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:

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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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Crying With Laughter…

Crying With Laughter…

It was sometime late during the summer vacation of 1964 that a remarkable performance took place in front of a tiny audience in Mead Theatre.  It was a political benefit for a campaign to defeat some piece of reactionary legislature, the details of which are lost to me now and the performer was Bill Cosby.

   Now Bill Cosby was famous to me at this time because I had listened to and loved his records which were mostly recorded live at the Hungry i, but the Hollywood fame which would come after he co-starred with Robert Culp in the TV show I Spy, was at least a year away.  So to most people my age he was not so famous.  For that reason our audience that Sunday afternoon numbered no more than about twenty people and one motorcycle cop from the Marin County Sheriff’s Department. My brother Jim and I were joined by Tommy Harper, Mark Symmes and Ray Ray Sterios and, though we were small in number, we were a hell of a good audience.

   I knew all Cosby’s routines pretty much by heart and he did them exactly as I’d heard them on the records.  He performed for us like we were in Carnegie Hall.  He did all his best material: God speaking to Noah, trying to park on the steepest hill in San Francisco, Toothache, Medic…the works. The wonderful thing about being such a small audience was that we were able, literally, to roll around laughing as there was plenty of room to do it. 

   He was one of a handful of comedians in the early 1960s whose material spoke directly to my inner world.  He knew and was able to articulate several key details about being a kid.  Like having his music going inside his head when he walked somewhere.  That was me all over.  I was always composing and performing the soundtrack score to the movie of my life. 

   Cosby was also more honest about his real feelings.  In his Medic sketch he told of volunteering for the medical corps when he was in the army in Korea.  The Geneva Convention clearly stated that they should not be shot at by either side, so he figured that wearing a helmet with a red cross on it would help keep him alive.  Then when he was landing on the beach with the troops he was informed that the enemy was not adhering to the Geneva Convention. In his routine about parking on one of those practically vertical hills in North Beach, he shared his insecurities as a driver with us in a hilariously candid way. 

   Cosby did one routine which was a direct echo of something that had actually happened to me while playing after school out on the Pixie Trail with my friend Johnny Lem.  There were two different trails and I was on the lower one while John was on the upper.  We couldn’t see each other.  He must have thrown a rock down in my direction and, peculiarly, it landed smack on the top of my head.  It hurt but the shock was greater than the pain.  In fact I’d almost forgotten about it when I suddenly felt something wet dripping off the tip of my nose.  It was blood.  I was bleeding from the top of my head.  I didn’t panic and began the short walk home at a brisk pace. 

   I knew that my mother Beth would be washing the dishes behind the window on our front porch.  As I walked I felt confident that everything was okay but that this was clearly an opportunity for some dramatic acting.  I began working on my performance as I walked up the trail.  There was now a lot of blood dripping down my face and onto my hands so that required no exaggeration.  I began staggering like a seriously wounded man.  By the time I reached our house I was very bloody indeed and lurched down the steps to find that she was right where I’d hoped she would be.  Before she caught sight of me I added a few extra touches like dragging one arm along the ground to give the impression that I was losing consciousness.  My audience of one swallowed it in its entirety.  I was, after all, bleeding and her horror at the sight of me was genuine but I knew I would live and the fuss she made of me was hugely enjoyable.

   Cosby was absolutely in touch with his childhood experiences and shared them all with us that day in Mead Theatre.

   The comedians of the early 1960s were a new breed who brought neurosis into their material.  The first time I ever saw Woody Allen was on Augie Belden’s television set.  Allen was hosting The Tonight Show for a week and I had never seen anything like him.  He was so funny and his humour was completely new.  He didn’t tell jokes so much as interestingly involving stories with surreal gags thrown in.

   In one yarn from his school days, Allen described a walk home from his violin lesson when he passed the pool hall.  Because he had red hair this guy called out: “Hey Red.”  Allen then put down his violin, walked up to him and told the guy that wasn’t his name and proceeded to articulate his proper name.  A pause of inordinate length followed this information.  The audience waited patiently and finally he said: “I spent that winter in a wheelchair. A team of doctors laboured to remove the violin.” 

   A favourite record of mine was by Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks which featured a routine that Bruce Crawford and I were going to do for a rally at Tam but we never got around to it.  It was The 2 Hour Old Baby.  Bruce would do the Carl Reiner part and I was to play the baby.  What made this particular routine funny to me was when Mel Brooks started turning back into the naturally inarticulate baby after yakking on like an adult for most of the sketch.  Somehow that transition always made me fall to the floor laughing.

   When Carl Reiner asked him how he felt about his father he answered: “I feel that dad is the kind of guy that will ga-ga-sahn.”  As Reiner immediately asked what that meant he continued: “I feel that my father will always be the kind of guy that will take me to ball games and we’ll be buddies and we’ll syany…syanyfoy.” 

   “Syanyfoy?” asks Reiner, “I don’t understand. What does that mean: Syanyfoy?”

   “I think that my father and I will probably get along well together since we’re both boys, we’ll probably run around and play ball and myanai….maniahyde.”

   By this time I was convulsed and if Bruce and I had ever got the act organised it would have been a severe test of my professionalism to keep a straight face.

