Archive for March, 2014


The Century of Cinema


By Mark Lewis

In the spring of 1914, America’s love affair with the movies was entering an exciting new phase. All across the nation, tiny storefront nickelodeons playing one- and two-reelers were giving way to exotic-looking movie theaters with much bigger screens, the better to showcase the new feature-length films. In New York, the first full-fledged movie palace, the Mark Strand, opened in Times Square on April 11. In Hollywood, D.W. Griffith was gearing up to film “The Birth of a Nation.” And people everywhere were addicted to “The Perils of Pauline,” a thrilling new cliffhanger serial starring Pearl White. The dastardly villain had left her tied up on the railroad tracks, with a train fast approaching. However would she escape? Ojai Valley residents would have to travel to Ventura to find out, for there was no movie theater in the valley.

Getting to Ventura was quite a chore that spring. In late January, the great flood of 1914 had torn up the railroad tracks, wiped out the highway and knocked down the telegraph and telephone poles, cutting the valley off from the outside world. Much of the damage had been repaired by April 17, when the valley’s leading citizens gathered at Edward Libbey’s Ojai Inn for a banquet and a strategy session. Their top priority was to persuade the county to build a new, higher-and-dryer highway that would not be washed away by the next flood. They were thinking about their own perils, not those of Pauline.

But one man present at that banquet was more attuned to the goings on in Hollywood. J. J. Burke knew little or nothing about the picture business, but he knew quite a lot about the real estate business, and he smelled opportunity. The point of the banquet was to shape the valley’s future, and Burke already had taken steps to assure that that future would include a movie theater.



Edward Drummond Libbey was not one of the banquet’s scheduled speakers. But when toastmaster Sherman D. Thacher invited him to say a few words, Libbey rose to his feet.

“As a pleasant surprise to many, E.D. Libbey responded to a request from the toastmaster and gave a witty and entertaining talk, relative to his new interests in this place,” the town newspaper later reported. “He spoke of our great possibilities and of the future of the valley if we organized ourselves into a body for the advancement of the interests and the enterprises of the community.”

Libbey wanted to transform the town’s ramshackle business district into an architectural gem. He had just bought the blacksmith shop at the southeast corner of Signal Street and Ojai Avenue, where one day his Post Office Tower would rise. But to fully realize his vision, Libbey would have to persuade the town’s business owners to buy into his concept. He needed the support of one man in particular: J. J. Burke, whose real estate office sat directly across Ojai Avenue from the Ojai Inn. (Burke’s old office is still there, in the Arcade; nowadays it houses the Love Heals jewelry store.)

Burke was the town’s main mover and shaker, the man primarily responsible for bringing in the railroad, for building the Foothills Hotel, for founding the Ojai State Bank, and for wiring the valley for electricity. Burke was a practical-minded, bottom-line guy; if he supported Libbey, the other businessmen would fall in line. So Libbey must have been pleased when Burke rose to endorse a civic-minded agenda.

“In this beautiful, quiet spot, we have a tendency to withdraw deeper into our human shells, and only gatherings of this kind can foster a spirit of public interest and good brotherly feeling that will rebound to the benefit of both community and individual,” Burke said. “A good many years ago, I resolved to be a booster and an optimist. Today I am both, and I hope the future will see me in the same old bandwagon.”

Burke in fact had already put his money where his mouth was. Earlier that very day he had bought the building on the southwest corner of Signal and Ojai Avenue, right across the street from Libbey’s newly acquired blacksmith shop. This unassuming wood-frame structure housed the newspaper office and printing shop, a butcher shop and an ice plant. Burke’s plan was to remodel it into something much more impressive-looking.

The building “will be practically new and will be enlarged,” the newspaper reported on May 1. “An up-to-date and artistic front will adorn the place, but just what style of architecture will be used has not yet been fully decided on.”

Burke’s bank building, a block to the east, was an impressive-looking neoclassical edifice made of brick. But for his new building at Signal Street, Burke ended up choosing the Mission Revival style. Thus did downtown Ojai acquire its first Mission-style building, fully two years before Libbey’s work crews began to erect the Post Office Tower, the Pergola and the Arcade. Burke in effect had laid the cornerstone for Libbey’s dream. But Burke added a twist of his own. He evicted the newspaper from his newly expanded building to make room for a new kind of medium: the moving picture show.



