Three Napa Valley women champion arts and community projects
By Sasha Paulsen
NAPA VALLEY, Calif. — December being stuffed full as a holiday goose with events and announcements, I realized as I sat down to write a Monday story that there were three I wanted to tell this week, all of which have to do with remarkable women who work quietly year-round for the Napa Valley community — Evy Warshawski, Rebecca Yerger and Jessel Miller, all supporters of the arts in Napa Valley.
They are not the only ones, of course; even as I start this, I am thinking of more and more to add to the list. But these three are working on projects for December.
Evy Warshawski and IDOL 24
I first met Warshawski in 2004, when she and her husband, Morrie, moved to Napa from Ann Arbor, Michigan. She had taken the job of artistic director of the Napa Valley Opera House, the historic 1880 building that had been dark since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake but had been saved from the wrecking ball by a community effort and restored to an elegant jewel box of a theater.
She inherited a program of scheduled shows while she worked on the next year’s lineup. She had been on the job a few months when she called me and asked me to have lunch. We met at Uva restaurant, which, like the red velvet seats of the opera house theater, is now gone.
“When the board (of the opera house) offered me this job they painted a picture of Napa Valley to me like Palo Alto north, a place filled with sophisticated people, all lovers of the arts and great supporters,” she told me. “But since I have been here, only one show has sold out, and that was the trained cats. Tell me about Napa.”
I had been features editor at the local paper since 1999, and having grown up in Napa, I thought the opera house was the most astonishing creation — world-renowned opera singers on the stage — I had never expected to see in our town. But there is something, also, to be said for the feat of trained cats.
Over the next seven years, Warshawski worked at creating a rich and varied lineup of music, comedy, theater and dance. From Ladysmith Black Mombazo and Arlo Guthrie to Will Shortz, who creates crossword puzzles for The New York Times.
She also cherished a goal of getting young people into the theater, and this led her to create IDOL NV, first presented in 2007. This singing competition for local youth was inspired by the hit television show “American Idol,” which, in turn, had taken the idea from the British show, “Pop Idol.”
“I wanted to bring the community into the opera house and give young singers an opportunity to shine,” Warshawski said.
Young singers ages 12 to17 were invited to audition and then perform onstage, with prizes given to the top-scoring artists as well as an audience favorite pick. She presented three highly successful Idol NV shows in 2007, 2009 and 2011.
“All three did amazingly well,” she said. “Devon Hadsell (winner in 2007) went on to perform in Tina Fey’s ‘Mean Girls’ on Broadway and has continued to get roles in plays and musicals.”
2011 was her last year at the opera house as the board decided to move programming in a different direction, eventually bringing in City Winery from New York, a disastrous and short-lived experiment. The opera house today is owned by John and Michele Truchard and leased to Blue Note.
Warshawski remained involved in the arts and the community. Among other activities, she served on Napa’s Public Arts Steering Committee, and she is now a member of the Napa County Arts and Cultural Grants committee.
In 2015, she and Morrie, an artist and accomplished grower of admirable heirloom tomatoes, founded E&M Presents, a non-profit with a goal of bringing family shows to the valley. Since 2015, they have been presenting shows such as the Zoppe Circus, Doktor Kaboom and the Wheel of Science, the Amazing Bubble Man and Popovich Comedy Pet Theater.
For 2024 they have decided to bring back IDOL, which will be presented Jan. 20 and 21 at the Napa Valley College Performing Arts Center.
“The format is pretty much the same, but I would love to glitz this one up a bit,” she said. “And I would like to see a man win one of the awards. Also this time around we are really trying to involve the Latinx community. We are working with Elba Márquez, a mother of four, who works at Girls on the Run.”
Auditions are 4 to 6 p.m. on Dec. 6 and 13, and 2 to 4 p.m. on Jan. 7 at the Lucky Penny Community Arts Center. To apply to audition, visit EandMPresents.org.
“Napa County is rich with talent, so I hope we will be hearing from some amazing voices,” Warshawski said. “The reward for me personally is bringing people of all ages to the arts, especially when the cultural landscape in Napa County has changed dramatically. It has always been about having fun, as well, and IDOL 24 should be a hoot.”
Rebecca Yerger and the Candlelight Tour
You may know Rebecca Yerger from her stories that have appeared in local publications for more than 30 years, researching and recounting tales from Napa County’s colorful past.
