Playland at the Beach

Playland at the Beach

A visit to Playland at the Beach was always the most exciting thing a kid could do.  There was a rough and slightly seedy quality to that place but it gave children a licence to run wild in a special kind of way.  Located across the road from the beach where San Francisco met the Pacific, Playland had a history that stretched back beyond the turn of the twentieth century.  By the time I encountered it, however, it had lost much of its lustre.  Up close the rides, the signs and the furniture all had a grubby look.  The paint work was chipped, faded and old and the men operating the rides certainly seemed professionally unfriendly.  A day at Playland was, however, an overwhelmingly enjoyable experience for young children. 

   The first visit my brother Jim and I made was in 1954.  We went with the Hallinan boys and their mother Vivian.  This would have been at the time their father Vin was in federal prison.  Danny Hallinan is of the opinion that our mother Beth was also there along with my sisters Nell and Kate.

   The first stop at Playland was to purchase a line of tickets.  Each ride cost 25 cents.  Now the Hallinans were extremely wealthy unlike the Myers family so Vivian generously purchased several strips of these red tickets and gave them out to all of us.  Then it would be off through the open plan lot on which all of these rides existed.

   One sound which seemed audible all over Playland was the laughter of this giant female puppet with a shock of red hair under a straw hat.  Laughin’ Sal was her name and she had a big gap between her front teeth and stood inside a large glass case near to the ticket booth with her arms out stretched.  Her laughter was non-stop as the top half of her body rocked back and forth.  The unnatural sound of her cackle seemed to set the tone of the place: bizarre.  At age 7, if I had ever found myself alone at Playland it would have scared the hell out of me.

   Our first stop was the Fun House which was weird and exciting.  Disorientation was the theme of this joint and it didn’t take long to get into the swing of things.  First you passed through a hall of mirrors which warped your image dramatically.  Faces swelled to grotesque proportions and foreheads shrunk and expanded dramatically.  Next you passed through an enormous rotating tube to get to the other side but nobody got through it without falling over a few times.  The next challenge was to walk across this wooden bridge with sections which folded up and down making it impossible to remain standing.  Finally you passed through large rotating drums which spit you out into an enormous wooden space where peculiar giant heads grinned down at you from high up on the ceiling.  For women wearing skirts ferocious jets of air would shoot up from below.  Danny remembers these upsetting Vivian and Beth though they must also have bothered Nell and Kate.

   A huge wooden turntable stood motionless within a gated area.  A man opened the gate surrounding it and Jimmy, Danny and I, along with a huge crowd of other kids, scrambled for a place on its surface.  The walls of the fenced in area were well padded with foam cushions.  Once the gate was shut the turntable began to spin like a record player.  It started slowly and got faster and faster.  Since there was nothing for anyone to hang onto, every single child was eventually propelled off and into the cushioned wall. 

   The spinning turntable was terrific fun but the real star attraction of the Fun House was the slide which snaked up farther than the eye could see.  The slide was fantastic.  You had to pick up a burlap sack from a bin at the bottom and remove your shoes then begin the long climb up to the top which actually took you up higher than the giant grinning heads which adorned the ceiling as the top of the slide was really the uppermost place in the Fun House.  There were three or four lanes on the slide.  Once you’d made the long climb to the top and it was your turn you’d lay your burlap sack down on the flat section in your lane.  Then you pushed away and picked up speed immediately, dipping over the bumps as you hurtled down at higher and higher speeds.  My goodness it was fun and as soon as you got to the bottom you were laughing hysterically and without a moment of hesitation began marching back up the stairs to do it all over again.  As there was no limit to the number of times you could do it you’d just keep going back for more. 

   Beth and Vivian must have found some observation post where they could talk.  I’m pretty sure that Danny, Jimmy and I were together but the older Hallinan boys were nowhere to be seen.  The Hallinan boys all played rough unlike gentle Jim and I.  A pillow fight with them was a terrifying experience.  I remember one such incident at our house when Danny held a pillow over my face so long that I flew into a physical panic, convinced I was going to die.  A visit to their place was always exciting but the adventure was inevitably tinged with danger. 

   Eventually we left the Fun House and back out on the fairground there were plenty of conventional rides like a merry-go-round, dodge-em cars and a big ferris wheel.  Apparently there had once been a big roller coaster but it wasn’t there anymore in 1954.  One of my favourite rides was the ghost train.  A huge sculpture of a giant white skull with its two bony hands coming together sat behind a railroad track with a row of cars between two sets of double doors, one for the entrance and the other for the exit.  You’d give the unfriendly man one of your tickets, sit down in the car and he would push a bar over your lap. Then the car would begin moving, jerkily, towards the double doors, adorned with a spooky colour painting of a ghost across both sides.  Bang!  The car would violently push the two doors open, then jerk around to the right into what was now total darkness.  A sharp corner would be turned to the left then the right and the first of many scary images with equally scary noises would illuminate in the pitch blackness to confront your disoriented senses.  It was genuinely frightening and I loved this ride.

   Another exciting experience was the diving bell which certainly looked as though it was the genuine thing.  It hung from what seemed to be a huge water tower surrounded by artificial rocks.  The diving bell itself had portholes all around it and as you’d give your ticket and go on board you would scramble to the nearest available circular window.  You’d then wait for the door to be sealed and the slow descent into the water.  There wasn’t a whole hell of a lot to see down under the water.  The walls were painted with underwater art and I think there were a few fish which must have been traumatised by this thing plunging in and out of the tank.  The highlight of the experience after about five minutes of gazing out the porthole was the sudden propulsion up at the end then bouncing up and down until stationary at which point the dizzy occupants could make their exit.

   I went to Playland many times over the years and always had a terrific experience.  My father Blackie used to take each of us four Myers kids on a special outing to the city on our birthdays and a trip to Playland was always on the agenda.  There were three locations in that vicinity which held a great allure for me: Playland, The Cliff House and Sutro’s.  If you crossed the Great Highway from Playland facing the beach then looked to your right you’d see the Cliff House perched on the huge rocks over the sea with a splendid majesty.  Not visible from this position but just around the corner was Sutro’s Baths, a glorious old place with ancient gaming machines and a big ice skating rink down at the bottom.  The Great Highway became Port Lobos Avenue as it climbed to the Cliff House and around to Sutro’s.  

   Sutro’s was built on the cliffs which faced the Marin side of the Golden Gate.  The entrance was a series of steps descending down to different levels before you finally reached the ice skating rink at the bottom.  Along the way down were several long corridors lined with old fashioned penny arcade gaming machines, photo booths and sights like Tom Thumb’s Wardrobe, a Tucker automobile and a model of the Eiffel Tower made from toothpicks.  When you got to the lowest level above the rink there were display cases with model ships and telescopes to view the choppy waters through the many windows.

   Built in 1896 by Adolph Sutro, the place was originally popular for its swimming pools using both sea and fresh water.  However by the time we were going it was only the ice skating rink which was in use.  Like Playland, it had a faded glory about it.  Sutro’s as it was then would be featured in the 1958 movie The Lineup directed by Don Siegel.  A brisk and entertaining low-budget crime thriller featuring the young Eli Wallach as the heavy, its scenes in Sutro’s are a reminder of what a fabulous place it was.  It also had lots of location work on the Embarcadero as it was then.

A scene from The Lineup in which the villains arrive at Sutro’s.
The dramatic scene above the ice skating rink with actors Vaughan Taylor and Eli Wallach.
Having committed murder, Eli Wallach’s character leaves Sutro’s in a hurry.

   Sutro’s was sold to property developer Robert Frazer in 1964.  Frazer had plans to build luxury apartments on the cliffs.  Then on a Sunday late in June, 1966, Sutro’s burned to the ground.  Arson was immediately suspected by SF Fire Chief William Murray as many witnesses had seen a man dressed in khaki fleeing the building moments before the blaze was spotted.

   George Whitney and his brother Leo arrived in San Francisco in 1923 and opened a photographic concession in the amusement park which was then called Chutes at the Beach.  They pioneered a fast photo-finishing process that allowed folks to take pictures home rather than having to wait days for the film to be developed and images printed.  By 1924 the Whitney brothers owned several shooting galleries as well as the quick-photo studio.  In 1926 George Whitney became the general manager of the growing complex of seaside attractions and changed the name to Playland at the Beach.  George and Leo gradually bought up bits of it during the depression when certain concessions began to fail and ultimately purchased the previously leased land which the amusement park occupied.  But their expansion didn’t stop there.  In 1937 George Whitney purchased the then vacant Cliff House from the Sutro estate and reopened it as an upscale roadhouse.  He became known as the ‘Barnum of the Golden Gate’ as he went on to buy Sutro’s Bath House as well.  In 1952 he bought out his brother Leo and continued to run things until his death in 1958.    

   After George Whitney’s death Playland was never quite the same.  For awhile it was operated by his son George Jr who then sold it to Robert Frazer who in turn sold it to Jeremy Ets-Hokin in 1971 and by 4th September, 1972, Playland was torn down and condominiums were built on the property.

   Playland’s demise did not make the news pages of the Chronicle that day but prominent columnist Herb Caen devoted his entire  essay on that Monday to the passing of this cultural phenomenon.  In a column headlined We’ll Never Go There Anymore, Caen rhapsodised about riding the Big Dipper, as the roller coaster I never saw was called and also wrote about concessions he’d enjoyed in his younger days:  “The fading midway, barely alive with yesterday’s laughter.  The Diving Bell, a ride I never did like, stood suspended in rust over a pool of fetid water and beer cans.  At the old rifle range, George Whitney’s first concession 50 years ago, I emptied a load of .22 shells at moving targets so grimy you could barely see them.  In the corner of the Fun House, hideous Laughin’ Sal bobbed up and down, cackling.  Inside I began the long three-story climb to the top of the finest, longest, humpiest wooden slide in the world.  Slide, bump, slide, bump, crash into the wall at the bottom.”

   Herb Caen’s column, which stood on the first page of the want-ads section, was one of the most popular features of the San Francisco Chronicle and a plug in it was highly valued by those seekers of publicity who were lucky enough to be mentioned.  In our house the Chronicle was identified by the sections: News, Herb Caen, Peanuts and Sports.  I guess you’d say his was a gossip column but it always seemed a bit more than that.  He had a passionate love of his adopted city and his columns always championed that fact.  And as Playland, whose faded glory had descended into gruesome decay, prepared to meet the same fate as the magnificent FOX Theatre, Caen’s words, on that day, expressed what many felt: “Goodbye to all that, to part of our youth, and like that youth, we expected Playland to last forever.  It is an odd, sad feeling to have outlived it.”

For anyone doing research on Mill Valley history Natalie Snoyman can be reached at: nsnoyman@cityofmillvalley.org

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A Baseball Bat for a Guitar

A Baseball Bat for a Guitar

One of the shortcomings of my childhood was the fact that neither my father Blackie nor my mother Beth took an active interest in the education my siblings and I were receiving at school.  There were reasons why this was the case.  My father’s blacklisting on the east coast was why he drove the family across the country in the hope of working on the San Francisco waterfront through the longshore union, the ILWU.  We arrived in Mill Valley in late 1952 and the priority of both my parents was seeing that their four children had food on the table. 

   Good friends had rallied around the Myers family on our arrival in town.  Babbie Dreyfus found us our first house up on Madera Way which is the reason my sisters Nell and Kate went to Old Mill School.  Babbie, in an act of generous friendship, then bought us our house down on Seymour Avenue.  This was why my brother Jim and I went to Homestead School.

   Nell and Kate seemed to take to school work without any parental oversight and my brother Jim muddled along but I was a daydreamer who found school boring, hard work and sometimes scary.  I did receive the basics of an education in that I learned to read, write and do simple arithmetic but Homestead School was never a place I wanted to be and I certainly received no idea of how exciting and interesting the educational process can be.  When the darkness of Sunday evenings closed in a feeling of dread would descend on my soul knowing it was school again in the morning.  

   All my female teachers, for the first four years, were ardent practitioners of corporal punishment and would regularly give angry spankings with rulers to those poor souls whose parents had ticked the box allowing them to to be punished in this way.  The fact that most of the parents, including my own, gave no such permission, did nothing to minimise the atmosphere of terror which filled the classroom whenever the teacher lost her temper and took it out on some poor kid.  So any excuse to stay off school I would seize with great enthusiasm.

