Tag Archives: death

Dr. Ejike Ndefo, retired aerospace engineer and Fountain board member, passes away at 79

Ejike & Victoria Ndefo

Victoria Ndefo and Dr. Ejike Ndefo, opening night of ‘The Chosen’.

With great sadness, the Fountain Theatre mourns the loss of our dear friend and board member Dr. Ejike Ndefo, who passed away Tuesday, May 29th at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center in Los Angeles. He was 79 years old.

Married to his beloved wife Victoria for 26 years, the couple shared five children, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.  Ejike and Victoria have been part of The Fountain Family for more than fifteen years.

“Ejike was a dear and gentle man who radiated sweetness,” reflects Fountain  Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “He was one of those lovely beings who glowed with an aura of warmth and graciousness. We will miss him dearly.”  

Ejike Ndefo was born in Nigeria in 1939. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a Ph.D in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.  While he was at the University of California, Berkeley, Ejike played a major role in the travelling theatre group raising money in support of the humanitarian effort in the Nigerian-Biafran war.  He worked in several Aerospace companies including Northrop Corporation, TRW, and The Aerospace Corporation on such programs as Space Defense Initiative, Space Shuttle, and design of large rockets for launch of spacecraft and satellites.  He retired as the Director of Fluid Mechanics Department from The Aerospace Corporation in August 2015 after forty one years.  For the past three years, Ejike has served as a member of the Board of Trustees of Normandie Church of Christ, Los Angeles. He joined the Fountain Theatre Board of Directors in 2017.

Always glowing with a positive outlook, Ejike recently shared this reminder: “Life is meant to be lived to its fullest. You can’t allow things to take over your ability to rejoice with the life God has given you to live.”

In honor of his memory, a plaque will placed on an audience seat in the Fountain Theatre, front row center, where Ejike sat next to Victoria for so many years. 

James Dean: The passing of an actor, a landmark, and time

James Dean with Silver Porsche

James Dean fills the tank one last time. Sept 30, 1955.

by Stephen Sachs

It is one of the most historic gas stations in Los Angeles. Seen by millions across the globe in an iconic photograph of a Hollywood legend. The destination for fans and followers worldwide as if on pilgrimages to a religious site. And it has now been torn down.

The gas station at the corner of Beverly Glen and Ventura Blvd in Sherman Oaks, where James Dean filled up the tank of his new Porsche 550 Spyder for the last time and then drove into immortality, has been demolished. One of the last remaining locations connected to Dean’s final day is gone.

If you’re a Dean fan, the gas station and the famous photograph snapped the final morning of his life are well known.

casa-de-petrol-1961

Casa de Petrol, 1961

Originally named “Casa de Petrol,” the gas station opened in 1948 as an adjunct to the landmark Casa de Cadillac dealership next door. At the time, the intersection on Ventura Blvd was known as “Casa Corner,” and included a Casa burger stand and a “Casa de Cascade” car wash. Only the dealership remains and is still in service.

Sixty-one years ago, on the morning of Friday, September 30, 1955, James Dean woke and had coffee. He was living in a log cabin-styled rented house on Sutton Street in Sherman Oaks a few blocks behind the La Reina Theatre, not far from the gas station. He had recently completed filming on “Giant” and was taking his new Porsche Spyder to Salinas for the car races that weekend. Mechanic Rolf Wütherich, stunt man friend Bill Hickman, and photographer Sanford Roth would go with him.

The group met that morning at Competition Motors in Hollywood, on Vine Street near Fountain Avenue, to give the Spyder one final check. Dean’s father and uncle arrived at the shop for a visit. While the Porsche was being serviced and prepped for the race, the group walked across the street to the Hollywood Ranch Market for doughnuts and coffee.

The car was ready around 1:30 p.m. Dean slung himself into the driver seat of the Spyder, now dubbed “Little Bastard.” Wütherich dropped into the passenger seat. They pulled out of Competition Motors and turned northbound up Vine Street, Hickman and Roth following behind in a Ford station wagon. To get to Route 99 (now the I-5), the group headed west down Ventura Blvd.

dean-and-wutherich-at-competition-motors-sept-30-1955

Rolf Wutherich and Dean leave Competition Motors, Sept 30, 1955.

Dean needed to fill up the gas tank for the 345-mile drive to Salinas. He pulled into the gas station on Ventura at Beverly Glen, near his house, at approximately 2 p.m. He hoisted himself out of the Porsche to gas up the tank. Wütherich hopped out, grabbed Dean’s camera and snapped a now-famous photo of Dean standing at the service island.

At approximately 2:15 p.m. Dean climbed back into the Porsche. He gunned the engine, with Wütherich beside him, and turned right on Ventura, then right on Sepulveda Blvd. on their way to Route 99 North and over the “Grapevine.” Around 5 p.m, they stopped at Blackwell’s Corner, a roadside café and gas stop in Lost Hills, to top off the tank, stretch their legs and grab a snack before heading on to Salinas. But Dean would never make it.

