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I would never have known about this place were it not for my friend Volodya Ferkelman who drove my wife Oksana and me around LA in 2015 looking for places connected to Russian culture. I had a big list I had put together from my research, but the Michael Jackson Auditorium of the Gardner Street School was not on it. If I remember correctly we were on our way from shooting an old home where Vladimir Nabokov had lived out west of the 405 Freeway and were on our way to shoot a home in Hollywood where the emigre actor Akim Tamiroff had lived just north of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards. Volodya didn’t even slow down as he said, “You could photograph this place, too, I guess.” “Why’s that?” I asked. “Lots of Russians come here to perform,” he said as he pulled up even with the school. “Like who?” I asked as he drove on by. “Shenderovich. Voinovich. Yelena Kamburova,” he said, continuing on down Hawthorne Avenue. “Whoa!” I said. “Back it up, please!”
And that’s how these photos came about.
Gardner Street School, located at 7450 Hawthorne Avenue (don’t ask me!) at the juncture with Vista Street, is a pretty cool place actually. It has more than the usual share of fame and notoriety for an elementary school (K through 6). You see, this is the last public school that Michael Jackson attended (apparently for a few months) before stardom subsumed his life. There was a big to-do when the school named the auditorium after its illustrious alum – Jackson actually attended the opening in Oct. 1989. There was then a big kerfuffle when Jackson was accused of improper behavior with a minor in 2003 and concerned parents and other folk had the name covered over with plyboard. That changed again after his death in 2009 – a year later it was decided to rededicate the auditorium to the singer in his memory.
As such, I realize that in the grand, popular scheme of popular things, nothing more I can say will interest 99.9% of my potential readership. After Michael Jackson, who cares about anybody else, right? But I’m going to plow on ahead anyway.
I’m guessing that Shenderovich, Voinovich and Kamburova are not the only Russian artists who have visited Gardner, because, after all this is one of the few schools in LA with a large Russian-speaking student body. It is located more or less in the heart of the Russian district in LA. It all makes perfect sense. And yet I still find it noteworthy that this place, christened by Michael Jackson, if you will, has also hosted Russian celebrities.
The first of the trio I mentioned performing here was Viktor Shenderovich, the satirist, playwright and wicked political commentator. Shenderovich (born 1958) is one of our great contemporaries. He was the chief writer for the famed Puppets political satire series that kept Russians glued to their television sets until the then-new Russian president Vladimir Putin took offense and had the program shut down in 2002. In fact, Shenderovich left the program in 2001, after which the bite of the satire was not nearly the same. The closing down of Puppets was closely intertwined with one of Putin’s first big attacks on free speech when he crushed the NTV channel, the freest, leading source for independent information at that time. Shenderovich studied directing and taught at a handful of theatre institutes in his early years. He published his first book of satirical stories in 1991. Since then he has published over two dozen more books. His plays have been performed at several Moscow theaters, including the Tabakov Theater and the Satire Theater. Even now, over 15 years after the Puppets and NTV incidents, he is still under an unwritten – as far as I know – ban from appearing on major Russian TV channels. He is a popular political commentator on such outlets as Echo Moskvy radio and Dozhd (Rain) TV.
Shenderovich appeared at the Gardner St. School on November 1, 2003, when the hoopla around Puppets and NTV was still quite fresh. The Los Angeles Times ran a large piece about him, quoting his thoughts of the time and putting them in perspective:
“‘If things in Russia keep going at this rate, we’ll be eased out, forced to become dissidents in the Soviet sense of the word,’ he said, referring to the intellectuals and writers sent to the gulag as opponents of the Communist regime.
“‘My friends and I are not kamikazes. We try to find compromises. We are trying to stay in the media. But you have to know where compromise ends and defeat begins and to know the point where you have given everything away. If I began to praise the war in Chechnya, they would find me a job at any national television station tomorrow, but I wouldn’t be able to practice my journalism anymore.‘”
A Russian site advertised the evening (titled “Raisins from the Bun”) as such: “In Russia [Shenderovich] is sometimes compared to Saltykov-Shchedrin. The English language equivalent to that could only be Swift. Viktor Shenderovich’s political acuity and acerbity and his metaphorical style give every reason for such a comparison.”
Ticket prices for the Shenderovich recital ran from $20 to $30 and the evening began at 7 p.m.
Next up was the singer Yelena Kamburova. A listing on Baraban.com, a site devoted to Russian cultural events in the U.S., announces that she was to perform at the school on April 2, 2006, from 7 to 9 p.m. Tickets that night ran from $30 to $35 and the listing was accompanied by the following blurb: “You can not forget her voice. Her every new performance is a discovery. The best poets and composers dream of her performing their works. She is the only one of all the Russian performers who received standing ovations from audiences at the most prestigious venues in the world: “Olimpia” in Paris, “Queen Victoria” in London. Elena Kamburova comes to Los Angeles with a new program, “In the evening vanity” – one concert only. Sellout crowds are expected!”
Kamburova (born 1940) has been a popular singer since the 1960s. She put out her first record in 1964 and has either released or been represented on over 70 albums or CDs since then. She opened her own theater, the Yelena Kamburova Theater of Music and Poetry in 1992. Her enormous repertoire of songs ranges from folk and contemporary songs to songs in the classical tradition and contemporary tunes written to classical poetry.
As fate would have it, novelist, playwright and poet Vladimir Voinovich (born 1932) spoke and read from his work on June 5, 2015, just a month before the photos here were taken. As reported in a short piece on TheHollywoodTimes.net, “Renowned Russian writer and dissident Vladimir Voinovich held a reading for an audience that numbered in the hundreds at the Gardner School’s Michael Jackson Auditorium located at 7450 Hawthorn Avenue in West Hollywood. Voinovich spoke from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. and a question and answer period followed. Highlights from the reading included stories from both Soviet and émigré life.”
A poster that is reproduced with this article, as well as with an announcement on a Russian-language site, stated that, “Chonkin lived, Chonkin is alive, and Chonkin will live!” This, of course, is a reference to Voinovich’s most popular, one might even say immortal, novel, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1969 – originally published in Germany because the Soviet censor would not pass it.) The ad also declares, “Voinovich’s singular humor makes miracles – you will laugh until you cry!”
Voinovich was stripped of his Soviet citizenship in 1980 and he lived in the US and Germany until 1990 when his legal status was restored by Mikhail Gorbachev. Although he was one of the famous dissidents of the late Soviet period, he has retained his relevance and position as a respected writer and commentator on current events. I saw him speak at Harvard in the 1980s, but that tale will have to wait for another prompt because I’m out of time and space today.