Burke leased his new venue to Delacey Clark, who already operated the Isis Theater in Ventura. Clark gave the same name to his new Ojai Valley theater. Isis was the Egyptian goddess whose name also figured in the title of Helena Blavatsky’s book “Isis Unveiled,” a founding document of Theosophy. In 1914 the Theosophists had not yet discovered Ojai, so presumably the choice of name was a coincidence.

Clark booked his films from a brand-new studio called Paramount, which made a specialty of adapting Jack London novels for the silver screen. On Aug. 19, 1914, excited Ojai Valley filmgoers crowded into the new Isis Theater for the first local showing of a feature film, based on London’s latest book. Its title could hardly have been more appropriate: “Valley of the Moon.”

Clark soon gave way as theater manager to E.A. Runkle, whose wife, Ethel, provided piano accompaniment for the silent films. Comedies featuring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd were especially popular. On Saturday nights, after the film ended, the Runkles removed the chairs and brought in an orchestra for dancing.

In 1926, J.J. Burke sold the building to Fred and Lidie Hart, who changed the venue’s name to the Ojai Theater. The talkies arrived in 1930, when the Harts wired the theater for sound. But the Great Depression also arrived in 1930, prompting a pertinent question: Would people in desperate economic straits still be willing to pay for movie tickets? The Harts did not stick around long enough to find out; they put the building up for sale and decamped for Los Angeles. Times being hard, there were no buyers for the property, so the Harts leased the theater to other operators. In 1933, they found a tenant who really knew how to fill the seats: William D. Swanson, Ojai’s own P.T. Barnum.



Billy Swanson was a natural-born showman who staged attention-grabbing promotions to lure people into his theater. Rose Chavez Boggs vividly recalls the time he buried himself in the ground on the Signal Street side of the building.

“There was a glass cover so you could see him, and also a stovepipe so that he could breathe, and you could actually talk to him,” Boggs says. “He said it was very hot being in the earth. I think he stayed there one or two nights.”

Swanson had a huckster’s natural contempt for the rubes who fell for his stunts and filled his seats. “He called them all suckers,” Boggs says.

But he did give them their money’s worth. After buying the building from the Harts in 1935, he modernized the theater by tearing out the floor and putting in a new one that sloped downward toward the stage, to give patrons a better view of the screen. Then he brought in a theater architect to dress up the building’s exterior. Thanks to Libbey, the Ojai Theater was now surrounded by beautiful Spanish Colonial Revival buildings. The theater’s modest-looking Mission façade was overdue for an upgrade.

“Theater Will Have Swanky Spanish Front,” the newspaper noted. “The effect is to be Spanish in the modern manner and Mr. Swanson expects to have a very beautiful building when the work is completed.”

As a young girl, Rose Boggs loved watching Shirley Temple movies at The Ojai, where her brother Dan worked as the projectionist and her father served as the janitor. Musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were another favorite. Times were hard but theater tickets were cheap, and these movies transported the audience to a better place.

“During the Depression, it was really important,” Boggs says. “We could live in a dream world for a couple of hours.”

Years later she learned from her brother that not all the films Swanson screened were as wholesome as a Shirley Temple film. The theater owner also screened pornographic movies on the sly for men with more prurient tastes. “He had private showings for them,” Boggs says.

Swanson was less discreet in some of his other ventures. In 1939 he staged a steamy production of the play “White Cargo” at the Beaux Arts Theater in Los Angeles. The plot featured a scantily clad African siren named Tondelayo, who writhed suggestively  – or so claimed the police, who raided the theater and arrested Swanson and his actors. After a five-day trial that was front-page news in L.A., the producer was convicted “of presenting an indecent show.”

All this free publicity apparently inspired MGM to turn “White Cargo” into a 1942 movie starring screen goddess Hedy Lamarr as Tondelayo. History does not record whether Billy Swanson ever screened this film at his Ojai Theater. In any case, he soon sold the building and moved on to Malibu, where he reinvented himself as a real-estate developer in Paradise Cove. Ojai would never see his like again – at least not until Wayne Glasgow came to town. But that’s getting a little ahead of our story.



