Homeless at the post office

You must have seen her. She’s almost always there.

Every time I go into the post office, she is standing there, with that big smile. Rosy cheeks roughened by weather. Small, gray, bundled up in layers, summer or fall.

She thanks me and accepts the bill I give her and tucks it away in the purse around her neck. If I remember to look back as I leave the parking lot, she waves goodbye, always smiling.

The last time when I stopped, instead of just pressing a bill into her hand, and a chocolate bar that happened to be in my purse, I asked her. “What’s your name?”

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“Julie,” she said. “What’s yours?”

I told her and then she said, “Why do you always look so beautiful?”

I answered her question with a question: “Why do you always have that beautiful smile?”

“I smile to keep from crying,” Julie said, and now I saw that her eyes were rimmed in red.

Almost as shy as she was, I turned to my car and as I backed out of the space, she was still smiling.

She may not possess much, but Julie still had one more thing to give. As we locked glances, she waved. And then she blew me a kiss.

“Next time,” I thought, “I’ll stop longer.” So many questions in my mind. So many things I want to ask her.

“Are you from Downey? What happened to you? What would make it better? Where will you sleep tonight?”

We all have had those little moments, of the terror of recognition, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Life for one person can change so fast.

When I went back this week, I was ready to ask her permission, to ask my questions. But the place where she always stood was empty. No one in the space.

Next time, if she is there, I’ll ask if she minds sharing her story with me. Because now I care.

Downey's Dia de los Muertos Festival rises to the occasion

DOWNEY – “When you see a falcon,” said Carolina del Toro, “That means you are seeing the spirit of someone who has passed. It is a lucky omen.”

Carolina del Toro. Photos by Lorine Parks

Carolina del Toro. Photos by Lorine Parks

Carolina is the face and heart of Downey’s Dia de los Muertos, one of the most popular festivals in Southern California for the Day of the Dead. El Dia de Los Muertos is a family affair, a celebration of life and a time to honor those generations that have already passed. That dancing skeleton in black lace mantilla and roses? She could be your abuela. That skeleton in a black top hat and cane? Tio Marco.

“My daughter asked me how I keep my energy,” said Carolina, Downey Arts Coalition vice president who also organized the art show in the theatre lobby. “It is my passion.”

“I told her that this morning, after I got here at 6 am to be sure everything was starting all right, and went home, showered and came back, I felt myself sinking a little. As I went into the theatre I said, ‘Oh God, give me strength.’ And then inside the theatre, I saw a baby falcon. I felt my spirit lift and I know I had energy for the whole day.”

Did someone rescue the fledgling bird? “My husband Jorge captured it and took it outside,” Carolina said, and she showed a picture on her iPhone to prove it. “He took it out into in the trees, so it would could get away.”

Not everyone gets that kind of encouragement, but then not everyone puts as much time and effort and love into making something like this festival work.

Say “Hallowe’en” in Europe and visions of mist at midnight or the chalky rays of a ghastly ghostly full moon are conjured up, with witches and goblins, stranger to all the villagers, casting evil spells and kidnapping children. Or worse.

But one of the most distinguishing customs of El Dia de los Muertos is the building of the altars, to honor specific deceased and beloved family members. It’s two different ways of marking that death is coming, customs as opposite as a sunny family fiesta is from the story of a vindictive hag, the Cutty-Sark, pursuing Tam O’Shanter at midnight over the Brig o’Doon. Different strokes for different folks and their folk-lore and traditions.

Carolina, who was born and raised in Nyarit, Mexico, said that the altars, or ofrendas, are the most prominent feature in a Dia de los Muertos celebration.

"Altars are created to show the souls of the dead that they haven't been forgotten,” she said, “by displaying many of the good things the loved one liked while she or he was alive.”

So many people and organizations came to Downey to share that passion.

The Avenue of the Altars, curated by Carolina, was nestled in the green space in front of City Hall.

“I’m happy to announce that Lupita Infante will be building an altar to honor her father, Pedro Infante, Jr., and her grandfather, Pedro Infante,” Carolina said. “Also the amazing singer, my dear friend, Margarita Luna De Guadalajara, will be building an altar to honor those talented singers who have left us, like Ma. de Lourdes, Lola Beltran, Mercedes Sosa, and Celia Cruz. Some of their old original vinyl discs will be paced on the altars.”

Lupita Infante’s altar, paying tribute to her father and grandfather.

Lupita Infante’s altar, paying tribute to her father and grandfather.

The marigold is the flower of the dead because its brilliant sun-gold color and pungent odor, which are said to lead the souls of the dead to the festival. The marigold-strewn altars had photos of the ancestors when they were young, as children, and as they grew very old.

The favorite foods of the deceased are cooked and placed with sweet bread, and fruit drinks and shot glasses of tequila were placed on the altar table, with candles, which Carolina said were one if the most important parts of the altar. Mementos like a prayer book and beads, a doll or lucky coin sit between skulls wearing sombreros. Luminarias are printed with the name of the deceased and the life data.

