Monday, December 10, 2018

Folklore: Pinky Butler, when a load of hay passes you, make a wish, sympathetic magic

Folklore: When you pass a load of moving hay, make a wish.
Genre: superstition, sympathetic magic; plant husbandry: Appalachia, possibly British origins.
Bonus folklore: family history, a moniker, and a diamond ring
Informant: Donna Champion, female, 64
English/Spanish-speaking Guamanian-Chamorro, Guatemalan, Spanish, French/Norman Irish-American
ESL instructor, Sonoma County, CA
Dec. 9, 2018
Collected in Cotati, CA (in a car on Hwy 116)

I collected a new bit of folklore that arrived by way of Guam, of all places. It probably arrived by way of Texas, possibly originally from Kentucky, or even the British Isles, ca. 1910. The saying was a favorite of Donna Champion's grandfather, Chester Carl, aka "CC," or “Pinky” Butler, who passed it onto his Guamanian daughter, Clara Mae Butler.

Donna and I were driving down Highway 116, when an overladen hay truck was approaching us, coming the other way. She said, Quick! Make a wish. So I did. Then she told me the superstition that her mother, Pinky’s daughter, Clara Mae Butler Champion, who was born on Guam, taught her. Donna said, "Whenever we passed a hay truck, my mother would say: when you pass a load of moving hay, make a wish. It didn't have to be a truck." She also said, "You need to keep the wish to yourself."

I got a few bits of folklore for the price of one, from how the Coca-Cola franchise arrived on Guam, to how Pinky got his Guamanian moniker. Chester Carl, aka C.C. (b. In Sunset, TX, ca., 1884), was a redhead of Norman-Irish descent (by way of Illinois, and W. Virginia); his father, James Berry Butler, a newspaper editor from Illinois, took to drink after Chester’s mother, Melissa Belle Payne, a Baptist who hailed from Rockwell Texas, died in childbirth when he was eight years old).

Living with his three brothers at the relatives didn't pan out, and after Chester finished eighth grade, he ran away from his mother’s extended family. When he was 14, he went to seek his fortune out west. He arrived San Francisco, where he was employed to sell fruits vegetables in a pushcart on Nob Hill. His employer took him in and gave him room and board. When Chester was 18 (ca. 1902), he joined the Navy, and served aboard the USS Pensacola. That's how he wound up on Guam.

Chester "Pinky" Butler of the USS Pensacola, showing off his tats

A fair-freckled, blue-eyed redhead, Chester's fair complexion didn’t fare too well on Guam, he was always sunburned—hence the moniker "Pinky." With the help of his greengrocer savings, which he had converted into a diamond ring he kept hidden in his pillow, he used the ring as collateral, and with that, made a family fortune. Pinky was industrious, he brought a Coke franchise, and seltzer water machines to Guam, and sold American made goods to the Pacific islands. That enterprise became a thriving chain of businesses, Butler's Inc. 

That grubstake ring became an engagement ring for the 17-year-old Ignacia Bordallo, who was from the large Kotla Chamorro clan. They were married on the 8th of January, 1915, in Agat, Guam. They had six children. He was taken a prisoner of war Dec. 8, 1941, and held in Kobe, Japan for the duration of the war. His health was broken. He died on Valentine's Day, 1952, in Oakland, CA. Donna's eldest sister, Connie still has that diamond ring.

The first time my friend Donna remembered hearing the saying, When you pass a load of moving hay, make a wish, was in the early 1960s, was when she was a child. Donna learned it from her mother, Clara Mae (Pinky’s daughter), in Sebastopol, CA. 

What makes this bit of folklore interesting to me is that there were no hay trucks or haywains on Guam, and yet the saying survived three generations. Donna's brother Greg, born in 1952, didn't recall the hay saying, but he did add that his maternal great-great-grandfather, from Spain, raised cattle on Guam.

Apparently the second part of the hay-wish formula was that you couldn’t look back at the passing vehicle either, a condition which my friend said she never learned. I found another account online where you had to lick your thumbs, and snap your fingers/slap your thigh, too. (see my notes below.)

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Elephant Mountain & fog, Mo colored pencil drawing

Elephant Mountain in fog, colored pencil. Still learning the blending and layering process. Yes, I’m working in a series, I took lots of photos in September, and am using them as models as a backlog. so I’ll keep using them until I’ve figured it out. Electronically enhanced pleinnair painting—er, drawing. I prefer to paint, but I don’t have my art supplies.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018


Ah, Julia, named after a city of vines,
your knitted cap, a badge of the troubadour,
artist, wordsmith, I never knew you well,
but the street corners of Telegraph rose up
to greet you like feral cats weaving
invisible shackles with their thin bodies,
saying the poet is come.
The Bubblelady is come with her magic wand,
welcome words feeding the pigeons at dawn.
The fog weeps and mourns in tendrils
for the passing of the daughter of the street,
the poet-chronicler of alleyways and corners.
Yes, the street mourns for you,
it will miss the caresses of your jade eye
as you turned the suffering of those
sleeping in doorways into a cloak
of humanity and hope. Perhaps
someone will place a bronze star,
or a bench with a bigger-than-life sculpture
of you hawking your books to unsuspecting tourists
in front of Moe’s Books for you,
Poet Laureate of the streets.

The Russian River Writers' Guild blog launched

I launched a new blog of very old work, The Russian River Writers’ Guild poetry and prose reading series, of which I was part of from 1979 to the mid-1990s. It's where I first began my career as a poet, my teething ring, then my training bra, and later, my world stage. I've pulled blog posts and snippets from this blog and reposted them (revised and expanded snippets) there, as they were lost here, they were too hard to find, too spread out. The storyline was impossible to follow. Now, there's a partial timeline of the poets who've read for the series from 1976 to the late 1990s.

The new blog, with its flyers, and Obligatory Hug, replete with poems, serves as a timeline of that era. I will eventually add photos as well, but just adding the flyers alone has been a monumental task. I am indebted to Donna Champion, keeper of the RRWG archives. There are a few holes, but the flyers paint a complete picture of the series and the poets who read for us. And you, Dear Reader, should you have any memorabilia, we would be ever so grateful.

T'was the earliest of daze, the poets gaze....

What to do with all those old literary archives—why, scan them, of course. Welcome to our latest blog, the archives of the North Bay Area's longest running poetry series, the Russian River Writers' Guild, founded in 1972, or 73, depending upon your source. I will be cannibalizing posts from my blog, Literrata to fit this blog. So this project is very much in medias res... please bear with me while I massage all the bits and pieces together to make a timeline of sorts. If you were a reader, please reveal yourselves, share your stories, and memorabilia. Leave poems, and comments. So many (in)famous writers. So many crazy nights.This stuff needs to be documented, and I'm counting on you to remember, O collective hive mind. But first, a little backstory:
Since the early '70's, both famous and infamous poets across the nation have shared the podium with local poets at the Russian River Writers' Guild poetry and prose reading series. Literally, hundreds of poets—from nationally recognized names such as McArthur prize recipient Robert Hass; Robert Bly whose translations of Rilke were published by Calliopea Press; and 95-year-old Meridel LeSueur, a McCarthy era blacklisted writer rediscovered in the 70's by the women's movement—to the real unknowns who have just discovered the power of the written word.

Guild coordinators Lee Perron and Maureen Hurley said the heyday of the series (1979 to '82) was when novelist Margie Summerfield offered them a free space with a stage, lighting and sophisticated sound system at Garbo's Cabaret & Bar in Guernewood Park. Many customers who came in for a drink were startled at first, but soon took to poetry like ducks to water. The Paper: RUSSIAN RIVER WRITERS' GUILD POETRY AND PROSE SERIES; AN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE (1/6/88)
The Sunday evening poetry series, called Poetry, for lack of a better handle, began in 1973, or 73, depending upon whom you talked to. The ad hoc poetry group met in people's homes, and cafes like West of the Laguna, Brothers, and Odd Fellows Junction.