   The things which did grab my attention were comic books, movies and pop music.  The comic books came from the Bus Depot, the movies were witnessed at the Sequoia Theatre and the pop records were to be found at Village Music.  It was during my time in Mrs Lewis’s third grade class that Glen Pritzker and I began regularly haunting the record shop where Sara Wilcox would play us any single we wanted to hear.  Discs like Sixteen Tons, The Man With the Golden Arm and Mister Sandman were big hits with me.  

   The very first time I became enamoured of rock ’n roll was when my family went to see Blackboard Jungle at the Sequoia and I heard Bill Haley singing Rock Around The Clock.  It wasn’t too much longer before Elvis Presley came to my attention.  The first Elvis disc I heard at the record shop was Heartbreak Hotel which didn’t impress me very much but when I heard his first LP with Blue Suede Shoes on it, his singing and musical accompaniment appealed greatly to my nine year old sensibility.  Somewhere along the way my parents made me a present of that first LP which was simply titled Elvis Presley.  

   I would listen to it over and over dancing around the room to the infectious rhythms and singing full throated imitations of the words.  Of course I was a young boy and relatively innocent about the lyrics I was mouthing though I could see that songs like I Got A Woman and One-Sided Love Affair were clearly about adult sexual relations, something I had seen a lot of at the Sequoia but really knew nothing about.

   The album cover had a black and white picture of Elvis with his name printed in what I later learned were his favourite colours: pink and green.  He was playing his guitar, which had his name on it, and singing with wild abandon.  On the back cover there were four photos of him, all taken at the same session.  He had his guitar strapped on and seemed to be talking to someone in the top two pictures and performing with the guitar in the bottom two.  These four photos were the only visual clues I had about Elvis as a performer.  Listening to the songs was so up close and personal that I came to think the music belonged to me.  I presumed that Presley always played the guitar on stage.  

Elvis at the Louisiana Hayride. From left: Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley, Bill Black.

   The lead guitar on this album was provided by Scotty Moore and maybe I thought that was Elvis playing all those fabulous licks.  The reality was that he strummed rhythm guitar while Scotty filled the air with his fabulous finger pickin’.  Another rhythmic element which made these recordings so terrific was the slap bass of Bill Black and most of these tracks were recorded at Sam Phillips’ studio at Sun Records in Memphis.

At the Sun Records studio. From left: Elvis Presley, Bill Black, Scotty Moore, Sam Phillips.

   When Colonel Tom Parker bought Elvis’s contract from Phillips and took the singer to RCA the rhythm section Presley had been touring the south with came with him to New York where a few additional songs were cut.  Needless to say I knew none of this as I jigged around my parents’ bedroom imitating the extremely athletic vocals on One Sided Love Affair which also had a great boogie piano.

   As my totally committed imitations persisted I began to wonder what I could use as a guitar.  Blackie had got Jim and I two fielder’s mitts, a hard ball and a baseball bat and my brother and I regularly played catch up on the road above our house.  So I picked up the baseball bat and began using it as a guitar.

   All of this performance art occurred without witnesses when nobody else was around.  Our house at 10 Seymour was always full of music mostly from the record player.  Both my parents were musical in the sense that they could carry a tune but neither of them was a musician.  As a family, we were people who listened to rather than made music.  My older sisters sang at school and even did harmony parts but my brother Jim and I never received such training at Homestead.  We did have a woman who came to instruct us in group singing but it was all unison with no harmonic division.

   A song which I remember my mother Beth singing a lot was Alive, Alive-O all about Molly Malone selling her cockles and mussels in streets wide and narrow.  She also used to sing a song from the 1920s about Barney Google with the Goo-Goo-Googley Eyes.  Blackie also had a very good singing voice and though he had known Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger he didn’t think much of folk music.  Broadway musicals were more his style.  Our record player was always in use and shows like The King and I and Oklahoma were often played.

   So when my fascination with the records of Elvis Presley motivated me to pick up that baseball bat, pretending it was a guitar and to do energetic imitations of him singing such songs as Money Honey and Tryin’ To Get To You, it didn’t go unnoticed.  In fact I even did my Elvis routine in the playground at Homestead School and my baseball bat guitar along with my vocals were engaging enough for my friend Glen Pritzker to pronounce that, when we were grown up, he was going to be my manager.

   But the political world my parents came from was nothing to do with the playground at Homestead.  Beth and Blackie never joined the PTA or engaged in anything social at our our school, though they would put in an appearance on parents night.  My mother was a highly intelligent woman, a published author and a total bookworm.  One time she joined other mothers to prepare the hot dogs which were our special school treat on Thursdays, but that was an isolated incident not to be repeated.  Like my mother, Black was a very intelligent guy but again he took no interest in what we were doing at school. 

   So because of my passion for Elvis it was decided I should have a guitar for Christmas.  Blackie even had a plan for me to learn to play it.  The son of our good friend, Mike Gold, played guitar and he would give me lessons.  The fact that this very plausible scheme had serious flaws in it was invisible to all.

   Mike Gold and his family had recently moved out to San Francisco from New York.  Mike was a well known writer on the political left and had published a best seller in the 1930s entitled Jews Without Money and was also a founding editor of The New Masses.  Both Mike’s sons, Carl and Nick played guitar and as their father was good friends with Pete Seeger they had performed at many a hoe-down with the famous folk singer.

   Mike’s son Nick was in his early twenties and was working as a longshoreman on the San Francisco waterfront.  I visited him at his apartment in North Beach with my guitar.  He was very nice and patient with me and started me off with the fingering for a few chords like C, A and F.  His musical passion, besides the folk music he’d grown up with, was a form of jazz called be-bop.  Rock and roll was not even on his radar.  Nick did not ask me about my musical interests.  He simply told me what I should do and lent me some records to practice to.  The records were of no interest to me at all and, like many a homework assignment, I would begin with the best of intentions, get bored and do something else.  I never learned to play any of the Elvis songs I loved so much.

   Music appreciation can be highly tribal.  People tend to treat the type of music they like with an almost religious reverence and often dismiss other genres out of hand.  There are sub-divisions in every type of music: classical, jazz, folk and of course rock.  Blackie’s idea of getting Nick to teach me was, on the surface, a good idea but it hadn’t been thought through from an educational standpoint.  Nick Gold was simply not the right fit for me musically.

   Many months later while clearing out a room with my brother Jim and I, Blackie came across the guitar, covered with dust.  “Well that was a good investment,” he snarled sarcastically.  His words stabbed me and I immediately felt tremendous shame.

   Had my parents been educationally oriented I might have made better use of the opportunities that were all around me while I was at school.  I would have loved to study music with Mr Greenwood like my friend Mark Symmes and learned to play an instrument but that was not the path I was on.  I was a seeker of experience and that road would take me many places.  I knew as a teenager that I wasn’t qualified to sing the blues because I hadn’t lived enough.  I had to know what I was singing about for real.

Three books have been helpful in writing this piece: Elvis: The Biography by Jerry Hopkins, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick, Michael Gold: The People’s Writer by Patrick Chura

For anyone doing research on Mill Valley history Natalie Snoyman can be reached at: nsnoyman@cityofmillvalley.org

Amazon USA
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Fishing in Sausalito

Fishing in Sausalito…

My father Blackie was someone who followed his own compass in life.  At no point during my childhood in Mill Valley was he ever distracted by trends or social norms.  I can remember being with him in some remote location and seeing a ‘No Trespassing’ sign which would always worry me but not Blackie.  He didn’t acknowledge those kinds of barriers.  He had no regard for social status and our home at 10 Seymour Avenue was far from the images you’d see in magazines of American life in the fifties.    He came of age in the late 1920s, 30s and 40s and his style was definitely from those eras rather than the 1950s that my siblings and I were growing up in.

   The status symbols of that time in American life, like fancy cars, television sets and dishwashing machines were so far off his radar that he probably didn’t even know they existed.  My siblings and I knew because of our exposure to the high powered advertising we’d see on our friends’ television sets.  Blackie would not let us have a TV so we relied on the kindness of neighbours to see programmes like Disneyland, The Steve Allen Show or Ozzie and Harriet.  

   Black told me that he never finished high school and went to sea at the age of 14.  Born into a Brooklyn family of seven children, Frederick Nelson Myers got his nickname early because of his coal black hair.  By the time he was twenty years old he’d already seen more of the world than most people do in a lifetime.

   The way he spoke was always entertaining to us kids.  He never used ordinary descriptions of things and his use of profanity had a lyrical, humorous quality to it.  Raised in a religious house where his mother was Catholic and his father Protestant, Blackie began to question his faith early on.  He told me it was his father who, upon hearing him recite: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth,” challenged him to explain what that meant.  When the young boy couldn’t, the seeds of doubt set in.  Blackie’s nickname for Jesus Christ was ‘Jerusalem Slim’ and when he expressed mild surprise he’d say: “Jesus, Mary and bald headed Joseph.” 

   My father seemed to have a natural patience about life unlike me.  Patience was not a huge feature of my childhood.  As a young person I was someone with little patience.  The idea of waiting for things to happen did not come naturally.  And I’m afraid that neither of my parents were particularly helpful with this deficiency in my character.

   Like many kids I was constantly running and tripping in the playground and this meant I regularly had scabs on my knees.  A scab really should be left alone so that the congealed blood can dry out and fall off naturally but I would always pick at them.  I also noticed on long walks home after school that, as my finger nails grew in length there were new layers arriving in waves on the top of each nail.  Using the thumbnail on my opposite hand I would intercept these new layers, driving the thumbnail underneath them which would shave back the new layer.  I was somehow not content to just let my body get on with the business of replenishing itself.  No.  I had to interfere with it.  

   The few times I engaged in gardening on our land at 10 Seymour I would have to exercise patience and it would be rewarded several days later when the corn I’d planted would come shooting out of the ground which I would find thrilling.  Working in the garden, however, was not a way of life for me unlike Blackie who found it to be a relaxing therapeutic activity.  But I think that Black enjoyed the solitude of such endeavours and never felt the need to introduce us to it.  We had a sizeable patch of land below our house on a hill which was covered with blackberry bushes.  Saturday and Sunday afternoons he would spend doing battle with the blackberry bushes and it sometimes looked like he would never win.  But he did make considerable headway and eventually terraced the earth below our house with wooden planks creating beds of soil which looked like giant steps in which he’d plant lettuce, carrots, string beans and corn.

   Blackie at this time was working as a ship’s clerk on the San Francisco waterfront through the ILWU, the Longshore union.  Occasionally he’d return with bits of treasure from that world and one time a huge bunch of bananas came home with him to hang from a hook on our front porch.  My sister Nell thinks this explained the occasional appearance of tarantula spiders at 10 Seymour Avenue.

   One sunny afternoon Nell, Kate, Jim and I were all reading on the front porch when I noticed something moving on the path in my peripheral vision.  A closer look revealed it to be a tarantula spider, something none of us had ever seen in the real.  It was about the size of a jam jar top with light brown hair all over its legs.  It was ambling slowly across our yard.  Mythology about these creatures was all we knew.  Harry Belafonte singing the line A beautiful bunch of ripe bananas, hides the deadly black tarantula was not lost on us and our father Blackie did tell us that he once saw a man die of a tarantula bite on a dock in Jamaica.  There was a brick wall which stood between the spider and my father’s tool shed.  My siblings and I assembled above this wall and as it moved slowly across the yard we began dropping rocks, bricks and other heavy items but to no avail.  Nothing we dropped even came close to hitting it and eventually the tarantula simply walked away.

   I do remember finding the dead carcasses of the big spiders in jam jars in Blackie’s tool shed and did also have another startling encounter one day when I was helping Blackie dig the earth down among his terraced vegetable patch.  When I lifted a shovelful of earth I noticed a small hole with what looked like something moving inside it.  I peered closer and taking the edge of my shovel, I prised back a big chunk of solid earth.  In a flash this large tarantula spider came running at me.  Just as instantly my father stabbed his shovel down cutting the arachnid in half and killing it.  I was more than a bit traumatised by this incident but like so many occurrences in our family, it was never discussed.

   I already had a dread of tarantula spiders because of seeing Walt Disney’s The Living Desert up at the Lark and to see one charging towards me was the stuff of nightmares.  But Blackie dealt with it and that was that.  When I told Jared Dreyfus about the big spiders on our property he simply didn’t believe me.  “Tarantulas in Mill Valley?  Not on your life.  Scorpions, yes but never tarantulas!”