Stepping onto the Plaza in front of the Downey Theatre, one saw a kaleidoscope of colors and much larger-than-life figures made from painted papier-mache, sent by Tios Tacos in Riverside. There were giant bicycles and voluptuous women with skeleton features and boney hands in lace mittens. Families posed for pictures beside the characters, mothers with little children, grown men, teenagers.

The first booth encountered inside the Plaza in front of the Downey Theatre on the Firestone side was run by a mother and daughter team from the Soroptimist Club of Paramount. Soroptimist means best for women and children, and the Paramount and the Downey Club sponsored the booth.

Paulina and Cecilia Gonez, both with their faces painted beautifully and wearing crowns of flowers and feathers, handed out informative flyers about Soroptimists, women who speak out against domestic violence and human trafficking. Soroptimist of Downey is holding a session on education and awareness of these epidemic problems on Thursday, Nov. 8, at 5:30 p.m. at Los Amigos Golf Club.

Cecilia Gonez and her daughter, Paulina.

Cecilia Gonez and her daughter, Paulina.

Everywhere the theme was life happily mingled with death, the dead and the living. Young girls had faces half painted, one side a blue and white skull, the other as alive as when they woke up this morning.

The art show, curated by the Downey Arts Coalition (DAC), emphasized this theme. Rosa Ma. Alvarez displayed embossed and painted tin plaques of skeletons and skulls in silver and gold, circled in a repoussée frame.

Jorge del Toro’s boney skull sculpture was painted bright red and blue and green, and black and white. Lights twinkled from within the cavity. The piece was untitled because “I don’t like to limit the imagination,” said Jorge, fresh from his adventure with the baby falcon.

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Art Montoya manned the DAC table, and told us he graduated from UC Irvine but is now a law student La Verne, trying to decide on what kind of law to practice. He exemplifies the young people who are active in the recent renaissance of the arts in Downey.

Organizations with booths with information and congratulations were set up by Avenue Printing, Downey Adult School, Downey Federal Credit Union, and the Downey Symphony. More specifically to the point of the interests and needs of the patrons, the Los Angeles County Registrar/Clerk’s office had a booth offering voter registration forms, and information about the new voting laws that take place in 2020. Michele from Norwalk, who works for the county, wore a pair of earrings with long bony fingers dangling from pink roses in her ear lobes.

“If someone here wants to fill out a registration form but lives in Orange County,” Michele said, “we can forward that on for them.”

Greg Welch, who with his wife Barbara Risher Welch, operates the independent, family-owned Risher Mortuary and Cremation Service in Downey was one of the thousands walking around the exhibits. Greg goes on humanitarian construction missions around the globe with Downey Calvary Chapel, and also has time to act as this year’s president of the Rotary Club of Downey.

Although the morning began with dense fog, by noon the mist had cleared and the blue sky of October was shining. The event had begun with plumed Aztec dancers singing and enacting blessings in the plaza in front of the library,

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Now it was time to sit down inside the Downey Theatre and enjoy folklorico dancing with the Resurrection Group. Children danced, their faces painted chalky white. Then women came out in long white flounced dresses to do the ribbon dance, soon joined by men in overalls and caps and red scarves.

The next number started as a devil figure in red with horns faced off with an angelic dancer in blue, soon joined by women in the long traditional skirt and men in red and blue serapes and sombreros. Women in the audience also dressed in the graceful long Victorian dresses, with bustles in the back and everyone had flowers in her hair.

Every seat in the auditorium was taken, and enthusiastic applause greeted the end of each number. Regions of Mexico were represented, like Chiapas and Jalisco. A final tribute perhaps derived from Aztec Mexico City had girls in white with pastel stoles of pink, blue and mint pantomiming the throwing of flowers to the audience.

Then a short animated art film was shown, El Trompetista, about a little cadet in a gray army band who plays a red hot trumpet, which lands him in jail where the notes he plays come out blue.

His opponent, a sadistic drill sergeant who plays square notes and looks like Lee Marvin on a really mean day, has no chance against the creative power and individual spirit of the boy. Finally, all the cadets trumpet notes of the purest colors and patterns and designs, and the bright band marches off into a pink and gold sunset.

The film, from Mexico, was experimental in style, with no frame to the picture, the screen black except for spotlighted and side-lighted figures. In Spanish with English subtitles, it was directed by Raúl Robin and Alejandro Morales Reyes and written by Raúl Fuentes.

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The parking lot in front of the library had been turned into a pedestrian mercado and a corridor for food trucks. The library had displays of Frieda Kahlo and Pabla Neruda’s sayings.

As the day went on more and more people appeared with their faces painted like skeletons, the women and girls with jaunty floral wreaths and dangling earrings, sitting at the benches beside the food trucks, posing for pictures with each other. One could buy an embroidered flowered dress here without having to go all the way to Oaxaca to find one, or get a miniature wedding party of figurines dressed in lace and satin, feathers and pearls; bouquets, top hats and tails; a complete maricachi band with tiny instruments; bright party dresses and miniature boxes of juice to drink – all skeletons.