When the dust settled, the Ojai Theater ended up in the hands of H.H. Flesher and his family – wife Florence, son Ted, daughter Kathleen, son-in-law Barney Lawrence. Flo sold the tickets from a little booth in the front; H.H. took the tickets at the door. The Depression had ended, the war was over and the baby boom had kicked into high gear, as was obvious to anyone who ventured downtown on a Saturday afternoon and saw all the children queuing up for the matinee at The Ojai.

“Us little kids would line up all the way to the library,” recalls David Mason.

The main matinee attraction generally was a cowboy film starring Hopalong Cassidy or Gene Autry – or Mason’s favorite, Roy Rogers. It seemed like every kid in town was there.

“The Saturday afternoon matinees were a big deal,” recalls Rose Boggs’s sister Helen Chavez Peterson, who worked for the Fleshers as an usher and a cashier.

For adults, MGM musicals remained popular, as did films featuring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Parents with babies and toddlers were diverted to the Crying Room, which was walled off with plexiglass to muffle the sound.

Nationwide, as the 1950s wore on, theater owners began to suffer from a new form of competition – television. But isolated Ojai had terrible TV reception, so for many years its movie theater was pretty much the only game in town.

“Movies was the big entertainment at that time,” says Mike Lawrence, a Flesher grandson. “On the weekend when I would go it would be jam-packed. Even during the week there was a lot of business.”

“When I was a kid there were three movie changes each week,” recalls Susana Arce. “It cost 20 cents to get in. The only problem was that the movies were never  new, but we were happy to have a theater, and I often went three times a week.”

At some point in the mid ‘50s, the Fleshers sold the theater business to Fred Bower, while retaining ownership of the building. Bower’s daughter Jane Kelley, now of Santa Barbara, recalls that she and her brother would climb up into the projection room above the foyer and watch Gus the projectionist grapple with the big reels – one with cartoons, the other with the feature film.

“While the movies were playing, we would watch through the little windows,” she says. “Swirls of smoke came up through the projected lights and a gray haze filled the theater with cigarette smoke.”

Between showings, she and her brother were put to work scraping chewing gum off the armrests, the seat bottoms and the floor.

“One day some crazy driver drove right through the side of the building, crashing through the brick wall and into the seats in the theater,” she says. “Nobody got hurt, but the theater got evacuated and it took some time before it was up and running again.”

Fred Bower got out of the business in the late 1950s, but the theater continued with new operators. Then around 1962 or ‘63 it acquired a serious competitor when the Los Robles Theater opened near the Y on Maricopa Highway, in the space now occupied by Rabobank. The Los Robles apparently lured customers away from the downtown theater by running newer movies. Sometime in the early spring of 1964, the 50-year-old Ojai Theater closed its doors and faded to black.

The last film it advertised in the newspaper was “Spartacus,” which had been a huge hit in 1960 but was now four years old. Meanwhile, the Los Robles was showing a more recent picture, “Walt Disney’s Son of Flubber” starring Fred MacMurray. And there the story might have ended, with “Flubber” triumphant, and the old theater building eventually converted to some other kind of business. Instead, an unlikely white knight came to the rescue.



So many stories are told about the late Wayne Glasgow that it is difficult to separate the man from the myth. A few facts: He was born in Alaska in 1930, grew up in Hawaii, served in the Army during the Korean War, and eventually established himself in San Francisco as the proprietor of the Third Street Peerless Girlesque Theater, which specialized in nudie films.

Those soft-core exploitation flicks seem tame today, but they were considered hot stuff back in the 1950s and ‘60s, and the Third Street Peerless apparently was very profitable – so much so that, according to Glasgow, the mob decided to muscle in on his business. When he resisted, the gangsters “put out a contract on him,” says his friend and former employee John Gottesman, relating the story as he heard it from Glasgow.

To preserve his health, Glasgow urgently needed a change of scene. His wife was originally from Ojai, so they moved here. But for a man who supposedly was hiding out from the mob, Glasgow had a funny way of keeping a low profile. Taking over the defunct Ojai Theater in April 1966, he announced plans to remake it into the Glasgow Playhouse, “California’s Plush New Art Film Showcase.”

