of the Mississippi. The writers are overseen by former Orange County Register reporter Jeff Brody, who helps to make the yearly mag read better than some of its local, professional peers, with first-person essays, long-form journalism and even investigative stories. (Professor Holly Ocasio Rizzo oversees the production staff, who produce gorgeous layouts.) And its name—referencing Fullerton's elephant mascot, smooth yet menacing—embodies the magazine's mission as well as any moniker since Mad.
Who says journalism is dead? La naranja has at least a dozen weekly Spanish-language newspapers, multiple monthly revistas and an increasing number of blogs. Unfortunately, most of them seem to only print soccer scores from the local leagues or crib articles from other, more-established publications. The exception to that rule is Miniondas, now in its fourth decade. The broadsheet does what few of its competitors bother to consider: original reporting, coupled with easy-to-read layouts and a minimum of penis-enlargement ads. Its sister paper, Farándula USA, comes with each issue and breathlessly covers the entertainment scene of Latin America to provide answers to the most important questions on the lips of the region—like, say, who will Paulina Rubio sleep with next?
The muzak soundtracks, penny-pinching production values and endless live streams from local government hearings that make local-access television so unbearable—and hilarious if you're sleepy, stoned or both—are all here at the network of this South County cable provider. But Cox 3's original programming nails its demographic. One lifestyle show's recent episode was anchored by a platinum-blond middle-ager from the rooftop of a Laguna Beach bar. The recently launched Beach Town lives up to its namesake and features a main man who traipses around coastal cities and speaks in the local surfer drawl. And the children's art show It's Curtoon Time, a local institution for 23 years, is so bizarre yet simple we can hardly believe it predated YouTube.
With a never-ending stream of salacious events unfolding each minute in Southern California—all competing for the insatiable appetites of network producers and newspaper editors—it's comforting to know Orange County has Vikki Vargas in its corner. Whether some sociopath has allegedly scattered the remains of a friend in a local park or the Newport Wedge is just going off, rest assured NBC's Orange County bureau chief will be there. The Sonora High School grad (go Raiders) and Cal State Fullerton alum is charged with gathering all information in the county—good or bad, hard or soft. But in the tradition of great news gatherers, Vargas is skilled at clearly presenting the facts and letting the viewers form their own opinions. Witness the cultural minefield she navigated last year while reporting on the Church of the Foothills, which produced a play portraying Jesus as a gay man. She told the story in simple terms without pandering to or offending either side of the cultural divide. With her measured, regionless dialect and sensible haircut, she's easy on the eyes and comforting to the ears. All of this allows viewers who see her nightly on the Channel 4 news to rest easy knowing that even if the hills of Santiago Canyon burn around us, she'll be there to cover it with steely aplomb.