Or you may know her as the researcher of the supernatural who, every October, raises the collective hair of the county with ghost stories she collects from locals who have encountered the inexplicable evidence that there are more things in heaven, earth and Napa County than one might have dreamt of.
But the historian and author is also a key member of Landmarks of Napa County, a non-profit that advocates for the preservation — and appreciation — of historical buildings. Landmarks was founded in 1974, during a time when an ambitious redevelopment program was redesigning downtown Napa and removing historic buildings such as the Migliavacca commercial building and the Behlow building, (the former Carithers Department Store), both stone and built in the late 1800s. (The opera house was, reportedly, on the list, too.)
“I am a native Napan. I was born here, and I grew up here, and I have very fond memories of downtown Napa,” Yerger said. “When I saw what the city of Napa was planning to do, I aligned myself with the people who wanted to preserve our historic buildings. I was in high school at the time, so I have been doing this for a long time.”
In addition, Landmarks is publishing an annual list of “Threatened Treasures” in Napa County and organizes Porchfest, a popular free summer day of music, performed by local talent on porches in Old Town Napa.
“A sub-theme of Porchfest is historic architecture,” she said.
Landmark’s signature event, however, is the Holiday Candlelight Tour, its chief fundraiser that each year invites the public to visit historic homes in Napa that are decorated for the season. The self-guided tour includes entertainment and refreshments, with volunteers dressed in Victorian costumes and vintage cars parked in front of the houses.
Yerger was the chairwoman of the first Candlelight Tour, held in Yountville in 1989, and for several other tours, including this year.
“It’s the 32nd year,” she said. “We missed one year in 2014, after the earthquake damaged so many homes.”
In 2020 and 2021 the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the tours.
But this year they are back in full form, Yerger said. As chairwoman, her job, although volunteer, is multifaceted: “Finding homes, knocking on doors, persuading owners of architectural gems to invite the public into their homes.”
The 2023 tour, from 2 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 9, includes seven houses in downtown Napa. It begins at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 1917 Third St., for check-in and a reception. The open houses are located on Seymour, First and Third streets and include the Craftsman-style Blackbird Inn, the Finch Guest House and the mid-century modern era Turnbull Hall at St. Mary’s. Tickets are $40 in advance and $45 on the day of the tour ($35 for members). Advance tickets can be purchased at eventbrite.
In addition to a festive holiday celebration and a cornerstone to Landmark’s work in Napa County, year-round historic preservation initiatives and community engagement programs, Yerger said, “It’s a rare opportunity to be invited into historic homes that you might have wished to see. It has become a tradition in itself.”
Jessel Miller and a Homespun Holiday Extravaganza
For the past quarter of a century, every time I have walked into the Jessel Gallery, its unsinkable owner, Jessel Miller, has had a new idea for supporting not just her own space but arts county-wide. Artist, author, dancer and veritable fountain of inspiration, Miller, originally from Canada, came to Napa Valley four decades ago and decided to turn an abandoned distillery on Atlas Peak Road into a haven for artists. She works there on her own creations and teaches classes but also invites other artists in to show and sell their work.
The result is a wonderland of art — paintings, sculptures, handcrafts, jewelry, prints and cards — that all becomes more dazzling during December.
Several years ago, when a popular holiday sale of a collective of local artists lost its downtown Napa location for its annual Holiday Extravaganza, Miller stepped in to offer her space for the show. Now vintage decorations, stuffed bears and all kinds of Santas add holiday cheer to the always-festive air of the gallery.
Last year Miller added writers to the artists she has included in her “heART of Napa Valley,” as she calls her gallery. An author herself of a series of children’s books that she illustrated, she began hosting quarterly writers’ salons and meet-and-greet readings with local authors in 2022, of which I have happily been one.
All of this is part of the Jessel Gallery’s Homespun Holiday Extravaganza, which launches with a celebration on Dec. 2 and 3 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The open house includes author meet-and-greets on Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m., and artist demonstrations on Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m.
But the star of the show might be Miller’s cookies, homemade from a secret and irresistible recipe.
And even as Miller is pulling together this year’s holiday extravaganza, she is also working on a new book, finding ways to support non-profits such as ALS research and aid for African elephants through her arts, and is the driving force behind the 2024 county-wide Mustard Celebration.
As I mentioned, every time you walk into Miller’s magical gallery, she has come up with a new idea. Her motto: “Let’s work together.”
The Jessel Gallery is at 1019 Atlas Peak Road.
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Sasha Paulsen is a Napa Valley-based novelist and journalist.