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

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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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I Was A Teenage Hippy Poster Artist part 3

THE SOUND poster by Wes Wilson, Butterfield badge by JH Myers, photos: Mike Bloomfield and Frank Zappa. Yardbirds & Love posters by JH Myers

I Was A Teenage Hippy Poster Artist part 3

Once I had done an actual Fillmore poster my relationship with Bill Graham changed.  It was like a graduation of sorts.  My next job for him was not a poster but a button…a badge for the return to San Francisco of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  I had only heard of the band from the posters Wes did for their previous appearances.  Whenever Bill uttered the name “Butterfield” it was with a quiet reverence.  An air of sanctity descended when he said the name.

   When Bill Graham first began promoting shows at the Fillmore, which he had a lease on, he didn’t actually know much about the local rock scene so he made a partnership with Chet Helms and John Carpenter of the Family Dog to present shows on alternate weekends.  Their first big show was Butterfield and The Quicksilver Messenger Service.  Helms and Carpenter worked extremely hard promoting this and got Wes Wilson to design an excellent poster.  The result was a packed Fillmore for the entire weekend.    

Two early posters by Wes Wilson for Family Dog at the Fillmore Auditorium.

   After counting the mountain of money these three made from this show and dividing it up between them, Bill then got up early the next morning and phoned Albert Grossman in New York and secured all Butterfield dates in the bay area for the next two years for himself.  When Chet and John learned what their partner had done they were furious, dissolved their partnership with Graham and went off to find the Avalon Ballroom where the Family Dog would put on shows to compete with the Fillmore.

   I knew none of this recent history as I sat down in Bill’s little office to take the brief for designing this badge.  It had to have a mountain of information on it as it was a total of six shows over two weekends: four nights at Winterland and two afternoons at the Fillmore.  As well as Butterfield he booked the Airplane and legendary bluesman Muddy Waters.

   The artwork didn’t take me long to complete and I brought it in to show Bill who approved it.  We sent it off to have the badges produced on a yellow background.  They arrived in a brown cardboard box on a Friday afternoon.  Bill and I examined them and had to admit they looked pretty good.  I guess there were about a thousand badges in the box.  Suddenly Bill became pensive.  “We must be careful who we give these to,” he said.  So he picked a few folks who wore them at the gig and by the end of the evening people were asking him for them.  They quickly became a hot collector’s item and were an adjunct to the poster which Wes Wilson did. 

The badge I designed for the Butterfield shows and the poster by Wes Wilson.

   Though I was out working in an adult world, I was still really a kid.  I lived at home with my parents in North Beach and spent my leisure time crashing at friends’ houses in Mill Valley where I smoked an awful lot of weed.  The people I’d hang out with at the Fillmore were all older than me and living out in the adult world.  Their jargon was hip and men referred to their female partners as “their old lady.” 

   Bill Graham rarely used any hip jargon.  At this time he was not a participant in the hippy lifestyle.  In fact he had a pretty severe moral code.  He had actual contempt for the drug scene in the Haight and would often argue with San Francisco Chronicle jazz columnist Ralph J Gleason saying he should call it out in his column.  In the column Gleason would marvel at the fact there was no alcohol at the Fillmore or Avalon but sidestepped the issue of drug use altogether.  The Haight Ashbury district had by this time become a Mecca for runaway kids from all over the country and it wasn’t long before the Chronicle was reporting daily of yet another youthful death by overdose on Haight Street.  

   Bill seemed to steer clear of politics but on the subject of pornography he would start ranting.  Anybody connected with porn would be described by Bill as a slimeball.  There was also a guy named Owsley Stanley who had been written about in front page stories in the Chronicle as a prolific producer of LSD.  It wasn’t until Bill pointed it out to me that the rather loud mouthed guy who hung out with the Grateful Dead was, in fact, Owsley himself.

   One peculiar event Bill staged at the Fillmore was the play The Beard by Michael McClure.  Wes did a poster for this and I went along to the sparsely attended event but found it to be a bit dull.  The high point was the male actor performing oral sex on the female actor.

   One person I was very impressed by when he and his band turned up for the gig I’d done the poster for was Frank Zappa.  With long hair and an interestingly shaped beard he and all the Mothers looked like scary hippies but Frank spoke like someone who was totally straight.  I went over to the motel he was staying at on Lombard to talk to him about possible record sleeve design.  It came to nothing but I really liked him and bought their first album which was very funny indeed and musically interesting.