He needed a business permit from the City Council, which had its doubts about what Glasgow might consider an art film, so it asked Police Chief Jim Alcorn to investigate. Alcorn reported that Glasgow had a lengthy rap sheet, with many arrests “and no convictions,” recalls Jack Fay, who was the city attorney at the time. Nevertheless the council gave Glasgow a temporary permit, and he proved true to his word. The dowdy old theater was renovated into a miniature movie palace, complete with an opulent, Scottish-theme interior that clashed violently with the building’s Mission Revival exterior. It reopened that June with the West Coast premiere of “Shakespeare Wallah,” an early Merchant-Ivory production.

Glasgow followed up with a steady stream of foreign-language films directed by Fellini, Godard, Resnais and other cutting-edge European auteurs. If this strikes you as a quixotic business plan for a little theater way out in the boondocks, you will not be surprised to learn that the Glasgow Playhouse closed its doors in June 1967, just a year after it opened. (Glasgow blamed the shutdown on a falling out with his distributor, which cut off his access to first-class foreign films.)

The theater apparently remained dark until 1970, when it reopened under the management of Ted Morris, who already owned the Los Robles Theater. Morris slotted critically acclaimed films to the downtown Playhouse while relegating mass-audience fare to the Los Robles.  (One of the films he showed at the Playhouse during this period was “If,” which marked the big-screen debut of future Ojai resident Malcolm McDowell.) But by the mid 1970s, Morris had moved on, the Los Robles was gone, and Wayne Glasgow was back in possession of the Glasgow Playhouse, which was once again the only movie theater in town.

Now the Glasgow era truly begins. Most of the stories told about him date from the ‘70s, when he cut a wide, alcohol-fueled swath through the valley. Unlike Billy Swanson, he never made the front page of the L.A. Times, but he made plenty of news in Ojai. Four decades later, the mere mention of his name still elicits strong opinions.

“He was a real pig,” says Mike Lawrence. “He was a drunk.”

“He was extremely eccentric, but when you really got to know him, he had a heart of gold,” says John Gottesman.

“He was interesting. Let’s put it that way,” says Jack Fay.

Glasgow made a point of being flamboyant. He drove the only Citroen in the valley, and also tooled around in a Rolls Royce he had bought from the actor Robert Brown. He once led a goat into a local bank and offered it as collateral for a loan.

At the theater, when working as his own projectionist, he would start the film and then repair to the nearest bar. “He had the patrons trained to go across the street to tell him” if the projector broke down, Gottesman says.

Gottesman, who worked for Glasgow on and off for about eight years, says many of the stories told about him are exaggerated or entirely fictional. For example, there was the time in 1978 when Glasgow ran for City Council and finished last, with only 55 votes. Legend has it that he stopped the film that night, walked onstage and thanked Ojai for its support, then turned around and dropped his pants.

“No, he never did that,” Gottesman says. “He didn’t moon the audience.”

Another time, Glasgow ran a “coming attractions” trailer for the porn epic  “Deep Throat,” shocking many people in the audience. Legend has it that this incident occurred before the showing of a Disney film, when the audience consisted mostly of children. Gottesman says no; it was not a Disney movie, and most of the people there were grown-ups.

“It may have been ‘Cabaret,’ ” he says. “Most everyone ran out of the theater to the lobby in shock where he corralled them and offered their money back if anyone was offended. Not everyone asked for their money back.”

At one point, Glasgow lived at the Valley Outpost Lodge (now known as the Mallory Way Cottages). Josh Kaplan, whose parents owned the lodge, has vivid memories of Glasgow’s stay there, but declines to provide the gory details.

“Suffice to say he was a colorful, sometimes difficult character who should have known better than to spend a lot of time in the sauna drunk,” Kaplan says.

Glasgow also had a ranch on Ojai Avenue in the East End. “Wayne had a little hippie commune out there for awhile,” Gottesman says. “He was arrested for growing pot there.”

Jack Fay recalls that Glasgow tried to deflect the blame to his neighbors, the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God, who run the St. Joseph’s retirement home: “He said, ‘No, I didn’t grow that marijuana, the brothers did!”

