NASA's Hotwire to Hollywood

Publicist Warren Betts says science truth is stranger (and better) than science fiction.


Arroyoland has kept itself gloriously free of Hollywood hijinks involving papparazzi who swarm the streets for a glimpse of A-list stars and maitre d’s who dole out tables according to the diner’s box office ranking. Yet right here, on Fair Oaks Avenue in Pasadena, we have one of the world’s most unusual and sought-after Hollywood publicity and marketing firms. It’s headed by Warren Betts, a guy with a physics degree, a passion for science and technology and a client list that includes Sony and TriStar, Warner Bros., Universal, Columbia, United Artists, Walt Disney and Virgin Records, among others.

His firm, Warren Betts Communications (WBC), connects Hollywood’s top studios and high-concept filmmakers with the world’s scientific geniuses and innovators (think Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk), whom Betts recruits to advise on technical issues. Let’s say you’re about to view this month’s potential blockbuster, Passengers, to be released December 21. It’s about a luxury spaceship with 5,000 souls on board, all traveling in suspended animation to eventually arrive and live on a distant planet. They’re still asleep in pods when the ship malfunctions, and two voyagers (Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt) awaken to find that they and the rest of the travelers are in dire peril.

Science fiction? Yes — but not totally. In fact, there’s as much science as fiction in the current genre, Betts says, and it’s often the real stuff that’s more fascinating than the imaginary. In the case ofPassengers, Betts called in experts from NASA (and others he can’t name, due to a nondisclosure agreement) to help director Morten Tyldum and the rest of the crew make the ship, the characters and the storyline as realistic as possible. And if the plot doesn’t strike you as realistic, consider this: Elon Musk (founder of Paypal, Tesla and SpaceX) is already testing equipment designed to come and go from Mars, which Musk — age 45 and worth $11.2 billion — hopes to colonize and where he has repeatedly said he plans to be buried.

Betts, 57, lives in Sierra Madre and travels the world to consult with filmmakers before, during and after production (when he helps promote the films), and with experts he recruits to help those filmmakers get details right in the increasingly nonfictional aspects of sci-fi. Betts has relationships with NASA, the CIA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and research institutions such as MIT, Caltech, Harvard, Yale, Cambridge and CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, Switzerland. He calls on these agencies and institutions to find the right advisors for all kinds of films, from animation (Angry Birds) to Imax (A Beautiful Planet) and a wide range of dramas, comedies and sci-fi epics that require expertise otherwise unavailable.

Betts says he has worked with Hawking on a few films, including Star Trek and the theoretical physicist’s biopic, The Theory of Everything. For the National Geographic Channel’s Mars series, which debuted last month, “we brought in experts from NASA. Also featured are [science celebrities] Elon Musk and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson,” director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History.

For Inferno, Ron Howard’s Da Vinci Code sequel released last month, Betts recruited Caltech bioterrorism and biology Professor Alexei Aravin to advise filmmakers and media on viruses that could actually be released by lunatic despots trying to control the world.

For spy movies, such as the James Bond series, Betts says he has worked with the Department of Defense to recruit KGB defectors as expert advisors in the high-tech worlds of annihilation and espionage. Another project, the Angelina Jolie film Salt, utilized the expertise of Tom Ridge, the nation’s first director of Homeland Security, thanks to Betts. Although most expert advisors are paid for their work, Betts says, “I don’t think Ridge asked for a fee. He only asked for a favor. He wanted to meet Angelina Jolie.”

He adds that highly placed government types and world-famous academics are eager participants in entertainment. “Oh, they love Hollywood,” he says. “And they’re just excited that filmmakers are seeking their technical and scientific expertise.” Money isn’t an issue for most of them, he says, “but of course the Hollywood people don’t like to take their time and expertise without compensating them, so we always want to do that.”

Betts isn’t your typical voluble publicist. He is soft-spoken, charming and understated. In fact, getting him to talk about his connections with the high and mighty in Hollywood, government and academia is like prying the sweet flesh from an extremely unmanageable crab leg. He’s been doing this work for about 30 years, has been involved with many (if not most) of the blockbuster films involving science, has recruited so many dozens of experts world-renowned in their fields and traveled so extensively that he seems at a loss when asked to select high points in his exotic career. After a few moments of thoughtful silence, he says, “Well, I’ve been up on the ‘Vomit Comet.’ We took director James Cameron on it when we were working on the first Avatar film.” What’s the “Vomit Comet”? “It’s that airplane they take the astronauts in to train them for zero gravity. It’s at the Van Nuys airport and a lot of people get sick on it. It was fun, but I was nervous at first. It goes up very high very fast and then does a nose dive. That’s when you lose gravity.”

