by David Gans

C. J. Hirschfield is the Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, the first storybook-themed park in America, located in Lakeside Park in downtown Oakland.

“Fairyland is a therapeutic environment,” she says. “It’s ten acres of gardens in the heart of the city, totally low-tech. It’s about appreciating family time. We are a cynicism-free zone. The more stressed people get, the more they appreciate a place like Fairyland. Thank goodness! Otherwise we wouldn’t have been around for 67 years.”

Under Hirschfield’s guidance, Fairyland has developed a great number of collaborations with organizations that work with kids and families. “We’re the partnering-est!”

For example, Fairyland collaborates with the Oakland Symphony’s Music in the Schools program. Hirschfield explains, “We invited them to bring it to our stage. The first year, [conductor] Michael Morgan – who had never been to Fairyland – offered to conduct. I gave him a tour, and then he said, ‘Can we do this every year?’ So, every year the maestro comes, and 50 kids from 12 different schools come in their white shirts… We have an ‘instrument petting zoo’ afterwards, so the kids can explore the instruments.”

In partnership with Bay Area Children’s Theater, Fairyland does musicals for pre-K kids every summer, based on books like The Little Engine That Could, Go Dog Go, The Cat in the Hat – “and we throw in a day at Fairyland for free. A lot of their members may not have known about Fairyland – and it works in the other direction, too: people come in who have never heard of BACT.”

Fairyland has had a children’s theater program for more than 60 years. “Some of them stay with the program for three years; they make friends for a lifetime. We feed a lot of kids to the School for the Arts. I’ve been here long enough that kids who were in the program when I first got here have graduated college. I keep in touch with them. A couple of them have gone professional.”  

“We have an animal program and a plant program for kids in Kindergarten and first grade. We also work with foster kids, ages 10-12, and we bring them together with our education director and our animal caretaker. We train the kids with the animals, and then they get to be the animal experts in the Park. We do horticultural therapy for autistic kids in our gardens.”

And, they just started working with the International Rescue Committee down the block.“You don’t necessarily have to be an English speaker to appreciate Fairyland,” Hirschfield says.

“What I’m most proud of is our outreach program. It’s very important to us to be affordable to as many families as possible. About 16,000 kids and their family members come to Fairyland every year, either free or at a reduced rate. Every field trip we have is at least reduced-rate.” Fairyland has recently offered free admission to families displaced by the North Bay fires. “There are a lot of kids and families who are traumatized. We can really have a profound effect on kids.”

Hirschfield was born and raised in Los Angeles. “Like many people, I came to the Bay Area for school and never left.”

She studied film and broadcasting at Stanford. “My first job was running a public access channel in San Francisco,” she recalls. “I had a half-hour arts show called ‘In Review’ on Cable 6. I met a lot of crazy arts people… I also had a public affairs show. We were the only show that could devote a half hour to interviewing people. My host was a wonderful human being who was City Hall editor of the Chronicle at the time. We had footage of Dan White, Harvey Milk, George Moscone… Harvey was saying. ‘I’m gonna be a target…’”

She then spent 20 years working for the California Cable Television Association. “Cable was taking off. Ted Turner was building an empire [CNN, TBS]; HBO had figured out a way to make money. They created C-SPAN, because it was the right thing to do. It was a crazy, amazing time. There were hundreds of cable operators. But what ended up happening, as in many industries? Consolidation. We ended up with just a handful of cable operators. It wasn’t as much fun.”

One of Hirschfield’s initiatives was a program to recruit people of color to work in the new industry. “I produced a fundraiser every year for this foundation that identified and worked with leaders of color in other industries to transition them into cable. We had people from all different industries who wanted to get in. There was a huge fundraiser for this foundation, and my team would go back to New York every year to produce it… In 2001, it happened during the week of 9/11.” Hirschfield and her team were grounded in New York City for five days. “I remember thinking, ‘I hope the people who went to work that day really loved what they were doing.’ And when I got home I thought, ‘This isn’t fun any more. I want to do something closer to my heart.’”

Hirschfield saw the Fairyland job on Craigslist, and “I just started cracking up. I loved Fairyland, taking my daughter there.” She also had a long history of volunteering – “and there was a theme to my efforts: books, literacy, kids, libraries. I was the chair of the library Commission; I was on the board of the Oakland Parents Literacy Project, which had reading nights at underperforming Oakland schools.” Perfect preparation: years of helping kids, many of them in great need, and plenty of exposure to Oakland politics and bureaucracy. “And they wanted operational experience. Running a cable convention for 30,000 people took care of that.”

