How ‘The Graduate’ Helped Me…

How The Graduate helped me…

The press advertising for the movie The Graduate did not connect with me when it first came out in December of 1967.  Somehow the ads in the Chronicle didn’t appeal to my sensibilities.  Perhaps it was because I didn’t know who Dustin Hoffman was as he was completely unknown at that time.  

   For whatever reason I had no interest in seeing The Graduate which is odd in retrospect as the movie, ultimately, was to have a profound effect on me.  

   It wasn’t until I heard about it from a fellow ship’s clerk on the San Francisco waterfront early the following year that my interest was aroused.  It was a bit peculiar because this particular guy I worked with was not someone I would describe as a bright bulb.  He had been born and bred in San Francisco, was in his early twenties, and had never ever been out of the city.  At no point in his young life had he ever crossed either of the two bridges which took you to Marin County or the east bay.  This provincial attitude did not impress me.  And yet what he had to say about The Graduate made me want to see it.

   I was at this time in the very early stages of recovery from a total nervous breakdown brought on by a psychedelic experience that went very wrong in the summer months of 1967.  I had, in fact, been hospitalised for three weeks followed by several months in group therapy.  But now I was working on the waterfront through the good graces of my father Blackie.  

   I would go into the hiring hall down near the Ferry Building early each morning and, if lucky, pick up a job on either the north or south side of the embarcadero.  I had cut my long hippy hair to avoid upsetting my fellow workers.  At that time this was quite an issue amongst the men who worked on the waterfront. 

   I was almost twenty years old and living, rent free, at my parents’ apartment on Union Street.  They had rented out their house on Catalpa in Mill Valley and were living in a spacious flat on Russian Hill.  I was saving my considerable earnings for a trip to London.  Although I had made two oriental voyages to sea, the pull of England was very powerful in my soul. 

   I had spent some time before my psychedelic accident, working for the concert promoter Bill Graham.  My first job for him was painting signs on the wall at the Fillmore Auditorium and later I began designing posters.  One of the perks of working for Bill was getting into his dance concerts for free and as he booked a few bands which interested me, I would often hang around after my work was done to watch the evening’s show begin.

   I liked Bill a lot even though he could be a very gruff character.  One ritual, which I didn’t understand at the time, was that he would order a box of apples for each show and at the beginning of the evening he would place this box on a table at the top of the stairs and the paying customers were invited to take one each as they entered.  I learned, many years later from my friend Bonnie MacLean, that when Bill was in France during the second world war, his job amongst the orphans he was living with was to pick the apples in this orchard and see that everyone got one.  

   Bonnie was living with Bill and was to marry him and have his son David.  Those who know anything about Bill’s history will be aware that he was born in Germany and, being Jewish, escaped to France at a young age and then, after the Nazis invaded, he came to New York and grew up in an adoptive family in the Bronx.

   Painting signs at the Fillmore during the day meant that I heard every detail of Bill’s blossoming business as he wasn’t one for whispering while he negotiated on the phone.  I also got to know most of the musicians from the bands that regularly appeared: Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and the Quicksilver Messenger Service.

   The Grateful Dead was managed by two guys named Danny Rifkin and Rock Scully.  Rock had a younger brother named Dicken.  He looked like Rock and was tall like him but had blonde hair in contrast to his brother’s black hair.  

   Dicken had a job at the Fillmore and that was to sit on a stool in front of the entrance to the band room on concert nights and keep people out who had no business going in.  I became very friendly with Dicken and would hang out with him.  He was a formidable presence on his stool and suffered no foolishness from those who tried to talk their way past him.  I think he was a student but to be honest it never came up. 

   Most of the people I hung out with at the Fillmore were considerably older than my nineteen years and I felt like a kid in a world of adults.  It’s just that all these adults had long hair and smoked dope.  I behaved like an adult but I was really just a kid.  I also didn’t have a girlfriend at this time and nothing about that environment encouraged me to take steps to remedy that situation.

   The band room was open to those of us who worked for Bill and I would hang around the entrance, smoking cigarettes and chatting to Dicken and this pair of beautiful brunette twins who were fashion models.

   I did, on occasion, meet and dance with young women at the Fillmore, but more often than not, I was too shy to even do that.  There was one very attractive young woman I danced with who, while we were moving about the dance floor, casually asked if she could punch me.  Being somewhat perplexed by her request I stupidly said yes and the next thing I knew I was doubled up on the floor after she slugged me in the stomach.  “Get up!” she shouted.  As I did she socked me on the jaw.  I suffered a few more blows before I finally staggered away from her, reeling with pain. 

   But the reality was that most of the young women I wanted to dance with I was terrified to even talk to.  I was suffering from the age old problem of hesitation.   Once you hesitate…you’re finished.  