One former co-founder, Andrei Codrescu, Rumanian poet, and poetry correspondent for NPR's weekly series, All Things Considered, dubbed his fellow poetry conspirator, Pat Nolan, a leader of the "California School of Writing" according to Nolan's wife, Gail King, who was also a coordinator. Other coordinators included Ellen Appel, Gordon Carrega, Gil Helmick, and Hunce Voelker.

The nameless poetry series, a showcase for the 1970s new school of writing, and local talent, featured writers including Pat Nolan, Gail King, Jeffrey Miller, Diane diPrima, Steve Petty, Richard Welin, Gerrye Payne, Marianne Ware, and Donna Champion.

Newcomer, Donna Champion, who had read for the series in 1976, was expertly reeled in by Marianne Ware who was after new blood when Andrei Codrescu fled to New Orleans. Donna coined the Guild's moniker when she needed a title for her community project at Sonoma State University in 1978. And the name, the Russian River Writers' Guild, shortened to RRWG, which stuck, apostrophe and all.

RRWG guild co-founder and "Jewish mother", Marianne Ware, greeted each reader with a big hug, which was dubbed by coordinator Jim Montrose as the "obligatory hug" which became the name of the Guild's monthly newsletter of upcoming poetic events, prose, and poetry of featured readers––circa 1980.Jim died in 1984, so there are several posts of the posthumous book we edited, Tracks in the Widest Orbit. We also submitted it as his MA thesis at Sonoma State University (he was in my MA class there), which was awarded in May of 1985.

Burnout was a constant problem as most of the former coordinators had either dropped out, or moved on. Over the years, many Sonoma County poets stepped up to help carry the mantle that Marianne Ware, and Donna Champion, who were the last ones of the original group left upholding the series in 1979. Maureen Hurley, Lee Perron, Jim Montrose, Joe Pahls, Mark Clagett, Craig Taylor, Bonnie Olsen, Claire Josephine, Glenn Ingersoll, Jim McCrary, David Bromige, Steve Tills, Jayne McPherson....(don’t take offense if we didn’t list you, we're adding names as we go.)

And all the poets who read for the series—reads like a veritable Who's Who in poetry: Pat Nolan, Gail King, Andrei Codrescu, Jonathan London, Doug Powell, Carolyn Kizer, Jane Hirshfield, David Bromige, Michael Oandaje, Robert Hass, Richard Tillinghast, Elizabeth Herron, Jerry Rosen, Gerry Haslam, Bob Kaufman, Gene Ruggles, Robert Bly, Dorianne Laux, Utah Phillips, Rosalee Sorrells, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Joanne Kyger, Ed Balchowsky, Ramon Sender Morningstar, Susan and Philip Suntree, Molly Fisk, Frances Mayes, Paul Mariah, May Sarton's sister, and Madame Blavatsky.... those were wild times.

This list is just the beginning—we'll be fluffing up the history and developing the timeline in the near future. And it will be a challenge to name all the venues that hosted the series up and down the Russian River, to Sebastopol, and Santa Rosa—we read in tree stumps, living rooms, pizza parlours, bars and niteclubs, cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, and senior centers—any place that would have us.

Venues: West of the Laguna?, Brothers, aka Odd Fellows Junction, Country Grounds, Garbo's Cabaret, Stumptown Annie's, Fife's Resort, several other venues before we moved off the river. Luther Burbank Activities Center, Copperfield's, and another small market venue in Sebastopol (plus one-off events at the Sebastopol Veteran's Hall, the Episcopal Church in Guerneville, the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Santa Rosa, Sonoma State University), Aroma Roasters, Franklin Street Clubhouse, Higher Grounds, Mudd's, in Santa Rosa; Johnny Otis Niteclub in Sebastopol... (I need help here).

I gave 20 years of my life to promoting poets and producing poetry readings in Sonoma County. I was an open mike poet, was elevated to featured reader, then emcee, then booker, grantwriter, photographer, and eventually Executive Director. In other words, I was one of the the last ones standing. Like the phoenix, the series died, and was reborn again and again.... until it died for good in the mid-1990s. We're not even sure when poetry died in Sonoma County. But it did. We dissolved our 501c3 non-profit status in January of 2001. Long live the Russian River Writers' Guild. This is a swansong and requiem all in one.

You'd think we would've gotten lots of kudos and reciprocal readings, but, it was a largely thankless job. Unpaid, of course. There's no money in poetry, or herding cats. The biggest insult, was when an anthology was produced by the Russian River Women Writers, an offshoot of the guild, and my work wasn't included, out of spite because of a petty RRWG booking SNAFU where I calligraphed Margaret Ellingson's name smaller in order to fit it on the flyer (no typesetting in those days). When the guild made another collective anthology edited by Jayne McPherson, A Stone's Throw, the oversight was rectified, but by then, I was spun and done with the RRWG.

But these poets, whether good, bad, or indifferent—were my teachers and mentors. And for that, I am grateful.—Maureen Hurley 12/3/2018

Pat Nolan's Nuallain House Publishers blog here

I created a blog for Marianne Ware too.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

East of the Laguna, Mo colored pencil

Before/after Christo. But it’s really all about the sky. Learning as I go. Apparently you can blend wax pencils with a tortillon, a clear wax pencil, or paint thinner. I accidentally discovered that blendability here by layering colors. I’m using my old stabilo pencil to block out the hills and shadow. I love its waxiness—but it’s also water soluable. May make for instability later. Not happy with the foreground, it looks unfinished, so I may try using thinner and then layering it—if the paper will hold. This is why you’re supposed to use good paper....

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Oak, Laguna de Santa Rosa, mo, col pencil drawing


Same walk, same place. A combo of two photos! Seeking composition and color on an otherwise dreecht and dreary day. I didn’t investigate the other side of the tree, so I don’t know if it bent over, or if it lost its top long ago. Not sure if I like this one, and I tweaked my back making it, sitting too long in one place, so I’m not sure if I’m up for another....waiting for Advil to do its magic.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Laguna de Santa Rosa, Mo col. pencil drawing

My first real outing using colored wax pencils. Learning as I go. Not having the right paper may prove a challenge. It’s all about that bend in the road leading you ever on. Following the shores of the old laguna bed—reduced to that line of trees in the distance. Soon, winter floods will restore some of the memory of that ancient lakebed. 
I need a dry place to store a closet’s worth of art supplies—mostly for teaching—plus a few boxes of books would be grand. I miss not having my art supplies nearby—even if I rarely use them.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Elephant Mountain & fog, Mo, tempera on cardboard

While waiting to present a poetry workshop, I chanced upon an arts workshop at the Jewish elder home and I painted the morning away. Five visions of Black Mountain. This is the only way I know how to heal after tragedy. Art has always been my first language. Tempera, or cheap gouache on cardboard. Yes, cardboard. I'd run out of painting surfaces, this was supposed to be my painting palette.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Poems for Armistice Day

John McCrae (1872 - 1918)

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Sunday is Veteran's Day, called Armistice, or Remembrance Day in the U.K. This year is the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, which was called "The War to End All Wars". It didn't take. Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor serving on the Western Front, wrote In Flanders Fields after the Second Battle of Ypres, in 1915, for a close friend who died in battle. He wrote the poem, graveside, after conducting his friend's burial service. McCrae caught pneumonia in January, 1918, and died two weeks later. His poem, In Flanders Fields has become a leit-motif of the War, and is recited each year at Remembrance Day ceremonies around the world.

Siegfried Sassoon's poem, Suicide in the Trenches, was composed in response to his witnessing the atrocities of WWI, on the Western Front, and Sassoon, a much decorated soldier, became a focal point for dissent when he made a lone protest against the continuation of the war in his Soldier's Declaration of 1917. Instead of idealizing war, he was the first poet who spoke of the atrocities he had witnessed first hand at the Front, in vivid detail—which landed him in a military psychiatric hospital where he met fellow soldier and poet Wilfred Owen, who ironically was killed in 1918, one week before Armistice.

Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967)

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Moving a hundred years forward to time present, a poem of UK poet laureate (2009-2019) Carol Ann Duffy, The Wound in Time, caught my attention. Even though few surviving  members of WWI are still with us, and ditto that for WWII, we are all still wounded by war. Her second poem as Poet Laureate, Last Post, was commissioned by the BBC to mark the deaths of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, the last two British soldiers to fight in World War I, is worth a look.
Last Post makes explicit references to Wilfred Owen's poem from the First World War Dulce et Decorum Est. It imagines what would happen if time ran backwards and those killed in the war came back to life; their lives would still be full of possibilities and filled with "love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food."  Wiki
Last Post opens with Wilfred Owens' first two lines:
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning....
Itself, which is a line borrowed from the Roman poet HoraceDulce et decorum est pro patria mori ("It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country"). Memory, remembrance, in memoriam, these notions have fed a self-fueled war machine since Classical times.

Duffy is a Scottish poet/playwright of Irish parentage, who was born in the Gorbals, Glasgow's version of Hell's Kitchen, wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth.
When she was 16, she met Adrian Henri, one of the Liverpool poets, and decided she wanted to be with him; she then lived with him until 1982. "He gave me confidence," she said, "he was great. It was all poetry, very heady, and he was never faithful. He thought poets had a duty to be unfaithful." Wiki
I guess Adrian was successful, as he seemed to put Carol Ann off men for good, but I can attest that he was a charismatic pied piper, having met him at Poetry International in Rotterdam in the mid 1990s. Adrian and I shared a common bond in that we both worked in the schools teaching kids poetry. I gave him an armful of student anthologies. Perhaps some of Adrian's work rubbed off. In 2011 Duffy spearheaded a poetry competition for school children, dubbed Anthologise.

Many assume that, Scottish-Australian poet-songwriter Eric Bogle's No Man's Land is a reference to the Battle of the Somme, which celebrated its centenary in 2016, but Eric, a great storyteller who immigrated to Australia, penned this song in response to sectarian violence in Ireland. I first met Eric in Sebastopol for the Celtic Festival, ca 2000. At the time, he said that he wrote it during the Vietnam War, but it wasn't even about WWI. Bogle gave the fictitious dead soldier an Irish name to counter the anti-Irish sentiment in Britain during the 1970s. In an Irish News interview, in 2106, Eric said:
"I’ve often said that there never was one actual soldier called Willie McBride that I wrote about. I didn’t sit by the grave of a Willie McBride to write the song, that would be bulls**t. But I wanted to remind people that a lot of Irish lads had died fighting for king and country during WWI as well because when I wrote it in 1975, the IRA bombing campaign on the UK mainland was in full swing and there was a lot of anti-Irish feeling about and I just thought, ‘Well, here’s a wee subtle dig at the haters. “It was so subtle that most people missed it, of course,” he laughs, “but I don’t like to harangue or shove a point down people’s throats in my songs."

Eric often follows No Man's Land up with And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, (1971) a reference to Gallipoli, and the futility of war. In 2015, Eric played a concert at the site of the slaughter at Gallipoli, something he had previously refused to do because “the thought of singing for all those ghosts has always intimidated me.”

Poem on the centenary of Armistice Day 2018
Carol Ann Duffy (1955-)

It is the wound in Time. The century’s tides,
chanting their bitter psalms, cannot heal it.
Not the war to end all wars; death’s birthing place;
the earth nursing its ticking metal eggs, hatching
new carnage. But how could you know, brave
as belief as you boarded the boats, singing?
The end of God in the poisonous, shrapneled air.
Poetry gargling its own blood. We sense it was love
you gave your world for; the town squares silent,
awaiting their cenotaphs. What happened next?
War. And after that? War. And now? War. War.
History might as well be water, chastising this shore;
for we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice.
Your faces drowning in the pages of the sea.

aka The Green Fields of France, or Young Willie McBride
Eric Bogle (1944-)

Well how do you do young Willie McBride?
do you mind if I sit down here by your graveside
and rest for a while 'neath the warm summer sun
I've been walkin' all day and I'm nearly done.
I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
when you joined the great fallen of 1916.
Well I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean
Willie McBride was it slow and obscene?

Did they beat the drum slowly,
did they play the fife lowly,
did they sound the death march
as they lowered you down
did the band play the last post and chorus,
did the pipes play the "Flowers of the Forest"

And the beautiful wife or the sweetheart for life
in some faithful heart are you forever enshrined
and although you died back in 1916
in that faithful heart are you forever nineteen?
Or are you a stranger without even a name
enshrined forever behind a glass pane
in an ould photograph torn tattered and stained,
fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?

Now the sun shines down on the green fields of France
a warm summer wind makes the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished all under the plows,
there's no gas, no barbed wire, there's no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard it's still No Man's Land,
the countless white crosses stand mute in the sand
for man's blind indifference to his fellow man,
to a whole generation that was butchered and damned.

Now Willie McBride I can't help wonder why
Do those who lie here do they know why they died
Did they really believe when they answered the call
did they really believe that this war would end wars
Forever this song of suffering and shame
the killing, the dying, was all done in vain
for young Willie McBride it's all happened again,
and again, and again, and again and again.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Samhain, a cross-quarter festival

Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh! Happy New Year. May the Gates of the Otherworld stay open long enough for you to escape the coming darkness. And mind the Galoshins!

Astronomically speaking, Samhain should be celebrated November 11, which means that gates of the otherworld are open until November 16. Beware!

Modern calend dates are somewhat meaningless as the Julian calendar was off by ten days when the Gregorian calendar was introduced.

In the 8th c., Samhain was shoehorned into the Christian festival calendar of saints, and the original Roman festival of the dead that was celebrated in in May, and later, the Mexican El Día de los Muertos (originally celebrated in summer) was added to the mix. (See my rant, El Dia de los Muertos was moved atop our Day of the Dead/New Year.

Blame Pope Boniface IV for that mass conflagration of holidays to the dead now celebrated on Nov. 1 & 2.

The Celtic fire festivals are held on the cross-quarter days, midway point between the solstices and equinoxes. Samhain means summer’s end. It is part of a harvest-pastoral, or hunter’s festival calendar. Imbolc is the beginning of spring (first milk) and Beltane is the beginning of summer, followed by the games gathering festival of Lugnasa. And the church tacked on a whole slew of saints to each of these festivals in an attempt to desecularize them. Didn’t exactly work.

There is some thought that the festivals predate the coming of the Celts, which is plausible, as the Bell Beaker folk were sometimes called proto-Celts—at least by my anthropology professor. However, the megalithic standing stone monuments wouldn’t record any astronomical alignment to denote the timing of these fire festivals as they’re aligned to the solstices and equinoxes, not the cross-quarter days.

According to the early medieval Irish epics, that reflect an earlier oral tradition, Samhain was equally celebrated in Ireland, and much of the modern Halloween tradition was introduced to Scotland from Ireland.

Whose? I did a Google image search via Sean Folsom, no luck.