   The wildlife around our house on Seymour Avenue was pretty diverse.  Deer were regular visitors and, as we had a few apricot trees they would regularly suck the fruit off leaving the pits hanging from the branches.  There was a hill above our house with horses and whenever we had corn on the cob we’d take the corn husks and silk up to feed to them.  I can remember there was a snake season when, out on the Pixie Trail you would stand very still for a few moments until becoming aware of slithering all around you as snakes of different colours moved through the grass.  Also we would occasionally stalk deer.  This required a pair of binoculars and a great deal of patience as it was important to be absolutely still.

   There were times when patience was kind of imposed upon me like when my brother Jim and I would go fishing with Blackie.  It was usually on a Sunday that we would get in his Plymouth station wagon and drive to Sausalito.  We would park somewhere on the north side of town then, with our rods and fishing box, we would walk down the Bridgeway to the Ondine restaurant and find ourselves a spot to sit on the big pier which sat next to it.  There was a guy with a booth on the pier who sold bait which was shrimp.  We’d buy a bag for 10¢ then each of us would bait our hooks.  A piece of shrimp was usually good for about four hooks.  We would peel the thin layer of shell off the shrimp, cut a piece off and dig the hook into it.  When it was firmly connected we would drop our lines into the water.  There was a metal weight on the end of the line to make it sink.

   We would sit there all afternoon with no conversation as Blackie told us that noise would keep the fish away.  So we would occupy ourselves by gently pulling and releasing the line which could get pretty tedious but the tedium was worth it once you got a nibble.  The nibble was such an exciting experience and it’s difficult to compare it to anything else.  The feel of a fish nibbling on your bait is a totally unique sensation and there was no other way to experience it except to sit there for as long as it took.  The nibble was the signal to stand up and pull your rod back and begin reeling the line in.  A fish on your line made the rod bend forward.  Naturally a catch quickly became the object of attention from the other fishermen on the pier and as you turned the handle of the reel you felt the resistance of the fish right up until it broke through the surface of the water.  It was an exciting release.  

   A decision now had to be made as to whether or not it was big enough to keep.  If not, you would  remove the hook from its mouth and throw it back in the drink.  If it was big enough you’d have to kill it by banging its head with the handle of your knife. 

   The fish we caught in Sausalito were rubber lipped perch and I remember one time I caught a particularly huge one.  The irony for me and my brother Jim was that we didn’t eat fish at all but this didn’t stop us from being involved in the preparation.  I don’t believe we ever came home without a catch of at least four or five fish.  The first job was de-scaling them with a knife which was done over a newspaper spread out on the kitchen table.  

   I recall having goldfish from time to time and on one occasion we found one floating at the top of the bowl.  Blackie took the fish in the palm of one hand and massaged it with his finger and it sprang back to life.  Once we bought four little turtles from the pet shop.  Sadly they fell victim to visiting racoons who devoured them all and left only their shells floating in the bowl.  

   Another adventure in pet keeping was when a friend gave us a male and female rabbit.  Blackie constructed a big pen lined with chicken wire next to his tool shed and a smaller one over by the house.  Our friend informed us that once the mother had babies we had to separate her from the father as he would be a danger to the young ones.  She gave berth to a litter of eight little souls.  The pigment of their skins seemed to correspond to the colour of the fur they would grow, so four were pink which grew white fur and the others were darker skinned.  Three were brown and one was black.  The fur grew quickly and before long Jim and I had named each one of them.  There was one we called Policeman as it seemed to be more authoritarian than the others.  Jimmy and I would go out first thing every morning with carrots and green trimmings for them all and would spend the longest time observing them until one morning when tragedy struck.  We went out and found all the babies dead.  The mother had killed each of them.  My brother and I wept uncontrollably as Beth helped us put their little bodies into a brown paper bag and dig a hole down in the garden to bury them.  

   We had a neighbour down on Janes Street named Johnny O’Connor who was a friend of Blackie’s and he had these grey Weimaraner dogs who occasionally would break out and our property was one place they would visit and it seems that Mother Rabbit, alarmed by the aggressive canines, killed her babies.

   This was, I believe, what we considered to be our first serious brush with mortality.  Perhaps the deaths of the four turtles and the killing of the tarantula didn’t quite have the impact of the eight dead bunnies.

For anyone doing research on Mill Valley history Natalie Snoyman can be reached at: nsnoyman@cityofmillvalley.org

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Oh, To Cycle and Swim…

Oh, To Cycle and Swim…

My mother Beth was a wonderful person in so many ways and she was the one I regularly turned to in moments of childhood crisis.  When we were sick she’d nurse us to health and her chocolate chip cookies made my packed school lunch special indeed.  But when it came to anything physically robust involving my brother Jim and I, she was over protective.

   When Jimmy and I began riding bikes she made us promise we would never cycle down the big hill on Molino which took us to Montford below.  To be fair it is a very steep hill but the fact that my brother and I never cycled down it was noticed often by our friends Jimmy Brown and Johnny Lem who would regularly race down that hill on their bikes.  

   “What’s the matter Myers?  Are you chicken?”

   Jim and I just had to accept these carping comments.  The trouble was that Beth had made such a heartfelt case about not cycling down that hill and, having promised we wouldn’t, we didn’t.  This meant we took the less vertiginous Janes Street whenever we rode our bikes down into Homestead Valley.

   For a brief period of time Jim and I were in the Boy Scouts.  Mister Collett was our scoutmaster and we used to attend weekly sessions at the scout hall on East Blithedale.  He taught us to march in a military style and we worked for the various merit badges and I think I even earned my first class badge.  We bought our uniforms from Men’s Mayers which was exciting.  There was a winter trip planned to the snowy Sierras which I was particularly keen on as I had such vivid childhood memories of snow in New York, Connecticut and Minnesota and longed to experience it again.  I was so very excited about this trip.  All the arrangements had been made and my parents had paid for it.  But at the eleventh hour Beth became worried that something might happen to me and I didn’t get to go.  I was terribly disappointed.

   Before Vin Hallinan went off to prison in 1954,  he taught my sisters Nell and Kate to swim.  The Hallinans had a big pool up at their mansion in Ross and Vin regularly gave swimming lessons.  Their pool was a terrific place to learn how to be comfortable in the water.  But when it came time for Jim and I to learn to swim, Beth wouldn’t allow us to have lessons with Vin.  It was probably the aggressively athletic environment the Hallinan boys grew up in which made her mind up.  There were six sons: Butch, Kayo, Tuffy, Dynamite, Ringo and Danny.  They all swam beautifully and were highly athletic.  Football and boxing were the main sports indulged in though they also did gymnastics.

   I think Beth wanted to protect her little boys from what she perceived as Vin’s ‘bullying’ ways.  Vin was a highly educated and well read person who also happened to swear like a longshoreman.  The Hallinan boys were all tough and the rapport Vin had with them was verbally aggressive.  They in turn were aggressive back and I think this reinforced Beth’s opinion that Jim and I shouldn’t learn to swim with him.  But he was, according to Danny, a highly sensitive teacher.  It seems he didn’t learn to swim until he was in the navy and he was well aware of how very frightening the water could be for a beginner.  Danny has always been pretty critical of his dynamic father but when it came to swimming lessons he had nothing but admiration for Vin.  So Beth was totally wrong not to let Jimmy and I learn up at the pool in Ross.  Instead we went for swimming lessons at Tam High during the summer vacation. 

   My memory of these lessons is that we were a group of about fifteen boys and girls all roughly the same age.  The instructor was a young woman who was very gruff and not at all friendly.  There was a good deal of shouting and absolutely no fun.  A sense of unease would come over me as Jim and I entered the boys’ changing room with the smell of chlorine heavy in the air.  I never felt good about going through to the pool.  Once we were in the water my dread left me.  The first thing Madam Shouty had us do was to hold on to the edge and kick.  This got us used to floating on the surface, the position we would find ourselves in while doing the front crawl. 

   There is a strange transitional zone which exists between being incapable of doing something through to the beginnings of some kind of ability.  I remember the day I mastered riding my bike down in the playground at Molino and Janes.  Once I realised that it was actually a balancing act and got comfortable with shifting my weight from side to side I then found that I could make it all the way around the playground albeit a bit wobbly.  Eventually, with practice, the wobbling diminished and by the time that happened I could no longer recall not being able to ride a bike.  It was the same with swimming.  Once I was able to do it a bit I totally forgot about the inability which preceded it.  And we did learn to swim after a fashion.  In fact I even learned to dive into the pool and we basically were equipped to spend summer days in the pool with friends.

   However I still wish that I had learned to swim up at the Hallinans’ as my front crawl was never strong.  My stroke was sloppy and my kicking uneven.  One day out at Stinson Beach I was body surfing.  You would stand out in the water and when a wave swelled behind, you’d start swimming and as the wave caught you, you’d tuck your arms in and ride it.  Jar Dreyfus saw me doing this and commented negatively on the way I was using my arms when swimming to catch the wave.  Jar of course had to learned to swim with Vin.  I was doing a kind of windmill stroke rather than bringing my elbow up out of the water then extending it through and Jared was very critical.  So I was aware that my swimming wasn’t that good but had no help in putting it right.

   My very first experience of a swimming pool occurred at Fred Field’s estate in Connecticut when I was three years old.  My father Blackie and I were sitting by Fred’s pool on a beautiful sunny day.  I stood and looked down into the shimmering blue water which looked absolutely beautiful to my young eyes.  On an impulse I simply jumped in.  Suddenly I was in a different reality down at the bottom of the pool.  There was an explosion of bubbles and I saw the strong eyebrows of my father Blackie as his face came straight at me and the next thing I knew we were back up on the surface.  There was no trauma or upset.  I didn’t cry as there was no time for panic to set in.

   I have always been beguiled by the sight of a blue swimming pool.  There was one behind a wooden fence on Ethel Avenue which we’d always walk past on our way to downtown Mill Valley.  The shimmering reflections off the water played on the wooden fence and I longed to be familiar with what was on the other side of it.  One of our neighbours down by the playground, Kelly Giles, had a swimming pool but nobody’s pool came close to the Hallinans’.  It was about the same size as the one at Tam High and sat behind a big hedge at the end of Lagunitas Road in Ross.  Right next to it was a big gym and from the pool you’d look across a massive expanse of lawn to the mansion at the other end with pillars on the porch. 

   But I never felt confident enough about my swimming to enjoy a day in the Ross pool so most of my swimming happened at Tam.  Such days were terrific fun.  Jim and I would spend all day in the pool horsing around.  It was always too full of screaming kids to ever swim a length as you would constantly bump into others.  After such exertions we’d come out of the changing room with an extra special kind of hunger in our tummies.  We’d walk across the front parking lot and up Miller Avenue to C’s Drive-In.  As we never had that much money on us the most we could afford at C’s was a bag of fries with sauce for fifteen cents.  The sauce came in a little paper tub and consisted of ketchup mixed with French’s mustard.  Not exactly Hollandaise but that special kind of hunger we came out of the pool with made dipping those fries into the magic sauce the greatest delicacy on earth.  If we didn’t have the fifteen cents for this treat we would have to continue on to the Miller Avenue Shopping Centre where we’d buy a 3 Musketeers bar, a Milky Way or a Snickers for a nickel.

   One summer’s day we were in the pool with our friend Henry Serra who lived just around the corner from Homestead School.  I’m not sure exactly what happened.  Maybe Henry was under the water when someone dived in just above him but the result was that suddenly he was seriously unwell and we had to take him home.  It transpired that Henry had concussion.

   Another time after a swimming session at Tam my right ear began to hurt.  It was mildly irritating throughout the day and just got steadily worse.  The optimist in me kept thinking it would get better but it became terribly painful and I finally went to Beth about it.  I remember that she was distracted by something else and didn’t take what I was saying seriously.  This was not her usual way.  She was usually over indulgent but she brusquely said: “All right.  Let’s look at it.”  She grabbed my ear clumsily which sent a searing pain through my head and brought instant tears to my eyes.  Poor Beth suddenly realised that it was serious and felt terrible about her cavalier attitude.  We went to see Doctor Moore who said my inner ear had become infected as a result of water getting in.  He prescribed me some drops which cleared the infection up over a few days.

