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If you build it: Peter Ott created a Canyon Acres sanctuary, and everything came


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Peter Ott’s reputation precedes him. He’s been called Laguna’s Tarzan, Crocodile Dundee, Davey Crockett, Pan of Canyonland, and – for those old enough to remember the reference – our town’s young Frank Buck. You get the picture. 

Peter himself settles on titles like naturalist and biologist. When pressed, he admits to artist and occasionally writer. He was also a remarkable athlete in his day, playing pro circuit volleyball and once holding records in discus and javelin without much training. He even turned down several full-ride college basketball scholarships. Peter’s never been one for structure.

If you hand

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Peter Ott gives informal lectures and showcases rare animals at his Canyon Acres home

Some stories are so larger than life that, to wrangle them down to something manageable, it’s best to begin with the smaller bits that are suggestive of the whole. Like the fact that Peter has two weasels in his freezer. 

Once you hear that, it’s hardly surprising to learn there’s a tortoise hibernating under his bed. Or a blind python showcased in his living room, alongside a boa. The 55-year-old Amazon parrot that sits behind Peter’s chair is a hand-me-down he inherited after the death of a friend. 

Now you can almost intuit the two blind parrots in the backyard. The endangered iguanas. The yellow lizard without eyelids that must be protected from the sun. The demanding cockatoos that can’t find homes. Maybe it doesn’t surprise you that – despite the dozens of lizards, birds, and snakes roaming the property – this menagerie is only a small fraction of his former collection. Peter gave most animals away, or outsourced their winter care, because space inside the house is limited. Plus, running a wildlife sanctuary takes energy, and Peter turned 80 last week. 

Still, there’s room for dozens of whitewashed skulls preserved in glass cases, tiny teeth intact. The skins and bones of countless creatures. The illustrated cover of a Scientific American Magazine that Peter painted in 1985. The bronze whale replica he cast to scale that hangs above his couch. 

If you whale

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Bronze sculpture of a grey whale perfectly scaled (1 inch to 1 foot) prepared after multiple measurements taken from beached whales. The barnacle casts are also authentic and cast to scale.

But this part of Peter’s life is largely known. That’s how it is with Laguna’s legends. Their larger-than-life stories are passed around town like cold bottles of beer.

Articles chronicling Peter’s talents and documenting his adventures began appearing in 1947, when Peter was only in first grade. There’s been a steady stream of them since.

To me, though, the more interesting story lies in the details. Those memories, tossed in the corner like crumbs, illuminate the whole man. 

Growing up Laguna: our land before time

The Ott family settled in Laguna in 1940, when Peter was less than a year old. His father, Peterpaul Ott, was a famed Czechoslovakian sculptor. He trained with the most prestigious European artists, graduated from Northwestern, and garnered countless awards. He taught Peter his trade. 

But the art business was bleak, and the Otts had five children to feed. Peter’s parents spent summers running a hamburger stand on the boardwalk. Those days, hotdogs sold for 15 cents, root beer floats for ten.

By the time Peter turned five, the family had moved into the Canyon Acres compound where Peter still resides. Theirs was the newest house on the street, acquired for a steep $7,000. Back then Canyon Acres was county land, still outside Laguna’s city limits. The hillsides were pristine, the canyons untouched. This was 20 years before Timothy Leary moved in next door. Fifty years before the devastating fire. Laguna’s population hovered around 4,000.

If you bones

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Peter’s Canyon Acres property functions as home, wildlife sanctuary, workshop, artist studio, and educational center

Peter spent his boyhood hunting the hills for food – bullfrogs, crayfish, rabbits, and quail. He shot one deer each year, which fed his family through the winter months. His mother cooked everything he brought home. Peter never had a hunting or fishing license, so it helped to be friends with the landowners whenever they caught him trespassing. Mrs. Moulton, owner of Moulton Ranch (a cattle farm back then), was his father’s student. Joan Irvine once rented a room in their home (Peter points to the bedroom where the tortoise now hibernates). The locals let Peter roam and the authorities cut him loose. “It was all wide-open spaces,” Peter says. “There was nothing out here. I’d walk to Saddleback Mountain. It was just a phenomenal place to grow up. I didn’t appreciate it enough.”

By age 17, Peter had nine rattlesnake skins in his collection, some over six-feet long. He designed his own sophisticated slingshots and manufactured metal ammunition on his mother’s stove. He lassoed boas and iguanas and brought them back up from Mexico. His name started popping up in the papers, remarking on his hunting prowess and his extensive knowledge of local wildlife, flora, and fauna.

Then, in his senior year at Laguna Beach High, Peter met biology teacher Dorothy White and everything clicked into place. 

Biology 101

Peter remembers Mrs. White as the woman who further ignited his passion for science. “She was a big influence on me,” he says. “She was an old schoolmarm. You didn’t fool around or she’d kick you out.” 

Mrs. White tasked the class with creating an insect collection – something that should have been up Peter’s alley. But as the deadline drew near, Peter recognized his efforts were subpar. His beetles were broken and his ants uninspired. 

As he glanced down, he saw a watermelon seed lodged in the crack of his desk. It triggered his imagination and Peter set to work. “I glued a bee’s thorax onto the seed. I stuck on a beetle’s head. I attached some antennae. I got legs going and some wings. I laid down glue and sprinkled the whole thing with dust to make it look furry.” 

Peter pinned his Frankenstein creation to the corkboard and approached Mrs. White’s desk. “‘That’s interesting,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t look like a fly. Doesn’t look coleopteran or hymenoptera. Huh.’” She seemed stumped. “‘Look at those antennae.’ 

“She starts going through her books. She said, ‘We’ll at least find the order.’ I told her, ‘You won’t find it.’ She said, ‘Let me try.’ Now I was sure I was going to get kicked out. I’m nervous but I finally said, ‘Mrs. White, I made that insect.’ She stared at me and said, ‘Well, then that’s a humbug!’” 

Despite the prank, Peter developed a deep respect for Mrs. White. Her passion for science and obsession with classification systems made its mark.

While recounting the story, Peter lapses into several mini-lectures on insects, getting caught up in facts and statistics about how they’re identified. Almost every anecdote Peter tells is accompanied by a sidebar of scientific information. This is a biologist’s brain at work.

If you skins

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Peter’s workshop showcases perfectly preserved remains from a wide variety of birds, reptiles, mammals, and marine life. Shown above: a bobcat pelt and a barn owl.

“I’m a naturalist by trade, not by education,” he says. “Life was my education. I was just living it.” Of course Peter pored over books and lectures, facts and stats soaking into his neurons. He studied the experts every chance he got. 

The same could be said of his art, another endeavor that’s brought Peter great success. 

Rendering nature to canvas

If Peter has the mind of a scientist, he has the hands of an artist. That watermelon seed foreshadowed how he came to unite the two. 

Peter won his first art contest at age seven. His painting – of a four-man horserace – even appeared in the paper. His father’s guidance didn’t hurt. “He was an art teacher by osmosis,” Peter says. “If I wanted to learn something, I’d follow him.”

When Peter and his wife Holly (who died in 1979) got their first apartment in the 1960s, they needed some art on the walls. “When I started painting, it was a total struggle,” he says. “I had no idea what I was doing.” Peter called his pal Mogens Abel. Mogens – from Laguna’s renowned architectural and artistic Abel tribe – was doing some interesting work at the intersection of sculpting and painting. He taught Peter what he knew. Peter’s pieces caught his own father’s attention and he began showing in a gallery. “I’d sell work to my friends when rent was due,” Peter says. 

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A few of Peter’s whale pieces shown in his office

His subject matter reflected his passion, primarily whales and other wildlife. A friend and professor at Long Beach State took notice and encouraged Peter to submit it to magazines and other mainstream publications. One day, months later, Scientific American called. His whale illustration showcased on their cover in 1985. His writings, photography, and other artwork have since appeared in numerous wildlife and scientific publications.

The running of the whales

For much of his midlife, the Baja Peninsula became Peter’s second home. He lived on the beach, feasting on free lobster and abalone. The closest he came to having a steady day job was serving as a naturalist on whale watching junkets. 

“I was the leading whale expert in town,” says Peter. One lucky break led to the next and Peter found himself living on a trawler in Scammon’s Lagoon, a birthing ground for grey whales. He gave tours and lectures through some of his favorite stretches of sea. His deep knowledge and charismatic sense of humor made him a favored guide. “Most trips I’d pretend it was my birthday,” Peter says. “If the energy on the boat waned, the crew decided it was party time.” 

The creative problem-solver

The unpredictability of the natural world requires adaptability and practicality. Peter possesses both. He might be the first man in town to navigate an open canoe down 200 miles of Mexican terrain. Surviving on less than a few hundred dollars over the course of six weeks, he took nothing more than a super slingshot of his own design, some freeze-dried food, fresh water, and a cute – and very amenable – girlfriend. 

They floated, camped, and hunted their way down the Peninsula. His companion narrowly escaped a near-fatal encounter with a rattlesnake. She unwittingly exhausted their emergency food supply. But she didn’t complain as a two-week trip stretched into six.

Then there was the time, coming home from the tropics, Peter smuggled a pygmy anteater across the border. “I hid it under a newspaper in the center console of my truck,” Peter says. “As we’re crossing the border, I look down and she’s giving birth under the paper.” 

With every outlandish story – always accompanied by vast amounts of ecological information – Peter claims he doesn’t know how these crazy things happen to him. They just do.

Former neighbor and friend Don Bonsey shares another one.

“I walked out my front door one day and noticed a huge lizard peeking out from under my porch,” says Don. “I realized it could only belong to one man, so I carried the five-foot iguana down to Peter’s. Apparently, she was looking for a place to nest because she was pregnant. 

“A few days later, the same lizard was walking up the street with Peter’s phone number written on her back. Since no other neighbor would go near her, it was up to me to return her home. 

“Days pass and now Peter’s walking around with some kind of antenna looking thing, moving it left and right. The iguana had escaped again, but this time Peter had attached a radio transmitter to her.

“He made sure the street was never dull,” Don says.

If you iguana

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One of many bearded dragons in Peter’s collection

Playing by his own rules 

Peter might be the most honest man never to make an honest living. Money made no difference. Consumerism was an encumbrance. For a time, Peter owned only one pair of closed-toed shoes, and they remained in their box – tags attached – for two years. Food came either from land or sea and is now delivered semi-weekly from stores set on throwing it away. Education came from simply living life. Happiness, however, was always abundant and those dividends keep paying.

These days, you can spot Peter most any morning down at Heisler Park. He walks the shore while his longtime partner, Libby Shackford, makes her daily constitutional swim far out into the Pacific. Peter favors catching the eyes of strangers and taking the time to say hello. “Something as simple as making people feel seen,” Peter says. “You can tell it turns their day around.” 

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Peter with his longtime partner, Libby Shackford, after her daily swim in the Pacific

The steady stream of visitors to his Canyon Acres home, sometimes a dozen a day, suggests Peter may also have inherited the title of unintentional therapist.

One of Peter’s favorite quotes comes, unsurprisingly, from naturalist John Muir. “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.” 

And so it is with Peter’s remarkable life. One invisible cord leads to the next until those thousands of strands weave the whole – the naturalist, the artist, the athlete, the healer. But mostly the man who welcomes you to stop by, have a beer, and hear just how remarkable our natural world has always been – and the hidden mysteries that make it so special.

