Monday, March 27, 2017

The Fungus among Us

Editor’s note: Inspired and dampened by the Bay Area’s unusually wet winter and early spring, we’re reprinting a column originally published in 2009. Horticulturist Robin North is no longer with Fairyland; her replacement for the last six years has been Jackie Salas.

By C.J. Hirschfield

After the most recent rainstorm, two separate groups of people—one from Asia, the other from Eastern Europe—recently knocked on our door at Fairyland and asked if they could pick the mushrooms they’d spied inside our gates.

After conferring with Robin North, our horticulturist, I decided to politely decline. There are tons of types of mushrooms, and even Robin can’t be 100 percent sure of the safety of all of the varieties that call Fairyland home. At least once every year, there is a story about a Bay Area family rushed to the hospital after someone misidentified a local fungus.

Ironically, the cutest, most “Fairyland-like” mushroom that grows in our park is probably the most poisonous: the Amanita. This deceptively lovely mushroom, which is red with white spots, is responsible for approximately 95 percent of deaths from mushroom poisoning. And darned if the huge mushroom in the middle of our park, on which our “bubble elf” sits, isn’t Amanita-like in its coloring.

Fairyland's bubble elf, "Oswald," atop what appears to be an Amanita mushroom.

Robin describes some of the other types of mushrooms that live in Fairyland: ones that look like, but probably aren’t, delicious chanterelles; ones that look like “bloody meat”; yellow spongy sorts; ones with inky caps. Mushrooms will typically show up in the same spot each year, and many arrive in the wood chips we regularly distribute around the park.

The purpose of the mushroom is to reproduce, Robin says: “At first they’re pretty, firm and sexy, but after a couple of days they get sweaty and worn-looking.” Shortly thereafter, they turn into black slime.

The deadly Amanita mushroom can sometimes be found at Fairyland.

Identifying mushrooms involves studying them thoroughly—their size, color, odor, form of growth (single or clustered), habitat (wood, grass) and seasonal appearance. The coolest way to help I.D. a mushroom is by its spore print color: Take a mushroom, place it on a piece of paper, and wait a while for it to drop thousands of microscopic spores (the equivalent of seeds). The resulting spore color is a key identifier.

It’s fitting that a place called Fairyland would be home to so many mushrooms. Fairy rings – naturally occurring rings or arcs of mushrooms typically found in forested areas – are prominently featured in European folklore. These rings, or fairy circles, are believed to be gateways into elfin or fairy kingdoms or places where elves and fairies dance.

Mushrooms growing at Fairyland. (Is that a dancing elf?)

Randal Metz, Fairyland’s resident historian, recalls a “real” fairy circle that appeared in 1982 near our Magic Web ride. It was approximately three feet in diameter, and has never reappeared.

And who can forget Alice’s famous meeting with the blue caterpillar? Sitting on a mushroom, he tells her that the mushroom is the key to navigating through her strange Wonderland journey. Taking his advice, she nibbles her way through the entire book, with extraordinary results.

In Oregon, a giant fungus of the honey mushroom species spans 2,200 acres, which would make it the largest living organism if defined by area.

After talking with Robin, and doing a little research online, I’m now completely convinced that ALL mushrooms are magic. Especially in risotto.

C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children's Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation's first storybook theme park.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Of Steampunk and Stories

By C.J. Hirschfield

For 16 years, as an artist employed by the City of Oakland, Bob Schultz created sets for Children’s Fairyland. Although he left our park 40 years ago, the whimsical sets he worked on – including Dragon Slide; the Owl and the Pussycat; Geppetto’s Workshop; and Rub-a-Dub Dub, Three Men in a Tub —have made Schultz, as he now prefers to be called, a park hero.

And Schultz – a former Navy aircraft mechanic with an arts degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts – didn’t stop creating when he left us.

Now 81, the “Grandfather of Steampunk” recently opened a new show within walking distance of Fairyland. “Schultz and the Machinery of the Absurd,” at Classic Cars West Gallery in Uptown through April 28, features a dozen wheeled creations that combine the functional and decorative, with supernatural overtones and an absurdist sense of visual humor thrown into the mix.