   The liberation of learning to ride a bike meant that I could now occasionally cycle to Homestead which had its good and bad points.  Both Jim and I were in the habit of running to school as our route was all downhill but the negative aspect of this was having to climb hills on the way home and if you had a bike it was worse.  Our home at 10 Seymour Avenue was on the lower slopes of Mount Tamalpais and the town actually consisted of valleys:  Old Mill, Homestead Valley and Tam Valley.  There were steps up from downtown at several locations including one connecting with our road which began down on Miller Avenue at Una Way.

   So riding a bike in Mill Valley was a mixed experience but it was the way most kids got around.  I never did a paper route but had friends who did.  The paper was the Independent Journal, an afternoon daily which covered mostly Marin County news.  The man in charge of the paper routes was Jack Benjamin.  There was a big tree surrounded by a circular wooden casing you could sit on in the middle of Miller just opposite the 2am Club and this was one of the many drop-off points for the I-J delivery boys.  About six guys would arrive after school on their bikes with a big cloth bag sporting an I-J logo.  Once Jack delivered the stacks of newspapers, their first job was to roll each one up into a baton shape and put a rubber band around it.  If it was raining they had to wrap a sheet of waxed paper around it. 

   David Gilliam, an actor colleague of mine in London who also grew up in Mill Valley remembers: “We always used rubber bands but the order of business was to break open the wrapped stacks of papers and then do the insert, which was like the lifestyle section going into the main news section.  We then rolled, banded and placed them in our bag.  We’d sign for the number of papers we had, which we paid for once a month.  Tossing them was an art because you had to figure out the right position for it to land on the doorstep of some funky wooden house on struts below the street.  They were never above you in the canyons.  Either level or below.  When funds got low, you would spend an evening going around collecting subscription money and marking it down in your book.  Not spending before you had to pay Jack was tough.  He carried quite a few of us as we’d skid into arrears, settling the bill with the IJ himself as he would have had to do.  For me, the highlight was gathering all together at that spot opposite the 2am club where we ribbed each other, planned some mischief and bonded as mates. Great fun at fourteen.”

   I would have found a paper route an awful burdon.  Pushing my bike up the hills was not something I ever enjoyed.  There were yellow school buses which we only took to Homestead when it was raining but when I began sixth grade at Alto it was either taking the bus or riding my bike.  

   The fact that Jim and I each had a bike was due to the benevolence of our rich friends back east.  The money for these came from Fred Field and Ruth and Luke Wilson.  Jim recalls a visit we made to pick up my three speed bike from the Montgomery Ward outlet in Mill Valley just on the other side of Miller from Brown’s.  The clerk brought out a big cardboard box saying it “was all ready to assemble.”  Blackie however was having none of that and told the clerk in no uncertain terms that we’d be back in awhile to pick up the bike after he’d assembled it, which he then did.  

   Summer days were a lot of fun in the Mill Valley of my youth.  Swimming, cycling and riding cardboard boxes down the big hill on the Pixie Trail made me and my friends forget our agonies for a brief moment and enjoy the thrill of being alive in a beautiful place.

For anyone doing research on Mill Valley history Natalie Snoyman can be reached at: nsnoyman@cityofmillvalley.org

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On the Hill That is Throckmorton…

On The Hill That Is Throckmorton…

In March of 1958 I was in fifth grade at Homestead School and had my eleventh birthday.  I was still hopelessly in love with Lily Burris who didn’t seem to even know I existed.  Mrs Guichard who taught us was probably the prettiest teacher I’d ever had.  Unlike the other women teachers at Homestead she didn’t practice corporal punishment so there were no ritual spankings in her class.  I wasn’t any better as a student but at least I didn’t dread going to school.

   This was the year that Elvis Presley went into the US Army and I read all about his induction down in Memphis, Tennessee in the Chronicle.  I would skim the news and read it when it interested me.  Then I would turn to the funnies and end up gazing at the pages with the movie ads.  On the day Elvis went into the army the big opening at the United Artists was Run Silent, Run Deep which wouldn’t get to the Sequoia for some time.

   Although I did occasionally go into the city to see monster movies that I felt sure would never play at our local picture house, most of my movie going was done at the Sequoia.  The Sequoia Theatre sat at a level angle on the side of the hill which goes up Throckmorton to Blithedale.  There was an alley way on either side of the building and two small shops which nestled within it.  When I was a kid in the 1950s the one on the upper side nearest Bennett’s Variety Store was Village Music, our local record shop, which was one of my regular hangouts.

   I did an awful lot of hanging out as a child.  I’d spend time at the Bus Depot as well as the library up on Lovell.  The Sequoia was not a place you could hang out but I went there on Friday nights, Saturday afternoons for the matinee and again on Sundays when the movie changed.  At the beginning of March I saw Old Yeller, a Walt Disney film.  Disney was always good at bringing your emotions to the forefront and Old Yeller was no exception to that rule.  This film reminded me of Elvis Presley’s record Old Shep.  The emotional manipulation happened mostly in the editing suite where the shots of bears, raccoons, hogs, cows and canines were all stitched together to help tell the story and evoke a sentimental response from the audience.  

   The Sequoia was a wonderful cinema and I loved going there.  If I hung around any part of it while downtown it would be in the tiled alcove behind the box-office where I would study the posters of  the coming attractions.  Many of the films we watched were rubbish but the ritual of going to the pictures was wonderful.  I loved the red carpet as you entered, the candy counter on the right side of the lobby, the steps up into the auditorium, the previews, the cartoons…the works.

   I wouldn’t begin to know how many westerns I saw there and I recall being particularly fascinated by quicksand in cowboy movies.  Of course I never encountered quicksand in real life and its representation in westerns was often different.  In some films it was a boggy swamp and in others it was actual sand that looked like you could walk on it until it started sucking some poor person under its surface.

   The main excitement of a western was seeing the good guys shoot the bad guys for, in the 1950s, bad guys rarely won.  The films which came out of Hollywood in that era all had to adhere to strong censorship.  Swearing was limited to Damn and Hell and only in pictures intended for adults.  Nothing stronger was ever uttered on screen.  That’s not to say that westerns were tame or timid.  The bad guys who rode into town to challenge Kirk Douglas’s Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral were downright ornery and we felt no pity for Lee Van Cleef when Douglas hurled a knife through his heart.  Kirk’s character got dragged into an alliance with Burt Lancaster’s virtuous Wyatt Earp and the good guys won again.  I actually felt like I knew these movie stars personally as I saw them in so many different films.  I also felt like I knew Elvis Presley as I had such an intimate relationship with his records.  There was an Elvis record called One Sided Love Affair and its lyrics describe perfectly the relationship I had with actors on the big screen and performers on record.  Idolatry was nothing new and human beings had been worshipping the famous forever so my illusion of friendship with the likes of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly was part of a well established pattern of mass marketing.

   At the time of his induction, Elvis held the number one spot in the hit parade with Don’t/I Beg Of You.  I hadn’t yet lost my fascination for Presley but I certainly didn’t buy this single.  In fact this was the year that I stopped buying and collecting singles.  There were reasons why I stopped though I wasn’t conscious of them at the time.  My ex-best friend Glen Pritzker had skipped a grade and was no longer in my class.  Glen and I had always gone to Village Music once a week to pick up a copy of Radio KOBY’s Top 40 sheet from the stack on the counter at the record shop.  Sara Wilcox who ran the shop always welcomed the two of us like valued customers.  There was a sound proof booth where we’d go to listen to the many records Sara played for us.  I don’t remember her ever being too busy to play whatever we wanted to hear. 

   Glen and I both followed the charts as a hobby and noted the weekly fluctuations up or down of records we liked.  The cost of a single was about 75¢ which was a lot of money.  The reality was that I could only buy a single when my mother gave me enough for one which wasn’t often.  Sara’s indulgence of Glen and I was key to my passion for collecting singles.  Most of the stores in Mill Valley at that time regarded unaccompanied children with suspicion and contempt.  Both the five and dime stores which I regularly frequented, Ben Franklin and Bennett’s, were staffed by adults who clearly didn’t like children which is odd considering that most of their stock was candy, bubble gum, toys, trading cards and games. They were always so hostile to kids.  They’d keep a beady eye on you while you browsed in case you stole anything.  At the Bus Depot both Margo and Brun would regularly tell boys reading the comic books to put them down.  So it was a blessing that Sara wasn’t like that at all. 

   Though Glen and I were there once a week, it was maybe once every five or six weeks that we’d actually buy a single.  Many of the records I had to wait for or just hear on the radio.  Once I had a single I would play it at home over and over and sing along with it.  Playing a 45 took me into a special world each time I’d drop the needle down onto the groove of the spinning disk.  But all that activity had occurred when Glen was around and he was no longer here.  I remember buying Tequila by The Champs.  I loved this record and played it over and over but the rest of the hit records I simply heard on Radio KOBY.  Sweet Little Sixteen by Chuck Berry, Get A Job by the Silhouettes, Sugartime by the McGuire Sisters and At The Hop by Danny & The Juniors.  These and countless other tunes I heard enough times on the radio to remember them to this day.

   Rock and roll was not the only music I liked.  I enjoyed all the musicals my parents played like Oklahoma, Porgy and Bess and Finian’s Rainbow.  I also loved Beth’s classical recordings like Scheherezade, Beethoven’s 5th and Schubert’s The Trout.  The attitude of most adults towards rock and roll was pretty snooty and I remember never playing my Elvis records when Blackie or Beth was around.  

   I was by now a committed reader and collector of MAD Magazine and those guys were constantly making fun of Elvis so I kind of took those attitudes in my stride and accepted them as the norm.  I first discovered MAD when I was eight and it was still a comic book.  It’s transition to a black and white magazine mystified me at first and I went a whole year without buying it but then in 1957 I started again and became addicted to its humour and art work.  Though I would never sit down and read a book I would devour each new MAD from cover to cover.  My favourite artist was Wally Wood and I became a lifetime fan of his work.  He illustrated a take-off of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not which Ernie Kovacs wrote called Strangely Believe It! and I loved it.  Wood’s animals were adorable, his women were gorgeous and the details of his military hardware was breathtaking.  His style in the monochrome magazine had evolved in a more photographic way.  Humorist Henry Morgan wrote a piece called 12 Bottles which Wood illustrated brilliantly.  “I had twelve bottles of whiskey in my cellar,” wrote Morgan.  “And my wife told me to empty the contents of each and every bottle down the sink – or else!”  Wood’s black and white pictures of Morgan as he begins emptying the first bottle down the drain with the exception of one glass “Which I drank!”  By the fourth bottle he is so inebriated that Wood shows his face as a blur of two images.  His hallucinations in the background include a tiny spider who grows in size, a bottle with arms and legs and an army of tiny one eyed space people.

   Wallace Wood clearly loved horror movies as much as I did and MAD ran a piece on how horror movies had changed since I Was a Teenage Werewolf had become such a sensation.  It was called ECHH, Teen-Age Son of Thing with a preposterous story but Wood drew all this amazing detail in the background of each box like a child taking a tarantula spider for a walk on a leash and a vulture who kept appearing in different panels.  This was part of the fun of reading MAD, to examine all the little details in the background.

   The other magazine I would be collecting as soon as the second edition was published was Famous Monsters of Filmland which I absolutely loved.  No other magazine gave the time of day to scary movies so to finally have one devoted to them was a rare treat.  My parents had a subscription to The New Yorker which arrived in the post every week and though I never read the text I would go through each issue examining all of the many cartoons.  My favourite cartoonist was Charles Addams who always told a weird or sometimes grisly story in his beautifully illustrated pictures.  My sister Nell always got Screen Stories Magazine which I also enjoyed looking at though, again, never reading the text and one of the films featured turned up soon enough at the Sequoia which was Peyton Place.  When I saw it at the Sequoia it connected with my childhood memories of New England with its distinctive seasons.  The sight of stone pathways surrounded by grass made a particularly strong impression on me when I was about four in Connecticut.  Of course the main subject of Peyton Place was sex, a subject I was slowly coming to terms with.  

