Best of the East Bay - Stars & Standouts
Meet the heroes, Hall of Famers, and tastemakers who keep the East Bay on the cutting edge.
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Kim Hidalgo may have gone Hollywood, but she’ll always have Walnut Creek in her DNA. Born at John Muir Hospital, Hidalgo grew up on the grounds of the Ruth Bancroft Gardens, where her grandmother tended her eponymous, world-famous dry gardens.
“It was a great way to grow up, playing in those gardens,” says Hidalgo, 23, now working in Los Angeles as an actor. “I had the greatest backyard in the world.”
Hidalgo caught the performing-arts bug early. She started doing competitive dance at age three. By high school, she was cast in Willows Theatre Company productions of South Pacific and Fiddler on the Roof. Hidalgo moved to Southern California to attend USC and audition for TV and film. So far, so good: This fall, she makes her feature film debut in Ball Don’t Lie, as the girlfriend of a young basketball star.
“It was a tough role. They took a really big risk giving me the lead,” says Hidalgo, who got to work with Rosanna Arquette and recent Oscar nominee Melissa Leo. “I got to talk to [Leo] quite a bit. She’s an amazing actress. She said, ‘You’re such a giving actress. What else have I seen you in?’ I was a little embarrassed to tell her, ‘This is my first film.’ ”
Hollywood is treating Hidalgo well. She already has two more movies in the can—including the suicide-themed drama How to Save a Life, which she’ll be promoting at film festivals across the country.
As busy as things are, she comes home to Walnut Creek often. “My younger sister, Erika, has the lead role in Into the Woods at Clayton Valley High,” Hidalgo says. “I can’t wait to see her in that!” —Peter Crooks
Contra Costa bibliophiles will devour Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society this summer. Chosen for Walnut Creek’s One City, One Book program, the novel is a ripping, romantic yarn set on a remote island in the English Channel. The story of how Barrows collaborated with her aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer, to complete the beloved page-turner is just as fascinating.
“I still can’t quite figure it out,” Barrows says about how she wound up the coauthor of a New York Times best-seller that has been translated into 26 languages. The Berkeley resident and author of the Ivy + Bean children’s book series had no pressing plans to venture into adult fiction. But then, Shaffer was diagnosed with cancer soon after finishing the initial draft of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Although the draft set off a bidding war among publishers, Shaffer was told the book needed rewrites. Too ill to carry on, Shaffer asked Barrows to step in.
Like the book’s future readers, Barrows was intrigued by the novel’s historic subject matter and the way the story unfolds in the form of letters exchanged among 25 or so characters. The novel also had an irresistible backstory, one Shaffer discovered in 1976 on an impromptu vacation to the English Channel. Stranded by bad weather, she learned about a little-known but dramatic sidebar to World War II: the Nazi occupation of Guernsey. The Germans cut off the island from all outside contact for nearly five years and imported slave labor from Europe to build a base for conquering the British Isles.
Out of this difficult history, Shaffer crafted a sometimes funny, sometimes sobering tale of survival, sacrifice, heroism, and human decency. Romance drives the plot, which involves a love affair between a young island woman and a good-hearted German officer, and the islanders’ passion for books. At the meetings of the Guernsey book club, members talk about everything from Seneca to Shakespeare, feast on pies made from potato peels, and provide the friendship needed to survive the enemy occupation.
Barrows says her aunt’s original version laid out the story, structure, and characters. She just needed to go in and flesh things out. At first, Barrows was daunted by the prospect of revising the work. But, as soon as Barrows dug in, the voice of her aunt, a lifelong storyteller, emerged from the words. “I felt I was getting to commune with her, be with the person she had once been. All Mary Ann ever wanted was to write a book that someone wanted to publish, so she was thunderstruck when the book sold in 11 different countries,” Barrows says. “I have hopes that she is watching its success from on high and enjoying herself thoroughly.” —Martha Ross
As hotshot chefs go, Matthew Silverman is pretty down-home. He has cooked for the Rolling Stones and Barbra Streisand, but ask him to tell tales about any of those experiences, and he’s basically tongue-tied.
