A Month of Glory and Fury
by George Takei
LOS ANGELES -- The firestorm of the century raged through southern California last month. Its fury seared across more than 280,000 acres. At least 20 people were killed. More than 1,000 homes were destroyed. Property damage is estimated in the billions. The hell-fires were in the rural and suburban regions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties, but even those of us in the urban areas were not spared the anguish. The air we breathed was foul and acrid with smoke. Gray soot settled everywhere. At night, the distant skies glowed ominously orange. Then the rains came. Up in the mountains, it even snowed. The fires were out. Gloriously sunny blue skies returned to southern California. But, the tragedy of the people who lost everything - homes, loved ones and memories - is heart wrenching. In the spirit of neighbors helping one another, we have all vowed to help rebuild the homes and communities of our fire-ravaged fellow Californians more vibrantly than before.
A magnificent symbol of that spirit of regeneration emerged from the aftermath of the firestorm. It was the opening of a stunning landmark, Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, designed by architect Frank Gehry. The building's stainless steel exterior gleams brilliantly in sunlight, soft and luminously in moon light; its sides swoop and swerve like the petals of some exotic alien flower. The concert hall is a silver blossom that bloomed on the cultural hilltop of downtown Los Angeles alongside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson Theater, and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
I went to the first concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C minor, "Resurrection," anxious to know if the acoustics of this new Disney Concert Hall is as fine as the critics had reported. The selection of Mahler's "Resurrection" was inspired. The theme of regeneration was so appropriate for a Los Angeles that had just suffered the devastation of a firestorm. And the acoustics of the new concert hall would be fully tested by this Mahler piece. The first sting of the violin attack cut through the air like an audible knife. The cello section responded sonorously. In a myriad ways - from the solo voice of the mezzo soprano to the full throated one hundred twenty voice chorale, from the delicate filigree of the flute to the thunderous, kettle drum pounding final movement, the concert hall played like the finest of instruments. I would venture to say that Disney Hall is among the best, if not the premiere, concert hall of the world.
October began for me jet lagged in England. The first few days were in Milton Keynes to participate in a massive autograph event called Collectormania. It was the perfect antidote for jet lag - signing my name over and over and over again for about seven hours every day. It was exhausting but, at the same time, a great opportunity to say "hello" to familiar faces from past conventions.
Recovered and refreshed, I began a tour of two of the stately manors - actually an abbey and a castle - of old England. The first was Woburn Abbey, the ancestral home of the Duke of Bedford. The grand buildings were magnificently and sensitively maintained and herds of deer roamed the vast grounds of the estate. Next was Warwick Castle, the home of the Earl of Warwick. I had first visited this historic landmark about forty years ago and remember being saddened to see a brochure at the entrance advertising dinner in the baronial banqueting hall with the then-current Earl of Warwick. How the mighty have fallen, I thought. The Earl was reduced to entertaining tourists for a fee. On this visit, I discovered that the fall had been even more melancholy. In 1978, Warwick Castle was sold to the Tussaud Group, the operators of the Madam Tussaud Wax Museums. Actually, I found that the Castle had been greatly improved by the new owners. Over twenty million in pound sterling had been spent to repair, restore, and refurbish the castle since its acquisition by the Tussaud Group. The Castle's long and distinguished history was brought more vibrantly alive. Life-like wax figures of the people who had lived or visited there - people like Queen Victoria, her son, Prince Edward, who later became King on the death of his mother, a 23-year-old Winston Churchill who had visited there, and, from our recent time, a ravishingly elegant Princess Diana brought an engaging new dimension to the visit experience. If one were to visit only one castle in England, I would strongly recommend Warwick Castle.
With jet lag completely shaken off, I dove into the theater scene. Stratford-upon-Avon is the birthplace of William Shakespeare and the home of the best interpreters of his works, the Royal Shakespeare Company. A few nights with the Company included a wonderful production of "As You Like It" and the most original interpretation of "Taming of the Shrew" that I had ever seen. I also enjoyed visiting the cemetery of Old Trinity Church savoring memories of my student days at the Shakespeare Institute when I spent many an afternoon reading the works of the great playwright in that cemetery alongside the River Avon.
Then into London for the grand banquet table of theater, dining and just plain fooling around. I went to the National Theater for a revival of "Tales from the Vienna Woods," the Drury Lane Theater for a Cole Porter musical, "Anything Goes" and the Donmar Warehouse for John Osborne's rarely produced play, "The Hotel in Amsterdam." I dined at my favorite London restaurant, Rule's, a homey family run French place, Mon Plaisure, and a hip French bistro upstairs in Covent Garden. Selfridges has a fantastic conveyor belt sushi bar that snakes around all over the place. I fall in love with this cosmopolitan, ever-fascinating city every time I'm there.
I had to abbreviate my visit on my agent's summon to come back for a work assignment, a guest role in a Canadian television series titled "Alienated." My agent said it was a role only I could play - a character named "George Takei." I flew back to learn that I was to again fly, this time to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, for the filming. I arrived in Victoria in a pelting rainstorm. My first scenes were outdoors, so, of course, they had to be changed to work in the downpour. I played those scenes holding a drenched newspaper over my sopping wet head. I was chilled to the bones and courted my death of a cold. The people I performed with, however, were as warm and great to work with, as the weather was wet. "Alienated" airs only in Canada, alas, but the producer assured me that they are working vigorously to sell the series to the U.S. and British TV markets.
I returned from Canada to travel again for a long scheduled board meeting. Thankfully, this time I didn't have to board a plane. This meeting was to be on a cruise ship to Ensenada, Mexico - one day for the board meeting onboard the ship and one day free in Ensenada. We put pleasure before work and had our day of whoopee first. One of the unique natural phenomenons of the world, we were told, is the blowhole of Ensenada called "la bufadora." The guide told us that there are only three such marvels - one in Australia, another in Hawaii and this one in Ensenada. So, we took one of dozens of tourist shuttle buses to this highly touted wonder of the world. When we arrived after an hour's journey, there already was a crowd of tourists marching to the fabled landmark. We joined them and arrived at a cliff looking out at the ocean and a magnificent set of rock outcroppings. It was a beautiful sight. The highly hyped natural wonder, however, was a disappointment. Apparently, we were there when the tide was off. All we saw was a light spray spit up from the blowhole. A small redeeming feature was a pale rainbow that I was able to detect in the thin mist that sprayed up with each incoming tide. That made the trek worthwhile.
The return journey from Ensenada was the workday, the day of strategic planning and budget oversight. We worked as hard as we had played the day before. When we arrived back in Long Beach Harbor the following morning, an eerie sight greeted us. The morning sun hung ominously in the smoky sky like some malignant red planet. The newspaper headline read, "Wildfires Destroy Homes." It was a homecoming fraught with foreboding. The firestorm was raging through southern California.