"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal City Editor Leon Worden. The half-hour program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Murray Siegel, president of the board of Carousel Ranch. The following interview was conducted Dec. 15. Questions are paraphrased and some answers are abbreviated for length.
Signal: What is Carousel Ranch?
Siegel: Carousel Ranch is a therapeutic riding program. We have kids who have a wide range of disabilities they could be neurological disabilities, physical disabilities, emotional disabilities and we put them on the back of a horse to give them physical therapy.
On the back of a horse, your body moves in ways that, for example, if you're in a wheelchair, your body never would move. By being on the back of a horse, we're kind of simulating, for that child, what it is to actually walk. By doing that we're also stimulating their organs, we're making different kinds of neurological connections, we're rebuilding some neurological connections, so we can actually watch some of these kids who come to us the first time in a wheelchair and gradually, throughout their therapy, they gain more and more strength and are eventually able to get out of that wheelchair, probably not unassisted, but can actually walk around.
We also have kids who have other kinds of emotional deficits, autism for example. ... Autistic kids have a difficult time focusing on anything. You can imagine that if you're riding on the back of a horse and you're not very well focused, chances are, you're not going to stay on the back of a horse very long.
Signal: This seems rather unconventional. Who came up with this idea?
Siegel: Interestingly enough, this kind of therapy has existed since World War II. It was begun by a nurse who was in (a) field hospital. She was treating British soldiers who had been wounded in the war, and had no access to any kind of rehabilitation equipment or really any kind of equipment at all, but they did have horses. Kind of out of desperation, she put these wounded soldiers on the backs of horses for physical therapy. These programs grew out of that.
It may seem unusual, but in fact there are over 400 of these kinds of programs across the United States. The unique thing about Carousel Ranch is that unlike a lot of other programs where they take kids and just sit them on the back of a horse and ride them around and around an arena and just an aside, I don't want to take anything away from that kind of program, because in fact there are great benefits just by even doing that much but Carousel Ranch does vaulting on horseback, which is gymnastics on horseback. We put the children in various postures on the back of a horse, so each child's deficits, each child's needs, are looked at individually. We never have group sessions.
We have one child, actually two children now, who had strokes in utero. I have to tell you, before I started in the program I didn't even know that kind of thing happened. But the little boy I'm thinking of, it affected his right side. He doesn't like to use his right side at all. When we put him on the back of a horse
Signal: How old is he?
Siegel: He's 4 years old. The first thing he does is he leans forward to grab onto the handles that we have on the back of a horse, around where the saddle would be. He does that just to get his balance.
Now, my belief is that if I can get him to grab onto that handle just to balance himself, could his hand be strong enough to grab the handlebars of a tricycle? Could it be strong enough to grab a ball? To hold a crayon to draw a picture for his daddy? And I think the answer to those is yes.
The kids think they're coming to have fun riding on the back of a horse. I know they're getting physical therapy...
The horses themselves, because they are therapy tools, are really one of the very important parts of the program. We have people all the time who would love to donate horses ... for the program, but the horses need to have a very special kind of personality. They need to be very calm. They need to not react when some child for whatever reason starts screaming or hitting them. All of our horses, and there are nine of them now, all of our horses are kind of auditioned for the job, if you will, and it's really quite fascinating just to watch these animals with the kids.
Signal: How young can a child be? What age groups do you serve?
Siegel: We have had children less than a year old in our program. The upper end ... there is no age limit. We actually had one family, the two children were in therapy, and it's a tragic story, but mom had a stroke and actually became one of our clients, as well.
So we've had very young toddlers all the way up to adults. Primarily the age range seems to go, from what I've seen, between 9 and 14 to 15. That's why I say children; there are not that many adults in the program.
Signal: How many professional staff members do you have, and who administers the therapy?
Siegel: Our program director, who is our primary therapist, has been educated in hippotherapy, in using horses for physical therapy. We did have a physical therapist on our staff who was bringing her own clients from her physical therapy practice and using our horses as a way to provide another method of physical therapy.
We have trained some people; in terms of people who provide the therapy there are only three, but then we also have other staff who are there for office support, and with horses there is just a lot to be done. It really is very labor intensive, but it's not a very large staff, by any means.
Signal: What is the board's function?
Siegel: The board's function really has more to do with telling the community and the world about the program. There are currently 66 clients at Carousel Ranch, and there are an equal number on our waiting list. So just those numbers alone tell me that there is a huge population that we need to let know that we are there and what we do and to find out how we can help them.
So the board's function is, in one sense, marketing. In a second sense it's there as a fund-raising arm. All of the money for the program comes either through grants or donations or fund-raising events.
A lot of our grant money came from the state of California, and because of the current budget crisis in California, a huge portion of our budget has gone away, which means that we have to increase how we find money in other places. Grants are getting increasingly difficult to get because of economic conditions...
Another function of the board is to, in a sense, be a sounding board for the staff, to give them a place to come to say, these are the types of things we'd like to do; how can we accomplish these kinds of goals? So it (isn't) different from any board of a nonprofit.
Signal: What percentage of your clients are SCV residents?
