A corridor on the second floor of Miami Children's Hospital in southwest Miami is set aside as the Observation Unit, a part of the sprawling medical center where sick and dying children are treated. At the end of the hallway on a recent afternoon, a group of women could be found mingling, munching salads, killing time. There were short ones and tall ones, blondes and redheads and brunettes, some in blue jeans held up by hip strength alone, one in an ornate black formal dress with a red-ribbon pin on the lapel, all of them women of such spectacular outward appearance you'd think they were models from the Irene Marie agency.
And you'd be right.
The models are part of a video shoot to accompany a song called "The Gift" written by local favorite Diane Ward. The song -- and now the video -- are devoted to raising money for and awareness of a program that helps children affected by AIDS.
Alex Moreno is directing the clip for Ward's song after the two met and became friends while working on another video. After running a stress-management company here and in New York City, Moreno decided he'd like to make a career in education, particularly with the deaf. About a year ago, he heard from a woman who was making a music video -- of all things -- with a deafness theme. "Being in Miami, with its music scene growing," Moreno says, "I persuaded her to find local talent. Then we couldn't decide between Nil Lara's 'My First Child' and Arlan Feiles's 'Crazy Mixed Up World' [as music for the clip]. Nil already had a video, so that was the end of the argument."
Drawing on a background in theater and a brief stint as a scriptwriter, Moreno began piecing together footage. "I was a novice," he admits, "but I learned a lot on that production." One of the actors in that video, seen briefly playing guitar, was Diane Ward.
"I love kids. I just do," Ward notes. "AIDS is such a tragic disease. Kids are so innocent. It's just not fair." Late last year, Ward -- who built her rock reputation over the past decade fronting Bootleg, the Wait, and Voidville while also making a mark as a solo artist -- was taking a course that dealt with leadership and self-expression. "One assignment," she recalls, "was to go into your community and make some sort of difference. The music community is my community."
So off she went, researching various causes and charities, cognizant of such altruistic ventures as Live Aid and Farm Aid and Band-Aid and "We Are the World." While talking to folks at the Health Crisis Network (HCN), an AIDS advocacy organization, she found out about the Riccardia Children's Program, a year-old project named for Riccardia Palmer Michel, a little girl who died of AIDS in 1992, just before her fifth birthday.
"It turned me on because it involved kids," explains Ward, who has no children. "And the people at HCN are good people. So I decided to write a tune and record it" to heighten interest in the Riccardia program. Taking a cue from Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson and their "We Are the World" project, Ward chose to invite some 75 local artists to take part in a recording session at the Studio. Musician-producer-Studio-co-owner Rat Bastard Falestra donated the recording time and his engineering services. "This was around the time of [Tropical Storm] Gordon," Ward remembers, "and it was really bad weather. Even so, 50 people showed up." Moreno was one of them, on hand to film the recording session.
"We'd been speaking often," Moreno says of Ward. "When she told me she was writing a song about kids with AIDS, and me as a special educator, what could I do? I can't sing. So I [video]taped the recording session, but we had no idea what to do with it; maybe a PSA or documentary. A friend of mine died of AIDS around Thanksgiving. Just after Christmas another friend fell ill and died before I even had a chance to see him."
It was mid-January; Moreno was turning 30. He went to a park in Coconut Grove and penned a script drawing on visual metaphors for AIDS issues such as isolation, pity, denial, anger. "My contribution would be making the video," he says. For two months Moreno and his army of volunteers videoed at various locations (HCN, FIU, the hospital) and acquired from WCIX-TV (Channel 6) news footage of Riccardia Palmer Michel (described by Moreno as "horrific").
