Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Gate 5

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

During the 1950s and early 1960s, my mother Maureen (Kellé) Reilly was an actress and costume/ set designer/painter for the Gate Community Playhouse Theater Company, on Bridgeway, catty-corner from the No Name Bar, in downtown Sausalito.

After a show closed, I used to love playing dress-up with the discarded costumes and remnants mouldering in my grandmother's basement. Yards of purple netting from Guys & Dolls at the Music Circus, loud silk print dresses, Victorian capes and witches' rags.

Sometimes I went to the theater or work with my mother when she was staying with us out in Forest Knolls. She never lived with us for long. She'd drive over White's Hill in her big white convertible with the top down and the known world spun past my forehead in the form of cerulean blue sky, green oak canyons and golden hills. I must've been about six or seven.

My mother supported her ephemeral art by working as a waitress in nearly every coffee shop in Sausalito. So I got to know them all from the inside out. The Kettle, The Valhalla, Juanita's.

Juanita was unforgettable with her menagerie (a rooster perched on her shoulder, a spider monkey and an orphan fawn named Cissy) following her around the parking lot as she served customers on Sunday mornings at Gate 5.

I don't remember the infamous Trident (until I was older) because it was on the other side of town by the bronze seal (though for a time, my mother did move into the big shingle house overlooking the water near Sally Stanford's infamous Valhalla). I do remember meeting The Kingston Trio. Perhaps that's why Tommy Smothers and others were hanging out at Gate 5. (It may have technically been Gate 6, but it was always called Gate 5.)

There was the time when my mother was working for Sally Stanford at the Valhalla and who should walk in but Perry Como! Richard Knablin happened to be hanging out at the bar that night, and said (my mother) Kellé looked great standing there in her Valhalla costume, fishnet stockings, tall heels, a merry widow and not much else, as Perry Como walked in and sit at one of her tables. She had the classic tall willowy showgirl figure for it.

Perry left a nice tip. There might have even been an autographed napkin involved as well. I've a vague memory of something like that....

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.)

When a show was running at the Gate, sometimes I went to the theater (I saw Guys and Dolls, Pipedream, The Fantastics, Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun, On the Town, Of Thee I Sing, and a children's matinee, Hansel & Gretel—my mom played the evil witch. It was in November of '58 because The Gate Players had a tradition of bringing the birthday kids onstage after the show for birthday cake and ice cream. But it quickly became ice scream.

We were all gathered round the cake singing Happy Birthday to blow the candles out when my mom came out from the wings still in costume to give me a hug. I knew it was my mom but the other kids didn't and when she hugged me, pandemonium broke out as they all ran off the stage—screaming.

I was the only one left standing so I blew out the candles by myself. I was also the last kid left standing, mortified, glued to the spot, but I had the whole cake to myself as none of the kids would come back on stage even after my mom took her makeup off. I shrugged my shoulders as if to say, it's their loss and went on with the serious business of eating cake.

Les Abbott and the Marquee. Vee Rae photos 1961

Courtesy of Vee Rae photos 1961

But more often than not, I was left on one of the houseboats at Tiki Junction or at Gate Five or Gate Six.

Before the show, I was deposited at Dick and Tommy Smothers' houseboat where there were folks sitting around on chairs and pillows in the living room singing and playing banjos and guitars. With all that adult attention, I was pretty precocious and I'd dance around in circles to the music. In hindsight, it was probably The Kingston Trio and entourage down from The Trident.

My babysitters were the funny men: There was big black Sam the actor, with a fabulous physique who looked like a bald muscleman genie from Aladdin. I asked him if he was Samson but where was his hair, did Delila cut it all off, and was he still strong? He roared with laughter and tossed me up into the air. I'd never seen a black man before wearing a single gold earring so I knew he was exotic and not of this world.

In those days, I was preparing for my first communion, I was busy equating everyone with Biblical characters—trying to reconcile imperfect metaphor with reality. The nuns at the Lagunitas church, St. Cecelia's, told us me that whenever it rained, it was God's tears because we were so bad in church. I said He was peeing on us and let me tell you, I got into deep doo-doo for that remark. I was never was asked again to be Queen of the May, never again to crown the statue of the Virgin Mary.

Unlike his dour brother, Dick, who didn't seem to like kids, Tommy Smothers was kind and funny, if not funny looking with his ears sticking out like teapot handles. I liked Tommy the best. He was a real kid magnet. Whenever I'd spot him, I'd launch myself at him and he'd sing me around the room by the arms and then throw me through his legs and toss me back up into the air until I nearly hit the ceiling and I screamed with laughter. (And I probably immediately fell asleep exhausted).

In the '60s and 70s, I was shocked to later see Tommy's name on billboard at the Purple Onion, or on TV —The Smothers Brothers Show. A few years ago, when I ran into Pat Paulson's daughter and we exchanged stories, she said Pat was living in Sausalito too, but I don't remember him. Weird to think I might have played with her as a child.

