Clara’s got talent, inside Milky White, a letter to Maya Cinemas, and much, much more (Sept. ’18)

Welcome to “The Culture Files,” a collection of shout-outs, recommendations, link love, reader comments, and musings from Donald in a monthly format. Updated on a whim.

CMT: Clara Billington takes home prize

I felt like a winner, too, at Children’s Musical Theaterworks’ inaugural “CMT’s Got Talent.” The Aug. 17 show featured 13 finalists, and, in the tradition of network TV, the audience got to vote, too. I cast my ballot for Clara Billington, who performed her original song “Teenage Memory.”

Children's Musical Theaterworks

Matthew Wheeler, Michael Dumas, Clara Billington, Maddie Allen and Megan Rupe after “CMT’s Got Talent.”

And she won! Lots of other people, plus the show’s “respondents” (a nicer name for judges), must have felt the same way, too.

Clara, 14, is a freshman at Clovis North High School. She’s been “singing for as long as I can remember,” she says, and started writing songs about two years ago. The CMT talent show was the first time she’d played one of her original songs publicly. Yep, she was nervous.

“After the first high note I managed to settle into the song,” she says. “It definitely gave me a lot of nerves watching all these talented people go before me. It added a lot more pressure than I anticipated.”


Here’s why I voted for Clara: She brought a crisp, confident sense of self-assuredness to the stage. Her vocals soared. And she beautifully connected on an emotional level with her material. I was impressed.

As for the show itself: As you’d expect, there was a lot of talent on display. I bet the voting was close. And the show’s lighting design was really strong, though the sound seemed a bit off for some of the vocalists.

I was not a fan of the role of the “respondents.” I understand the impulse of the show’s organizers to ask the judges to focus on positive comments and constructive criticism. But somehow the constructive part fell by the wayside. Kids and audiences are smart. They know that not every act can be amazing. (And not all were.) But the superlatives kept piling up to almost comical heights. I’m not saying anyone has to be a Simon Cowell, but show business is exceedingly tough, and these contestants deserved more honest feedback.

Finally: What a treat it was to hear Michael Willett, who made his debut on this stage at age 7. His song “Pink Sunglasses” was a fierce display of talent.

Good Company Players

Lauren Carter gets things moo-ving backstage at “Into the Woods.”


The featured bovine: Lauren Carter, who plays Milky White, the pathetic cow, in Good Company’s “Into the Woods.”

The acting challenge: Lauren doesn’t get any face time on stage. But her face is still busy. “This may seem crazy to some people, but I actually act under my costume,” says the 16-year-old University High School student. “I make all the faces and feel all the emotions as if the audience can see me.”

The seeing challenge: She’s able to look out of a little rectangle cut out of the bottom of the head that’s covered with a plastic, mesh like material. “So I can basically only see my two front legs to see where I’m going, and also other people’s shoes.”

The newfound appreciation for cows: Lauren didn’t think much about cows before the show, but now they’re her favorite animal. “And I almost feel that it’s necessary for me to be vegetarian now!”

The physical toll: Her back doesn’t hurt that bad, she says. Really. “It hurt the very first time I stayed down for the whole show, but I think I have built up the strength now to where it doesn’t hurt.” Therefore I don’t have much physical strain to deal with. I get a lot of sitting time in the show so I feel normal afterwards.

Does GCP have a budget for an on-site chiropractor? “I think I may just need to deal with this one on my own. Maybe my mom will consider getting me a massage therapist.”

The production: “Into the Woods” runs through Sept. 16.

Graphic shout-outs

No worries, I’m not going to spice up the site with naughty bits of praise. I’m talking about stellar use of graphics:

• The Fresno Philharmonic’s new website is a treat. (And a relief. By the end of last season, I was practically able to make a pot of rice while waiting for the site to load.) I love the color scheme, typography and organization. I like how it all comes together: the photographs of Rei Hotoda conquering Fresno; the bold blues and yellows; the non-reliance of boring mug shots of guest musicians. It’s quite the pleasant experience. (A tip of the hat to Bertz-Rosa Strategy & Creative.)

