In his Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, Stephen Sondheim writes, “The art of making art is putting it together.” For these five women in the business of performing arts, good genes translate to winning collaborations. Whether in the wings or on center stage, they prove talent, tenacity and success are all relative.
- Written byJennie Nunn
Photographed by Kat Monk
Kathy Swan Winterhalder and her younger sister Sue Swan enjoy a very large Rolodex. But it isn’t just any ordinary Rolodex. The contents include names like the late Maya Angelou and Sally Ride, as well as John Cleese, Ron Howard, Amy Tan, Yo-Yo Ma, Newt Gingrich, Martha Stewart, Michael Phelps, Jane Goodall, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Vin Scully and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Sue, a former Hollywood casting director who worked on films such as Police Academy, Out For Justice and Pet Sematary, and Kathy, a former university administrator at California State University, Dominguez Hills, joined forces in 1996 to launch the Distinguished Speakers Series of Southern California (speakersla.com). The series features six speakers per year ranging from humanitarians and political figures to actors, athletes, authors and astronauts.
The idea initially sparked from Bruce Vogel, a family friend of their parents who started Peninsula Speaker Series in the San Francisco Bay Area. “All of a sudden our weekly phone calls home as adults to check in got a lot more interesting when our parents would say, ‘Oh, we saw Jimmy Carter, and oh my goodness!’ We thought that was a really interesting thing that they were participating in,” explains Kathy.
She continues: “Flash-forward 20 years ago, and it was really like a family perfect storm. I had just had twins, Sue was in between movies, and my mom and dad had sold their business and were looking for something to do. We sat down and had a family meeting, and we said, ‘Why don’t we do this speakers series in LA? There’s nothing like it.’”
So the sisters set out to create a subscription-based series in Pasadena and later expanded to include Redondo Beach, Beverly Hills and Thousand Oaks. “We’ve been the best-kept secret in the South Bay, and we don’t advertise,” says Kathy. “I think it’s because there’s a real sense of community here. I will walk on The Strand or be at the Starbucks in Manhattan Beach, and I will hear people talking about it. I remember we had David Brooks, and he had a really strong message about character—and a month later I was at a party and people were still talking about it. And it’s a big deal when Margaret Thatcher or Bill Clinton come to Redondo Beach and to have them in the South Bay.”
As expected, they have their share of behind-the-scenes celebrity stories, including the time when Colin Powell’s limo had a flat tire on the 101. “He changed the tire himself on the side of the freeway,” says Kathy. “He asked for a burger and a scotch on the rocks and sent us his dry cleaning bill as a joke.”
They also have a wish list for prospective future speakers such as George Clooney, Maria Shriver, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. By bringing the high-profile speakers to small-size auditoriums for an up-close experience followed by a Q&A session, Kathy and Sue are now—albeit humbly—realizing their effect on the community.
“We feel like we bring the community together. I think we are improving quality of life, but it’s also a great night out to see our neighbors and do things with people that live in your community—and see you’re friends,” says Kathy. “There’s not a whole lot like that .”
“Or sitting in a movie and coming out with nothing really to say about it,” adds Sue. “It is hard when you’re in a town like Manhattan Beach, where everybody is so successful, to bring people that are going to inspire them—because a lot of people in this town inspire other people. To have an entertainment that is something that can touch them in a way that they touch other people is pretty amazing.”
Now, after nearly 25 years working together, they definitely have a system in place—from social media and series subscription sales to marketing. “I don’t think I could have done this with anyone else but my sister,” says Sue. “Luckily we don’t step on each other’s toes, and it’s been a nice fit. She’s super-creative, and I’m more logical. And we get to spend a lot of time together. I pinch myself all the time.”
For Russian–born Irina Trebunskaya and her daughter, Anna Trebunskaya—a pro dancer who has appeared on multiple seasons of Dancing with the Stars, dancing isn’t just a weekend hobby. It’s a way of life.
The prolific mother-daughter duo opened You Can Dance Studio (ballroomdancehermosa.com) in Hermosa Beach seven years ago. They teach everything from ballroom (including youth ballroom, ages 6-16) to salsa, cha-cha-chá, rumba, swing, foxtrot, samba, Argentine tango and even pre-wedding dance classes to prep for the Big Day.
But it all began in Chelyabinsk, Russia, about a 2½-hour flight from Moscow, where Irina—a former Russian professional champion finalist and U.S. Pro/Am champion—began ballroom dancing in her 20s. “I started very late,” she says. “I thought I might become a motivational speaker or do something in psychology, but I never thought I would be in business for dance. I tried to teach dance, and it sucked me in.”
After dancing competitively with her former husband, Oleg Trebunski, Irina moved to the States, where she was invited to dance for Fred Astaire Midtown Dance Studio. From there, she opened her own studio in New York and later moved to California.