One legend about Glasgow that seems indisputable is that he was a notorious lecher, especially when under the influence of alcohol, which was very often the case. Suza Francina is one of many women in Ojai today who remembers being propositioned or leered at by the theater owner. Francina, like Kaplan, declines to provide the gory details.

“I don’t know if what Wayne Glasgow proposed to me when I was 16 years old is fit to print,” she says.

“When he got drunk he was lewd to women,” Gottesman concedes. “He was horrible.”

On the plus side, Glasgow kept the theater going, and kept it relevant to life in Ojai. No longer did he impose a steady diet of European art films on local filmgoers. Instead, in the ‘70s and early ‘80s he ran a lot of films like “Smokey and the Bandit” with Burt Reynolds, which included a scene filmed in Ojai. “We sold out all two weeks for that movie,” Gottesman says.

Glasgow also gets credit for establishing a restaurant in the building’s west wing. Originally built to house an ice plant, this wing had been used as office space for many decades. Glasgow converted it into the Bistro, using lumber and other items scavenged from the recently demolished Foothills Hotel building. It’s been a restaurant of one sort or another ever since. (Currently it’s the Village Jester.)

In 1982, the roof finally fell in on Glasgow – literally. Khaled Al-Awar was visiting Ojai at the time, looking for a business to buy, and he remembers ducking into the Playhouse one rainy evening to see a movie.

“There was a little bit of a drizzle, and it was raining into the theater,” he says.

That evening’s film would turn out to be the last picture show for Wayne Glasgow. The city forced him to close the Playhouse until the roof was fixed, and he was unable (or unwilling) to pay the man he hired to do the job. With a long line of creditors now trying to push him into foreclosure, Glasgow needed a white knight of his own, and it turned out to be Al-Awar.

Actually, the business Al-Awar really wanted to buy was the Solar Winds restaurant and health-food store. But when that deal fell through at the last moment, his realtor suggested that he buy the theater building instead.

So he approached Glasgow, who dragged out the negotiations for many months while he fended off his creditors.

“There were 33 liens on the building,” Al-Awar says.

Finally, in May 1983, the papers were signed and the Glasgow era came to an end. But not without one final flourish. The third “Star Wars” movie, “Return of the Jedi,” was due to open nationwide that month, and meanwhile the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti was returning to Ojai for his annual series of talks in the Oak Grove. Glasgow couldn’t book the film into his defunct theater, but he could still have a little fun with his customers. “Return of the Jiddu,” the Glasgow Playhouse marquee mischievously proclaimed.

That was Glasgow’s last hurrah, at least in Ojai. He eventually retired to Hawaii, where he died in 2005 at the age of 75 and was buried in a veterans’ cemetery near Hilo on the Big Island. His name no longer adorns his old movie theater, but his legend lives on.

John Gottesman now operates an Ojai tile business, but he looks back fondly on his movie-theater days, working for the colorful and mercurial Wayne Glasgow:

“He always said, ‘Well, we don’t make a lot of money here, but we sure have a lot of fun.’ ”



Khaled Al-Awar and his wife, Sheryl, moved their family from Chicago to Ojai (via Santa Barbara) because they had fallen in love with this artsy little town in the Ventura County backcountry. Little did they know what they had signed up for when they bought the movie theater. It turned out to involve much more that just putting a new roof on an old theater.

“It took me like four or five months to remodel it and bring it back to life,” Al-Awar says.

That’s when the black-and-white portraits of vintage movie idols like Lauren Bacall, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif went up on the theater walls. (Three decades later, they’re still there.) The community welcomed Al-Awar with open arms. Ceramicist Beatrice Wood attended a show one night in one of her trademark saris, and wrote a letter to the newspaper urging that Al-Awar be supported.

When something went wrong, filmgoers tended to blame Glasgow rather than Al-Awar for the problem, as though the former owner were an evil spirit who still haunted the theater like the Phantom of the Opera. One night, as Al-Awar was apologizing to the audience for some technical malfunction, the Ranch House restaurant founder Alan Hooker called out a suggestion: “Get an exorcist!”

“He said, ‘You need to exorcize the spirit of Glasgow from this place,’ ” Al-Awar recalls.

