Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Babalicious: A story for a good cause


How innocently began the day as the red claws of dawn rose over Babalarella. A constant pale moonlight on this dark and chilly side of the planet helped Johnny Orchid navigate his walk towards the feasting grounds,  just beyond the red glow of the Terrahotta Hills --  and near the human quarter. 
A short graphic play
based on an illustration by Jeff Zugale.
Wil Wheaton as Willy Whacker (Prince of the Velvet Loins)
John Scalzi as Johnny Orchid (an Orc)
Starrek the unikitty as itself
Featuring the evil clown (Babalord) uniform on Willy
Setting: Planet Babalarella
Fiction project to benefit the Lupus Alliance of America
© 2010 David Owens
 Johnny felt the warmth of molten rock beneath the slagstones take the chill out of the air as he approached the stone ovens. His mouth watered and teeth chattered as he anticipated this favorite sustenance - the fermented mass of recent  kills and flesh of the undetermined kind. 
Other Orcs would join him at the morning feast. He looked forward to a good  flesh gnashing among friends, even  within sight of the human quarter.

An uneasy peace with the humans had been tolerated since Johnny was just a fingerling and he wasn't sure how he felt towards them. 
Hardly five moonshadows past, one of the bolder of their kind, Prince Willy Whacker of the Velvet Loins, had approached them on Starrek, his unikitty. That was fine, but the unikitty was hardly trained and it bounded into the middle of the fingerlings amidst the frenzy of their morning gnash. That would have been forgiven, but the unruly unikitty managed to devour most of the freshly refermented mass for itself. The fingerlings scattering in fear that they would be next.
Willy looked shocked and what happened but perhaps not too upset. 

Johnny thought he heard a strange laughter from Willy as he bounded away on Starrek.  Or was it the odd satisfied belching of the unikitty? Johnny was not sure. The fingerlings were hungry and expressed pointed slanders of youth towards the humans without restraint.
On this morning the fingerlings were already at their feast and enjoying a new chant:
    "Willy Willy Whacker, feed him a cracker.
     One whack, two whacks, what a slacker.
     Silly silly Willy, throw him in a pot.
     Taste his bones and love him not!"
And as it would happen, a human in full dress uniform arrived on a unikitty to hear the fingerling taunt.
Price Will of the Velvet Loins! Wearing the insignia of the royal order of Babalord! There was no mistaking of the fiery orange crown over poisonous blue eye slots over the exploding purple banana! 
The fingerlings scattered and the unikitty eyed the feast.
"Not this time, you furry scavenger," called out Johnny, "be gone or be lunch!" 
He raised his axe to repel the intrusion.
"I'll say what to do," replied Willy, "and I go where I please!" And he raised his staff, a ceremonial spear he had as yet to use, in an awkward manner.
 All this spooked the unikitty who leapt ferociously - not aimed at Johnny -  but at the feast just beyond. Starrek knocked over Johnny and Willy tumbled to the ground and had the wind knocked out of him leaving him impotent to do more than wince.

 "Well, that's fine how d'ya do! laughed Johnny when he realized the folly before him. He joked, "Looks like we might enjoy some loin steak after all, the velvet kind!" The Babalord uniform looked almost comical and childlike upside down.

 "Not if I can help it!" chortled Willy.

 The unikitty helped itself to a big mouthful of fermented flesh.

 "You beast, prepare to be eaten!" yelled Johnny.

 "Not so fast, help me restrain Starreck and I'll find you something else to eat in the human quarter" said Willy.

 "Only if you remove that Babalord uniform, it's ruining my appetite!" said Willy. "Did you say we are having human quarters?"

 And thus continued the uneasy peace on the slagstones of Babalarella.


