September 29, 2010

When a woman’s running the production…

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Diversity, Entertainment, Women at 9:06 pm by dinaheng

Susette Hsiung has a a talent for taking risks, learning quickly, and turning each experience into the next career success.

As senior vice president of production for the Disney ABC Cable Networks Group, Hsiung is responsible for overseeing production for all Disney Channel, Disney XD, ABC Family and SOAPnet programming.

Whether it’s leading productions in the Disney Channel Original Movie Franchise (think “Camp Rock,” “High School Musical” or “The Cheetah Girls”) or supervising “Greek” and “Lincoln Heights,” Hsiung relishes bringing both economic and creative instincts to the job.

“After college, I went into the training program at Bloomingdale’s,” Hsiung says, sitting in a conference room at the Disney Channel offices in Burbank. “Most people elected to be a buyer, but I came out of an economics program, and going to the fashion shows didn’t interest me. I liked the idea of getting people into the store every day — like preparing for the opening of a show.”

So Hsiung ended up leaving the retail business, and joined MTV as a bookkeeper in the production department. The fledgling cable network was two years old at the time, and Hsiung quickly moved up the ladder. After five years, she was producing signature shows, and looking for the next challenge, so moved to the Comedy Channel (now known as Comedy Central).

She went to school at night to get her MBA, and then J. Walter Thompson called. They wanted to introduce the Internet to consumers, and hired Hsiung to produce live commercials that would make Prodigy, one of the nation’s first online service providers, a household name.

A few years later, opportunity knocked again, and Hsiung jumped at the chance, returning to MTV and moving to Singapore to launch three channels for them in Asia.

“It was a difficult marketplace, and eye-opening to me to learn what different people thought was cutting edge,” Hsiung remembers. “In China, what was considered artistically ground-breaking was Michael  and Janet Jackson’s music video in black and white. What the audience really wanted was their own local music, so we did two feeds (in Mandarin and English) and customized another.”

In 1997, she moved to the Disney Channel as vice president, production, and has continued to rise in the ranks ever since.

“I love the camaraderie and team work here,” she says. “My responsibilities run the gamut  from movies to concerts. We work with production companies, and give the parameters that the network’s looking for. There’s a brand and a tone we want. We make sure the right crew is attached, and that they have the level of excellence Disney expects.”

Since Disney is financing the productions, Hsiung’s staff keeps track of the budget and how projects are executed. As the woman at the top, she’s charged with keeping an eye on maintaining efficiencies and staying within budget.

“I’ve never felt that being a woman or a minority has been an impediment in my career,” Hsiung says. “When I went to Asia, people saw me as American first, and as a woman second. I didn’t have to fit in the classic role of what an Asian woman should be.  It was one of the best experiences of my career.

“We had staff people from all over the territory, and would have a Taiwan producer working next to an Indian producer. There were language and cultural barriers. I had to learn how to motivate people and teach them the MTV brand of edgy rebelliousness, the language of teenagers.”

She says that being a successful leader requires figuring out how to motivate people to do their best. How does she do it?

“I try to get out of my office more, and not rely on e-mail and telephone, to talk to people,” Hsiung says. “When I started, I was one of very few Asian Americans in the business. I think now — in front of the camera, behind the camera, and in our executive meetings — we’re seeing more diversity.”

Many Asian parents urge their children to become doctors or lawyers, professions that are seen as prestigious and secure. While the path to achieving success in those fields is clear, there is no set road map for people interested in careers in entertainment, she notes.

“There are creative people, technical people, production people, and more,” she says. “While I say my entertainment career was a happy accident, I took opportunities, and made good choices. I liked start-ups. MTV was a start-up. No one knew what the Internet was. International was a budding field.

“My advice to people is try different things. Find what you’re good at, and what you like. Generate it toward a goal. My mother was a mathematician, and my father was a professor of government. One wanted me to be in the sciences, and one wanted me to be in the social arts. I had to find a place in the middle.”

Clearly, Hsiung has succeeded at that, too.

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September 24, 2010

Finding joy in the spotlight…

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment at 1:11 am by dinaheng

Whenever the stage lights shine, Erich Bergen’s face lights up with joy.