   Jerry Lewis also caught me with the same transition in his movie The Nutty Professor.  It was a reverse of the Jekyll & Hyde story in which this goofy looking scientist invents a potion which turns him into a smooth talking womaniser and while out on a date with beautiful Stella Stevens, Lewis suddenly began reverting to his true personna, blurting out nonsense in a quacking voice.     

   My brother Jim and I shared very little during our teenage years but one thing we always had in common was our sense of humour.  Just as we had freely rolled around the wooden benches of Mead Theatre, we also would roll around the downstairs section of the Sequoia whenever a Road Runner cartoon was on.  Of course the desert bird was not what made us laugh.  It was Wile E. Coyote whose idiocy and physicality was so ridiculous that Jim and I would collapse laughing at pretty much anything he did.

   I remember one scene opening with a shot of the road and a gutter off to the side. The camera followed the gutter as it snaked up the mountain to a place where the smug looking coyote stood next to a box full of cannon balls with fuses.  There was a plug which could be pulled out, releasing the cannon balls down the mountain.  

   The “Beep! Beep!” of the approaching Road Runner rang out.  With an expression on his face like victory itself, the coyote proceeded to strike a match and light each of the fuses.  He then pulled the plug out but the cannon balls remained lodged in the box.  “Hmmmm,” he seemed to say as he stroked his chin.  His next move was to climb into the box and, while holding the top with his hands, he attempted to push the cannon balls out with his feet.  The next move was him turning to camera with a look of tragic realisation.  The screen then filled with a massive cartoon explosion which left him charred.  This formula never failed for my brother and I.  The coyote’s inability to recognise the obvious danger of whatever situation was the key.

   There were a few people we went to school with who had a very professional way with their comedy.  Jared Dreyfus was one.  Jar’s story telling was always executed with great panache and he regularly held court amongst a gaggle of students hanging on his every word.  Another was Tommy Harper who could reduce Jimmy and I to helpless jelly with the raise of an eyebrow.  Tom had all the equipment of a professional comedian and I recall him regaling us with Jonathan Winters routines.

   The best comedy of this time was more to do with characters rather than jokes.  My brother and I were never good at telling jokes because we would always begin laughing at the punchline before it arrived.

   Stan Freberg brought out an LP in 1960 entitled Stan Freeberg Presents The United States Of America.  Jar Dreyfus and I would, over the years and without any encouragement from others, lapse into word perfect renditions of the various sketches.  In fact this became a ritual with my siblings too and my nephew Matt Thornton performed the Ben Franklin routine at school to great acclaim.  When Dan Caldwell overheard me doing Ben Franklin with Dreyfus one day he asked why I hadn’t used that voice while playing the part of Francis Nurse in his production of The Crucible.

   The comedy of this time took over from pop music for me.  So to have the opportunity to enjoy Bill Cosby in Mead Theatre was a rare treat indeed.  After all you had to be 21 to get into the Hungry i and I, though 17, still looked about 12.

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The Hills Were Alive…

The Hills Were Alive…

To be without a television throughout most of the 1950s was, to my young mind, something of a hardship, but one that I never questioned.  My father Blackie simply would not hear of having an ‘agony wagon’ in the house.

   There was, however, a compensation in the attention my siblings and I paid to the other forms of media we were not denied access to: the radio and the gramophone.

   The record player in our house at 10 Seymour Avenue was probably the only relatively modern piece of equipment the Myers family ever had.  It was made by Motorola and it sat on a table in our living room within a wood like box

   Recorded music played an enormous part in the life of my family while I was growing up in Mill Valley.  The player had a long spindle on which you could stack up a few LPs which would automatically drop down to be played after the previous disk had finished.

   This was during the early days of vinyl LPs or Long Players as albums were then called.  Their predecessors, the 78rpm disks were the equivalent of singles during the 1920s, 30s and 40s.  Individual disks were sold in brown paper sleeves but in the early 30s the record companies began packaging collections of songs by one artist into a book like album with photographs and sleeve notes.  This also became the way that classical symphonies and Broadway show recordings were packaged. 

   Each page/sleeve of the album contained an individual 78.  Some albums would hold as many as eight brittle breakable disks.  My parents had an album of 78s for Finian’s Rainbow as well as Porgy And Bess.  When the vinyl long player came along in 1949 the name ‘album’ stuck and we always referred to LPs as albums. 

   It was probably the case that most of my parents’ record collection came, in boxes, all the way across the country from the east coast with us.  I don’t remember visiting Village Music with my mother but they must have bought records there.

   Neither Blackie nor Beth were musicians but each had a good singing voice and could carry a tune well.  One of my mother’s favourite songs which she’d sing around the house was Molly Malloy.  Another song she’d regale us with was all about Barney Google, a comic strip character from the 1920s.  When Beth cleaned the house it was always to one of her classical LPs.  Scheherezade, Beethoven’s 5th, Eroica or Schubert’s The Trout could be heard in every room of our abode as she made the beds, swept the floors, scrubbed, washed and generally cleaned the place.

   We had a fine recording of Peter And The Wolf with all the characters being played by different instruments and narrated by someone whose name I don’t remember.  I would create pictures in my mind as Peter opened the garden gate and wandered out into the meadow.

   The Broadway show recordings which were played a lot were mostly those of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Each one took me into a world I could only imagine. Oklahoma transported me to a land of rolling wheat which sure smelled sweet.  I knew nothing about Ado Annie but her performance of I Cain’t Say No was fabulous and, with repetition, it invaded my soul.  

