Sheila Holenda was a performer and singer in Santa Barbara during the late 1980s and early ’90s, playing a major role in a milieu that was eclectic, restless, and experimental. Sheila’s unique contribution to the scene was a sophisticated wit and intelligence—and boundless energy that generated parodies of artistic self-seriousness in the forms of music she wrote and performed with Thrifty People, as well as a brief-lived performance group Ballpeen Hammer Artists’ Collective. The latter culminated in the show “Huge” at UCSB’s Campbell Hall in 1991. Both groups featured Paul Stinson, Phil Riedel, and Michael Dochterman, her ex-husband. Ballpeen Hammer Artists’ Collective also featured Eric Payton. The band’s sound veered from the surrealism reminiscent of The Residents to faux honky-tonk with silly lyrics.
Sheila’s band helped inaugurate Noise Chamber, the tiny experimental venue run by Ole Sorenson and Matt Ballesteros. Noise Chamber gave a home to unfocused creative energy that mirrored a time of economic implosion, institutional change, and global transitions. Of the art and music itself, the less said the better. However, Sheila’s band performed there with Dirk Shumaker’s (of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy fame) and Sean Kennedy’s band Messenger RNA, and the I-Rails (whose Chris O’Connor wrote “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand”). Sheila’s side project Bellow Lugosi, which performed at Pluto Books in Isla Vista, was an accordion duo with Karen Collins that notably covered Nick Cave’s “The Carny” and Shocking Blue’s “Venus.” Russ Spencer wrote about Sheila as “Cat Canyon” in a number of his Positively State Street columns in this paper.
Sheila’s stage persona during this time, Sheila Marie Fury, belied Sheila Holenda’s true identity as someone with impeccable grammar and writing skills, who was a lover of cats and girlie things. Dressing up was a kind of performance in itself, and her outfits were often high-concept, a cute matched outfit or vintage ensemble that was Sheila’s own style, never the all-black artsy uniform of the time.
Sheila Holenda was born in Hollywood and grew up in Santa Maria, the daughter of a math instructor at Allan Hancock College. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sheila was active in environmental and peace causes. She graduated from UCSB in 1989 with an English degree.
In 1991 she took off for San Francisco, where she starred in a short film by Valarie Schwan, Everything Must Be Sold, attended the California Culinary Academy, and worked as a catering manager. She soon found Liz Abbott and Lydia Walker, with whom she formed deep friendships and The Roulettes, a ’60s girl group-influenced band that performed at the Purple Onion in North Beach and at the Bottom of the Hill (Potrero Hill, that is). For the past 12 years, Sheila lived in Los Angeles and catered events, including an annual Christmas dinner at Cottonwood Canyon in Santa Maria. Until recently, she worked as a cataloguer at the USC Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive at the School of Cinematic Arts.
If Sheila had been a movie, it might have been Robert Altman’s Nashville. She was a catalyst and lightening rod for impossibly mirthful times and inconceivably good luck. She was a generous and demonstrative friend. She crackled with burning ambition and the stuff of pure creativity.
It was evident that a particular genius of hers was for creating families, and her last days were packed with visits to Sarah House by her many families. As unique as Sheila, Sarah House surrounded her with unconditional love and counseled her and all of us toward an understanding of the meaning of her life and death. The experience was a privilege and an education surpassing any formal one that can be had.
During her last hours, some of us realized that performance was Sheila’s lifelong spiritual practice—whether it was getting a friend out to hear a brilliant new band she had discovered, being on stage, or preparing a fabulous meal. In her element, Sheila opened her heart fully and channeled a love of life that simply rocked and drove others to open up and rock their thing, too. She was an individualist’s individualist and needed people she truly admired around her, not as an audience but to be close, on a one-to-one basis.
Sheila is survived by her mother, Margarete Holenda; her brothers Forrest, Greg, and Eric Holenda; sister-in-law Christina Bird-Holenda; and friends in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Maria, Nipomo, Goleta, and Santa Barbara who loved her deeply. In honor of Sheila, friends can make a donation to Sarah House in Santa Barbara.