Joni Mitchell wanted to park in a red zone in front of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, but a sixth-grade teacher who was a volunteer parking monitor was quick to squelch the idea
Joni Mitchell made national headlines when she joined her longtime friend, director and Oscar-winning writer Cameron Crowe, at the Old Globe's Sept. 27 world premiere of the musical version of Crowe's Oscar-winning 2000 film "Almost Famous." She was the brightest star by far at the opening night after-party in the courtyard of the Old Globe.
But this wasn't Mitchell's first time at the storied theater in Balboa Park. And, for at least a few San Diegans, her recent "Almost Famous" visit was less memorable than when she turned up at the Old Globe 38 years ago - and was promptly turned away by a sixth-grade teacher for parking in a red zone.
The year was 1981 and the La Jolla Jazz Festival was being held at the Old Globe. (The event, which had been launched at Sherwood Auditorium in La Jolla in 1979, was re-titled the San Diego Jazz Festival in 1982.)
Mitchell came to the 1981 festival to watch bassist Larry Klein, her then-boyfriend and now-former husband. He was performing that night as a member of the band led by trumpet giant Freddie Hubbard, who was headlining the three-day festival's Saturday night lineup on the outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre Stage.
The sun had not yet set on the early fall evening when Mitchell and her driver pulled up and proceeded to park at the red curb, which was directly across from the Festival Stage's entrance. Little did the famed singer-songwriter know she was about to encounter the festival's volunteer parking monitor, Mary Brown, a famously no-nonsense sixth-grade teacher at Francis Parker School in Mission Hills.
"Rob Hagey, the founder of the La Jolla Jazz Festival, gave me a bunch of piddly little jobs that day and one was to make sure no one parked by the red curb in front of the Festival Stage," Brown said Friday, when asked to recall her encounter with Mitchell.
"I said: 'I'm sorry, ma'am, you can't park there.' She got out of the car, very star-like, and said: 'But I'm Joni Mitchell!' I said: 'I don't care who you are, you can't park there.' I didn't know who she was until she told me, but if you can't park there, you can't park there."
When it became clear Brown would not budge, Mitchell reluctantly got back in the car and had her driver find a legal parking spot some distance away.
Prior to Mitchell's unexpected 1981 appearance at the Old Globe, Hagey had spent nearly two years trying to submit a proposal to Mitchell and her representatives. His concept was to have her come to the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla for a multimedia event that would have featured an exhibit of her paintings, a solo performance by Mitchell in the museum's now-defunct Sherwood Auditorium and a showing of a long-form, movie-length video she had recently made.
Hagey, who in 1984 founded San Diego Street Scene and produced the festival for the next 25 years, repeatedly struck out in his attempts to get through to Mitchell, who is now 75.
"No one knew who I was at the time, and I never got a response," Hagey said Friday, speaking from his home in New Mexico.
As trumpet dynamo Hubbard began his 1981 evening performance, Hagey stood at the left side of the outdoor stage with Annie Voight, a key force behind the jazz festival. Mitchell was seated by herself on the right side of the stage. With the stage darkened, it was impossible for Hagey and Voight, another sixth-grade teacher at Francis Parker, to determine if the woman 60 or so feet away was actually Mitchell or just someone who resembled her from a distance.
"It was weird, because I went over and asked if she wanted a cup of tea," Voight said Friday. "I don't think she accepted."
While Hubbard and his band delivered a fiery set, Hagey and Voight stood on the side of the stage, discussing whether or not it really was Mitchell and whether Hagey should approach her. The jazz festival's production manager, Steve McFadden, was standing next to them and heard their conversation. McFadden promptly informed Hagey and Voight that he had worked with Mitchell several times and that the woman seated on stage was definitely not her.
"Steve was emphatic that it wasn't Joni. Afterwards, we found out it was Joni," Hagey said, chuckling again. "Because he was so emphatic, I never met her. I never have."
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Some exceptions; check with theater.) Through Oct. 27.
Where: Old Globe's Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $70 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623
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