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A man and his dog: Mike and Harlie are fellow mentors to a cadre of canines


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Two years ago, Mike Mitchell met the dog who changed everything for him.

“Harlie was about a year old when I rescued her,” Mike explains. “She jumped, she bit, she pulled. It was like having a kangaroo and an alligator at the end of a leash.”

Training the energetic, very smart Belgian Malinois gave Mike a tremendous sense of achievement and joy, and led directly to his dog training business, K9 Shaper, which is thriving: since its founding last July, he has coached around 50 canine clients (and their humans). 

Mike had trained dogs for six years before meeting Harlie, so he wasn’t new to the techniques. “But Harlie was a whole other challenge,” he says. “She inspired me to start my business.” 

Harlie’s presence also reinvigorated Mike’s interest in the world around him, he confides. A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, he served in Desert Storm, and as a result of his duties, he carries the burden of PTSD.

“Then in 2014, my parents died within five months of each other. That was a difficult time,” Mike says. “It took a while and a lot of meditation to bounce back. But these days, with Harlie in my life, I wake up energized, glad to be alive. She’s a jewel.”

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Mike and his beloved Harlie

Now Harlie is his calm, collected partner and helpmeet in every way. At the moment, she’s socializing about eight puppies, adjusting their too-rambunctious behavior, teaching them how to retrieve, and so much more. 

“Ours is a praise-driven, mentoring approach,” Mike says. “We train whole families. You can’t just fix the dog, you’ve got to fix the humans, too, the adults and the kids. Show people on your street that you’re good neighbors.”

The two of them are not only in business together, they also volunteer together, providing free training for veterans’ dogs through the Veterans Canine Intelligence Academy, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization “dedicated to assisting Southern California veterans with disabilities and their families with high quality dog training free of charge.”

Mike tells the story of John, a veteran with injuries as a result of his active duty service.

“John’s life has been immensely enhanced by his assistance dog, Bo, a Labradoodle. John has a motorized wheelchair with tractor tires, practically a tank, that he uses on the beach, as well as a regular wheelchair. He’s also got a recumbent bike and a walker. No matter what, Bo’s there with him, trained to take on any challenges and provide support. 

“And then there’s Amanda, whose disability isn’t obvious, but put it this way, she’s no longer afraid to go out into the world because she’s got her service dog Bailey with her.”

Mike makes the point that “all dogs are emotional support dogs in their own way.” But he worries that the term “emotional support animal” is being abused by some people to get special treatment, diminishing the perceived importance of properly trained service dogs. 

“And that means sometimes people with qualified service dogs are challenged and questioned inappropriately, causing more stress to the individual,” he notes.

In addition to volunteering his time and expertise to the nonprofit Veterans Canine Intelligence Academy, Mike also donates a portion of his income to the organization from his for-profit K9 Shaper. 

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Harlie is a mentor to many puppies

The man has always loved dogs, but until he met Harlie, he hadn’t thought about starting a training business. 

“Things just seem to come to me as I go along,” he says. “Like joining the Marines – I really can’t explain why I chose to do that.”

For a long time, the native Iowan worked in operations planning and logistics for trucking companies in Atlanta, Georgia. Since then, he’s been a serial entrepreneur, and one with a sense of humor. “Back in the day, I started a gumball machine company, A Handful of Candy, with my sister,” he says. “That turned out to be not so sweet.

“I also founded Squeaky’s Window Service, did that for a while. Ran an ad agency focused on the trucking industry. Oh, also operated a hair salon with my then-wife. Went into real estate investing. Flipped houses with an ex-girlfriend.

“I moved to Laguna Beach in 2011. This place has been so good to me. I’ll never leave – nothing could make me leave!” He gestures around him. “I love this place.”

For five years, Mike manned Laguna Coffee Company’s booth at the Farmers’ Market, where he became known to plenty of Lagunans.

“There are so many ways to cross paths in this town,” he says. Sometimes literally, of course, when you’re a dog owner.

Then he joined a friend with a CBD business, marketing their wares, also at the Farmers’ Market, until County fees grew too high and “it stopped on a dime.”

“I also was a CERT trainer,” Mike says. “That was very rewarding, also getting to know the police and firefighters.”

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Top of the World is a favorite place to walk

Mike learned to surf and enjoys the art galleries. But he reserves his deepest love for the backcountry.

“After my parents died, I found consolation hiking in the wilderness, on a trail down off Dartmoor, which leads to a little ledge where I’d meditate. I spent a lot of time there healing,” he says. “Every time I passed a certain meadow, I’d picture a yoga class taking place there. 

“One day I showed my yogi friend Liz Campbell the meadow and she and I started sunset yoga hikes. That’s when I founded Backcountry Laguna, organizing guided hikes for locals and tourists. 

“I take people all over, into the Cleveland National Forest, Blackstar Canyon, and the Laguna Coast Wilderness Parks also, of course. Liz and I, I don’t think we missed one full moon hike for two years.”

Ever innovative, Mike’s inner entrepreneur proved useful. “I created a rattlesnake-finding device – a 12-foot painter’s pole with a tennis ball at the end.” Amusing as the device might have looked, it did the job. “We came across eight rattlers that day,” he says.

Now, unsurprisingly, versatile Harlie is being trained to detect rattlers and alert Mike to their presence. “Much better than a stick!” Mike says.

His favorite trail is Laurel Canyon. “There’s that gorgeous waterfall, and off Stagecoach, a massive oak tree – just standing there, you can feel its energy. I love seeing quail, and deer, and wildflowers, and I’ve been lucky enough to see bobcats four or five times on the Wood Canyon trail.”

Best time of day for Mike is just before dawn in the wilderness. “I love the evolution of the sunrise. You hear the birds start up a symphony.

“They’re in harmony. Then as the light changes, the sound breaks up, with the birds on alert. That time of the morning, I feel the possibilities of each day, and I am so thankful to be alive and healthy.”

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Nothing like the outdoors to please a man and his dog

In all his endeavors, Mike stresses his integrity is vital to his sense of himself.

We chat for a while about his daughters, Morgan, an ER nurse, and Rylee, a student teacher. “They’ve turned into wonderful adult women. I’m so proud of them.”

But Mike, who is a qualified AKC Evaluator and Trainer, finds it hard to stray too long from the subject of dogs. He’s excited about his K9 Shaper booth at the Farmers’ Market. 

He has also started “a parking lot for dogs” – a valet service of sorts. Visitors to the market can drop their dogs off while they shop, then pick them up when they are done.

Mike sees a great future for his business. “I can tell immediately, from the way someone holds a leash, whether a dog is trained or not,” he says. “Nothing worse than an owner who lets a dog follow its own worst instincts, foraging in garbage or pissing in the streets. It’s not good for anyone, least of all the dog.”

His expression turns beatific again. “Harlie changed everything. She’s the most magical thing that has happened to me. I know how much power and intelligence she has, and yet she allows me to steer her through life. That’s pretty cool.”

And with that, Mike, serial entrepreneur, U.S. Marine veteran, backcountry lover, and “uncle to many dogs,” leaves to mentor another family – along with their pet – determined, with his beloved Harlie, to teach them how to live their best lives together.

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Hair artist Marsha McHenry Carroll on legacy, psychology, and the art of hair wear


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Styling hair requires a lot of intangible skills. Of course there’s the artistry of the craft itself. There’s also plenty of psychology involved. Good hairdressers listen. They keep our secrets. They boost our self-confidence. Sometimes they push us out of our comfort zones and encourage us to try something new. My own hairdresser, who I’ve seen for more than 20 years, told me many clients (often men) have cried in her chair. “I think it’s the intimacy of me touching them while not looking directly at each other,” she says. “It gives them permission to let their guard down.” Plus there’s something about a scalp massage that’s inherently maternal and comforting.

On top of all that, hair is deeply personal. So much of our identity is tied up in those strands on our heads. Hair represents health and beauty. It can signify wisdom and experience. It’s sensual. It’s cultural. There are over five-dozen references to it in the Bible. American men often associate their hair with virility, women with desirability. And, as a counterpoint, its loss or damage can evoke shame. Especially in Southern California, whose cultural currency often centers on appearances. 

Imagine all the artistry, psychology, and marketing that go into hairdressing, and then multiply those attributes onto the woman who works with wigs, and the clients who seek her services. Even the word “wig” evokes something visceral. In the 1960s, it may have been a flirty accessory. But today we often associate wigs with illness, aging, or disease. Whether due to alopecia, cancer treatments, medications, or normal aging, 35 million men and 21 million women suffer hair loss. 

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Marsha and shop manager Charlie

It takes a unique person, with a unique set of skills, to rewrite the narrative around wearing a wig. Meet the woman behind the hair you wear – Marsha McHenry Carroll, owner of Charles’ Wigs.

Entrusted with a legacy

Longtime Laguna locals will likely recognize Charles’ Wigs. Even if they haven’t availed themselves of its services, the 55-year old institution has made its mark on our town. Nestled in a historic spot south of Mozambique restaurant (on PCH and Pearl Street), the building has been around since Coast Highway was still a dirt road. 

Hair artist sign

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The iconic shop tucked inside the historic building on PCH and Pearl Street

The original owner, Charles Thompson, ran the business for 45 years, opening the shop in 1965 during the heyday of hairpiece fashion. At only 19, Charles began perfecting the intricate art of creating custom wigs for his clients. 

Personalized hairpieces, unlike strict hair styling, require a lot of consideration. Skin tone, eye color, bone structure, and facial shape are all considered when crafting the ideal look. And, of course, the client’s existing hair must blend into the mix to create a seamless and authentic appearance. Natural hair rarely has a uniform color. Roots differ from tips, the under layers aren’t like the outer coat. Gradations of color need to be woven in just the right ways. Charles was Orange County’s expert.

Royal hairdresser Richard Dalton joined Charles around 2004. Dalton spent eight years as Princess Diana’s personal stylist, becoming solely responsible for her tresses and traveling with the Royal Family after Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles. It was Dalton who gave both Prince William and Prince Harry their first haircuts. He also served as stylist for such notables as Sophia Loren and Katy Perry. 

When longtime hairstylist Marsha McHenry Carroll met Thompson and Dalton in 2010, she knew plenty about hair but nothing about wigs. Marsha had decades of experience as a professional hairdresser. Hair wear, though, was entirely new territory. 

But it was a business she believed in running. Marsha’s husband, John, laid down his savings to buy the shop. “He gave up his motorhome money,” Marsha says. “He bought it for me.”

Though it was a personal passion, it was also a scary step for Marsha. “I didn’t know anything about wigs,” she says. “To step into a 45-year-old business that was flourishing – I had no idea what I was getting into. My clients wanted me to succeed because they needed me. There aren’t that many people who really understand how to work with wigs and hair pieces.”

She started studying at the hands of the master. “Charles was a guru, and I’m honored to have learned at his feet, but I had to step into those shoes,” Marsha says. “My clients really taught me.” 

In addition to his skilled profession, Charles played the role of Jesus in the Pageant of the Masters’ finale The Last Supper for over 30 years. Marsha laughs about it now. “I’d often ask myself in those early years after Charles retired, ‘What would Jesus do?’”

After she purchased the business 10 years ago, and Charles retired to New Mexico, Richard remained as Marsha’s manager for another eight months. “[Richard] was so talented,” Marsha told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. “He’s just magic with the way he works, whether it’s hair on a head or a wig.”

