Monday, May 29, 2017

In My Fashion

By C.J. Hirschfield

When I was growing up in Los Angeles, there was a women’s clothing store called Petite Sophisticate. I used to joke that this was one store that I would never visit, because I was neither petite nor sophisticated. The chain went out of business in 2010, perhaps because there were too many like me.

I thought of that store when I was recently approached to be a model in a “Movers and Shakers” fashion show for a fundraiser being put on by the good people at Family Bridges. While I have been known to move and shake, I am definitely neither a fashionista nor a model, despite having watched many seasons of “Project Runway.” 

Invitation to Family Bridges' dinner and "Movers and Shakers" fashion show.

But how do you say no to an organization that serves Oakland’s Asian community with everything from child day care to senior health care to immigration services? I couldn’t, and didn’t.

That’s how I found myself last week journeying to the San Mateo studio of the delightful and talented designer Jessie Liu. Here’s how she describes her work: “In an artistically expressive yet sophisticated [that word again!] and elegant approach each season, the Jessie Liu Collection captivates its wearers and the purveyors of style.” In my own words: Jessie’s clothes are beautiful—luscious fabrics, bold designs, all very wearable.

Selections from Jessie Liu's Fall 2017 collection. 

Jessie suggested a number of pieces, and I obligingly tried them on. We settled on a black silk long-sleeve shirtdress with a “flounce hemline featuring dramatic draping back with double layers,” along with striped silk pants with a hand-painted effect.

After the fitting we chatted. Jessie has two young children, and I convinced her that she has to bring them to Children’s Fairyland.

Then, on the same day, I ventured into downtown San Francisco, where Victor Tung Couture is located. KQED has described Victor as “San Francisco’s Own Haute Couture Master.” (“Haute couture” – high fashion – is one of those labels, like “Petite Sophisticate,” that I thought would never apply to me. I was about to be proven wrong.)

Victor Tung (center) with pieces from his collection.

Victor’s creative designs are literally unique: There were more than 200 one-of-a-kind pieces on display at his store, made from fabric he’d hand-dyed or hand-drawn. I read about one of Victor’s dresses, described as the designer’s masterpiece: It had been constructed from the cocoons of silkworms, and it took him more than four months to complete. For me, however, Victor chose a vibrant blue jacket that I’d be wearing with black leggings and heels.

At least I wouldn’t be alone on the runway. Other models included Oakland City councilmember Abel Guillen and my very own husband/mover/shaker David Stein.

C.J. Hirschfield and Abel Guillen practicing their duck faces before making their runway debuts.

I was a little nervous about modeling for the Family Bridges Gala, which honored Suzan Bateson and the work of the Alameda County Community Food Bank and Andrea Ho, super volunteer and regional vice president of Cathay Bank. But then I reflected on the evening’s theme: “Yes, We Can!”

And yes, I thought: I will.


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, May 22, 2017

In Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood

By C.J. Hirschfield

“My hunch is that if we allow ourselves to give who we really are to the children in our care, we will in some way inspire cartwheels in their hearts.”  -- Fred Rogers

On Mother’s Day, instead of having breakfast in bed, I was on an early-morning plane to Latrobe, Pennsylvania – birthplace of Arnold Palmer, Rolling Rock beer, and Fred McFeely Rogers – to participate in a symposium about developing and disseminating messages to improve outcomes for children and families.

I left Latrobe two days later with cartwheels in my heart.

C.J. Hirschfield with a photo of Fred Rogers at the Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Party Like a Pirate!

By C.J. Hirschfield

We like to think of Children’s Fairyland as Oakland’s hidden treasure: eight acres of enchantment on the shores of Lake Merritt filled with surprises around every corner – including a pirate ship, several dragons, and some well-concealed fairy houses.

So it’s only fitting that our big Gala fundraiser this year – on Thursday, June 1 – is called “Hidden Treasure.” It’s our chance to show off our treasures in a special after-hours, grownups-only celebration.

Sally Walker and Fairyland board member Ron Zeno at the 2015 Gala.

And for everyone who attends, it’s a chance to:

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Mouse That Roared

By C.J. Hirschfield

Duarte, Calif., is a city of about 21,000 located on historic Route 66 in Los Angeles County. One of its claims to fame is that was the home of the first avocado tree grown in the state. Another is that in 1987, Duarte’s Rotary Club won a U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down the international service organization’s male-only membership policy. Later that year, Duarte Rotary elected Dr. Sylvia Whitlock as the first female Rotary president in the world.