The best performers love entertaining others more than, well… anything, and Bergen proved himself a hit with audiences who loved him in the role of Bob Gaudio in the Tony Award-winning musical “Jersey Boys” in the National Tour and Las Vegas companies.

After three years of being a Jersey Boy, Bergen has struck out on his own with a new club act, CD and a role in the musical “Venice,” which opens October 7 at the Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, Calif.

“After three years of doing the show every night, it was time to leave,” says Bergen, who recently moved to Los Angeles to pursue more than a musical theater career. “I love being in great productions, whether it’s theater, film, or television. There is nothing like being on stage in front of 2,500 people, or seeing your face on the television screen. I just love performing.”

Bergen’s first solo CD, “The Vegas Sessions,” features recordings of several pop songs that he penned, along with live tracks recorded during three Las Vegas appearances at the Liberace Museum last year. The album will be available October 1 on Amazon.com, iTunes, and other digital music outlets.

While in Vegas, the young performer co-produced, directed and served as musical director for “Las Vegas Celebrates the Music of Michael Jackson,” a benefit concert done in tribute to Bergen’s childhood idol that raised $118,000 for music education in Nevada public schools.

“People are always surprised when I tell them that I’m 24,” Bergen says. “I’ve been friends with older people all my life since I was a kid. Michael Jackson meant a lot to me, growing up. Barry Manilow, Elton John, Billy Joel — they all inspired me to sit down at the piano and sing at the same time.”

Bergen’s parents were both actors, and music was always playing at the Bergen home in New York City.

“Growing up, I was the kid who didn’t care about ‘Sesame Street,’ “ Bergen says, laughing. “I cared about MTV. I wanted to be a rock star. I would take my action figures and make them do rock concerts.”

Nurturing his love of music, Bergen’s parents sent him to Stagedoor Manor, a performing arts camp in the Catskills for kids.

“It was the thing I looked forward to every summer for seven years,” Bergen says. “After that, I tried going to college for acting, and was doing commercials and plays during the school year. I left college after two years and landed the national tour of ‘Jersey Boys.’ I did the Vegas company, a little work on ‘Gossip Girl,’ and here I am.”

The performer says he’s more comfortable on stage than anywhere else, and as he grows in his art, it will be interesting to see where the journey takes him.

“The thing about music is that it’s the universal language,” Bergen says. “It doesn’t need to be taught. The body hears certain notes, and connects to it with feelings. Music gets through all barriers. I’m always working, always writing music. I’ve never had stage fright. I just feel more alive on stage.”

September 15, 2010

Comfort food for the soul…

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Diversity at 6:30 pm by dinaheng

Go to Hattie’s on Sunday morning, and you’d never know there was a recession in town.

Hattie’s, an American bistro that specializes in Southern low country cuisine, is more than a sweet spot on Dallas’s culinary landscape. It’s a place where people from all different backgrounds are made to feel like family, due in no small measure to the owners, who believe that true Southern hospitality excludes no one.

“We’ve always tried to make everyone feel welcome, and make them want to come back,” says John Adams, who owns the restaurant with his wife Julie, and partners Anthony Alvarez and Hal Dantzler. “Dallas is known for glass skyscrapers, not small storefronts. We just loved the tall windows in this brick building, and were gratified to see everyone come.”

The brick building on the corner of Bishop Avenue and W. 7th Street that caught the owners’ eyes eight years ago was formerly a furniture store that had fallen on hard times.

Many of the stores in Oak Cliff, the heart of the Bishop Arts District and one of the older parts of the city, were boarded up.

The owners were going to take a smaller storefront on the block, but when the corner location opened up, they took it.

“It was a significant jump up, but we thought, if we’re going to do this, why not take a bigger chance?” Adams says. “In for a penny, in for a pound.”

The investment in the location — which meant gutting the place from the floors out, putting in a new kitchen and bathrooms — was the start of a dream that the three men had talked about for years.

The owners had met in Atlanta in 1993, where Adams was working at an advertising agency and had hired Dantzler as a producer. Dantzler and his partner Alvarez would invite Adams over for dinner, and through their common love of food, would talk about what they would do if they had a restaurant. Since Adams was from Virginia, Alvarez from Florida and Dantzler from South Carolina, all had a love for Southern food.