But the notoriety Dalton received after Prince William’s engagement to Kate Middleton – when the AP ran a story about his professional relationship with the late Princess Di – made him a hot-ticket item. As his profile skyrocketed and demands for Dalton’s services grew, Marsha soon found herself in search of another assistant.

In the beginning 

Turns out, Marsha needn’t have worried. She definitely had the talent and temperament to fill those impossible shoes. Born and raised in the South, Marsha was the daughter of a Navy dad, which meant they moved a lot – Charleston, Savannah, Memphis. Shortly after graduating high school (and deciding college was standing in the way of making money), Marsha began training in hair salons. Her friend was a stylist and introduced Marsha to a school in Virginia Beach. 

Those were transformative times in the salon industry. Women went from getting their hair styled each week to seeing their stylist once every six weeks. “I began an apprenticeship with one of the most reputable schools,” Marsha says. “They ran 10 hair salons and two beauty schools. I was an assistant for a while, learning about business, how to build a clientele, and how to handle clients. You can spend a lifetime learning those skills.”

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Every style and hair color is customized to the client’s unique look

When she came to California, Marsha continued styling hair but went back to college in her 40s to earn her undergraduate degree. She aspired to be a journalist and was published in Orange Coast Magazine the week she graduated – a feature piece on Laguna Beach architect Fred Briggs. She began writing for various publications but, when the recession hit, Marsha returned to her original passion.

The passionate personality of an artist

Passionate is the right word to describe Marsha. It takes a vivacious and somewhat sensuous personality to imbue clients with confidence, and Marsha is full of fun. She’s the woman who, in 1973, turned Elvis Presley down. Her friend was living with Elvis’s half-brother, David Stanley, when Marsha met the King. This was later in his life, and Elvis had gained a few pounds. Marsha was only 19 and Elvis 42. “I call it ‘The Night I Said No to Elvis,’” she laughs. “One of my claims to fame.”

No wonder she caught Elvis’s eye. Marsha had just been selected as Miss Virginia USA’s State Finalist. “One didn’t need a talent like Miss America,” she says. “Whew!” 

She’s also the woman who bravely stepped off Florida’s shore and onto a 39-foot Shannon and sailed to Havana, Cuba with three acquaintances – an adventure not for the faint of heart. 

And little surprise that in the 1980s, Marsha ran The Wonderful Me Charm Academy for local teens living in group homes.

Marsha is also the woman who, in 2009, implored OC Register readers to support her campaign to become the next Real Housewife of Orange County. And who still, even after a knee replacement, can do the splits. 

Hair artist Charlie

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Marsha, sporting one of her creations, and Charlie both remain timeless 

“All these questions and you still haven’t asked how old I am,” Marsha says towards the end of our time together. She seems almost giddy to see my response. “I’m 66!” More accurately, Marsha is timeless. If age is a construct – a simple state of mind – Marsha still fully inhabits her 20s.

It’s probably why she doesn’t love the word “wig.” “It sounds old-fashioned,” Marsha says. “Like girdles as opposed to Spanx.” Spanx, she says, are fashionable and trendy. Girdles are for older women. She prefers the term “hair wear.”

The art and science of hair

There’s good reason Marsha refers to her shop as an “atelier” – the French term for a workshop or studio (especially one utilized by an artist or designer). Hair wear is both art and a little science. These aren’t your grandmother’s manmade wigs, though they’re still easy enough to apply in a hurry.

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More unique and stylish creations by Marsha

With some exceptions, hair sourced for the pieces is human (as opposed to synthetic). To my surprise, another common source is yak. 

Marsha is a stickler for quality products and sources. She requests several samples before purchase and carefully inspects the length, texture, and consistency. Blonde shades are more costly than brunettes. Soft texture, long and consistent strands, and a comfortable weight all play into the equation. The current crown jewel of Charles’ Wigs – the “Bentley of Wigs,” as Marsha calls it – runs $10,000. Even at that price, the piece must be serviced every six months to repopulate the strands and ensure the proper stitching.

Hair artisit Bentley

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The “Bentley” of hair 

Top pieces for men run around $700 (and over half of Marsha’s clients are, indeed, men). People typically purchase a few pieces to ensure they have a spare when one piece is being serviced. Women’s wear can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000. The “voila,” a unique piece that simply adds length to existing hair without the weight and damage of hair extensions, can be had for less than $1,000.

But considering how much Orange County women spend on their hair, it’s an investment that might pencil out in the end. An average cut can cost $60 to $100. Color treatments exceed $100 and require frequent upkeep. Balayage, Brazilian Blowouts, and Kerasilk treatments – all intended to achieve the looks afforded by Marsha’s pieces – cost hundreds and don’t last forever. One-time blowouts or single updos can run $75. And none of this accounts for the money spent on hair products. Or the time.

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Shorter styles and brunette pieces are significantly less expensive

“Imagine never having another bad hair day,” says Marsha. “Imagine getting ready in a few minutes instead of an hour. Grocery shopping, carpool pickup, a surprise guest. Everything gets easier.” I must admit – it’s compelling.

The hidden secrets of running a successful wig business

Because I’m inherently curious (or maybe just nosy), I ask about the weird bits of this business that the average client may never know. Marsha doesn’t disappoint. 

First, help isn’t easy to find in this industry. Ironically, those who have worked in the hair and beauty industry are the most difficult to train. “Hairstylists assume they know everything there is to know. One day, I watched a man walk out of the shop with his piece on backwards,” Marsha says, shaking her head. “Not everyone is teachable.”

Discretion, of course, is critical. Marsha ensures her clients’ privacy with secluded rooms and a back door with onsite parking for guests to exit. Tyler McCusker, general manager at KX FM, jokes that people go into Charles’ Wigs but they never come out. “I don’t know what’s going on over there,” he tells Marsha. 

Hair artist interior

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Discrete rooms and a private courtyard and back entrance ensure clients’ privacy

There can also be a bit of buyer’s remorse in the hair trade. One client, after investing thousands on an extremely customized piece for his ailing wife, lost her shortly afterward. “He tried to return the wig,” Marsha says. “I had to explain we don’t do returns.” 

Some are squeamish about the source of the hair. Someone else stole thousands of dollars of product. Then there are those who simply dump bags of used wigs on Marsha’s doorstep, as though doing her a favor. 

Hair today, gone tomorrow

Grass never grows long beneath Marsha’s feet, and though Charles’ Wigs will endure, its longtime location in Laguna Beach will close on April 1. Marsha and hubby John moved to Ventura, and she’ll take a little slice of Laguna with her to her new home. “The name will remain,” she says. “It will always be Charles’ Wigs.” She’ll also open a private salon in Laguna Hills and see her existing clientele there by appointment. Regardless of her location, Marsha will remain the artisan of luxury hair wear. 

To find Marsha and her business, follow her on Facebook (“Charles of Laguna, Charles Wigs”) or

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The Hankes: Loving life – and each other


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

So, the Hankes’ origin story: Ed’s brother and Kathy’s sister were dating, and they wanted Ed and Kathy to meet.

“No, thank you,” Ed told his brother. “Don’t get me wrong, but if Kathy is anything like her sister, she’s just not my type.”

“No, thank you,” Kathy told her sister. “Don’t get me wrong, but if Ed is anything like his brother, he’s just not my type.”

A few weeks later, Kathy was invited to a birthday party where a friend had lined up desirable suitors along a driveway for her to meet. She passed one after the other, then drew to a stop in front of…Ed.

“At that moment, they looked at each other, and say now, talking in unison, “Within seconds we knew we were meant for each other.”

The following night they went on their first date and saw Grease, each growing ever more confident that “you’re the one that I want,” and from that moment on, they were, well, hopelessly devoted to each other. Two years later Kathy (19) and Ed (21) married. 

Though they say theirs isn’t really a marriage.

Say what?

“How can I explain?” says Ed. “It’s so much more. We’re best friends. We love each other’s company. We support each other in every way. It’s always been that way.”

“I have to force him every now and again to go out with the guys,” she says. 

“I’d really prefer to hang out with Kathy almost always,” he says.

Which is not to say life has always been easy for the pair. The path of true love may have run smooth, but their work lives were rockier.

Kathy and Ed explore the world of work

Kathy started her career as a legal secretary, staying in that profession while they saved enough to buy a house and brought up their two sons. 

“I didn’t like it much. So much repetition, depositions, the same questions again and again, but I stuck it out,” she says. “But I’m a people person, not a paper person. And then carpal tunnel syndrome helped make the decision for me. I couldn’t type any more. When I turned 40, I decided to go to nursing school.”

The Hankes couple

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The Hankes love downtown Laguna Beach

Ed started out studying marine biology but gave that up to go to stunt school. “I specialized in being hit by cars – of course, I wasn’t actually hit – fights, and jumping 50 feet to land on a mat, just five foot by eight by three in those days,” he explains. “I loved it. Kathy didn’t. I was offered a full-time stuntman job at Universal, but I turned it down. She didn’t like how dangerous the job was. She was right.”

Ed’s lack of fear, and his ability to handle the toughest of physical challenges helped him when, while he was working at Alcoa, the Northridge earthquake set the plant shaking. “It was my job to ride the overhead crane, three stories high, to check for damage to the buildings,” he recalls. “Aftershocks set the crane swaying back and forth on the rails. Didn’t really bother me.”

His career with Alcoa, where he excelled as a millwright – which meant moving, assembling, installing, or dismantling machinery – ended due to a serious back injury, which exacerbated a degenerative disc disease diagnosed years earlier. So he had to quit work.

Ed and Kathy shrug as they tell the tale. “It was fine. We just go with the flow. That’s what we always do.” 

The Hankes smiling

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It was love at first sight and they feel the same 42 years later

Ed became the house-husband, responsible for yardwork, taking the kids to football practice (the Hankes were members of the high school football boosters and say that football is the way they met some of their closest friends), the housework, and some of the cooking, mostly barbecuing.

I ask if Kathy cooks too. They exchange knowing smiles.

“Well, now she does. She cooks the best fried chicken – using my mother’s recipe,” Ed says. “But at first – no. So one night early in our marriage I get home after a late shift, and she’s got the table all set and tells me the chicken is in the oven.”

Kathy palms her face. “Embarrassing!”

Ed continues, “I thought I smelled something burning. She said no, couldn’t be. I check the oven and see that paper towels are aflame.”

Kathy laughs. “I had followed the microwave directions for the chicken instead of the oven directions!”

Their lives take an unexpected turn

Kathy may not have been a whiz as a cook early on, but she became an excellent nurse after going to nursing school at Saddleback College at the age of 40. She turns serious when I ask her about some of the challenges she faced.

“I remember a young bodysurfer who’d become a quadriplegic after an accident. He couldn’t do anything by himself, not even breathe. He said to me all the time, ‘Could you please help me, I don’t want to live,’” she says. “It broke my heart. I took his case to the Ethics Committee and ultimately, after consulting with members of his family and the doctors and psychiatrists, he was taken off the ventilator. I knew it was what he wished, but it was hard, very emotional. The family invited me to his service.”

She also recalls that her first patient was dying of lung cancer – this shortly after Kathy’s mother had died of the same disease.

“I held it together, I didn’t cry,” she says. “But I leaked, I’ll admit that.”

Kathy is now in the great position of being a private nurse for two individuals with chronic illnesses. She loves it. “I’m able to dig deeper, develop bonds with my patients, and it’s a great feeling to know I’m able to help them navigate their health challenges.”

