Victoria Giraud ~ Editor / Author

Memorable Interviews

De L'Esprie
By Victoria Giraud - People & Places Columnist
Printed in the Daily News of Los Angeles

When Westlake Village sculptor De L'Esprie, Esprie for short, was searching for an artistic pseudonym about 20 years ago, she wanted something that was spiritual and described her as an individual. A native French Canadian from Montreal, she chose De L'Esprie, which means "from the spirit."

"I feel the Lord has really blessed me with this gift. I prayed that God would give me what it took and put me on the right path with teachers and clients," Esprie reflected.

Judging from the enthusiastic response to her recent "Joy to Life" sculpture at the new Westlake Promenade shopping center, with patience and perseverance Esprie has been led in the right direction. The sculpture, within a fountain, depicts the joyful, smiling figure of a mother holding her baby son while she flies a kite. Her other two sons and their dog scamper gaily after her while the father, a separate sculpted figure, watches the happy family scene from a nearby bench.

Esprie said that Los Angeles shopping center developer, Rick Caruso, wanted a sculpture that would promote the family. "I came up with the idea of a happy, laughing family. I saw the full picture in my mind. The father on the bench was after that." She laughed when she remembered Caruso's visits to her studio to check on her progress. "Boy, that looks great. That looks fantastic. Are you on schedule?" he would ask her.

The multi-faceted sculpture of 5 people and a dog took almost a year to complete. From the original drawing to the clay sculpture took 6 months. The bronze casting process took 4 months; 100 molds were needed for the figures as part of the casting.

Sculpture is a demanding job, especially for someone only 5'4," and suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. "I battle it every day, but my work takes me out of myself," Esprie explained.

To sculpt the many large pieces she has done -- the Chumash Indian at the Janss Mall and Gene Autry with horse Champion at the Autry Western Heritage Museum, for instance -- Esprie starts with a steel skeletal structure. Over that she layers the muscle structure of the figure and then works with the final details of clothing, hair and eyes. To obtain the true-to-life features of her sculpture, Esprie has worked with live models, cadavers, and freely consults anatomy books.

Artistic talent runs in Esprie's Canadian family; her mother is a painter, and her sister sculpts. As a child of 5 Esprie loved small spaces. She could be found under her bed painting miniatures along the baseboards of her bedroom, on in the closet painting.

Growing up near the Canawaga Indian Reservation in Canada, she had an early fascination with Indian culture. "I would kayak to their side of the river for clay on the riverbank," Esprie remembered. "I started to sculpt old people and children. I'm intrigued by different cultures; it makes the world more colorful."

Esprie came to California in 1980 to finish her college degree at California State University Northridge. Although sales of her sculptures were paying her tuition and other expenses, she was majoring in special education and business, feeling her artistic talents would not make her a living. After graduation she reconsidered. "It paid for my books; I decided to take it more seriously."

Over the years she has sculpted a wide array of subjects in many different sizes which have included: Native Americans, western figures, wild animals, ballerinas, mythical figures and angels.

As her reputation grew, Esprie's sculptures have been collected and commissioned by the rich and famous. Sylvester Stallone had her sculpt him as Rocky for Planet Hollywood, and Michael Wayne, son of John Wayne, had her do a bust of famous Indian warrior, Crazy Horse. Randy Travis, Charlton Heston and Jimmy Stewart own her artwork, and Burt Reynolds has taken lessons from her.

Esprie would like to share her talent, teaching in her studio. "I'd like to start a class teaching paraplegics, people confined to a wheelchair but that have full use of their hands. It would be an opportunity for someone who'd like to learn."

She also has a vision of a sculpture she'd like to do for the City of Los Angeles, if she could acquire a major funder. The sculpture would consist of 5-7 people, each one of a different culture, each with one angel wing. They would be embracing each other. Her vision was inspired by an Italian poem which says, "We are all like angels with one wing; we can only fly by embracing each other."

As Esprie matures, she feels she becomes more spiritual and emotional, and these qualities show in her work. "You understand feelings more, the more you work on yourself," she reflected.

Asked what her favorite sculpture was of the many she'd done, Esprie smiled and replied, "It's always my last piece." Which in this case is the family in the fountain at the Westlake Promenade.

Gallagher
By Victoria Giraud - People & Places Columnist
Printed in the Los Angeles Daily News

Comic performer Gallagher thinks of himself as a Renaissance man.

"I've always been creative. I never said I would follow the road everyone else does," he says with a twinkle in his eye.

The impish comedian with his trademark flat cap that hides a bald spot, straggly long graying hair hanging beneath it, is known for smashing watermelons and other juicy fruits and vegetables with his famous Sledge-a-Matic. His audiences wear ponchos and carry plastic to protect themselves from the objects flying off any stage Gallagher's performing upon.