A few years later, Adams moved to Dallas, again hired Dantzler (who’s now an advertising executive himself), and the trio decided to make their dream a reality.

Alvarez, who had managed the American Airlines Admiral Club/Lounges and the Neiman-Marcus flagship restaurant, The Zodiac, in Dallas, knew that growing a restaurant clientele in a transitional neighborhood would mean reaching out to all in non-traditional ways.

“We never advertised, but we gave food donations and did a lot of charity work,” Alvarez says. “We do tons of benefits for the Texas Food Bank, the homeless, churches and schools. We get tons of requests, from donations to silent auctions. It’s all races and ages. We have an African-American crowd, Jewish, Caucasian. We like the diversity of people.

“There seem to be neighborhoods that are segregated elsewhere, but it’s a very mixed group of people here. In Oak Cliff, we have a melting pot of people, and the diversity makes it a great place.”

Dantzler took charge of the decor, giving the restaurant a chic, contemporary style that pays homage to the building’s tin ceiling and brick wall heritage. Working with the chefs, Dantzler and Adams contributed to the design of the menu, which is an eclectic blend of offerings at a moderate price point.

Along with the usual sandwiches and salads, there’s Low Country Shrimp and Grits, Jalapeno-Stuffed Quail, Homestyle Bacon-Wrapped Meatloaf, and the Asiago Pasta with Tomato, Bacon and Basil. Among the must-trys are the Pecan-Crusted Catfish, Buttermilk Fried Chicken, and on Sundays, the Chicken & Waffle with Chili Maple Syrup is to die for.

“Southern food varies greatly from place to place,” Adams says. “We think of low country as being places with the salt water influence, the bayous, the south coastal region. It’s food indigenous to the coastal Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia. Typically, people think of grits, rice, okra and peppers. We like to think of Hattie’s as being upscale, country food. It’s got a lot of fresh, local ingredients.”

If you listen to the conversations in the dining room, it’s clear that folks are enjoying themselves. Alvarez says people may be sticking closer to home because of the economy, but a good meal out on the town is still an affordable pleasure.

And at Hattie’s (named after Dantzler’s mother and grandmother), what’s on the menu is clearly designed to be comfort food for the soul.

September 8, 2010

It’s all about being kind…

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Diversity, Spirituality at 9:57 pm by dinaheng

Daniel Lubetzky is a social entrepreneur. In other words, he’s a businessman who’s trying to make positive changes in the world while making a profit for himself along the way.

If you’ve tasted his KIND Snacks, fruit and nut bars designed to be heart-healthy while tasting like they shouldn’t be, you’re probably happy to be contributing to his bottom line.

Lubetzky, the founder, chairman and CEO of KIND Snacks, has a background in the natural food business, and says his company’s mission is to make the world a little kinder. Along with selling snack bars, the company encourages its consumers to share the gift of kindness.

“It all started with surprising people with KIND bars, asking them to try it, but rather than making it a commercial experience, we wanted to seed acts of kindness,” Lubetzky says. “So we gave them a ‘kinded’ card, asking them to pass on an act of kindness to someone else.”

The company created a “Do the Kind Thing’’ campaign, giving people the chance to raise money for causes by promoting their acts of kindness online. KIND Snacks awarded $40,000 to the winners, and plans future campaigns that will reward other acts of kindness to total strangers.

“Being kind to others is a gift that is more valuable and powerful than people realize,” Lubetzky says. “In the 15th Century, the core power in society lay in the church. In the 16th and 17th Centuries, the nation state was born, and government had the power. Today, power lies with business and citizens.

“If we’re going to tackle environmental changes, nuclear proliferation and other issues, the only way to approach it is to recognize our commonality as one human race, and for business to integrate solutions as part of their models. Capitalism isn’t going anywhere, and market forces is something we should embrace.”

Lubetzky says cause marketing is a shallow practice, and that consumers are savvy enough to discern sincerity of purpose.  Ten to 20 years from now, he predicts, socially-conscious companies will become the norm because consumers will expect brands to be socially conscious in practice, as well as for promotions.