Her job includes coordinating care with doctors, accompanying her patients to appointments, and applying her considerable nursing skills at any given time.

“The bonus is that I get to go to social events with them that I’d never thought I’d ever attend,” Kathy adds. “Recently I flew to Sacramento with my client and sat courtside watching the Kings play the Lakers!”

The Hankes hands

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Ed and Kathy are seldom seen apart

The Hankes’ oldest son, Eddie, joined the Marines just days after graduating high school, inspired by 9/11, and did two tours in Iraq, “as a grunt” the Hankes say. He earned a Purple Heart, and upon returning home found it hard to pursue any career that required focus and concentration.

“But he’s going to welding school now, just like his younger brother Chris,” Kathy says, “and he’s currently working at Montage resort as a bellman. He says you get the best tips. And we get family discounts…it’s a great deal for us! Love that place!”

Other favorites are Nick’s (“love the seabass!”) and Selanne Steak Tavern.

Going with the flow the Hanke way

Three years ago, a fire caused by an exploding fish tank badly damaged their home (and ensured that they never again had fish as pets).

But these are minor hiccups in the happy Hanke household. 

Ed does admit that they didn’t agree initially about moving to the Laguna area from Monrovia. “We had a great house, best friends just two doors down from us,” he says. “Why move? But I believed in Kathy and now I’m so glad we live here.”

And Laguna Beach couldn’t be happier. First Ed, then Kathy got involved with the Patriots’ Day Parade. Ed has now volunteered his time for 14 years, the last two of which he has served as President of the nonprofit Patriots’ Day Parade organization.

“People think the city puts on the Parade, but really it’s the work of just a few dedicated citizens,” he says. “The city and the police and fire are very helpful though. It’s truly a labor of love.”

Ed also sings with LagunaTunes – he’s a baritone bass – which Kathy then joined as a tenor, “though I’d never sung before,” she says. “I absolutely love it. During rehearsals I just check out for a while and relax, breathe deeply. It’s so enjoyable.”

Her husband interjects, “Please let people know we need more men in LagunaTunes. We even buy them a beer when they join!”

Ed is also a wonderful mimic. I had the pleasure of hearing him do the voices of Donald Duck, Goofy, and Tony the Tiger – he even won a radio contest with his skills. 

They’re also both active volunteers for the Pageant of the Masters, Kathy as a make-up artist, at one point memorizing the first names of 150 participants. Ed revels in his role in The Last Supper.

“It’s a cycle,” Kathy says. “Patriots’ Day Parade, then the Pageant, then LagunaTunes…then it starts over again…that’s the rhythm of our lives and we love every moment, we appreciate every day in this beautiful part of the world, we share a sense of humor and that’s the most important thing.”

“And we meet the most wonderful people in Laguna,” Ed adds, “by just going with the flow. It’s the Hanke way.”

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Sam and Pamela Goldstein: An unlikely love that’s lasted nearly 60 years


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Sam Goldstein encountered Pamela Elliott exiting the steps of Pompeii, he pulled out his best pickup line: “Are you lost?” Though she wasn’t the least bit lost, that seductive sentence would prove prescient.

“For the last 59 years, Sam always finds me, no matter where I am,” Pam says. “In every sense of the phrase. For me, there’s something about that. It’s a very wonderful thing.”

“I don’t let her get too far astray,” Sam replies.

Neither Sam nor Pam could have known, standing on those ancient stairs in 1961, that this moment would begin an eight-week whirlwind romance that would sweep them across Italy, throughout Greece, and into Israel. Neither knew a tumultuous two-year courtship lay beyond that, nor a tender 57-year marriage (and counting). All Pam knew as Sam stood before her – looking quintessentially American – was that he seemed like a man she could trust.

“He had a Michelin Guide, a Bloomingdale’s sweater, and a nice little haircut,” Pam says. And so she followed him.

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Pamela and Sam Goldstein in their Lagunita home

East meets west

When they met, Pam was living in New York, an ex-pat from her hometown of London. She worked for the famed Austrian filmmaker Otto Preminger, who directed 35 feature films after a five-decade career in the theater. Pam beat out over 200 applicants for the coveted job as Preminger’s personal secretary. 

“If you were an English secretary with an English accent, you had it made in those days,” Pam says.

Twice nominated for Academy Awards, Preminger was known for pushing Hollywood’s boundaries. He tackled addiction issues (The Man with the Golden Arm), homosexuality (Advise and Consent), and rape (Anatomy of a Murder). His famed film Exodus – about the founding of the state of Israel – premiered in 1961 when Pam and Sam first crossed paths. Neither of them knew this would soon play a role in their romance.

Pam had left another distinguished position, working with Laura Hobson (author of Gentleman’s Agreement), to accept Preminger’s offer.

“Otto had a reputation for being a ghastly man with a terrible temper,” Pam recalls. “But he really was very charming and paternal. And far better than working with Laura.” When Preminger’s well-known temper finally showed itself to Pam, she let him have it. Otto returned the next morning and said, “Darling, your performance yesterday was magnificent.”

Preminger granted Pam an extended European holiday while he shot a film in Los Angeles. At 31, she was making her way alone through Italy when she met 26-year-old Sam. “He was much too young for me,” Pam says. “I’m an early cougar.”

Sam lived in Los Angeles. He took a year off from the music industry, where he toured with Eddie Fisher, Frank Sinatra, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard. Sam was a self-taught drummer whose gigs ranged from Carol Channing’s one-woman Broadway show (which Pam called “dreadful”) to the house drummer for The Lucille Ball Show. His 24-year career, spanning from 1954 to 1978, also saw him perform with Desi Arnaz, Judy Garland, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. 

When he met Pam, Sam only suspected the fame that awaited him back home. But 1961 was Sam’s year to travel. He was eager to share his adventures, and charming enough to convince Pam to join him.

A whirlwind European romance

Soon the two were perched above the Amalfi coast, lunching in a closed restaurant that Sam convinced the owner to open. “Being who he is,” Pam says. 

Sometime during that magical lunch, Sam invited Pam to join him in Positano, which led to Naples, followed by Florence, and then onto Rome. What began as a simple invitation to lunch soon blossomed into an eight-week escapade. “This is Sam,” Pam says. “He doesn’t tell you anything in advance. He waits until the day before, or even the minute before, to announce his next plan. He’s a social animal beyond belief.” 

At some point, Pam had to return her rental car and gave all her possessions (including a full wardrobe of fashionable NYC couture) to Sam for easier transport. Soon she found herself lost on a Naples autostrada – circling around and around – unable to exit. “I’m a stupid woman,” she told herself. “I gave everything I own to a man I hardly know. I have no idea who he is, where he’s headed, or how to find him again.” As Pam orbited around, reflecting on her misfortune, she spotted Sam’s car in her rearview mirror, and Sam flashing his lights and honking. 

“I’d been chasing her around this damn autostrada,” said Sam. As promised, he’d found her. 

sam and queen

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The Laguna Health Club, where Pam has worked out for the past 37 years, calls her “The Queen.” They threw her a 90th birthday bash last November, complete with a queen’s crown.

The couple eventually made their way to Venice, where Pam placed another call to Preminger, who granted her more time. So the two traveled through Greece – hitting Piraeus, Cypress, and Rhodes – then caught a Greek freighter ship to Israel. Pam is quick to add: “Separate rooms, of course.”

In Rome, given their diverse budgetary constraints, they stayed in separate hotels – Pam in Rome’s finest establishment and Sam at a “flea bag.” Musicians on year-long holidays learn to exist on $5/day. Pam had no such need.

In Israel, Exodus was making its premiere. Once the organizers discovered Pamela was in the audience, they rolled out the red carpet for the couple. The opportunity even afforded them a few days living on a private kibbutz. “The whole experience was just fascinating and extraordinary,” Pam says. “Quite a cultural education.”

The rocky road to happily-ever-after

Every good fairytale suffers its setbacks. Pam and Sam’s romance was no exception. Preminger eventually called Pam home, threatening her job if she wasn’t at her desk by Monday. Sam continued his European journey solo for the next six months.

Over the course of his year abroad, Sam logged 60,000 miles on his Volkswagen, traveling from North Africa to Scandinavia and every country in between. As his adventures accumulated, his savings dwindled. “I grew more and more destitute,” he said. All the while, he wrote long letters to Pam – one that eventually asked her for money.

“Quit emphasizing that part,” Pam tells him during the interview. “It makes you look bad.”

Pam had a nice situation on Manhattan’s east side. “I had a wonderful apartment, good friends, an amazing job, and quite an extraordinary life,” she said. “Sam had no job, no money, no car, and no place to live.” Isn’t every woman warned to steer clear of musicians? Pam told Sam, “I don’t know musicians. I only know composers.”

She urged Sam pull his life together. “You don’t have anything, Sam,” she told him. “Let me know when things get better.” Within a week, Sam had found an apartment, a job, and purchased a convertible. “People call Sam a freight train,” Pam says. He’s unstoppable.

Sam pleaded with her to move to Los Angeles and marry him. Pam wouldn’t budge. 

Sam began touring, staying at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, when Pam called. She wanted to fly out. “It’s not going to happen,” he told her. “I want to marry you. If you don’t marry me in 10 days, we’re finished.” After 90 minutes of discussion, Sam’s ultimatum worked. The couple married in April of 1963. Pam began touring with him and they settled in Los Angeles, purchasing their dream Rudolph Schindler home in Studio City.

When Sam retired from the music industry and shifted his focus to commercial real estate investments in 1978, they made Laguna Beach their final home.

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The Goldstein family portrait, circa 1970s. Sam and Pamela have two successful children. Serena followed in her father’s footsteps and pursued commercial real estate. She lives with her husband and 12-year-old son, Hayden, in North Laguna. Geoffrey lives with his wife, Chrissy, in Washington.

A foster child living under the fog of war

Pam possesses all the grace and sophistication of a British queen. Once you meet her, you can’t imagine her childhood as anything but decorous and chic. She gives the air of European finishing schools, an erudite upbringing, and a youth spent hobnobbing with New York’s social elite.

Pam is, after all, the woman who organized a charity auction for the Art Institute of Southern California at a Laguna Beach estate in the mid-1980s. True to her grandiose style, she hired a helicopter to hover over the event and spill 2,000 orchid and plumeria blossoms across the crowd.

“You know,” she said as the petals fell, “some parties smell simply terrible.” Imagine Pam’s silk Jacquard and chiffon gown, hand-painted by a local artist, in bold colors that matched the table linens. Imagine her Victoria Beach home filled with three original Don Bacardi portraits of Pam, punctuated with John Altoon paintings. Imagine the rest of the Goldstein’s substantial art collection and the stunning architecture designed to highlight it.

Now adjust your impression. Imagine, instead, a young Jewish girl born in London 10 years before the outbreak of World War II. Imagine her father dying of tuberculosis and her mother lacking the means to raise her. Imagine Pam entering foster care, enduring numerous evacuations as the war escalated while she came of age. Imagine the man her mother married refusing her entry back into her home, instead sending her across the Atlantic.

I can’t quite make out the word Pam uses to describe herself – a worrier or a warrior? “Both,” she says. “I’m a worrier. I’m very British in my thinking. I’m negative. I don’t know how I come across, but that’s how I feel.”