   Another component of my discomfort was the tendency of most young people in the Bay Area in 1966 to smoke marijuana around the clock.  All my friends, who were mostly across the bay in Mill Valley, were getting stoned each and every day.  I would leave my parent’s apartment, cross the street, put my thumb out to the first car coming up Russian Hill and before long I was walking along Miller Avenue.  

   The grass came as a “lid” which was an ounce of marijuana in a plastic bag.  First you’d shake it through a sieve getting rid of the seeds then, using a packet of Rizlas, you’d roll these skinny little joints.  The background music to this activity was whatever LP was playing.  Bob Dylan’s latest album was Blonde On Blonde and Rubber Soul by the Beatles was still being played.

   So this was the way of life I had fully embraced up until the time of my flip-out the following year during the summer of love.  My three week incarceration in Napa State Hospital in 1967 was something of a turning point in my life.

   After I left the hospital, I began day visits to a clinic in the city.  My doctor was a terrific fellow named Art Weinberg who actually lived in Homestead Valley.  I liked him immediately because he was very truthful and funny.  He told me that I would no longer be able to smoke dope.  Naturally I didn’t believe him but I soon found out he was right.  It was like being disqualified from the hippy generation.

   What does all this have to do with The Graduate?  When I finally went to see the movie in early 1968 at the Metro, I was stunned by Dustin Hoffman’s performance which embodied all the demons which had been in charge of my soul for some time.  Benjamin Braddock was every bit a victim of hesitation as was I.  The emotional panic which paralysed him as he tried to book the hotel room for his first fling with Mrs Robinson was like watching myself.  I had never seen this portrayed on screen before.  Men in movies were mostly over confident with women or total buffoons but nothing in between.  As this was precisely the reality which had me in its grip, I recognised it immediately.    

   This was not a subject I had ever discussed with anyone.  It was a dark and secret fact of my now post-teenage life and, if I think about it, its genesis occurred at the earliest dances I attended at Edna Maguire in junior high school which were an exercise in the awkward.    

   A band would be playing endless renditions of Hey, Bo Diddley Go and all the girls were standing on one side of the dance floor with all the boys on the other.  Eventually one of the popular boys would ask a girl to dance and all eyes were on them until others joined in.  I was never one of these and spent the entire evening, with my hands in my pockets, observing.  I was terrified to ask a girl to dance.  What if she said no?  This was far too great a risk to ever take.  So the entire evening was pretty hellish.  

   Later in high school this was the reason that my friends and I would get drunk to go the dance.  Imbibing alcohol if you were under 21 was illegal so the actual drinking had to be done in private. 

   These drunken escapades were my only attempts to deal with my hesitation/paralysis.  But here I was, several years later, hanging out with Dicken Scully at the smoky Fillmore Auditorium and the problem was, if anything, much worse.  I was no longer a loud mouthed teenager surrounded by peers.  I was in a much more isolated state of mind and, in 1966, couldn’t see the psychedelic car crash I was headed towards the following year.

   So after my flip-out in 1967 and my gradual recovery in 1968, I went to see The Graduate and loved it.  Not only was it highly entertaining but it brought this paralysis into focus and sent me a message that I was not alone.  Other men suffered in a similar way.  

   It was directed by Mike Nichols with a wonderful cast.  One of my favourites was Murray Hamilton as Mr Robinson.  His drunken pauses as he handed down tablets of wisdom to young Benjamin were high comedy indeed.  All the actors pumped real life into the gaggle of gargoyles which made up Benjamin Braddock’s world.  Of course his world bore nothing in common with mine except for his social awkwardness.  But that communicated with me in a meaningful way about the problems I had with the opposite sex.

   Mating rituals in the natural world are pretty basic.  Exotic male birds fluff their feathers up in an attempt to attract their female counterparts and there is a possible comparison to be made with show business performers and sporting stars in the human sphere.  But what if you’re not a performer on a stage?  How do you convey to a beautiful woman in your presence that you’re interesting or fun to be with?  It’s a very tough sell.  Those men who specialize in smarm have ‘chat-up’ lines to introduce themselves to female strangers.  “Haven’t we met before?” or  “What’s a pretty girl like you doing in a dump like this?”  The pretence of the casual was always so slick with these characters but I’m afraid I just didn’t do ‘casual’ at all which is why ‘hanging out’ was really not good for me. 

   I was so hopeless in such situations that it kind of justified my hesitation/paralysis.  So when I’d smoked yet another cigarette and talked about god knows what with Dicken and the various people milling about the band room entrance, I would finally decide it was time to say goodnight.  With my hands dug deep into my pockets, I would leave the Fillmore and begin the long walk home.  Some nights I’d take Fillmore all the way to Union and others I’d go down Geary to Van Ness but whichever route I took, I was always on my own. 

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Author: milleravenuemusings

I am a semi-retired actor, singer and graphic designer who once designed posters for Bill Graham's legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in the late 1960s.

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