Dr. Sylvia Whitlock

Last week I hosted this impressive lady at my home. She was in Oakland to give a speech in honor of the 30th anniversary of women in Rotary. As a woman who has belonged to Rotary for 15 years – and who became friends with my future husband through Rotary – I count myself as one of her many grateful beneficiaries.

Monday, May 1, 2017

A Good Hat Trick

By C.J. Hirschfield

Jennifer Hurlburt, Fairyland’s groundskeeper of six months, was sad.

As she worked around the park—watering, pruning, planting, weeding—children seemed to be actively avoiding her. But why?

Eventually Jennifer, who doesn’t have children and who had never been inside our fairy gates before she applied for a job here, realized what the problem might be. But it took a lost child for her to make the connection.

Monday, April 24, 2017

A Celebration of Kids' Books

By C.J. Hirschfield

Kids, books, authors and illustrators: an irresistible combination – and the inspiration for Turn the Page!, a celebration at Fairyland of the role of literature in the lives of children. We held our first Turn the Page! last year, and it was a hit, with more than 25 local children’s book authors and illustrators, nearly 2,000 guests, and 365 books sold.

That kind of success calls for an encore. And so we’re thrilled to bring back Turn the Page! on Saturday, May 6, from 10 to 4.

Monday, April 17, 2017

An Ode to Two Bookkeepers

By C.J. Hirschfield

I have had two great careers with two wonderful organizations, totaling 35 years. During those years I have worked with exactly two bookkeepers, and I can’t say enough about how much they’ve contributed to the overall success of each operation – and about how they’ve made it possible for me to look smarter than I am, and to grow businesses in a way that benefits our employees and the folks we serve.

Monday, April 10, 2017

A City of Neighborhoods

By C.J. Hirschfield
Quick: How many distinct neighborhoods do you think there are in Oakland?
Photographer Stephen Texeira says the answer is 146, and his Oakland Neighborhood Project seeks to hear from all of them.
Children’s Fairyland doesn’t technically constitute a classic neighborhood. Nevertheless, Stephen invited us to participate last week in a photo shoot that allowed our Children’s Theatre kids to share with the world what their distinctively Oakland park represents to them. 
Photographer Stephen Texeira captures Fairyland’s Children’s Theatre kids and their messages for his Oakland Neighborhoods photo project. Photo by Stephen Texeira.

Stephen, who was raised in the Bay Area and now lives in the Laurel District, started the project three years ago, believing that his city was among the most misunderstood and misrepresented in the country. His goal: to change Oaklands image both internally and externally, one neighborhood at a time, by holding photo sessions featuring a local person, couple, or family displaying a sign with a message about the place where they live.
Until last week, his compelling photos graced the windows of a vacant but highly visible building at the corner of 19th St. and Broadway. For 18 months, Stephens work attracted the attention of commuters and locals. The reaction, according to the business district’s representative, Andrew Jones, was “totally positive.
Stephen admits that when he first embarked upon this project, he didn’t have a clear notion of where it would lead him. He has disciplined himself to devote four hours a day to it; the rest of the time he earns his living as a professional photographer for clients that include Alameda Health System, the YMCA of the East Bay, Mills College, and numerous dance companies.
Photographer Stephen Texeira at Fairyland's Aesop's Playhouse.