Gate Playhouse. Vee Rae photos 1961

I remember seeing Sterling Hayden in a movie—The Ten Commandments—I was in Switzerland as an "exchange" student in 1973—I'd seen very few movies in my lifetime and almost no TV when I was young, so I tended to remember everything in minute details. I asked my mom why he seemed so familiar and she said because I knew him from the Sausalito days. Another veil lifted. I have only one image of Sterling, taller than forever, tossing me up into the air by the elephant fountain. I thought he was a Viking God.

During the '50s and '60s, McCarthyism drove many Hollywood folks north to the Bay Area. In the '80s I remember seeing converted chicken ranch barns in Sebastopol and Cotati made from Hollywood backdrops and movie props. Whatever happened to the Gate Playhouse director, Skip Rognlien, from New York, or to beautiful Greek Athena Martin the actress living in the Alta Mira above the Village Fair, who looked like Jackie O?

Back of the Gate Playhouse. Vee Rae photos 1961

Back of the Gate Playhouse opened abruptly into the bay,
a tiny ledge & nothing more than air. Vee Rae photo 1961

I ran into my mom's sidekick, Sally Lacey, who lived near Sally Stanford's Valhalla, they'd all meet for coffee and sit on the deck with the whiskey-voiced chain smoking Madame, Sally Stanford, and later mayor of Sausalito holding court. I ran into a toothless Sally Lacy—in the looney bin at Napa State Hospital where I was teaching poetry to the inmates. Sally Lacey remembered me, but that was about it. Time had not been kind to her. Was Sally one of Madame Sally's girls from 1144 Pine Street in the City? Or another colorful character from Sausalito's past? Vee Rae said Sally was Marilyn Monroe's stand-in in Hollywood.

And I haven't even mentioned Pat Wall, Piro and Alice, Peter Wolfe and Jean Varda....but that was my second Sausalito incarnation, when I was ten and learned to pilfer at the Trade Fair. Fodder for another blog.

The Ark, 1967

Sally Stanford died in 1982. I heard that Juanita died in a fire, when someone torched her restaurant in Boyes Hot Springs. But rumors of her death are greatly exaggerated. She's alive, and well, living in Sonoma County, (She died in 2011) Sterling died in 1986 in Sausalito.

They cleaned up the waterfront, blew up the ferryboats and a bit of the past along with it. Tommy opened a Volvo car dealership in Santa Rosa, and Pat opened a winery in the Valley of the Moon. My mom died in 1994, Lloyd, in 1998. With them, the rich stories of Sausalito in the 1950s, are irrevocably lost.

The 7 Seas

© 2007 Maureen Hurley
Guys and Dolls

Wonder what play they're reading? (Chris Gracida photo, courtesy of Vee Rae)

(Photo by Chris Gracida, courtesy of Vee Rae)
Richard Knablin, one of my funnymen babysitters.Vee Rae photo
Special thanks to Richard Knablin and Virginia Wyngarden for sending me these photos.


Anonymous said...

Dear Ms. Hurley,

I am conducting research for a piece on a place that used to exist at Galilee Harbor in Sausalito called Tiki Junction and the man behind it, Barney West. I just came across your blog, which mentions your mother Maureen being involved in the Gate Playhouse there.

Do you happen to have any historic information and/or archival material that you would be willing to share? Or, do you happen to know of anyone else that might have some information or possibly, any historic documents/photos that relate to Mr. West and Tiki Junction?

Any help or leads you might be able to provide would be most appreciated!!!!

Thank you so much,

Jonpaul Balak

Maureen Hurley said...

I'll post your query on my blog in the hopes that those who knew Barney West will contact you at the magazine.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mo!

Got your email address from Richard Knablin. I'm the Vee Rae in the picture of Sausalito party with your mom and Richard, Skip Rognlien, etc. I had found your blog a week or so and really enjoyed reading it— it brought back tons of memories, including "Juanita".

Kelle and I worked together at the Gate Playhouse. She did the costumes for the shows and as I recall did all the costumes I wore for Annie Get Your Gun. In case you're interested, the director at the gate was Les Abbott. He and I still exchange Xmas Cards and he lives in Walnut Creek.

Skip Rognlien and I are also still in touch. He lives in Oregon now. He was the Set Designer, Stage Manager, etc. He, as I recall, was quite close to your mom.

Other characters included David Arrow (his dad, Herman, did all the photos), Ron DeBenedictis (lives in Sausalito and did a few shows at the Gate) and others I would have to jog my memory to recall. I do remember Athena. There was also a "Kayla Khan". There was a local Sausalito artist (who lived in the old Sausalito Post Office) named "Nan Street Fowler (I think). Sausalito was magical in those days.

