Champagne is a sparkling drink made in the northerly French province called Champagne. In the small villages sitting over miles of circuitous caves carved into the chalk by the Romans centuries ago throughout the region, perched among hectares of vines of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Munier grapes, tradition and the upholding of tradition is part and parcel of what makes great Champagnes; each different; most tasting of divinity. While there are innovative wine-makers, tradition still reigns in their hearts and is reflected in the finished product. And that tradition is upheld by Champagne’s “aeropagus”, its governing board made up of wine-makers and vineyardists and directors of Champagne Houses. It is called the CIVC, “Comite Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne.” Champagne is serious about upholding tradition.
Thinking of tradition, I realize how much tradition we are losing. In Opelousas, little town in Louisiana existing since the 1600s, even in New Orleans, I discovered not long ago that small, family-owned pastry shops of my youth are no longer. Some familiar names still exist but they have been purchased by corporations, and no longer are the breads and cakes made by the hands of master pastry chefs. And family-owned and operated grocery stores where every child received a “lagniappe” as the purchases were packed and often put on a lorry to be dropped off at home before you got there, where are they? Most children today think WalMart is a grocery store. They’ve never breathed-in the aroma of bread baking.
In the early 1970s I came to Los Angeles to assist director Joe Hardy put Lerner and Loewe’s GiGi on stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Once it was en route to New York I was hired to produce the reopening of the John Anson Ford outdoor theatre for free public Shakespeare. One of my duties was to create and tape the radio spot announcements promoting the theatre and asking for subscriptions and contributions. As the theatre was modeled on Joe Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park in New York, we were a non-profit organization, existing at the will of the Mayor of Los Angeles. My radio announcements asked for support in all forms, especially attendance at the fund-raiser to be held across the Hollywood freeway in Los Angeles’s Bowl.
One day I got a call from a man telling me he wanted to give me five million dollars. He repeated: he just wanted to give me five million dollars. And he set a meeting for me to meet his “shareholders” the next day at a bank in Hollywood. My co-producer was ecstatic, and practically shoved me out the door. When I arrived the shareholders were already deep into discussions around a board-room table. They sat me at the head, opposite the prospective donor of all that money. And for a couple of hours I had to listen to some gibberish about laundries. All these men appeared to be owners of laundries. Later when I reported to my co-producer my grave doubts that so much money could be given to us by a bunch of laundry owners, he grew visibly pale but insisted I had to continue going to these meetings because we sure could use that five million dollars.
In the middle of my daily sorties to yet another bank to listen to more talk about laundries, I received a phone call. This man said he liked my voice on the radio and he too wanted to help our theatre get launched. He said his name was Gene. Gene Gelson, he announced. I was new in Los Angeles; so Gene’s name meant nothing to me.
I thanked Gene for wanting to help, and asked what he had in mind. He turned the question back and asked me what kind of car I had. Now, following on the heels of the laundry-man, this odd request made me feel that California deserved its reputation for nuttiness. “What kind of car do you have,” my newest friend Gene repeated. His voice sounded genuinely nice, so I told him, “a Datsun.”
“How big is your Datsun? You know, two doors or four?”
I was slipping back into the weird-feeling zone, “two doors. It’s very little.”
“Okay,” he came back, “this is what I am going to do for you and your theatre. Get in your little car and drive over here to my grocery store. Some of my boys will be waiting for you. They are going to load up your car with as much soda and candies and fruit and snacks they can fit in it. Four times. That’s what I am going to do for you. So just come right on over.”
As said, I did not know the Gelson name, nor of the tradition of the grocers in the city, nor that the Gelson family was tops for fine and fresh and locally grown everything. “There is only one thing I want you to do for me,” he continued as I was registering this good fortune. “I would like to take you out to dinner so you can earn more about Los Angeles. Would that be okay?”
By the time I drove back up into the Hollywood hills and to my overlooking office in the John Anson Ford theatre with the fourth car-load of goodness we would be able to sell at the concession stand, I had been given quite a tour of Gelson’s market and had gleaned that in Southern California the Gelson family played a fine and traditional role in that economy. And “his boys” were shelf-stockers; not in the laundry business.
I never discovered more about the LA tradition of laundries, nor accepted five million dollars from the laundry men. But I enjoyed another Los Angeles tradition of the 1970s, dinner at The Windsor restaurant. Owner Ben Dimsdale, a friend of Gene Gelson’s, came and personally flambéed out Steak Diane, and sat for a glass of wine, telling me of the neighborhood we were in, near downtown. I began to understand that Los Angeles functioned as a conglomerate of many neighborhoods filled with and enlivened by local traditions.
To me that Los Angeles was like Champagne; alive with traditions; filled excitingly
So today, December 22, 2013, I call Los Angeles and her traditions to be like Champagne.
Now you probably know that the Commanding General next to me, Julius Caesar, wants to say something. And this is what I hear coming from his lips: "Nunc bibendum est."
“Yes, Caesar,”I reply, “it is almost Christmas. Almost time for Champagne, your beverage. “
Soon you will learn more about Caesar and his passion for Champagne in
The Night Julius Caesar Invented Champagne.
Madeleine de Jean,