Music was playing, little girls were coloring chalk pictures on the sidewalk on the Embassy Suites side of the plaza, under pink-flowered trees, or sitting on a carved wooden throne with a peacock feather crown as again the family took pictures.

Although the space became crowded everyone was cordial and polite, making room for young parents with babies in strollers or older people navigating with a walker. It was definitely fun and fiesta, as promised, with the emphasis in family.

Next year will be even better, if Carolina del Toro and her team have anything to do with it.

Rotary/YMCA pancake breakfast reaches 70-year milestone

DOWNEY – Pancake batter bubbling on the griddle, each one adorned with Mickey Mouse ears. It must be the 70th annual community breakfast served by the Rotary Club of Downey, to benefit the Downey Family YMCA.

Angelo Cardono’s Mickey Mouse pancakes. Photo by Lorine Parks

Angelo Cardono’s Mickey Mouse pancakes. Photo by Lorine Parks

Fine jeweler Angelo Cardono’s secret for the ears? He pours them meticulously from a special batter bottle with a tiny spout, and the crowd loves them. Chocolate chip sprinkles were optional.

Brainchild of Angelo, the event has served hundreds of thousands of Downeyites over the years and enabled the Y to buy special equipment for its gymnastic and aquatic programs, and yoga mats for instructor Lupe Baeza-Martinez’s hatha classes.

“Starbucks donated their Pike Place coffee,” said Y Executive Director Lori Tiffany. “Our staff secured the gift from the Starbucks at Firestone and Lakewood. We rent the gas grills.”

The morning feast is presented alternately at Downey and Warren high schools, this time in the Downey Quad, where red metal benches and seats placed around trees gave some shade, which helped, because the day was another perfect October California day.

Busy former Mayor Meredith Perkins, a member of the Downey Optimist Club, made an early appearance. Keeping an eye on the proceedings were Dr. John Garcia of the DUSD and fellow Rotarian Larry Garces.

Downey YMCA staff at last Saturday’s pancake breakfast. Photo by Lorine Parks

Downey YMCA staff at last Saturday’s pancake breakfast. Photo by Lorine Parks

“Even more people are here than last year,” commented Lori, as the loud speakers pumped out aerobic dance music and students from the Y demonstrated their moves. In the background white-jacketed youngsters put on a karate show and weightlifters raised heavy tires above their heads. Colorful YMCA booths exhibited pictures from summer camp near Lake Arrowhead, and other moments from Y programs.

Rotarians arrived at Downey High kitchen at 6 am to start cooking sausages and mixing the pancake batter, so they could open at 7:30, with orange juice and butter and maple syrup to go with the pancakes and coffee.

“We close about 11,” said Roger Brossmer, Assistant Superintendent of the DUSD and the man in charge of the breakfast for Rotary. Seen in a purely supervisory capacity was Mike Pohlen.

YMCA karate students put on demonstrations throughout the breakfast. Photo by Lorine Parks

YMCA karate students put on demonstrations throughout the breakfast. Photo by Lorine Parks

Also seen cooking and serving were Rotary President Greg Welch, Pam Powers, Manny Castro, Paul Granata, Dr. Dan Fox, John Lacey, and at the orange juice table Tom Hutchinson and Jorge Lopez, both graduates of Downey High.

Also seen enjoying the pancakes were Rotarians Harold Tseklenis and wife Anna, and Jorge Montero with Maru.

Raul Lopez helped with the flapjack flipping, and later attended to grandfatherly duties with son Alex and Alex’s wife Jenette, both Downey Rotarians, and their boys, twins Nathaniel and Benjamin, and Teddy, possible future Rotarians all.

Symphony performance earns standing ovation, calls for encore

DOWNEY – “Good concert etiquette is not to applaud after the second movement of Oscar’s Concerto, no matter how much you want to,” said Lars Clutterham as he interviewed David Van Maele, the evening’s virtuoso clarinetist. “The second movement is slow and melodic, and you want to let the poetry of it sink in.”

Oscar Navarro

Oscar Navarro

Before the program began, in the pre-concert remarks, Lars interviewed composer Oscar Navarro, who flew in from Spain for the North American première of his Third Concerto for B Flat and E Flat Clarinet. Lars is a Downey composer himself and audiences will hear his new piece, “Arc of My Life,” at the Jan. 19 concert.

“This is the Downey Symphony’s 60th year,” said Don Marshall, president of the Downey Symphonic Society, as he welcomed the audience. “And sixty years ago something else happened: the Dodgers came to town. Right now they’re up by one run in the seventh game of the playoffs.”

Don had another first to announce: Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard came on stage to congratulate and thank the Symphonic Society for their program which contributes to National Hispanic Heritage Week. “This proclamation shows that I have put this Downey achievement into the Congressional Record,” the congresswoman said.