Some of Betts’ tech contacts do double duty as his publicity and marketing clients, including NASA, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Lockheed Martin and SpaceX. What does he do for them? “Many different things. A good example might be the ‘NASA 101’ conferences we hold, where we bring NASA experts from all over the place and have them interface with filmmakers, writers, producers, even actors. It’s so they can exchange information and learn how NASA might be useful to filmmakers” and vice versa, he says. “For Apple and Microsoft we work on themes that might have to do with technology for computers, or airlines or for prolonging life. We also do product placement for them in films,” he says.

Betts was born in Houston, Texas. His father, a NASA engineer during the Apollo and space-shuttle eras, was transferred to a space-flight center in Alabama, where Betts grew up. He attended two Alabama schools — the University of Alabama and the University of Montevallo, where he received a masters degree in physics, he says. “I never thought I’d work in Hollywood. I wanted to be an astronomer, but it all just happened right out of the blue. An older fraternity brother took a job at 20th Century Fox, and George Lucas asked him if he knew of a young scientific person who’d be good at marketing and publicity. My friend knew what a geek I was and said, ‘Warren Betts. He’ll be graduating soon.’” So right out of college Betts had a summer internship with George Lucas; the filmmaker liked Betts’ work and wanted to inject science into publicity for his films. He hired Betts for a year, and then extended it for two more years. “By that time I was hooked,” Betts says. “And by then George had an office on the Fox lot in Century City because all his movies were produced through Fox. George thought the Fox people should hire me to do all their science movies, which they did. Fox and Lucas decided to hire me indefinitely and share my talents.” Then, Betts says, “I was working on Apollo 13 with Ron Howard, who encouraged me to start my own company. He thought Hollywood filmmakers needed an agency with my expertise.” So in 1993 he took Howard’s advice and started Warren Betts Communications on Lake Avenue. 

Why did you locate your business in Pasadena, since it’s not a Hollywood-oriented town? “Yes, but it’s Hollywood’s brain trust, isn’t it?” Betts says. “You’ve got the California Institute of Technology and you’ve got JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory], you’ve got such a lot of people here working in the business of science and technology. So it’s a great place to be. In fact, it’s the place to be.”

So is science and technology, for a growing number of filmmakers. Betts says the number of films that deal with both has climbed prodigiously through the years. “Back when I worked with Ron Howard onApollo 13, NASA was reluctant to work with any of the studios because they thought all they did was make up the science and it wasn’t anything they could endorse. But I’ve seen not only a growing amount of movies themed to science and technology, I’ve seen filmmakers coming to me with a larger interest in acquiring the scientific knowledge to make the movies more authentic and make the science and technology more believable to the public. Of course, all the scientific institutions we work with have come to really appreciate that,” says Betts. 

And their science expertise can be very entertaining. “The truth is that real science is much more interesting than science fiction,” he adds. “It’s often weirder and stranger than science fiction. And a lot of filmmakers are starting to agree with that philosophy.”  

Color Master

Event designer Billy Butchkavitz creates extraordinary environments for HBO’s biggest celebrations.


Bold. Vibrant. Exotic. The lavish, elegant and over-the-top creations that event designer Billy Butchkavitz creates for HBO’s annual Emmy Awards and Golden Globes celebrations are legendary in Hollywood, making them the hottest party tickets in town. His rich and opulent style — often inspired by strong Asian, North African and Spanish cultures he encounters in extensive ,  around the world in search of treasures to fulfill his vision — first caught the eye of HBO executives in Hawaii in 1994. Since that time the Pasadena resident has been the cable giant’s exclusive party planner, creating not only awards season bashes but every grand event HBO decides to throw, from series-premiere celebrations to high-end executive retreats.