“Growing up without parents changes the landscape,” Sam says. “I’m very cognizant of that. I try to make Pam’s life as pleasant as possible.”

“He’s a healer,” Pam says. 

“I want to feed her soul. Maybe it’s Jewish guilt, but I want to give her chicken soup every day.”

How Sam struck gold

Sam, by contrast, is an optimist. “Beyond, beyond, beyond,” Pam says. “He’s a really good man. He’s honorable. He’s never done a mean thing – it’s quite remarkable. He’s rather a kind of Don Quixote figure.”

Perhaps Sam’s optimism allowed him to make the leap, in the late 1970s, from music to commercial real estate investing. “I have a mathematical mind,” Sam says. “Music is very mathematical.”

Sam began by buying two blocks of buildings across from CBS Studios and converting them into short-term rentals. His tenants became stars like Roseanne Barr, Gary Shandling, Larry Kasdan, and Mary Tyler Moore Productions. 

Laguna locals will recognize Sam as the owner of the historic 1930s Heisler Building that houses Skyloft and, until recently, Tommy Bahama. He’s also the co-founder of Laguna Beach Live!, and sits on the boards of several local nonprofits, primarily supporting the arts. 

sam and books

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Sam Goldstein, community activist, champion of the arts, co-founder of Laguna Beach Live!, owner of the Heisler Building, and devoted fan of his wife Pamela

His proudest accomplishment, Sam says, was helping pass the Business Improvement District tax in 2001, which includes a two percent hotel bed tax whose proceeds fund a number of artistic enterprises across our town, including the Playhouse, the art museum, and LCAD. The tax generates millions of dollars a year for the City.

Sam’s passionate nature runs deep. Both he and Pam have a keen eye for art and architecture, their home and its décor reflective of their fine taste. 

But it’s their taste for each other that’s withstood the test of time. Nearly 60 years, and the couple still seems smitten. “She’s 90, but she’s got the body of a 50-year old,” Sam says. 

“Write that down,” says Pam.

sam and smitten

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Sam and Pam, still smitten after 57 years of marriage

When I leave them, they’re already making plans for their evening together. Sam keeps a protective hand on his wife and, as I drive away, he guides her back inside. “There’s something about that,” I remember her saying. “It’s a wonderful thing.”

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President of Laguna Beach Garden Club, Nancy Englund: The more you look, the more you see


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Nancy Englund’s garden feels alive with motion: plants wriggle, float, and dangle in the air; succulents burst from the ground in an abundance of shapes, textures, and colors; they coil, cavort, and wrangle for space beside tipped amphoras, a koi pond, a fountain, and ceramic fish and figurines. 

The controlled chaos of Nancy’s garden is breathtaking, her penchant for whimsy evidenced in fun touches including a life-size treasure chest. Her enthusiasm, and her laughter, is infectious.

Nancy’s love of plants stems from her early experiences with her grandfather, a keen gardener.

“I’d toddle after him as he worked, and he’d twist me a fragrant crown out of jasmine,” she says. “My grandmother was blind, so he chose plants with wonderful scents, like yellow roses and lamb’s ear, and different textures, smooth or nubby or hairy, so she could enjoy them through smell and touch.

“Through him I learned something magical – that you can make plants from other plants. You don’t need seeds or a trip to the nursery.”

No surprise then that Nancy became a member of the Laguna Beach Garden Club, has headed up its Gate & Garden Tour for fifteen years, and is now its president. 

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Green-eyed Nancy Englund

Nancy’s choice to celebrate profusion over precision doesn’t mean that her decisions are random: quite the contrary, each plant earns its place among the others.

“Without some organization, the garden would look like tossed salad,” she says. “I purposely pick out plants with odd shapes that somehow complement each other.”

So it is that each part of her garden is differently dedicated and named, as in the section Fifty Shades of Green, showcasing every hue from olive to emerald to jade as well as Nancy’s great sense of humor.

Then there’s the blue and brown garden, the moonlight garden – where once a month, viewed from her kitchen window, the full moon is framed beneath the fronds of a palm – and a mermaid garden.

“I was inspired by the ocean because I was writing a live action screenplay about two mer-people,’” Nancy explains. “So I chose branches that resemble the shape of a coral reef and plants with wavy leaves and added ceramic octopuses and shells.”

Nancy created “portholes” through the vegetation alongside at a child’s height, so that any kid descending the stairs to the street is able to glimpse what looks like a magical underwater world. 

president of mermaid

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Nancy’s Mermaid Garden bursts with color

“It helps to have a sister who is a realtor, so she goes to lots of estate sales and she brings me back interesting stuff, like an old diving mask.” Then Nancy uses her imagination. She points to a large blue bubble-like item. “That was her bowling ball.”

Every part of the garden tells a story – and keeps a few secrets

Each part of Nancy’s garden feeds the senses; each is a marvel of imagination; each tells a story.

And several hold secrets. For example, an item which shall not be named, but which relates to her husband’s notoriety for his role as Freddy Krueger in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street – considered one of the greatest horror films of all time – is hidden next to one of the paths near a red-striped garden.

“I’d be surprised if many people in the Garden Club know I’m married to Robert Englund,” Nancy says, “Or maybe they do. I often used my maiden name when I joined clubs or attended events, only because I was terrified I might let something slip out about my husband that could be misinterpreted, or taken out of context and written up in the media.

“So one day, a new friend came over to my house and walked into the study where we’ve got dozens and dozens of photos of Robert and other memorabilia. She said to me, ‘My, you must be quite a fan.’ I had to confess I was married to Freddy Krueger.”

Turns out that Robert is quite handy in the garden, likes snipping at things…but not with a bladed leather glove. “He leaves the broad strokes to me but often brings home odds and ends – like this iridescent beetle – and he’ll create little scenes within scenes,” she says. “It’s perfect.”

Robert still travels quite a bit, to conventions and other movie events, and Nancy joins him when the destination appeals to her.

Naturally, she visits arboretums while on the trips. One favorite is in Dallas, Texas.

“Predictably, so many things are huge: topiaries, and a 20-foot peacock made out of flowers. When I visited, there were also lots of girls being photographed for their Quinceanera, so that made it quite spectacular.”

Another favorite is the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh.

“One section was given over to succulents, which is the last thing you expect in Scotland, but the best was the sanctuary containing more than 100 carnivorous plants,” she says.

So Nancy loves plants that kill, kidnap, and steal; that drug, drown, and devour meaty insects in their maw?

Which makes one wonder – does she have a little of Freddy in her? Has A Nightmare rubbed off on her?

Especially when you learn that cemeteries are among her other preferred sights to see, especially while traveling.

Favorite sights to see include cemeteries

 “I love the Monumental Cemetery in Milan, Italy, where people were buried in the 1800s,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see the play of light across the funeral art, the angels and other monuments.”

According to its website, the cemetery is “a stunning example of Art Nouveau and Symbolism achieved from a perfect meld of sumptuous Byzantine, Gothic, and Romanic traces, together with delicate color contrast obtained by the combination of pure white and greenish-grey marbles.”

No surprise there’s a bit of green in there to appeal to Nancy.

president of agave

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Nothing better than messing around in a garden

She also likes Brompton Road Cemetery in London, with its more than 200,000 resting places. Nancy is fascinated by the architecture of the monuments, who is buried next to whom, and the stories that the graves tell about that time in history.

And as evidence of her contemplative nature and enjoyment of art, she is impressed with the fact that Gothenburg Museum in Sweden provides portable stools, so that visitors can take them to sit on while gazing at paintings and sculptures for as long as an hour – or more.

“The more you look, the more you see,” she says.

The Garden Club is not just for gardeners

But Nancy is anxious to turn the subject back to the Laguna Beach Garden Club, which is holding an open house this coming Friday, Feb 14.

“We’ll have master gardeners on hand to answer questions, and plenty of container plants for sale. Everyone is welcome. It’s going to be fun. It’s at the Presbyterian Church on Forest Ave. And this year’s Gate & Garden tour is going to be spectacular.”

Nancy is bothered that some people think of the Garden Club as “little old ladies discussing begonias.”

“You don’t have to be an accomplished gardener to join, just someone who is curious, who takes joy in plants, who wants to learn new things,” she says. “There’s no need to own acres of land or orchards or anything like that.

“We have speakers about a range of topics. And they are almost without exception so interesting,” Nancy adds. “Someone was coming to talk about ikebana. I thought I would be bored stiff, I even thought about bringing a book. But it turned out to be a fascinating subject.”

Other speakers have given presentations on the design of Central Park, and the history behind Winnie-the-Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood, which still exists as a tourist attraction in England. 

president of treasure

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So many treasures to be found in Nancy’s garden

Other stereotypes abound when it comes to the Garden Club.

“A funny thing, when people hear that I’m the president of Laguna Beach Garden Club, for some reason they often assume that my garden is full of flowers, particularly roses, or they ask if I grow vegetables,” Nancy says. 

Roses require patience and a level of pickiness that doesn’t appeal to her, though, and vegetables take up too much space for the effort, in her view, and, she adds, sotto voce, “they attract pests.”

Instead her garden is filled with what Nancy calls “weirdos,” including euphorbia that look as though they dropped in from outer space, a thick-trunked Madagascar palm, and a Mexican weeping bamboo.

“I love the many shades and shapes of leaves and fronds and branches,” she says. “And I’m a sucker for succulents.”

In addition to her work at the Garden Club, Nancy volunteers at the Animal Shelter, where she mops and cleans, walks the animals, and answers the phone.

Her taste in food is as eclectic as her taste in plants. Favorite restaurants include Sapphire, Maro, Carmelita’s, San Shi Go, and Gina’s Pizza.

“And by now, I think Active Culture should name a salad after me. I love their food,” she adds.

Our time together is running out. Nancy takes me on a last lap around her garden. I spot a stunning chartreuse and periwinkle flower extending brush-like from a bromeliad. It’s gorgeous, weird, and unexpected, perfectly suited to its milieu.

Taking a final look at her motley plants, I think about what Nancy said about the paintings in Gothenburg Art Museum: The more you look, the more you see. 

There couldn’t be a better description of Nancy’s most magical of gardens.

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William Wheeler: The Extraordinary Life of an Intrepid Journalist


Photos by Mary Hurlbut and the Wheeler Family

When I interviewed William (Bill) Wheeler from his brownstone apartment in Brooklyn, his first book was five days away from publication. Bill had recently returned from Hong Kong, where he covered the escalating protests for an upcoming documentary. The following day, he planned to leave on a family trip to Costa Rica and, from there, to the Sundance Film Festival, where his Showtime documentary The Trade – a series chronicling human trafficking – would premiere. In the midst of it all, Bill was launching the book and beginning his promotional tour. 

This relentless schedule is typical for Bill, a freelance journalist whose work has spread across four continents, covering wars, natural disasters, gang violence, environmental threats, immigration issues, human interest stories, and more. 

William Wheeler close up

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Bill Wheeler returns to Laguna to promote his book, “State of War: MS-13 and El Salvador’s World of Violence” at Laguna Beach Books on Wednesday, Feb 5 at 5 p.m.

Bill’s written work has won numerous awards and appeared in such publications as the New York Times, TIME, Foreign Affairs, the New Republic, McSweeney’s Quarterly, and Playboy. His 2018 documentary Who Shot the Sheriff – a film about the Cold War assassination attempt on Bob Marley –received an Emmy nomination. In addition to producing several other documentaries for Netflix over the years, Bill also hosts the podcast “Detours: Conversations with Global Storytellers on Craft, the Road, and Bumps Along the Way.” 