State Senator Vanessa Delgado also presented an illuminated proclamation congratulating the Symphonic group on its sixtieth year. Mayor Sean Ashton, a staunch supporter of the Symphony and of the arts, presented President Don with a citation from the City Council recognizing the Downey Symphonic society for its 60 years of providing excellence in music for Downey. Josh Bell, the most recent baton winner, received a plaque for his contribution.

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Even before the audience began filling the auditorium, early-arriving patrons enjoyed the art show in the lobby. Board Vice President Carol Kearns and husband Frank, a poet and publisher of the boutique Los Nietos Press, checked out the oils and pastels and water colors in the show, which was curated by Andrew Hernandez of the Downey Arts Coalition. Javier Herrera’s depicted the evening’s theme of Viva el Arte with a field worker harvesting sugar cane with a machete. Lindsay Yost and Debbie Davidsohn also showed.

The Ugandan artist Emmanuel Lugano who also showed at Glennfest, was the art coalition’s featured artist and he had a corridor of his paintings on the patio. One of his personal favorites is a giclée “Broadway” ballet scene, all graceful shapes and flowing colors.

No show is complete without a work by Carolina Estrada-del Toro and she had two on display, as well as a painting by husband Jorge. No ceramic this time. Carolina will curate the art show this weekend for Downey’s Dia de los Muertos.

“This will be my second Bolero with Sharon conducting,” said Andrew Wahlquist, founder of the Downey Arts Coalition. “The first was in 2011.” Andrew’s wife, actress Lana Joy, introduced the artists from the stage, and they stood so we could recognize them. They mostly were wearing red, while Lana was splendid in a long flowered gown.

Emmanuel Lugano.

Emmanuel Lugano.

Spotted before the music began were Anna and Harold Tseklenis, talking with Ryan Keene and Tom Hutchinson, all Rotarians. Kiwanian Larry Lewis, a former president of the Symphonic Society, attended with wife Marge, long-time Assistance League member.

Board members Mary Stevens and JoAnne Gronley held forth in the lobby, distributing the evening’s program and also pencils for the audience survey to be found interleaved in the program. It’s important for the Board’s Marketing Committee to know how they can reach a wider audience.

While the stage was still empty, one noticed that the percussion section held some unusual instruments. There turned out to be six percussionists, one who had three tympani plus two other large drums to manage. There was a xylophone, and two keyboard marimbas (the marimba is the national instrument of Guatemala), which kept one more percussionist busy. Plus hanging chimes, bongos, a cymbal and a gong.

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Oscar likes his percussive sounds: any instrument that makes a sound when it is hit, shaken, or scraped is percussion. A harp completed the section, but the players also played the occasional castanets, clackers and other unexpected instruments.

Off-stage voice Mark Keller, just after asking the audience to check the nearest exit, and unwrap those candies now, not later, then announced, “The Dodgers are up by one run and they have the bases loaded.” It was time for the concert to begin.

Dorothy Pemberton.

Dorothy Pemberton.

Sharon Lavery
came out and conducted the National Anthem which sounded like cannon and fireworks, with the heavy artillery in the percussion. Oscar Navarro’s Downey Overture, by now an international favorite, displayed a gorgeous combination of Latin tempos and L.A. traffic.

Oscar studied music at USC and then worked here for a year, arranging and composing for films. At the conclusion of the piece, Maestro Sharon, who has conducted it at Carnegie Hall, held out her hands toward the audience where the composer was sitting, and Oscar rose and blew kisses to her and the orchestra, then turned to bow to the applauding audience.

Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona’s Suite Andalucia had lively and lovely melodies, and ended by gliding into the fiery Malagueña. Conductor Sharon surprised us by announcing a Cuban encore, the widely beloved freedom song by Jose Marti, Guantanamera. The audience received it enthusiastically.

The big piece of the evening was Navarro’s Clarinet Concerto #3, for both the standard-range B Flat instrument, and also the much rarely played E Flat one, which is in a higher register with a clear piercing quality. Belgian soloist David van Maele displayed his dexterity, alternating gracefully between the two.

Navarro wrote the piece specifically for Van Maele and he knew what a difficult task he was setting for his friend. The labor deserves the rich rewards. The first movement began with a tempest of tympani booms, and then the clarinet appears almost bird-like and quick, with showy cadenzas and a shower of light in its wings.

Frank Kearns.

Frank Kearns.

Soloists appreciate playing for conductor Sharon because she is always aware of their movements, and ready to turn them over to the audience in the difficult and showy passages, of which this Concerto had plenty. The entire orchestra became involved, louder and softer and louder again.

The music glides into the Second Movement, dedicated to the son the clarinetist lost when he was 6. “I am happy when I play this,” David said, “because I see Mattiece and I am with him again.”