"We're still pretty much on schedule," Moreno mumbles in his balmy British accent. The ponytailed filmmaker has been overseeing shoots since dawn and won't finish this day's work until dark. Much of the time is consumed by waiting. A professional makeup artist, Arlyn Albet, dresses up the face of one of the Irene Marie women, while videographer James "Jimmy Mac" McMillan, a freelancer who usually specializes in Caribbean music clips, sets up a video monitor next to an Abbott Lifecare 5000 Infusion System in the hallway. All together, two dozen people -- cameramen, models, makeup artists, set designers -- are volunteering their time and talent. The low-key but charismatic Moreno sips soda and tries to deal with everyone at once, making sure the crew is okay with what's going on.
He walks into Room 2207, one of three reserved for the shoot, and talks to one of the models -- in American Sign Language. As he fingers the words, his hands shake, a sign of fatigue or nervousness or both. Or maybe he's still recovering from the morning session, when a scene was taped at Florida International University's West Campus. One of his actors was painting graffiti on a wall (carefully protected by a plastic coating for easy cleanup) when the cops arrived. Fortunately Moreno had his permits in order and handy.
The scene they'll film at the hospital will include a shot of an adolescent actress in bed, portraying a young AIDS patient. Next to the bed is a body bag. In the background, gorgeous models cavort. The idea, Moreno explains, is to show a contrast between mindless glamour and cold tragedy. But that notion is better evidenced by the reality of what's right in front of their faces: the size of some of the beds. Small, maybe four feet long. Child's size.
Part of the video's story line involves the graffiti that almost got Moreno and his crew busted at FIU. The end of the clip reveals what was being painted: "AIDS does not discriminate."
"You get out what you put in," says Moreno, who is now attending FIU while also substitute-teaching and tending bar. "I've been busting my balls because I want this to hit teenagers. I work with kids, and they have no clue. AIDS is not contextualized for them. So maybe an MTV-style video, where you don't force-feed them facts, will hook them and make them think. And then they'll start asking questions."
Like any great anthem, Ward's "Gift" builds on itself, moving from an innocuous acoustic guitar riff to a canyon-filling harmonic convergence -- 50 voices on a mission. Bobby McIntyre plays drums, Shane Soloski bass, Rafael Tarrago electric guitar, and Ward acoustic guitar. Vocal solos are taken by Ward, Rene Alvarez (Forget the Name, Sixo), Paul Isaac (Muse), John Camacho (the Goods), and Matthew Sabatella. Four dozen other locals provide what Ward calls her "all-star chorus."
The song is big and strong, escalating to a wall of sound before it dips back into the hook of the chorus, overcoming potential smarminess by summoning a grit and passion that rings too true to be perceived as contrived. Ward's much-lauded voice sets the tone in the first verse -- "Rename the streets of this godforsaken world/After each tiny soul who never got to grow old" -- with a varied timbre that Melissa Etheridge would admire.
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Although there is reason to think so -- the song's title, some of the set designs in Moreno's video, the fact that the cassette single was released just before Christmas -- "The Gift" is not a holiday song. It sounds as fresh today as when it came out, and its lyrics aren't seasonal at all. The subject matter definitely is not festive. Ward and Moreno hope to screen the nearly completed video in public schools. (Moreno is scheduled to meet with Dade County School Board officials on May 8.) The single also was available at the huge AIDS Walk Miami on South Beach in late February. WVUM-FM (90.5) has been airing the song, as has WSHE-FM (103.5)'s local show on Sunday night.
Things have fallen into place for the project since its beginning.
Ward's day job is at Spec's, the huge music retailer. "[Another Spec's worker] told me about it and asked if I wanted to be involved," says Ritz DeLeon, the Latin-music buyer for Spec's. DeLeon, a quiet woman not given to hype, pulled out a file of contacts she'd worked with in the past. They included TDK, which agreed to provide funds for tape duplication; Turkel Advertising, which designed the cassette sleeve; Audio Duplicating Service, which offered a discount on manufacturing costs; and the Paperhouse/Southern Paper, which provided the paper for the cassette sleeves.
"Everybody pulled together," Ward points out, adding that of the 2000 copies originally manufactured, more than 700 have been sold at four dollars each. "And all the proceeds go to Riccardia, 100 percent.