By Brad Kay
Sunday, February 22, the former Laddie Dill art studio at Palms and Electric Avenue in Venice was transformed into a swanky TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) venue, with a high vaulted ceiling, stage, large video screen, grand piano off to one side, and enough room for me, Suzy Williams and 350 other lucky ticket holders. Seven hundred more were turned away, waiting hopefully at their iPhones for ‘no-shows’ tickets. On Oscar Sunday, yet. THAT should indicate how popular this TED business is.
As the day of the event approached, I was past being thoroughly convinced it was a Big Deal. My blood was up. I had my little entertainment rehearsed completely (I was practicing it right up till the ascent of the gallows). I chose my clothes carefully, and with replete advice from my couturier, Marbo of Mar Vista (Marea Boylan to you): A vintage blue serge suit, immaculately cleaned; brown, red and white zig-zag tie with a gold clip; white dress shirt, blue trompe-de-l’oiel cufflinks; dark brown pork-pie hat; new black leather shoes. And a haircut.
I only harp on my dress in detail because of the stark contrast to everybody else: There was exactly NOBODY attired as was I – in other words, for a formal event, a forum for the Best and the Brightest, where the latest Big Ideas were aired; the ultimate New Technology on display. I repeat: It was Oscar Sunday, the tickets cost a hundred bucks, and there were seven hundred turnaways. The fortunate ticket holders got an elaborate lanyard and placard with their names printed elegantly thereon and instant access to the free Whole Foods food and other goodies in the booths around the patio.
It was practically a substitute Academy Awards, lacking only the red carpet. And YET: The men dressed in T-shirts, jeans, cutoffs, sandals; the women all were in baggy clothes, again, jeans – not a dress or decent pair of gams to be seen – no makeup. In short, everyone was as casually garbed as if they were making a quick beer run to Wal-Mart during half-time. I don’t appall easily, but THIS was appalling! What were they thinking? I expected more from this TED crowd.
The actual TED show ran with clockwork precision. Each speaker’s slides, sound effects, et cetera were timed to the second and faultlessly executed. The staff was unfailingly professional, polite and chipper, even though pressed from all sides. My talk, for instance, involved a little stage business, with a toy piano moved onstage. The staffers took the trouble to rehearse the bit till it was right, and when the time came, it was done with grace and swiftness. Their efficiency impressed me to no end. When it started to rain, there were umbrellas for EVERYONE (!). There was a great “TEDXVB” (Venice Beach) logo all lit up on the wall behind the presenters. I counted 74 light bulbs in it.
The talks ranged in subject from a fascinating hologram deployment, to a pep talk on feeding the homeless, to re-purposing old airplane parts for architecture, to new ways to halt the spread of infectious diseases, to an electric skateboard demonstration, and, eclectically, much more. All most inspiring and mind-opening. However, the speakers’ connection to the theme of the conference, “Think Small,” was tangential at best. I think they mostly recycled their regular talks and shoehorned in “Think Small” where it seemed appropriate. I was chagrined, because I had developed my whole talk around “Think Small,” and was vaguely disappointed that the other speakers didn’t.
The conference was divided into three one-hour segments, with fifteen-minute intermissions between, when we could stretch our legs and partake of the amenities. During these, there was “background music” playing both inside and outside the hall. To me, there is no such thing as background music – I hear every note. You would think at a “haute” gathering like this, the subliminal music would be the very best, most mind-stimulating music in the world: Beethoven. Louis Armstrong. Edith Piaf. Chuck Berry. Caruso. Bix. Anita O’Day. Mozart. And so forth. Instead, it was the blandest, most forgettable and annoying “Indie Rock” imaginable. It failed, even as music you are not supposed to notice. I stifled the old gag reflex.
And then I gave my performance, the last act in the second round. If I dare say so, it went exceedingly well. For weeks, my whole being was focused on those seventeen allotted minutes. I would get only one shot at them, and I’d better not fail. Over-preparation paid off: I hardly stumbled; the piano was wonderful; I was even cute. I made the most of it. I could see several audience members standing at the end. Maybe they were stretching. (The performance eventually will be seen on YouTube. I promise to keep you informed when that will be).
Afterward, everything came up roses. The TED staff was all smiles; I got the “high five” from every direction. I was, as the old vaudevillians used to say, “in clover.”
Even then, there was a fly in the ointment. It pains me to say it – but:
At least forty separate people approached me, pumped my hand, and smiling, said, “Dooood! Your talk was AWESOME!! ” I inwardly winced after the third repetition, and went on inwardly wincing. Again: This crowd represents the Best and the Brightest. The most apt brains available. They Darwinianally selected themselves to be there, beating out the competition by a ratio of three-to-one, eschewing even the Oscars. And yet. And still. Is “AWESOME!!” the only word left to these poor adjectively-deprived blighters? I regretted that I didn’t bring an ample supply of “Awesome” cards. (see below).
I didn’t attend the after-party at Bank of Venice. I live only a block and a quarter from the venue. I walked home in the rain, toting the toy piano. There was a power outage on my block, so I returned to a completely dark house, except for Suzy Williams and a couple of candles. So I lit some more candles, got out the 78s, cranked the wind-up phonograph, and Suzy and I reveled in a concert by Sir Harry Lauder. We partied like it was 1899.
I am exceedingly grateful to Cynthia Rogers and Erin Stumpf, who (figuratively!) held my hand and were my guides throughout the experience; and Tom Sewell who sicced them on me.
By Brad Kay