   When the Butterfield dates arrived I didn’t go over to Winterland but did attend the gig on Sunday afternoon at the Fillmore.  How I got talking to Mike Bloomfield I don’t remember but I did.  I think, in hindsight, I was someone who would listen to him.  Also in hindsight the other band members didn’t seem eager to engage him in conversation.  Mike was a motor mouth but was far from dull.  One topic I do recall him telling me all about was William Gaines the legendary publisher of MAD Magazine and how he spent so much time eating in expensive restaurants.  Mike clearly knew Gaines which impressed me greatly.  My memory is that we began our conversation down in the foyer and then moved up into the band room where he pulled out a joint and lit it.  I knew this guy was the lead guitarist with Butterfield but not that he had played lead on Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone and been part of the band at the famous Newport Folk Festival where Dylan went electric.  Had I known these facts I would have been full of questions for him.  But as I said he was not dull and sharing a joint or two with him up in the band room was good fun.  While I was taking a toke, Bill Graham appeared, doing his rounds.  His eyes landed squarely on the joint in my hand.  He then looked me in the eye and walked off.  Had I been sharing a joint with anyone other than Mike Bloomfield I suspect that Bill would have fired me on the spot.  But maybe I’m wrong about that.  I do remember one morning when he told Bonnie and I that Jim Haynie had been busted and I believe he went down to the police station to help him out.  

   One contact that Bill made in LA was with Shelly Davis at the Whiskey A Go Go and I remember hearing him talking me up to her on the phone saying what a good poster artist I was.  Such talk got me a job.  They were featuring the Hollywood group Love for nine days.  I had seen them at the Fillmore and been very impressed.  They had a hit single with Little Red Book and I remember Alvin Lee coming out on the stage wearing these tiny little dark glasses and just staring around at the light show like he was in a state of intoxication.  Whether this was him being loaded or just show business I didn’t know but when the band was ready he extended a tambourine high above his head and started banging out the rhythm to their hit song and it was a highly effective way of kicking off their set.  One thing I liked about Love was their logo which had a kind of cartoon lettering and the letter O had a male and female symbol extending from it.  Their support band down in LA was The Sons of Adam but they also had one night with a band I hadn’t heard of, Buffalo Springfield.  I mistakenly wrote an ’S’ on the end of their name.

   I decided to draw a logo for the club featuring Carrie Nation, whose long campaign against alcohol had helped bring on prohibition in the United States.  However I needed a photo of her.  Bill was friends with John Wasserman on the San Francisco Chronicle and phoned him up, arranging for me to go see him.

   I had met Wasserman a few times when I was younger over in Mill Valley but when I visited him at the Chronicle he didn’t remember me.  He did however comment that after talking to me on the phone he was expecting someone older.  The photo was exactly what I wanted.  Carrie Nation carrying her hatchet.  Apparently she would turn up at bars and start smashing bottles.  My idea was very derivative of Wes’s logo for The Family Dog and I don’t believe the Whiskey ever used it again but on the poster it had the desired impact.

The poster I did for the Whiskey A Go Go in LA. Note my mis-spelling of Buffalo Springfield.

   Wes’s heavy schedule provided me with yet another poster for Bill.  He booked British band The Yardbirds who had a few top 40 hits for one Sunday afternoon at the Fillmore.  Again there was a photo of the band and I worked through the night, starting about eight.  I walked up to the Chinese grocery at the top of Russian Hill and bought myself a pack of cigarettes and a Cadbury’s chocolate bar and with KFRC in the background I crafted my poster art at the kitchen table in my parents’ flat.  As the sun came up I was pleased with the results and took the art work to the printer.

My poster for the Yardbirds gig

   At the actual Yardbirds gig on the Sunday afternoon something happened which Bill enjoyed telling the story about and I must have heard it at least a few times.  The support band that day was Country Joe and the Fish who were very popular with their anti-war song Fixin’ To Die Rag.  The English road manager for The Yardbirds approached Bill and said: “Jeff is tired.  He doesn’t want to play yet.”  The ‘Jeff’ he was talking about was lead guitarist Jeff Beck.  Bill said that was fine and put Country Joe on.  During their set the roadie came up to him again saying:  “Jeff wants to play now.”  Bill explained that The Fish were only half way through their set.  “Yes,” said the roadie.  “But Jeff wants to play now.”  Bill said nothing more and marched off to the band room upstairs.  He went to each long haired man in the room saying: “Are you Jeff Beck?”  “Are you Jeff Beck?”  Finally he arrived at the person who answered yes and Bill put him up against the wall and explained very forcefully that he would play his sets when he, Bill Graham, told him to.  Apparently no further problems were had.

   In total I only did four of the Fillmore posters unlike Wes and later Bonnie MacLean who did most of them.  However these posters still sell to this day but sadly I earn nothing from them.  It was sadder still for poor Wes and Bonnie as Bill, at some point in the late 1960s took over the copyright on them.  I remember John Goddard who ran Village Music in Mill Valley telling me in 1979 that the posters “sell much more than you would think.”

   But that is another story.

I must thank a few people in researching this piece: The late Wes Wilson, the late Bonnie MacLean and Natalie Snoyman of the Mill Valley Library. Two books have also been helpful: Rage & Roll – Bill Graham and the Selling of Rock by John Glatt and Bill Graham Presents by Bill Graham and Robert Greenfield.

