The Award for Best Contractor Goes to . . .


There are the Oscars--and then there are the Jeffs.

These were handed out the other night at a tented party in a driveway of the Woodland Grove condo complex at Warner Center.

For the homeowners, the affair was a chance to toast the completion of a $2-million, six-month earthquake repair project--and to tell the contractor just what they thought of him.

So what's new, you ask? This was a lovefest, with hugs and kisses and heartfelt "thank yous." And the contractor sprang for the party, a catered Mexican feast with margaritas and beer.

After the tacos and enchiladas, Jeff Davis announced: "I'm still your contractor. You have to listen to me."

First, he wanted his clients to know about the six months since he'd moved into the complex, lock, stock and carpet samples, to be a 24-hour-a-day overseer:

". . . 280 bagels, 155 pieces of pizza, 980 cans of Diet Pepsi, 212 glasses of wine, 140 cranberry Vodkas, five Peppermint Schnapps and vodka, 540 aspirins. . . ."

Davis was relishing the moment. He had a few surprises. The Jeffs.

And the winners were . . .

Homeowner Lana Shapiro: The "most phone calls to the contractor" award.

Homeowner Wilma Gahret: The "unit that's been painted with the most coats of paint" award, including one "you've got to be kidding color" that, Davis noted, "would have driven the value of every condo here down at least $30,000."

Homeowner Nancy Hollinger: The "I know what everyone did to their unit" award.

Davis, 47, and his Orange County-based Professional Services Construction specialize in putting the pieces back together after disasters. He knows all about those who seize the opportunity to get things fixed that have needed fixing for years.

With that in mind, he bestowed his "It wasn't that way before the earthquake" award to all 50 homeowners in the association, explaining, "Everybody tied for first."

"I told you I'd get even," said Davis, as employee Dana Ponticelle, his Vanna White for the evening, helped him hand out the plaques and statuettes.

The "I love my hardwood award" winner came forward on all fours to accept. The honor went to Toby, a bichon frisee, for peeing on owner Diana Schaffer's newly laid floors. Twice.

The "worst animal award" was won by Tigger the cat, over stiff competition. Tigger had managed to get sealed in the drywall and had to be cut out. Given his druthers, Davis offered, "I'd have closed up the wall."

Lori Otelsberg, a member of the Homeowners Assn. board, walked off with the Jeff for the "longest time to complete a unit." With it came a hard hat signed by the crew.

Davis had one more award, a big bouquet of roses for his wife, Linda, who'd kept their household humming in Villa Park for the six months he lived at Woodland Grove.

In the months since the morning of Jan. 17, 1994, when they'd fled their units and gathered by the pool, the homeowners had come together as a community. And now they'd adopted their contractor.

"I've never had an experience like this with a contractor in my life," said association president Arthur Rosenthal. "Profit wasn't his only motive. He was caring, he was just a pleasure to work with and, coincidentally, he did good work."

Other companies had made better offers, he added, but "instinctively, we felt he was the right match."

Eighty percent of the occupants had had to relocate. Now, they were back. They'd been lucky. No one had been hurt. They had earthquake insurance. A Small Business Administration loan of $380,000 covered the deductible and will be repaid through an assessment of about $35 per month per owner.

Now, Davis would be moving on to his next project. "We didn't want him to go. He's so much fun," Nina Szedlacsek said. "Jeff should have gotten the 'no problem' award,' " added Hy Yuda.

"An absolute prince among contractors," echoed Lisa Scharfman. She and husband Don won an award for a record 17 paint touch-ups. During the last, a worker upended a gallon of paint, ruining their carpet, then tried to slurp the paint up with their vacuum. Davis calls it his "$1,800 touch-up."

Getting downright sentimental at evening's end, Davis said: "These are some real special people. A bad experience turned into a fun experience."

Going Ape at School

Evelyn Gallardo grunted. A "gorilla greeting," she explained, short for "I'm a friend. There's nothing to be afraid of."

On cue, a roomful of wiggly children grunted back.

Gallardo, a Manhattan Beach-based writer-photographer who insists that King Kong was her "first crush," was at Kenter Canyon Elementary School in Brentwood to talk about apes, especially orangutans, with children in kindergarten through second grade.

With her was anthropologist Birute Galdikas, one of three women chosen by the late Louis Leakey to study primates in their native habitats. (The others: Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.)

Two years ago, Gallardo paid tribute to Galdikas with a children's book, "Among the Orangutans: The Birute Galdikas Story." Galdikas, who's spent half her 49 years among the apes, has chronicled her adventures in her new autobiography, "Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo" (Little, Brown).

Now, they were on their first school visit together, eliciting "oohs" and "ahs" from the kids with color slides of the beguiling orange apes kissing, swinging from trees, acting naughty.

But the writers weren't here just to entertain. They talked about disappearing rain forests, human overpopulation and an illegal pet trade that have combined to make orangutans "critically endangered," with perhaps only 30,000 left in the wild.

The first question, from a little girl: "How are orangutans born?" In tree nests, Galdikas said.

Another asked, "When they have babies, do the dads have to die?"

No, said Galdikas reassuringly. "You've been reading about praying mantises."

This was an unofficial stop on Galdikas' book tour before she returns to Borneo at month's end. Her daughter Jane is a fourth-grader at the school.

Flipping through "Reflections of Eden," one young admirer puzzled over a photo of Galdikas at 25.

"We change," shrugged Galdikas. Of course, "In L.A. we don't change necessarily."

* This weekly column chronicles the people and small moments that define life in Southern California. Reader suggestions are welcome.

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