How does all this happen for someone who hasn’t yet turned 40? In Bill’s case, it might be the perfect combination of nature, nurture, and the supportive seaside town that launched him. 

A courageous and tenacious nature

Apart from the exhausting balancing act, it takes tremendous bravery to ride into the gang-thick countryside of El Salvador – face concealed, bulletproof vest donned, notepad ready. Walking into the center of Libya’s civil war without the backing of a press corps or news agency requires a unique kind of courage. 

“Bill is intense,” says his mother, Reverend Virginia (Ginny) Wheeler. “Intense to talk to. Intense to look at. It’s been both a gift and a challenge in his life.” 

He’s also tenacious. In the late 1990s, Bill was one of only two football players who stuck with Laguna Beach High School’s losing team, serving as their captain to the bitter end. “Three years of varsity football without winning a game,” says Ginny. “He showed amazing tenacity and perseverance through adversity.” 

William Wheeler football

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Courtesy of Wheeler Family

Bill Wheeler, Laguna Beach High School’s 1998 football captain, with his mom, Reverend Ginny Wheeler

His high school work ethic earned him the Yale Book Award, the Irvine Spectrum Leadership Award, and his appointment as Junior Citizen of the Year in Laguna’s annual Patriots Day parade. 

That budding tenacity would become essential to Bill’s career. “He stuck with journalism when he had no business doing it,” Ginny says. “He called me from Columbia [University] in 2008. Everything was going digital. He asked if he should be going through their journalism program, taking on debt, when the industry was changing so dramatically.” 

As predicted, there were no jobs when Bill graduated. Veteran journalists were laid off everywhere. Several news outlets folded. “I didn’t see much future in the old career ladder approach in journalism,” Bill says. “The bottom was falling out of the industry.” 

After a year of working odd jobs around Laguna, including for local papers where staffers were being let go, Bill decided to take control. He packed a bag and began walking into the center of some of the world’s most fraught political conflicts and devastating natural disasters with no assignment and no news organization to back him. “He hung in there with crisis reporting,” Ginny said. His intrepid nature paid dividends.

How his mother’s ministry fostered global awareness

Nurture played its own role in forming Bill’s identity. In the early 1980s, when Bill was still a toddler, Ginny began her theology studies in pursuit of becoming a Methodist minister. They lived in Washington DC and 3-year-old Bill attended preschool on the seminary’s campus. The environment was vibrant, academic, and extremely diverse. Bill’s babysitter came from Ghana. “He was introduced to an international culture on campus,” says Ginny. “It opened him up to different cultures, intellectual pursuits, and campus life.”

Bill also received preschool training in social justice issues while accompanying his mom to anti-Apartheid protests, holding signs, and chanting alongside her. Then he applied what he’d learned to his bedtime routine, chanting: “Go to bed: No! Stay up: Yes!”

As Bill grew, Ginny’s missionary work took them to Cuba, Fiji, and Mexico. It also led them throughout Africa – Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. “It was a precarious time with bouts of violence,” Bill says of their 2000 trip to Zimbabwe. The Wheelers spent three weeks building housing for the faculty at Africa University, where Bill came to understand the political tensions burdening the country.


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Courtesy of Wheeler Family

Bill’s missionary trip to Cuba with Ginny, circa 2006

“Those trips were instrumental in giving me a perspective on the wider world and a real interest in learning about it,” says Bill. “They played a big role in shaping my career.”

Laguna’s important impact

Laguna became the perfect incubator for Bill, who grew up with the benefit of a tight-knit village community, plenty of supportive teachers and coaches, and a number of locals who encouraged his talent. 

When Ginny married Jim Jones in the mid-1990s, Bill was introduced to more of Laguna’s many facets. “Jim came to Laguna in the early 1970s and developed a sense of connection to the thread of old Laguna,” Bill says. “He was also a successful baseball coach and knew all the kids and their parents. Between all these worlds, we had this entrée into multigenerational, old-style, village Laguna life. It was a cool way to grow up.” 

Bill also credits a number of his high school teachers with encouraging his talent and shaping his career. Among them, Rodrigo Ortiz, Dee Brislan, Cathy Dunlap, and Jonathan Todd. 

When he graduated, Bill received the Festival of Arts annual writing scholarship. The award, first granted in 1957, boosted Bill’s confidence. “I understand that I was in the top half of one percent who have access to this kind of education and these kinds of opportunities. The Festival of Arts puts real skin in the game to support and nurture people pursuing creative paths. I can’t overstate how influential that was on me at ages 18-20. Not only was it economically significant, but it gave me the courage to believe this career was something I could pursue.”

This strong academic foundation paved the road for his undergraduate degree from Berkeley and his graduate degrees in international affairs and journalism from Columbia.   

The story behind the stories

Often surviving on little more than protein bars and scooter transport, Bill’s days aren’t all glamorous. But from that first trip to Beirut in 2007 to his recent work in Hong Kong, Bill has covered stories throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. More important than the pieces he’s reported is his careful approach to how he covers them.

Reputable reporters bring with them no preconceived notions. “People often think journalism comes from a place of assumption or bias,” says Bill. “Good journalism changes minds. It’s evidence-based and informed by the data I pick up while I’m reporting,” says Bill. “If I’m doing it right, my initial conceptions are usually either wrong or more interesting in ways I haven’t considered.”

That scientific detachment allows Bill to see patterns emerge, even when the details look different. “I was in Libya during and after their civil war and could begin seeing the rise of fascism in Europe,” he says. “Libya revealed the cracks in Europe. I could see what was coming when the Syrian refugee crisis increased those fissures. The far-right populace groups grew in Greece and Hungry, and used that division to come to power.”

State of War: The past as prologue

In many ways, Bill says, all this prior work topically culminated in his newly released book. State of War: MS-13 and El Salvador’s World of Violence tracks the brutal gang and its near 40-year history that spread across the United States and back to Central America. It debunks many myths and misconceptions about how the gang operates and thrives. 

William Wheeler bookcover

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

“State of War” was published last month by Columbia Global Reports
Background photo of Bill in Zimbabwe, circa 2000

“The book I started to write is very different from the book it became,” he says. “I got so much material. The only way I could tell it was to dutifully give a record of what happened.” Bill recognized recurring patterns from previous reporting and understood how governments often exerted their power to perpetuate violence. 

“I’m proud of the sum total of what I set out to do with it and, to a greater extent than I had expected, what I was able to achieve,” Bill says. “The book offers a glimpse of what’s going on behind the curtain in these Central American countries, what our own very real culpability is, and the tragic costs – measured in human lives. I feel privileged to have been able to document that reality and have a venue to convey it to a wider audience. That’s the kind of journalism that I find the most inspiring, the kind I get excited to practice. When you’re able to accomplish something that feels meaningful, it makes the other tribulations along the road seem worth it.” 

William Wheeler holding book

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Assessing the real risks

How much danger does Bill actually experience? “The sense of threat can be misleading,” Bill says. “The things you expect to go wrong don’t, because that’s not how the world works. Until they do.” 

El Salvador provides the perfect example. Bill drove around for two weeks in a bulletproof vest and balaclava, following gangs who kidnapped off-duty officers and buried them in shallow graves. Nothing happened. “But sitting in coffee shops, talking to drug lords, I realized I’m on all these dangerous men’s radar. When you follow corruption up to high and scary places – that’s what people are getting murdered over.” 

In Libya, the real danger came when locals thought the violence might be over. They celebrated by shooting massive antiaircraft guns into the night sky. Bullets rained down over Tripoli, killing civilians where they stood. Bill hid in his hotel room with a bottle of whiskey. “What else are you going to do?” he laughs.

Still, Bill says, he’s never felt particularly scared. “The danger isn’t as monolithic as we think from watching Jack Ryan films.”

We talk about tense moments covering Libya and Gaddafi. We talk more about El Salvador. Then Bill turns serious. “I want to be very clear on this point,” he says. “If you go into places like Libya or El Salvador, you’re supposed to brand yourself as a ‘dangerous places’ journalist. People lean into that. That can be misleading. The people I know and respect – journalists who have done this for a long time – are risk adverse. They’re calculated and conservative in their decision-making process. They don’t like to play up the danger at all.”

William Wheeler working

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Bill at work at Jim and Ginny’s home on Jasmine Street

The future of journalism

Meanwhile, journalists have other burdens to bear. The media industry is shifting beneath them. Financial incentives have fallen away. Journalists are often targets, and fewer institutions remain committed to protecting them.

“The issues are partly economic,” says Bill. “The Internet killed our advertising model. It’s also partly our leadership, which translates into real risks when you’re out in the field.” 

It’s the freelancers who usually pay the price, Bill says. “You don’t have $1,000 in your boot to get you out of trouble, or a prestigious media organization to go to the mat for you if you get picked up by a hostile foreign country or terrorist group.” Overlaid over that, he says, is a lack of commitment by our government to help American journalists kidnapped abroad. 

Finally, of course, is the escalating issue of confirmation bias. “Everyone is going into like-minded corners of the Internet to reaffirm their beliefs,” Bill says. “Both Boomers and Millennials have a real distrust in mainstream journalists. Then you have fringe groups fueling their own propaganda. And now you’ve got someone in the White House and other Parliaments who are actively painting journalists as the enemy.

“It’s difficult when no one cares and no one trusts you. It’s hard to measure the impact. At the same time, without anyone telling these stories, there’s another kind of impact.”

With print publications faltering, Bill sees real opportunity for evolving multimedia platforms. “Documentaries are a new frontier in storytelling,” he says. “I see some interesting opportunities there.”

In the meantime, the state of our complicated world will keep him busy. “It’s harder to do this job than it’s ever been,” Bill says. “But it’s also more rewarding.”

William Wheeler living room

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Bill at his high school home on Jasmine Street 

Bill will discuss and sign State of War: MS-13 and El Salvador’s World of Violence at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb 5, at Laguna Beach Books, 1200 South Coast Hwy.

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Where’s Wally? At the heart of the Playhouse, of course


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Ask most male actors what roles they’d love to play, and you’re likely to be told Lear, or Hamlet, or maybe even Hannibal Lecter.

But you won’t hear that from the mouth of Wally Ziegler, one of the Laguna Playhouse’s most recognizable and beloved staff members. 

No, in high school, Wally was thrilled to be chosen to play Elwood P Dowd, a character whose relationship with a large invisible rabbit named Harvey leads to a stay in a mental hospital, until he is set free and his eccentricities finally accepted.

Wally would have been excited to play Elwood again as an adult, but his acting career never really took off in the way he’d hoped.

Still, his love of the role makes perfect sense when you learn that he practiced as a psychiatrist back in the mid-eighties after earning his MD in Guadalajara, Mexico. 

Not that Wally stayed in that profession for long.

“The red tape, the politics, and the drama, it all drove me crazy,” he says, in the colloquial sense of the word, of course. 

But to this day, he’s fascinated by the workings of the human mind.

Wheres wally wally

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Wally Ziegler, beloved of Playhouse staff and patrons

So Wally left the medical world and in 1986 took a job as a bartender at his brother Karl’s Laguna Village Café, located where The Cliff now stands, immediately reducing his stress levels. 

Then he began volunteering at the Playhouse.