For those researching Mill Valley history you can contact Natalie Snoyman: nsnoyman@cityofmillvalley.org

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I Was A Teenage Hippy Poster Artist part 2

Photo: Bill Graham at the Fillmore. Poster art by John H. Myers

I Was A Teenage Hippy Poster Artist part 2

My time at the Fillmore Auditorium throughout 1966 was exciting.  I enjoyed designing and painting the boards at the top of the stairs and hanging around the place was so interesting.  Bill Graham alone was a fascinating guy and listening to him wheel and deal on the phone was mesmerising.  

   Also I became part of the furniture there.  When I’d stay for an evening show I would hang out with Rock Scully’s brother Dicken whose job was guarding the door to the band room and making sure that only certain people entered.  Bill had a lot of people working for him and though he wasn’t making any of them rich he was very honourable about paying them on time.  This fact alone put him ahead of Chet Helms over at the Avalon Ballroom.

   A night at the Fillmore finished about two in the morning and Bill would be there sweeping up as the last patrons left.  He would be back at his desk early that same morning to get the New York agents on the phone.  This was what he meant when he criticised Chet Helms for not getting up in the morning.  He worked a punishing schedule and there were few jobs he’d delegate to others.  Of course the posters were designed by Wes Wilson and, at this time, that was one area where Bill didn’t interfere.  Wes would show up on Friday afternoons with that week’s posters wrapped in brown paper and Bill would put them up and look at them.  On Saturday mornings he’d put them in a special knapsack and drive his Vespa over to North Beach where he’d put them up in City Lights bookshop and other places then he’d cross the Bay Bridge to Berkeley where he’d put them up all over the place.

   While painting the boards I got to know a lot of the musicians as they’d lug their equipment up the stairs.  One fellow who had looked very different when he was in my sister Katie’s class at Old Mill School was John Cipollina, the lead guitarist for the Quicksilver Messenger Service.  He had seriously long straight dark hair, a thin handsome face and usually wore a black cowboy hat.  

John Cipollina at Old Mill School (in front of Daphne Strawbridge and Katie Myers) and on the right as lead guitarist in Quicksilver Messenger Service.

   Quicksilver was managed by Ron Polte, a guy about Bill’s age who didn’t look at all like a hippy.  He had short hair and wore horn rimmed glasses.  All of these bands were constantly looking for graphic design ideas so one night I went over to the house in the Haight where Quicksilver was living.  Polte may not have looked like a hippy but as I walked in the door he handed me an enormously fat joint and within moments I was seriously stoned.  I doodled some ideas on the pad I’d brought with me and one by one the various band members came over to see what I was doing.  Cipollina was particularly friendly and took more of an interest than the other guys.

   Now the Grateful Dead were managed by two guys who definitely looked like hippies:  Rock Scully and Danny Rifkin.  Rock’s dark hair was straight and Danny’s was curly and they both looked very out there.  I remember one day at the Fillmore when they turned up to see Bill.  They both had expressions of glee on their faces and all I could hear as they sat down in Bill’s tiny office was: “We’ve got fifty grand, man.”  Bill closed the door so I heard no more but presumably they wanted advice as to what they should do with this money.  

The Managers of The Grateful Dead: Danny Rifkin and Rock Scully

   I did lots of work on spec for all these groups in the hope that a commission would come my way but there were aways obstacles.  Marty Balin nixed most of my efforts because I kept including vintage prop planes in my designs.  “We’re not an airplane, man,” he complained.  And with the Grateful Dead it was Bob Weir who moaned about designs using skulls and bones.  Mind you this didn’t stop me trying.

   The situation with the Airplane’s management was changing by the day.  The first time I met Bill Graham he told me about their manager Matthew Katz, a man he had an almost irrational hatred for.  Bill Thompson, who he had known from when he was a copy boy at the Chronicle, was now the Airplane’s road manager and Graham was angling for him to take over the band’s management from Katz.  Thompson was constantly on the phone asking Graham for advice and I once heard Bill say: “I don’t want to take them away from you but if I have to, I will.”  I repeated this to Wes Wilson one day and Wes said: “That means he’s going to.”  It was a prophecy which came true.

   Bill Graham was a very complicated person.  Born Wolf Wolodia Grajonca into a Jewish family in Berlin in 1931, he had five sisters and as his father died just after his birth, his mother put him and one sister into an orphanage which then sent the children to France to escape the Nazis.  Soon after their arrival, the second world war began and when the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Wolf and his sister were herded south with the other Jewish children towards the Spanish border.  Tragically his sister died of pneumonia so it was only young Wolf who arrived in Manhattan on his own where he was put in a foster home in the Bronx.  The kids at school made fun of his German accent and called him a Nazi spy.  Bill and his step brother worked hard on his accent and ultimately he became someone who spoke like he was from the Bronx.  He also was drafted into the US Army and served as a soldier in the Korean War.

   So there was a complicated set of experiences behind the decisions this man, now called Bill Graham, would make as he made his way through the emerging rock music scene in San Francisco.  At each evening show at the Fillmore Bill would march from station to station checking every detail: the boxoffice, the bar, the light show, the musicians.  He was a formidable character who faced every challenge head on.  He seemed to have no fear at all and I saw him confront some very scary guys.  He was tough and direct and his ability to make split second decisions was impressive.    