The Emmy extravaganza is Butchkavitz’s biggest annual soirée. Held in a massive custom-built tent on the fountain plaza of West Hollywood’s Pacific Design Center for the 14th consecutive year, the 2016 gala used water as the design inspiration. He started choosing patterns and developing a color palette for the September gala in February — seven shades of blue, from the palest aqua to the darkest navy. By May, large-scale décor elements were finalized, original furniture designs were being made into prototypes for approval and the design of the custom-made, rippling-water–patterned carpeting (all 59,000 square feet of it) was fine-tuned.

Butchkavitz says the eight days leading up to the Emmy bash are always intense: That’s when the tent goes up and the venue is built. “I have to do everything from meeting with electrical inspectors and the fire marshal for the permits to dealing with the fact that HBO has added more people to the guest list at the last minute, which means you have to build a bigger kitchen and order more restroom trailers,” he says.

Then there are those things that are beyond anyone’s control. Last year, a torrential downpour delayed the delivery of the Emmy party’s carpeting. “The trucks were coming in from Georgia,” he recalls. “It was like a river on San Vicente, so we had to cancel everything for a day and find someplace for the trucks to park.”

Over time, he has learned to roll with the punches — and anticipate disaster, even if it never comes. “If the party is on the 10th, I tell my vendors it’s on the first,” he says, “because a lot of my material coming from overseas can sometimes get caught up in Customs. I overorder a lot, too, because I always have a backup plan if something doesn’t get here in time.”

On the night of September’s fete, which celebrated HBO’s six Emmy wins including Best Drama Series (Game of Thrones) and Best Comedy Series (Veep), a water-themed collage — created by Butchkavitz’s longtime event photographer, Gabor Ekecs, based on Butchkavitz’s designs — served as a backdrop for the 150-foot press line. Invitees then walked through (or relaxed in) a 105-footlong lounge, built around a huge rectangular fountain, which stretched from the entrance to the VIP dining pavilion. Twenty-five-foot-high decorative perimeter walls constructed to enclose and enhance the space were covered with two-tone metallic jacquard punctuated with 25-foot-high blue metallic columns. Guests feasted on Wolfgang Puck’s cuisine at tables topped by hand-blown aqua pedestal bowls with floating “dinner-plate” dahlias, creating the effect of tabletop water gardens. A 24-foot-tall cascading fountain sculpture held court in the multicolored dining pavilion, while the lighting, a crucial element in all of Butchkavitz’s dramatic designs, created the impression of being underwater.

“Lighting is everything,” he says. “It helps to set the mood, enhances the environment and defines the energy of the event. Since 90 percent of my events take place at night, I depend on the lighting to convey my design message and to showcase my work.” 

Not surprisingly, Butchkavitz says the secret to pulling off celebrations of this magnitude is to be organized. Knowing how, where and when to spend money is crucial, too. Though his parties look like a billion bucks, during his international travels with his brother, Brian, Butchkavitz is always on the lookout for skilled artisans and quality materials with the lowest prices. (Butchkavitz runs day-to-day company operations with a team of four: Brian; their sister, Peggy, who does the bookkeeping from her New Jersey home; and Butchkavitz’s best friend, JR.) “We just go on our adventures and find weavers and textile factories,” he says. “When I go to Chiang Mai [in northern Thailand], China or Rajasthan, India, I can draw a picture of what I want — whether it be a vase, a chandelier, furniture, textiles or costumes — and they will make a prototype for me to approve before it goes into mass production. I don’t go to the wholesaler. I go to the place where the wholesalers buy. I get more bang for the buck that way and HBO appreciates that.” 

They also appreciate his distinctive designs. “Billy’s creativity and ingenuity are limitless,” says HBO Vice President Lauren McMahon. “Each event is an amazing realization of so many ideas, all flawlessly executed. There’s no mistaking a Billy premiere — it’s always visually and experientially unique and seriously great fun.” 

Butchkavitz has carte blanche in selecting awards season celebration themes, but when planning premiere parties, he works with HBO executives to develop a game plan, generating ideas by watching advance screenings and picking out elements unique to the show.

