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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org