   The music he was selling was not something he was familiar with.  He was of the generation that idolised Frank Sinatra and Eddie Fisher and a few of the bookings he made through the New York agents were not as well judged as they might have been.  He presented Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs for a weekend and this group which had hit records like Wooly Bully and Little Red Riding Hood were just not as hip as the Airplane or the Dead, but Bill never made the same mistake twice.  Other hitmakers he booked were The Association, The Turtles, The Young Rascals and a return gig for the Irish band Them. Their support act was The Sons of Champlin run by Bill Champlin from my year at Tam High. 

   Graham was constantly innovating and turned the big space on the top floor into a dining area serving food.  It seemed to be popular with the crowds.  They served hamburgers.  

   By now I had taken LSD a few times but my experiences had been very mild.  One of the young women behind the bar asked me if I wanted to buy some acid so I decided to have a go and paid her five dollars for a tab which she assured me was “very good.”  I dropped it just as the crowds were coming in.  I walked over to have a chat with Dicken Scully as he guarded the door to the musicians’ room then had a wander around and bumped into someone I knew from Tam High.  It was Nina Wachs who was two years older than me and lived up on Molino in Mill Valley above our old house on Seymour.  It was unusual to have somebody familiar to talk to at the Fillmore so we went upstairs for a bite to eat in Bill’s new dining experience.

   It was pretty clear that Nina was not a hippy.  She was dressed very smartly and had a clear eyed intensity about her but she was interested in the scene and that was why she’d come to the Fillmore.  As the Chronicle was featuring daily stories on its front page about the Haight Ashbury and LSD, it was the current subject of interest and Nina was intrigued by it all.  So as we munched our hamburgers I told her that I had dropped acid not long ago and would be coming on sometime soon.  This fascinated her and she was curious to observe any change in my behaviour.  

   I must have finished my meal before the effects began to take hold and the first change I noticed was that my vision became compartmentalised.  Every object in front of me, the plate, the glass, the fork, each shape became a separate swirling entity with a life of its own.  Soon the room was a cascade of shapes which all had the texture of a giant fingerprint which was constantly moving.  The sensation I then experienced was that my identity was dripping away from me and I felt the need to hold onto it.  I told Nina all of this and she became a bit alarmed for me.  I could hear Van Morrison’s rabid vocals from the dance floor below as he seemed to be improvising like a wild animal and it made my sense of panic increase.  

   I kept saying: “I must hold on!  I mustn’t let go!”  Nina asked if I wanted to leave and I said yes.  She’d come by car.  We got up from the table and I found myself clinging to her and repeating my mantra: “I must hold on!  I mustn’t let go!”  We walked down the steps towards the foyer.  The wild screaming of Van Morrison continued from the dance floor.  I saw Bill Graham march towards his office, taking his keys out of his pocket to unlock the door and the expression on his face was that of an angry monster.  This was nothing new but in my current condition he was just another horror to avoid.  

   Nina walked me down the steps to the foyer and then down again and out onto Geary where her car was parked.  She asked where I would like to go.  I was able to think clearly enough.  I considered going back to my parents’ flat in North Beach but quickly came to the conclusion that it would be a nightmare.  If I were to tell them what I was going through it would throw them into a panic.  A mutual friend lived near to Nina’s house in Mill Valley and we decided that was my destination as this guy had a small house out in their garden where he slept.

   Nina’s presence at the Fillmore that night was a godsend.  As I hadn’t known anything about the experience I was to have until I was having it, she looked after me and was a good friend.  She dropped me at my pal’s place where I sat up hallucinating into the early hours.  I guess this was what my friends described as a bad trip. When I woke in the morning all the swirling fingerprint shapes were gone and I was back in control of myself.  As I walked down Molino to put my thumb out, I knew I’d take it again.  Having a ‘good trip’ became an aspiration.

   Back at the Fillmore an opportunity came my way.  Due to his workload Wes Wilson was unable to do a poster for the dance/concert featuring The Mothers and Bill agreed that I could have a go at it.  I had to go out to the apartment in the Haight district where he and his wife Eva lived.  Wes gave me the copy which had to be on the poster and an 8×10 photo of Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention.  As I got up to leave Eva, who was many months pregnant, asked me if I was any relation to Nell Myers.  I said she was my sister.  It turned out that Eva’s maiden name was Bessie and she was the daughter of my parents’ good friend Alvah Bessie.  “You’d better sit down again, John,” said Wes.

   Being a copy cat I used the colour combination that Wes had utilised on his Lenny Bruce poster.  I sat down at my parents’ kitchen table about 8pm and worked through the night.  As dawn broke I had the artwork complete and took it to the printer.  Wes had briefed me on the process.  They would shoot a negative and positive film of the artwork and use them to do the colour separation.  The result was good and I was very pleased with my first effort.  Wes was paid $150 per poster and said I should get the same and that I must write the year and a © symbol next to my name as this would ensure that the copyright was mine.  So I wrote ©1966 John H. Myers.