   I loved my parents very much but when it came to sex education they short changed me.  I remember talking to my mother while she was in the bathtub one day and she told me things about her naked body.  “This is where the seed goes in,” she said pointing to her vaginal area, “And here is where the baby grows,” indicating her tummy.  She also told me about how her breasts grew and filled with milk when she was pregnant.  Now all of what she told me was true and I’m sure she felt she was explaining the facts of life to me but the bit she left out was the sexual act.  That was something I didn’t get briefed on until I was in the third grade and walking home from school with my neighbour Peter Cowger.  He told me in great detail about copulation between men and women and seemed kind of surprised that I didn’t know about it.  I was silently shocked.  “Beth and Blackie did that?”  I was horrified.  Perhaps if I had gone to Beth there and then she might have soothed me through this trauma but like so many other inner events in my life I said nothing.

   I guess as time passed and I grew older I got more comfortable with the concept of sexual intercourse but that initial explanation was a terrible thunderbolt.  So at least I was able to understand the soap opera that Peyton Place was.  And what a soap opera.  It starred Lana Turner and a host of other famous actors and she actually got nominated for an Oscar for her role but the week after I saw the film at the Sequoia my attention was grabbed by a front page headline in the Chronicle:  Lana’s Daughter Kills Gangster.  Girl Tells Cops Hood Threatened Actress.  Cheryl Crane, Lana’s daughter was booked for the murder of Johnny Stompanato, a well known hoodlum who, it transpired, was Lana Turner’s sometimes violent boyfriend.  The Chronicle was full of gruesome details for days after this and the memory of Peyton Place faded.

   Another film involving sex came next to the Sequoia The Long, Hot Summer starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.  This was a southern drama involving a ‘Big Daddy’ type character played in larger than life style by Orson Welles.  My next viewing was Billy Wilder’s Witness For The Prosecution with Charles Laughton as an English barrister defending Tyrone Power on a murder charge.  Seeing movies like this was engaging and in a peculiar way kind of educational.  The ways of life portrayed were nothing like the town I was growing up in.  All the drama was robust with people confronting each other in ways I was not at all used to.  But then that’s what the Sequoia was there for, to take me to far off places and worlds I had never seen.  I guess I just wasn’t content with Mount Tamalpais, Old Mill Park and life in general in such a beautiful place as Mill Valley.

For anyone doing research on Mill Valley history Natalie Snoyman can be reached at: nsnoyman@cityofmillvalley.org

Amazon USA
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Back To Mill Valley

Back To Mill Valley

It was an early summer evening as my family and I arrived at the Secret Cinema showing of Back To The Future at the Olympic Park here in London.  Our daughter and son were teenagers and were, like my wife, very keen on this movie.  As we entered the compound for the sold out event, we were greeted by an army of young people putting on the most dreadful American accents I had ever heard. 

   “Welcome to Hill Valley,” they said with an exuberance which seemed to have been painted on with a brush. These weren’t just British kids.  They were Polish, Dutch, Latvian, Brazilian and goodness knows how many other nationalities.  My English daughter, Billie, turned to me and said: “Now you know how we feel when we hear Dick Van Dyke doing a cockney accent.”

   Once inside the gates, where we had to prove that we had no food, drink or cameras on our persons, we were able to wander into little houses, supposed to be the homes of the characters in the movie.  The beds inside these houses all had duvets rather than sheets and blankets.  The mock 1955 telephones had buttons rather than dials.

   Walking past a billboard which had featured in the film we got closer to the town square.  It was surrounded by shops to look like the 1955 Hill Valley of the movie.  There was a travel agent, a newspaper office, a barber shop as well as a movie theatre showing Cattle Queen Of Montana with Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan, 

   All these attempts at recreation were interesting to me as someone who had experienced the real thing growing up in Mill Valley in the 1950s and in practically every instance they got the little details wrong.  But then that was also true of the film Back To The Future, however enjoyable it was.  The people who paid good money for this shindig and had dressed up for the occasion were not interested in small town America of 1955.  They were only interested in the movie Back To The Future.

   So this was a re-creation of a re-creation and it sparked off certain memories which I conveyed to my daughter, like the fact that in high school, students were encouraged to make book jackets out of brown paper for each of their textbooks.  We also had a binder with lined paper for doing homework and tabs separating the subjects.  As you set off for school each morning you’d invariably be carrying a book or two as well as the binder but the boys would bear this burden differently from the girls.  They would hook their right or left hand over the books and binder which lent against their hip as they walked to school while the girls would cling the binder and books to their breast.  Of course this detail was overlooked in this European re-creation of a vanished American era. 

   I remember trying to surrender to the movie Grease when I took my English niece to see it in the 1970s but I couldn’t get past the slightly flawed approximation of what high school life was like before the heady clouds of psychedelia changed things forever.  All I could think of was that Ed Byrnes was being Dick Clark and that Summer Nights had the same bassline as Hang On Sloopy and You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.

   The only film which, in my opinion, succeeded in recreating that era was American Graffiti, directed by George Lucas.  Every character in that lovingly realised movie was almost exactly like someone I knew from my days at Tam High, including myself.  George Lucas was older than me and knew that way of life whereas Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis who wrote Back To The Future were three and two years old during 1955 so they really had no actual experience of teenage life at that time.

   Of course Hollywood movies have always taken huge liberties with history, particularly when it interferes with a good story.  The idea of Biff, the movie’s villain, storming into the soda fountain to loudly demand that McFly should do his homework for him was patently ridiculous but it served the story.  The sight of a young man in Biff’s entourage wearing 3-D comic book glasses was equally ridiculous as that particular craze had vanished by 1955.  Those glasses were only utilised for reading the comics and never as sartorial accessories.  But that’s a historical detail.  The glasses looked good on Biff’s colleague though it should be remembered that they were capable of giving people terrible headaches.

On the left how the 3-D glasses were portrayed in BTTF-on the right kids reading 3-D comics.

   I particularly liked Christopher Lloyd being puzzled by Michael J. Fox’s use of the word ‘heavy.’ 

   “Sounds pretty heavy,” says Marty.

   “Weight has nothing to do with it,” replies the Doc.

   With American Graffitti I do believe that Lucas, whose idea it was, set out to recreate a small town high school reality before the sociological changes which occurred in the middle 1960s.  The most significant of these changes was the emergence of marijuana.

   Early in my senior year at Tam I accidentally stumbled onto the fact that a few of my friends had become heads and were smoking weed.  I was immediately terrified by this new reality but was drawn towards it nonetheless.  Phrases like turning on, paranoid, matchbox and getting stoned danced through their conversations punctuated by a tedious repetition of the word man.

   “Oh man, I went to Sausalito to score a matchbox, man, and wound up getting really stoned.”

   The interesting thing about this discreet underground phenomenon was that it straddled the social classes.  Well heeled white kids from Mill Valley wanting to score their dope were mixing with hard guys who hung out at C’s Drive-In, black kids from Marin City and beatnik types from Sausalito. 

   It didn’t take long for this activity to cross the radar of the Federal Narcotics Bureau and an undercover agent, who drove a flashy red GTO, began hanging out at C’s and befriending the relevant people. 

   Only weeks before my graduation in 1965 a huge raid was carried out in Marin County on a Saturday night and I remember being shocked to see a photo of a kid we all knew from Sausalito on the front page of the Sunday Chronicle as he was being arrested at the Fireside Motel.  The raid was almost certainly meant to deter people from smoking weed but this well publicised roundup had the exact opposite effect.

The front page of the Chronicle just before my graduation in 1965.

   Two days after I graduated from Tam High I was on a Norwegian tanker sailing across the Pacific, working as a mess boy.  I didn’t return to Mill Valley until the following September and the high school I had only recently graduated from was totally unrecognisable.

   What had been a secret subterranean scene had erupted into a way of life and it looked like practically all the students at Tam were smoking weed.  All the young men had long hair and the young women wore serapes and beads.  This seemed to change forever the way of life I had grown up in….all of it kind of melted away like ice cream and it would never be the same again.

   American Graffitti was set in 1962 and it captured in look, dialogue and style a pretty solid approximation of teenage high school life as we had known it.  Something good was bitchin’ and the ridiculous ritual of cruising on 4th Street in San Rafael was, for many of us, a regular weekend activity.

Cruising 4th Street in American Graffiti.

   Lucas in his first draft script seems to have invented the main four male characters but it was the writing team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz who made them and their female counterparts flesh and blood. 

   George Lucas and his new bride Marcia had  moved into a rented house in Mill Valley in 1969, the same year I left for England.  It was here that he did all the work on his first feature film THX 1138, which I saw in London.  In fact I went to all the movies which came out of Hollywood in the early 1970s in London.  I was living in a completely different culture but I maintained my connection to things American by reading Rolling Stone magazine and going to the movies.

   Lucas’s producer on American Graffitti was Francis Ford Coppola who soon bought a house in Mill Valley, compounding a series of events which changed the sleepy little town we grew up in to become the place satirised by Cyra McFadden in her hilarious 1977 book The Serial.

   Watching the film at the ABC Holloway Road, I immediately recognised 4th Street.  The sign for JC Penny and the unmistakable shape of the Rafael Theatre in the distance was too familiar for me to miss.  I learned later that my old classmate Tad Alvord had sold the production the police vehicle which had its rear axle ripped out.  Tad had been running his successful towing business in San Rafael for some time.  “We always had a dozen or so vehicles for sale, these being unclaimed impounded cars,” he told me.  “One day Bob Hamilton, an auto mechanic from Ignacio, walked in and said he wanted to buy a black 1961 Ford Galaxie four door sedan.”  Tad tried to offer him other cars but he was adamant and agreed to pay the asking price.  When he told Tad what it was for he wound up hiring my classmate to do all the towing of the various classic vehicles on the night shoots and to help engineer the shot with the cop car which happily they got in one take.

The famous scene with the cop car engineered by my classmate Tad Alvord. Note the film title on the marquee: Dementia 13, the first movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

   All the characters in this movie seemed so familiar to me.  The hard guy played by Paul Le Mat was a synthesis of so many who had hung out at C’s. Bob Tomei, Bunky Robertson, Bob Compagna and many more could easily have been this guy with his greased back hair, white T-shirt and a pack of camels rolled up in one sleeve. 

   Ron Howard played what we would have described as a rah rah.  He was going steady with Cindy Williams’ Laurie, the sister of Curt who was Richard Dreyfuss.  The dance they attended was shot in the girls’ gym at Tam High School. Another important character was the ‘dork’ Terry played by Charles Martin Smith.  I never visited Mel’s Drive-In in the city so I don’t know if the car hops really delivered the burgers on roller skates but I certainly never saw any at the A&W in San Rafael.

   The actress Kathleen Quinlan was a student of our English and drama teacher Dan Caldwell who strongly recommended her to Fred Roos, the casting director for American Graffiti. 

   Movies are a contrivance but this one appealed to me because it rang so true in the small particulars and the cherry on top was the appearance of Wolfman Jack as the disk jockey heard throughout and finally seen at the end.  The advertising art was by Mort Drucker, a favourite artist of mine from MAD Magazine.

   Of course I was in London when American Graffiti came out but back in the bay area I had always read the reviews by Paine Knickerbocker and John Wasserman in the Chronicle.  For some reason neither of these two reviewed Graffiti.  Instead it was left to Anitra Earle who panned it, describing it as: “The most tedious film I have ever seen.”

   But for me this movie will stand for years to come as an accurate picture of small town teenage life before Kennedy was assassinated, the Beatles invaded the American charts, the Vietnam War divided the nation and drugs ravaged the youth of America. 

   It was also very funny, touching and seemed to be the launching pad for several lasting movie careers.  I wonder what my daughter would make of it.

I must thank Tad Alvord for sharing his story of working on American Graffiti.  I must also thank Laurent Bouzereau who directed the film The Making of American Graffiti which was a very helpful source. Other books were also useful: Skywalking; The Life and Films of Geoge Lucas by Dale Pollock; George Lucas-A Biography by John Baxter: George Lucas-The Creative Impulse by Charles Champlin.

For anyone doing research on Mill Valley history Natalie Snoyman can be reached at: nsnoyman@cityofmillvalley.org

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Bond At The Bus Depot

Photo of Jared Dreyfus from Pai 1963. Photo of Bus Depot courtesy of the Lucretia Little History Room, Mill Valley Public Library

Bond At The Bus Depot

When Jared Dreyfus and I were both at Tam High and he was aware of my professed desire to stop smoking cigarettes, he decided to assist me.  This assistance manifested itself during a morning break. 