The Celtic wheel of the year with the cross-quarter days, nestled between the solstices and equinoxes. Samhain, the end of summer and the beginning of winter, is a harvest festival, (Halloween), followed by Imbolc, or spring (first milk), and Beltane, (May Day) or the beginning of summer, and Lugnasadh, the time for the great games and clan gathering—which lives on today as the Highland Games. Lughnassad (no double s, btw—) or Lunasa, is the festival of Lugh, is the beginning of August. It lives on in Ireland as the Puck Fair. Someone’s thrown in some other festivals. Oestara was not a Celtic festival, nor was Litha, or Yule, but Mabon was celebrated on the continent. It’s a bit of a mishmash, as someone was trying to shoehorn Roman, Germanic, and astrological signs into one thing. It doesn’t work like that. It’s not an can’t mix apples and oranges and a box of thumbtacks and expect it to make a fruit salad

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

After the fall

Last day of the Celtic year, While moving boxes of my medieval Celtic books to the garage, rather than do a header, I took a spectacular backflip skid down the front steps while trying to protect my knee, I sort of rode it out on my back like a skateboard champ. But later, I got  clobbered by a demented box of art supplies stashed on the highest shelf of the closet on my left arm, and again by a crate of Xmas stuff leapt off the shelf and smashed my right arm, so I just gave up. I think they were going for the jugular and carotid. Or maybe my head. I said,  sheesh! Third time’s a charm. Don’t disturb the ghosts. I didn’t get much done. Some days are like that. I may have landed on my back but now I have a big bruise on the front of my shin. I must’ve flipped like a cat, mid-air. All those years on horse, and donkeyback have taught me how to fall. No tailbones were involved but it hurts to slouch. And sitting in a chair or car seat is plain uncomfortable. My arms are sumo buff and bruised. When I go down for the count, I do it with verve and style. But I hurt in some very odd places.

My life for the past 20 years...

My life for the past 20 years, as I've known it, has come to a drastic end. A man, unable to deal with his past, depression, rage, has decided that I'm part and parcel of the problem. I need to go. Kicked out like a dog after 20 years of service. With not even a bone, let alone, severance pay. I, who have sacrificed and subsumed so much of my own life for his needs, I who have struggled to keep him afloat, to keep him clothed and fed, to keep his house a home, but all that was swept under the rug at the end of August. In a manic rage, he lost all semblance of humanity or compassion. Since Labor Day, I've been giving away, and rehoming my things, letting it all go—and living between friends' houses, sometimes sleeping rough in my car or on couches. Since then, I've lived a nomadic life hanging out by the side of the road, or in parking lots. Volunteering at the senior center. I thought this relationship was until Death do us part. I had made a promise to God that if he lived after the car accident in June of 1997, I would stick it out to the very end, no matter what. For months, we didn't know if he had brain damage, the injury was so severe, I didn't know about the ingrained depression until much later. It was hidden behind a wall of injury. Nor did I see the actor's classic narcissism dressed in dazzling bipolar raiments. I've not yet written about this separation. I've been too numb, in shock. I found out the bitter details from his friend Yehiel, that he wants to step out. See someone else. No one on the horizon though. Just grief waving her skeletal hand, saying, Come hither. Come hither. So much for the saying, if you love someone, let them go. Kick her to the curb instead.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Summer’s End

We’re fast approaching the end of the Celtic year, Samhain, or Summer’s End, which marks the half way mark, or cross-quarter day between the equinox and the solstice. The night when the boundary between this world and the otherworld are thinnest. The night of the great bonfires, where my great-grandfather ran his cattle between two fires to purify them (the other cross quarter day was Beltane)—the smoke was probably also a great pest deterrent. To be fair, the celebration of the cross-quarter days predates the arrival of the Celts, but they took to the custom like ducks to water, or sparks to flame.

In 609AD, Pope Boniface IV decreed November 1 as All Saints Day, or Allhallowmesse, thus placing a Christian spin on the Celtic celebration of Samhain. And since the festival lasted several days, we have Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day as well.

The Irish brought the vestiges of Samhain, rechristened Halloween by the church, to America, and to Scotland. In America, Halloween took off and became the secular extravaganza it is today, thanks to the candy industry, who saw a profit was to be made. During WWII, American GIs stationed in Germany, put on a Halloween festival in a castle, thus reintroducing elements of Samhain to its original Celtic homeland, and also back to Ireland as well.

We associate Halloween with zombies and characters like Frankenstein, but that story was penned during one dreary dreecht summer in Geneva by Irish lass, Mary Shelley, on a bet to produce a ghost story. Galvanizing the dead fits right into the premise of Samhain, or Halloween when the gates to the otherworld are open, the cauldron of plenty could raise the dead, and anything was possible.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Photos of my mom and Sean Ritter who killed himself 11 years ago.

How beautiful my mother looks in this photo with her new fiery redhead granddaughter Tiffany, and her son Sean, who ended his life 11 years ago, today, rather than face a draconian 3 strikes prison system. He went to prison at 21, on two counts of drug possession charges. He got into a fight in a parking lot, thus breaking his parole, so he went home and shot himself in his garage rather than return to Pelican Bay.

Sean was my half-brother, but raised as a cousin as my childless aunt Toddy who desperately wanted children and couldn't have any, or so she thought. After she adopted Sean, she had three kids of her own. Sean's father was a Dublin man, that's all we know. Somebody my mother met at the No Name Bar in Sausalito. Perhaps he was a sailor, a carpenter, or someone just passing through. He must've been a redhead or a strawberry blond like Sean. My mother never saw him again, but I'm sure she was reminded of him every time she saw Sean. Is the father still alive somewhere in Dublin, we wonder. What was his name? Who were his people? Did he ever know he had a son in America?

In the photo, my mother has no breasts, a cancer survivor, the implants will leak and bring back the cancer, it will grow undetected behind that wall of silicone. She will die of a heart attack after her first round of chemo October 23, 1994. This month is such a melancholy time for me, as my grandmother, and mother also died during the final days of October, also the end of the Celtic year. My grandmother died Oct 28, not quite Samhain, Summer's End, but close enough for the transition when the door to the Otherworld opens. Half way between the equinox, my mother's birthday, to the solstice, Samhain is the beginning of winter, or the dark half of the year. We will light a bonefire for them so that they may see the way forward.

My mom, Maureen Reilly, sister Kathleen (Toddy) Ritter, sons Myles, Sean, baby Tiffany & Judy Ritter.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Spiderweb (photos)

The mad eye of the sun at dawn rising from the mist, wild geese conversing among themselves while grazing on the dew-laden first winter grass of the season.

The field was covered with myriad globe spider webs, drowned in dew, each one unique, the rising sun turned them into a vast crochet fest of dainty handkerchiefs or lace anticamassar prisms on the deep armchairs of the lake reeds. I remember how my aunts would cover their heads with lace hankies before entering the church. Ah, Sunday morning, what tangled webs we weave...

Friday, October 5, 2018

Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival

23rd annual Poetry Flash
Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival
Stand up for the Earth

Saturday, October 13th
from 10 AM to 4:30 PM
at Civic Center Park,
Martin Luther King, Jr. Way 
in Berkeley, California.
Free to the public, bring low chairs, blankets, picnic on the grass.

Strawberry Creek walk hosted by Chris Olander begins at 10AM 
Meet at the corner of Oxford and Center streets. 
Featured readers: Iris Dunkle, Maya Khosla, Joan Gelfand,
plus eco-dance by Sharon Coleman with Barry Ebner on guitar at the grove.

Plus book signings and poetry writing and art events at River Village.


We are Nature reading (open mike sign up at noon).
1:15 PM: River of Words youth reading an awards with Robert Hass, 
1:30 PM California Poets in the Schools student reading 
with Maureen Hurley, Brennan DeFrisco, and other CPITS teachers.

2 PM: welcome
Big reading: Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Leanne Sullivan, Maya Khosla, Joan Gelfand, CS Giscombe, Tonga Eisen-Martin, Forrest Gander, Ellery Ackers, Robert Coats, Iris Dunkle, Chris Olander, Gwynn O'Gara, and more.

4:30PM closing ceremonies, grand finale.

Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival is a collaboration with Robert Hass, US Poet Laureate, 1995-1997, Poetry Flash, and the Ecology Center/Berkeley Farmers' Market, Pegasus Books, Moe's Books, East Bay Express, Poets & Writers, Berkeley Civic Arts  Commission, Zellerbach Family Foundation.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Groundcherries by any other name

CNN posted a slouchy article on the process of genetically modifying groundcherries, a species of tomatillo, for commercial harvesting. I think the headline, Groundcherries, the latest modified fruit scientists want you to try, was designed to get a rise out of readers. Anything for a few hits on Facebook. If the header didn't grab your attention, the synopsis was even lamer: They taste like pineapple, but also like vanilla. They're "tropical" but also a bit like a tomato. A bit like a tomato? they're such close cousins, they're practically Irish twins.