Dean was killed near Paso Robles at approximately 5:45 p.m, at the junction of Route 466 (now 46) and Route 41, when a 23 year-old Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed, driving a black-and-white 1950 Ford Tudor, crossed into the highway intersection and slammed into Dean’s Porsche. Turnupseed and Wütherich survived the crash. Dean became a legend. He was only 24 years old.

Many years before launching the Fountain Theatre, I was an actor. I became a Dean fan as an acting student at Los Angeles City College. Like generations of young actors before me, I was galvanized by James Dean. I was riveted by his films and read many books about him, studying the brooding photographs. I was thunderstruck. Not only by his raw, hypnotic acting. By him. His charismatic look, his outsider persona, the way he embodied an ache of loneliness twisted with a tormented, artistic intensity. He was cool.

When you’re a passionate college acting student in your 20s, still figuring out who you are, Dean was the guardian angel of the troubled, misunderstood young man. Like millions of young male actors, he was “me.” Or who I wished I was. I analyzed his acting, his posture, his walk, his manner. Researching his troubled life, he seemed like a vulnerable wounded man/child, perpetually reaching for something just out of grasp. The way he died sealed it. So young, so talented, so cool, enigmatic and beautiful. The low-slung sleek silver Porsche shooting down the dry, barren highway toward the sun. The metal shards and shattered glass exploding like a bursting star.

dean-and-rolf-wutherich-in-porsche-final-drive-sept-30-1955

Dean and Wutherich, Sept 30, 1955.

After ten years, I stopped acting. I began writing and directing plays. Running theatre companies in Los Angeles. I launched the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood in 1990. Married, became a father. Moved to the San Fernando Valley. No longer a young actor. I was soon a middle-aged husband and a dad with two sons. But I was still a Dean fan.

After dropping one son off at school at Sherman Oaks Elementary on Greenleaf Street, I would sometimes drive one block over to Sutton Street and stare at Dean’s last home address. The house he rented there is gone, burned in a fire many years ago. A new modern home now hides behind a metal gate to keep onlookers out. But the tree-lined street looks much the same. It’s easy to imagine Dean stepping out that bright morning on the last day of September, on what would be his final day.

Many years have passed. My sons and I have gotten older. The gas station where James Dean fueled up for his final ride became a flower shop in the 1980’s. But they kept the original building intact. The service bays, filling pump islands, classic awning — all still there. Over the years, running errands with my wife and kids — chatting over play dates and summer camps and which detergent to buy at the grocery store — we would happen to drive by the old gas station in our family car. Silently, secretly, I’d shoot a glance at the empty service bay island and see Dean and the Porsche, filling up one last time.

Then, last week, came a shocking surprise. After dropping off my older son for an appointment, I drove by the old gas station. I couldn’t see it. It was hidden, encased by heavy green construction fencing and iron scaffolding. Tractors, haulers and earth movers standing ready.

james-dean-gas-station-030

I frantically parked my blue Honda on Moorpark Street and dashed to the site. Found a gate in the fence and pushed in. The old gas station stood in front of me like a haunted abandoned relic surrounded by dirt, a large pile of rubble nearby. Two construction workers, wearing hardhats and work gloves, stood near their equipment. I rushed quickly to them.

“Do you mind if I have a look?” I asked. “I won’t get in the way. You see, this is kind of an important place -“

“James Dean.” The husky guy on the left, construction manager Doug Thane, smiled. I was clearly not the first fan to appear at the site since demolition began. There had been others.

construction-workmen-curtis-listerman-and-douglas-thane

Listerman and Curtis

“I didn’t know anything about it, ” admitted Thane. “And then people started showing up. Taking pictures. Wanting things. Some lady took a piece of pipe.”

Thane’s wiry co-worker, Curtis Listerman, squinted into the midday sun. “James Dean was cool, man,” he nodded, running his hand over his balding head. “I look just like him.”

“What’s this place going to be after they tear it down?” I wanted to know. “What will go up in its place?”

“I don’t know,” Thane shrugged. He then pointed across the street. “I think a strip mall. Like that.”

“Folks are saying they should make it a museum or something to James Dean,” chuckled Listerman, wiping the dust from his mouth.

Another construction worker, Dave Wiesing, stepped up. Wiesing was a bit older. He confessed he was also a Dean fan. He knew what the fuss was about. Several times, he and his wife had taken part in the annual James Dean Final Drive, a yearly event on September 30th that draws hundreds of people from all over the world to trace Dean’s route from the site of Competition Motors in Hollywood to the fatal intersection in Cholame.

