Grand Performances Welcomes Mari Riddle

Grand Performances, L.A.'s beloved downtown performing arts series, now led by Mari Riddle.

by Abel M. Salas

Nestled discreetly among a slew of buildings at the top of Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles, California Plaza Watercourt is invisible to those driving by. Bordered on three sides by Grand Ave., 4th St. and Olive St., respectively, the hodgepodge of structures which shield the open-air urban retreat includes, among others, a pair of office towers, a hotel and the upper terminus of the city’s 116-year-old Angel’s Flight rail car service, which ascends at a sharp, 33-degree angle for nearly 300-ft. from its base at Hill St., one block to the east.

First-time visitors who brave the steep, two-story escalator ride up from 4th St at Olive are often surprised to discover such a generously apportioned public space tucked away at the summit of the well-known topographical landmark that gave its name to a downtown neighborhood once synonymous with the mystery, intrigue, murder and illicit passions depicted in a score of Hollywood noir pictures set in and around Bunker Hill during the 1940s and early ’50s.

“Cal Plaza”—in the argot of Angelenos—derives some of its ambience from the shallow pool of water which feeds an array of fountain works anchored below the surface.  Stylish and modern enough to merit the “watercourt” designation, the aquatic architectural flourish begins abruptly with no protective barrier, distinctive markings or signage to delineate its bank, much like a pond where the water level is even with the ground underfoot. It also now functions conveniently as an impromptu moat, separating a large section of the plaza from the ample stage-cum-bandstand rising directly from the water’s surface, on the other side of what could almost pass for a rooftop hotel pool.

The plaza’s impressive amenities, however, are minor backdrop details in the story of its role as the home—since 1987—of Grand Performances and Mari Riddle, the enigmatic, soft-spoken executive tapped to lead the non-profit organization behind L.A.’s and innovative summer concert and performing arts series upon the retirement of founding director Michael Alexander. The months-long evaluation process culminating in her appointment to the post he’d held since 1992, she explains, was the result of an “extensive and very rigorous” national executive search.

This July, newly installed as Executive Director and wrapped in a radiant blue rebozo, Riddle circulated anonymously among the crowd, discreetly observing their responses and reactions to the evening’s performance. After a  final curtain call at the conclusion of La Línea, an interdisciplinary, multi-media, conceptual dance performance featuring original music and choreography inspired by the border and the dynamics of immigration, she joined the cast onstage.

Looking out into the audience—in chairs just beyond the fountain’s opposite bank and seated along the terraced  amphitheater seating to the right of the stage, she gauged its energy. Eliciting greater and greater waves of applause each time she addressed the assembled crowd, she acknowledged the specific contributions of artists involved in the production they had witnessed only moments before.

Poised and without pretension, Riddle’s brief, sincere remarks came with a beaming smile. Her command of the spotlight, while subtle and unobtrusive, was undeniable. She was no newcomer to the stage. Nor, for that matter, was she a stranger to the microphone. Behind her clear, unhurried announcements about upcoming shows and personal thanks to individual donors and volunteers, there was something more. It was evident in her bearing and her careful yet optimistic choice of words. And it spoke of an intimate familiarity with stages and microphones and sound checks and set lists and travel itineraries.

I first met Mari Riddle at a press conference held by organizers of an initiative to bring a paired-down version of the Guadalajara International Book Festival to the Los Angeles Convention Center. Her business card identified her as the director of a non-profit  literacy center. We spoke again at a reception hosted by an independent commercial bank which had been launched by former California cabinet secretary and U.S. Small Business Administration chief Maria Contreras-Sweet.

There, I learned she was from the same tiny stretch of the Texas-Mexico border just 150 miles southwest of San Antonio where my paternal forebears had run wild as freewheeling cowboys and horse tamers before my great-grandfather moved his brood to the Texas Hill Country in 1904.

“Eagle Pass, Texas, which is a border town with Piedras Negras, Coahuila,” Riddle says when asked where she was born. She sits behind a desk in a modest office tucked away at the end of a short hallway in a suite less than 20 yards from the watercourt stage where she’d taken the mic with practiced ease the previous weekend. Impressions from La Linea, the riveting and evocative performance she’d introduced and provided closing credits for that night, still linger in my head, refreshed by her reference to the border towns I’d visited only twice as a child and once as an adult.