I’d chalk the article up to uninformed journalism, replete with bad headlines, or bad tastebuds, or both. Of course, the CNN journalist Arman Azad might not have had anything to do with the epic headline fail. Could be a wonky editor. I can't answer for their tastebuds. Vanilla? Really?

Of course, most Facebook readers lost their collective minds. If the headline hadn’t read “modified” would all the howling Facebook readers have had such an adverse knee-jerk reaction? One could almost hear all those knees smacking their owners in the chin. Don't knock out all your teeth in the process.

Groundcherries (Physalis peruviana) are not some kind of new frankenfruit. Modified does not mean inter-species spliced GMOs, no foreign fish, or alien fungus genes inserted into your tomatoes or groundcherries. People have been domesticating tomatillo species for millennia. If anything, they should be dubbed heirloom plants—even though they're considered to be weeds the world over.

Cape gooseberries, or Inca berries, Physalis peruviana, take some time to ripen.—Wiki

The CNN article nattered on about the significance of scientific development of a more compact groundcherry bush with larger fruit, and more fruit clusters. Talk about burying the lead sentence! If the CNN journalist had merely called the process “domestication” then there probably would have been no flappy Facebook furor. Talk about the five Ws of journalism gone awry. Never bury the lead.

The real problem is developing a commercially viable crop, so that Physalis peruviana can be harvested and shipped. It's just not commercially viable as is—wild grown. Harvesting, shipping, etc., is problematic, as the big rambling bush likes to flop about and lay down on the ground, and randomly drop its fruit—hence the name—groundcherries.

Cape gooseberries, Inca berries Physalis peruviana, yellow ones are the sweetest.

As to gene manipulation, any food you eat has already been modified. Call it domestication, cultivation, or breeding—whether by natural selection, farmers, monks, or scientists... Everything we eat has been modified, unless it's completely wild.

Take teosinte, or maize from the Central Balsas River Valley, Mexico, it was a tiny rock-hard grass seed. The native cultures of Mesoamerica developed it into a multi-grained maize husk about the size of a baby’s pinkie. It was still rock hard. Selective modification developed it into small hard ears of corn—capable of breaking teeth. But massive cultivation in the 16th c., and changing tastes, developed it into the sweet, tender juicy corn of today. But this process took centuries. Scientists can now tweak, or edit a plant’s own genes in a few generations in the lab.

And it's not just corn, bananas and apples—pretty much everything we eat has been manipulated. Have you ever seen a wild banana? It's all seeds and no banana pulp. Crabapples are bitter compact fruits with little flesh, and big seeds—ditto that with plums and peaches. Broccoli is a case of EXTREME plant modification on steroids. It doesn't even exist in the wild. A few tiny flower buds. I suspect cauliflower, which has been around since the 16th century, was also once a tiny posy.

Old school plant genetic manipulation was largely based on trial and error, and it took farmers and monks generations to isolate, and breed favorable genetic traits. Remember Gregor Mendel and his red and white flowering pea experiments? One red pea, and one white pea parent will equal a pink pea. Genetic manipulation is not a new concept. Well, in a lab, things are merely speeded up, genes can be tickled and tweaked to produce smaller shrubs, and more fruits. Pollen can be isolated, so there’s no outside interference, no stray genes in the family tree. And a commercially viable plant can be developed within a few years in the lab, vs. decades—or centuries—in the field.

And since most of the Facebook readers opined and shuddered over the twinned plant porn words like genetic mutation, and manipulation, without actually having read the article, I've pulled two quotes from the bottom of the article to keep us all on the same page:
"When you mutate the gene, it basically shrinks the plant like an accordion so you can make it much more compact"said Zachary Lippman, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory...researchers were able to make plants that grew 50% more groundcherries on any given stem, and those fruits were larger—weighing up to 24% more than the traditional, unmodified versions.
Lippman also notes that humans have been eating genetically modified crops for millennia, selectively breeding those fruits and vegetables that had the most favorable traits. "We have been eating mutations in plants and animals since humans started to improve crops thousands of years ago," he said. "That's a random process and took thousands of years. With gene editing, you're now just making one mutation in one gene in the simplest sense."
A lone voice of sanity and reason on the Facebook thread, UC Davis grad student, Randi Jiménez, a researcher, whose field of expertise is the nightshade family, explained it best (largely to a crowd of deaf ears, or, rather, blind eyes):
For those upset about the modification, this isn't the GMO of the past that you might have in mind. Previously, genes from totally different species were inserted into a crop's genome, this technique of genetic editing, also sometimes called precision breeding, causes small mutations in the crop's own genes. In this case, scientists at Cornell induced mutations in ground cherry to make the ground cherry genes resemble tomato genes. (Tomatoes are related to ground cherries.) These mutations could and in many cases already occur naturally. This way, though, scientists can get all the preferred versions of the genes into one plant without several years of screening and breeding.
There are some 2000 species of solanum, including potatoes, tomatoes, and chiles. And there are many wild tomato species that we know nothing about, including S. peruvianum, S. cheesmanii, S. galapagense, S. chilense, and S. pimpinellifolium—and its offspring, that lone domesticated cultivar, that tasteless supermarket darling, S. lycopersicum (AKA Lycopersicon esculentum). And there are at least 90 species of the tomato-like cousin, Physalis, that are such successful hitchhikers, they are considered to be weeds the world over.

Ground cherries (Physalis peruviana) too are a member of the nightshade family, hence the tomato reference. There are nearly a hundred species of Physalis, and to further confuse things, most species the world over, are called groundcherries, regardless of the actual species. That's what happens with common names. They get borrowed. With that many species to contend with, there's bound to be some variation in flavor. But, from the field reports, the taste of vanilla or pineapple don't seem to be among them. Dulcet sweet tomato, maybe. In fact, one reader said they tasted like stinky feet.

There’s Physalis missouriensis / P. virginiana (same species? sometimes erroneously referred to as black nightshade (S. nigrum), which is often toxic), Physalis philadelphica / Physalis ixocarpa —AKA tomatillos, native to Central America and Mexico, despite its Philadelphic neo-Latin name, is from Mexico, as it was cultivated in the pre-Columbian era. There are 46 species of Physalis native to Mexico alone. Wow. Some have made their way to Arizona, and have made serious inroads in Middle America, all the way up into Canada, and the Eastern Seaboard. I like to imagine, that along with the spread of teosinte, from Nahuatl teōcintli, teōtl god + cintli dried ears of maize (Zea mays), Psysalis too hitched a ride north.
The wild tomatillo and related plants are found everywhere in the Americas except in the far north, with the highest diversity in Mexico.  In 2017, scientists reported on their discovery and analysis of a fossil tomatillo found in the Patagonian region of Argentina, dated to 52 million years B.P. The finding has pushed back the earliest appearance of the Solanaceae plant family of which the tomatillos are one genus. Tomatillos were domesticated in Mexico before the coming of Europeans, and played an important part in the culture of the Maya and the Aztecs, more important than the tomato. The tomatillo (from Nahuatl, tomatl) is also known as... tomate de cáscara, tomate de fresadilla, tomate milpero, tomate verde (green tomato), miltomate, farolito, or simply tomate (in which case the tomato is called jitomate). The specific name philadelphica dates from the 18th century. In the United States, tomatillos have been cultivated since 1863. By the middle of the 20th century, the plant was exported to India, Australia, South Africa, and Kenya.—Wiki
Physalis peruviana, Cape gooseberry, despite its South African moniker, is native to South America, specifically to the Peruvian Andes, where it is called the Inca berry, but it is now considered a common weed in many subtropical areas. I like to think of the paper lantern jacket enshrouding the unripe fruit as a little paper cape—thus bypassing the confusing South African reference.