   The King And I was equally infectious and its beautifully crafted and memorable songs, once heard, simply became part of you.  Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence were on the Broadway recording and, though we did see the Hollywood film, it was the stage version which we heard first.

   We also loved George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess.  That instantly recognizable riff over which Summertime is sung was seductive in the extreme and Cab Calloway’s scat ridden performance of It Ain’t Necessarily So was beguiling.  I knew nothing about the Bible so was hearing names like Jonah and Methuselah for the first time.  All this music and these lyrics came to me without any explanation and simply took me over. 

   Jazz was reasonably well represented in my parents’ record collection.  Satch Plays Fats was one by Louis Armstrong along with Ambassador Satch.  Louis and his glorious horn also turned up on the film soundtrack of High Society which became a Myers family favourite.  We went as a family to see this movie, starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong.  The songs were all fantastic: True Love, High Society, You’re Sensational, Now You Has Jazz and Well Did You Evah?  This was one of our most played LPs throughout 1956/57.

   I knew nothing about these voices I was listening to.  I was simply seduced by the vocals and the wonderful orchestral arrangements. 

   Blackie and Beth had no individual recordings of Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby but another collection of Porter songs which arrived in our house was the double LP of Ella Fitzgerald sings the Cole Porter Songbook.  These two records were just wonderful to listen to.  I knew no more about Ella Fitzgerald than I did about Crosby or Sinatra but I fell in love with her voice and the musical arrangements played by Buddy Bergman’s Orchestra.  Her diction was crystal clear and she sang Cole Porter’s songs beautifully.  Also the lyrics were so witty though, at nine years old, an awful lot of the subject matter sailed right over my head.  It made not a jot of difference to me.  Each number was a masterpiece to be savoured. 

   We had a comedy LP called The Future Lies Ahead, recorded live at the ‘Hungry I’ featuring Mort Sahl.  He was clearly very political as he mentioned President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon a lot.  He dropped a lot of other names which meant nothing to me but I was mesmerized by the rhythm of his speech patterns and the sound of his voice.  He’d repeat words such as ‘like’ and ‘right’ in his rapid banter and the phrase ‘at any rate’ featured a lot. 

   In one routine Sahl was talking about Nixon playing more of a role at the White House after Eisenhower’s illness: “So he’s now on the cover of all these magazines. TIME, NEWSWEEK and LIFE.  With the exception of TRUE, which has a hidden significance.”  The laughter of the live audience was often the only clue I had that this material was funny but it was.

   Blackie had been good friends with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger but their music was never played in our house.  In fact folk music, like that played by our good friend Jenny Vincent in New Mexico was not of interest to Beth and Blackie.  They’d also known Billie Holiday in New York and, though I heard a lot about the song Strange Fruit, which they had seen her perform at Café Society in Greenwich Village, I never actually heard it until I was in my thirties. 

   My parents’ record collection left me with quite a few surprises for later in life.  I never knew that Fats Waller sang because the only recording we had was of him playing the piano.  He was, I learned later, a marvellous and accomplished songwriter, pianist and organist.

   I also didn’t know that Cab Calloway had been a band leader every bit as famous as Duke Ellington during the 1930s.  My only exposure to him was as ‘Sportin’ Life’ from our recordings of Porgy And Bess.

   I was completely unaware of the musical revolution which occurred in the jazz world during the late forties and early fifties as my parents had no interest at all in the be-bop of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and others who played what came to be known as modern jazz.

   Another LP which captivated me was the soundtrack to the French movie Black Orpheus which combined its music by Antonio Carlos Jobim with crowd noises from the carnival in Rio and it, like the movie, was spooky.

   I don’t remember my brother Jim or sister Kate ever buying records, but Nellie and I were enthusiasts.  She acquired a collection of mostly film soundtracks while I amassed a stack of 45s and a few LPs of mostly rock and roll.  I loved Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Pat Boone and Fats Domino. 

   When the radio station KOBY came on the air in late 1956 I became an avid listener but I was strangely hard wired to my parents’ way of thinking and, knowing that they would find the disk jockeys’ patter to be ludicrous, I always felt embarrassed by it and never put the station on in their presence.  I also never inflicted my Elvis or Little Richard records on them for the same reason.

   The rock and roll of that time was such a huge contrast to what had been popular before.  The big band sound of the 1930s and 40s was smooth and comforting unlike Elvis the Pelvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.  Their music was raw and blatantly sexual.  I knew instinctively that my 45s were for me, not Blackie and Beth.  A kind of musical dual-track developed within me.  One track for Ella Fitzgerald and another for Little Richard.  Separate but equally engaging.

   In the late fifties when we got the recording of The Sound Of Music with Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel I found myself, now a bit older at age 12, seduced by a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical all over again.  Every song was excellent and I soon knew each one by heart.

   So my musical dual-track continued like that for me all the way up to the hippy time when the rock music really did take over.  But it didn’t last too long.  By the time I was thirty and started singing professionally I had discovered vintage jazz and all but left rock and roll behind.

     Music touches us all.  Whether it’s the soundtrack of your favourite sit-com or the recording of a string quartet it connects with your heart or your soul.  Or both.   And sometimes your brain.

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Blackie and the Gunsel

Blackie and the Gunsel

During the 1950s our father Blackie was not at all the typical American dad.  His values and attitudes were rooted in the 1930s and 40s and his firm belief in socialism put him at odds with the political mainstream of the society we were growing up in. 

