Marjorie Luke, Staying Ripe in Stale Times

By Steven Libowitz   |   September 17, 2020
Among the Marjorie Luke Theater’s high-quality concerts is the season launcher on September 18 featuring local native Mendeleyev

Venues and artists throughout the world are struggling with how to thrive or even survive during the extended pandemic. For Marjorie Luke board president Rod Lathim, joining the zeitgeist of endless Zoom performances proved completely unpalatable.

Instead, the Luke – which only a year or so ago started producing its own events rather than simply serving as a rental space – committed to creating high-quality concerts and other content that, instead of live streaming, would employ three high definition cameras, top quality sound equipment and professional editing, basically treating the venerable theater at Santa Barbara Junior High School like a television studio with innovative lighting and scene-scaping all while adhering to the current COVID safety protocols.

“Once we realized we were going to be dark for some time, we knew we could either decide to just sit and wait for the craziness to be over, or get busy and start creating our own content,” Lathim said. “We have this beautiful theater and two staff members – down from 32, sure, but still here – who could help. So I decided to bring in Santa Barbara artists and give them a chance to perform here, and actually pay them to help them keep going.”

Six free events have already been booked, including a season-launching concert by local native Mendeleyev, a 29-year-old singer-songwriter who competed on The Voice last fall, whose show premieres on Friday, September 18. (See interview below.) Upcoming events include “Resonance,” featuring more than 30 Santa Barbara musicians, singers, and speakers reflecting the city’s diverse culture coming together to uplift, unite, and inspire through songs, music, and spoken words. Keyboardist Gil Rosas, a trio from the Santa Barbara Folk Orchestra, actors Rich Hoag and Marion Freitag, and guitarist Chris Fossek are among the artists appearing in a show that will include a poignant excerpt from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town read by more than a dozen speakers.

Also on the schedule are Tariqh Akoni & Friends, led by the Santa Barbara-born composer-songwriter-producer-studio wizard and longtime music director for Josh Groban; a concert with Jackson Gillies, who won Teen Star Santa Barbara in 2016 before going on to compete on American Idol; and OTV Reads SB, a new play reading and experimental/development arm of the radical, award-winning theater company On The Verge.

Each new event will be publicly announced and posted for free viewing on the site, approximately every five weeks, although the nature of production has prevented a firm scheduling commitment. Each show will remain available to view indefinitely per the agreement with the artists that is rather rare even during the pandemic. Artists interested in participating are encouraged to submit video tapes of their acts on the same website.

“It’s really about community service, and staying relevant,” Lathim said. “With the sponsorships, we’re just squeaking by, not making any real money by a longshot. But it’s important to stay viable as a theater instead of rotting on the vine. We have this beautiful asset we could put to work at a time when people need to have access to culture. People are hungry for that.”

The Voice from Santa Barbara

Mendeleyev Galileo Einstein Pythagoras Darwin Euclid Leonardo Allan-Blitz – he got his unusual name via his hippie parents’ love of science – had an unconventional upbringing near Gibraltar Road in the hills above Santa Barbara, where he not only took voice lessons but also learned to play the guitar, piano, drums, bass, and ukulele. Four years at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, where he studied jazz guitar, led him back to Southern California, where he now makes his home in Venice.

Outside of town, he’s best known for appearing on The Voice in 2019, where his very low, very distinct voice made all four coaches turn around with his bass cover of Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” before he wound up being eliminated in the battle round. But Mendeleyev had already had his share of one-of-a-kind experiences, including having his family house burn down in the Tea Fire in 2008, a year after getting pulled on stage by Jack Johnson and Michael Franti at the 2007 Solutions for Dreamers Festival to sing the third verse of a cover of Sublime’s “What I Got” in front of 2,000 people.

So appearing in front of almost no one at the 800-seat Marjorie Luke – where he’d performed a few times in high school with the Dos Pueblos Jazz Band – was no big thing for the 29-year-old. Mostly he was full of gratitude and wonder as he talked about the show and more over the phone while driving home from a car dealership in his new 2020 Toyota Camry hybrid last Monday night.

Q. When you look back at your time on The Voice, how does that experience show up in your life right now?

A. The whole thing was one of the best experiences of my life. It was a wonderful, wonderful time, and really important. It’s very nostalgic to think about. It was just such a blast, and generally my favorite part about it was being with all these insanely talented people from all over the country and getting to spend time together and write together, record together day in and day out for a month. It was kind of like summer camp. They make it seem like it’s so competitive on the show, but everyone was very supportive so it was just so damn cool. You know, I’d never even seen an episode in my life before I stumbled into it because I was curious about reality television, and it turned out to be more than I could have imagined.

How did you wind up as the first artist for this new series at the Luke?

I just kind of fell into that too. Rod had an artshow in the Funk Zone last winter and I accidentally walked in there thinking it was the venue I was supposed to be playing, which was actually across the street. He recognized me and we stood there talking for a while. He ended up coming over to see my set that night and loved it. Eventually he reached out and invited me to play.

The idea of playing in a theater with no audience is just a super bizarre thing in my mind, especially for someone like you, who really connects to the audience. How was it for you?

It was actually pretty amazing because they had all these cameras, and a videographer, and Rod went over my setlist song by song to feature each of them in a different way with different themes and camera angles to showcase different parts of the theater. It was a really cool concept. It was strange not having an audience, but I loved being on the stage in such a beautiful place to play. But it was definitely weird. I didn’t really tell as many stories as I normally would, no interludes between the songs where I talk to the audience, which is a big part of my usual type of performances. But what was fun was that we were able to use a couple of my own music videos which we projected behind me and I played and sang along to them. Weird or not, it sure beats doing those live streams online. I mean, we’re still editing it, making it a real special show.

How much does being from Santa Barbara inform who you are and your music, or rather how does it show up in your art these days?

That’s a good question. The biggest part was growing up in the mountains and having that element of seclusion, away from a neighborhood or a society or friends other than in school but a very close family. Growing up with that kind of solitude definitely fostered my creativity. And one of the strongest, most influential experiences of my life was the fire and having the house burn down in 2008. I pretty much lost everything I owned. Ironically, it was really liberating. All that was left that was mine from before the fire was the 2006 Toyota Camry hybrid. It was really hard to let go of that car, so getting the new one I’m driving home right now has a lot of meaning.


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