“I can’t give you anything juicy,” the 31-year-old alum of Wolfgang Puck says. “Celebrities just aren’t the most important thing to me.”
What is important, says the chef, who will be opening three new restaurants in Blackhawk Plaza this year, is wooing a local audience with his cooking. “I want people within a five-mile radius to make our restaurants their home.”
It was perhaps for similar reasons that Silverman, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, walked away from the promise of a career in music. Although he was chosen from among hundreds of kids to play percussion with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he gave up playing on huge stages to enroll in cooking classes at a community college.
Just the same, Silverman ended up on another stage of sorts. His first job was at Puck’s MGM restaurant, and by the time Silverman was 21, he was the youngest executive chef the Puck empire had ever seen. “Music and cooking are very similar, in that you use the creative side of the mind,” he says. “I quickly realized, though, that my passion was with cooking.”
In collaboration with Blackhawk Plaza CEO Fred Bruning, Silverman will open a wine and small-plates restaurant called Stomp in July. Later in the summer will come Coa, a Mexican restaurant, and in the fall, a more formal spot to be called Laurus, featuring cuisine from southern Europe and the Mediterranean. Together, the restaurants will span the shopping center.
Silverman comes most recently from Vintner Grill in Summerlin, a residential area in Las Vegas. The restaurant created lots of buzz and attracted crowds of customers, including many of the Strip’s big-name chefs. Silverman calls Summerlin “a mirror image of Danville,” in terms of affluence and food and wine sophistication—but with one important difference. In the desert, virtually nothing is grown locally. “It’s a different world,” Silverman says of Northern California’s bounty of ingredients. “This is very exciting.” —Michaela Jarvis
When Barbara Simpson coanchored the 10 O’Clock News with Dennis Richmond in the mid-1980s, she had to keep her opinions to herself. But talk radio has given the longtime Contra Costa resident a chance to voice her opinion about myriad issues, and Simpson takes full advantage of her microphone. She has hosted talk radio programs at KGO 810 AM, the late-night, nationally syndicated Coast to Coast show, and for the past 12 years Simpson has had her own program at conservative talk station KSFO 560 AM, Saturdays and Sundays from 4 to 7 p.m. In addition to the listening audience, 20,000 readers follow Simpson’s column every Monday at Worldnetdaily.com, a conservative site that also features weekly op-eds by Ann Coulter and Chuck Norris.
Diablo: I heard you reporting from the April 15 tea party in Pleasanton. Clearly, the attendees were passionate about being there, but I never understood what the point was.
Barbara Simpson: The idea for the tea parties started with Rick Santelli’s rant on CNN. It’s a bit about taxes, but it is really about people not liking the political drift of the country under the new administration—policy changes, our relations with other countries, and certainly the tax situation. It’s a general unhappiness and unease with the direction the country is taking. And the greatest frustration is, “What can we do?” Each of us has to get active locally, and it will make a difference.
When Obama was elected, there was a lot of talk about late-night comedians not having material because Obama isn’t as funny as Bush was. But isn’t Obama great fodder for conservative talk radio?
Oh, there’s plenty to talk about with whoever is in office. I was very critical of President Bush at times. So, if you’re asking me who I would rather have in office, I’d rather have someone with conservative values. We don’t need a liberal president in office to put together an interesting radio program.
When I listen to conservative radio, a range of issues comes up. Some callers put the abortion issue above all others, some think national defense is most important, and others want lower taxes and less government. What do you think are the most important issues for conservatives?
I think it’s all of those, and it does vary with each person. If I had to narrow it down to one, I guess I am most concerned about the future of our country. I have never been so worried about that. Quite frankly, I think we are losing our freedoms. I see how things have changed since my years growing up—the restrictions on business, the mandates—you can’t use this or that. They are even telling us what kind of toilets and lightbulbs we can have. That’s simply an abuse of government power.
I think abortion is very important and the issue of life. It’s not only preborn life, but the other end of it is euthanasia. All these issues are important, all part of the mix. Part of the problem that the GOP is having right now is that within the GOP, there are all these people with different issues, all conservative but different. It’s like herding cats.
There has been a lot of talk about the GOP not having a leader right now.