The melody becomes almost a lullaby and at the moments when the orchestra took the development of the theme, David stood, head bowed, and waited. The high pitch and clarity of the E flat clarinet lifts the orchestra to almost a heavenly plane, as the movement ends on a high note and then silence.

The moment was held without interruption, and then the lively, quick and complex Third Movement began. The E flat instrument is brilliant and edgy, and the piece ends with the brass leading the ensemble in a triumphant statement, flutes valiantly striving to match the clarinet, strings soaring.

The audience gave the piece and the performer a standing ovation, and standing O’s are difficult to get in Downey – and a curtain call. Shouts of “bravo” were heard as composer Oscar Navarro came up to the stage to embrace his good friend David the clarinet player, and to hug the conductor, whom he has known since his USC days, where Sharon is a professor at the Thornton School of Music.

To send the audience into the intermission happy, Mark Keller’s voice announced, “You can go out knowing that the Dodgers won.” That put them into the World Series. Later Mark confessed, “If they had lost, I never would have said anything at all.”

The buzz on the patio at intermission confirmed the success of the new composition. Bernice Mancebo Stumps, with Roy and Barbara Briley Beard, praised the performance, as did Nancy Ramage and Ruth Hillecke, board secretary. Greg Welch, president of the Rotary Club of Downey was spotted, with Adam from Senator Delgado’s office.

We missed Barbara Risher Welch, Greg’s wife and a past District Governor of Rotary. Also seen were Dr. Jose Torreblanca and wife Carmen, whose support helped bring Osar and David to the concert.

Dorothy Pemberton looked snappy in black to match the black sling holding her right arm immobile after her recent shoulder surgery. Dorothy now heads PTA HELPs, a food pantry for needy families, and her other arm was scratched, having been mauled by her own cat Cosmo when she tried to rescue it at midnight from neighbor dogs. Never a dull moment with Dorothy.

Frank Kearns commented that he had met David during rehearsals. “Great performers are transformed when playing,” Frank said. It’s like what Allen Ginsberg said about meeting Bob Dylan in his early electric days at a Newport Folk festival when Dylan performed his first electric concert.

For the second part of the program, Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia had Conductor Sharon practically dancing on the platform to the Argentine rhythms. And then the 17-minute show piece of the evening, Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” began, innocently enough, with just a flute carrying the melody and a single snare drum tapping a quiet beat.

The cellos and basses pluck their strings, as does the harp, signaled by delicate finger gestures from the hand of the conductor. The shadows and tension grow deeper as more instruments, a saxophone, then the brasses and woodwinds, join in. The bolero is a dance rhythm, and the audience unconsciously nods and begins to sway, tapping their fingers or toes in time to the beat.

Still the violins and basses hold off and pluck their strings, the players cradling their instruments like a ukelele. Oboes and bassoons take up the insistent melody, and the uninterrupted plucking and tapping became more demanding, as Sharon’s arm movements and shoulders grow heavier.

Cellos held back, as do the big drums until at last the suspense is broken and the full orchestra, strings leading, takes up the melodic theme and everything rises to a crashing crescendo with tympani, bass drum, cymbal, gong and a high piercing E flat clarinet wildly changing key in the last few phrases until, with a flourish of the baton, it is over. The audience applause was deafening.

At the champagne reception on the patio afterward, to which all the audience was invited, artist and host of the Green Salon Roy Shabla commented how “the Bolero is so familiar, no one takes it seriously. Until tonight, with Sharon’s interpretation.” Bill Hare, Treasurer of the Symphonic Society Board, allowed as how the evening was a success.

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What a gift to Downey, great classical symphonic music presented by a fine regional orchestra, a hard-working Board and Guild helped by ticket sales, memberships, and donations and grants. The other side of the effort is the comprehensive Music in the Schools Outreach Program, aided by the Downey Unified School District, the City of Downey and Kiwanis Foundation. But tonight was the night for the orchestra to shine, through the works of great composers like Ravel and Oscar Navarro.

Tonight it was all about the music, an emotional evening. It’s not a bad thing for the 60-year old Downey Symphony to be to be linked with the Dodgers. The Dodger might say the same thing about Downey.

Pita GR is Downey's latest example of culinary ambition

DOWNEY – Tacos. Burgers. More tacos.

For a community as culturally diverse as Downey – where Cubans, Mexicans and Greeks are increasing in both population numbers and local political influence – this city’s dining options haven’t always reflected the shifting evolution of Downey’s demographics.

The roasted sweet potato pita.

The roasted sweet potato pita.

Only recently have we begun to experience culinary ambition in Downey, with menus that inspire creativity and celebrate ingenuity. For those restaurants that stick it out, the success appears to be there.

Examples are Gaucho Grill, the Lock & Key, Green Olive, The Olive RestoBar, and Caña by Tropicana, each of which are receiving rave reviews on Yelp for their unique twists on otherwise traditional dishes.

Barriles RestoBar, formerly Mi Cielo, also recently revamped its menu with platters intended to appeal to the young, working professional (chilaquiles burger, anyone?).