   Black used profanity in a very colourful way.  He swore effectively and often humorously.  In fact, when it came to entertaining his four children, he was a pretty accomplished comedian. There was a dog who followed my brother Jim and I home from school and adopted us.  It was a beagle from down in Homestead Valley and it slept, for about a week, on the old sofa which sat out on our front porch at 10 Seymour. 

   So one Saturday morning, my brother Jim and I were riding with Blackie up towards San Rafael.  As our Plymouth station wagon climbed up Highway 101 on the approach to Corte Madera, Blackie said:  “Hey guys. That dog’s gotta go.”

   “Why Blackie?” one of us asked from the back seat.

   “Well this morning I came out on the porch,” he said in his calm and even voice.  “And the dog’s sitting there.  He looked up at me and said:  ‘Hey Black.  F–k you.'”

   There’s a kind of laughter which is silent.  It’s silent because the person is laughing so hard that they cannot make a sound.  This was precisely the kind of laughter which consumed my brother Jim and I at hearing Blackie’s punchline.  We crumpled, literally, onto the floor in the back seat of the car.

   Profanity, during the 1950s was not, as far as I could make out, tolerated in polite society.  Grown men tended to swear and tell dirty jokes in the presence of other grown men but not around women and certainly not children.  Hollywood movies would occasionally have words like ‘Damn’ or ‘Hell’ but nothing stronger.

   My parents and their close friends were very different in this regard.  There was never any great taboo about swearing over at the Dreyfus’s or up at the Hallinans.  Vin Hallinan was a highly educated man who swore like a stevedore.

   Yet however amusing Vin or Blackie’s use of profanity was, I was under no illusions about the society I was growing up in.  I was always careful never to swear in front of any adults outside my parents’ circle of close friends. 

   Children at this time were, in my opinion, second class citizens.  The adults in all the stores in downtown Mill Valley, with the exception of Village Music, regarded most children with suspicious contempt.  I suppose the main suspicion was the possibility of shoplifting.  

   There were also many activities which children were strictly not allowed to participate in.  Smoking, drinking, driving and voting were all things that big people did. I was definitely not happy being a child.  All my role models were adults and I longed to be amongst their number. 

   So, though my parents and their friends definitely did not treat us like second class citizens, it did seem like that was the fate of most of my friends at school.  It was a very strict time.  Corporal punishment was common and many of my friends received regular spankings at home as well as at school.  Many times I heard angry adults in a public place shouting at their kids: “Just you wait ’til I get you home!”  I’m sure this was why the behaviour at the Saturday matinee was so raucous because suddenly there were no adults around except for the flashlight wielding ushers and it was possible, for one afternoon, to break out.

   It’s probably difficult for younger people now to comprehend what it was like growing up in Mill Valley in the 1950s.  In many ways society has changed for the better.  There were so many taboo subjects back then which people in general and children specifically did not discuss in public.  The swear words which were not to be uttered within earshot of adults were fairly specific and the realities which each of these words represented were off limits too.  Defecation, fornication and urination were not subjects to discuss which is why kids relished time away from adults so all this ‘dirty talk’ could flow without any censorship.

   So Blackie held a particular charm for his children as he didn’t subscribe to any of those attitudes which were so prevalent in mainstream society. He spoke using nicknames and had one for everything, never describing anything in a conventional way.  A rich person was candlestick, a child was a breadsnapper, a tourist was a scenery bum…the list was long indeed.  Being a sailor was probably the biggest influence on the way he used language though growing up in Brooklyn must have been an equally strong component.

   In the 1941 movie The Maltese Falcon, Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade is heard referring to Elisha Cook Jr. as a gunsel.  The same expression was used by Dashiell Hammett in his 1929 novel which the film was based on. If you google the word ‘gunsel’ you will find that it means a criminal carrying a gun, derived from the Yiddish word gendzel or little goose.  It also denotes a homosexual youth.

   Now Blackie used the word gunsel a lot and it was not a term of endearment.  If someone was a gunsel they were stupid or inept.  The word however had a different meaning for him then what I found on Google.  In the early 1960s when we had moved down to Catalpa Street he told me the seafaring origins of the word.

   “In the early days of warships,” he explained, “They had a terrible time moving cannons around the decks.  So somebody came up with the idea of putting a sail on each cannon in the hope that the wind would move these big guns.”

   At this point I looked at him quizzically as if to say ‘would they?’

   “What do you think Jack? Could a sail full of wind move a cannon that probably weighed a ton?”  It took me a moment to realise it wouldn’t.

   So, according to Blackie, the Gun Sail became a sailor’s expression for a stupid idea and in time a stupid person.  In the way of nautical jargon it was ultimately abbreviated to gunsel like forecastle became foc’sle.

   He also told me what a geek was.  When Bob Dylan’s LP Highway 61 Revisited came out in 1965 there was a line in Ballad Of A Thin Man about buying a ticket to go see the geek.  Blackie told me that every travelling carnival used to have a geek which was a person who was kept constantly drunk.  People would pay money to laugh at the Geek. Of course the modern use of this word has nothing to do with these historic carnie origins but practically every expression that Black used had a proper definition.  A ‘Laughing Academy’ was how he described a mental hospital.  A ‘Dildock’ was someone who didn’t know what they were doing and a person who was wasting their time was ‘F–kin’ the dog.’

