Live radio show captures local quirkiness
By Bridgette M. Redman
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
OWho needs a meadow when you have the twin cities of Pasadena and Altadena?
Radio show buffs who hold a special place in their hearts for the Garrison Keillor program of yore will want to tune in to Sandra Tsing Loh’s plans to celebrate the eccentricity of life in ‘Denas on her radio show in live at the iconic Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena.
Taking place monthly for the next year – barring any pandemic hiccups – the live show lines up guest local stars who shine a light on all that makes the cities unique.
The first show is at 3 p.m. on Sunday, January 30.
Loh knows what it takes to make radio shine, even when it’s not on the air. She is a longtime NPR and KPCC commentator, known for her show “Loh Down on Science.” She lines up guests such as Nobel Prize-winning banjo player David Politzer — no, he didn’t win for playing the banjo, that’s just a bonus — and an MTV star who also does mystery theater .
“For decades I thought of the ‘Prairie Home Companion’ – the original Garrison Keillor show,” Loh said. “Thirty years ago I did a song, ‘A Freeway Home Companion,’ which was a version of Los Angeles. It still had an intimate story, except with helicopters overhead. I always loved that idea.
The brewing idea sprouted late last year, inspired by Bob Stane’s Coffee Gallery Backstage. During the pandemic, she would occasionally meet a friend there for coffee just to get out of the house. The two peeked into the back room, where Stane hosts live performances.
“You open a door and there’s this adorable performance space,” Loh said. “It’s really old-fashioned, really intimate. They’ve been making music for years and years, and I thought it would be really fun to do something local with everything small scale.
While many people think of Beverly Hills or Sunset Boulevard when they think of Los Angeles, Loh is happy to do her show on Pasadena, Altadena and Eagle Rock, which she dubs “Eagle Rock-a-dena.”
“It’s these hilarious suburbs,” Loh said. “They’re pretty sweet. Some have drought-tolerant gardening. There is a small soy-based cheese factory. Instead of a slow week in Lake Wobegon, we’ll have, “It was a slow week in the ‘Denas.’ It’ll be a similar small-town feel with hyperlocal stories and charming acoustic music.
It’s the type of show, she says, that feels like a tonic at the moment, a cure for anyone who feels stressed and alienated.
Like the show it’s based on, it will have fake sponsors, such as Altadena Goddess Wear, Peachables, and Let’s Go to Fresno.
The goddess pants are a continuation of her character in an autobiographical humor book she wrote, “The Madwoman and the Roomba.”
“You have these soft pants where we’re not fat, we’re goddesses,” Loh said. “There is a goddess clothing store. There’s a dusty shop cat and scented lotions and candles for those times when you can’t face the rest of the world.”
Peachables are…something. Maybe it’s cheese. It may be a fruit. It could be a snack. In one of the sketches, it is offered to the hostess in front of a gluten-free guest and another allergic to wheat.
“It’s for those of us who can’t cope with cheese without fruit,” Loh said.
Let’s Go to Fresno is for those who can’t afford a luxury vacation.
Then there are handcrafted stories that capture the personality of the ‘Denas. Loh talks about how drought gardening is a local thing.
“It’s almost a violent thing that we argue with our neighbors about who has the best bee, the most pollinator-friendly gardens,” Loh said. “It’s competitive gardening that’s on a passive-aggressive level.”
Other stories will include arguments in Trader Joe’s about soymilk and questions about parking or the eccentric billionaire in the hills who never leaves his house. The stories will be told on their new fictional public radio station, KNDA.
“The news is always very nice, and then there’s the weather,” Loh said. “There is no politics or COVID. It may rage around us, but the news will have time or how someone’s cat strayed into someone else’s yard. It is a satirical fiction, but sweet.
Then there is the music. She asks her guests to perform songs with a classic American twist — tunes that might have been heard on “The Ed Sullivan Show” or that people can find in hootenannies.
Guests on January’s premiere show are John Michael Higgins (“Pitch Perfect,” “Best in Show”), Maxayn Lewis (Original Ikette, sang Ma Rainey in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), Jim Turner (MTV’s “Randee of the Redwoods”, Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre) and Politzer.
Higgins, who was also in “A Mighty Wind”, loves doing vocal arrangements. He will prepare them for the show and bring in singers.
“He’s really obsessed with four-part harmonies,” Loh said. “He would like to do eight games or ten games. He has a full vibe of being a great comedic actor and is completely enthralled with multi-part harmonies. I’m so glad he agreed (to be on the show).
Lewis is an actor, singer, and original cast member of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Loh said she was not only an amazing singer, but a great spirit. She expects Lewis to sing “Proud Mary” among other songs.
Turner cooked up a comedy skit about a new-age guru who runs a women-only workshop and does it in a ridiculous way. His character, Loh said, is a bit of a quack but sure to be a laugh.
Shows are scheduled on the last Sunday of each month throughout the year. Each show will have a different theme, something that could be taken from an almanac. Loh says after two years of a pandemic, there’s something wonderful about making music together, even if we can’t go to an arena with 10,000 people.
“The program is just over an hour, which is perfect for COVID times,” Loh said.
“We will have a hootenanny at the end where the public can sing along. If they bring an instrument, they can play it. We’ll do a few songs all together, and people can sing along or clap spoons.
“A ‘Dena Home Companion”
WHEN: 3 p.m. on Sunday, January 30, continuing on the last Sunday of each month
OR: Bob Stane Backstage Coffee Gallery, 2029 Lake Avenue, Altadena
INFORMATION: 626-798-6236, coffeegallery.com