   In order to smoke at Tam, you had to walk just outside the gate of the back parking lot opposite The Canteen.  As I passed through that gate I took the pack of Chesterfields out of my shirt pocket and gently tapped it, causing a few cigarettes to protrude.  Pulling one out, I then proceeded to gently hammer the end of it on my other hand to concentrate the tobacco so it wouldn’t come apart in my mouth.  I then put that end between my lips, pulled out a book of matches and lit it. 

   “Myers!” a shrill male voice shouted from a short distance away. “What are you doing?”  It was Jared and he approached me in a relentless manner.

   “Put that cigarette out,” he commanded. 

   I dropped the cigarette onto the ground and rubbed it out with my shoe.

   “Now give me the pack.”

   I gave him the Chesterfields.  He pulled a cigarette out of the pack and handed it to me.

   “Eat it,” he said.

   I don’t remember arguing with him.  I put the cigarette into my mouth and bit into it.  The appalling sensation was immediate.  My mouth burned as I chewed on the tobacco leaves wrapped inside the paper. 

   “All of it,” said Jared. 

   Into my mouth went the other half of the cigarette.  By now Jar had an audience of two or three of his classmates watching this spectacle and laughing heartily but he managed to remain poker faced.  After what was probably less than a minute he said I could spit it out.

   “From now on,” he pronounced, “Whenever I see you smoking a cigarette, you’re going to have to eat it.”

   Interestingly I have no further memories along this line.  I did smoke, on and off throughout high school and no repetition of this incident ever occurred nor was it ever mentioned, except by me.  Jared was someone I looked up to and the thought of telling him to stick it up his backside never even occurred to me. Something I didn’t know in my teenage years was that Jar, being the youngest of three boys, was bullied by his brother Tim and that I, without knowing it, was playing the role of surrogate younger brother for him.  That was a detail he didn’t mention until many years later.

   Unlike the Myers family the Dreyfus family had money.  Barney Dreyfus was a prominent civil rights lawyer whose clients included Martin Luther King and his wife Babbie was someone who played the stock market successfully.  So when Jar passed his driving test at sixteen he was given a car and it was a silver Austin Healey convertible, a highly exotic vehicle for an American teenager to own.

   Jared was two years older than me and within the age related social hierarchy of Mill Valley, at this time, it was only our family connection which made us friends.  There was the shared experience of political persecution which plagued all my family’s friends so it could be said that our bonds were deep.  These bonds, however, did not stop Jar treating me like a second class citizen when it suited him.  Going for a ride in his Austin Healey was always a fabulous experience.  The smell of the leather seats, the very British dashboard and the wind in your hair as it raced around Mill Valley with the top down made every ride fantastic.   But fantastic as every ride was it always ended with him screeching to a halt at some pre-determined spot and saying: “Okay Myers.  Out!”  He always had someplace better to go.  As his silver Austin Healey sped off down East Blithedale, I’d be left standing on the sidewalk feeling unimportant.

   It’s probably the case that I didn’t know how to use my time properly as boredom was a regular phenomenon in my life.  Perhaps if I’d been a book reader this might not have been the case.  The aversion I had to reading books as a kid was pretty comprehensive but there were a few exceptions along the way which mostly occurred while I was in high school.

   In the early 1960s Jared had the job at the Bus Depot which I would later inherit from him.  It involved working behind the counter selling bus tickets, books, magazines, cigarettes and candy bars as well as stocking the shelves, sweeping up and keeping the place in order.  Whenever you sold a Greyhound bus ticket you had to put it between the jaws of this large stamping device which you’d then bang on the top with your fist, thus validating it. 

   When Jar first worked there it gave me another excuse to hang around the place.  I had, after all, been hanging around the Bus Depot ever since I was old enough to go downtown by myself.  It was where I bought all my comic books and read the ones I didn’t buy.

   Jar, like my sister Nell, was an avid reader of books unlike me who wouldn’t read anything without pictures attached.  He read culturally highbrow material with the same enthusiasm that he devoured pulp fiction and his current passion at this time were the James Bond books by Ian Fleming. 

   Bond was, in Jar’s opinion, the epitome of cool.  He told me in great detail about the guy: the handmade cigarettes he smoked with three golden rings on the paper, the vodka martini shaken not stirred, the double-O prefix which meant he was licenced to kill.  Jared had read all the Bond books which had been published.   At this time author Ian Fleming was still churning them out annually and his output had become a worldwide publishing sensation.  President Kennedy was one of his biggest fans.  Signet had published all the books with a uniform design for the covers.  In the Bus Depot stood a specially designed display case for all the Bond paperbacks. 

   At this stage Jar did not know of my aversion to book reading and it was not something I was proud of.  I would love to have been thought of as well read but I simply wasn’t.  I was, however, fairly intelligent, articulate and more than capable of debating things political and artistic so my guess is that he mistook me for well read and insisted I read a Bond book.  As Jar was a hero figure in my life, I was not about to disappoint him so I purchased a copy of Dr. No, the title he suggested to start me off.

   It certainly was not dull though I couldn’t help but notice Ian Fleming’s tendency towards subtle racism and misogyny.  He seemed to delight in designing elaborate torture sequences and giving the reader a physically realistic account of his hero’s survival of these scenarios.    

   How exactly Bond knew it was a centipede crawling up his naked body in the Jamaican hotel room in the dead of night was a mystery to me.  It was an evaluation he made entirely from the physical sensation of the creature’s many legs as it moved slowly up onto his thigh.  Once he’d decided that was what it was, he ran through the risks based on information he had, at some point taken into his consciousness.  It was details like this which Fleming excelled at.  There was a particularly gruesome encounter which Bond had later in the book with a giant squid and again the hero summoned up vital information about the beast in an almost academic way which was a pretty neat trick considering the squid was about to devour him.  As the massive tentacles weaved their way out of the swirling depths, he clung to a meshed fence and ran what he knew about the giant squid through his fevered mind.  A fifty foot monster with two long seizing tentacles and ten holding ones.  It had a huge blunt beak beneath eyes that worked on the camera principle, like a human’s.  Their brains were efficient and they could shoot backwards through the water at thirty knots, by jet-propulsion.  Naturally Mister Bond defeated the giant squid but not before Fleming took us to the precipice of his demise.  One could almost feel the pain of each of the tentacle’s suckers as they slapped onto his exposed flesh and exerted a super human strength around his limbs.  The suspense was killing and the author spared us no detail of the battle which was literally life or death.

    Dreyfus had dictated a reading list and I went on to From Russia With Love next and again found the same dynamic in his fight with Nash, the blonde haired agent of SMERSH.  Nash told Bond he was going to shoot him through the heart as the train entered the tunnel, but our hero managed to sandwich his cigarette case and a book between his heart and the gun at the moment of impact.  Then, playing dead on the floor, Bond desperately tried to remember simple anatomy.  Where did the main artery run in the lower body of a man?  The Femoral.  Down the inside of the thigh.  His next challenge was to release the flat-bladed throwing knife from his attaché case which was only millimetres from his right hand.  The first violent stab of the knife had to be decisive.  And decisive it was but not before Fleming had taken us through every tiny detail of Bond’s lethal ordeal right up to Nash’s body finally relaxing once the ten pints of blood had drained from his body.

   Goldfinger was the third book I read and interestingly these were the first three Bond films in that order.  I saw the film Dr. No at the Sequoia and loved it.  The actor Sean Connery was so cool that he immediately became the character of Bond in my mind.  I found myself imitating the way Connery held his upper lip and came away from the Sequoia quoting lines like:  “That’s a Smith & Wesson Mister Dent.  You’ve had your six.”

   I never read another Fleming book until years later and when I finally told Jared about my childhood book phobia he was amazed.  It was after I’d read John Steinbeck’s East Of Eden on a long holiday and Jared told me how he envied me the joy of discovering all the great books in the world.  But a childhood full of comic books had made me a painfully slow reader.

   So it was watching Sean Connery’s Bond on the silver screen for me and I loved those first three Bond movies.  The music was wonderful.  Monty Norman scored Dr No and wrote the famous electric guitar Bond theme but was replaced by composer John Barry for the subsequent films.  The fourth movie, Thunderball, got on my nerves as it seemed to be all gadgets and wise cracks so I lost interest in Bond movies.  I missed out on Roger Moore and all those other guys.  When Sean Connery came back in Diamonds Are Forever I went and enjoyed it.

   Jared is no longer with us.  He died suddenly of a heart attack in 2011 and I never did get around to discussing James Bond with him again.  I would always see him on my occasional visits back to Marin and we corresponded regularly by email.  His death left a big hole in my life as it did for so many others who knew and loved him.  It was a very packed church in Sebastapol that saw him off.  Many tears were shed as sons Adam and Christian made moving tributes to their ‘Pop’.  My brother Jim was there and I saw people I hadn’t laid eyes on since my time at Tam High like Renato Sottile, Jon Diederich and Rodney Krieger.

   Jar had been married three times and his wives, Val, Prudence and Genie were all in attendance.  When his ashes were interred at the Dreyfus family plot in San Rafael a few days later I joined daughter Kate, son Christian and wife Genie as we all shed more tears for someone we still miss. 

I must also thank Natalie Snoyman at the Mill Valley Library for research details.  For anyone doing research on Mill Valley history she can be reached at: nsnoyman@cityofmillvalley.org

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The Cultural Life of Mill Valley

The Cultural Life of Mill Valley

We Myers kids were all very different personalities.  I collected comic books and pop records and could fly into a furious rage at the drop of a pin.  My brother Jim collected baseball cards and rarely lost his temper.  My sister Kate collected trading cards and was also mild mannered.  My oldest sister Nell and I were the temperamental two of the four Myers kids.  Katie and Jimmy were much more level headed and less prone to displays of anger.

   Nell was a passionate reader.  Most days she could be found with a book in one hand and an apple in the other.  Her book collection included Nancy Drew mysteries, the OZ books, Mary Poppins and many more titles she regularly worked her way through. 

Nellie was always reading a book…

   When my family was on the last leg of our journey across the United States in 1952, we made a stop at the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  I think it was the first time I had ever heard my mother Beth get cross.  While we all walked to the edge of the parking lot to gaze down at the spectacular canyon below, my sister Nell stayed in the car with her nose in a book.  Beth blew her top.  “Nellie Myers you get out of that car right now and come look at this!”  Holding the open book in one hand, Nellie walked obediently over to the edge of the car park and gazed down at the wonder below.  She looked to the left and then to the right.  She nodded her head as if to say: “is that enough?”   She then walked back to the car and continued reading.

    Because Nell was so good at occupying herself with reading it was a great temptation for me to sneak up behind and give her a fright which would scare the daylights out of her.  It was the repetition of such activities which caused her to angrily describe me as “Napoleon, Hitler and Mussolini rolled up into one.”

   Because Nellie and Katie were older than Jimmy and I they were able to take trips into the city to see shows like Porgy And Bess or South Pacific at the Curran and Geary Theatres.  Both these theatres put on touring productions of Broadway shows.  On one such outing they went to see the MGM movie of Julius Caesar at the Stage Door.   Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz it featured a glittering combination of British and American actors.  Marlon Brando, James Mason and John Gielgud were just three of the big names in this film and Louis Calhearn played Caesar.        

   Taking a trip into the city to see a show or a movie was always an exciting event for those of us who grew up north of the Golden Gate Bridge.  First there was the journey by Greyhound bus out of Mill Valley.  Nell and Kate would have caught it at the Una Way stop on Miller and once on the other side of the Golden Gate the bus would make its way to the Greyhound Depot at Market and 7th pulling into the Mill Valley bay.

   Market Street itself had all the glamour bestowed upon it by the presence of the big movie theatres like the Fox and the Paramount.  But beneath this glossy veneer lay a slightly grubby reality.  Exhaust fumes mingled with the smell of hot dogs and candy apples and the traffic was thick with vehicles and pedestrians.  It was seedy.  I didn’t really discover the dark thrill of taking the bus to Market Street until 1957 when I was ten, but Nell and Kate had made several of these trips by then. 

   Seeing this movie inspired Nell to read Shakespeare’s play which she really enjoyed.  The first person Nellie talked to about how the film had impressed her was her classmate Shelly Bode whose father taught English and literature at Tam High.  Between the two of them they thought of getting together a group of other girls at Old Mill School and doing a production of their own.

