Best of the East Bay 2011 - Stars & Standouts
Big screen stars, home run hitters and every megawatt superstar in between make up our 2011 Standouts.
Tom Hanks got his start in the East Bay and still taps into memories from here for inspiration, most notably in his new film, Larry Crowne, which hits theaters on July 1.
Hanks recently told Entertainment Weekly that he based the film on his experiences at Chabot College in Hayward, taking classes with “retirees, housewives, and Vietnam vets.” The Concord-born Hanks went to Chabot after graduating from Skyline High in Oakland.
“Our lives were in flux,” Hanks says. “And junior college was the departure terminal for our future.”
The film is a recession-era comedy that follows Hanks’ suddenly unemployed character through a personal reinvention via community college classes. From the previews, Larry Crowne appears to be the kind of optimistic rom-com that Hanks frequently starred in during his first decade as a leading man (think Splash, Big, or Sleepless in Seattle).
But this time, Hanks not only stars, he directed and cowrote the movie. Since he was running the show, Hanks cast Julia Roberts as the titular character’s teacher and eventual love interest.
The ability to cast the most famous actress on the planet as his girlfriend is one of the perks Hanks enjoys after his success as the star of such instant classics as Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, and Saving Private Ryan. Meanwhile, Hanks—who recently became a grandfather—has become one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers, backing surprise smashes (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Mamma Mia!, Where the Wild Things Are), and epic miniseries (Band of Brothers, John Adams, The Pacific). Despite his worldwide fame and Hollywood clout, Hanks has always kept a soft spot in his heart for his hometown.
“It’s amazing to come back to Oakland and have everyone know who I am. I really dig it,” Hanks told Diablo, when he was promoting That Thing You Do!, the only other feature film he has directed in his 30-plus year career. “I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have grown up here: the Bay Area in general and, in particular, the East Bay.”
Despite this love for the area, Hanks has never filmed a movie locally (not counting the three Toy Story movies he made with Emeryville’s Pixar Animation Studios). He is frequently seen on the sidelines at Raiders games, in the same Oakland Coliseum that he worked at, selling peanuts and sodas as a teenager. And, after Larry Crowne, Hanks will move on to another project that has East Bay ties. He’ll be teaming with Oakland-based rock band Green Day to produce the big-screen musical American Idiot, which premiered on-stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2009.
Thia Megia is back home in Mountain House, taking a few days off from the rigors of preparing for this summer’s 47-date American Idols Live tour.
Since she’s 16, one might think she’d be texting until her thumbs are numb, or playing Angry Birds, or hanging around a TV or computer somewhere with her friends.
Nope. The youngest finalist in American Idol history, who finished in the Top 11 on the recently wrapped season, is doing schoolwork. Apparently, having good looks, lungs as powerful as twin Howitzers, and a graceful stage presence that translated well for millions of TV viewers isn’t enough to fall back on.
“Now that I’m home, I’m trying to get ahead on my studies,” says Thia, a high school sophomore who’s been homeschooled most of her life and is working ahead in anticipation of touring from July until September. “Because we have to rehearse as much as we can, we usually get a couple hours (to study) backstage. I really want to complete my studies.”
When she says “complete,” she doesn’t mean the school year or even high school. Thia, who should have a long and healthy singing career ahead of her if Idol was any indication, is talking college, almost in the same sentence as talking about being a successful pop star who writes her own music.
“I’ll divide my time,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Education is important, and I definitely want to work as hard as I can to finish college.”
That might seem like a lot to bite off, but Thia has been succeeding since she first opened her mouth to sing. By the time she was five and growing up in Hayward, she was singing at birthday parties, family gatherings, and eventually, other events. At 10, she sang the national anthem at a 49ers game.
