The Chinese connection involved here is not really diplomacy; it’s not an economic exchange; nor is it ‘high art.’ But in a way, it encompasses all of that. It’s about culture. And it’s a cultural stretch to step into the wonder-land Sara Velas has created over the past two decades on the grounds of a beautifully refurbished Union movie theater dating to 1910 — now known as The Velalavasay Panorama.
This place is cool. It’s quirky; it’s disarming and delightful. It puts on fun programs where you learn stuff and meet interesting people. To say that Ms. Velas takes care of her audience is an understatement. Hey, at Saturday night’s screening of the aptly named, marvelous Chinese film, For Fun (“Zhao Le,” 1995, dir. Ning Ying) the “concession stand” doled out free hard-boiled eggs with your beer. It wouldn’t be Sara if there wasn’t a little paper boat to hold the egg, and little packets of salt and pepper to sprinkle on top. (Oh please, she raises the chickens herself.) The main show, the venue’s raison d’etre, is the attic exhibit, the panorama. For years the display hearkened the Arctic. (Entitled “Effulgence of the North” it featured mini icebergs, polar bears, and dog sleds, all in a doughnut, walk-around tour.) But recently, the Panorama has gone full-brunt on China, per the superb installation, Shengjing Panorama, a miniature rendering of pre-industrial Shenyang, a city in China’s northeast Liaoning Province. It is the stuff of artisans, as it was envisioned, handcrafted, painted, and installed by a team of visiting Chinese panoramists.
The Panorama’s self-improvement campaign is relentless. The theater’s back yard, once a resplendent junk heap of all kinds of urban detritus, rusty bikes, old oil cans, filthy crates, has been beautifully landscaped into magical gardens. There is a tea pavilion, a meditation grotto, and on Saturday night, because a scene in the movie takes place in Beijing’s public baths, Ms. Velas installed a faux sauna spewing mist all over the property. A cluster of tree stumps, smoothly polished, invite contemplation; and a stone pathway, on which you wend your way, has you praying to Buddha that you won’t topple over, because the place is just so nutty. In the summer of 2021, Velas and her team — Oswaldo Gonzalez and Ruby Carlson have been stalwarts — created phantasmagoric evenings for the COVID-weary, with a three-movie Chinese-film screening series playfully called “Electric Shadows on Penglai Mountain.”
There’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek at the Panorama, but it’s also dead serious. Everything is quality, everything detailed, everything thought-through and researched. To get in the groove and best enjoy these evenings, park your magic carpet at the front door and waft inside, leaving your Los Angeles worries behind.
photo credit: forest casey