Hooker was joking, but he also had a point. Al-Awar had renamed his theater the Ojai Playhouse, but distributors still thought of it as Glasgow’s theater, and Glasgow had very rarely paid them. As a result, Al-Awar had trouble booking first-run films – until the fall of 1985, when a relatively new Ojai resident, the actress Mary Steenburgen, asked him whether he was planning to show her upcoming Disney release, “One Magic Christmas.” Al-Awar had to admit that Disney might not give him the film. Steenburgen made a call, and the film was booked into Ojai.

“That’s when the transformation started to happen,” Al-Awar says.

A couple of years later, the process repeated itself when another Ojai resident, the actor and screenwriter Harold Ramis, helped Al-Awar to book Ramis’s upcoming comedy “Ghostbusters II.” Another Al-Awar benefactor was the Oscar-nominated MGM sound engineer Michael Kohut, who lived in Rancho Matilija. Kohut donated a demo sound system to the theater. As a result, “We were one of the very first theaters to have digital sound,” Al-Awar says.

Meanwhile, Al-Awar had branched out into the visual arts by founding the Primavera Gallery in the front of the theater building’s west wing. Later he moved the gallery to its current location in the Arcade, on the site formerly occupied by the Elbow Room – a favorite watering hole of Wayne Glasgow’s, as it happens. (Perhaps another exorcism was indicated?)

Wayne Glasgow must have been pleased when the theater gave birth to the Ojai Film Society in 1988. On Sunday afternoons, the Film Society takes over the Playhouse to present “quality independent, classic and foreign films” – much like those that Glasgow himself presented in the same theater back in 1966-67. In 2000, the Film Society in turn gave birth to the annual Ojai Film Festival, now an entirely separate organization.

“The Film Society and the Film Festival have helped keep the theater viable in this little town,” says Elise DePuydt, the Film Society’s office manager. (DePuydt is researching the building’s history for an upcoming exhibit at the Ojai Valley Museum, “The Ojai Theater: 100 Years of Movies, 1914 – 2014,” which will open on Oct. 4.)

The summer of 2007 was a time of transition for the Ojai Playhouse. In July, the theater’s colorful longtime projectionist, Glenn Emmanuel, died of cancer. In August, Al-Awar struck a deal to sell the theater to Kathy and Mark Hartley, who own Ojai’s Lavender Inn and also the Watermark on Main restaurant in Ventura. The Hartleys specialize in renovating and repurposing old buildings, and they envisioned the theater as a concert venue as well as a cinema. So they plunged in, and found that the building needed a lot more work than they had expected.

“We had to make the whole building handicap-accessible,” Kathy Hartley says. “When we pulled up the floor, we found that there was no foundation. It was two-by-fours stuck in the dirt!”

They put a lot of money and effort into fixing up the building, but their concert venue idea “didn’t pan out,” Hartley says. And restrictions imposed by distributors prevented them from showing children’s films on Saturday afternoons, as they had hoped.

“It was a tougher business than we thought,” Hartley says. In 2010, she and her husband decided not to exercise their option to finalize the purchase, and the building reverted to Al-Awar. He and his family continue to run the theater with a focus on first-run films, and on the Film Society’s art-house offerings.

“We hope to God that we will continue to serve the community for many, many years to come,” he says.



Film and media studies professor Ross Melnick of UC Santa Barbara is an expert on movie theater history and a fan of the Ojai Playhouse.

“It’s a classic small-town movie theater,” he says.

Once, every town had at least one. Now they are rare. Most single-screen theaters were wiped out by competition from multiplex theaters, or by the advent of cable TV and video-rental stores, or more recently by the potentially ruinous cost of switching to a digital projection system. But the Ojai Playhouse has survived, and in 2012 (with help from the Film Society) it made the expensive but necessary transition from film to digital. Thus equipped, it’s ready to begin its second century.

“I think it’s remarkable that over all of these years the various owners of the theater have continually chosen to maintain the building as a movie house – to love it, to make improvements, to keep up with new technology and to be excited about film,” DePuydt says.