She always knew where she wanted her voice to take her. At age seven, she saw Kelly Clarkson nail “A Moment Like This” during the finale of the first Idol season. “I told myself, ‘I’m going to be on that stage someday.’ ”
Thia laughs at the thought of putting Mountain House on the map. It’s a small community near Tracy, which also considers her one of its own. Both Tracy and Mountain House celebrated Thia’s Idol success with special events in April, after she was eliminated from the competition, with hundreds of fans coming out and town officials making special proclamations.
“It was awesome,” she says. “They did a homecoming for me, and it was so sweet. My success on the show was their success.”
Now, the success spreads. After the summer tour, which rolls into town this month, she’ll consider her options. She’s still under contract to Idol but knows other record deals will be waiting.
She wants to be a singer-songwriter (she lists Adele and Christina Aguilera as influences), with creative control over her music. Although mildly criticized by Idol judges for singing songs they deemed safe, she’s proud of how she reworked the arrangement to Elton John’s “Daniel.”
“You give them your ideas, and we changed the instrumentation,” she says, with absolutely no regret for messing with the ideas of a legendary songwriter. “I was so happy. Whatever I do, it’s about making it my own.”
Thia Megia will perform with the American Idols Tour in Oakland on July 12 and San Jose on July 13. For tickets, go to ticketmaster.com. —David Anthony
For Tim Westergren, patience isn’t just a virtue. It’s a way of life.
After more than a decade of growing pains, lost revenue, and information superhighway speed bumps, the Oakland-based Pandora finally is becoming what musician and Stanford grad Westergren envisioned.
“Music is our passion,” Westergren says, summing up his mission in all of four words.
The idea, which began in 2000 as the Music Genome Project, was to create an Internet radio station that lets users filter their favorite songs, artists, and genres into a “station,” then allow the magic of technology to feed their ears the new music they craved.
It took some time, but more than 80 million people have registered to listen to Pandora on their computers, phones, and other electronic devices. Finally, the company is doing well enough to go public.
While Westergren won’t say whether Pandora has turned the corner financially, reports have revenue headed toward $120 million this year. And the company just added stand-up comedy to its repertoire.
While many factors have helped Pandora grow, none may be as important as the smart phone evolution.
“It would be hard to overstate the impact smart phones have had on Pandora,” says Westergren. “Overnight, we were able to be with people anytime, anywhere. Smart phones represent a major turning point for Pandora.”
Technological advances and possible profit aside, the important goal remains: connecting people to music they might not otherwise hear, which is a huge benefit to artists struggling to make a name for themselves.
“We continually hear heartwarming stories about the impact of Pandora on the careers of artists,” says Westergren, himself once a musician looking to make his name. “It’s clear to me that we have the potential to really make a difference for them.”
Most of Pandora’s catalog has had little or no radio exposure, so Pandora is a way to reach a new larger audience that is likely to enjoy the music. “Over 90 percent of the over 800,000 songs in our collection play every month,” he says. “As a lifelong working musician, this is one of the things about Pandora that makes me most proud.”
So, it seems that Pandora—finally—is here to stay. The next question might be: Now that it’s blowing up, will it stay in the Easy Bay or flee to a city seen as more cutting edge?
“We love Oakland, and we’re staying put,” Westergren says. “The city has been tremendously supportive of us for a long time—including when we really needed help in Washington. There’s a real Renaissance going on in downtown Oakland, and we’re pleased to be part of it.” —David Anthony
Nate Schierholtz certainly hasn’t forgotten where he came from. Sitting next to his fiancée in a chic hotel restaurant, the San Francisco Giants’ outfielder is waxing nostalgic about his childhood field of dreams, a makeshift Wiffle ball field in his Danville backyard.
“Our backyard ran into the Iron Horse trail, and every spring, my friends and I would take a lawnmower and mow a baseball field on the lawn,” says Schierholtz, 27. “We used a lawn chair for the strike zone, and if you hit one across the yard and over the trail, it was a home run.”
The story segues into the memory of a recent home run hit by Schierholtz. Earlier this season in Colorado, he blasted a tape measure shot that went into the upper deck at Coors Field.