Selma Arts Center is celebrating its 5th season, and Dominic Grijalva (who still rules Fresno even from the opposite coast) made this very cool celebratory image inspired by the exterior of the theater:

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years.

Time to vent

Update 09/10: I had a long and friendly chat today with Larry Porricelli, vice president of operations for Maya Cinemas, who contacted me after someone sent him a link to this story. He was anxious to assure me that Maya Cinemas is committed to exemplary customer service and that the series of glitches that kept me from experiencing that service (a manager who dropped the ball, a phone system that gobbled calls, an email system that didn’t deliver my written complaint) would be remedied.  I appreciate his taking the time to talk with me.

Here’s the original post:

Dear Maya Cinemas:

I had a less than satisfactory experience at your Fresno theater last month, and I’m having the darndest time trying to get a response from your corporate headquarters.

Here’s the story: I marched up to the window on Aug. 16 to buy a matinee ticket to “Mamma Mia.” I pulled out the Maya gift card I’d bought at Costco. The cashier told me: Sorry, our machines are down. No gift cards accepted. I reluctantly paid cash. Once inside, I asked to see a manager to complain and ask for my money back because of the hassle. Our interaction was not very pleasant; at one point he told me that because I’d bought the gift card at a discount, I couldn’t expect to receive superior customer service. I asked to talk to his boss. That’s when he gave me the Maya corporate number.

I called and left a detailed message on the Maya customer service line. No response. I did the same thing the next day. Still no response. I tracked down the address and sent an email to customer service. No response. I got on the Maya Facebook page and sent a message. Nada.

So, Maya Cinemas, I’m told by your local manager to talk to corporate, and then corporate won’t even talk back to me. My question for you: What do I have to do to get a response?



Anthony Zuniga (Facebook photo)

How much did Anthony Zuniga love singing in a choir? He was buried in his choir tuxedo, with his Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale name tag affixed, says Anna Hamre, the group’s artistic director. “He is singing with the angels,” she writes on Facebook. “I think I hear him! But he is sorely missed.”

For many years, Mr. Zuniga was a longtime and beloved band instructor for the Corcoran Unified School District.

Link likes

• New York Times theater critics have a roundtable about jukebox musicals — and explain why they think some work and most don’t. Wow, critic Jesse Green really does not like “Mamma Mia.”

• Could there be a wrinkle in the plan to have the Measure P sales tax initiative (for parks and arts) on the Nov. 6 ballot? George Hostetter of Central Valley Observer does some digging.

• This New York Times obituary on Paul Taylor is beautifully written and presented (especially on a desktop monitor).


My plan is to add content intermittently to each month’s edition of “The Culture Files,” with the fresh content on top of the story, turning it into a tidy little collection of this-and-that about the Fresno-area arts scene. If you have tidbits to share, want to sound off about one of my reviews or have a strong opinion about something I haven’t seen, drop me a line at

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (2)

  • Lori Wall

    I have never been to Maya Cinema and now I probably never will. What if you had gotten that card as a gift? They probably would have thrown you out since you paid nothing for it. What a crock of rotten fish!

    • Larry Porricelli

      Hello, Mr. Munro,
      My name is Larry Porricelli and am vice president of Maya Cinemas, I read your letter only that a friend in Fresno sent me, and I sent you a message on Facebook. I apologize that I have not received your letter or calls. I can’t think of why except to say we moved into new offices and perhaps something isn’t connecting but hope we can connect and work with your situation. Maya Cinemas works hard on customer service. Maya also works with the community in providing scholarships through the Maya Education Fund to the community each year; we offer free movies every month through Maya Cares to young people with autism or any sensory issues or debilitating issues so they can see a movie that is sensory adjusted for them; we give away 1000 backpacks each year; and I could go on as we are never ending in community service, and I am very sorry we let you down. I have left my personal contact information with you on Facebook, and would like to speak and meet the next time I am in Fresno. I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you.


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