Born in Mexico City to a Jewish family, Lubetzky says he learned to build bridges at an early age. Since his mother came from a town where her family was the only Jewish family, being exposed to different communities and perspectives was an important value.

“My father was a Holocaust survivor,” Lubetzky shares. “Learning what he went through in a concentration camp made me decide to work to ensure that something like that never happens again.”

The family moved to San Antonio, Texas when Lubetzky was 16. After college, he went to study abroad in France and Israel, then graduated from Stanford Law School in 1993. He did a brief stint as an attorney in New York, then worked as a consultant for McKinsey & Company.

Business instincts won out, and Lubetzky launched PeaceWorks Inc. in 1994  to pursue “peace and profit” through cooperative ventures among countries striving to coexist in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. This led to the PeaceWorks Foundation’s OneVoice Movement, and now KIND Snacks.

“Our society is obsessed with quantifying how much financial success or fame we have,” Lubetzky says. “That should be the means, rather than the end, to achieving what’s important in life. A lot of us are fortunate, and a lot of us are not fortunate. People need to put food on their table, and it’s a luxury to think about whether a job is fulfilling.

“The primary reason our company is growing is we’re providing a product that’s being kind to your body, your taste buds, and to the world. Being kind to the world is what gives purpose to our team.”

With this kind of thinking, success is sure to follow.

September 5, 2010

Time for faith, trust and pixie dust…

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies at 6:21 pm by dinaheng

The sound of a mighty Wurlitzer organ fills the 1,000 seat house of the El Capitan Theater, a beautifully renovated landmark in Hollywood that has become the home of Disney special events and movie premieres.

Before most shows, theater-goers are treated to a pre-show concert by theater organist Rob Richards, and a dazzling light show tribute to Hollywood. This week, through Sept. 19, a special live appearance by Tinker Bell will proceed the showing of “Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue,” a new film scheduled for release on DVD September 21.

The El Capitan is the only theater in the country where the film will be seen on the big screen.

Originally opened on May 3,1926, the El Capitan served as a venue for live stage performances for its first 15 years, featuring stars like Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth and Bob Hope.

“They were transitioning into movies at the time, and probably honed their talents here,” says Ed Collins, director of operations for the El Capitan, who was in charge of its restoration for Disney. “The Wurlitzer organ was used to accompany silent movies because the organist could replicate the sound of 37 instruments. Then in 1928, sound changed the movies.”

Real estate developer Charles E. Toberman built the El Capitan, and partnered with impresario Sid Grauman to build the Egyptian Theatre and the Chinese Theatre, establishing Hollywood as a commercial theater district.

In 1941, most theaters were owned by movie studios, and when Orson Welles was unable to find a theater owner willing to screen his then-controversial “Citizen Kane,” he appealed to Toberman. The El Capitan hosted the premiere of “Citizen Kane,” and Toberman decided to convert the live theater venue into a movie house.

The structure was cast in an art moderne style that remains today, with an elegant Spanish Colonial exterior and an East Indian interior designed by San Francisco architect G. Albert Lansburgh. In 1942, it was renamed the Paramount Theater, and served as the flagship movie house for Paramount Pictures until 1989.

Disney reopened the theater as the El Capitan in 1991 with the premiere of “The Rocketeer,” and now has a Soda Fountain and Studio Store next door that offers treats and merchandise.

While the tots in today’s theater eagerly await the latest Tinker Bell release, they probably have no idea that in Sir James M. Barrie’s original 1904 play, “Peter Pan, Or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” Tinker Bell was seen as a flying point of light.

When Disney made Barrie’s play into a movie in 1953, animator Marc Davis turned Tinker Bell into a winged pixie that some thought looked a little too sexually suggestive with her  womanly figure.

But Tinker Bell went on to fly through the skies over Disneyland, and now has her own DVD series.

In “Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue,” Tink meets her first human friend, years before meeting Wendy and the Lost Boys, and reminds us all that with “faith, trust, and pixie dust,” there’s nothing we can’t do.

So cue up the music, and let the show begin…