All Physalis are native to Central, and South America. Since 90% of all Physalis species hail from Central and South America, and since only Physalis philadelphica (or Physalis ixocarpa) was exported during the 20th c., I suspect some of the global escapees might have been successful pre-Columbian hitchhikers to Micronesia and Australasia and beyond. When the wild solanum genomes are fully sequenced, we'll have a better picture of the migration range.

Tomatoes (Solanum) and chili peppers (from the Nahuatl, chīlli, Capsicum) both from the Solanaceae family, arrived from Central America to the Old World in two different directions: Spain via the Spanish conquistadors, and the Far East—to the Middle East—via the Portuguese navigators, thus causing massive confusion as to both parentage and edibility of the family of Solanaceae.
Solanum is a large and diverse genus of flowering plants, which include two food crops of high economic importance, the potato and the tomato. It also contains the nightshades and horse nettles, as well as numerous plants cultivated for their ornamental flowers and fruit. —Wiki
European black nightshade (S. nigrum), introduced to the Americas, and Australasia, is considered toxic, but fully ripened fruit and foliage are cooked and eaten in many regions. But only if you know what you're doing. Otherwise, it's curtains—as black nightshade is highly variable—avoid eating the berries unless they are a known edible strain. With survivors present. (Nota bene: S. nigrum is not
Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade, one of the most toxic plants from Eurasia—now naturalized the world over. In the Middle Ages women used belladonna to dilate their pupils.)
Some of the major species within the S. nigrum complex are: S. nigrum, S. americanum, S. douglasii, S. opacum, S. ptychanthum, S.retroflexum, S. sarrachoides, S. scabrum, and S. villosum.... Other species are significant food crops regionally, such as Ethiopian eggplant and gilo (S. aethiopicum), naranjilla or lulo (S. quitoense), turkey berry (S. torvum), pepino (S. muricatum), tamarillo, or "bush tomatoes" (several Australian species). —Wiki
Ripe berries of the "Red Makoi" variety of S. nigrum are edible. —Wiki

The English were content to grow various solanum as poisonous garden ornamentals for a few centuries, while the Italians and Iberians began experimenting with love apples and hot chilis (sweet peppers as well as the Physalis species), in foods. Imagine Italian cooking sans noodles and tomato sauce, or Hungary without its paprika. With the introduction of tomatoes and chilis Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and South Asian cuisine has never been the same. (Potatoes are another chapter in the story.)
Tomatoes were brought to Europe in the 1590s. The English botanist John Gerard was one of the first cultivators of the tomato plant. In his publication Grete Herball, he considered tomatoes as poisonous due to their levels of what would later be called tomatine, plus high acid content. Consequently, tomatoes were generally not eaten in Britain until the mid-18th century. —Wiki
Not all Physalis species have edible fruit. The tricky bit is to make sure you’re not eating a more deadly species of solanum. Solanum nigrum fruit is so highly variable and diverse, it looks a lot like several Physalis sp. Keep in mind that in general, the entire plant of any nightshade, with the exception of some species, and strains of ripe fruit, is toxic, all unripe fruit of the nightshade family is toxic—except maybe for fried green tomatoes. Just don't pig out on them, or eat them raw, as the tomatine, a glycoalkaloid, or glycospirosolane, is more concentrated in unripe tomatoes.

But solanine poisoning—from green-skinned potatoes—is the glycoalkaloid to avoid. The green color is merely chlorophyll, but green skin indicates high levels of bitter-tasting solanine and chaconine. Most of the toxins are concentrated close to the skin's surface, so peel off all that green before you eat them. When I was trekking in the Andean altiplano, I ate local black potatoes (papas negras—there are over 4000 varieties of Andean potatoes) but they were bitter as gall, and my GI tract never forgave me. Apparently I was supposed to also eat the arcilla de chaco jacket—clay, ancestor of Kaopectate, absorbs the bitterness.

The anti-inflamatory agent found in tomatoes, Lycopene, comes from the tomato's former Latin name, Lycopersicon, or wolf peach... Europeans thought tomatoes were poisonous for centuries.
Wiki tells us that:
Lycopene (from the neo-Latin Lycopersicum, the tomato species) is a bright red carotene and carotenoid pigment and phytochemical found in tomatoes and other red fruits and vegetables, such as red carrots, watermelons, papayas.
Lycopene is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent that helps protect the skin... it's reputed to have healthy heart benefits, reduce osteoporosis, reduce cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and is a powerful antioxidant useful in combating cancers including prostate cancer. (See goji, or wolfberry.)

Making Physalis peruviana a commercial crop will take some doing. The biggest hurdle is, not getting the bush to be more robust, but getting people to eat them. It took the British nearly three centuries to eat their tomatoes. I fear the CNN article will not pave the way to help develop a sustainable market.

Since lycopene is a hot item right now, despite its wolfish moniker, I suspect this will be the best publicity a goundcherry could have. It could be marketed as The Next New Thing, and an heirloom plant all in one. Whatta howl!

Howling wolf —Wiki

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Vee Rae interview: Sausalito's Gate 5 Theater & beyond

Vee Rae (Virginia Rae Kane) was an actor friend of my mother's at the Gate Playhouse Theatre in Sausalito during the late 1950s- early 1960s. I was young, still in the single digits, so my memory was sparse. But my first blog pieces in 2007 were on Gate 5, Tiki Junction, and also Juanita, which led to this post.

The photo that started it all. My mother, Kellé Reilly (later it was Kellé Green—
her stage name as there was already an actress, Maureen Hurley in SAG), 
Richard Knablin, Skip Rognlien and Vee Rae, Christmas, 1960. 
(Photo by Chris Gracida, courtesy of Richard Knablin.)

Somehow my mom's friend, Richard "Dik" Knablin stumbled across my blog post in 2009, and contacted me which led me to an email from Vee Rae. He sent me a photo of my mother with him and Vee Rae, and the memories came flooding back. Wow!

So this interview is a decade, or more like a lifetime in the making. Also, my drama teacher from College of Marin, James Dunn just passed away, he was also part of the lively and vibrant theatre scene in Marin. Come what come may, time and the hour run through the roughest day.

I was able to glean information on Skip Rognlien and Les Abbot, thanks to Google. I found a few reviews that mention Vee and other actors in the ensemble (Bill Edwards, Jim Holiday, Vickie Frazer, Sharleen Lambert, Diane Santich, John Rose, Jack Brennan and J. W. Cheetham, see newspaper archives at bottom), but nothing in print on my mother who worked so tirelessly behind the scenes with costuming, and she was also in most of the plays as well. I only have a few stills of her.

Skip Rognlien (1934-2018) was a ballet dancer


When the Gate Playhouse director, stage manager, technical director, lighting and set designer, Skip Rognlien was killed in a head-on car accident in March, in Oregon, I realized that very few people held the oral history of that era were still among the living.

I had the idea of going up to Oregon to visit Richard Knablin and Skip Rognlien to collect their oral history. But life got in the way. I was laid up with a bum knee that wouldn't heal after surgery. I was goin' nowhere as they say. I couldn't even get across the room, let alone, drive to Oregon.

From what I can piece together, shows at the Gate Playhouse began in the fall of 1958 or 59. By 1962, or 1963, the Gate Five Players had folded, Les Abbott had gone off to Hollywood, as did Vee Rae.

Skip had returned to his home town, Kalispell, MT, to produce a few plays for Playhouse Actors in 1963. Then by 1965, he moved to New York and was producing plays for (another) Gate Theatre, and the Cricket Theatre. (Vee says he spent time in LA too. Need do get that story.) My mother would occasionally hear from Skip and tell me of his successes and escapades. I always loved Skip. He was kind to kids.