“It was a very fluid border. The downtowns are connected by… a very short, two-lane bridge,” she divulges. “You could walk there. You socialized on both sides of the border, shopped on both sides.” As an adolescent, Riddle exemplified that twin-city border heritage where a wall such as that proposed by Trump would have been considered a joke at best and idiotic lunacy at worst. Educated in public schools as a native-born Tejana, she played guitar and sang as part of “La Rondalla Femenil,” an all-female musical ensemble in Piedras Negras. The experience would, a few years later, prove pivotal in determining the direction and trajectory of her life, including a decision to make Los Angeles her permanent home.

Encouraged by her father, an educator and school administrator in her hometown, Riddle followed a small but steady stream of students from Eagle Pass who had, over the years, made their way to Brown University in Rhode Island. At Brown, she befriended fellow students with whom she created an all-woman group inspired by the Latin American folk song tradition known as “nueva canción.”

“I met Cindy Harding my freshman year… at a Latin American students association type of mixer,” Riddle continues. When Harding told her she played “requinto,” Riddle thought her newly met friend was referring to a particular style of guitar playing that emphasizes precise finger picking in lieu of strumming. Harding eventually showed up at her dorm room door, Riddle recalls, with a requinto jarocho, the five-stringed guitarra de son, an instrument the Texas native with Mexican roots and an Irish last name had never seen before.

Joined later by Ericka Verba, who brought with her a repertoire of Chilean protest songs, they became Sabiá, named for the Brazilian songbird. And after adding a charango player and a flautist, they played  throughout the East Coast and Montreal . as an all-woman quintet, sharing their distinctive harmonies and a bilingual brand of socially conscious songcraft, even as they completed their degrees at Brown.

In 1980, the band elected to celebrate and honor Harding and Riddle—group co-founders who would be graduating from Brown that year—with one last hurrah that took shape as a tour through Texas and California. Inspired by the positive response from West Coast audiences, they decided to make Los Angeles their base and continued touring, recording and performing throughout the U.S. and Canada. In 1983, they were invited to perform in Nicaragua and Honduras.

By the time Riddle and her bandmates finally decided to retire the musical group with a farewell concert—recorded live at the Robert Frost Pavilion in Culver City, California—they had been based in L.A. long enough for each to have begun moving forward along professional career paths unrelated to music.

“A lot of people wonder what the connection is with me and Grand Performances because they know me from either Centro Latino for Literacy or from my work for 15 years in community economic development... micro-enterprise, street vendors, the Community Development Bank, and TELACU Community Capital.,” says Riddle. “I was also the Executive Director of the Latin American Traditional Folk Music Festival in 1981 and the Levitt Pavilion MacArthur Park in 2009,” she continues.

After letting go of Sabiá, Riddle was still compelled to make music rooted in the tradition of popular song birthed in the movements against oppressive regimes in Latin America and on behalf of similar liberation struggles across the globe. Along with Verba, Riddle assembled a second band. “We started a group called Desborde, como desbordar, as in ‘to overflow across borders,’” she explains. Desborde also featured vocalist Mercedes Marquez, who Riddle describes as “an incredible singer with a beautiful voice,” as well as an attorney and national leader in community and affordable housing development and policy.

Desborde, she confesses in a quiet voice pregnant with humility, had the honor of performing on the Cal Plaza Watercourt stage during the 1996 summer series. “So my connection to Grand Performances goes back a long time,” she says, apologizing because she has to rush out for another meeting. “Go to my LinkedIn page, you’ll see all the things I’ve done, including albums I’ve recorded on,” she instructs before making her way to the door. Her expression, kind and maternal, is an effort to be helpful and accommodating, rather than an attempt to extol her own virtues or qualifications.

The visit to LinkedIn is unnecessary. Riddle is undoubtedly where she needs to be.  As the ideal successor to Alexander—an arts advocate whose mission for nearly 30 years at Grand Performances was to make the arts a part of as many lives as possible—she confesses that she had to hit the ground running after her being named the new executive director in a press release issued during May. The 2017 season has run its course and closed last month with a gala benefit fundraiser in honor of her predecessor, who remains in an advisory role as Executive Director Emeritus.

A tribute concert inspired by world-music giant Fela Kuti followed the gala reception. At $20 a ticket, it will allow those unable to attend the gala dinner an opportunity to partake of the festivities while supporting an organization which has itself been called  a “gift” to Angelenos.

Beyond that, Riddle is also now charged with ensuring that a plan to expand audience reach with a series of concerts at LAX proceeds as scheduled. She is profoundly committed to upholding the rigorous aesthetic, creative and artistic standards that have become the signature hallmarks of the Grand Performances programming mantra. And her selection by the organizations board to run the operation is the clearest indication that Grand Performances will continue to make diversity and inclusion the fundamental operational philosophy from which all its programming decisions and considerations are derived.


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