Schultz and dog companions with one of the pieces in “Schultz and the Machinery of the Absurd.” 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Park Superhero

By C.J. Hirschfield

I’ll never forget the day, nearly 15 years ago, when I met Anne Woodell. It was at a Fairyland event, just after I’d been hired as the park’s executive director. I found myself literally backed into a corner, where Anne poked at my chest and told me what needed to be done to continue moving Fairyland forward.

I was shocked. Who was this woman, and what gave her the right to talk to me this way?

I quickly learned what many people in Oakland knew quite well: that Anne Morrow Woodell was a fierce advocate of parks and recreation, and never shy about promoting this cause.

Anne died on Jan. 25, and last week a large crowd gathered at the Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate to honor her life. In her eulogy, Mayor Libby Schaaf called Anne a “park superhero” and a “superhero of citizenship,” and she was both. She was also my inspiration and a strong ally. Last week, as I listened to all the admiring speeches, I realized that one person — particularly a strong willed and persuasive one – can change the face of an entire city.

Anne Woodell, 1936-2017.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Bettelheim in the Basement

By C.J. Hirschfield

The other day I ventured down to the basement to look for something, and discovered a box I hadn’t opened in many years. On the top was a letter that my mother had written to me 44 years ago, when I was in my first year of college. She passed away 11 years after writing it.

There was the distinctive handwriting and smiley-face drawing (long before the image become ubiquitous). She’d addressed it simply to “number-one daughter,” along with the correct P.O. box, should give you an idea of what my mom was like.

I re-read the letter, and the article she had enclosed. It reinforced my theory that my mother was psychic.

An article sent in a letter 44 years ago seems to have predicted the future.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Idea-a-Minute Man

By C.J. Hirschfield

Last week I was honored to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the William Penn Mott, Jr., Presidio Visitor Center in San Francisco. It was a stunningly sunny day, with the Golden Gate Bridge glowing in the distance. The event honored a diverse city, the power of partnerships, and the legacy of a man who devoted his life to supporting public parks.

National Park Service mounted police at the Presidio.

But before he ran the U.S. National Park Service – before he directed California’s parks and recreation department, before he was general manager of the East Bay Regional Park District – William Penn Mott, Jr., was superintendent of parks for the City of Oakland. While he held that job he created Children’s Fairyland. And many millions of kids (and parents) are thankful for that achievement.

Monday, February 20, 2017

To Sleepover, Perchance to Dream

By C.J. Hirschfield

The calendar still says February, but here at Fairyland we have summer on our minds. Registration for two of our popular summer programs – birthday parties and summer sleepovers — is now open. And our summer-camp sessions filled up within the first week. 

It seems like a good time to revisit a column I originally wrote in 2009, about one local (and famous) author’s experiences with his daughter at a Fairyland summer sleepover.

Waiting for sunset: A Fairyland sleepover gets under way.

When I wrote it, we were celebrating: For the first time in a couple of years, Fairyland’s summer sleepovers were completely sold out. (This year, we still have plenty of spaces! Go to the “Events and Performances” section of our website to sign up for one of four dates in July and August.) We wondered: Why the sudden good fortune? Maybe a mention in a book that had just been published was the cause.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

We Hear Voices...

By C.J. Hirschfield

Last week the puppet show “The Three Wishes” opened at Children’s Fairyland. It was the first time the show – a classic German folk tale – had been mounted here in 21 years. In our telling, a woodcutter is rewarded with three wishes after aiding an elf. Things quickly get out of control.

We often use the original soundtrack of the show, using voices and music that were recorded long ago. It may seem sad to hear that all of the voice-talent artists who recorded the show have passed away, but to Fairyland’s master puppeteer Randal Metz, it’s a comfort.

A youthful Randal was at the recording session for “Wishes” back in the 1970s, and for most sessions after that. Here’s the way it worked:

Adult and child cast members would meet in Fairyland master puppeteer Lewis Mahlmann’s stately, historic Oakland apartment for a homemade dinner. Everyone would have received their scripts beforehand, and Lewis or Randal would direct. All would do a read-through together, and then take suggestions and talk about emphasis. The show would be recorded, all would listen and then try again. There would be much laughter and, after the kids left, some drinking.

Left to right: master puppeteer Randal Metz, David Jones, and Liesel and Brian Weimer record the puppet show soundtrack for "Brer Rabbit" in 1995.