“A fan asked me if hitting that ball felt like slicing through warm butter; and that’s exactly what it felt like,” Schierholtz says. “I wasn’t able to see where it landed, but when I got to the dugout, my teammates told me it was up in the third deck. The coolest part was that my younger brother, Vai, was sitting about 10 feet from where the ball landed. He and his friends paid a guy $25 for the ball and promised that I would send him some signed memorabilia.”
Schierholtz’s fiancée, Kate Eveland, a 25-year-old business consultant, laughs at the story. A Texan who met Schierholtz just before his 2009 rookie season, Eveland is enjoying every minute of their fairy tale engagement, which followed the Giants’ dream season of 2010. Schierholtz is equally smitten, and the couple take turns sharing their engagement story.
“Nate was able to surprise me, completely, when he proposed,” says Eveland. “The day he did it, I was in San Francisco, and he was in Phoenix for spring training, so I had no idea.”
“My game was rained out, so I rushed to the airport and got the last seat on a flight to San Francisco,” Schierholtz says. “I had my mom, my stepfather, and a friend of Kate’s take her out to dinner and then suggest that they go out for a drink at the top of the Mark Hopkins Hotel. I had rented a room at the top of the hotel and got there in time to put rose petals and candles everywhere.”
“It was so romantic,” says Eveland. “I walked into this room, and there was Nate. He doesn’t get nervous, but he was shaking.” Schierholtz laughs as he recounts the conversation he had a few days before with Eveland’s father to ask permission to propose.
“Kate’s dad is a great guy and a huge sports fan,” he says. “It took almost an hour to change the topic from hitting to tell him how much I love his daughter.”
Of course, Eveland wasn’t the only one who got a ring last year. Schierholtz proudly displays the gigantic diamond-encrusted World Series ring that he earned during the Giants’ incredible championship season.
“As a kid who grew up in the East Bay, loving the Giants, to get to be on the team that won the World Series almost seems unreal,” says Schierholtz, who frequently visits Alamo to see family. “I keep thinking that I’ll put the ring in a safe, but I have to keep wearing it when I’m in the Bay Area. People love to see it: The season meant so much to the Giants’ fans.”
While Schierholtz’s hard play makes him a fan favorite, clearly, his biggest supporter is Eveland. “I went to about 120 games last season,” she says. “My bosses were great; they figured out a way for me to be able to go to every play-off game.”
And, when the Giants faced off against the Texas Rangers in the World Series, Eveland got to watch her fiancée’s team celebrate on her hometown field. In fact, the entire Eveland family, who had been longtime Rangers season ticket holders, dropped their allegiance to the Texas team to root for their future in-law.
“It was pretty crazy to be in that ballpark that we had been to for so many games and not cheer for the Rangers,” says Eveland. “But Nate had so completely won my family over, what other choice did we have?”
Talking with Leslie Carrara-Rudolph is like chatting up a kid-friendly version of Robin Williams. The puppeteer and performer behind one of Sesame Street’s most popular characters talks a mile a minute—and you have to wonder how many voices are banging around in that wildly talented head of hers. The laugh-out-loud funny actress, who’s from the East Bay, says that her creative streak started developing very early on.
“Growing up in Pleasant Hill, I was always surrounded by creativity,” says Carrara-Rudolph. “My dad was an artist and art teacher; my mom was the queen of the crafts. I had a backyard fort, and there was always something magical happening back there.”
Carrara-Rudolph went from the backyard fort to teaching at summer programs in Pleasant Hill and Walnut Creek. From there, she trained at Fantasy Forum Actors Ensemble and Willows Theatre Company, and eventually was in Beach Blanket Babylon.
“Fantasy Forum is truly where I got some of my very best training. They would cast me as anything: a dog, Pinocchio, etc.,” she says. Carrara-Rudolph kept chasing her dream—lending her talents to The Simpsons and Johnny and the Sprites—and then, Sesame Street. In 2006, Carrara-Rudolph was selected as the voice of a new Sesame Street character, Abby Cadabby, a fairy created to give young girls a positive role model. She got the news from Kevin Clash, the man behind Elmo. “He called me up and said, ‘You got it, girl!’ ” Carrara-Rudolph recalls.
