KQED News: The Celebration of the Days of the Dead in California


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It is that time of the year again! Check out my blog and radio piece for KQED News on our relationship with death and what Days of the Dead is all about.

To hear the piece and check out more photos, follow this link:

The celebration of the Days of the Dead is now very familiar to many Bay Area communities. This Meso-American holiday emerged in the 1970s, with official events in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Some forty years later, the Bay Area hosts the largest one-day celebration in the country. In Oakland, the Fruitvale Dia de los Muertos Festival has had as many as 100,000 visitors. The Oakland Museum of California recently held its 18th Days of the Dead ceremony and received nearly 3,000 visitors.

Days of the Dead celebrations aren’t merely about death; they honor the lives of those who have passed. They are also about creating a new relationship with death, one that is different from what we experience in the United States. In many ways, the holidays are cathartic, with vivid colors, altars, sugar skulls, crafts and a comical spirit that helps us deal with death by focusing on life.

The Return of the Parkway: Oakland Theater Tries to Revive Tradition


This blog post was originally published on KQED’s blog, NewsFix.

Movie sequels rarely do as well as the originals. The owners of the New Parkway Theater are betting that trend doesn’t apply to theaters themselves.

On Nov. 30, the New Parkway Theater hopes to replicate the success of the beloved Parkway Theater at the foot of Park Boulevard in Oakland where the audience could lounge on couches and loveseats while chugging beers or munching pizza. The original Parkway closedin March of 2009.

The New Parkway is popping up in the sizzling Uptown neighborhood at 474 24th Street. Local businesses threw the theater a welcome-to-the-neighborhood party Oct. 24th.

The theater is still under construction, but true to the spirit of the original Parkway, surrounding stores opened their spaces for screenings of movies like “American Graffiti,” “The Night of the Living Dead,” and“Ghost World,” selling empanadas, chocolate truffles and other treats… along with beer.

And as the management of the theater hoped, some old Parkway devotees gathered for the party. “I left a Giants’ game to come here,” said Risa Nye, a former regular. “So, you know, that means a lot.”

The new owners are optimistic they can avoid the fate of the old Parkway’s owners, Kyle and Catherine Fischer, who shut the theater down in 2009. According to the East Bay Express, the old Parkway made money, but the Fischers became overextended after investing in a sister location in El Cerrito.

The New Parkway owners wrote this about the old ones:

You can call the Fischers poor managers, you can call them overambitious, or you can say that they had the bad fortune of trying to expand in a contracting economy, but there is no denying that they built a wildly popular, incredibly unique, highly acclaimed, and financially successful theater in a part of Oakland where many doubters would have said it could never be done.  We plan to follow in their footsteps.

Parkway II

After a failed attempt to reopen at the original location, J. Moses Ceaser, the managing partner of the New Parkway, connected with Matthew Iglehart, who owns a couple of properties in the Uptown area and wanted to rent one out as a theater. By December 2011, a new lease was signed.

Will “The Thrill” Viharo was the former programmer for the original Parkway and is now the publicist and event consultant. “It’s like the cancellation of Star Trek,” he says. “So there [are] all these ‘trekkies’ out there, or Parkway heads, and they’ve been wanting this show to come back. So this is kind of like Parkway the Next Generation.”

The new management of the theater will follow the same basic concept as its predecessor but plans improvements.

Managing partner J. Moses Ceaser says people complained about the quality of the food and the cleanliness of the original venue. “I think we can be kind of Parkway-plus in that regard,” he says.

But opening an independent theater is one thing. Keeping it open is another, especially with the New Parkway’s unusual format.

The Cerrito is now leased to Rialto Cinemas, which also runs the only independent theater in Berkeley, the Elmwood. Like the Parkway, the Cerrito serves food and alcoholic beverages, but unlike the old one, the New Parkway runs new releases as well as older movies.

Ky Boyd, the proprietor of Rialto Cinemas, says running an independent theater is hard because a single venue can’t depend on a big company to bail it out if it hits rough times. “It’s a challenging business but a very rewarding one in ways other than finances,” he says.

It can be even more difficult to successfully run a theater if it only plays second-run movies, meaning new releases that can be 3 to 5 weeks old. “Movies are perishable products,” he says. “They don’t always do well in their second cycle.”

And serving restaurant quality food in a theater, as Boyd does in the Cerrito, requires extensive planning. “You have a much higher operating cost everyday that you have to plan for,” he says. “But it is always a good time to open a new theater especially when you are bringing entertainment and you are anchoring in a neighborhood that didn’t have a theater before.”

Parkwayheads won’t have to wait much longer for the grand opening and The New Parkway is already programming upcoming events like a Parkway Classic night. Every Thursday, the New Parkway will be screening movies that made the old Parkway famous with classic cult movies.