   Swearing in our household was not excessive.  Beth rarely swore and Blackie only ever used the F word when he lost his temper or when it could be put to comical effect and his timing in that department was impeccable.

   Also we didn’t use profanity in a literal sense in our family.  Calling someone a ‘son of a bitch’ was never a comment on their mother and ‘bastard’ did not denote illegitimacy.  They were simply colourful and effective words and phrases.

   Several of the famous people that Black knew back in New York when he was a vice president of the National Maritime Union were not of particular interest to me until later in life.  He knew Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson.  When Woody Guthrie died, Blackie was asked to speak at a service held in San Francisco and I remember him telling me that Pig Pen of the Grateful Dead was sitting in the front row. 

   The actor Walter Matthau who we have come to think of as a comedian, was actually, throughout most of the 1950s and early 60s, a serious heavy, playing villains in the movies and didn’t become known as a funny guy until pretty late on.  So it was well before The Odd Couple when it came up that Blackie knew him. He said that he was the funniest man he’d ever met and that he could reduce a room full of people to tears of laughter just by keeping a straight face.

   I recently watched the feature film Woodstock all about the famous music festival in the late 1960s.  It was a fairly nostalgic experience seeing the San Francisco bands, many of whom I knew from my days working for Bill Graham at the Fillmore.  One thing which stood out, however, was the artless use of profanity, particularly the F word.  So casually was it thrown around in the stage announcements that it lost any power and, quite frankly, became very boring to hear along with the word ‘man.’

A picture taken in our back yard at 48 Catalpa possibly in 1964. From left: Jim Myers, Blackie Myers, John Myers.
The same three later at their apartment on Union Street in San Francisco probably in 1966. Jim is holding our cat Totem.
Blackie with his first grandchild Michael (nicknamed ‘Pog’ at the time) aged one in 1967. My sister Nell brought ‘Poggy’ back to SF from London for a visit. Mike grew up in Stratford in the East End of London but is now a resident of California.

   By the time of the psychedelic years I had long hair and was a hippy.  Blackie hated long hair on men and certainly didn’t have a good opinion of drugs.  He was, like most of their close friends, entirely opposed to the war in Vietnam but stylistically he remained aloof from the protests against it.

   The poet Lew Welch was a good friend of Black’s and came over to the house on Catalpa a lot during that time.  He would try his damndest to convert him to what he described as ‘the movement’ but Blackie would just smile and nod.

   On one visit Lew told him all about the anti-Vietnam war demo that the Hell’s Angels had tried to break up violently in Berkeley.  Allen Ginsberg had gone to see Sonny Barger, the leader of the Angels and said: “What are you doing man?  I thought you were rebels and here you are beating these kids up.”  According to Lew this was the beginning of a truce between the Angels and the anti-war movement.

   Blackie’s attitude to all the well publicised protesting which was happening over on the Berkeley campus was that the students, who he agreed with politically, had no bargaining power and therefore no means of achieving their goals. He viewed politics through the prism of trade unionism.

   Stylistically Blackie did not bend with the times.  It was this stoic quality which probably helped him through the blacklist years. Though the federal government had made it practically impossible for him to earn a living on the east coast he didn’t seem to bear a grudge about it. He did despise certain politicians like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon but he never lost his considerable faith in human nature.  He always had a smile and a joke for the people on the checkout at Safeways and his conviction that socialism was ultimately the answer to society’s ills never deserted him.

   I know I’m not unique in missing my parents but I do wish I’d become as interested in their history then as I am now.  But sadly I don’t think that’s the way life works.

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Of Monsters and Magazines…

Of Monsters and Magazines…

Movies of all kinds were a passion of mine while growing up in Mill Valley but films with a fantastic dimension held a special fascination for me.  Giant monsters running amok in great cities or flying saucers attacking earth would hold me spell bound in a packed Saturday matinee at the Sequoia.

   And yet when I would come away from seeing something like The Day The Earth Stood Still or When Worlds Collide there was no way of holding onto the intense images I had seen.  I remember wishing there was a magazine which catered to the likes of me who loved seeing giant monsters on the screen.  But no such magazine existed.   

   My sister Nell bought Screen Stories every month but they hardly paid any attention to horror movies which, in spite of their huge popularity at the boxoffice, were considered very lowbrow by the media.  

   It was on a trip into the city with my mother Beth and brother Jim that something life changing happened.  We were making a visit to Kaiser Hospital and had taken a cab down to the Bus Depot.  While Beth bought tickets, I gazed over at the magazine rack and there it was.  The very first copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland.  I was stunned.  The cover wasn’t great.  A pretty blonde woman on the arm of a man wearing a rubber mask of Universal’s Frankenstein’s monster.  At the bottom of the cover were the words: Collector’s Edition.  

   Inside it was wonderful, full of exciting stills from different sci-fi/horror movies.  I was immediately smitten and thank goodness my mother coughed up the 35c that it cost.

   For the entire bus ride to the city I hardly noticed the familiar sights as we passed them: The Ondine restaurant in Sausalito, The Golden Gate Bridge, The Palace of Fine Arts.  As the bus drove past all these visual delights, the only things I saw were the wonderful photos in this magazine and because it was about a subject I loved, I read the words too.