For the September premiere of one of the cable network’s most recent hits, the futuristic Old West–themed Westworld, held at Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatre and the nearby Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, Butchkavitz recreated the show’s homage to Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic Vitruvian Man, devising a 13-foot-tall Styrofoam replica of a white skeleton-like figure standing inside a giant circle with arms and legs outstretched. In the series, the circle serves as a device that creates very human-like robots, known as “hosts,” which help “guests” play out their darkest desires at an Old Western fantasy playground. Butchkavitz also created a “laboratory” in the hotel lobby, with metal sculptures representing the initial stages of the manufactured “hosts” and a second Vitruvian Man holding court in the center of the room. In the hotel’s ballroom, partygoers dined against a Westworld town backdrop, while other venues in the hotel became show-inspired settings: a brothel, a casino and an underground storage facility for discarded “hosts.” Outside, yet another, larger Vitruvian Man rotated on the hotel’s facade — a convincing projection, created by master projection designer Bart Kresa, with whom Butchkavitz routinely works to create an otherworldly, immersive experience.

By his own admission, Butchkavitz was a colorful kid. (“In school, I was the one who decorated the classroom [for the holidays],” he recalls, “and at home would tell my mom which drapery we should get.”) So it comes as no surprise that he ended up in the line of work he did. Even so, he didn’t set out to be a designer. In fact, he was on track to pursue a career in broadcast journalism before a bit of serendipity changed all that

The Philadelphia native’s serendipitous moment came after he graduated from Temple University in 1985 and moved to Hawaii to intern at a local TV station. Butchkavitz also began working for a catering company as a waiter/decorating assistant, and as a lifeguard for an exclusive, privately owned home that was featured on the TV series Magnum P.I. and often rented out for special affairs. “The two women who owned the catering company were also into flowers and they taught me all about their treatment, care and design,” he says. “After working for them for about a year, they asked me if I wanted to do the décor for a party they couldn’t take on because they were going out of town.”

It turned out to be a high-end affair at Honolulu’s Bishop Museum for the National Audubon Society and England’s Prince Philip, for which Butchkavitz created a vibrant luau-themed event. That celebration’s success sparkedted a stream of calls from other aspiring clients.For the next eight years, Butchkavitz designed private parties for wealthy Japanese families in Hawaii and produced celebrations for a number of hotel openings. He met HBO executives at the opening of Oahu’s Ihilani Resort & Spa in 1994 (now the Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina), and they liked what they saw. Once Butchkavitz started working with them, HBO’s party strategy evolved from hotel dinners to spectacular events in enormous tents — sometimes requiring street closures in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills — including a memorable Moroccan-themed Golden Globe bash in 2005. “I have never been to Morocco, actually, but I buy so much stuff from there through my importers,” he says. “A lot of the design, particularly the inlay, is very similar to that found in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.” It’s one of the few countries he hasn’t visited yet. He’s also had textiles made in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey and Europe. 

When shopping overseas, Butchkavitz has learned to ask a lot of questions — and with good reason. “I once saw these really beautiful urns when I was preparing for one of my first parties in Thailand, at the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok. Some were done in metalwork and some were painted porcelain,” Butchkavitz recalls. “I decided to use a number of pagoda-shaped ones as vases. I found out after the fact that the little pagodas were actually funeral urns.” 

When he started working with HBO in 1994, Butchkavitz left Hawaii and moved to downtown Los Angeles, where still he has a 10,000-square–foot warehouse. That’s where he stores exotic props and treasures he can’t bear to give up, plus all the shipments for upcoming celebrations. You won’t find a lot of furniture from past parties there, however, since Butchkavitz isn’t in the habit of reusing things. Instead, he gives many reusable furniture items to one of his vendors, Town & Country Event Rentals. “You’ll very rarely see me reuse something,” he says. “If I do, it might be a very generic urn — like the ones I had made in the ’90s for a Sopranos premiere in New York; they look very Tuscan but they’re just very neutral and really tall. I still use those.”

Three-and-a-half years ago, he moved to Pasadena. “I love Pasadena. When I lived in downtown L.A., there was nothing down there; there were homeless people everywhere, hardly any restaurants…so I would come to Pasadena to go to Trader Joe’s or the movies,” he says. 

He walks around town as much as possible and, more than once, he’s been inspired by strolls through the majestic botanical gardens of The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. “I was totally inspired by the Huntington’s water lilies for a party I recently did for Bizbash,” he says, adding that the silhouette of water lilies adorned the carpet,  tabletops and walls.