The latest addition to Downey’s new foodie scene is Pita GR (the GR stands for “Greek”), sandwiched in the middle of a strip mall a few doors down from See’s Candy. The address is 9905 Paramount Blvd.

Barely a month old, the restaurant is owned by the trio of Dino Marougas, Valentin Flores and Joseph Manacmul, who collectively saw a need for a Greek street food concept in Downey. They purchased Cafe Opa in early 2018 and spent the next six months remodeling the interior and developing a menu.

The fruit of their work was revealed Sept. 24, when Pita GR opened to the public.

As a fast-casual restaurant, customers order from a register at the front of the store and have their food delivered to their seats. Servers work in teams, allowing customers to order additional food or receive help from any of the staff members on the floor.

The restaurant offers most of the traditional Greek offerings -- lamb and chicken souvla, pork souvlaki, roasted potatoes -- available as either a pita, salata (salad) or merida (plate).

The dip trio can be ordered with any of Pita GR’s five traditional dips. Pictured left to right are the skordalia, melizanosalata, and tirokafteri dips.

The dip trio can be ordered with any of Pita GR’s five traditional dips. Pictured left to right are the skordalia, melizanosalata, and tirokafteri dips.

Unlike most other Greek restaurants, Pita GR sells its protein by the kilo. Souvla lamb, lamb chops, pork souvlaki and pork yeero can be purchased by the half-kilo (enough to feed 2-3 people), or a full kilo (3-4 people).

There are five choices of dips: skordalia (a mixture of potato, olive, garlic and chives), tirokafteri (Greek cheese blend, roasted hot peppers, and oregano), revithosalata (garbanzo, tanhini, garlic, lemon and evoo), tzatziki (Greek yogurt, cucumber, garlic and dill), and melitzanosalata (roasted eggplant, tahini, walnut, garlic, parsley and evoo). “Evoo” is extra virgin olive oil.

Featured on the a la carte menu are dishes such as saganaki (pan-fried Greek cheese), avgolemono soup (traditional egg-lemon soup with chicken and rice), and the original GR salad (tomato, cucumber, red onion, anaheim pepper, feta, kalamata olives, oregano and evoo).

This reporter tried the lamb rotisserie pita, stuffed with avocado, tomato, cucumber, fries, pickled red onion, chives and a htipiti spread. It was paired with a side of seasoned garlic fries. For dessert, both the vissino and baklava GR frozen yogurt.

“Greek street food is the common food that one would eat on a daily basis if you lived in Greece,” explained Marougas, who also helped develop the menus at Poached Kitchen and Gaucho Grill.

“On every corner of any city in Greek you will find souvlatzidiko. This staple Greek eatery consists of a few things: yeero (pork or chicken) and souvlaki, and they are almost always served two ways: wrapped in a warm pita or a la carte by ½ kilo or kilo.

“This is equivalent to the American burger stand and it is eaten for lunch, dinner and late night after hours.”


What makes Pita GR different from other Greek restaurants?

“Our food is authentic and carries all the ingredients of what you would find in modern-day Greece,” Marougas said. “Our food is refined and the ingredients touched with intent. For example, the red onion is still the red onion but pickled to invoke sweet, sour, and spice. This helps accent the fat content in the lamb and brighten up the flavor profile.

“Greek cuisine has too long been related to Greek immigrants that served their mothers’ food and a menu of food that has been Americanized to accommodate a palette that was less adventurous before the days of Food Network and Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Parts Unknown,’” Marougas added.

“What Americans know as ‘yeero’ or ‘gyro’ is actually not served in Greece. This product was produced in Chicago by a Greek immigrant, again to accommodate the American palette at a time when pork was deemed to be unhealthy.”

Marougas, Flores and Manacmul already have plans for their next project -- Louks Greek Baby Donuts at 9232 Lakewood Blvd. -- but for now their attention remains fixed on Pita GR.

Pita GR is located at 9905 Paramount Blvd. It is open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

When it snowed in Downey

Things You Didn’t Know About Downey

With the past few weeks of heat, it’s hard to believe that Downey has had a history of snow.

In looking at some notes from Ethel Donaldson, she stated that the first time she remembered it snowing in Downey was 1920, shortly after her family moved to the area. She stated the white stuff came floating down and lay on the ground, and there was enough of it that it lasted well into the next day. There was enough remaining in the most shadowed, sheltered spots till the second day after.

Ethel lived on Crawford Street, in the block between 2nd and 3rd streets, and on the day it snowed the road crew was repairing the street. Men stopped work and took shelter at first and then they reverted to their younger age and began pelting each other with snowballs, washing each other’s faces, and doing all the things that go along with having fun in the snow.

That is until a hard-thrown snowball went astray and hit the windshield of a lone parked car. Sudden stillness, and the men simply melted. Not a soul was to be seen anywhere.