“Is it okay if I have a look around?” I asked. “Before it’s all gone?”

As construction manager, it was Thane’s call. He peered at me and grinned. “Go ahead.”

The small glass-paned office was long empty with graffiti sprayed across its walls. On the front door of the old office, someone had spray-painted the letter “J” and a heart. A message to Dean and the world.

I walked over to the service island and stood in the exact spot where Dean fueled up his Porsche nearly sixty-one years ago. Much was still there, as it was. The metal columns supporting the tin decorative awning, the cement pedestal that held the three red Mobil gas pumps. The pumps themselves were long gone but the footprints were still visible in the cement.

Standing there was like stepping into the famous photo snapped by Wütherich that fateful day so long ago. Everything looked liked it did. Except now a yellow tractor was parked where Dean’s Spyder once stood.

james-dean-gas-station-tracker-in-same-spot-as-deans-porsche

“You want to take something?” Thane offered cheerfully.

“Can I? Really?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “What do you want?”

I glanced around. There was nothing in the huge pile of rubble that seemed connected to Dean in any way. And what was still there from the photograph — the columns, awning — were impractical to take. Then it hit me.

“Do you have a sledge hammer?” I asked Thane. He nodded. I beckoned. “Follow me.”

I lead Thane and his sledge hammer over to the service island cement pedestal where Dean had fueled his car. The cement was still untouched. Unharmed. Intact. As it was when Dean was here.

“That,” I pointed. “I want a piece of that.” I chose the exact spot of the cement service island pedestal where the Porsche had been parked decades ago, where Dean stood. “There. Right there.”

Thane hoisted the hammer. Raised it above his head. And with a loud grunt and a glisten in the sun, the sledge hammer swung down and — for the first time in sixty-one years — broke off a large chunk of history.

I held the heavy piece of cement like a holy artifact. A smaller chip broke off in my hand. I examined it up close. Like it was going to tell me something. What am I going to do with it? I don’t know. But I knew I had to have it. I guess it’s kind of like the people who chisel a chip off his tombstone. They want to hold a piece of something — anything — that will make them feel that way again.

My older son is now twenty-four, the same age as Dean. And the twenty-four year old actor I once was, so long ago, is a memory. What we once were is no more.

The house Dean rented on Sutton Street is gone. Competition Motors on Vine Street is gone. The Hollywood Ranch Market is gone. Even the original highway intersection where the crash occurred in 1955 is not there. It was moved. The highway was realigned decades ago. The crash site now sits in a grass field.

But the gas station had remained. Still standing. Until now.

Instead of a Porsche Spyder, I stroll back to my Honda. I get in. Drop the heavy chunk of cement in the back. The smaller chip I gently place in the cup holder between the front seats. A piece of Jimmy beside me.

Everything changes, including ourselves. Like old buildings torn down. What remains, we hold on to. Like the chip of cement I now keep in my car.

A talisman of James Dean and the young man I once was.

I turn the ignition of my Honda. Start the car. Rev the engine, good and loud, just to show I still can. Shift the gear into drive. Point my car toward the sun. And the afternoon horizon.

james-dean-gas-station-door-with-j-heart

Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre. This post originally appeared in LA Observed.  

The Fountain’s ‘Heart Song’ gives voice to flamenco’s depths

Maria Bermudez in 'Heart Song'.

Maria Bermudez in ‘Heart Song’.

Choreographed by Maria Bermudez, Stephen Sachs’ dance-theater hybrid explores the deep well of emotions that the art form can stir up.

By Susan Josephs

Two years ago Stephen Sachs began working on a play about the philosophy and practice of flamenco. He figured he had all the material he needed, having spent years in close proximity to flamenco dancers as the co-artistic director of the Fountain Theatre, home of the long-running performance series “Forever Flamenco!” But after further research, he realized that the Spanish art form intertwined deeply with certain existential preoccupations that also inhabited his writer’s mind.

Stephen Sachs

Stephen Sachs

“The older I get, the more aware I have become of the loss of loved ones, the time in front of me and how I’m spending it. You start to wrestle more with these things,” observes the 53-year-old playwright and director.

Sachs wound up writing “Heart Song,” a uniquely theatrical hybrid that premieres May 25 at the Fountain and pays tribute to flamenco through the lens of one Jewish woman’s midlife crisis. Directed by Los Angeles theater veteran Shirley Jo Finney and choreographed by the flamenco artist Maria Bermudez, it stars Pamela Dunlap as Rochelle, a fiftysomething New York City denizen who struggles over her mother’s recent death and gets dragged to a flamenco class for nonprofessional dancers by her Japanese American masseuse Tina (Tamlyn Tomita).