My very first Fillmore poster…

   Bill Graham, however, was not of the opinion that I should be paid as much as Wes for my poster.  This guy who worked every hour he could around the clock took a big chunk out of his working day to negotiate with me.  One thing I learned as I sat in Bill’s little office that day was that any chance to negotiate was, for Bill, like catnip to a kitten.  He simply could not resist.  He explained that he was giving me an opportunity that was worth much more than the fee I was asking for.  His theory was not unlike that of low budget Hollywood director Roger Corman who paid actors and technicians rock bottom wages but gave them all a chance to prove themselves.  I honestly don’t remember the outcome of this talk and how much I was paid but I never had to go through it again.  This was my first professional job for Bill and I was determined that it wouldn’t be my last.

To be continued…

I must thank a few people in researching this piece: Deborah Wachs, the late Wes Wilson, the late Bonnie MacLean and Natalie Snoyman of the Mill Valley Library. Two books have also been helpful: Rage & Roll – Bill Graham and the Selling of Rock by John Glatt and Bill Graham Presents by Bill Graham and Robert Greenfield.

For those researching Mill Valley history you can contact Natalie Snoyman: nsnoyman@cityofmillvalley.org

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I Was A Teenage Hippy Poster Artist…

Pictured: Bill Grahamat the Fillmore. The 3 posters in this graphic are by Wes Wilson

I Was A Teenage Hippy Poster Artist…

In the summer of 1966 I was 19 years old and living at my parents’ apartment on Russian Hill in North Beach.  I was working for Bill Graham at the Fillmore Auditorium painting the two signs that people saw as they entered up the stairs into the dance hall.  One would be advertising next week’s show and the other the week after that.  

   One perk of the job was getting to see the shows for free.  The first band I was actually excited about seeing was the Irish group Them.  During my senior year at Tam High their single Baby Please Don’t Go was one of my favourite records.  For some reason it always made me think of walking down Catalpa Street in Mill Valley.

The Irish band THEM.

   Bill Graham had booked the band to play one night on a Thursday in June so I was in that afternoon to finish off my board before the crowds came in at eight.  Bill was rushing around checking on every little detail of a night at the Fillmore.  He was like a man possessed at such times.  He dressed casually with a dark sweater over a white shirt and black trousers.  He had a face like thunder and a hairdo like Frankie Avalon.  He moved with great intensity and purpose from one station to the next: the box-office, the bar, the guy doing the sound, the light show. 

   The light shows, which were primitive at the early Trips Festival, had now become sophisticated operations.  There were a couple of opaque projectors covering all the walls with coloured liquid images.  Each operator would use two transparent plates with coloured water in between which they’d jiggle as the blobby image was projected onto the wall giving a psychedelic effect as it throbbed to the beat of the band onstage.  In addition there were old black and white movies projected silently along with slides so that if you weren’t interested in the music there was always some element of the light show to grab your attention.  It may have been the beginning of multi-media.

   Bill always put out a big box of apples at the top of the stairs for people to take as they came in the door at 8pm.  He also had to check that those behind the bar selling soft drinks had everything they needed.  There was no booze at the Fillmore but as hippies from the Haight district made up a large proportion of the crowd the smell of marijuana was ever present.

   After I finished painting my board and cleaning it up, I walked over to the stage and sat down on the floor at the front.  As the doors opened at eight I suddenly found myself surrounded by people.  There was always a crowd of people sitting at the front.  The Fillmore was an old fashioned dance hall and was just one of several venues in that neighbourhood which, in earlier times had featured black jazz and blues musicians. 

   I remember nothing about the support act but when Them walked onto the stage Bill was with them.  They were dressed eccentrically and the lead guitarist had dark glasses on.  Bill was the master of ceremonies at every one of his Dance/Concerts and his announcements were always dramatic.  As soon as the band was ready he made a brief speech climaxing with the name of the band.  Immediately the lead guitarist played the opening riff to Baby Please Don’t Go and I was dazzled.  Their set was excellent and Van Morrison’s vocals were every bit as good as on the records.

   Other bands I got used to hearing were the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead.  One band that Bill would never book at this time was Big Brother and the Holding Company.  Their bass guitarist, Peter Albin, used to come see Bill in his little office about once a month presumably to ask if he would hire them.  He never would.  There was a benefit gig at the Fillmore one night which was the only time I saw them play there and before the doors opened they were having a sound check for their new vocalist Janis Joplin.  She began shrieking into the microphone like a banshee and it was so loud that Jerry Garcia, Pig Pen and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead all ran out into the foyer holding their ears.  Though Janis would, in time, become a huge star, this first exposure gave me a pretty permanent prejudice against her vocal style.  For me it was just too shrill.  I only ever heard her sing nicely once over at the Avalon one night when she delivered a lovely, quiet rendition of Gershwin’s Summertime.