Editor's note:
Actor Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation and many other roles) and author John Scalzi ( Old Man's War and The Rough Guide to the Universe 2 )
lent their names to this project to benefit a good cause.Lupus Alliance of America. Fresnans may remember Scalzi as the Movie Critic at The Fresno Bee.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Your memories and thoughts

A lot of history has passed through the Azteca Theater since 1948 when it first opened. When I walk out front to do a  little  cleanup people are always stopping by to ask "What are you going to do with the Azteca?" and then a story of memories usually raise a smile to their face and they tell how they used to come to the Azteca as kids. Stories of how they saw somebody famous. Stories of how the neighborhood has changed. Stories of what their friends did. 

One person told me about how Cesar Chavez stopped his famous march to Sacramento out in front of the Azteca and gave a speech to a big rally. Tirado was there, too.   Another mentions Bobby Kennedy. And all the famous performers from Mexico who packed the house. Most of the stories have not been written down. They are part of the oral history of the Chinatown community that generally did not make it into TV and newspapers.Some of the stories probably should have been wider known, and some are personal memories we all can identify with.

Overlooked, but not forgotten, these stories are the fabric of our lives and worth sharing

I have not seen one photograph of what the theater looked like in the 1940s and 1950s. If you have a picture or story you would like to share, please do so.

I would love to here from more of you, either as a comment here or as an e-mail to

Let's have fun making new memories and revisiting the old.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Remembering a Chinatown Treasure

Dick Avakian, Chinatown, Fresno,  David Owens
Dick Avakian, Chinatown Fresno, 1999 Photo David Owens
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Dick Avakian: Remembering a Living Treasure in Old Town Chinatown
By David Owens
June 11, 2010
Dick Avakian's Dick's Menswear has been a fixture in Fresno's Chinatown for longer than most of us have been alive. It was impossible to pass by his shop at 1526 Kern St ( Between F Street and China Alley) and not stop in to hear the latest happenings.

Even now, after he has been gone over a year I still turn my head to look  straight through the door where he would sit in the middle of a long row of chairs reading The Fresno Bee. And usually involved in a  conversation or helping a customer at the same time.

 No, he really is gone. The sign is there, the store is open and there are some nice people there -- but it's not the same. Dick was a central personality in the fabric of Chinatown. He officially retired from his shop in 2003, but he came down to Chinatown every morning to his building on Tulare Street, a block from his shop. It was a little harder to find him, but he was there reading the paper and taking care of his properties.

Dick never gave up on Chinatown, he saw it go through the Tong wars, prohibition, the anti-suspender laws and the redevelopment projects that made it almost a ghost town.

Yick Fun and Officer Clif Sayers, China Alley, 1920s courtesy of Dick Avakian
Dick was born on December 4, 1915, in Fresno, Ca. In Chinatown. His parents, Dick and Verkin Avakian.,  had escaped the Armenian genocide and came to America. And like many others,  they came to Fresno and found a place to work and a place to call home.
He graduated from Roosevelt High School and Fresno State College.

Dick was born into the family shoe business on Tulare Street. After he served in the U.S. Army in Panama, he returned to Fresno and  grew the business to include many quality brands and moved it's present location on Kern Street. He also owned the Aki Hardware building on Kern and F, and the New Shanghai Restaurant building on Tulare and G Streets.  The restaurant took up the entire 2nd floor, 7,500 square-feet. When Dick "retired" his office became one of the first floor offices.

A few years back Fresno Bee Columnist Eli Setencich wrote a column about how the world passed through Dick's Menswear. From farmworkers to mayors, contractors to white collar, there was always a lively conversation and a feeling of being in the know. There were no worries about Robert's rules of order or political correctness. Well, maybe a little.  People spoke their minds. There was a row of a dozen  chairs all facing Dick on his shoe-fitting stool. Dick was the judge, listened and gave out verdicts. But he listened.

When I walked into the store he would always call out, "Sit down and tell me all about it." So I would sit and we would talk about Fresno and Chinatown and the world. Dick knew something about a lot of things and could offer an opinion with a basis for it.

