Honoring Our Own

(L to R) Community Engineer, Nick Gaines (for Sen. Henry Stern); Janet Brown (Rep. Ted Lieu) Chamber president Ron Fomalont; West Basin Water Board President Scott Houston; Tim Pershing (State Assemblymember Richard Bloom); Roger Pugliese, Chamber Board Member-at-Large; and, Tessa Charnofsky (Supv. Sheila Kuehl); celebrate recognition of Tam Taylor, (center) Citizen of the Year. Photo by Ari Fomalont

Topangans know how to honor their own. They may have been weed whacking or building the new Compost Hub in the morning but when it came time for the Topanga Chamber of Commerce 70th Annual Awards Dinner at the Topanga Community Center, attendees came in their finest to honor those who have served the community in many vital ways.

The 2018 honorees included the Topanga Mercantile (Business of the Year), Tam Taylor (Citizen of the Year) and the Topanga Symphony (Nonprofit of the Year).

Indeed, the Community House and its guests never looked prettier or handsomer than on Saturday, May 4, where the hall was decorated with greenery on the mantle and green tablecloths garnished with centerpieces of solar-topped mason jars containing a string of tiny sparkly lights, as a nod to the environment we work to protect.

Event Chair Brooks Ellis, who organized the event, welcomed the guests with opening remarks. Ellis also produces the Reggae on the Mountain festival, now in its tenth year, that will be held in August at King Gillette Ranch.

Chamber President Ron Fomalont officially opened the program by introducing the musical guest of the evening, award-winning composer, violinist Benedikt “Benny” Brydern (violinpassion.com), who began his musical career playing his first public concerts at the age of ten. Along with his love for contemporary music with electric violins, he also performs 1930s jazz, which set the tone for the evening. Brydern frequently performs with vintage music groups including his own ensembles.

After the performance, Joseph Rosendo, Community Liaison for the Chamber, whose day job is producer and host of the Emmy award-winning television show, Travelscope, spoke of Chamber accomplishments for 2018.

“We are here to honor the volunteers who have gone above and beyond the call for the love of Topanga,” Rosendo said. “We like to say, ‘Don’t change Topanga, let Topanga change you.’” Everyone chimed in on the last phrase, of course, being Topanga’s most familiar mantra.

Rosendo observed that under the aegis of the ad hoc Topanga Canyon Roadside Committee, the Chamber helped open communications with Caltrans about maintaining Highway 27 without the use of herbicides; helped provide the electronic signs for the many road closures; resurrected the “Adopt-a-Highway” program; and helped designate a section of lower Topanga Canyon Boulevard as a California State Scenic Highway, the first such designation in 45 years. The Chamber, he noted, also helped found the Sunday morning Topanga Trash Warriors who have cleaned up “four tons of garbage in four years.”

While Brydern played, guests enjoyed the setting sun and listened to the music until a delicious Mexican buffet prepared by Casablanca Restaurant, was served. Throughout the evening, guests perused the Silent Auction with items and services donated by the Woodland Hills Country Club; Searchlight Insurance; Birds Nest Salon; Dae Myung Academy; Jalan Jalan Imports; Randy Chance and Jenise Blanc of Canyon Limo Service; Herb Petermann Photography; Franklin’s Hardware; Label 27; and Rocco’s in the Canyon.



The program began after dinner, when the dynamic keynote speaker, Shirley Choate, Chief Deputy Director, Caltrans District 7, spoke extemporaneously of the cooperation between the Chamber, the community, and Caltrans in keeping the highway safe and clean.

“We have $475 million in operating costs,” Choate said. “Topanga is a special place…you are a community that cares…you care about core sustainability and the environment. It’s really important [for us] to have a partnership with Topanga to improve highway safety. You are vocal, you tell us about what color the guardrails should be, and no pesticides, no poison…we are glad you appreciate Caltrans!”  

As a thank you to the Chamber, Choate presented the Topanga Trash Warriors with official trash grabbers—mentioning with a wink and a nod, that there are shorter ones for short people like herself—and a certificate of recognition from Caltrans.

In return, Board Member-at-Large Roger Pugliese awarded Choate a copy of The Topanga Story, “So you can know the blood, sweat, and tears that created Topanga,” he said.