Most patrons, even those who’ve known Wally for years as the amiable, pony-tailed guy milling around the front of house, making sure all is going well on show nights, have no idea quite how integral he is and has been to the functioning of the Playhouse in the past few decades.

But we’ll get to that a little later.

Growing up: A hippie at war

Wally grew up in Altadena and attended Pasadena High School, where he took part in many school plays. He was also a member of the Pasadena Boys Choir, and sang arias from operas including Carmen and Tosca.

“But I was never going to be a triple threat,” he says. “Can’t dance!”

He attended Washington State University. Then came Vietnam.

“I got drafted in 1967. I became a conscientious objector, but then I decided I wanted to serve our country in battle to help the wounded. After extensive training with Special Forces Medical Training, I was sent to Vietnam as a combat medic,” Wally recalls.

“During the war, my brother Karl was living in South Laguna with hippies and protesters, and he’d send me pictures of him and friends in marches or parades, and I would put them up in my hooches in ‘Nam,” he adds. “The guys would take a look at them and cheer, they’d say, yes, please, tell them, get us out of here!”

Once he got back to the States in 1970, Wally fully embraced hippie-dom.

“I decorated my field jacket from the Army with flowers, peace signs, and anti-war slogans. The ‘V’ for victory sign became the peace sign, and I’ve used it as a greeting and a goodbye sign ever since,” he says. 

“Hey, I’m still a hippie. I continue to let my Freak Flag wave, that’s my long hair.”

Wheres Wally memorabilia

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Theatre memorabilia 

“Wally’s World,” as his cubby backstage and down some stairs is known, is crammed with theatre memorabilia including half a rubber skeleton, an unopened bottle of Guinness gifted to him by an Irish director, Russian dolls, posters, flyers, and photos of the many actors he has known through the years – and, naturally, a large peace sign.

Ushering in a new era

In 1995, after two years as a paid staff member, Wally was appointed House Manager, with duties that included dealing with actors’ contracts, Equity requirements, housing, transportation, and rehearsals, to mention just a few of his responsibilities.

Later he added two more hats: he worked as the prop master and casting coordinator, helping director Andy Barnacle with logistics and decision-making.

“We’d get as many as 600 submissions, and we’d audition 60-120 people every day, choosing three to four actors for each role,” Wally says. “Over time you develop an instinct, you can tell who feels it, who is going to evoke emotion, and who is just mouthing things. Though there was one woman who aced the audition and she was terrible in the play. It happens.”

Although Wally has cast many, many stars, his most memorable was Julie Harris, the five-time Tony award-winning actress in her role as The Belle of Amherst.

Wally’s knowledge of psychiatry turned out to be extremely valuable in his new profession.

“Actors are a rare breed in their motivations, behavior, and personalities because of the roles that they portray, and the veteran actors become more and more adept on taking on so many different characteristics other than their own,” Wally explains. 

“Working with them, helping them with their challenges across the board, I’d use techniques similar to those I’d used as a therapist.

“Several times I was a technical advisor to war plays we produced, because of my experience in Vietnam, and many directors/actors would ask me about behaviors or motivations of a certain character in a play.”

Dealing with the bigwigs – and the little wigs…

“In those days and now, as Artist and Audience Services Manager, I deal with the bigwigs – and the little wigs,” he says. “I work with everyone, from the box office to the actors to the marketing department to the janitorial staff.”

Wheres wally backstage

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Wally backstage: He’s familiar with every aspect of Playhouse operations

Over time, Wally has become a resident doctor of sorts at the Playhouse, his medical degree coming in useful too.

“In my earlier years we had many patrons fall because we didn’t have handrails or good lighting,” Wally says. “It became the assumption that at least one person would fall at each show. So I would attend those patients, or call in the paramedics. We added more aisle lights and handrails, and then constructed new steps all the same height.

“That meant many fewer falls, but we still had medical emergencies. One time a box office member ran out to me a few minutes before our show started and said, ‘Wally, I think one of your ushers has just died!’ I ran to the office and she was slumped over and not breathing and no heartbeat. I initiated cardiac massage while the paramedics were called and I did get the heart started and had her breathing when they arrived.” 

Fun with props

As prop master also, Wally haunted consignment and antique stores for items as disparate as rotary phones and, once, a huge observatory-style telescope for the play Stella by Starlight borrowed from its owner in Anaheim. It was insured for a million dollars.

“One of the most fun and interesting props was from Main Beach for a scene involving the ocean. We brought in loads and loads of sand onto the stage. Another show we had a Venetian canal filled with water and a gondola paddling through,” he says.

Wally by the numbers

“Ask Wally, that’s what people say when they want to know any trivia about the Playhouse,” he’s proud to say, his passion for the place practically palpable.

At this point, he’s been involved in 180 Main Stage productions, 85 Youth Theatre productions, and 79 shorter engagements.

He owns 80 ties, which he wears with his suit every show night, theming them according to the current production. One favorite resembles a parrot, another a Gibson guitar. He brings out his piano-themed tie whenever Hershey Felder is on stage.

Wheres wally ties

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Wally loves his ties – he chooses them depending on the shows

Wally loves driving. His “Yellow Baby” – a Volkswagen Beetle – reached 440,000 miles. His current car is clocking in at 160,000 miles. He bought a house in Lake Arrowhead last year and makes the 160-mile commute five days a week.

“I’ve been to 63 out of the last 64 Rose Bowl games,” he adds. “I missed 1970 because I was in Vietnam, but I watched it on Armed Forces TV.”

He’s still standing

While Wally’s role has changed over the years, the 71-year-old still sets up appointments for the Main Stage and Youth Theatre, acts as “middle man” for all departments, orders custodial and other supplies, is in charge of front of house, and mans the patio bar, among numerous other duties. 

Wally treasures Tamzen, his Border Collie, who comes to work with him every day (as do 11 other Playhouse dogs with their people). 

Tamzen is his surrogate Harvey, his comfort, the one he can talk to about his deepest thoughts, knowing he can rely on her loyalty, her love, and her ability to keep secrets. Skittish around kids, “she’s a one-man woman,” Wally says affectionately.

With that, a smile, and a peace sign, he ducks back into Wally’s World, blending into the background, one of the many irreplaceable treasures to be found at the very heart of the Playhouse.

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Soccer coach and teacher Mike Thomas 

says it takes a village to build a team


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Perhaps no man has better internalized the phrase “No man is an island,” than the man who grew up on the Isle of Man. Mike Thomas not only believes John Donne’s famous line, he’s assimilated it into his everyday life. It guides his career choices, informs the way he coaches on the field and teaches in his classroom, underlies how he raises his own three children, and governs how he allocates his very busy time. His life is lived for others. He not only acknowledges the importance of his community, but he makes daily decisions to actively support it.

Though born and raised on the other side of the world, in a climate and culture far different than Southern California’s sunny skies and palm trees, when Mike Thomas discovered Laguna in his mid-30s, he felt like he’d come home. He recognized our close-knit ties, appreciating how Laguna’s residents relied on each other, encouraged each other, and gave back to their town. “These are the kinds of people who go out of their way to help others,” Mike says. “Laguna is a small town with a big heart. People rally around those who need it, making opportunities accessible and affordable for those who deserve it. There are so many people quietly contributing in the background who never get recognized. That rings true with my own upbringing.”

Soccer coach close up

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Mike Thomas at home on the LBHS soccer field

Mike brought with him all he’d learned from his homeland – a love of sports, a dedication to teaching and helping children develop their talents, and a commitment to his community. Those traits meshed well with our town, a place that needed his skills and offered up generation after generation of eager players.

Growing up Manx

In the center of the Irish Sea, sandwiched between Great Britain and Ireland, sits a rock 11 miles wide and 30 miles long (roughly the length of Catalina though twice as wide). The Isle of Man has been continuously inhabited since 6500 BC, and today is home to around 83,000 people. Famous for its annual Tourist Trophy motorcycle race – a roughly 38-mile race through the streets of the island, one of the most dangerous racing events in the world – and the Manx cat breed, the island is self-governing (though defense is provided by Britain and the Queen is their symbolic figurehead). UNESCO awarded the island Biosphere Reserve Status in 2016. It was the first national legislature in the world to award single women the right to vote in the 19th century, making it both insular and progressive. It’s also known for being a tax haven with a low-tax economy.

Islanders are hardy and self-sufficient, a necessity to survive their inclement weather. Getting off the island is no easy feat, requiring a four-hour ferry ride or a costly flight. Though there are five high schools and there are virtually no universities, so those who wish to pursue higher education must leave.

Mike’s island roots on his mother’s side stretch all the way back. Her family was one of the Isle of Man’s original inhabitants. She is a Kelly, from the 1908 song “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?” about a Manx woman searching for her boyfriend in London. At age 85, Mike’s mother still resides there, though she’s independent and strong enough to visit her Orange County sons somewhat often.

Mike’s father, a housepainter by trade, hailed from Liverpool. The couple met on the island in their teens, after his father’s family relocated, and raised their three sons. Two of the three – Mike and his brother, Andy – now coach soccer in our town. 

Soccer coach Andy and Mike

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Andy and Mike on the soccer field

In 1997, while Andy was coaching the Laguna Beach High School team, Mike brought his team over from the Isle of Man to play against the Breakers. It was Thanksgiving and 80 degrees in Orange County, far different than the frigid temperatures and cutting wind that awaited him back home. While both brothers were in Laguna, their teams locked in competition, they learned their father had suddenly passed. “That really knocked me for a loop,” Mike says. “My dad was only 65. He’d just retired.” The event marked a turning point for Mike. He returned home and announced to the principal he was leaving to join Andy in California. He came to coach high school girls’ varsity in May of 1998 and has remained in the United States since.

A lifelong love of the game

Maybe not every English boy grows up wanting to become a soccer star. Maybe it’s only every other one. But the Thomas boys both did. “We played every sport under the sun,” says Mike. It was their mother’s way of keeping three boys out of trouble. “Cricket, squash, field hockey, badminton, and gymnastics.” Mike excelled in vaulting. “Soccer (or football) was our passion. Growing up in England, we all wanted to be professional soccer players. But being stuck on a rock in the middle of the Irish Sea made it difficult.”

Mike and Andy were so talented that they were able to travel with the sport. Mike made his way off the Isle of Man when he was 18 to attend college in the UK. He earned a scholarship to Carnegie School of Sport through Leeds Beckett University, the top school for a degree in physical education. Andy followed after him. “Education was always the top priority in my family,” he says. “Physical education was always a potential pathway there.” Mike earned his degree with honors and was quickly recruited to the Greek Island of Cypress to teach tennis at a local resort. “I didn’t manage to attend my own graduation because I’d already moved to teach,” he says. 

Soon he was recruited by a professional team in Cypress to play soccer. For the next several years, he bounced around Europe (even spending some years back at the Isle of Man), all the time teaching and coaching the sport he loved. 

The tradition he began in the mid-90s, bringing boys from the Isle to Laguna each year to compete, continues to this day. “Three coaches stay in our two-bedroom apartment with us, and maybe a few players,” Mike says. “It’s a great experience for these boys to come over. Not only have they never been to the United States, most have never been off the Isle of Man.”