Snow on La Brea Boulevard in Hollywood in 1921. L.A. Public Library photo

Snow on La Brea Boulevard in Hollywood in 1921. L.A. Public Library photo

The owner of the car never found out what happened, as nobody was around and he found no rocks to blame the damage of the cracked windshield.

Ethel remembered making candy and putting the pan out in the snow to cool. She tasted no better candy ever made.

Ethel also stated it snowed once in 1930 and 1940’s. We have in the yearbook of 1949 a picture of some students making a snowman on campus that year.

ADOBE HOUSE — An article dated December 1970 titled “Warren High Discovery” told the story of Warren High School California history teacher Bill Boyd and his four students who he sent to find the old Jose Manuel Nieto adobe.

The students, Rick Larson, Mike Lapp, Walter Lawrence and Mike Pilling, did considerable research and leg work to locate the site of the old adobe house, which was built by Nieto in 1790 and destroyed in the flood of 1867.

According to their research, they pinpointed the site as being where the 605 Freeway and the San Gabriel River meet in Santa Fe Springs. No remains of the adobe could be located, having been all washed away by the flood. The area where it would have been is under the freeway.

The students presented the notebook to the Historical Society along with two maps of the area.

TRIVIA QUESTION — What major motion picture star appeared in her first “talkie” at the Meralta Theatre on Christmas Day, 1929?

Joan Crawford. Her first all-talkie film was called “Untamed.”

Garden Party fundraiser helps make Music in the Schools possible

DOWNEY — Overlooking the terrace and the great green lawns of the fairways of Rio Hondo Golf Club, from tables in the event center banquet room spread with silver cloths set with silver swirls, and dozens of play diamonds sprinkled over everything- you know you’re at the Garden Party Gala celebrating the Downey Symphony’s 60th – diamond – anniversary.

Downey Mayor Sean Ashton attended, as did former Mayor Meredith Perkins, and such fans of the arts as David Devis, owner of Epic Lounge. His tastes range from the Blasters to Beethoven. A Marilyn Monroe look-alike in a white halter dress sang a breathy “Happy Anniversary Dear Symphony,” and “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” while guests checked out tables of silent auction offerings.

To raise money for its season of three concert performances in the Downey Theatre, and for the Music in the Schools program for Downey’s kids, the Downey Symphonic Society held its annual Garden Party Gala.

“It’s the first day of fall,” said Pat Gil, chair of the event, “but the temperatures are in the low 80’s, the sky is fair, and it’s summer all day long.” Don Marshall, president of the Society’s Board, welcomed the guests and then musical director and conductor Sharon Lavery gave a preview of the exciting season ahead.

Pat Gil, chair of the Garden Party. Photo by Lorine Parks

Pat Gil, chair of the Garden Party. Photo by Lorine Parks

Sharon, splendid in a black jacket with caviar beading, previewed the three evenings of classical concerts planned for the Downey Theatre, starting with Viva Musica! on Oct. 20. Young composer Oscar Navarro is coming from Spain to premier his new Clarinet Concerto, and Lavery will conduct pieces like Ernesto Lecuona’s Andalucia Suite, which ends with the fiery piece better known as “Malaguena.”

January 19th’s concert will feature Salzburg’s favorite son, Mozart, and Lars Clutterham, a Downey resident, who will premiere his orchestral piece, “Arc of Life.” A dramatic rendition of the whimsical Peter and the Wolf will then delight the audience.

Final concert on April 6 will be an All Gershwin!, honoring Dr. Jacquelin Perry of Downey Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center. World renowned Dr. Jackie, a pioneer in locomotion studies, was a longtime Downey resident and classical music enthusiast.

Priscilla Winslow, twice winner of the baton auction, came down from Berkeley to her hometown of Downey for the party. Her father, Paul, had been a member of the Board of Directors of the Symphonic Society. Also spotted was busy person around town and tireless worker for the Downey Woman’s Club, Barbara Beard.

Community leader Barbara Beard. Photo by Lorine Parks

Community leader Barbara Beard. Photo by Lorine Parks

Barbara flew back from a Women’s Club Convention in San Francisco just to come to the Garden Party. Downey’s Women’s Club, founded in 1898, does amazing things on the cultural and education scene, and supports the Downey Rose Float Association. Barbara is an example of the cross-organization support in the community for Downey’s volunteer doings.

Adele Alexander, former president of the Downey Assistance League and long-time Symphony supporter, was there with husband, Alex, and Joe Commodore, staunch Kiwanian. Other Kiwanians were Larry Lewis and Bill Hare, both former presidents of the Downey Symphonic Society.

Bill conducted the live auction at the end of the evening, and helped raise money for Symphony projects like sending a quintet to every K-5 and Middle School in Downey, with an entertaining program written for the Symphony by the late Dr. Tom Osborn, which teaches children about tempo, melody and other musical matters.

Katie and Bill Hare. Photo by Lorine Parks

Katie and Bill Hare. Photo by Lorine Parks

“We use all kinds of music, classical, Romantic, jazz, mariachi, Chinese, to teach the kids,” said Sharon. The kids love it.

