One-man band

Stepan Partamian puts out books, CDs, a magazine and hosts two TV shows — and that’s not all …

By Michael Saltzman / Verdugo Monthly. August, 2006

 

The air-conditioned office of the Armenian Arts Fund looks like it’s been ransacked. CDs lie scattered on the floor, file cabinets hang open like they’re too tired to shut and a bottle of red wine sits uncorked on the table. But there’s been no burglary; this is how Stepan Partamian operates. Standing amid the chaos, he talks hurriedly on the phone and sticks a bright red pin on a map hanging from the wall.

President of the Armenian Arts Fund, Partamian is a stout, sturdy man with a shaved head and hanging chin beard. Since 2000, his fund has raised money for Armenian-American arts and culture by publishing books and magazines, producing albums and presenting concerts.

“I’m always creating something new,” Partamian says. “I can tell you it’s a one-man operation.”
Now he’s taken on his most ambitious project yet: a $100,000 endeavor to document Armenian influence in the United States. With a planned full-color coffee table book and accompanying video documentary, he has his work cut out for him.
“My next year’s project is finding the Armenian America,” he says. “There are metropolitan areas full of Armenians — Los Angeles, New York, Boston — but I am in search of the Armenian in the unknown place. So I’m doing research into all 50 states to find out locations, to find out individuals, to find out organizations that deal with Armenians or are of Armenian origin.”

Dressed in a striped button-down shirt and jeans, Partamian speaks with forceful, deep-voiced conviction, but his warm, winking smile feels reassuring at the same time. It’s this fatherly combination that has helped make him the popular — and controversial — host of two Armenian-language cable talk shows, “Bari Luys” (Good Morning) and “Tser Kardzike” (Your Opinion). Not known to mince words, Partamian uses airtime to confront viewers with charges of rampant ignorance in the Armenian-American community. He says most Armenians can’t tell the difference between Armenian and Persian melodies, and he bemoans local celebrations of April 24, Armenia’s Genocide Remembrance Day, where young people ride around waving the Armenian flag like they’ve won the World Cup.

“There are two types of Armenians,” he says. “Armenians above the neck and Armenians below the neck. Armenians above the neck are the Armenians who utilize their brain … Armenians below the neck are the Armenians who are less educated [about their Armenian identity]. Their thoughts are controlled by their emotions. They don’t evaluate things and they’re haphazardly going through life.”

On several occasions, offended viewers have phoned in to curse him out. But many have called back weeks later, apologized and told him they now make the entire family watch his show.

Partamian’s programs aired for years on AMGA Channel 26 in Glendale, but on June 6, he left the station and has since accepted a bid to resume his morning show for Horizon Armenian Television, which airs on channel 55 in Burbank and Glendale and across the country on Intelsat 5 satellite television.

“I encourage people to first acknowledge their mistakes and then start creating something,” he says. For his part, Partamian has created the Armenian Arts magazine, which publishes articles on the arts and original poetry; reprinted “The Right to Struggle” by Armenian Marxist Monte Melkonian; and produced 45 CDs of traditional Armenian music, issued on his own Garni label over the past decade.

Earlier this year, he finally realized his longtime musical dream project: a faithful instrumental recording of the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church. The tender, highly emotional piece was performed by a quartet of duduks, ancient Armenian woodwind instruments known for their rich and graceful timbre. The first quartet of its kind, the musicians trained for a year before recording. The project cost approximately $30,000, the most Partamian had ever tried to raise through his fund.
But the new documentary project will more than triple that budget.

To raise the money, Partamian has a few ideas. He plans to solicit donations on the air, offer discounted bags of Garni CDs and hold fund-raising concerts. On Oct. 21, he will host an evening of traditional Armenian music at the Alex Theatre featuring an ensemble of woodwinds and vocalists.

But even as he faces financial hurdles, Partamian’s enthusiasm for the new project remains irrepressible. He has already stuck dozens of red pins on his wall map, marking points of Armenian interest across the country.

“I found out there is a mountain in Pennsylvania called Mount Armenia,” he says. “There is a street called Armenia in Tampa, Fla. … There is a city in South Carolina called Armenia.”

To assemble the book and video, Partamian will leave his crowded, air-conditioned office and travel to all these locations and more. And to judge by the glimmer in his eyes, the trip will be as much play as work.

“I want to go and see an official seal that says ‘City of Armenia,’” he says, holding out his hands in illustration. “I think so many people will be interested to find out about that.”