Siegel: I would say probably 85 percent live in the Santa Clarita Valley, but we have clients from all over. We have clients from the San Fernando Valley; we have one family that comes from Pacific Palisades and brings their child to the program.
I think that's a testament to two things: one, the uniqueness of the program, and second, the effectiveness of the program. But primarily the population is coming form the Santa Clarita Valley.
Signal: How long has Carousel Ranch been going?
Siegel: Carousel Ranch has existed for five years. They initially were in Sunland (and then) moved here to Atlasta Ranch, which is in Placerita Canyon, quite near The Master's College, and last December (2002), the people who owned that property decided that they wanted to do other things with the land...
In January of 2003, the Hamlin family actually a rather famous Santa Clarita Valley family heard about our needs for a temporary location and very generously invited us to continue our program on their property. So we're still in Placerita Canyon, but now on the other side of the gate, right on Placerita and Ravenhill.
Signal: Almost into Sand Canyon.
Siegel: Almost into Sand Canyon, right.
Signal: There was a little controversy last year over whether Carousel Ranch should be allowed to operate at that location. What was that about?
Siegel: Just to clarify that, I was under the same misconception, that that was the issue.
After hearing the neighbors and talking to the neighbors in that surrounding area, what I came to realize is, it's not whether Carousel Ranch should be able to operate in that area or not. Their concern was, they knew Carousel Ranch was looking for a permanent location, that we would not stay where we are right now. Their concern was, when Carousel Ranch left, if a permit was granted to Carousel Ranch and that permit stays with the property could somebody else move in and operate a therapeutic riding program in the same place?
Signal: Or any other kind of business?
Siegel: The way the permit was written, it was so restrictive that you really would have had to duplicate Carousel Ranch in order to be there. But their concern was not that Carousel Ranch was there, but what happens when Carousel Ranch leaves? Their fight was not, keep Carousel Ranch out or kick Carousel Ranch out, but how can we structure this so that when Carousel Ranch leaves, we don't have another program move in?
... I think that what the planning commission did was really, to me, the right way to make everybody happy, which was to grant a temporary use permit.
Signal: You ended up with a temporary use permit; originally you had applied for a minor use permit, which has no time limit. Whose idea was it for you to apply for a minor use permit?
Siegel: It was, uh let me just say there was some confusion from city staff, and our na‘vet». ... I don't want to put the blame on somebody, but the fact is that we were advised to apply for a minor use permit when, in fact, we should have applied for a temporary use permit. So it was just a misunderstanding, and our lack of really even understanding what that meant. And what the long-term implication of what that was, was what made us apply for a minor use permit...
So that's really all of what happened, and the controversy really revolved around more of something that I said that I shouldn't have, and I apologized for it.
Signal: How long will you be at the current location?
Siegel: It's one year form when the permit was granted in October, so October of 2004. By that time I hope that we will have found a permanent home for Carousel Ranch.
Signal: Where do you want that to be?
Siegel: In fact we've kind of hamstrung ourselves, because we want to stay in the Santa Clarita Valley. The community has embraced the program. They've been just incredibly supportive City Council, city staff, the neighbors, other nonprofit organizations have really been so supportive of Carousel Ranch and we want to stay here. We feel like this is our home.
Signal: Who's got land that you can afford?
Siegel: And there's the problem. The first part of the problem is, even five years ago it would have been easier to find a 5-acre open piece of property. Now it's difficult to find that property, and once you find it, it's difficult to have somebody sell it to you at a price that a nonprofit can afford, because everybody's looking at what a developer would pay for it. (Another problem is) finding something within a price range that doesn't go so far beyond what we can afford to do that we actually hurt the program just for the sake of buying a permanent home.
If I could answer your question, if I could tell you where that is, I'd be out signing papers tonight somewhere. I don't know the answer to that, but at the same time, I'm not prepared to give up on keeping my commitment to keeping Carousel Ranch in the Santa Clarita Valley yet. That is my goal, that's the goal of the board, that's the goal of the program. That is what we're striving for.
Signal: Are you pursuing opportunities with the city, maybe leasing land on some city-owned park property?
Siegel: Yes, we have had discussions with the city. Right now, I'll tell you quite candidly, we are reluctant to locate the program on a piece of public property because of the kinds of difficulties you have putting this kind of enterprise, or any kind of enterprise really, on a public piece of property.
The other issue there is, if it's a leased piece of land, I really haven't accomplished my goal, which is to buy a permanent location. Which is not to say the city the city has really been terrific. They've made suggestions, they've looked for places, I've gone on ride-arounds with city staff, finding pieces of property. The county of Los Angeles actually had assigned someone from the county to find us something.
I clearly can't take just any 5-acre piece of land that somebody has. There has to be access to it, there has to be some kind of road, because I'm bringing kids who are disabled into the property. There has to be some kind of infrastructure, and I think it's a very difficult piece of property to find. Then, put into that equation the fact that you're dealing with an organization that really can't afford to invest a huge amount of money, and which has asked real estate agents and other people who are looking to really limit the boundaries of the area in which you look.
I understand the difficulty that we've sort of put everybody in, but at the same time, it is going to the permanent home of Carousel Ranch, and I want it to be the right place.