Since the Emmy celebration wrapped, Butchkavitz has been hard at work preparing for January’s Golden Globes, the details of which, at press time, were still top secret. Inspired by the late legendary Hollywood designer Tony Duquette, who worked on movie sets, in jewelry and in interior design until he passed away at the age of 85, Butchkavitz is thinking about branching out into other areas. He says he’s been approached about doing reality shows but has turned down the offers because he’s afraid the overexposure would cheapen his product. “I’ve also been approached to do a line of vases and china but I’m not ready to do that yet. I’d definitely like to do a movie set, though,” he adds. “I’m in it for the long haul. I want to keep doing this until I’m in my 80s.”  

Billy’s Holiday Tips

While Billy Butchkavitz has decorated many hotels, resorts and private residences with gorgeous over-the-top designs for the holidays, when it comes to decorating his own home, he prefers to keep things a little simpler. Here are six of his decorating tips for a more personal touch.


Make sure that whatever decoration you’re putting up isn’t too difficult to install and is equally easy to take down. “Once the holiday season is over, I don’t want to waste a lot of time packing and storing holiday décor,” Butchkavitz says. “That’s why I tend to use a lot of live holiday greens and flowers that can be thrown away once they are past their glory.”


Butchkavitz likes to use containers he already owns to display things. “I’m not a big fan of tree stands,” he says. “I much prefer placing trees in decorative urns or planters.”


Butchkavitz likes to incorporate layers, assorted textures and mixed patterns in his holiday presentations. If you’ve got some figurines or other small decorative pieces, blend them into your display of presents under the tree to add some depth, whimsy and texture. “If you choose wrapping paper, boxes and ribbons that work with your design palette, that’s an extra bonus,” he says.


“Since my place is already overloaded with color, I tend to stick with white lights, white candles, Christmas greens, red ornaments and red and gold ribbons,” he says. For darker interiors, he suggests using lots of silver and/or gold. Got a neutral colored space? “Use assorted festive holiday colors and go to town!”


If you don’t want to spend a lot of money on holiday décor, “a few wreaths and holiday greens, decorative ribbons, some bowls and vases filled with colorful ornaments and lots of white or ivory candles” will go a long way toward capturing the holiday spirit, he says. 


“The cleaner, neater and tidier an environment is, the better the holiday decor will look.” 


Lois Boardman’s unusual jewelry collection forms an unusual show at LACMA.


It’s very unusual for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to feature a jewelry collection, but this is no usual collection. As the exhibition title suggests, Beyond Bling: Jewelry from the Lois Boardman Collection (through Feb. 5, 2017) takes us into another dimension of jewelry: it’s still wearable body decoration — you can put it on your finger or around your neck — but the 50 pieces here veer into the realms of sculpture and conceptual art, and are testament to the continuing ingenuity of artists. They are part of a gift of 300 pieces of studio jewelry to the museum by Lois Boardman, a longtime resident of South Pasadena and a dedicated patron of the arts in SoCal. 

Three years ago Boardman contacted LACMA’s Decorative Arts and Design Department, saying she was interested in donating her collection. Rosie Chambers Mills and Bobbye Tigerman, associate curators in the department, came to visit her. “We were sitting in her kitchen, and she brought out 20 or 30 pieces,” Tigerman recalls. “We were blown away. These were large and bold and not what you think about when you think about jewelry. They often have a personal or political message through the use of the material.”

Boardman and her husband, Bob, have lived in an old Spanish-style house in a quiet residential neighborhood for over half a century. It’s a house full of art — much of it colorful and whimsical. There are pieces of American folk art and contemporary ceramics by such well-known artists as Ralph Bacerra, Peter Shire and John Mason. During night classes at Chouinard Art Institute (long since merged into CalArts), Boardman studied ceramics under the charismatic Bacerra and even had her own studio behind the house. She also served as a member of LACMA’s Decorative Arts Council (now the Decorative Arts and Design Council).

Boardman says her jewelry habit was sparked by her friendship with gallerist Helen Drutt. In the early 1980s, they were both part of the National Task Force in the Crafts, a project initiated by the late Eudorah Moore (a longtime curator of the Pasadena Arts Museum — now the Norton Simon) on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts. Boardman and Drutt, owner of an eponymous crafts and jewelry gallery in Philadelphia, traveled together on fact-finding trips for the task force. “She kept wearing all this stuff, all this jewelry,” Boardman recalls, sitting at the kitchen table. Her pieces were one-of-a-kind, and Boardman became so intrigued she began buying pieces from the Helen Drutt Gallery (since closed) and meeting the artists who made them. “I just thought it was fun,” says Boardman offhandedly. “I got into it, this was studio jewelry. Helen guided me for a long period of time.”