   During the early summer of 1966 Friday mornings were important to me.  It took me two buses to get to the Fillmore by 11am so I could finish off next week’s sign.   It had to be polished and eye catching before the evening crowds came in the door.  This meant putting the final touches on with acrylic paint then wiping it down with a damp cloth to take away the chalk marks.

   Bill was always there and busy.  I don’t recall him ever being casual.  He was all business.  Bonnie MacLean, his girlfriend, was often there too.  I was by now good friends with Bonnie who always took photos of each of my boards.  She was older than me by a few years and in a way reminded me of my sister Nell.  She was always curious about different aspects of the now blossoming hippy phenomenon which San Francisco seemed to be the centre of.  She and Bill were not hippies and I don’t think at this time they ever turned on.

Bonnie MacLean and John Myers at the Fillmore 1966.

   Of course Bill was making his money out of that very phenomenon but he himself was pretty clean living.  He didn’t smoke or drink and was also athletic.  On weekday afternoons he and Jim Haynie would organise touch football matches on the dance floor at the Fillmore and his determination to win was ever present.  Jim Haynie was Bill’s handy man and a very nice guy.  He was a bit of a hippy and seemed constantly amused by Bill who he called ‘Willy.’  Jim was an actor in the San Francisco Mime Troupe which Bill managed before running dance concerts at the Fillmore.

   Every Friday afternoon Wes Wilson would arrive with a big brown paper package containing that week’s batch of posters fresh from the printer.  Without saying a word to anyone Bill would immediately get his ladder out and perch it on the staircase up against the wall above.  Using his staple gun he would put about eight of the posters up in a row.  Standing back he would stare at them in silence.  Then he would extend his right arm towards one of the posters with his thumb straight up in the air.  Slowly he would he would tilt his thumb down from 12 o’clock to 9.  What this exercise achieved was a total mystery to me but I think Bill was trying to find some way of evaluating how good the poster was.

   Wes was a very cheery fellow and I always enjoyed his company.  I naturally was full of questions about how he did his work.  I was amazed to learn that his artwork was smaller than the finished poster.  I had always been of the opinion that it was best to work big and then reduce but Wes did artwork not much larger than a 10×8 photo.  His colour combinations were always a source of interest to me as he’d do the artwork in black ink on line board and then give explicit directions to the printer about colour separation. 

   Wes had designed the logo for The Family Dog and being a big fan of good logos I absolutely loved it.  He had drawn the word “The” in long skinny cartoon letters that had the quality of bone about them.  On top of this he superimposed an egg shaped badge with the name Family Dog on it around a vintage photo of a native American smoking a pipe and wearing a top hat.  Across the bottom was a banner with the words: ‘Presents’.  It was beautiful.

The Family Dog logo designed by Wes Wilson.

   One thing that Wes was always talking about was the purchase he was going to make of an airbrush which somehow was going to make his work easier.  I didn’t really know what you did with an airbrush but I soon learned that it’s main job was touching up photos.  I soon saw the airbrush at Flax, the art shop downtown, and found them very sleek and swish.  It was a metallic pen with a tube that connected to an air compressor and on the top of the pen above the front tip was a small cup where you would put your wet paint in using a brush.  You’d then turn on the compressor and gently spray the area you wanted to touch up.  It could dilate from a thin line to a wide area.  I don’t remember its price tag but it was a very expensive item.

   I didn’t always like Wes’s designs but the ones I did like far outweighed his duds.  Grinding out a Fillmore poster every week was a pressure and some weeks he was more inventive than others.  But then my opinion was often at odds with other people.  Bonnie wasn’t keen on his Andy Warhol poster but I loved it and Marty Balin, the lead singer of the Airplane was quite scathing about Wes’s posters, describing his lettering as ‘blobby’.  One thing I liked about Wes’s work was how he’d often draw three dimensional shapes and then mould the lettering around the shapes.  I was very influenced by him in this regard.

   At this time most of my social life was back across the bridge in Mill Valley.  I would hitch hike over to Marin and crash at friends’ houses.  My main activity was getting stoned, listening to music and talking with my friends.  The Top 40 on KFRC was still a pretty broad church bringing a mix of different styles but they played singles and by now most people who were smoking weed were listening to albums rather than singles.  A few particular albums started this shift in listening habits for me.  Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, the first LP by The Lovin’ Spoonful and the Beatles’ Rubber Soul.

   Previous singles by the Beatles were always packaged on long players, but Rubber Soul was different to its predecessors.  It was a concept album.  Even the photo on the cover was weird as it had been distorted visually.  The songs hung together as a whole so that you got used to the order in which the tracks played.  Anyone who ever entertained the notion that The Beatles were a flash in the pan now realised they were wrong.