“I said, ‘I’m in! You can pay me a little now, but I’m gonna bring you so much money that at some point you’ll give me a raise.’ It’s taken a long time, but thanks to the love that the people in this community have for this place, we were able to do that.”

Fairyland is owned by the city, and until 1994 the city was managing it. “It fell into a state of disrepair,” said Hirschfield, but “the community was not going to let this place go away. We all know how wonderful it is.” A nonprofit was created to manage the park, which shares resources with Lakeside Park and its other resident institutions.

Hirschfield is the second executive director in the Fairyland nonprofit’s history. “It’s a 67-year-old facility. Deferred maintenance is huge. One step at a time. I’ve been here 15 years now. My predecessor started to turn it around, but when I first got here we’d have to lay everybody off after the summer. You can’t keep good staff that way. Now we can afford full-time people.”

Although grownups are not allowed into Fairyland without a kid in tow, “a lot of nonprofits have gotten hip to the fact there is an opportunity after dark. We do a large party every year in partnership with Oaklandish. The first year we did it, about six years ago, we were worried that people wouldn’t respect the park. But we found a lot of people in their 20s and 30s who loved the park, who came a lot when they were kids but haven’t been able to come back because they didn’t have a kid. There are many people who have a tattoo of our Magic Key!”

“We’re in the memory-making business, and we take it seriously. People know that.”

Another of Fairyland’s community-building (and fundraising) initiatives is an arts event called Drawn Together. “We had almost 40 artists creating site-specific art in the park. You could have some wine, wander around the park, talk with the artists. The artists donated their works, so for $40 people could walk away with a great piece of art. The artists loved it, too, because they don’t get out much; they got to talk with each other while they were creating the art.”

“We’d like people to consider supporting Fairyland in any way they can. Bring your kid; borrow a friend’s kid! Think about volunteering. We’ve asked people to help us with our ‘Monarch [butterfly] Magic’ project. And of course, donations of plain old cash are greatly appreciated (and fully tax-deductible). Go to fairyland.org for more info on how to contribute.

Other ways adults can help: “Become a Facebook friend! We have a really good social media person. We also do weddings! Talk about a fairy-tale wedding!”

The Fairyland team is excited about the remodeling of Lakeside Park and Fairyland’s entrance. “People didn’t know where our entrance was,” says Hirschfield. “They would think that our iconic sign on the grassy hill was the entrance. Nope! This intersection [Grand and Bellevue] was horrible, very unsafe. The Garden Center needed a new entrance, too. So the city pulled together this East Bay Regional Park bond money, CalTrans money, federal money, city money.”

The new entrance will be “very reminiscent of the iconic wooden sign on the hill, but with 3-foot-tall aluminum letters on poles. The walkway is ADA compliant, it’s got footsteps of a giant… It’s gonna be gorgeous, it’s gonna be lit at night.” And for drivers heading west on Grand Avenue, it will be a “beautiful, whimsical welcome to the Uptown!”

I tell my staff, “We are blessed with the most prime piece of real estate in the heart of Oakland, so we need to use every inch for the highest form of good.”

Hirschfield has brought all of her life experience to this job. Her years in the cable TV industry have given her many tools for success in this gig. “This is a business – a beautiful, adorable business, but it’s a business. The less dependent you can be on government sources – and, for that matter, foundations and individuals – the better off you are.

“Over 80% of our income is earned. We’ve got a cafe; we’ve got a pumpkin that serves espresso; we’ve got a little gift store, summer camp, sleepovers, birthday parties. We’re very entrepreneurial. We have to be a lean, mean, happiness-producing machine.”

Editor’s Note:  David Gans is a musician, writer, and radio producer. His newest studio CD, Drop the Bone, will be released later this month. He is also the long-time host of the nationally-syndicated Grateful Dead Hour and cohost of Tales from the Golden Road, a weekly talk show on SiriusXM’s Grateful Dead Channel. His most recent book is This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral history of the Grateful Dead, co-authored with fellow Haddon Hill resident Blair Jackson. David has lived in the Lake Merritt area for more than 40 years. I’m not sure how, but he also finds time to regularly update his gallery of Grand Lake Theatre marquees.