The Coffee Gallery in Altadena is busy on this Saturday afternoon, filled with the young, middle-aged, and beyond; with Latinos, African Americans, and Caucasians; with mismatching tables and chairs. I like it.
I buy a Hammerhead—a shot of espresso that can be mixed with coffee, which does rather jolt me awake after a morning of painting my daughter’s room without enough ventilation. But after I’ve added a dash of half-and-half to my caffeine, I’m not sure where to go. A back room has a large table with mostly women seated around it, appearing as though they are working on a project, maybe a screenplay, or is this a book club? It’s too confined of a space for me to lurk and snoop.
The only other avenue to check is a cluttered hallway that has posters covering the left wall, and pamphlets and flyers covering a credenza. The other side of the hallway has shelving holding supplies for the coffee house. A woman stands behind a small table and inquires if I am here for the show: Ellen Snortland’s Now That She’s Gone. I reply that I am. She looks up my name, crosses me off the list, and states that they will be opening the doors in about ten minutes. I glance around and see the hallway leading onwards to the right (to the bathroom?) and a door to the left. Perhaps that is “the doors” she means. I squeeze past some others who are coming to sign in, and go back into the coffee house area to wait for friends.
“The doors” prove to be the single door to the left. It leads into a small elongated room. Wicker arm chairs with maroon padding are lined up in about five rows all the way to the end of the room, semi-curling around a small stage. Little tables with faux candles are scattered here and there. The stage looks like it is in between shows—an ironing stand took center stage with three different kinds of irons resting on it. A wardrobe rack to the left holds a hodgepodge of outfits—a brown suede fringe coat; a gauzy white dress; a red, black and white traditional-looking costume; and several other assorted apparel. A stool sits on the right side of the stage in front of a coat rack stand. A long table runs along the back covered with stuff I can’t quite discern.
The chairs fill up while a screen on the right shows slides in black and white and then color; Ellen’s ancestors, Ellen’s parents, sisters, then Ellen through the years, and finally Ellen with Gloria Steinem, Jesse Jackson, Hilary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and many other who’s who.
Finally the lights dim, music begins, and Ellen enters through a curtain off to the side, humming, then singing “Que Sera Sera.” Her voice is firm yet gentle.
Here are some pearls from the show:
—Ellen is an I Love Lucy accident (no, I won’t explain, go see the show). Her sisters aure 7 and 14 years older than her. The eldest was a rodeo queen and the middle sister resented the new baby in the family usurping her place. Ellen bonds with their dog Shag.
—Ellen’s stoic, distant, no kisses/no hugs mother from Norway irons even the socks and underwear.
—Ellen’s first memory is of her mother’s legs. Her second memory is that her mother wouldn’t look at her. She intentionally skins her knee, produces tears, and finally gets her mother’s attention. Lesson learned: drama works.
—Ellen bites her school teacher, developing her reputation as a “wild child.”
—Eleanor Roosevelt is Ellen’s mother’s hero, a goddess with a big heart and committed to social justice. The background for the Now That She’s Gone is Roosevelt’s “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.
—Artwork that Ellen brings home doesn’t get tapped up or held with magnets onto the front of the fridge, but is thrown into the trash; Ellen’s mother hates clutter.
—Ellen decides that she will win her mother over with her performances, thinking, “Surely my mother can’t ignore me if I’m the entire cast.”
—The family’s religion is Lutheran, defined as a “low-fat Catholic.”
—With President Kennedy’s assassination, Ellen experiences her “first plunge into sorrow.”
—When Ellen brandishes brass candlesticks in a rather threatening way, her mother finally reacts…by sending her away to boarding school.
—Over the years, Ellen’s mother tells her:
“Gloria Steinem is your Eleanor Roosevelt.”
“Men smell funny.”
“I hope I enjoy lunch.”
“I hope I like my supper.”
“Sons would have been better.”
This may seem a long list, but there are so much in my notes that I’ve left out. Ellen Snortland’s show is not only a personal ride but a historical one and, in many ways, a universal one. Now That She’s Gone is reflective, funny, sad, and ultimately surprising and enlightening.
“Ellen has a gift for being serious and funny, making you laugh and understand all at the same time.” Gloria Steinem
Ellen Snortland is a resident of Altadena.
Now That She’s Gone
Sunday, February 24th, 2:30 p.m.
Whitefire Theater, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks 91423
Tickets: $20 at BrownPaperTickets (the first 45 tickets are discounted to $15)