   A regular hangout for me was a friend’s house up on Molino which was very modern.  His parents were away a lot.  Somebody would produce a lid, the plastic bag containing an ounce of grass, and pour it into a sieve taking out the seeds.  Using Rizlas, we would roll these skinny little joints.  When I had first tried pot in my senior year at Tam it took me a bit of time to get used to the experience, but after I returned from my trip to sea I began getting loaded with a vengeance. 

   Unlike smoking a cigarette you would take the lit joint and suck the smoke deep into your lungs, holding your breath.  Sometimes you would speak while still holding your breath then with a big exhalation the slightly confused state of being stoned would settle over you.  Things you normally never thought about suddenly became objects of great interest and very funny.  The consumption of food also became very exciting.

   One friend named Matt was stoned as many hours of every day as was possible.  He was a very interesting guy but way out there.  In fact Matt was unable to function in straight society.  He had pretty long hair and looked like every white middle class parent’s nightmare.  Once he spent the night at my parents’ apartment on Russian Hill and his behaviour completely upset my mother Beth.  “I’m sorry I freaked your mother out,” he said in his quiet engaging manner.  He seemed to have no control over the effect he had on others.

   Most of my friends had dropped LSD and it wasn’t long before I tried that too but my first experience was so mild  that I couldn’t notice anything different, a bit like my early outings with weed.  A new piece of jargon had entered the hip lexicon and that was the word ‘trip,’ used to describe an LSD experience.  My friends told stories about good and bad acid trips and the implication that one’s ego could cause a bad one.  Letting yourself go seemed to be an essential element of having a good trip.

To be continued…

While preparing this piece I learned the very sad news that Jim Haynie had passed away. This means very few of the people I knew at the Fillmore are still with us as both Wes Wilson and Bonnie MacLean died last year. Rest in peace all of you.

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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

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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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The Dubious Value of an Autograph

The Dubious Value of an Autograph

I have for most of my adult life never placed a value on the autographs of famous people.  I remember an old shipmate of my father Blackie giving me a personally autographed photo of Bing Crosby which the crooner signed for him on a ship he was working on in the 1930s.  I did value it but more for the story attached to it than the fact that it was Crosby’s signature.

   My attitude towards autographs had its genesis, I believe, in an incident which occurred in 1963 while I was spending my summer vacation in the city hanging out in the basement of Columbia Pictures on Golden Gate Avenue.  This was where the poster department was.  I had discovered this Aladdin’s Cave of treasures when I ventured in one day asking to buy a poster for the film Mysterious Island, and became friendly with Walt Von Hauf, the young man in charge.  I wound up working there for nothing, wrapping packages, running errands and generally being a help.

   My reward was access to free posters, pressbooks, radio ads on vinyl disc and any of the trinkets used to promote their movies.  For Mr Sardonicus, produced and directed by William Castle, they had boxes of the ‘Punishment Poll’ ballots with an almost invisible thumbs up or down printed in sulphur.

   Each movie had its own metal shelf upon which the posters, pressbooks and ad mats (from which hot metal plates were produced) would be stacked.  Titles like Lawrence Of Arabia, Scream Of Fear or even Mothra, a Japanese monster movie all had equal billing down in the basement. 

   I answered to the name ‘Junior’ and was on hand to do anything that was asked of me.  One of the perks of this so called “job” was that I got to meet visiting movie stars when they came to town.  One such star was the very pretty Stefanie Powers who visited the Columbia office on a tour for her movie The Interns.  I had seen her playing Lee Remick’s younger sister in Blake Edwards’ Experiment In Terror and was very excited to actually meet her.  Down in the basement I took home the poster, pressbook and vinyl movie ads for Experiment in Terror with its wonderful haunting score by Henry Mancini.

   There was a fellow named Mel who was in charge of the film bookers upstairs and he lived in Marin County.  I used to get a lift back across the bridge with Mel who lived in Novato and he would drop me off at the Strawberry turnoff on Highway 101.  I remember him telling me that the movie business was doomed as he could see no way that it could ever compete with television.  Several twists of history were not apparent at that time such as the emergence of a new generation of film makers with names like Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese and Lucas.  In fact there would be, in the 1970s, a kind of renaissance in Hollywood with the new blood of younger film makers.  Then in the 1980s the development and huge success of home video revitalised the industry all over again.  But that was all in the future and in 1963 the future didn’t look so rosy.  So I would listen to Mel’s downhearted prognosis on each journey before he’d drop me at Strawberry where I’d hitch a lift into Mill Valley.

   Down in the poster department I learned that Walt Von Hauf actually managed a movie theatre out in the avenues though I never knew which one.  My passion was collecting posters, stills and pressbooks but his was the actual clips of film.  The other guy who worked in the basement was constantly having to edit reels of film which had come back damaged.  So whenever he had to clip something out of a copy of Guns Of Navarone or Devil At 4 O’Clock and splice it back together Walt would always be there to pick up the trims.

   The walls of the basement at Columbia Pictures were lined with these huge film canisters, big octagonal metal boxes which were different sizes to accommodate one, two or three reels of film.  I was familiar with these canisters from the Bus Depot in Mill Valley as that is how the movies on show at the Sequoia came in and out of town.  The canisters travelled by Greyhound bus.