Stay tuned for “Revenge of the Parkway.”

The Making of Sugar Skull (Full Video)


My first attempt at documentary-making is here. This short video explores the different ways sugar skulls are fabricated. Make sure you watch it in HD.

This is also part of the Kitchen Sisters’ new project, “The Making Of…” It was released November 1st, 2012 in honor of the Days of the Dead.

More about the “The Making Of ” here.

“The Making Of” Project


“The Making Of” Project

The Kitchen Sisters and KQED are launching a new program. “The Making Of” is about things are made. How you, your neighbor, your co-worker make things. It’s a deeper look at an art human beings have been performing for years, the art of making… I will be the project’s intern. But I am also telling a story. The one of sugar skulls and the Day of the Dead. Stay tuned!


NPR: The Mosque’s Synagogue


Leon Bleckmann wearing his signature cap in his South Bronx apartment. Bleckmann was former treasurer of the Jewish congregation that lost their meeting place before being assisted by a local mosque. Photo by Lauren Benichou.

At first sight, Masjid al-Imam looks like a typical mosque. It’s an old, nondescript building on the corner of Westchester and Pugsley Avenues in South Bronx, New York, sandwiched between an aboveground subway and the Cross Bronx Expressway. Only on Friday nights, when men in broad-brimmed hats and black coats enter the building, would you give the place a second look.

That’s because this mosque is also a synagogue.

“This is the first place in New York State where Muslim and Jews worship on the same ground as brothers and sisters worshipping one god,” says Sheikh Moussa Drammeh, the Imam at Masjid al-Imam and one of the main conspirators of this unlikely arrangement.

The building itself is actually the Islamic Center of North America. It houses both a mosque, located on the first floor and a space for Jews to hold services at the ground level. Both Muslims and Jews have been sharing this space since 2007.

It all started when the Jewish congregation Young Israel of Parkchester lost their own place of worship, a building also located in the South Bronx.

“The roof started to leak and the water was coming down on the electric equipment,” says Leon Bleckmann, the synagogue’s treasurer at the time. “It was getting dangerous.”

The small congregation lacked the funding to maintain the building, and the decline in membership also added to their struggle. Bleckmann said this decline reflected a general trend experienced all over the Bronx. According to a demographic survey from the North Jewish Data Bank, the Jewish population of the Bronx dropped by 45 percent between 1990 and 2000.

“All the way through the entire South Bronx, we are the only Jewish congregation left,” Bleckmann says.

Young Israel was forced to sell their building to the City of New York. With the money they received, they rented out a small storefront.

“They charged us $1800 for a hole in the wall,” Bleckmann says. “It was half of the space that we have now.”

With such high rent and almost no incoming funds, the congregation quickly ran out of money and lost their makeshift sanctuary once again. There was a moment, Bleckmann says, that they could not find anywhere to go.

After hearing about their struggle, Patricia Tomasulo, president of the Community Democratic Club and community activist, told Sheikh Drammeh about Young Israel, which was officially under the direction of Chabad of the East Bronx. Sheikh Drammeh received them with open arms.

“When a community activist came to me and said ‘I am just trying to help some Jewish folks who’d just lost their synagogue and they’re in need of a place to hold their services,’ my answer was immediately ‘welcome,’” Sheikh Drammeh says.

The Jewish congregation moved in, initially using the Imam’s office to hold their services before moving to a larger space in the back of the building. Bleckmann still hopes they will be able to have their own space someday, with the Torah and their own amenities. Even so, the two parties — Jewish and Muslim — are grateful and seem to get along perfectly.

Not everyone agrees with the move. Muslim scholars have complained to Sheikh Drammeh and some mosque-goers have decided to leave altogether.

But despite the controversy surrounding this little building, Sheikh Drammeh said he feels that they are setting a precedent in interfaith relationships and hopes his mosque might lead by example.

“I have absolutely no doubt that what started here in the boogie-down Bronx will not only be permanent but will be global,” he says. “Small things that come from good hearts have the potential to become universal.”

Sheikh Drammeh said that it is a Muslim’s duty to care for a guest, so for now, it is a match made in heaven.

This was first reported and produced for NPR’s Intern Edition Spring 2012.

First Steps on The Wild Side


Photo By Lauren Benichou from iPhone 4

Entering the world of freelancing is overwhelming, terrifying, confusing, exciting and, again, overwhelming. So I have decided to channel some of that energy through this blog. If you are an aspiring reporter, producer or if you think that I might be interesting enough, you can follow my troubles and achievements on this blog. I promise to display both the good and the bad. Enjoy!