The neighborhoods project got more attention when it was featured in the San Francisco Chronicle and OaklandLocal. Suddenly, people were contacting Stephen instead of the other way around.
Oakland residents have opened their homes and their hearts to Stephen. For his part, he says his goal is to make images “that are honest, emotional, funny, touching, sad, beautiful, and moving.
The project allows Stephen to explore parts of Oakland he says he wouldn’t have otherwise seen. He’s sometimes asked whether venturing outside his own neighborhood makes him nervous. No, he answers: “Neighborhoods are made up of families and kids — people who are trying to pay their rent, have a garden. That perspective is huge.”
Stephen says that he never censors what his subjects write on their signs. Often, he says, he is most moved by the folks who write the least.
The photos capture our city’s quirky, proud spirit. One resident representing Allendale is photographed with his happy dog. His message: “I promise Oakland will NOT eat your child, it just wants to lick you in the face.”
From a mom and her three kids whose Bushrod roots go back many generations: “Family.”
And from one young lady from Grand Lake: “Diversity, kindness, and local is my way of describing Oakland!”
Stephen recalls two especially memorable photo shoots. One took place at the East Oakland Youth Development Center, where he worked with kids age 6 to 14. One drew a picture of a gun; another asked how to spell “homicide.” But hearts, butterflies, and trees were also represented in abundance.
Another involved Maybelle Broussard, a 102-year-old resident of Toler Heights who passed away a month ago. In 1932, she was one of a handful of African American students admitted to the University of California at Berkeley. She earned a B.A. in languages in an era when few women of color and only 10 percent of all Americans attended college. “Her message read like a Visit Oakland ad,” says Stephen: “Not too large a city,” “Lots of hills, fabulous views, good transportation.” Her message closes with “Many cultures are living together here peacefully.”
Maybelle Broussard.

“A remarkable woman,” Stephen says.
The shoot Stephen did last week with one of our Children’s Theatre casts was great fun for all of us. A sampling of their messages: “At Fairyland I learned stories that taught me lessons I learned that it’s nice to BE YOURSELF.” “Fairyland is a party to be YOU.” And one that really resonated with me: “Fairyland inspires me to be more ... kid.”
Children's Theatre kids working on their signs.

Stephen will be posting the Fairyland photos on his website, Oakland Photo, later this week. In the meantime, you can see photos from all the neighborhoods he’s already shot. There’s also a map of all 146 Oakland neighborhoods. Proceeds from the sale of photos are put directly back into the project.
Stephen’s photos are also scheduled to be displayed soon in a storefront at 15th St. and Broadway. He hopes one day to see them in the airport, in libraries and cafés, and even in a book.
But for now, he’s still actively recruiting participants for the project.
But don’t think you can convince him you’ve come up with a new neighborhood, as a handful of creative realtors have. ‟Deep East San Francisco” is one that was suggested for an up-and-coming neighborhood near the Emeryville border. Stephen didn’t buy it. For him, 146 neighborhoods are clearly enough.
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 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.

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.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Whatever Floats Your Teeth...

By C.J. Hirschfield

Amy Blake was due to have her baby in just a few days, but that didn’t keep her from coming to Children’s Fairyland to see our equines – two donkeys and one miniature horse – having their teeth filed. “Of course I said yes!” she said.

And that is how last Wednesday, the extremely pregnant Amy – who is a dentist for humans, and is married to Fairyland’s facilities manager, Nick Mitchell – found herself observing the work of Billy Liskey, equine dental technician. He was happy to have the company because, he said, he likes to explain his job—and to show off the $30,000 in equipment he’s invested in his practice.

Dental technician Billy Laskey works on our donkey Gideon's teeth.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Spicy, Sweet, Creamy, Crispy

By C.J. Hirschfield

Last week, two of Fairyland’s finest attended the 42nd Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. Featuring 1,400 exhibitors from around the world and “80,000 exciting specialty foods and beverages,” the event was not for the faint of heart – or stomach, for that matter, since samples are the name of the game.

One aisle in one of the halls at the Fancy Food show in Moscone Center.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Yoga with Goats

By C.J. Hirschfield

Yes, it’s a thing.

Children’s Fairyland’s Animal Caretaker Maura McMichael first heard about it about a month and a half ago, when family and friends started sending her clips from the New York Times, USA Today, and ABC News. One of the first yoga-with-goats classes took place in a town about 70 miles south of Portland, Ore.; it now has a waiting list of 600. People, not goats.

At first Maura thought it was funny. Then she realized that yoga-with-goats was a dream come true. “This combines two of the most wonderful thing in my life,” she says. She thinks other people will enjoy it, too, so she’s working on a plan to lead classes at Fairyland, when the park isn’t open to the public.

Maura, Brownie, and Cookie practice their downward-facing dog pose. Or is it downward-facing goat?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Subliterary Scare

By C.J. Hirschfield

I’m finally getting around to writing about an article that appeared in the online Slate magazine, a piece that has generated no small amount of interest: 340 comments at last count.