In 2016, Mike and Andy established the Laguna Beach Chapter of the Pateadores soccer club (a Spanish slang term that means “kickers”), and both serve as Directors. Mike also recently began the Laguna Beach Football Club (LBFC). “I love that Laguna encourages you to do things and try things,” Mike says. “You’re never knocked down or put down. The town has given me opportunities to try things I never would have done otherwise.” Today, between the high school team and club soccer, Mike coaches at least five days a week. “To quote the famous line,” Mike says, “I’ll rest when I’m dead. I just want to keep busy trying things, doing things, and living life to the fullest.” 

Soccer coach demonstration

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Mike demonstrating his footwork moves to the team

Manx meets Laguna

Mike scored his perfect match with his wife, Allison Thomas (nee Corradini), whom he calls “the love of his life.” Of course the two met over soccer (she was coaching the girls’ JV team) and, of course, they met in Laguna. Allison’s family has a long lineage here. Her parents ran the old toy store and her brother, Andrew, is known for his big beard and indie folk rock performances around town. 

Allison shares Mike’s strong ties to teaching, having worked for years with special education students and at the Presbyterian preschool in town, following in the footsteps of her father, who was also a teacher. Today she works for the school district. “Education is in our blood,” Mike says.

Mike and Allison have three children of their own – Keegan (16), Kayleigh (13), and Cami (who turns 11 this week) – all dedicated to soccer. Mike coaches his two daughters. “I’m sure they’ll get sick of me soon,” he smiles.

Soccer coach family

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Kayleigh, Allison, Mike, Keegan, and Cami at their second home – the soccer field

Teaching runs through the Thomas family’s blood

Mike has taught for 31 years. He’s spent the last seven at Laguna’s Anneliese Schools teaching 4th grade. “It’s a special place,” Mike says. “There aren’t many schools like that with amazing programs that allow us to educate rather than teaching to a test. We focus on creating good people and good humans who will become productive in society, teaching life skills and good humanistic qualities.”

Mike incorporates traditions from his own heritage, exposing his students to another culture through songs and stories. Of course he’s also brought soccer to the school, introducing competitive sports on campus. “It’s a small school, so we do very well,” he says.

Mike’s extensive background teaching in various California schools (including a special education classroom), a Florida school, and overseas makes him an ideal and beloved teacher. Once he laid eyes on the Manzanita campus, he knew he’d found his ideal spot. “Is this really a school?” he thought. “This is it. This is the place that could reignite my passion for teaching.” 

To receive is to give

Perhaps because Mike and Allison have been on the receiving end of Laguna’s generosity, it’s even more important to Mike to keep his focus on giving back. 

In 2013, shortly after moving to town, toxic mold struck their apartment, forcing them to move out. Nearly six years later, a serious but soon resolved medical issue befell one of his daughters. These events sent the Thomas family for a few unfortunate spins. But our residents united behind them, finding safe and affordable accommodations for the family in 2013, and contributing funds and meals during their daughter’s procedures last year.

Soccer coach Kayleigh

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Kayleigh practicing her moves on the field

“That’s why I feel so strongly for this place,” Mike says. “I already knew Laguna was special, but the community rallied around our family and supported us. That’s the true heart of Laguna. People think this is a rich person’s playground. But this is like any community. There’s always a story behind the façade. It’s not what people see from the outside. I’ve realized, like the Isle of Man, Laguna is one of those hidden gems.”

Spending time with Mike makes it easy to fall in love with Laguna all over again. This time, not for the natural beauty or the storied history. Not for the town’s many creative spirits or ambitious intellectuals. But for how we rise when the cards are down. We become our better selves when life deals one of us a blow, realizing we’re all a piece of this continent, a part of the main. We seem to instinctively understand the bell tolls for all of us. 

“This place feels like the magnet that pulls me back,” Mike says. “It’s the people and the place and the community that do that. Wherever I am, I want to come back here.”

“No Man is an Island”

John Donne

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

For more information on supporting our local soccer teams by providing scholarship funds and other donations for talented players who can’t afford to participate, contact Mike at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Associate editor/writer Dianne Russell: What you don’t know about her might surprise you


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Dianne Russell, associate editor of Stu News Laguna for more than two years, is well known around town for her beautifully written articles on subjects ranging from predatory tarantula wasps to the miraculous recovery of a lost wedding ring. 

She’s perceived as a friendly, warm, curious person (curious about others, that is!), who wouldn’t harm a fly.

That is true: she wouldn’t harm a fly, well, except under extreme duress. 

Dianne has an incredibly soft heart when it comes to animals. To wit: though, like most people, she doesn’t like rats in her house, one day, upon coming across a helpless baby rat that her cat Anabel brought in, she could not resist feeding it with soy milk from a dropper. Sadly, it died despite her efforts.

Associate editor Dianne

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Dianne Russell, a many-splendored person

But listen up – before you start thinking she’s hopelessly sentimental, let me tell you something: there’s a dark side to Dianne. She loves horror movies, can’t get enough of them, and revels in cinematic blood and gore. Rosemary’s Baby is one of her favorites. 

Horror aficionado

“I watch Rosemary’s Baby probably twice a year. It came out in 1968, so that equals about 100 times. I love it because it’s set in New York at the Dakota. It’s both psychological and supernatural horror – the best kind – and I love Ruth Gordon, who played Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes’ next door neighbor,” she says. “I also like Alien, The Exorcist, The Shining, The Thing, and Silence of the Lambs, as well as more recent ones: Hereditary; It Follows.

“I’m not sure why I like them. Maybe it’s the surprise element (though not much of a surprise when I’ve seen them before) and the excitement of experiencing the unknown? I can’t think of any logical reason.”

Marathon runner

Dianne started her family at a young age. When sons Ronnie, now an animation colorist at Cartoon Network, and Brent, an avid skier who now lives in Steamboat Springs, Colo., left home, she was barely 40. She decided she needed new interests.

“One of my friends got me started running when I was 38. Then I joined a track club. We met once a week. I’ve done a bunch of five and 10Ks, 50 or more half-marathons, seven marathons, and one ultra-marathon in Bishop, Calif. I mostly competed in the 1980s, but some in the 90s.

“I’ve also done Bay to Breakers in San Francisco twice – it’s a 12K whose big draw is that it attracts nude runners, and I did see a few, though it’s not a pretty sight.

“I used to love to run the trails here, Dartmoor especially. I started having periodic back problems and stopped for a while and then just never picked it up again. I think I got it into my head that I was too old – or maybe I just got lazy. I miss it terribly. I’ve never experienced anything close to the feeling of runner’s high. I love hiking but it’s not the same.”


Unsurprisingly, one of Dianne’s favorite articles for Stu News involved an interview with LBPD’s K-9, Ranger. “He wasn’t very talkative,” she admits. “But I did find out some interesting things about him. Like, his favorite sound is food going into his bowl. He hates the sound of a lawnmower, though.” 

Associate editor Charley

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Dianne with family member Charley, an Australian Shepherd

Passionate about dogs, she’s often seen in Heisler Park walking her 11-year-old Australian Shepherd, Charley. She’ll stop to talk to anyone and everyone about dog-related matters, from flea repellents to the relative friendliness of different breeds.

Charley is supposed to be a herder. But when Dianne took him to a place in Orange where several sheep and a cow are kept specifically to provide enjoyment for canines of the herding kind, she learned quickly that Charley was a city dog.

“He looked at the cow and then at me. I believe he rolled his eyes. I think he thought I was insane to imagine this was something he’d enjoy,” she says.

Charley was preceded by adored Golden Retrievers Greta and Sadie. And Anabel the cat, because Dianne loves cats too. She regularly takes care of my cat Boris when Bill and I are away for the weekend, and she’s one of the few people he’ll stick around to greet when he hears a knock at the door.

Sushi devotee

And then there’s her love of sushi, specifically Taiko in Irvine, known throughout Southern California for its authenticity. Patrons are willing to wait in line for hours just to sit at the sushi bar.

Associate editor Ron

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Ron and Dianne love living in Laguna

“We started going there over 40 years ago. We used to go more, but now we only go on [son] Ronnie’s birthday. I used to sit outside on a lawn chair from around 2 in the afternoon to be sure that we got seats at Chef Suzuki’s section of the sushi bar when the restaurant opened at 5,” she says. 

“Sadly, Suzuki retired last year. Both my grandsons, Forrest and Terry, started going there when they were too young to have sushi and had to order chicken teriyaki.”

Her favorite sushi is a spicy tuna roll. She also enjoys local restaurants, with mussels and peri peri prawns at the top of her list to order.

A (very) creative writer

In her fifties, Dianne began studying for her BA at UCI, and embarked on fiction writing while at the same time holding down a full-time job with Bayer Corporation.

Since then, every other Thursday night, she and her pal Marrie Stone attend a workshop to share their writing and get and give feedback. 

Dianne is a published short story writer and is currently working on a novel with some gruesome aspects. I would expect no less. 

She retired in her sixties and unretired in her seventies to work for Stu News.

“I don’t think I’ve ever worked this hard in all my life!” she says. “But I love meeting new people and writing stories about life in Laguna.”

The happy hiker

And then there are the trails in the Coast Wilderness Park. Dianne and I try to walk at least twice a week, though work, rain, and family challenges don’t always make it possible. She’s 12 years older than I am, but she’s just as capable of hiking the hills. (Though we are known to stop frequently on the Dartmoor Trail, ostensibly to admire the view.)

Associate editor Work

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Dianne at work: is she murdering a character in her novel, or writing one of her fabulous articles for Stu News? Hard to tell; she’s inscrutable.

“I like Barbara’s Lake and Sycamore Trail – which I’ve only done a few times,” she says. “I did a full moon hike up Willow, and that was amazing.”

Coming across a rattlesnake with a mouse halfway down its throat remains one of the most astonishing things we’ve seen on the trails.

“There’s always something new,” Dianne says. “We’ve seen coyotes, lots of bunnies, ground squirrels, and red-tailed hawks, not to mention an escaped pet iguana.”

Born and bred in Orange County

Her OC pedigree is untouchable. She grew up in Santa Ana, which she remembers as a wonderful place, when downtown was where everyone went to see friends. “It’s very different now. All the places that marked my childhood are radically changed or gone.”

Prior to WWII, Dianne’s mother loved to swing dance to the famous bands of the era at the Rendezvous Ballroom on Balboa Island and at the Pavilion on Catalina. In the 1930s, Dianne’s grandfather had a cottage in Crystal Cove, #2.

“My mother used to bring me to Laguna in the forties and fifties, and I thought it was a magical place,” she says. “I always wanted to live here. It took a long time, but I finally made it in 1998.”

Friend extraordinaire

What else can I say about Dianne? She is a vault. Tell Dianne something you don’t want anyone else to know and you can be one hundred percent sure that no one will ever know – not even her doting husband Ron. She’s a very private person. Reading this article about her will be agony, she tells me, though I think she might like it. I hope so.

I am beyond blessed that she is my best friend and has been for 20 years. There aren’t too many like her in this world. She’s thoughtful, kind, and hilarious. 

Oh – but don’t cross her (I would never dare…). She’s no pushover. If you’re nasty to her, or to an animal (heaven forbid), she may write you into her novel. And there your character has a good chance of being murdered in the most horrible of ways…as sweet Dianne smiles her inscrutable smile and taps away at her keyboard, quietly channeling scenes from her favorite horror movie.

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO -

Lana Johnson, Editor -

Tom Johnson, Publisher -

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

Alexis Amaradio, Dennis McTighe, Marrie Stone, Sara Hall, Suzie Harrison and Theresa Keegan are our writers and/or columnists.

In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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