Tho I grew up in SF, much of my childhood summer was spent in Lagunitas. I remember going to Forest Knolls frequently and also Woodacre to horseback ride. I swam in the "Inkwell" in Lagunitas.

I would love to hear from anyone who has memories of early Marin..........circa 1940's or 1950's. And, also, Sausalito in the early 60's. If you know of any sources, I sure would appreciate same.

If you have any info I might be able to share, I'd be more than delighted to help.

Either way, thanks for the trip down memory lane..........what a trip!!!


Maureen Hurley said...


Hello yourself! Oh how exciting! When Richard send me the photo I recognized you immediately! It sure has been a trip down the lane and little (if anything) has been written about those Sausalito days.

I'm finding I'm not a lone voice (or memory) in the dark, and the more comments that are published seem to attract more readers with even stories to tell...

Richard has such a nice writing style but hasn't posted any of his stories...I suggested he start his own blog of those days....

Do you have any photos?

I wonder if Les Abbot'd be up for a visit?

Anonymous said...

I tried to call Les today. If he is able, I'm sure he would talk to you for hours! He may also have some photos and clippings for you! He would be a better source than me as all my past theatrical memorablia is stashed in my garage and it would take some time to find it (read TONS of boxes -- tee hee). Please let me know if you have any luck with Les -- also, if you reach him, pls. say hi from me.
I wonder if your Neil O'Neill worked with Les when he was directing Will Marchetti?? I doubt it as Will was many years older (I think I read within the last year that Will was doing something on Broadway).

I wish you luck! v.

Anonymous said...

There are a few of us still in communication from the Gate Playhouse days. You mention Skip Rognlien who now lives in Portland, Oregon.

Your mother was a wonderful friend. We shared good and bad times and sometimes she was completely off the wall. She was wildly creative and way ahead of anyone else. She worked tirelessly making costumes and,like the rest of us, worked restaurants and whatever to keep it all together.

Barney West's tikis were world famous. Sausalito at that time was a pre-hippie paradise. Many of us lived in the Del Monte Hotel across from the downtown park. It was $1 a day, and filled with incredible characters like "Old George", Pat Bond, Rick Barton, and more. One of my jobs was making sandwiches at The Kettle.

Do you know if anyone has a photo of the mural that was there? It portrayed the street people and artists who congregated there.

So many memories from that time....

Maureen Hurley said...


Thank you for the incredible gift of a photo of my mother. You look sort of like how I imagined you to be.

Did you know Athena? Skip is as tall as I remembered. I definitely rememher Vee's face.

Do you remember Sally Lacy? The Gate 5 people I remember most were Tommy Smothers and Sterling Hayden, and of course, Skip—because they were kind to kids. Or at least, they tolerated me.

So Skip's last name is Rognlien? No wonder I couldn't find it on the net.
A preliterate child's ears heard it as Robinson...

If you'd like, once you get tour Gate stuff collected, scanned, etc., I'd love to phone main interest is in archiving folk memory, or oral history.

I was working at a retirement center, and began taking dictation from
the residents and then realized I could do that for myself as well. Hence the blog, which has since morphed in several directions all at once. I will eventually need to make some cohesive sense of it...

Thank you for sharing some of your stories with me.



Unknown said...

Howdy folks! My name is Chuck Royster and I acted at the Gate Playhouse in the early 60's. My first show was "Of Thee I Sing" with Skip directing although I believe that Les Abbott was a big help. The next production was "Between Two Thieves" were I met and acted with Will Marchetti and we became good friends during that show. We still see each other occasionally as I live in Fairfield(Cordelia)and he's and his wife Susan are living in San Rafael(Northgate). It brought back so many memories of those "magical" days of the 60's. The theater was "family"! And I remember almost all of the people mentioned here. The kettle and the Chicken shack(3/4 lb. cheeseburgers), Eaton's jewelry, The Tides, The Four Winds bar, the Seven Seas with Paul DeMoss Owner), the gay bar "Bridgeway, Gatsbys and Lou at Smittys on Caledonia St and ,of course, the "No Name bar" owned by Neil Davis. I lived in Sausalito at several different locations but loved most of all my time living at Gate V where I met the Smothers Bros. and Phillis Diller and others(Alan Watts). Peoples drugstore was incredible in that everybody,damn near, that lived in Sausalito used it.You never knew what famous celebrity you might run into Like Mort Saul. I started a conversation with him and he must have given me at least 20 min. of his time and we'd always stop and chat whenever we both had the time . A genuinely nice human being. I also knew Barney West with his totem poles on Bridgeway just down the street from Zacks. I tended bar in Sausalito at several places Alta Mira Hotel, Plaza bar(later Pattersons), Cat & Fiddle. Its all fond memories and I consider now some of the best times I've spent on this planet. I'm just thankful I was there at the time.

Forti Radici said...

Mo, did Les Abbot limp? I believe he taught writing in SF in early 70's. Thanks, Tom