A lighthearted Mayor Richard Riordan, in a bid to put a human stamp on his new Administration, joined Jewish seniors eating lunch Wednesday, agreed with them that right-wing skinhead youths ought to be "skinned" and told them a story about meeting George Burns.
Riordan's visit to the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda, one of the city's largest retirement homes, is part of his campaign to venture outside the narrow confines of City Hall and informally meet with city residents in low-pressure, unstructured settings, his staff said later.
"This is a first," said Riordan press secretary Annette Castro. "We want to get out and meet with people." Unlike former Mayor Tom Bradley, Riordan will try to make these forays into the community informal and frequent.
Wednesday's event was billed as an opportunity for Riordan to hear seniors talk about their concerns about crime.
But the hundreds of elderly who packed the large dining hall at the retirement home were largely uncooperative, seemingly more preoccupied with their cottage cheese and egg salad than with the City Hall nabob in their midst.
The nearest the discussion came to crime was a woman who told the mayor that the skinheads arrested last week in connection with an alleged plot to attack the First AME Church, Rodney King and synagogues ought to be flayed.
Repeating the woman's question so all could hear it, Riordan said: "She would like to skin the skinheads--I agree." His remarks drew a smattering of applause.
Introduced to the diners by comedian Marty Ingels, a buoyant Riordan tried to warm up the crowd with a few anecdotes, telling the elderly that he had once lamented to George Burns that his doctor had told him not to drink or smoke.
When Riordan asked Burns what advice his doctor gave him for staying healthy, the comedian replied, "I don't know--he's dead."
That drew some laughs.
But there were bloopers too during the 20-minute visit.
One retirement home resident, Hyman Grant, wanted to know if the mayor could arrange bus transportation so the senior citizens could go to the beach. Riordan misheard the man's request.
"If I'm a good mayor," Riordan said, "I'll rent him a horse to go to the beach--oh, a bus!"
At another point, Riordan asked if a Mrs. Cohen, whom he had met on a prior visit to the home, was present.
That even made Ingels laugh. "There must be at least 40 Mrs. Cohens here," Ingels said. Later, as he embraced Riordan and said he was a wonderful man, Ingels advised the mayor "not to give up your day job."
"I'll be back again," Riordan waved as he stepped down from the stage. "I love you all." Again, polite applause.
But the reviews got better as the relentlessly beaming Riordan table-hopped, shaking hands with seniors. "He's beautiful," Gertrude Wemer said.
Outside the home, reporters asked Riordan for his reaction to the upcoming "48 Hours" television program, with its reportedly negative portrait of Los Angeles.
"We're going to start a major PR campaign in the next few months," Riordan said, repeating a pledge he had made in the campaign. "But it's not smart (to start) until we have taken a couple of big steps forward." Among those steps, Riordan said, would be progress in hiring more police or attracting business, two of his Administration's top goals.
Los Angeles, Riordan said, is safer than many other big cities. Hit with a barrage of negative publicity about Los Angeles, tourists "can't believe we're as safe as we are" when they visit here, Riordan said. "We're much better off than CNN and '48 Hours' say."
Last week, Paul Alvarez, chief executive officer of Ketchum Communications Inc., a Pittsburgh-based public relations firm with many Los Angeles clients, volunteered to design a program to boost the city's image for free. Ketchum executive Larry Fisher said Wednesday that he and Alvarez met with Riordan's chief of staff, William McCarley, last week and was told that the idea of a Ketchum-City Hall partnership sounded great.
But Fisher begged to differ Wednesday with Riordan's view that his Administration needed to demonstrate some successes before the PR campaign could work.
"I don't think this campaign should hinge on any individual in government," Fisher said. "It's not exactly as if we have to wait until we get out of the toilet before we can do this. We've already got a helluva city, with a lot of greatness."