Abby Cadabby immediately became one of the most popular Muppets on Sesame Street, and Carrara-Rudolph earned Emmy nominations for her character work in 2009 and 2011. She met her husband, composer Paul Rudolph, while working on the show Muppets Tonight. The actress still can’t believe her good fortune in being able to work on Sesame Street.
“I’m doing the same thing I have done my whole life but at another level. I was obsessed with the Muppets as a kid—in a way that’s not even healthy,” says Carrara-Rudolph. “The fact that I know the Henson family is amazing to me.”
Carrara-Rudolph’s family and local fans are in for a treat in the months to come. On July 30, Carrara-Rudolph will visit the Lesher Center for the Arts to perform at the Chevron Family Theatre Festival. Then in September, she will premier a new show at the Lesher Center. Wake Up Your Weird will feature a cast of Carrara-Rudolph’s original characters, and will celebrate individuality and creativity, while targeting the issue of bullying. Carrara-Rudolph received a grant for the project, which she hopes will be booked into community theaters across the country after its East Bay debut.
“It’s a chance for me to bring out the best of the best as a singer and comedian,” she says.
Carrara-Rudolph will perform two shows at the Chevron Family Theatre Festival in Walnut Creek on July 30. For tickets, call (925) 943-7469 or go to lesherartscenter.org.
Anyone who’s ever seen mega food celebrity Guy Fieri wolf down a greasy, belt-busting burger on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives would be surprised to hear what he ate when he was growing up.
Believe it or not, the flamboyant host of the überpopular Food Network show celebrating America’s greasy spoons was raised by hippie parents who preached a healthy macrobiotic diet.
“But I wasn’t born to be macrobiotic,” says Fieri, with a laugh, as he relaxes inside his original Johnny Garlic’s restaurant in Santa Rosa.
Fieri does credit that upbringing in the tiny northern California town of Ferndale with setting him on his career path, however.
“Growing up, the deal was whoever did the cooking got to make the decision about what we were going to eat,” he explains. “So, I was like, ‘Let me get this straight; we’re going to have steamed broccoli, steamed fish, and brown rice? Hey, how about I cook tomorrow?’ Then, I’d make pasta, meatballs, and pork chops—stuff that I wanted.”
That’s exactly the kind of hearty, filling fare that’s featured on the menu of his Johnny Garlic’s restaurants, the fourth location of which Fieri debuts this month in Dublin. And while the concept hasn’t changed much from the first Santa Rosa restaurant he opened in 1996, Fieri’s life certainly has in the five years since he won the Food Network’s The Next Food Network Star competition.
Indeed, these days the 43-year-old’s signature spiked platinum blond do is hard to avoid. In addition to Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, Fieri hosts two other Food Network shows, as well as the popular NBC game show Minute to Win it. The day we spoke, Fieri, a huge Oakland Raiders fan had just cooked a surprise 75th birthday meal for John Madden at his Pleasanton home and was getting ready to embark on a 21-city, monthlong tour of his unique hybrid rock show/cooking demo. He also recently released his own line of kitchenware, and a 409-page cookbook, and became the face of a new national ad campaign by Ritz crackers. “I’m an adrenaline junkie,” he admits. “I can’t not do anything.”
Still, Fieri has stayed loyal to Northern California, choosing to continue living in Santa Rosa—despite the nearly three-hour commutes to SFO and Oakland International—to remain close to family and longtime friends. And despite his hectic schedule and rock star persona, Fieri, a father of five- and 14-year-old boys, says he is crystal clear about his family being his top priority. “My number-one job is being a dad. Just this morning, I had a crap-load of work I had to do, but I managed to bust out four hardcore death-match games of Candy Land with my five-year-old. That’s what’s important in my world.”