   The editor, Forest J. Ackerman, went in for the most appalling puns but he clearly knew what he was writing about.  The Creature From The Black Lagoon became ‘Blackie Lagoon.’  He and the publisher also knew a thing or two about marketing for I soon became enslaved to this magazine.  

   I think that Famous Monsters and Mad Magazine were the only constant passions for me in those days, although I also devoured comic books like Uncle Scrooge, Superman and Classics Illustrated.  

   And I was terribly serious about collecting them.  I remember a particular piece of art deco furniture that served as the place all my comics and mags were stacked in chronological order.  Nobody was allowed to bend the covers back or use them as table mats. 

   It may well be that Famous Monsters inspired me to begin my first movie scrapbook.  I began to save clippings of movie ads from the Chronicle and the film that started me off was 7th Voyage of Sinbad.  I had seen a large poster display for this movie in the lobby of the Paramount theatre and the sight of a giant Cyclops with a horn on its head, a large fire breathing dragon and a big two headed bird convinced me I had to see this film.

   On Sundays the Chronicle had a pink section with all the arts news and it featured a big photo of the Cyclops leaning down to pick up a prostrate Sinbad on a beach.  There was also a large ad for the movie with production illustrations by the special effects man Ray Harryhausen.  That was it.  I decided I would begin my scrapbook with this movie.  

   As the days passed I clipped every ad and article about the film and threw them into my newly purchased scrapbook.  Cutting them out and pasting them in was a job for later.

   The ad in the Chronicle was my first introduction to the name of Ray Harryhausen though I was already a fan of those movies he had made:  Earth Vs The Flying Saucers and 20 Million Miles to Earth were the ones I’d seen at the Saturday matinee but I’d had the entire plots of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and It Came From Beneath The Sea acted out for me in great detail by Danny Hallinan.  

   The run-up to Christmas was always an exciting time.  Though my family was financially poor, many of my parents’ best friends were actually millionaires and the generosity of these people saw us though the tough times of my father’s political blacklisting.

   One set of friends back east were Ruth and Luke Wilson who always sent a big box of presents for us all and individual cheques for each of us kids.  Each cheque was for $25 which, in 1958, was more than enough for us to do our Christmas shopping.

   My brother Jim and I made our seasonal shopping trip into the city, catching a Greyhound bus which took us to the big depot at 7th and Market.  Our first port of call were the stores near Union Sqaure: Macy’s, I. Magnin and the City of Paris.  Going to see the tree at City of Paris was a must as it was the biggest in San Francisco.  It had to be lowered into the store by a crane through the skylight. 

   There was also shopping at the big Woolworth’s by the cable car turntable at Powell and Market.  We had lunch at Manning’s on Market and then it was time for the movie at the St Francis which was 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

   This movie grabbed me from the very beginning with Bernard Herrmann’s wonderful Arabian Nights score.  Had this film disappointed me, my scrapbook might never have come to life but that was not the case.    

   Kerwin Mathews’ performance as Captain Sinbad was a solid core to the adventures which unfolded.  Equally impressive was Torin Thatcher who ate the furniture as Sokura the evil magician but the real stars of this wonderful movie were Harryhausen’s magical monsters.

   I was back to see it again the following week and when it finally made its way to the Sequoia I saw it again and now I was able to read about it in Famous Monsters.

   Reading a magazine regularly was a special experience and the people who produced them used a great deal of psychology in keeping their readers coming back.  The cover was always important as it had to hook you.  MAD always had great covers and the Famous Monsters covers got better as they started using Basil Gogos to paint the art work. 

   So whenever school friends would come back to our house they would always lose themselves reading my comics and magazines.  One friend who I first met at Alto in the sixth grade was Craig Bird.  Craig was big, had a greaser hairdo and was also tough.  He had an older brother who had a different last name: Bob Tomei.  Bob was about four years older than Craig and within the ‘greaser’ hierarcy of Mill Valley Bob Tomei was considered very cool.  He had a steady job at our local Safeway and he drove a souped up car of some kind.  He had a reputation as a hard guy and when he would pull into the parking lot at C’s Drive-In, he’d pop his hood and the greasers would gather around to admire his engine.  

   It was when we got to Tam High that Craig started making noises about borrowing my Monster magazines for his brother Bob to read.  I think he mentioned it a few times and finally I said he could.  I told Craig that the covers must not be bent back and he assured me they wouldn’t be.

  It was a weekday afternoon when the shiny vehicle of Bob Tomei drove up Seymour Avenue just in front of our house.  He stayed behind the wheel as brother Craig got out of the car and came in to collect the magazines.  Bob didn’t speak but did nod his head to me from behind the wheel.  Then they reversed down our road and were gone.

   I think he had my magazines for about a week.  Craig returned them to me unmolested.  We were both sophomores by this time and socially we didn’t have all that much to do with each other.  Craig was a greaser and I wasn’t but we still liked each other.  One of my proudest moments was the time that he and about five other kids from our sixth grade class went into the city to see House On Haunted Hill at the RKO Golden Gate and every time Craig got scared he would run out to the lobby.  I was, by this time, a seasoned horror movie veteran and never closed my eyes or looked away and the sight of this big tough guy dashing up the aisle made me swell with an inner satisfaction.