Choate was just the first person to bring down the house.



Little did we know that the first awardee of the evening, Citizen of the Year Tam Taylor, would also bring everyone to their feet.

Introducing her, Pugliese said, “Teddy Roosevelt said, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick.’ Tam’s impact is felt by all,” he continued. “She is a proven force to be reckoned with, one of the greats of Topanga, and a cherished board member of the Sages. It is an honor to award her with Citizen of the Year.”

No notes in hand, Taylor took the microphone and stepped confidently to the front of the stage.

“Thank you all very much,” she said. “You are my heart. Everyone here knows that behind every Citizen of the Year are many, many volunteers; none of us got here alone. It is that spirit that makes Topanga thrive and makes it a community that we love more and more.”

Over the years, the diminutive, soft-spoken Taylor has volunteered at the Topanga Elementary School, the Topanga Library, the Theatricum, is currently vice president of the Canyon Sages, and a board member of the Topanga Town Council. She also holds positions on the Messenger Mountain News’ Advisory and Editorial boards, but it is volunteer efforts that she considers to be the most vital element of a strong community.

Taylor, who worked for Senator Fran Pavley’s office, knows what makes a community strong.

“We’re all going to have to work hard to keep Topanga Topanga,” Taylor urged. “And to do so we need to dramatically grow the number of people showing up and pitching in. Let’s make it simple: If everyone of us here tonight—or everyone in your organizations—asked someone you know to join in, we could double our volunteer numbers—and our capacity to meet our challenges, so, let’s make a pledge—‘Each One, Reach One.’”

Taylor was just getting warmed up and had the crowd in her hands.

“I’d like to close on a personal note,” she said. “As a fifth-generation Methodist preacher’s kid, I’ve been inspired—and challenged—by the simple message of John Wesley’s code: ‘Do all the good you can, By all the means you can, In all the ways you can, In all the places you can, At all the times you can, To all the people you can, As long as you ever can.’  Thank you.”

After Taylor’s inspirational message brought an extended standing ovation, representatives of local, county and state officials heaped awards, commendations, and proclamations upon her, as well as the coveted ceramic plate, made for each of the awardees by local ceramist Kirsty Iredale.

“Behind every great organization is a great Tam,” said Tim Pershing, representative for Assemblymember Richard Bloom, as he handed her the plate, and a commendation from Bloom. Janet Turner, representing Congressman Ted Lieu, presented Taylor with a commendation  saying that the congressman really wished he could have been there. District Director Tessa Charnofsky also presented Taylor with an award from Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.

“I have never seen a more solid, dedicated woman with a big stick to get things done,” Charnofsky said. “She is the heart of Topanga, here is a commendation from the County for your service to the community.”

Community Engineer Nick Gaines presented a proclamation from State Senator Henry Stern, wishing Taylor another “30 years of volunteering, or perhaps 50!” Finally, Scott Houston, Division IV President of the West Basin Municipal Water District, also honored Taylor with a commendation for her many years of service to Topanga.



Event Chair Brooks Ellis introduced Topanga Mercantile founders Dinah Englund and Tom Vogel and spoke of their rise to fame anchoring the shops in the Old Center, now called “The Topanga Creek Courtyard.”

According to Ellis, “The shop distills the essence of Topanga’s spirit, with a beautifully curated selection of merchandise that features local artisans, stunning crystals, and handmade candles that are crafted on-site. Topanga Mercantile is the ideal place to find a handcrafted, one-of-a-kind gift for a loved one, a treat for oneself, or to simply enjoy the ambiance, the smell of freshly-made candles, the beautiful displays,” he said.

Upon receiving their awards, Englund, dressed in a stunning red-and-gold gown, expressed her gratitude and told the story of how, while looking for a place to open their Topanga Candle Company, finally found it in the “Old Center” of town. She realized its potential and added string lights, outdoor chairs, tables, potted plants to offset the magnolia trees, and an outdoor bar that welcomes guests to the many events there.

Englund credited Joseph Rosendo for “relentlessly” urging them to join the Chamber that enabled them to participate in the monthly mixers and other community activities.

“They believe change can happen and make it happen,” Englund said of the Chamber. “Topanga has a way of empowering dreams you never knew you had.”