Convinced that “Jews don’t do flamenco,” Rochelle receives encouragement from fellow class-taker Daloris (Juanita Jennings), an African American cancer survivor, and reluctantly encounters Katarina de la Fuente, the fierce, Gypsy flamenco teacher played by Bermudez. (Denise Blasor will take over the role after June 15.) Katarina teaches her students how to stomp their feet, flick their wrists and fully express themselves so they can experience the heightened spiritual state known as duende. She also waxes poetic about flamenco’s origins, the shared history of persecution between Gypsies and Jews and the cante jondo, the “deep song” born from suffering and oppression.

Eventually, Katarina’s teachings infiltrate Rochelle’s psyche so that she can grieve and confront the truth of her mother’s legacy.

“What interested me in this whole subject was how art, like religion or any spiritual faith, has the power to transform and heal,” says Sachs, who recently lost his mother and still “wrestles with that loss. I wanted to explore how flamenco can give voice to what is beyond the spoken word, to that deep inner well of sorrow and pain and also joy.”

Deborah Lawlor

Deborah Lawlor

Sachs’ treatment of flamenco, filled with historical and literary references, also feels distinctly educational. This should come as no surprise when considering that the Fountain’s co-artistic director Deborah Lawlor has produced the city’s preeminent flamenco series for some 20 years. “Heart Song,” however, takes the Fountain’s outreach efforts one step further with its potential to simultaneously attract the theater’s two main audiences: traditional playgoers and flamenco fans.

“I don’t think any production has yet explained flamenco as well as ‘Heart Song’ does,” says Lawlor, who served as the play’s dramaturgical consultant and will be honored on June 15 in a “Forever Flamenco!” gala performance at the Ford Theatres in Hollywood. “The play really shows the range of flamenco and its tragic dimensions, which you don’t find in other dance forms.”

Bermudez, who lives in southern Spain and travels all over the world to perform flamenco, agrees that the Fountain’s production “is very unique. In Spain, there have been mountings of flamenco story ballets, but no one has created a drama about flamenco in this way with actors,” she says.

As the show’s choreographer, Bermudez faced the challenge of crafting movement that everyone in the eight-member cast could perform while accurately reflecting flamenco’s essence. For her, casting definitely proved critical.

Maria Bermudez

Maria Bermudez

“One of the mistakes I’ve seen with dance-theater is to have the dancers act or have the actors dance. This is totally detrimental to both genres,” says the 51-year-old flamenco artist. “So I said, ‘Let’s get actors with movement experience and I will create a choreography for them that’s accessible, so they can be these middle-aged people who are there to connect with something interior rather than with an exterior aesthetic.”

At a recent rehearsal, Bermudez’s choreography seemed to function almost as another character in the play, especially during the scene in which Rochelle first visits the flamenco class. As Katarina, Bermudez conducts a class warm-up, instructing her students to lift their arms, “touch the stars” and twirl their wrists, a motion that becomes an effective unison phrase.

Both as choreographer and performer, Bermudez has the task of conveying the flamenco class as a sacred space where women of all backgrounds can unleash their demons as a means of liberating their spirits. “For me, flamenco is about this universal cry, whether you are Jewish or African American, it is the same,” she says in a phone conversation after the rehearsal. “Pain has no color or creed.”

Shirley Jo Finney

Shirley Jo Finney

The notion of flamenco’s universal accessibility has always resonated with Finney, who collaborated with Bermudez a decade ago on developing a still unproduced, flamenco-based play called “Cry,” which sought parallels between flamenco and the blues. “What I love about ‘Heart Song’ is that it shows how interconnected we all are. Often women’s plays are very ethnic-specific, but in this piece, you see these different tribes and how they become a collective,” she says.

Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap) takes her first flamenco class.

Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap) takes her first flamenco class.

For Finney and her cast, the process of practicing flamenco combined with excavating the life and death themes in Sachs’ script has made for an intensely emotional experience. “In the cast we have cancer survivors, we have people who just lost their mothers,” observes Finney. “We rehearse some of these scenes and I have to say, ‘OK ladies, we got our cry. Now we have to stop and work on the script.’ Mothers and daughters, survivors and life, these have been our discussions.”

Dunlap, for example, can fully relate to Rochelle’s reckoning with her mother’s death. “The relationship with her mother was barren and the relationship I had with my mother was difficult,” says the actress, who can also be seen on “Mad Men” as Betty Draper’s formidable mother-in-law. “It is not infrequent for a play to strike a personal chord with its actors, but in this play … we are blown away by material which touches our personal lives.”

Ultimately, Sachs hopes his play and its many layers of meaning will find a “crossover audience. It would be wonderful if all our audiences came together for a shared experience,” he says. “Hopefully, it will open people’s eyes to what flamenco really is and maybe they will want to take a class themselves.”

Susan Josephs writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Heart Song May 25 – July 14 (323) 663-1525  MORE