The pay-off for the children’s musical education comes with a real symphony concert at the Downey Theatre, one each for all the third graders in the DUSD, the other for fifth grade, to which the kids are bussed, courtesy of the Downey Unified School District. But it takes three continuous concerts each morning to give each child a chance to come.

For these concerts, the orchestra musicians are professionals and they are paid, to rehearse and to perform, and for that, the school district contributes, as does the Kiwanis Foundation, in a big way. That’s one of the reasons why the Symphonic Society produces the Garden Party as a fund-raiser each year.

White jackets and tuxedos made some of the men guests resemble the James Bond cut-out at the door, from “Diamond Are Forever.” Games played at the tables involved guessing the number of diamonds in a bottle, and the prize for each table was a rose gold pen topped with a ginormous emerald-cut diamond.

Women’s wear ranged from summer pastels to Carolina del Toro’s black number with diamond (rhinestone?) strappy neck décor. Her husband, ceramicist Jorge del Toro, sported a formal tux as did “Gil,” Pat Gil’s husband. Pat wore a simple black dress with a deep V neckline completely filled with an amazing bib necklace of “diamonds” which sparkled whenever she moved.

Caroline and Jorge Del Toro. Photo by Lorine Parks

Caroline and Jorge Del Toro. Photo by Lorine Parks

Joyce Sherwin of the Symphony board, who plans the 60th anniversary events, wore a striking purple silk tunic jacket with a diamond musical clef pin and finished her ensemble with classic white summer pants.

“Buy raffle tickets in a strip as wide as your arms can stretch,” said Pat, and the winners got spirit bottles. Downey Rotarian Harold Tseklenis was there: he first joined the Symphonic Society board 59 years ago. Hop Morrison of the Rotary Club of Rio Hondo was there, along with wife Karol, a board member. Bernice Mancibo Stumps, who attends all the volunteer functions and donates to all of them, won several prizes.

Twenty items graced the silent auction tables, ranging from a bottle of 15-year-old Glenlevit Scotch; a painting by Carolina de Toro; costume jewelry featuring mock diamonds; spirit baskets, a Hallowe’en basket full of masks and skeleton faces along with cookies and candy; Downey artist Terry Walker’s glass creations; and “Rum Chata.”

Tables set with silver pitchers of white hydrangeas and stalks of white snapdragons seated at least 120 guests, a healthy increase even over last years’ crowd. A sign of prosperity, and people allowing themselves to indulge? Let’s hope so. The evening moved along, with a lot of new and young faces in attendance and bidding.

While the USC Brass Quintet played bluesy and rag-time versions of “Stardust” and “My Way,” guests dined on salad and a tender and juicy creamed herbed chicken roasted with vegetables, and a raspberry coulis atop French Vanilla cheesecake. Thanks to Sharon’s position with USC’s Thornton School of Music, she is in the best position to get us talented musicians. We could hear how good they are.

David Devis and Harold Tseklenis. Photo by Lorine Parks

David Devis and Harold Tseklenis. Photo by Lorine Parks

For the live auction, Bill Hare cajoled and guided bidders into getting good value for their money. Bill has a knack of quickly identifying serious bidders, even in a big room, and since he knows everyone by name, there is no disappearing after you make an offer. Bill offered two premier tickets at Segerstrom Hall with special lounge privileges; tickets to “Hotel California,” the Eagles Tribute concert in January at the Downey Theatre, with a dinner certificate at The Green Olive (Dave Devis bid on that).

The grand prize which always excites the bidders and the room was the opportunity to attend, seated right on stage, a Downey Orchestra rehearsal before the January concert, and dinner with Maestro Sharon. This was so hotly contested that Sharon graciously offered to be available for the same combination for the April concert, with the Rhapsody in Blue piano soloist too if at all possible.

One of the winners was Carol Kearns: she writes thoughtful articles on current Downey matters for the Patriot and her husband, Frank, a Downey poet, operates Los Nietos Press, a bijou publishing press for local poets. Carol and Frank are active in the Downey Arts Coalition, a renaissance movement here in town.

The other winner was Bernice Stumps, who circulated information about the upcoming Aerospace Legacy Foundation October event, “Exploring the Imagination of Science” at the Columbia memorial Space Center.

Each symphony concert in the Downey Theatre this year will end with a champagne reception, the October and April complimentary to the entire audience, the winter January concert just for season ticket subscribers. Tickets are available at the Downey Theatre box office site.

“After the concert, come find your way back stage. I would love to meet you and talk with you,” said Maestro Sharon.

Auction item winners win twice, because they get the featured article for their own, plus they have the satisfaction of contributing to the quality performances of the Symphony.

Musician’s salaries plus rent, insurance and miscellaneous costs have to be paid every concert, and the Downey Symphonic Society always pays for the best they can get to come and play here.

Lorine Parks is the Downey Patriot’s society editor.