When given a chance to speak, Vogel simply said, “What she said,” and everyone agreed with laughter.

The same scramble ensued as Vogel and Englund received their awards, commendations, and proclamations from the elected officials, thanked everyone and posed for a group photo. Englund knows how to pose.



As classical music played over the PA system, everyone snapped to attention as Chamber Vice President Kriss Perras took the mic and asked, “What town the size of Topanga has its own symphony? Few,” she said. While Beethoven continued in the background, Perras praised longtime Music Director and Conductor Jerome Kessler for his work in bringing the concerts to life the Canyon.

She then introduced Jeanne Mitchell, President of the Topanga Symphony, and long-time music teacher with LAUSD, to accept the award for Nonprofit of the Year.

“Thank you,” Mitchell said while walking up to the stage. “The music you heard was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, performed by the Topanga Symphony at the August 2017 concert, expertly recorded by Neil Shaw, our official audio recorder and big supporter,” she said. “Thank you for all you do for the symphony, Neil!”

“I want to give a special thank you to my wonderful husband of 40 years: Tom Mitchell, the official photographer and a big supporter of the Topanga Symphony,” she said. “Love you, honey. You are my everything!”

The Topanga Symphony was founded in 1982 by Topanga residents who were passionate about classical music and wanted their town to have its own symphony. Since then, the Topanga Symphony has presented three free concerts each year at the Topanga Community Center.

“As a community orchestra, we are made up of a combination of professional and amateur musicians. Some are your Topanga neighbors and others are from all over the surrounding Los Angeles area,” Mitchell said. “I often like to say; ‘when you come to a Topanga Symphony performance, you get so close to the musicians you can see the rosin flying off the violin and cello bows.’”

Before receiving the many awards and commendations from representatives of the elected officials, Mitchell urged the guests to attend the free Topanga Symphony concert on June 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the Community Center. For more information: topangasymphony.com



To close the evening’s festivities, Timothy Pershing swore in the incoming 2019 Topanga Chamber Board of Directors. As they gathered into a circle, each placed their hand on a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and promised to uphold the values of the Chamber.

The newly sworn Board members for 2019 are: Ron Fomalont, President; Kriss Perras, Vice President; Ron Kramer, Treasurer; Craig Phelps, Membership Chair; Joseph Rosendo, Community Liaison; D.J. Ellis, Mixer Chair; Brooks Ellis, Events Chair; and Roger Pugliese, Board Member-At-Large. After the swearing in, Fomalont thanked all those who attended and wished everyone a safe journey home.

What better way to end than to repeat here what Joseph Rosendo expressed earlier in the evening: “Topanga is in our name, Topanga is in our thoughts, and Topanga is in our hearts.”


For more Chamber information: topangachamber.org.


Annemarie Donkin

Annemarie Donkin is a journalist who wrote for The Signal in Valencia, CA and was the Managing Editor for the Topanga Messenger from 2013 to 2016. She is thrilled to write for the Messenger Mountain News to continue the tradition of excellent community newspapers. When she’s not writing, she loves to travel throughout California, read, watch movies and keep bees.

  1. Who are the members of the Topanga Cyn Roadside Committee? Are they property owners along the highway or are they just bureaucratic elements like CalTrans who are concerned about being sued for their clandestine spraying of the blvd 5 years ago?

  2. Hi Fran,
    Roger Pugliese here. As you may know after CalTrans violated the hand shake agreement that we had with them more than five years ago on the use of poison, the Topanga Canyon Blvd Roadside Committee was formed. Out of that and after lots of hard work by many of us we have a written agreement with CalTrans on the non use of any poison to deal with the various weeds that grow and must be managed. The TCBRC consists of members from TASC, TTC, TCC, RCD and TCEP as well as CalTrans Representatives and our elected officials.
    Our community now enjoys a fantastic relationship with CalTrans. With the help of Michael Dipsia (Our CalTrans Man in the Canyon) they get what and who we are. We constantly reinforce this by making sure we are involved with every project they propose for our Scenic Hwy as well as the rest of our Main Street. It was in that spirit that we invited Shirley Choate, Chief Deputy Director of District 7 to be the Key Note Speaker for the event written about above. I hope this answers your question and please feel free to call me anytime to discuss further. My # is 2951

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