In “My Kids Read Only Subliterary Branded Commodities. Yours Probably Do, Too,” writer  Gabriel Roth tells us that children’s book publishing today “is dominated by … book-like objects featuring familiar properties licensed to publishers by massive entertainment conglomerates.” Examples include Dora the Explorer, Transformers, My Little Pony and the Disney Princess and Disney Fairies line.

Roth is not shy about his views on the subject.  

“These stories are the juvenile equivalent of pornography: They aim to gratify base desires as voluptuously as possible,” he says. Comparing these books to junk food, he nonetheless concludes that he’ll continue to let his daughter indulge in her Disney fairy fantasies. He grudgingly ends his piece with: “My daughter’s appetites are her own.”

In 1972, Fairyland was featured in a subliterary branded commodity: a "Dennis the Menace" comic book.

At Fairyland, we don’t offer books in our gift shop, or in our Reading Room, that are based on branded and licensed products. There are too many creative, inclusive and original stories — many written and illustrated by Bay Area locals — that we prefer to highlight.

Books in Fairyland's Reading Room are not what one writer describes as "subliterary branded commodities."

But I was interested to know what our local expert — the person who has the final say on all of the children’s books that are purchased for the Oakland Public Library — had to say about the subject. As it turns out, Children’s Collection Management Librarian Amy Martin says this is one of her favorite topics in children’s literature.

She points out that there’s a good reason you’ll find scads of Dora the Explorer, Thomas the Tank Engine, Peppa Pig, and even Transformers picture books in your 17 local children’s library sections: kids LOVE them. And that’s why a goodly portion of the children’s library’s $200,000 annual book budget goes to purchase – or replace – these books. 

Oakland Children's Librarian Amy Martin reading to children in an Alameda County Social Services Agency waiting room.

Amy wants kids to get into the habit of reading for pleasure. She believes it's important to teach kids that books reflect what they're excited about, whether it's drawing with a purple crayon or mermaid Ariel getting married. She cited an important study that affirms that reading for pleasure -- anything the child chooses -- gives children more educational advantages than having two parents with college degrees. 

Other Oakland children’s librarians concur. Here’s one story Amy heard from them: Two young brothers visited East Oakland’s Martin Luther King, Jr., branch on their own (many, many kids come to the library without adults). The older brother browsed, but told the librarian that his younger brother hated reading. That changed when Younger Brother discovered the library’s collection of “The Simpsons” comic books. After that, he returned every few days for a new stack.
“We found his entry point,” is how Amy describes it.
Feeling snobbish about Disney books? Talk to the children’s librarian at Oakland’s Brookfield branch, who still thanks Amy for approving the order of many books in this series.
Allowing kids to choose their own books validates their choices in general, something Amy thinks is important. “If adults reinforce that the things children value aren’t good, that could lead to defiance or bruised self-esteem,” she says.
She says she loves to see the excited faces of kids holding books. “I don’t necessarily care what the book is,” she says. And, she assures us, “classic books aren’t going anywhere.”
But she also loves to purchase original books by local authors. One she particularly likes is One of a Kind, Like Me, written by Laurin Mayeno, illustrated by Robert Liu-Trujillo, and published right here in the Bay Area by Blood Orange Press. It tells the true story of the author’s young son, who wants to wear a princess outfit to a school parade and is supported in his (ultimately successful) quest. 
One of a Kind, Like Me / Unico Como Yo

We like the book, too -- and are pleased that Laurin (and hopefully Robert) will be among the authors featured in our May 6 Turn the Page! childrens book festival. It's a celebration of Bay Area authors and illustrators, wholl be reading, drawing, and talking about books in front of their biggest fans: kids. There may be some princesses, ponies, and trains in the lineup, but for this particular event, none of them will carry a registered trademark symbol.

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.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Box of Buttons

By C.J. Hirschfield

Last week, Tim Youngs from Spokane left a review of Children’s Fairyland on Facebook. He said our park is “the last truly non-cynical destination in the Bay.”

Sometimes it really does feel like our little park is an oasis: a place where families can go to escape the troubles and fears in an uncertain world. Gentle  animals, art, storytelling, fantastic play structures, gardens, puppet shows — we present them all in a manner that respects the innocence of childhood, encourages the imagination to take flight and demonstrates the kindness we’re all capable of.

The Fairyland Card Maze (and one rose).