“I’m selling an improvement of lifestyle,” says Irina, who also designs original, intricate dance costumes—such as ombré green-and-black dresses and sequin-clad, flowy gowns—from scratch. “You learn a new skill, you meet people and gain a whole new group of people to hang out with. You get to exercise and think better about yourself.”
Irina, CEO of Dance It Up—a nonprofit organization with a mission to promote and maintain the artistry of the sport of dance and enhance the wellbeing and culture of the community—also taught Anna to dance as a girl.
“I grew up around dancing, and I was the kid who was backstage waiting. I can remember walking around back there when I was 3 or 4 years old,” recalls Anna, who has been paired with everyone from Olympic ice skater Evan Lysacek to football legend Jerry Rice, boxing icon Sugar Ray Leonard and fashion expert Carson Kressley on Dancing with the Stars. “It was a natural transition, and it was not a weird thing. In Russia dancing is a very, very big deal. It’s a sport more so than it is just a dancing.”
Anna, now a mother to 2-year-old daughter, Amalya, has appeared in television shows such as HBO’s The Newsroom and Agent Carter. She describes her role at the studio as “artistic director,” teaching private lessons and moving into a choreographer and producer role.
“I always say to people that I’m very fortunate and blessed to get paid for something that I absolutely love to do. For most people, dancing is their hobby, but I get to do it and clearly share with others my love for dancing, music and movement,” she says. Anna just returned from performing in Forever Tango at the Vail Dance Festival in Vail, Colorado and will serve as a judge for the U.S. Dance Competition in Orlando, Florida this month.
“With Facebook and Twitter and things that we have now, people don’t have to see each other and interact a lot,” she says. “At the studio we are able to provide that sense of community and communication and share a love for dancing, face-to-face, and not via Skype or something. I think that’s pretty special.”
On September 17 the studio will play host to “Hot Ballroom Night,” a charity event founded by Irina and Anna conceived in a similar format to Dancing with the Stars, with six local notable personalities dancing for preferred charities. The overall winner is awarded extra funds for the prospective charity.
When it comes to working together and running a business together, Anna and Irina never take it for granted. “We have that extra layer,” says Anna. “They always say, ‘Mother knows best,’ and it’s true.” Irina agrees: “It’s awesome. We are fulfilling a passion.”
Palos Verdes Performing Arts executive director Julie Moe Reynolds (palosverdesperformingarts.com) can’t imagine doing anything else. After all, her late mother, Joan Hurst Moe—a Hollywood starlet and prolific professional fashion model, founded the organization more than 30 years ago.
“I was in third grade at Rancho Vista Elementary, and my mom said, ‘It’s a shame that kids here don’t have theatre,’” recalls Julie. Her mother had a vision to build a theatre, along with friend Agnes Moss and 20 Peninsula residents who formed nonprofit organization Community Association of the Peninsula to fulfill the unmet needs of the community.
“That was a huge part of the dream—to be able to bring in professional shows and not have to go downtown and pay for parking,” Julie explains. “It’s a labor of love and a lot of work, but it’s so wonderful for our community. She wanted me to continue the dream.”
Julie, who majored in business with a minor in biology at California Lutheran University, formerly worked at TRW and most recently as principal and chief financial officer at E2 ManageTech—an environmental engineering company. Now the mother of three spends an average of 40+ hours each week fundraising, launching new accounting software, corralling high-profile performers such as Kenny Loggins and Eddie Money, and working behind the scenes to coordinate a long line of musicals and shows (four to five per year) spanning Legally Blonde, Cats, Alice In Wonderland, and Mary Poppins.
For the 2016-2017 season, shows such as Young Frankenstein, 1776, Nunsense and The Music Man are scheduled. “When people come in and see our shows, they are won over,” says Julie, who explains they just debuted a new website and are working hard to promote outreach. “It’s great for people to get out and see live theatre. And as far as the kids in our program, for those kids to be able to perform on that stage, it’s a real gift. It’s just amazing.”
This year the organization is breaking ground on a new 13,000-square-foot pavilion across the street from the Norris Theatre, to replace the existing leased Harlyne J. Norris Pavilion space. It will feature five dance rooms, a recording studio and two rooms dedicated to Ready, Willing, and Able—a dance program for special needs youth.
“It’s going to be about a $5 million project, and it’s really exciting,” says Julie of the new building expected to open in 2018. “I think teaching our kids that giving back to the community is important, and my parents set that example for me.”
Julie’s father is still very involved in the organization too. “He was definitely the wind beneath my mom’s wings,” she adds. “He still comes in every single day, and the new building is one of his dreams. He’s now 88, and he really wants to finish the campus.” As for continuing her mother’s legacy: “I think she would be really thrilled,” says Julie. “She brought it so far, for 32 years. What an amazing thing she did. And she didn’t do it alone. It was a neat camaraderie, and I think she garnered a lot of enjoyment from it.”
More than a pipe dream.