Skip, who was a lithe 6 foot 4 inches, was hand-picked by Mr. Balanchine, to attend the Balanchine School of American Ballet in Manhattan, but theatre was always his first love.
In the mid-50's, Marnie Cooper, a former Balanchine dancer, arrived at the University of Montana to teach ballet to football players. The theater department asked that she also teach a class for theater majors. The wife of the dean of music took home movies of our single performance, and a copy of the film was sent to Mr. B to show him what Ms. Cooper was doing out West. Evidently Mr. Balanchine took a look, for soon a letter arrived asking Ms. Cooper to ''send the tall boy,'' indicating me, to New York as a scholarship student. —Skip Rognlien

My earliest memory of Skip is during a rehearsal, him lounging on a tall wooden stool, wearing striped a sailor's shirt, telling everyone to "Take Five." And me asking my mother what it meant, as I conflated that with Dave Brubeck's album. She laughed and said it meant a smoke break. We stood on the ledge outside the back of the Gate as she smoked her Parliament, and flicked the butt into the dark bay.

While in New York, Skip also taught American square dance, and was founding president of the first gay square dance club, the Times Squares in New York.

Skip's obit mentions that he was involved with the theater for 50 years in New York City, San Francisco, and Sacramento. I wonder if that Sacramento nod is how my mother also wound up at the Music Circus theatre in the round, with Lloyd Bridges, in Guys and Dolls? My mom also costumed The Student Prince there. Vee Rae said that Les Abbot and Skip Rogniein worked several shows at the Sacramento Music Circus.

Skip also worked with  IBM’s Media Gallery, as the principal of Staging Techniques, LLC, which staged trade shows for major corporations. He retired to Oregon to run a B&B in Sullivan's Gulch, Portland. He retired from being an innkeeper, and built a home on the Oregon coast near Tillamook, and was active in the arts until his death at 83.

Les Abbott (1925-2012) DVC instructor IMDb


Another member of the Gate Playhouse ensemble, director and producer, and later, Diablo Valley College instructor, Les Abbott, had died in 2012. Richard Knablin told me that Les had Alzheimer's for years. So it would be difficult to interview him. At the time I began to realize that all the principal actors were taking that final curtain call.

I don't know when the Gate Playhouse came into existence, but from a Sausalito Historical Society article on the Sausalito Art Festival review, I found this: "in 1959...Entertainment included folk and jazz singers, poets, dancers and performances by the Sausalito Little Theatre summer program and Les Abbott’s Gate Theatre Players."

After the Gate Playhouse Theatre folded in the early 1960s, Les Abbott, who was a member of the Actors Studio, moved to LA where he directed and acted at the Pasadena Playhouse. He also coached acting at NBC and Desilu Studio. Vee's interview fills in some of Les's backstory from the San Francisco days.

Neil & I ushered for that Dame Edna show, Theatre in the Square.
Les's obit history goes from NY direct to LA without stopping off in SF, which was a very important time. He formed two theatre companies Abbott-Abrams Productions and TheaterFest. He received his MA in psychology at Stanford, and taught at Foothill College, And of course, at Diablo Valley College, from 1973 to 2008, he mentored hundreds of young actors including my ex-partner, actor-singer Neil O'Neill.
Les directed over one hundred and fifty plays, including the West Coast premieres of Blues of Mister Charlie, All the King's Men, The Immoralist, Man with a Golden Arm, A Clearing in the Woods, besides numerous other plays including his final production, Angels in America, before retiring from directing. He also directed seven original plays and musicals with his production companies.
Leslie also authored 2 published books, Active Acting and Acting for Films and TV, that became part of the curriculum in some theater schools.  —from A Retrospective of Les Abbott's Life

Wonder what play they're reading? (Chris Gracida photo, Richard Knablin)


When I contacted Vee in 2009, she was in the process of moving and didn't have access to her memorabilia, but we kept in touch over the years via Facebook. Of course I was curious as to what happened to Vee after the Gate Playhouse dissolved. The talented Vee was cast in the leading role of Annie Get Your Gun, and was going places. Did she make it, how did she get to Hollywood?

Last month, Vee sent me some photos of the Gate Playhouse which spurred me on to finally write this piece. I had originally planned on going to LA to collect her oral history, or folklore, but the timing wasn't right. So I made up a series of questions for Vee to answer at her leisure. This is what follows:

Gate Playhouse Theatre, ca. 1961. (Photo courtesy of Richard Knablin)

Hi Mo!                                                   Aug 29
I wrote a long answer to you about an hour ago but somehow the internet connection failed and I couldn't get it sent or even save a copy or have a draft copy! I can't tell you how frustrated I am (not the first time this has happened). Anyway -- I'll start again tomorrow. (Seems like I had to quit out but had no way to save the email I wrote). So... looking forward to answering some of your queries and will try to start again tomorrow. More to follow (hopefully)!!!

Gate Playhouse, Sausalito. Richard Knablin  photos 1961

OK, Mo—
I'm taking this a bit at a time, not in the order you wrote:
The Gate Playhouse: I got involved there approx summer 1958-59? when Les Abbott (having seen me in a theatre production at City College of SF) asked me to come audition for a musical he was mounting in Sausalito. I did audition and got the role of "Hildy" in the production of "On the Town".

I'm not sure Kelle was there at that time. After this show, Les directed "Annie". Your mom was very involved with the costumes and probably more at that time. She worked day and nite on the costumes.

Les Abbott and the Marquee. Richard Knablin photos 1961
Richard Knablin photos 1961
Skip Rognlien, I believe, did the sets and more. Kelle and Skip were close buddies. I believe that (as you may know), the theatre was formally a small movie theatre. I think it was Les who revived it. I don't know how long it lasted as I moved from Northern California in the fall of 1961. It was still going strong then, I believe.

My mom fitting a costume. Annie Get Your Gun?
Remembrances of Kelle are her endless patience and stamina. I'm serious when I tell you she worked thru the nite on the costumes and I believe had very little help. This was a huge costume show with tons of performers. I know we went to cast parties with the others and we were all one big happy group. She was very popular with us all.

Back of the Gate Playhouse opened abruptly into the bay,
a tiny ledge & nothing more than air. Richard Knablin photos 1961

I remember Athena—didn't know her last name (Note bene: Martin). She was legend there. She never did a show but was—apparently seriously with Les (tho he, of course, was gay).

I don't know what ever happened to Athena but my co-star, in "On the Town" who remained in Sausalito told me years later that she was "still around" (but this was many years ago). I "think" she may have had a son?? I may be confusing her with some of the other local characters??
(Note bene: Athena, who was my mom's best friend, was living with Les at the Alta Mira, and had a baby. Was it Les's? I remember visiting them with my mother.)
On "breaking free from the mold of the 50's" —hell, I have no idea but it's a great question. Maybe Dik (Richard) Knablin could help a bit with this one? As for the political climate—Geez! I was (and still am) somewhat apolitical, and being a rather "lightweight" theatre person wasn't at all interested in the outside world! We were ACTORS/ PERFORMERS, ETC! This was all that really existed for many of us I'm sure. (Ya' know—not too unlike the celebs today)!

On working with Les & Skip: Les was a gas! One of the funniest I ever met, and I still rely on some of his famous quotes. He worked hard on that theatre and held down a job as a waiter at the Alta Mira to help make ends meet.

I loved the guy—he was a dynamo and also quite intelligent. He was great in the City as a director of dramas and I think he excelled at this. In the City, he was a partner of "Abbot Abrams Productions". They were an equity house and produced many excellent plays.

My understanding is that Abrams caused financial problems and the whole thing fell apart so it was a few years before Les got to Sausalito. Interesting that he went on to teach and direct at Mt. Diablo (Valley) College for many years, and I think you are aware of that part of his life.

Skip Rognlien was truly a gifted and lovable guy. He and I became very close. We were friends in SF, in Sausalito & in L.A. Everyone who ever met him adored him. He was highly intelligent and had so many incredible jobs in NYC, L.A., etc.
When he and a partner bought a B&B in Portland (his later years)—I visited about 3 times & always had a fab time. Very hard to accept that he died in a traffic accident earlier this year. He was 83 but a very young 83 at that!

Back of the Gate Playhouse. Richard Knablin photos 1961

Got off the track with the last bit but on that note: I don't remember us all doubling up on duties at the theatre. Les had lots of minions who hung around the place and I'm sure they did most of the work.