Claiming he's the most famous man to come out of Tampa, Florida, and the University of South Florida, Gallagher's always been known by his last name. The former English literature major who also took courses in physical chemistry and calculus will be an honored guest of his alma mater at homecoming next spring.

His homes in Agoura are as unusual as he is -- "I have one with a view, and one is a place to park some things." The things include his unique props, like a set of 30, 10-foot tall bowling pins he's trying to sell, or blimps with a gondola operated by pedals.

"I got rid of the women in my life, and I can do what I want," Gallagher explains about the decor in his view house. He's installed a swing from the high, center beam in the living room specifically for his 7-year-old son, Barnaby, to use while watching TV or playing. The family room holds a two-seater arcade driving game -- "Daytona USA."

Barnaby helped his dad eliminate the wall between two small bedrooms. When they couldn't find an appropriate place for the bed, Gallagher put it on a swinging platform hanging from the ceiling where the wall once was, and it swings between the two rooms. Most of the time the mattress is in the living room; it's a convenient place to fall asleep watching TV.

Gallagher is known for his oversize, outrageous props -- his sledge probably the most well known. Some of these things turn up in his garage -- like the multiple-wheeled rocking horse that runs by battery, or the whimsical bicycle with a car door attached. He's got a steamroller of foam to squash kids, and huge coaches and chairs. Keeping up with current events, he's got the O.J. weapon -- a knife at the end of a golf club.

Although Gallagher's got homes in other states, and an ostrich farm in North Carolina, "Once a week I'm back in Agoura to plan my next assault on the heartland of America."

Even though his comedy venues have been varied and included spots on "The Tonight Show" and Showtime cable television (he won an Ace Cable Award for writing his own material), Gallagher emphasizes, "My career takes place in theatres across the country, nightly." The Neilson ratings are important for television shows, but "That doesn't tell if they liked the jokes or wanted to look at your body," he jokes.

He feels his talent shines most brightly with a room full of people, and he will go out of his way to ensure the seats are full. Arriving in Yuma, Arizona at 5 a.m. for an evening show, not long ago, he found a way to double his audience. "I went to the hospital emergency room, found a fan and asked her to get the word out." Then he discovered the furloughed federal employees were having a convention in town, and Gallagher asked them too, all for free.

Gallagher likes to play the small towns that surround the larger venues. "I will do out-of-the-way places on Thursdays and Sundays, before and after the main cities." He finds humor specific to the smaller towns and tailors it by studying their local newspapers, ads, and city pamphlets. He likes to stir things up, he says, but adds that "all my comedy is the truth."

With the help of his promoter, Ruth Propper, Gallagher isn't afraid of spending his own money to advertise himself and rent theatres. "I look for ratholes. Where else can you smack stuff? I need mismanagment -- they'll be available. Businesses gone bad," he laughs.

Gallagher's proud of his staying power and the fact that his comedy appeals to entire families, "My fans are old enough to bring their kids. A third of the audience is over 50. I get more grandmothers with kids than boyfriends and girlfriends."

Asked where his inspiration comes from, Gallagher doesn't hesitate, "Jokes will jump in my head. It's a gift from God. All I have to do is sit, and it comes, and it's good. When it happens, it happens."

When Gallagher graduated from college his first job was selling for Allied Chemical in Chicago. When he lost his job, he went home to Florida to think. A class clown, he knew he had a knack for comedy and, "It seemed a romantic mountain to climb. If I failed, I could always go back to chemistry."

He was watching TV and the old Veg-a-matic (a special vegetable slicer) ad, when the idea of Sledge-a-Matic hit him. "People don't expect you to smack something in a small club," Gallagher said. At first he used small fruits like oranges, apples and grapes as he told jokes. His use of props also made his act unique and hard to steal -- "On your way up, theft is a big thing."

Gallagher's first big break was a spot on the Mike Douglas TV talk show. He called singer-comedian Jim Stafford to share the news. Stafford, whose big hit was "Spiders and Snakes," didn't know Gallagher, but was impressed enough to hire him. "I was his road manager, and a hanger-on, but Jim let me practice at the end of his act. I helped him with his act and started to prop it up."

Stafford still uses the guitar prop with the hole that falls off, Gallagher said. He also designed a guitar with a make-believe old man that lived in it. When the music got too loud, the old man's voice could be heard, complaining, "calm it down." If the music continued loudly, a small blade would appear sawing through the guitar.

Although Gallagher stays busy -- the next few months will see him in Northern California, Oregon, Washington and Florida -- he sees himself at a crossroads, and he's exploring opportunities to expand his shows to England.

After all as Gallagher points out, "I'm a comedian. Everyone's afraid of the situation that I thrive in."

JULES SYLVESTER
By Victoria Giraud - People & Places Columnist
Printed in the Los Angeles Daily News

Jules Sylvester calls himself a vermin wrangler, which means in his definition, handling anything nobody else likes in their home.

