Controversy over the famed Laguna Beach art festival’s management boils over in the form of a mass e-mail to Sawdust artists
Few cities have changed as much since the late 1960s as has Laguna Beach. Back then, before the millionaires built their McMansions atop every hillside and canyon, the former artist’s colony was a quaint refuge from the rest of Orange County’s burgeoning suburbia. The town’s creative spirit was perhaps best represented by the Sawdust Festival, which began in 1968 and continues, each summer and winter, to this day. To many residents, the festival is one of the few places where Laguna Beach’s wild and free-spirited past remains intact.
Jennie Riker, one of the artists who helped found the Sawdust Festival some 42 years ago and who later served on its board of directors, still has fond memories of the first show, when artists actually lived on-site in wooden cabins. “It was the hippie days so everyone was drinking and smoking pot, and it only cost a quarter or a dime to get in,” she said in an interview.
But those freewheeling days seem like ancient history now. A few weeks ago, Riker, who has participated in the festival every year since the early 1990s, announced she was quitting the show. In an e-mail she sent to more than 100 artists representing just about the entire Sawdust community, Riker bemoaned the festival’s current management and the abrupt departure of half a dozen staffers in the past few years. “This last summer, I became so depressed and disillusioned I now feel I have to speak out,” Riker wrote in her Jan. 11 missive.
Riker went on to blast the man she referred to only as Sawdust’s “general manager,” blaming him for “hijacking” the festival, promoting a “witch hunt” and creating a “dictatorship” that has caused plummeting morale among artists. Tom Klingenmeier, general manager of the festival, did not respond to interview requests for this story, nor did he comment for a Jan. 22 story about the brouhaha that ran in the Laguna Beach Independent.
Although Riker didn’t mention Klingenmeier by name, she told the Weekly in an e-mail that it was his role in firing two festival staff people this past summer (and the abrupt resignation of a third employee), that led to her decision to abandon the show. “I’m a successful artist and make a lot of money with the show but I’m not doing it next year,” she wrote.
According to Riker and others who spoke with the Weekly, almost immediately after Klingenmeier became general manager two years ago, several staff people were either fired or forced to resign without explanation. Things apparently reached a head this past summer when Klingenmeier fired Billy Horner, a longhaired bouncer whose wife Marjorie is an artist with the festival, and who had worked for years as Sawdust’s security director, consistently earning high marks for his performance. In late July, however, one of the show’s female staff members accused him of improperly touching her rear end, according to several sources.
Reached by phone in Arizona, Horner said both he and the staffer in question share the same birthday, and after she gave him a flower, he went to her booth to thank her. When she began crying about a recent breakup and stated that she didn’t know what she was going to tell her family, Horner says he bent down and kissed her denim jeans-clad posterior. “You can tell them to kiss your ass,” he then said. Horner denies that he did so with any sexual intent; the woman felt otherwise and filed a complaint against him with festival management. Horner soon found himself not only out of a job, but also permanently banned from the festival grounds.
Horner added that he still has no idea why he was fired. “Nobody will say anything, and that just heightens the suspicions of people who don’t know anything,” he said. “This type of shit goes down in high school, and it just gets to my sense of fair play.” The staff member, whose name the Weekly is withholding for privacy reasons, did not respond to an interview request.
Next to go was Jennifer Tye, who had worked since 2001 as the festival’s administrative assistant to the board of directors, the entertainment coordinator and office manager. In an interview, Tye said Klingenmeier fired her in August, shortly after Horner lost his job, because she breached a confidentiality agreement by discussing Horner with another staff person. “That person was my superior, the assistant general manager,” Tye explained. “I didn’t realize that talking about Billy with my boss violated any confidentiality.” Tye said Klingenmeier contacted her at home over the weekend saying she’d be fired the following Monday unless she tendered her own resignation. “I was pretty much stunned,” she said. “I was devastated. This was my career. I wanted to spend the rest of my life there.” Tye says she’s applied for countless jobs since this summer but remains unemployed.
Her departure was apparently the last straw for Jay Grant, a 36-year employee of the festival who worked as sales manager and was beloved by the festival’s artists. In November 2009, he resigned from his job, citing irreconcilable differences with Klingenmeier. “I am resigning because of a number of issues, over how they were handled, over the number of people hurt, and the discouraging and disheartening effect this has had upon many Sawdust artists and our over all show,” he wrote in his resignation letter, which he provided to the Weekly. “I must follow my heart, my conscience and my intuition. And for me, the Sawdust I’ve known and loved all these years is so dramatically changing that I hardly recognize it anymore.”
The internal turmoil at Sawdust remained a closely guarded secret within the festival community until two weeks ago, when Riker sent out her mass e-mail. Riker said it was a painful decision for her to go public with the sordid details, but she’s glad it’s finally out in the open. “A lot of the artists still love Tom,” Riker said of Klingenmeier. “One of the artists who read my letter said I was a misinformed idiot, but most of the artists who responded to me say thank you so much for saying what we wanted to say but didn’t know how.”
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One of those people is sculptor Dion Wright. “As one of the founding members of Sawdust, I must say that I’ve never seen anything close to the harshness of Tom Klingenmeier’s style. His mean-spiritedness is mystifying because he always seemed like a nice guy before he took the reins of power. In fact, he still seems like a nice guy, and he’s within his mandate in all that he has done.”
Sawdust president Jim Stanaland declined an interview request but provided the Weekly with a letter in support of Klingenmeir and the board of directors. “It is my opinion that a great deal of credit is due to our General Manager,” Stanaland argued. “We spent some wayward years without that position and our attendance directly reflected that lack of direction. Our re-institution of the GM position has bucked that downward trend in attendance, even in a down economy. Unfortunately, some feel the institution of practices or rules associated with government compliance and/or safety issues are somehow part of a conspiracy to placate the sadistic tendencies of a power-hungry dictator.” Nothing could be further from the truth, Stanaland says. “I will vouch for the integrity of each of my fellow board members and our wonderful staff, to a woman and to a man.”
However, Wright argues, the effect has been nothing short of catastrophic on the morale of the artists. “The atmosphere [Klingenmeier] brings is fearful, repressive and intimidating,” he said. “There’s no more festivity behind this festival anymore.”