   By the time we were sophomores Craig had become very ‘back parking lot’ meaning he hung out by the Canteen at break time with other greasers.  There was a standard gag at rallies in Meade Theatre where, in the midst of the show, a car would screech to a halt by the stage and several tough guys dressed as 1920s gangsters with guns would take the stage and Craig was always one of them.

   During the football season at Tam High the big social event on Friday nights was to go to the game up at the College of Marin which is where I found myself and who should I see walking along but Bob Tomei with his arm around a pretty young woman.  So I said hello.  He looked at me in puzzlement, clearly not knowing who I was so I said my name and added: “I’m the one who lent you the monster magazines.”  He smiled and walked on.  I thought nothing more of it.

   There was a wall in the back parking lot where most of my friends would congregate at break time and when I arrived during our morning recess who should be there but Craig Bird regaling my friends about how I had embarrassed his brother at the football game.

   “There’s my brother Bob,” he said loudly, “Out with a girl and suddenly this little midget comes up saying ‘I’m the guy who lent you the monster magazines!’  He was just so embarrassed!”

   I stood there, feeling my face go bright red and listened to Craig denounce me over and over.  I then crept away feeling mortified.  

   It never occurred to me to be embarrassed about my passion for monster movies.  The likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have made it easier for modern day kids to love fantasy films but back in the 1950s it seemed to be a dark secret not to be discussed.  Silly me for not realising that.

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A Daily Dose of ‘Dick Tracy’…

A Daily Dose of ‘Dick Tracy’…

There was a daily ritual in the Myers house which all four children and both of my parents participated in which was reading the funnies in the Chronicle.

   We took the Chronicle because it was not a Hearst publication like the Examiner.  The name William Randolph Hearst had the same resonance within our home as Satan in a house of god.  This didn’t mean that my parents liked the Chronicle but it was considered the lesser evil.

   The paper was delivered every morning by a big van which would speed up Seymour Avenue and the driver would throw it, rolled up in wax paper, down towards our porch.

   The different sections would be seized upon.  Blackie and Jimmy liked the green Sports pages while I was a huge fan of the Peanuts section which had the movie ads in it.  Even though each family member would gravitate to different parts of the paper, each one of us would read the comic strips. 

   The Chronicle ran about eight or nine strips stacked top to bottom on a full page which was a moveable feast.  Sometimes it was at the back of the Peanuts section, sometimes in sports and occasionally it would turn up behind the want ads in Herb Caen. 

   It was a fairly diverse collection.  Gordo was a light hearted strip featuring a Mexican guy wearing a sombrero.  Steve Roper was a caucasian photo journalist with a silver haired sidekick named Mike Nomad who sported a crew cut.  Dondi was a little orphan boy of European origin who was always saying: “Goshes Uncle Ted.” A few others were to be found in separate places like Dennis The Menace and Peanuts.

   It was the case that the daily doings of Peanuts were regularly discussed around the Myers dinner table.  Lucy’s introduction of the lemonade-like stand bearing the legend: ‘Psychiatric Help 5¢’ was a source of much amusement at 10 Seymour but the one strip which all our family followed with intensity was Dick Tracy.

   The curious thing about Tracy was that the drawings were so eccentric.  Chester Gould’s visual representations were not what you would think of as great art but his contorted characters, bizarre plot twists and surprises made the strip unmissable.

   As a budding cartoonist I was constantly copying all the comic strip characters and doing Dick Tracy was odd because you hardly ever saw him looking directly at you.  He was mostly in profile with his hat on and his nose was shaped like a box.  His chin was also square and his eyes and mouth were simply horizontal lines

   A source of wonderment for me was his Two Way Wrist Radio.  Tracy was constantly talking into it to communicate with Sam Ketchum or his chief.  This, to my young mind, was an absolutely fantastic concept and I was always pretending to have one on my wrist as I walked home from school.  The big problem for a nine year old was finding things to say into it so I doubtlessly repeated myself a lot. 

   I also had a fascination with the kind of microphones you would see inside police cars, whether they were Mill Valley squad cars or the ones that Tracy and his colleagues travelled in.  These were shaped like a slightly flattened avocado and were connected to the radio by a spiral cord.  There was a button on the side which the officer would press down when speaking into it. 

   It was early in 1956 that we first encountered Joe Period, an absolutely peculiar looking young fellow who was, we soon learned, a ‘wheel man,’ meaning he drove fast cars for criminal gangs.

   Joe was called upon by Mr. Pocketclip, an equally bizarre looking bastard, to set him up with a night club singer named Julie Marrlin.  Pocketclip was a big, rotund seventy year old and the young singer was probably in her twenties but he was lovesick over her though she wouldn’t return his calls.  It transpired that Pocketclip was a disbarred attorney who had defended her hoodlum husband, unsuccessfully, and the state had executed him.  So for him to get to first base with this girl he hired young Joe Period to set him up with her.

   Now at this time in American history a character like Joe Period, in real life, would have probably looked a bit like James Dean but Period was weirder looking than that.  His hair was full of Brylcreem but instead of the Elvis style pompadour, the hair on top was oddly short so that it looked like the upper part of his head was flat.  His eyes resembled two fish swimming towards each other and his mouth was like those on the women Gould drew. 

   It’s fair to say that Chester Gould was not one to worry too much about human anatomy.  The contortions he put his characters through defied most of the natural laws.  What he was pretty good at was perspective and drawing cars but everything else, like hands and legs, had an amateur look about them.

