The holidays are filled with fundraisers for many causes. Most are staid affairs, featuring formal dinners, silent auctions and ballroom dancing to lure wealthy and powerful patrons.
For the past four years, however, Jan Michael Alejandro has been hosting an entirely different kind of fundraiser. Founder of the Los Angeles Limerick Festival, Alejandro is taking on the dirty scourge of cancer — particularly breast cancer — by inviting anyone brave enough to hit the stage and share the form of dirty poetry known as limericks to raise money for the nonprofit group A Case for the Cure and City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte.
He’ll be doing it again Saturday night, returning to the cramped but fun and friendly environs of the Altadena Ale House in Altadena to oversee an expected field of about 20 performers sharing their favorite tales of maids with buckets and men from Nantucket. Blending seasoned performers known as “limerists” with an unpredictable open-mic opening segment, the night should be as memorable as it is meaningful.
“Gale does many fundraisers there and she asked me if I had anything going for charity, and we had done one event before,” says Alejandro of his friend, Gale Casburn, co-owner of the popular bar. “We had done a musical show with members of the band Foreigner and Bootsy Collins, so I told her we worked with cancer research programs.”
“This is one of the best events of the year,” says Casburn, who owns the Altadena Ale House with her husband Judah. “The patrons here include employees from JPL, Caltech and KPCC. They write original material, and many of them come up on stage, after a few drinks, to perform them.”
Welcome to the fifth Limerick Fest
The performers are some of the best
Some are witty, some are clean
Some are funny, some obscene
No offense, ‘because it is all in jest — Jan Michael Alejandro
Alejandro has lived in Altadena since 1989 but might never have set foot in the Ale House if it weren’t for the fact that the Casburns have made major renovations to the pub after buying it a few years back. As British émigrés, they put a fresh emphasis on British culture in the pub, and it was just a slight adjustment to consider the Irish tradition of limericks as proper programming.
A quick look at Wikipedia tells us limericks are a form of poetry utilizing a “five-line anapestic meter with a strict rhyme scheme (AABBA), which is sometimes obscene with humorous intent.” While they were first found in England during the early years of the 18th century, they were popularized by writer Edward Lear in the 19th century, even though he didn’t term them “limericks.”
Furthermore, limericks are considered folklore that is “essentially transgressive; violation of taboo is part of its function.” In other words, don’t show up Saturday night if you’re easily offended — although Alejandro believes it’s impossible not to fall in love with the Ale House.
“I always drove by it for years, thinking it was just a terrible dive bar,” recalls Alejandro, a poet and playwright whose works have been produced nationwide. “Then they put a fresh coat of paint on the place and hung a British flag over the door, and I thought I’ll give it a shot. I was impressed with the level of people who hung out there from places like Caltech, so once Gale found out I was a playwright and poet, she said we should do something here, and I suggested a limerick fest.”
A maiden at college, Miss Breeze,
Weighed down by B.A.s and Lit.D’s,
Collapsed from the strain,
Said her doctor, “It’s plain
You are killing yourself — by degrees!”
While the fest was originally meant to be a one-time inside joke for the Ale House’s regulars, they had enough fun to try it a second year. That’s when the LA Weekly sent over a reporter, with the resulting publicity producing growth by leaps and bounds in the years since.
Previous festivals have drawn crowds of about 100 attendees, with about 10 to 15 amateurs getting loaded on liquor before taking a stab at performing. But Alejandro makes sure that he’s also joined by a few experts, with 100.3 FM radio personality and actress Mimi Chen serving as the Mistress of Ceremony each year.
Among the field expected this year are Laurie Buckley, the daughter of famed humorist/comedian Lord Buckley, and 90-year-old actress/comedian Helen Geller.
“I specialize in very bawdy lyrics,” says Geller. “They’re funny. I get in a certain mode and the dirt just comes up. I won the dirty lyric round a couple years back, but it’s not my personality. I’m really quite conservative, but it’s therapy for me I guess.”
There was a young woman named Kite,
Whose speed was much faster than light,
She set out one day,
In a relative way,
And returned on the previous night.
Jeff Goode, also a professional playwright, said he grew up “in the cornfields of Iowa” before starting his career in Chicago, where he created the perennially popular holiday play “The Eight: Reindeer Monologues.” He moved to Los Angeles to work in television, eventually creating the Disney animated series “American Dragon: Jake Long.”
“I like the annual Los Angeles Limerick Fest because it celebrates the artistry of an art form that some would consider artless,” says Goode. “And there’s always beer if that turns out to be the case.”
There once was a bluegrass evangelist
Met an underage girl in Los Angeles
He pawned all his strings
To buy her nice things
So now he’s both godless and banjo-less — Jeff Goode
“The magic of limericks is fitting a whole story in five lines,” says Alejandro. “The witty part of limericks is what I love about it — how people can have an idea put their ideas into five lines, and it’s witty, funny and crude most times.” n
The 5th Annual Los Angeles Limerick Festival is from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday at the Altadena Ale House, 2329 N. Fair Oaks Ave., Altadena. Admission is $12 to $16 and can be paid at the door. Call (626)794-4577 or visit jansplays.com.