Jules gets paid to make cockroaches, rats, scorpions, lizards, frogs, rattlesnakes, pythons and various other animals and bugs perform for the entertainment industry.

"I love it. You couldn't give me a better lifestyle. This is my consuming passion," this tall and amiable man declares, laughing enthusiastically.

With his own business, Reptile Rentals, or as a freelance out-trainer for Animal Actors of Hollywood, Jules is kept constantly busy on film projects all over the world.

An upcoming film project in Venezuela, tentatively entitled "Indian in the City" will involve bird and rat-eating spiders, the largest variety of tarantula. The hairy spiders measure 10 1/2 inches across, and they're the same species he used in the film "Arachnaphobia."

"They have a nasty bite, and I'm allergic to the hairs. I have to use gloves or a spatula and a cup," Jules explained with glee. He obviously enjoys the faces people make when he describes situations that would horrify many of us.

Not long ago he worked on the movie, "Congo," filmed in Costa Rica. Jules was in charge, among other things, of maintaining serpent control and "had an absolute blast." Each day Jules would catch poisonous snakes. One day it was a pit viper that had crawled under the make-up lady's bag.

The 200-person crew had to endure mud, rain, and a constantly active volcano, but ironically, Jules said the bad roads and fast drivers made driving in Costa Rica the biggest danger.

Keeping a sense of humor while working with his creatures is important to Jules, and he finds laughter everywhere. Since most of his work involves second unit filming, he can crack a lot of jokes. Like the time he was enticing his rat to crawl up the leg of a naked Kevin Bacon by using peanut butter and carob syrup in the movie, "Murder in the First." Bacon was a prisoner in solitary confinement.

Jules keeps his creatures in a special, temperature-controlled trailer at the Animal Actors site in Thousand Oaks. A deep freeze holds ratsicles and micesicles --frozen rats and mice, he says laughing-- which are thawed out for the snakes. Cockroaches, he has four species, get dog food and lettuce.

Jules chuckled remembering the stale Twinkies he tried to feed his cockroaches. "They stared at it for three weeks before they finally ate it."

One of his favorite creatures is the over 7-foot Brutus, a version of Komodo dragon, that was one of the stars of "The Freshman," a few years ago. Now Jules brings Brutus to the nursery school of sons Justin, 5, and Jonathan, 4, for photographs.

Besides vermin and reptiles, Jules loves working with chimpanzees and wolves. "Wolves have a very closed and complicated social system," Jules explained. The social graces are important to observe since wolves don't like strangers. It takes a trainer a great deal of time to develop a relationship. "The ideal thing is to be a non-person, to be calm and unobtrusive. Always keep moving. Don't indulge in the human trait of standing around staring."

Some years ago Jules took local wolves to Coldfoot, Alaska, in mid-winter for a Sears commercial, and was amazed at their adaptability. He had also managed wolves for the movie "Never Cry Wolf." The Alaskan site was 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The temperature, at minus 87 degrees was too cold to run any vehicles or fly out, and the crew were stuck there over two weeks.. They had to wait until it warmed up to minus 74. It was too cold to film, and Jules remembers finding six inches of ice under his bed in their trailer camp.

"The wolves, who were born and raised in Thousand Oaks, were totally ecstatic. It was wonderful to watch how magnificent wolves are, how adaptable, and how insignificant we are. They could adapt from minus 87 to 100 degrees."

Recently he took wolves from Thousand Oaks to Thailand for "The Phantom," a movie soon-to-be-released. Despite the dense, hot and humid jungle, once again the wolves loved the environment.

Born in Kenya and growing up on a farm, Jules was exposed to and collected all kinds of animals and insects, 10-inch wood scorpions, spiders and giant lizards, for instance. He remembers his school's football field was so close to the forest that occasional leopards would run across part of it, even if games were being played. At 16 he was already working as a student helper at Nairobi Snake Park.

In the mid 1970s, Jules met his mentor, Hubert Wells, the owner of Animal Actors. Wells was training lions for a television series based on Joy Adams book, BORN FREE. Adams was Jules' Kenyan neighbor, and he was hired to handle lions, despite his lack of experience.

Jules came to the States soon after, lured by the circus, not Hollywood. He spent three years on the circus circuit before he got a job as assistant trainer for the television series, "B.J. and the Bear." His business has grown ever since.

Even wife Sue, who was born in Rhodesia which is now Zimbabwe, gets in the act occasionally. "Sue's not too keen on snakes," Jules commented. "She did some second unit work on one of the Freddie's Nightmare sequels."

"My business is rocketing," Jules said. "I get along with most people and that helps. In business you sell yourself, anybody could wrangle a cockroach, but I can do it with a lot more giggles."