   When Mel would secure a booking for any of their films the paper work would be processed by the secretaries up on the ground floor.  In addition to the actual receipt for the rental of the movies they would type address labels to go on the canisters.  So if it was a double bill of North To Alaska and Sink The Bismarck that would mean two of the big octagonal cases.  The guys in the basement would take the paperwork, find the reels of film and put them into the canisters.  Then the labels would be pasted on.  When the order was ready to go, the canisters would be stacked up on a hand truck and wheeled down Golden Gate Avenue, across Market to the Greyhound Depot where they would be put on the appropriate bus.  It might be headed for Larkspur, Fairfax or even as far north as Guerneville.

   This was how the movie business actually worked and all the guys in the basement seemed to live and breathe cinema.  With Walt it was a passion for film clips but scratch any of the people who worked there and you’d find a raw passion for movies.

   There was a bigwig who would come up from LA occasionally whose name was Solly Siegel and this guy was very short, probably in his 60s with not a lot of hair and he behaved like a clichéd version of a Hollywood producer.  Always immaculately dressed in a suit and tie, Solly would call upon me to help him run his errands and on one occasion he got me to join him on a visit to some store where he needed me to help him carry several bottles of vodka back to the office.  Solly almost always had a big cigar on the go and he was very adept at convincing me that my assistance to him was always in my own interest.  One of the carrots this character would dangle was the fact that he could introduce me to all the big stars from Hollywood whenever they came to town.

   One such star who was coming to town for the world premiere of Bye, Bye Birdie was Ann Margaret and sure as sugar Solly said: “Junior you come down to the Warfield for the opening and be waiting by the limousine when we come out and you can take a ride with Ann Margaret.”  This sounded good to me.  To be on the inside of a limousine with a glamourous famous actress and to go for a ride sounded exotic in the extreme.  

   I was there at the Loew’s Warfield with a free pass to the movie which was one I would have paid to see anyway.  One of the things I loved about Bye, Bye Birdie was that it reminded me of the phenomenon of Elvis Presley before he went in the army.  In fact the show was totally based on Elvis’s story.  By 1963 I had forgot that hoardes of screaming girls clamoured after him.  It had been a Broadway show which Columbia made into an entertaining movie.  In addition to Ann Margaret the film also starred Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh, Paul Lynde and Bobby Rydell.  It was very good and I loved the songs.

   When the film had ended Ann Margaret was brought out on stage, looking very expensive and beautiful and was interviewed by some local TV personality.  As I became aware that the chat was being wrapped up I dashed out to the lobby and walked through the doors to the waiting limousine where I stood dutifully in anticipation of Solly and Miss Margaret.  I didn’t have long to wait as this glamourous procession emerged through the doors of the Loew’s Warfield followed by a sea of people, all trying to get her autograph.  Solly was very much in charge of this operation.  While the theatre staff held the crowd back, Solly ushered Ann Margaret into the limousine and, turning to me he said: “Okay Junior. Inside.”

   I climbed in the back of this huge vehicle and sat in a fold-down chair opposite the movie star who looked absolutely gorgeous and was wearing a mink coat.  

   “Sign one of these for Junior here,” said Solly to the star handing her a glossy photo from the movie along with a pen.

   “What’s your name honey?” asked Ann Margaret and I told her.  She then dutifully wrote something to Johnny and signed it as the car pulled away from in front of the Warfield and turned right on Taylor Street.

   “Stop here driver,” said Solly.  The car pulled to a halt right opposite the RKO Golden Gate and Solly leaned forward and opened the door.  “Okay Junior,” he said in a matter of fact voice. “Out!”

   Holding my autographed photo of Ann Margaret I clambered out of the magical limousine and stood on Taylor Street as the massive vehicle purred away into the afternoon light.  

    I felt a wave of conflicting emotions and was suddenly overcome with a sense of outrage at the way I’d been treated.  This experience ran counter to every notion of human civility which I had come to expect of people in the family I had grown up in.  I suppose it also brought into focus just how superficial the concept of celebrity was.  So I put the autographed photo that Ann Margaret had signed for me away somewhere not to be seen again for many years.  When I looked at it again I noticed that the ink in her ball point pen hadn’t made it to the end of her sentence so really it was more of an invisible imprint on the photo.  I believe that my ambivalence towards autographs stems from this experience.  There are however exceptions. Like the inscription my mother wrote to my father in a copy of War And Peace which she gave him during the second world war.  Those words I find very moving indeed.  

   I guess it is the impersonal nature of an autograph which troubles me.  A person you don’t know and who doesn’t know you is signing their name on a piece of paper.  It could be the lady in the drugstore, the guy in the bookshop or maybe even Pablo Picasso.  But whether or not the piece of paper is valuable is down to who signed it.  Maybe that’s the problem I have with the whole concept.  It’s just another way of deciding who is important and who isn’t.

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