Signal: Let's switch gears and talk about Murray Siegel. What do you do?
Siegel: For the past 27 years I have been involved in television and film production. I've worked on I think one time I heard there were 24 award shows on television, I worked on 16 of those award shows. Most of my career has been spent doing live variety television, so almost every live TV show, I'm involved with in some way or another. When "ER" did their live episode I worked on that show.
Signal: Doing what?
Siegel: For 27 years I did sound on all of those shows. I put little microphones on people or I operated a microphone on the end of a boom. But it was not a job I ever really loved doing.
Signal: But you did it for 27 years.
Siegel: Well. I did it for 27 years because yes. When I first got into the television industry I have a teaching credential. I taught kindergarten, actually I specialized in early childhood education and I thought that I would write and produce educational television shows. I had an opportunity to start working in television in the sound department.
Well, I thought, once you're in there, how hard could it be to go from being the sound guy to being the producer of the show, for goodness sake? It can't be that hard. Well, 27 years later I found that it is actually very difficult to make those kinds of changes in the television industry. People look at you as having a certain skill set, and that's where they want you to stay.
Signal: And you're no slouch of a sound designer, either.
Siegel: That's very flattering. That is very nice.
Signal: And very true.
Siegel: Well. You know, it's hard, also, I think, to give up something that everyone tells you you're good at, a field that you've had a great deal of success in. I share nine Emmy awards with people who did sound on shows, and I have an equal number of nominations of shows that I didn't win for. So it's difficult to just walk away from that and say I'm going to go do something else now. But I did.
I, two years ago, got into the Directors Guild and at the end of 2003 decided that I was going to focus all of my attention on taking only job assignments from the Directors Guild. So now, after 27 years, I've withdrawn from the sound union. I'm no longer a member of Local 695, and I am working as a television stage manager, which means that I am responsible for, depending on the show, getting the talent to the stage, finding the places where the talent goes, all of the set pieces that come off and on, so the job varies, depending on the show.
I've also had some opportunities to direct a few things for MSNBC, and in the past few months I've started working on corporate events, staging corporate events and stage-managing for corporate events.
Signal: You submitted a project proposal for the World Trade Center memorial.
Siegel: That's right. Along with Jim Combs, who is an architect here in Santa Clarita.
I came to him with an idea that I had for a design for the memorial at the World Trade Center site. It was actually quite interesting to me, not being an architect and not ever having designed any kind of memorial like this, the kinds of input that an architect can have into those things. It was really quite fascinating for me to see from where my idea started, to what it actually ended up turning into.
Signal: What was the idea?
Siegel: The overarching theme of it was, the entire memorial was built out of pieces of what could appear to be ruined buildings. There was a large glass wall, and into that wall were etched the names of each of the victims. Facing that was a wall that was made out of broken concrete blocks. That was to be used for people to leave mementos or roll up prayers to tuck into the niches in there.
Santa Clarita architect
Jim Combs, in his office at Combs+Miguel Architects in Newhall,
shows a rendering of the submission he created with Murray Siegel
for the World Trade Center memorial. Photo
by Eddie Sadiwa/The Signal.
On the glass wall, and this is something that Jim came up with, when a viewer would come up to the name and touch the name, that would trigger a holographic image of that person, with a little background on (that person), not so biographical as much as what The New York Times called a "portrait of grief." There were little stories about who these people were and what their lives were like. So, not biographical so much as, who was this person?
This was a kind of a half-circle. Each end of it touched the footprint of one of the buildings. And then that encompassed a large open area that was going to be used for many kinds of events, services, memorials, concerts, things like that. And then finally there was a chapel at the end of it, one wall of which contained a burning flame for each victim, and one wall which was called the Wall of Tears, which was sheets of water flowing constantly down.
That was there for several reasons. One of the requirements in the competition was a place for reflection. You had to put a place there for families to come. And they also wanted a crypt where the unidentified remains could be laid to rest until some kind of technology cam along that would allow them to identify those people, or for when they identified them.
So that was the design. We were evidently on a short list but we were not chosen as one of the eight finalists.
Signal: What inspired you to submit a proposal?
Siegel: I think the inspiration came from being very deeply, emotionally affected by what happened on Sept. 11. I had no personal relationship to any of the people, although at the same time, I feel like I had a deeply personal relationship with every one of them. Because I realized how fragile all of our lives are. These people just went to work one day and didn't come home.
I think the fact, too, that it was an attack on America, a country that I feel pretty strongly about I'm a pretty patriotic guy I think that had a deep effect on me, as well. And at the same time I think part of what I've made a theme in my life, what I'm trying to do with everything that I do, is looking at, how does popular culture affect us as individuals? And so this was my way to say, here's a memorial for an event that was life-changing for America. How can I use this site to open your eyes to to feeling more connected to, or understanding, how precious every one of these lives is?
So I can't tell you exactly what it was. All I can tell you is, when I knew there was an opportunity, I just felt a need to be involved, to do something, to somehow make this a place where people could grieve and could celebrate lives and could look forward to where to we go from here?
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.