Programs were always printed I believe and Herm Arrow who lived in Marin took all of our photos—gratis, I believe. Herm's son, David Arrow stayed a close friend of Skip's for many years. Not sure what the cost of tickets were—we played mostly on weekends and I remember no totally empty houses and Sat. nites, as expected, were packed! Not sure where the audience came from but you know many from the City and probably most from friends/relatives of the cast!

Hope this helps a bit, Mo -- I'll check off more on your list as time permits -- feel free to offer further questions or clarifications if you need them. Stay tuned!!!
I wrote back: Yes, please answer in any way you see fit. Hopefully it'll be fun too. Awesome, so far, and you're chronicling something that's never been done before! Feel free to expand...Another question: when you were a little girl, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Mo: It IS fun and a kind of "life review" for me as well. Hopefully some of it will be useful to you wherever it takes you.
Going back to your first question since you asked about childhood aspirations, etc. I first became interested in theater as a chum on our block in SF (Parkside district) had a mother who believed in a child becoming involved in ALL classes artistic!

Thru her mom, I heard about (get this): "Aunt Lolly's Children's Theatre"! It was a class this woman held in her home in the Sunset/ Parkside district. When I heard that this class was to be about "dramatics"—I had no idea what that meant. I thought maybe it had something to do with "Elocution" classes or?

Anyway—I went to the class and immediately "Miss Lolly" cast me in character roles (I had a deep voice for one so young). She was also doing a play "Little Women" at the local Orphanage. She cast me in the role of "Amy". I had no idea at all what I was doing. I must have been a pre-teen at that point.

Anyway—that was the first experience I had in theatre. I think it stuck but I didn't really get active again until I was in high school in SF and discovered the "Opera Ring" run by Irma Kay (sister of the illustrious Hershy Kay (google him). So it was set, I wanted to be an actress. I think I can actually say I became interested on becoming an actress at age 11.
In 1957 I think when I started City College—the director of the theatre, Dr. Michael Griffin—cast me as lead in many productions. That sealed the deal! And that is where Les Abbott came into the picture (I also did chorus & small roles in the Opera Ring (theatre in the round) in SF intermittently.

I also toyed with the idea of being a "detective" back in the day! (I know—errant gene I guess). Later, I became interested in being a psychologist (doesn't everyone)? AND an investigative reporter! (HUH)?

As a note about who inspired me in literature (if that was the case)—YES! It's interesting you mentioned it—I have always been a huge reader (gene from my mother) and in high school, I had a marvelous Eng. teacher but one book we were required to read was: "Pride and Predjudice". I hated that book!

Suffice to say—I've realized I'm ignorant when it comes to Jane Austen and wanted to figure out what all the hoopla was about. AND SO—I just finished reading the book and I was surprised that I actually enjoyed some of it. It was a struggle for me in some parts but I was happy to say I got thru it and was rooting for Mr. Darcy from the get-go!

That said, I think I'll leave it to the Brits movie versions of more of Austen in the future. One last thought: I wondered how sophisticated was my English teacher to think a 15 or 16 year old girl would be able to relate to that book? Wishful thinking I'll bet, or bets on a very advanced young teen?

So that's it for now, Mo! thanks for your interest and the "stirring up of my much-needed dusting off—gray matter! More to follow after a day or so...hope you have a relaxing and peaceful and PLEASANT weekend and hopefully cooler!!

Hey Mo:                                                 Aug 30
Sorry for the stop and start. I'm overloaded with stuff to do but will try to knock out more answers to your questions as often as I can (and at the risk of boring you to tears).

Did I live in Sausalito or commute: Lived with my parents in the foggy Parkside district of SF and an actor friend used to drive me to Sausalito. I also often took a bus or my dad, if available, would drive me there. I lived in Larkspur much later in my life— from 1999 to 2003.

BTW: used to enjoy shows at the little theatre there (name escapes me [Lark Theatre?] ). This group was in the heart of Larkspur and a talented group of actors as well. I "think" I may have heard of or seen James Dunn at that venue (or maybe not).

As for Kelle's house in Sausalito? I never knew where she lived actually. One of the actors rented a cool abode in the hills above Sausalito and I think that is where we attended some cast parties, get-togethers, etc.

As for the cast from the shows at the Gate: I know Skip, after hanging around L.A. for awhile, finally ended up in NYC —he had a couple of great jobs there and even partnered with 4 other guys and formed a company called: "Staging Techniques" (rented video/movie equipment).

They were based as I recall in NY but also here in Hollywood. After that and a gig with IBM in NY, Skip and another guy bought a charming old house in Portland, ORE. and ran a B&B there for a number of years—much later—he moved to the northern coast of [Wheeler] Oregon—built a cool house there with another partner, and was there until he died in March, this year.

Dik (Richard) Knablin, one of my funnymen babysitters

Richard (Dik) Knablin also lives in Northern Oregon now—he went to work for a school in Palo Alto I believe (after the Gate). He retired to North Bend. Dik, as you probably know wasn't in any of the shows but hung out with us all—he wanted to be a writer.

Other cast members: Ronnie De Benedictis moved to NYC and then years later moved back to Sausalito with his partner and they bought a gift shop in town that they ran for a number of years.

Stan Church had several jobs over the years and I lost touch with him along the way.

If there are others I've forgotten— I'll send you an update—trouble is I've been involved with so many shows, theatre peeps, etc. Hard to remember, let alone keep track of them all.

Where did I go after: OMG! This would take forever to explain. Directly after the Gate, however, I wound up in Hollywood. A quickie explanation: I was having fun being in the chorus and taking small parts in Les' production of "Of Thee I Sing" (not sure if Kelle did the costumes for this one but think she may have)? (Note bene: she did.)

I got a phone call while actually at the theatre from Jack Pierce (a director friend from SF). He was in Hollywood directing "The Boyfriend" and wanted me to come down for a part in the show. Since I thought this was probably a good opportunity, I packed up and moved. Unfortunately, Jack had been fired and the new director was keeping the gal who originally had been cast!

Here's an interesting note for you: Remember Litchfield's Bermuda Palms in San Rafael? Jack signed on to direct an original musical there titled: "It's Great to be Alive". Thru my buddy who was in the chorus, I got to join in as well. When that was over, Jack staged a musical review on the premises and I was one of the principals.

Next door to Litchfield's was a club called: "The Wye Club". It was sorta tacky but I signed on with another actor pal to do their melodramas on the weekends. It wasn't very exciting BUT we got PAID!!!

Signing off now, Mo, for part 3 (we're almost done). bye for now....v

I just finished reading this, Mo and I loved it all! It's neat that this piece filled in some blanks for me and I picked up a few names I can elaborate on later, tho not sure I'll have much to report. I was a friend of Bill Edwards aka Guy Edwards aka Guy Williams (I think)! He was such a talented guy and very handsome. I wonder what ever happened to him.

I also knew Vicki Frazier —I just loved her. She had a terrific Jazz voice and I heard she gave up singing to marry an airline pilot.
John Rose was one of my closest and bestest of friends. He was a brilliant actor but could do anything necessary in the theatre—editing music, running lights, doing photography, etc. He got some fantastic reviews in the LA Times on his acting performances. Unfortunately, he died of AIDS very early on. 

I was surprised to read that Les Abbott actually lived at the Alta Mira.  My understanding was he lived in a room above the theatre (Skip also used a room there as well for awhile). But since Les worked as a waiter at the Alta Mira—maybe they gave him a room before he wound up living in the theatre?

Re: Athena's son—intriguing that Les might have been the father but somehow I doubt it. I knew Les very well over the years and I think he would have let something slip about this child. Also, Athena was "very" popular with many guys—she may have even married somewhere along the line. I do remember, now, my chum in Sausalito telling me
she got very involved in political events there.
To be continued....

(Photo by Chris Gracida, Richard Knablin photos 1960)