“Studio jewelry” is the term coined to describe original jewelry handcrafted by an artist in his/her workshop. According to Mills and Tigerman, writing in the exhibition catalog, contemporary studio jewelry emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, in several locations — mainly the U. S., the Netherlands, Germany and Britain, all represented in the show. The exhibition title uses the catchy term “bling,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “ostentatious jewellery.” The selection is certainly eye-catching.

Beyond Bling, in a gallery off the upper entrance to the Ahmanson Building, has proved unexpectedly popular with audiences of all ages. The rings and brooches are, of course, on the small side and must be examined at close range. Other pieces are large and bold and in your face — the very definition of “bling.” Many seem to carry a larger message than decoration — social, cultural and political transgression being one of the hallmarks of contemporary art. Take Nancy Worden’s Gilding the Past: it’s a necklace made up of gilded bone shapes (based on a chicken bone, says Tigerman) and looks rather like a necklace for a witch doctor. Closer examination, however, reveals medallions of the peace sign and the smiley face — carved from Kennedy half-dollar coins — interspersed between the bones. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Worden was active in antiwar protests during the Vietnam era. The piece questions wars (the bones being a stark reminder of death) and the “gilded” sheen we put on them.

Other unexpected materials in these display cases include plastics, textiles and feathers. One highlight is a necklace made with Lego pieces — emiko oye’s Maharajah’s 6th is white, black and acid green — a series of white Lego bricks with black end pieces and a large multicolored medallion that drapes in the front. “When people look at it, it reminds them of outer space, the future,” says Tigerman, “but in reality, she was trying to replicate this 1928 piece made by Boucheron for a maharaja.” Quite a few children come into this exhibition and hover around this piece, probably wondering what they could do with their own Lego sets — if they are lucky enough to have one.  

A tour de force of craftsmanship is Gesine Hackenberg’s Delft Blue ‘Plooischotel’, made from a blue-and-white Royal Delft platter. (Fear not, it’s not antique — it was made in 1943.) Round pieces of varying sizes have been meticulously cut out of the rim and the base, and then strung together to make a necklace. The necklace is shown with the platter, illustrating how the pieces could fit back in. Boardman admits she didn’t set out with an agenda or checklist when she started collecting, but rather relied on her own taste. “The idea of it was terrific,” she replies, as to why she bought the Hackenberg piece.   

One piece breaks the rules on the body part it adorns: Die Goldene Nase Nosepiece by Gerd Rothmann was commissioned by Boardman in 1988. It is taken from a mold of her own nose and is worn atop the nose, like a prosthesis. The piece is also a bit of a visual pun, a play on the German phrase “to earn a golden nose,” which means “to make a fortune.” Did she ever actually wear it in public?  “I did, a few times,” says Boardman with a chuckle. “Though it’s interesting, a lot of people would avert their eyes when they saw me. You know, they thought I might be missing a real nose or something.”  

Beyond Bling: The Lois Boardman Collection runs through Feb. 4, 2017 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday; and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Museum admission costs $15, $10 for seniors and students; free for members and youth 17 and under. Visit

A Christmas Memory

Christmas was quite the big deal at our house when I was a kid. I lived with my mother’s parents – Nonnie and Pampy (as I called them) and Nonnie’s two unmarried siblings, my great-aunt, “Hotten,” and my great-uncle, Henry. There was always a lap for me to sit on, always a cuddle and a kiss when I reached out for one. Nonnie, Hotten and I went to Temple Sinai synagogue in Oakland  for services every Saturday morning and we celebrated all the Jewish holidays, like Rosh Hashana and the very serious Yom Kippur. I attended Sunday school as well, but my mother, who was on her second marriage by the time I was 4, came to temple only on the High Holidays. Pampy was a lapsed Roman Catholic who visited Christian Science reading rooms every month or so. Uncle Henry seemed indifferent to religion of any stripe.

But we all loved Christmas. 