Dick was grounded in practical experience. One day I wanted to invite him to participate in a meeting about Chinatown Study project formed by Michael Yada and the Chinatown Revitalization group, a grassroots organization formed by local citizens and chartered by the city. Dick replied, "I'll give you your study group on Chinatown. He walked to the back a few minutes and came back with a heavy box load of city studies and plans for Chinatown. "I've sat on every committee and meeting you can imagine and it all ends the same. Nobody wants to do anything! They all say Chinatown has the best location, buildings and potential, but look what they did. Nothing!"   Dick did come to the meeting and he did offer good input.

He was always treasured, even by those who did not always agree with him. Chinatown revitalization wanted him to be the Grand Marshal for the Chinese New Year Parade. Dick almost fell off his stool at that idea. What, do I look like someone who should be paraded around Chinatown as a Grand Marshal! Get somebody else, that Kathi Omachi over at Chinatown revitalization would be a good Grand Marshal, not me!" And he smiled.

"What you gonna do with that white elephant you got? Nobody wants a theater. Level the floor and make a warehouse, then it could be useful."  Dick used that line to start a conversation. He loved to get a rise out of  people and let them show their true colors.  He had a different greeting for every regular customer and he liked to take a shot at using the local cultural vernaculars. Some of it could not be repeated. as if  I could remember it anyway!

 When Dick decided it was time to turn the shop over to someone else Joan Obra at  The Fresno Bee wrote on September 18, 2003:
"Surrounded by stacks of Levi's jeans and Panama hats; walls covered by Stacy Adams, Red Wing and Dexter shoes; and piles of Patrick James dress shirts, owner Dick Avakian offered this explanation for shutting his doors: "My body is telling me it's time to quit. I'm wore out -- What do you want from me?"
After he took a seat, Avakian added: "I wouldn't sit if I could lie down." 
 Dick always had a smile to punctuate his pointed words and took pleasure in studying all who came by.
He gave out verbal nuggets for free. And if you wanted to buy something, he was all business.


Dick Avakian passed away on Tuesday, January 13, 2009, at the age of 93 and is buried at Ararat Cemetary,  in Fresno, California.

He gave large donations to the  Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church and Charlie Keyan Armenian Community School..

Dick Avakian tribute from The Fresno Bee.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Theater? Theatre? What's in a name?

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Theater or Theatre? What's in a name?

The word theater is a purely American word derived from the British word theatre.
Back in the 1830s the champion of American English, Noah Webster, freed Americans of some archaic British spellings and tried to standardize American English. Metre became meter, centre became center and most notably for us, theatre became theater.

However,  American theater has always had many British actors and directors who stick to the Queen's English. And many American actors trying to put forward a high-class reputation have stood with them. It is just the proper way to associate with the long and glorious history of theatre. British theatre.

Okay, but it sounds a little stuffy to me. Ye Olde English Azteca Theatre Centre would never fit.
In Britain you might be in an "Estate Car" but in America it is a plain old "station wagon."
For that matter an American "truck" would be a "lorry" in British English. In America you put a silencer on your gun. In Britain "silencer" means "muffler" on a car. 
So it goes.

The differences are often subtle, but telling about our cultures.  The American English language has borrowed much from many cultures. It has become a very flexible and friendly language for international understanding and communication. One culture from the many, united under an inspired constitution.. Even the Internet started in American English.
              - - -
American theaters have programs, British theatres have programmes.
While American and British people understand each other and respect each other, it is fine to be a little different. However, I side with Noah Webster, and in America we have theaters.

Here in Fresno, some theaters are know in their official business name as theatres. They are allowed their insecurities.

Call us the "Azteca Theater." An  American gathering place to see something interesting. Americans from South of the border,  across the Pacific Ocean or just down the road. The Azteca is proud to be a theater. If you were born in Britain, okay, I forgive you for Azteca Theatre. Or if you speak Spanish as a first language,  call us "Teatro Azteca." It is fair to say that just as many people in California know the Azteca Theater as the  Teatro Azteca. And it is a heritage the Azteca is proud to carry. A theater for all  people, mostly Americans, known in English as the Azteca Theater.