Melnick says that the theater’s future looks bright. A small-town theater owner like Al-Awar is in a position to know his audience very well, so he can give them the films they really want to see. And the venerable Playhouse has another built-in advantage. The fact that it dates all the way back to 1914, and is so prominently woven into Ojai’s cherished architectural fabric, adds to the pleasure of seeing a film there. Any theater can show films that tell compelling stories; Ojai’s theater is itself a compelling story, 100 years in the telling.

“What it has is legacy and history,” Melnick says. “It has community appeal.”

Still, the question remains: With the advent of video-on-demand and mobile media, will the next generation of film fans be willing to switch off their big-screen TVs and their smart phones, climb into their cars and drive downtown to sit in a dark theater among a roomful of strangers?

“It’s nice to get out of the house and go out and be entertained as part of a large audience,” Al-Awar says. “There is nothing, hopefully, that will ever replace the theater experience.”

Porch Gallery is currently hosting for its its latest exhibit of the work of artist Judy Ragagli. The show is on until March 25.

Ragagli has taken on the task of painting portraits of that American icon to beauty, the Barbie doll. But not just any Barbie, no smiling Malibu Barbie here.  Her collection features classic Barbie from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

To be clear, these are realistic Barbie portraits – now, there’s an oxymoron.  But these oil paintings are amazingly life-like in that you first think that they are photographs.  According to her bio, Ragagli employs a process of mixing only 7 original color tubes of oil to accurately achieve the tonal properties of Barbie’s plastic flesh.

A friend and I stopped by the gallery earlier in the afternoon and I thought I was beholding images from the LACMA exhibit on Barbie, that was part of Pacific Standard Time a couple of years ago.  After we left my friend asked, “Are those photographs?”  I suddenly realized that I wasn’t sure and made a point to return and find out.

At the Porch Gallery reception on Feb. 15, Ragagli and I sat at the baby grand and discussed her work.

DC:  Let’s start with the one piece I find especially intriguing, “Debutante Ball.” Can you tell me about how you came to painting that piece?

JR:  That is the platinum swirl they made in 1962.  The reason I wanted to do that one is because of the hair, the swirl.  They made four different ones that year, the white, titian and brunette, but the platinum swirl was always my favorite.  It’s the simplicity of it that I like so much.  That year they started putting on eyeliner and the pink lips.  It’s one of my favorites.

DC:  When did you make her?

JR:  That one was done in 2007.

DC:  And when did you start painting?

JR:  I started around 1996 or so.  I started with just one Barbie.  I began taking painting classes.  My art teacher said, ‘What do you want to paint?”  And I said, “I don’t know.”  This was my first real art teacher …”

DC:  Paul Bedard.

JR:  Yes, Paul Bedard.  He said, “Paint something you like.”  So, I wandered around for awhile and one day it came to me, “I wanna paint a Barbie, realistically on canvas.”  Simple, elegant, you know, just her.  Like the Mona Lisa.  Simply there, just her.  I started painting her.  I had to learn how to mix certain colors, it was so friggin’ hard!  Paul taught me how to mix and apply – I always made mistakes.  It took years and years to perfect that type of painting.

DC:  Where are you from?

JR:  We’re originally from Chicago, and when I was young my family moved to Orange County.  I went to Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles and majored in sociology.  I started painting in 1995, 96.  Now I live in West LA.

DC:  Tell me, which of the paintings was the most challenging for you?

Suddenly a tinge of regret came over her face.

JR:  She isn’t here.  She’s at home.  She took me 6 months to render.  It’s a portrait of a 6’ Barbie in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater; Barbie in Hollywood.  She’s too big, so she’s at home.  I rarely take her out.   It took a long time, I had to put layer upon layer of paint to get it just right.  Even though she’s a pop icon and the piece is so powerful, it’s the simplicity that I was going for.  Just who she was and who she can imply.

DC:  One last question:  What do you think of Ojai?

JR:  Oh, it’s so nice.  People here are so friendly.  You really feel a sense of peace.

At that point gallery owner Valda Lake entered the room.

VL:  What are you guys talking about?

JR:  Oh, we’re just talking about Barbie.

The exhibit features 5 amazing original oils and limited edition giclees.

Barbie: An American Icon is a collaboration between Porch Gallery Ojai and WallspaceLA and is on display through March 25.

Porch Gallery is located at 310 East Matilija St.  For more information visit porchgalleryojai.com.