Our tree didn’t come into the house until the day before Christmas Eve. It was always a fat, perfectly shaped little fir with thick needles that permeated the air with the bracing aroma of balsam. My grandfather’s Steinway took over the space at the bay window in the living room so the tree was placed in a corner of the dining room atop a shallow container of water. This was covered by a snowy velvet cloth dappled with tiny silver stars. Tree-trimming would begin after dinner and I was so excited I could barely sit through the meal. Uncle Henry and Pampy were in charge of threading the small colored light bulbs through the tree’s branches, and when they were lighted, the dining room glowed like a shattered rainbow. Next came the tinsel, which was placed, strand by strand, along the branches. That was Hotten’s job and she made sure each silvery strip had the appearance of a single icicle. I was her helper, lifting one piece at a time from the box and handing it to her on the tip of one index finger. Then it was time for the ornaments, none of them new, all of them left to us by my great-grandmother Mary Morris. There were fragile colored balls laced with an overlay of snowflake designs, twisted silver icicles, colored birds with a spray of artificial tail feathers and squat Santa figures. By the midpoint of the ornament hanging I was trying to swallow my yawns, so Nonnie took me upstairs to bed with the promise that a plate of cookies and a glass of milk would be left out for Santa Claus.

I nearly woke up at the sound of clumping reindeer hooves (my grandfather’s shoe banging on the floor, I would learn later) and a thrill shimmered through me at the sight of the half-finished glass of milk and the plate of cookies with a large bite taken out of the biggest one. I’d followed a red satin ribbon tied to my bed that led me into the hall and down the stairs to the dining room where a panoply of fancifully wrapped presents lay spread out under the tree. Most of them were for me and I could tell by the big, flat rectangular shapes that many of them were books, the things I treasured most. After all the gifts had been opened and exclaimed over, my grandfather went to the piano and played traditional Christmas carols. My mother would arrive mid-morning, and it always took two trips to her car to carry in the presents she brought for everyone in the family.

The details of one particular Christmas afternoon are etched in my memory. My father, whom I saw less and less of because the divorce had been my mother’s idea, appeared carrying two wrapped boxes, one large, one slightly smaller. Like most kids, I tore first into the bigger of the two packages. It contained a miniature set of tableware in a blue willow pattern identical to the dishes in our pantry. This small set consisted of six complete settings for a dinner party, including covered vegetable and soup tureens, a teapot, a cream pitcher and a sugar bowl. It was better than any tea set I’d seen in any toy department and I couldn’t imagine that whatever was inside the smaller box could delight me as much. I was wrong. When I pulled off the colorful wrapping paper I found a surprise that made me take in a breath: at least two dozen tiny, individually wrapped objects tightly packed next to and on top of each other — all of them were toy banquet food for the dish set. There was a turkey on a platter with servings of cranberry sauce and dressing surrounding a well-browned bird. There were little soup bowls filled with something that looked like oyster stew. A tureen of peas was topped with a miniscule strip of bacon. Another platter held eight or nine biscuits and two serving dishes, one filled with mashed potatoes, the other with yams. There were two desserts: a cherry pie with a latticed crust and a fancifully frosted cake. The table was completed with amber-colored goblets and six sets of inchlong silverware. 

I’d never seen anything like it, and even my grandparents and Hotten leaned in to see the marvel that had taken my breath away. It was a marvel and it is the only present I’ve ever received that I remember in full detail. I kept everything together in their original boxes but pieces were lost as I grew older and was sent to boarding school and then university. I managed to keep one of the tiny amber-colored goblets until a few years ago when it was broken during a move.

I love everything about the holidays, from Halloween straight through New Year’s Eve, even though we rarely leave the house on that night or, now that I think of it, any of the others. My daughter, Lisa, usually comes over, carrying small and wonderful presents, on Christmas. And on the evening of December 31st, the Mister and I always toast each other and the coming year with a glass of champagne and we say a small prayer for the months that lie ahead of us, our loved ones and our country. But every year, on the 25th of December, my mind goes back to that Christmas when I was still a single-digit age and my father came to see me with just about the best presents (aside from the glorious and unusual pieces of jewelry given to me by my beloved Mister) I’ve ever received. And then I can very nearly smell those beautifully ornamented little fir trees in my grandparents’ dining room.