   In the film Nell was fascinated by the interplay between Brutus and Cassius.  She found James Mason’s Brutus to be a deeply troubled character and discussed him at length with our mother Beth.  Our mom pointed out that Brutus became embroiled in the assassination plot because he wanted to preserve Rome as a republic in the face of Caesar’s ambition to become emperor and dictator. 

   Nellie was a sixth grader at Old Mill and Katie was in the fourth grade.  Nellie’s memory is that she was determined from the start that Katie should play Brutus.  Katie, however, is of the opinion that she was cast only out of sisterly loyalty.   

   At this time Katie was good friends with Daphne Strawbridge, also in the fourth grade, and both became involved in the plans.  Daphne’s parents, Gordon and Nancy ran the stationery shop Strawbridge’s on Litton Square in downtown Mill Valley.  Nellie is pretty sure that there were one or two fifth graders but the bulk of the cast were in the sixth grade.

   Shelly Bode’s father provided them with the script, an abridged-for-schools-and-young-actors text which is what they used.  Before going any further they spoke to their teacher, Mrs Tresnon, and to the other sixth-grade teacher Mrs Hildebrand.  Discussions were had with Shelly’s parents as well as Blackie and Beth and ultimately the school authorities agreed that the girls could proceed with the play.  They considered their cultural and historic interest to be a ‘good thing’ and wanted to channel their enthusiasm to best effect.  Permission was granted for rehearsal space and time was allocated.

   The character Nell wanted to play was Cassius.  John Gielgud’s performance in the movie had made a strong impression on her.  Shelly Bode went for Marc Antony so the two friends took opposite sides in this great drama.  Most of the after school rehearsals happened in the Old Mill auditorium though it was never clear where the ultimate performance would occur.  Nellie thinks it was someone at the school who invited Irene Pritzker to come in and cast her semi-professional eye over the proceedings.

   Quite a few people in Mill Valley were active in the amateur dramatic scene but Mrs Pritzker was definitely a leading light.  Her son Glen was to become one of my best friends at Homestead School and he had a younger sister, Robin.

   Another active participant in this scene was Alex Call’s father Hughes, a guiding star in the Mill Valley Light Opera Company which specialised in productions of Gilbert & Sullivan among other musical delights.

   Alex was in my brother Jim’s class at Homestead and their house overlooked the school playground.  Both his parents, Hughes and Volinda had developed a passion for G&S back east while studying at Harvard and Vasser.

   Alex describes their home at 315 Montford as the company’s club house: “where stage props were built and painted, costumes created by the famous ‘seamstresses’ who met over sherry every Monday noon.  Lots of rehearsing around the two grand pianos that fitted back to back in the living room.  Plenty of highballs and other cocktails as well.  It was a lively crew.”

   I went with my parents to their production of Trial By Jury at Brown’s Hall but found it not to my taste.  It did not connect with my sensibilities in the slightest and I have spent the majority of my lifetime harbouring a prejudice against the music of G&S.  It’s only during the past few years that my wife Clare has helped break down that barrier by exposing me to their work in a British historical context.  She directed a production of Pirates of Penzance which began my change of opinion.  Once I actually listened to their words and music I became enamoured.  They were sophisticated and witty and at the time the shows were conceived, they were highly political.

   So here in Mill Valley was an enthusiastic and talented group putting on these very British shows from the turn of the century.  Hughes Call ran the business side of the company as well as playing leading roles and singing baritone.

   “Their cast parties at our house were legendary,” says Alex Call.  “Well over a hundred revellers poured themselves through a long night, dressed to the nines.  Men in suits and women in cocktail dresses.  In the morning there would be all-nighters crashed on the various couches, glasses everywhere, many with cigarette butts in them.  We kids had to go to bed by eight or nine, but I heard them laughing and singing into the wee hours.  No one threw a party like Hughes Call!”

   And somewhere within this group of hard drinking performers was Irene Pritzker who now was invited by somebody to step in to help my sister Nell with her production of Julius Caesar.

   Up until the involvement of Mrs Pritzker the direction was handled by Nellie and Shelly Bode and my sister recalls that it all went pretty smoothly.  But once Irene came in she took control of the rehearsals and Nellie found this to be challenging.  Irene was a very forthright person and could be more than a bit bossy.  I found this when I was in one of Mrs Pritzker’s productions a few years later.  For several years she ran a highly successful Junior Theatre in Mill Valley and always got the very best out of her young thespians.

   In addition Mrs Pritzker was a skilled publicist and the girls wound up with their photos in the Mill Valley Record and the Independent Journal for the two sold out performances at the Outdoor Art Club which raised money for Guide Dogs For The Blind.  

   Though she wasn’t entirely happy with Irene Pritzker’s involvement Nellie was also a bit intimidated by her and so just kept her head down and got on with it.  One thing did however become a bone of contention.  Irene felt that Brutus was the villain of the piece and this ran contrary to Nell’s opinion.  This upset my sister greatly and she complained to Beth about it.  She remembers our mother having a long telephone conversation with Irene on the subject.

   Katie, however, who was playing Brutus, doesn’t recall any controversy and considered her sister to be still running the show.  Both performances were packed and received critical acclaim.  There was only one boy in the cast: Roger Strawbridge, Daphne’s brother.  It was a highly original theatrical experience which pleased the participants and audiences equally.  I went as a seven year old with my parents and brother Jim but the only thing I remember about it is how impressive the costumes were.  The Roman robes had been made from sheets and they looked fantastic.

   It would have made sense for a follow-up production to be mounted but the fact that Nell and Shelly Bode were going off to junior high at Alto the following year meant they would no longer be at Old Mill. 

   Mrs Pritzker’s daughter Robin remembers: “My mom ran a pretty darn good junior theatre program every summer.  Somehow she re-wrote Gilbert and Sullivan for kids and pulled it off.  She coordinated it all.  Scripts, costumes, music and publicity.  I think almost every kid in Mill Valley was in a production.”

   The cultural life of Mill Valley in the 1950s and 60s was enriched by these amateur dramatic productions, be it my sister Nell’s staging of events in ancient Rome or the Mill Valley Light Opera Company’s production of Iolanthe in Mead Theatre.  They brought the community together.  Nancy Strawbridge organised ticket sales, Mitch Howie’s mother Bettie helped with publicity and played flute in the orchestra.  Everybody pitched in and the likes of Irene Pritzker and Hughes Call were the ones who organised it all.  Perhaps a statue or two is in order?

I must thank those people who kindly helped with information: Alex Call, Robin Pritzker, Nell Myers,  Kate Thornton, Ernie Bergman, Hollis Hite Bewley, Mitch Howie, Steve Tollestrup, Roger Strawbridge.

I must also thank Natalie Snoyman at the Mill Valley Library for research details.  For anyone doing research on Mill Valley history she can be reached at: nsnoyman@cityofmillvalley.org

Amazon USA
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Dan Caldwell Directs ‘The Crucible’

Dan Caldwell Directs ‘The Crucible.’

During my sophomore year at Tam I took two classes which pulled me in opposite directions: journalism with Miss Rogers and English and drama with Mr Caldwell.  

   Miss Rogers was a short good looking dark haired woman somewhere between 30 and 40 who had a very brusque manner particularly with a mouthy wise guy like myself.  She always regarded me as someone who was constantly out of order but what she taught me I have never forgotten.  Her number one rule was that we had to start each article with a good leader.  This meant that your first paragraph had to summarise what the piece was about.

   Her classroom was up some stairs in the highly industrial building which also housed the print shop above, the music department next door and some other kind of shop down on the ground floor.  There were several ‘shop’ classes at Tam but the only one I ever took was a semester of print shop where the school newspaper, The Tamalpais News was produced.  Down in Miss Rogers’s class I contributed regularly to the paper, writing reviews of films and drawing cartoons.  Miss Rogers seemed to live and breathe journalism but also taught straight forward English.  I was at this time also taking English but from a different teacher.  

   Mr Caldwell was my English teacher in possibly the biggest room in Wood Hall for it had a theatrical stage at one end.  Dan Caldwell was a tall good looking man with a healthy head of dark hair.  He was an actor and had stepped back from a professional career to teach instead.  He would tell us that if you wanted to be an actor you mustn’t cut your hair as you never knew when you would need it longer.  This was well before the Beatles invaded our shores and long hair on men was definitely not the fashion.  Quite the contrary.  Greasers wore their hair long on top in a pompadour but the vast majority of young men at Tam High had very short haircuts.

   This was Dan Caldwell’s first term at Tam and there was always a big theatrical production presented in Ruby Scott auditorium.  Usually it was a musical organised by Robert Greenwood who ran the music department.  The big show the previous year had been Carousel but Mr Caldwell wanted to do a drama and chose The Crucible by Arthur Miller which was a controversial choice.

   Though this play was set in Salem, Massachusetts during the famous witch trials of the 1690s, it clearly was also about the McCarthy witch hunts of the early 1950s.  When Arthur Miller first drove from New York up to Salem to begin his research for The Crucible, he stopped off at director Elia Kazan’s house.  The famous director had asked him to visit as they needed to talk.  By this time Kazan had decided to be a ‘friendly’ witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  He wanted to discuss it with his colleague Miller.  He laid out the fact that Spyros Skouras, then head of 20th Century Fox, had told him his career in movies was over if he didn’t cooperate with the Committee.  Miller found this exchange chilling as he was hearing for the first time that his friend and mentor was going to betray his colleagues and name names.  A cold silence descended on the two men bringing their meeting to a conclusion.  As Miller got into his car to leave, Kazan’s wife Molly came out to make a case for her husband’s decision.  When Miller told her that he was on his way to Salem to do research for a possible play she instantly understood his intention and became angry that he should be making such a comparison.

   So this play was politically controversial as by 1963 there was still a functioning blacklist in American media.  The reason that both Bob Dylan and Joan Baez refused to appear on network television during this time was because ABC, NBC and CBS all refused to allow blacklisted folk singer Pete Seeger to appear on air.  The blacklist was still a powerful reality, certainly in Hollywood.

   Francis Hamit who eventually played Judge Danforth in The Crucible had also worked in the stage management teams behind all the major theatrical productions at Tam since 1960 including Mr Greenwood’s Carousel.  So he was an early recruit to head up Dan Caldwell’s team.

   When asked how good he was, Francis replied: “I was a teenager managing other teenagers.  Herding them was like herding cats, so I was a bit of a screamer.  I feel some regret about that but no one else wanted the job and I was making it up as I went along.”  Assisting Francis on stage management was Michael Thomsett who also played the role of Giles Corey.

   Auditions took place in Mr Caldwell’s room in Wood Hall and I have no memory of auditioning at all but I wound up playing the small role of Francis Nurse, an elderly fellow with very few lines.  Stanislavski’s phrase: “There are no small parts, only small actors,” was not known to me at this time and I’m not sure it would have comforted me as I was most definitely a physically small actor.

   The play began with Salem’s minister the Reverend Parris nursing his motionless ten year old daughter Betty after finding her dancing naked in the forest at night with other girls.  With rumours of witchcraft flying through Salem, Parris felt particularly vulnerable as his niece, Abigail Williams was the naked girls’ ring leader.  He summons the Reverend Hale, an expert on witchcraft to investigate.  Abigail manipulates the girls who danced in the forest and before long is making accusations which lead to people being arrested and tried for witchcraft.  The penalty was death by hanging.  My character, Francis Nurse and Giles Corey were both elderly men whose wives were arrested and they came to the court trying to be heard in defence of their loved ones. 

   The main protagonist was John Proctor whose wife Elizabeth was soon accused and high drama followed.  Dan Caldwell cast the main parts very well and all his actors gave strong performances.  Proctor was played by Robert Young, Reverend Parris by Biff Younger, Reverend Hale by Alan Hayakawa and Thomas Putnam by Peter Liederman.  

   The major female roles were all double cast and again the performances were committed:  Elizabeth Proctor was played by Laurette Matson and Jan Overturf; Abigail by Linda Arbuthnot and Valerie Wright; Mary Warren by Jill Cogswell and Debbie Ross.  The role of Giles Corey was doubled by Sibley Cogswell and Mike Thomsett and Judge Hathorne was played by Guy Howard.  Margo Margolis played my character’s wife Rebecca Nurse. 

   Mr Caldwell tried to bring something of a professional atmosphere to this production and had good support from Francis Hamit’s stage team.  “We had an absolute no talking rule for people who were not on stage,” said Hamit.  “The crew used hand signs.  Now Dan was a pretty good actor and if faking anger helped get the job done, he would use it.”