They don’t have one. People come up to me and ask, “Who is the leader?” I say, “I don’t want a leader or a redeemer, or a god to follow—I want someone who has certain basic beliefs in this country and will lead us to the best place that the country can be.”
One story I keep hearing is that gun stores have been selling out of ammo since Obama took office.
I think it’s legitimate. Eric Holder does not believe in people having guns, nor does Barack Obama. There have been all kinds of proposals in Sacramento to limit ammunition. If they make it impossible to get ammunition, your gun is kind of useless. I believe in the right to have a gun and to protect your family and house with it.
Another issue that comes up on conservative radio is the “fairness doctrine”—the abolished FCC policy requiring stations that use the public airwaves to offer a balanced point of view when covering political content. I don’t think the government should monitor every minute of radio broadcasting to make sure there is a liberal counterpoint to everything Rush Limbaugh says; I also feel there aren’t enough voices on our public airwaves. When Sean Hannity is on 500 stations saying every hour that Michelle Obama isn’t proud of America, that could be a local broadcaster saying something interesting.
The problem is you can’t mandate it or force it. Air America went broke when it tried to do liberal radio. I worked in radio a bit during the fairness doctrine, and it was all gardening shows and things that were nice, but not very interesting. My theory is the more, the merrier. Try public radio—I listen to public radio and the BBC quite a bit.
The sad part is that local radio has disappeared across the country because of the economics of it. That’s all money. Eventually, virtually all radio will be syndicated because it’s the cheapest way to go. The station doesn’t have to pay for anything and makes money on the advertising.
Last year, we interviewed liberal talk show host Rachel Maddow, who grew up in Castro Valley and now has a national radio show and a nightly TV show on MSNBC. We got some very angry e-mails from conservative-leaning readers. How do you think our readers will react to Diablo featuring a vocal conservative such as yourself?
I think the response might surprise you. I’ve lived in this area for 30 years, and I have spoken to all the active Republican women’s clubs in Blackhawk and the Tri-Valley. There is a huge unseen conservative base out there that the mainstream media generally ignores. That’s the reason KSFO has been so successful. —Peter Crooks
For her directorial debut, Berkeley-born filmmaker Jennifer Steinman tackled one of the toughest subjects imaginable: a mother’s grief after losing a child. Steinman’s documentary, Motherland, follows six American women who have lost a child or loved one, on a trip to do volunteer work in a rural village in South Africa. Initially heartbreaking and ultimately inspiring, the film has been a sensation on the film festival circuit.
The project began several years ago, when the son of Steinman’s good friend Barbara was killed in a head-on collision. Around the time, Steinman had been planning to do some volunteer work in Africa. “I’ve always found volunteer work to be very healing and helpful,” says Steinman, 36, who was drawn to Africa after reading about the continent’s horrific AIDS death rate. “I asked Barbara if she might like to come with me, and she said yes immediately. She said that she had been feeling so stuck in life.”
Barbara’s response inspired Steinman to consider turning the trip into a film project. Steinman sent out an e-mail blast to several grief support groups to see if other mothers might be interested in participating in the trip and film project. Expecting to get a few replies, Steinman was stunned by the response. “Within 48 hours, I had received more than 100 responses,” she says. “Women were sending their letters and pictures and stories, saying they wanted to go.”
Motherland is divided into emotional interviews of the six women Steinman selected for the journey. Five had lost a child, and one had lost a brother. In Africa, these women volunteered at a day care center, met with African mothers whose children had died, and formed an intense bond with one another. The chronicle of their journey makes for powerful, thought-provoking viewing, set in tragically impoverished yet spectacularly beautiful locations.
Steinman premiered her documentary at the prestigious South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, in March. Motherland was given the festival’s coveted audience award, much to Steinman’s surprise. Motherland went on to pick up the best documentary award at Livermore’s California Independent Film Festival in April and best feature at the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival.
While thrilled with the accolades, Steinman is even happier with the response she gets from showing the film to grief support groups around the country. “It’s tough to get people to see a film about grief, but the message in the end is about hope and healing,” she says. “I’ve been getting letters and e-mails from moms all over the country who have seen it. The film is doing what it was intended to do.” motherland-thefilm.com. —Peter Crooks