   As the days and weeks passed we would discuss the daily antics of Tracy and his villains.  A policewoman named Lizz joined the force about the same time as Joe Period turned up and she was one of the artist’s more attractive creations.  Perhaps it’s a testament to Gould’s talent and ability that he was actually capable of drawing people who looked beautiful as well as ugly.

   Tracy appeared Monday to Saturday in a strip of usually four boxes but on Sundays the funny papers were all in full colour and three times the size.  Seeing them in colour in their own section was a very exciting thing for me and an added feature with the Sunday spread was the ‘Crimestopper’s Textbook’ in which Tracy would give rookie cops and others advice like: “Make your search thorough!  Dismantled sawed-off shotguns have been discovered concealed on the person.”

   Through a series of compelling incidents, Joe Period wound up murdering the girl singer and becoming the object of a huge manhunt.  We eventually found him shivering inside a giant pickle vat in a rail yard where he was found and confronted by policewoman Lizz. 

   It was at this stage that we met the son of Flattop.  I had no idea who Flattop Senior was but here was yet another of Gould’s ludicrous creations. 

   A ‘flattop’ to my young mind, was the kind of crew cut that certain men had. It required a particular type of hair which was stiff enough to stand straight up on top.  Steve Roper’s sidekick Mike Nomad had a flattop and years later when I was at Tam High my algebra teacher Mr.  Davlin had one.  So it could be that when Chester Gould created the character in the 1940s, this style of haircut had not yet been invented and the concept of having a head with a flat top was what he meant.

   The top of his head was, indeed, flat with a thin layer of dark hair which had a noticeable middle parting.  It then flowered out on either side with slightly broccoli shaped curls around ears that stuck out like Alfred E. Neuman’s.  The face which supported this hairdo was shaped like a teacup.  Two thick dark eyebrows sat just below the hairline above his hooded orbs.  His nose was very similar to that of Dennis the Menace and his mouth was shaped like a two lipped lemon.  The closest human equivalent was Edward G. Robinson.

   Somehow Flattop Junior managed to outwit Lizz and took Joe Period off in his super duper car which not only had fuel injection but also a Hi-Fi, TV, Police radio and a hot plate for cooking bacon and eggs.  They managed to outwit the law by using back roads and tuning into the police radio broadcasts but Period was undone when they broke into Nothing Yonson’s club to kill him for a double cross and made off with the contents of his safe.  This, however was where Flattop double crossed Period and escaped with the money while the hapless Joe was taken into custody. 

   I guess Gould never felt confidant in his ability to convey all the information through his cartoons because every time Tracy talked into his 2 way wrist radio a little sign with an arrow would appear reminding you what it was.  Also when Lizz was kicking Joe Period around with her martial arts down in the pickle vat another little sign with an arrow appeared reading: ‘Judo Hold.’

   When Joe Period arrived at prison the first visitor was his mother who explained, for the benefit of we who didn’t know, that she had failed her son by going out to work and drinking in bars with his father rather than looking after him.  So overcome with shame was Mrs. Period that she wore a veil which prevented us from seeing if her eyes also looked like two fish swimming towards each other.

   Flattop was smart, unlike Joe Period, who wasn’t very bright.  Young table top was something of a boy genius with a passion for painting and electronics.  He’d done all the work on his car himself  but was destined to follow in his father’s criminal footsteps.

   The morality of Chester Gould’s world was pretty straight forward: Crime Doesn’t Pay!  It was, however, the criminals which made the strip compelling, not Tracy, Sam Ketchum or any of the so called good guys.   

   Certain expressions used in Tracy bothered me.  References to ‘the chair’ or ‘being fried’ was upsetting to me because of the way the Rosenbergs had been executed.  These comical looking characters threw these phrases around all the time. 

   Another quality which crept into Gould’s comic strip was a kind of surrealism which manifested itself with Flattop after he ditched Joe Period.  He hired a garage to stash his car and got a room where the landlady had a young daughter named Skinny who took a shine to him.  He got angry at the girl, chased her up on the roof and threw her off, killing her.  Jumping in his car to make a getaway, he was soon aware that the girl’s ghostly figure was clinging to him and wouldn’t let go. 

   Our summer vacations were usually spent camping further north at sites like Lassen and often we would go for a couple of weeks without our daily dose of Dick Tracy which meant catching up on our return to Mill Valley.  The family addiction to Gould’s strip lasted through the rest of the 1950s but by the early 60s it became, for me at least, more and more ridiculous and I lost interest. 

   My earliest exposure to the box nosed Tracy occurred before we got to Mill Valley.  The very first comic book I ever saw was on a carousel rack in a Rexall drug store in White Bear Lake, Minnesota in 1951 and it was a Dick Tracy.  My mother Beth didn’t buy it for me so seeing its brightly coloured cover stayed lodged in my memory.

   I found many features of the daily Chronicle enjoyable including the news.  I didn’t follow real life crime stories in the paper but was drawn to politics.  As most of our family chat at suppertime was political it made a nice contrast when we’d discuss the daily doings of Chester Gould’s ridiculous creation.  Even Beth knew the names of Joe Period and Flattop as we all contemplated where the action would go next. 

   I often think of my childhood preoccupation with Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio when I use my iPhone.  The many amazing things this modern device can do would have truly astonished my young self as I was wandered aimlessly home from Homestead School talking into the imaginary radio on my wrist. 

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