   Jill Cogswell, (now Yasmin Spiegel) who played Mary Warren, remembers one rehearsal when Dan organised a seance:  “to get in the mood of creepy possession, complete with red lights.  I remember finally overcoming my shyness at letting her rip screaming.  By actually going there it opened the door for performances that had authenticity and were pretty hair raising for the audience.  We respected ourselves as actors, which enabled even the newest performer to put in a competent performance.”

   As an actor I was pretty terrible and perhaps had I been present at Jill’s seance my performance as Francis Nurse might have had more life in it.  I didn’t come out of myself which is something a thespian must do to physically inhabit their character.  As Francis Nurse I sat in the courtroom with Giles Corey and recited my lines competently and tried to move like an old man.  They sprayed silver on my hair.  For some reason my role was not double cast so I worked with both the actors playing Giles and found that Sib Cogswell was slightly more convincing than Mike Thomsett.  Mike remembers:  “Giles Corey was an outspoken, nasty, opinionated 84 year old man, and it was difficult to capture that as a 15 year old freshman, but we all did our best.”

   Jill Cogswell and Mike went on to do many more plays with Dan Caldwell.  After he died, Jill delivered a eulogy when the Marin Shakespeare Company celebrated his life.  “He was always giving us classic plays to perform,” she said.  “And he demanded that we develop discipline and devotion to the art and craft of the theatre. The Crucible was a good example of his rigorous choice of subject matter and demand for everyone to act as an ensemble.”

   The play also had very raw dialogue which Dan Caldwell was determined not to change or water down.  As he had given up a good acting career to become a teacher at his first wife’s insistence, some felt that his taking such a strong line by not cutting any of the gritty dialogue was risky.  He received a lot of heat from the PTA and the parents of one of his female actors took great exception to their daughter being called a “whore” on the stage.  Francis Hamit thinks it’s possible he took the risk in the hope that he might get fired.

   After Dan’s death Francis spoke to Mr Greenwood at a reunion and he said that Caldwell was very frustrated at having to give up his acting career and that it took about five years for him to settle down and finally accept his fate.

   Hamit’s observation that managing teenagers was like herding cats did mean that tempers sometimes got very short in rehearsals.  More than a few of Dan Caldwell’s actors say that he had a tendency to throw tantrums.  Hamit however defends him with vigour citing his artistic integrity in not cutting controversial lines to please the squeamish.

   The play was, as I recall, a great success.  One element of that success was the magnificent poster designed by Tad Alvord.  Tad was an art student in Mr Boussey’s class and did a fine piece of work.  I haven’t seen it in all these years but have a clear memory of admiring it.

   Now you may recall that I was also a journalism student with Miss Rogers and she seemed to think that I was in a good position to write a review of the production.  The fact that I was in the cast and might not be impartial never seemed to cross her mind.  So I asked her how critical I should be.  I seemed to bring out the impatient side of Miss Rogers.  She looked at me as if she was telling me something for the hundredth time and said I should write my honest opinion.  Well that wasn’t difficult as Mr Caldwell had directed a magnificent production with some very powerful performances.  So I wrote a glowing review, but in listing the cast members when I got to Giles Corey I said that Sib’s performance was slightly better than Mike’s.  My review was printed on the front page of the paper along with a photo from rehearsals.

   I then had an uncomfortable meeting with Dan behind the curtain on the stage in his classroom.  “John why did you write that about Mike?”  He asked.  “He’s very upset.”  I was tongue tied.  Professional journalists quickly develop a thick skin and this experience showed that I had no such buffer in my psychological makeup.  I left Mr Caldwell’s room feeling ashamed of myself and when I saw Mike Thomsett he wouldn’t even look at me.  I felt wretched.  I felt like Walter Winchell.

   I had no further experience of the drama department for the rest of my time at Tam.  When I came across Mike Thomsett on Facebook I got in touch and we became FB friends.  He could barely remember the review I wrote.

   “The review you mentioned clearly remains on your mind, but I had long forgotten about it.  There are no hard feelings remembered.  High school was a period in which we all made mistakes we regret to this day, but more important than my forgiving you, is that you forgive yourself.  The statute of limitations expired long ago!”

   I’ll bet Walter Winchell never got a letter like that.

I must thank several people whose contributions were most valuable in putting this piece together:  Francis Hamit, Michael Thomsett, Yasmin Spiegel (aka Jill Cogswell), Alan Hayakawa, Tad Alvord, Bob Reichmuth, Margo Margolis, Robert Cogswell, David Gilliam and Shannon Pixley Sheppard.  The information about Arthur Miller writing the play came from his book Timebends: A Life.

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The Promises On Cereal Packets

The Promises On Cereal Packets

To stare at the back of a cereal packet when I was a kid was like having a portal to other worlds where my imagination could run wild.  Whilst munching my Cheerios, Post Toasties or Rice Crispies, I would gaze endlessly at some full colour landscape of tremendous beauty to my seven year old sensibility.  It might be a prehistoric jungle scene with mossy vines and giant ferns or the majestic rock formations of Monument Valley. 

   There was a Superman feature on the back of a Kellogg’s cereal box described as ‘3-Dimensional Panoramic Pictures.’  At the top was a full colour illustration of Superman holding back a huge truck as it flew off a cliff road.  This was the cut-out with white tabs like those on a paper doll attached to the truck as well as to Superman.  These tabs were to be inserted into the slits to be cut in the colour picture below which was the background of the perilous mountain road.  The tabs were labelled A, B and C to correspond to the straight dotted lines in the background picture which was where you were meant to cut.  The trouble was that all a seven year old had to cut with was a pair of very clunky little scissors and they were simply not up to the job.

   These illustrations were highly polished, designed by professional artists.  Much later in my life when I was working as a graphic designer I would have then been capable of dealing with those instructions but it would involve using a scalpel to first carefully cut the figures out and then make the necessary incisions on the background.  Also the cardboard of the cereal box was pretty thick so my seven year old attempt to cut the figures out with any accuracy, using the clunky scissors, was doomed to fail.  In addition getting the scissors into the cardboard to cut the straight lines was simply impossible.  You’d have to bend the picture which pretty much destroyed it.

The beautifully designed 3-Dimensional Panoramic Picture project on the back of a cereal packet.

   So in order for this wonderful 3-D picture to work at all you had to be a professional graphic artist, not a wide eyed seven year old with clunky scissors.  These failures, and there were many, in no way diminished my passion for the next project to come along be it a cut-out of Robby the Robot from the movie Forbidden Planet or Roy Rogers lassoing a steer.

   There were beautiful western landscapes which the Lone Ranger and Tonto would be magically inserted into but the combination of the clunky scissors and the thick cardboard sabotaged each effort.  The only way I could have realised these magical pictures was to have had a commercial artist for a dad who would have done them for me.

   Could it be that the adults who designed these very desirable activities built the probable failure of most kids into their plans?  After all I kept coming back for more and don’t remember ever  succeeding at making the damn things the way they were supposed to be.

   1954 was the year that I fell under the spell of the Navy Frogmen. Not real Navy Frogmen, mind you, but little plastic ones in three bright colours. 

   The fact that the Myers household had no television didn’t stop my siblings and I from seeing programmes, it simply meant that we had to fall on the generosity of our friends who had sets. 

   The first neighbour we got to know when we moved to 10 Seymour Avenue was Dennis Brogan whose house was down the steps across Molino at the end of our road. Dennis, who lived with his mother and sister, didn’t have a TV either but his grandfather, old Jim Brogan, did. 

   Grandfather Jim lived with his wife in an impressive large house which sat on the corner of Molino and Janes behind a high hedge opposite our local playground.  It was there we would see Walt Disney’s Disneyland on ABC.  It was on this show that we first saw Fess Parker as Davy Crockett.  We also used to watch the annual broadcast of Mary Martin playing Peter Pan in what seemed to be a stage production which was televised.  Mister Brogan’s set was big and the reception in black and white was pretty good. 

   There were also after school programs which we would join Dennis to watch and somewhere along the way, possibly while watching The Howdy Doody Show, I saw the ads featuring the Navy Frogmen. 

   The commercial began with a shot of a miniature toy gunboat plunging through the water.  We next saw three Navy Frogmen fall effortlessly overboard in formation and descend to put explosive devices on the bottoms of enemy ships.  The voiceover told us how they “work swiftly and secretly!  Look how real these Navy Frogmen are!”  Dramatic closeups demonstrated the frogmen’s dexterity as they ascended through the water past large nets.  “These miniature navy frogmen swim, dive and surface by themselves.”  As the first of the frogmen reached the water’s surface, a young boy’s hand lifted it gently out of the water.  We then saw two of the frogmen lying on a clean surface while the boy’s hands, unscrewed the chamber at the base of the frogman’s feet.  He began to shake in some powder.  “Look! Here’s where your free supply of high performance propellant goes.  Ordinary baking powder will work too.” 

   To get these amazing frogmen all we had to do was cut out a coupon from a box of Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes or Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops and send it along with 25 cents to an address in Battle Creek, Michigan.  What could possibly be easier? 

   My soul burned with a passionate desire to own these wonderful toys but the obstacles to getting them were formidable.  If I were to go to my father Blackie and make a straight forward request for them he almost certainly would laugh out loud at my falling for such an obviously commercial bit of trickery.  Also there was the problem that neither of the cereals were ones I regularly ate.  I was, by the age of seven, a committed consumer of Cheerios and it looked like the only way I could get the frogmen was to convince my father that I wanted this new brand of cereal. 

   The battleground for this operation was the Saturday morning shopping trip to Safeway.  All four of us Myers kids would usually accompany Blackie to the Safeway for the week’s shop and, as we approached the cereal shelves, I began enthusing about the virtues of Sugar Corn Pops.  Blackie examined the box and, shooting me a penetrating glance, asked if I’d eat them all up.  ‘Of course’ was my disingenuous reply.  I doubt he was actually convinced but he decided to get them for me and stage one of the operation was a success.  The coupon was in my possession.

   When it came to appropriating funds for such activities it was always my mother I turned to.  Officially our allowance from Blackie was a mere thirty cents on Saturdays so Jim and I could go to the Matinee at the Sequoia.  Admission cost a quarter and the remaining nickel would get us each a large sucker which lasted longer than most other forms of nickel candy. 

   So it was Beth I had to get the twenty five cents plus postage out of and when this was done I filled out the coupon and put it in the mail.  Thus began the waiting game.  Sending away for things always tested what little patience I had to its limit and beyond.  Our mailbox nestled within a row of similar boxes on the other side of Molino. 

   The first few days I was fine about finding the mailbox empty but by the third or fourth day I’d begun stalking it in the afternoon and, since it would inevitably take weeks, disappointment soon became my constant companion.  I’d develop strategies in which I’d convince myself not to be downhearted but I inevitably was. 

   Finally after what seemed like a small animal’s lifetime, the frogmen arrived.  All three were beautifully wrapped with their little propellant chambers at the base.  They were red, yellow and green and the packet of baking powder was also included. 

   I immediately set to work in the kitchen, finding a glass bowl my mom used for cake mixes.  I filled it with water and then unscrewed the chamber on one frogman and filled it with the special powder.  In the commercial we never actually saw the frogmen descending, just falling forward into the water.  The picture then dissolved to them under the ship.  Next we saw them going up and now I discovered that getting them to descend was practically impossible because the baking soda in the base simply made the bottom of the blasted thing float to the top upside down.  The best you could do was put them on the bottom of the bowl and let go but every time the frogman would bob up to the surface upside down.  It wasn’t weighted properly.  My father’s instincts were absolutely right and watching these stupid frogmen bob upside down to the surface made me feel annoyed with myself. 

   The promises on the backs of cereal boxes, however, never seemed to lose their allure for me.  They always infused me with a burning need to have whatever was on offer, which invariably, was nothing dressed up as something.

   The three plastic frogmen were very cheap to produce and the only great expense that Kellogg’s would have met was coming up with the concept, writing the copy, making the commercial and paying for its airtime.  Imagine grown-up men and women sitting around dreaming up these alluring fantasies for small children.  It was just one more highly effective way of maintaining the cereal manufacturer’s market share.

   The showman P. T. Barnum is credited with coining the phrase ‘sucker’ and this word describes perfectly what I seemed to be, for boy, was I a sucker.

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