- David Owens

Ruiz death a sad reminder of a scene played out too often

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Ruiz death a sad reminder of a scene played out too often

The facts are not yet fully known in the recent death of Luis Ruiz in Chinatown, but  is a sadly familiar to story occurring too often in Fresno. It is a little too close for comfort.

Fresno's Chinatown has been known for years as a dumping ground for criminals, some of them the violent ones no one wants in their neighborhood. Other Valley towns know that one good way to get rid of a problem offender is to give them a one-way ticket to Fresno.  To downtown Fresno. Ventura and G Street, in particular.

Some are sent directly from prison.

This is the location of the biggest transient magnet in the Valley where well-meaning organizaions try to help those who have fallen on hard times or worse.

Without this element Chinatown is a relatively quiet place. Since the redevelopment of the 1960s there have been few residents in Chinatown. It is home to some low-rent apartments and rooming houses that serve as a retirement residences for many. Particularly, for some elderly men who came to the Valley for labor work. Some have earned a small pension and can survive in an environment of cheap rent and free food. For the most part they are quiet residents living out the last years of life sitting with old friends on a bench exchanging stories and watching the world move along.

They live almost unnoticed, except for another element that has invaded Chinatown. It is the violent offender or drug-influenced aggressor who finds the elderly residents an easy mark to harass and try and get what little they have for themselves.

So here we are. An elderly man, living under the radar in Fresno, is dead, in China Alley near Inyo Street.  And a criminal on parole who had arrived from Bakersfield just the day before stands accused. Motive: Ruiz had twenty bucks.

China Alley runs between F and G Streets and was the most lively and entertaining part of Fresno. 24-hours restaurants, gambling and other entertainments.  It's where you went for good food and open 24-hours. Everyone knew where it was. Now the only sign is one the Azteca Theater  put on the back of the Azteca Theater which backs into China Alley. Even the Fresno Bee did not name it as they usually do, because if they called it China Alley no one would understand them.

Chinatown is an area of contrasts. Fresno's oldest business district and interesting buildings. It is Fresno's Old Town. It is called Chinatown because the first residents were Chinese. Then Japanese, Russian, German, Italian, Armenian,  and many other ethnic groups  found Chinatown the best place to get a start in America.

Luis Ruiz was part of the story, and sadly, he punctuates the hollow promise that many find in downtown Fresno today. Fresno deserves better. Chinatown deserves better.

It is too late for Luis Ruiz. Let's hope Fresno will rally and end this situation. We all deserve better.

- David Owens

The facts from The Fresno Bee:

A man arrested Thursday in connection with the beating death of a 74-year-old man last week in Fresno had been released from prison the day before the victim's body was found, police said.

Vernon Belton, 42, of Fresno was booked on homicide charges in the Fresno County Jail. He is accused of killing Luis Ruiz, whose body was found lying in an alley in the 800 block of F Street shortly before 7 a.m. May 28, police said. There was blunt-force trauma to the victim's upper body.

Belton, a gang member, had been released May 27 from Wasco State Prison, police said. He was on parole for drug-related crimes. The motive in the killing appeared to be a minor dispute between the two men, police said.

Anyone with information on the homicide is asked to call detective Richard Tacadena at (559) 621-2448 or Crime Stoppers at (559) 498-STOP.

Fresno County Coroner's Office officials also are looking for help in finding Ruiz's family. The coroner's office can be reached at (559) 268-0109.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Azteca memories

Armida Espinoza remembers visiting the Azteca Theater as a child
"I was born and raised in Fresno and as a child, I remember going to the Azteca Theater almost every weekend. I would spend hours getting lost in the wonderful world of the Mexican cinema with stars such as Cantiflas, Maria FĂ©lix, Pedro Infante and Dolores Del Rio. As I recalled those joyful memories, it saddened me to think that many of today’s children did not have the opportunity to experience the wonders of going to the movies."

She has founded CineAmĂ©ricas,  presenter of Spanish language films on Sundays at the historic Tower Theatre in Fresno, California. The selections  include comedy, drama, action-packed films and when available, Spanish language films with English subtitles.

Keep up the good work, Armida!