San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



September 1962

Conservation and Wise Use
Classic Humor Becoming Politically Incorrect
East versus West in Art
Starved Infrastructure
The Continuing Appeal of King Tut
Church Architecture
Superb Verdi Productions
KPFA in Danger




Conservation and Wise Use

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK. Off we go with a couple of mules for the headwaters of the Kern River, the Whitney Range and the red Kaweahs, the high lonely plateaus and the great peaks where we’ve spent so many happy days. It’s 10 years since I’ve made this particular trip. It will be good to climb up the trails I know so well, as well or better than the streets of San Francisco, to fish in familiar streams and swim in the well-remembered lakes.

At least I hope it will. Time passes, and I’m not so young any more. Time was, I thought nothing of hiking 30 miles in one day because of some now forgotten emergency, not over hill, over dale, but up and down passes and the walls of three-thousand-foot canyons. One thing about the “sweet smell of success” you breathe in middle age, it is sure enervating. Well, I’ll learn just how soft I am.

We are hiking with a couple of pack mules, not from choice, but because we couldn’t get saddle horses. This makes me wonder, as I do every summer, is this the right way to go about a high mountain vacation past the middle of the 20th century? I don’t think so.

Conservation organizations bitterly oppose any modern exploitation of our wilderness areas. I simply can’t understand this. There isn’t any special virtue of conservation built into a horse, rather the opposite. Most important, if all the vacationers who would like to enjoy the wilderness could afford the high prices of rented stock, and more important, dared trust themselves on a horse’s back, the horde of animals would eat up all the grass in the Sierras.

The High Sierra Camps in the Yosemite back country seem to me to be the most efficient solution. They are not obtrusive, they destroy no natural beauties, and they open up the mountains to anybody who is ambulatory. If you want to ride to them you can. I want to and do. If you think horses are alright in their place but you wouldn’t want your sister to ride one, you can walk from camp to camp with ease.

The crest of the mountains in Yosemite Park is very beautiful, but the real cream of the High Sierras is to be found in Sequoia National Park.

When the Park Service budgets money for recreational development, Sequoia is starved and Yosemite gets all the gravy. Why shouldn’t there be a string of High Sierra Camps “an easy day for a lady” apart, in a big circle all through the back country of Sequoia Park?

Like so much else in modern life, we are still dealing with the problems of conservation in terms of outworn stereotypes. We permit some of the loveliest lakes, accessible by car, in the mountains to become fringed with slums. Italians have been vacationing on their lakes since the Roman Republic and they are still beautiful. In less than a generation we have just about destroyed Lake Tahoe. On the other hand, for two people to take a pack trip into the High Sierra for 10 days costs around $400.

I’d like to see a conference called on the subject of “conservation in terms of modern technology and modern needs.” I’d like to see all the authorities and all the pressure groups face some of the real issues. High Sierra camps on the Yosemite model are one solution.

I am as opposed to commercial exploitation or abuse of our public wilderness as anybody. I am all for saving our primitive areas unspoiled for the future. That is not what is happening. Certain few trails, lakes and meadows are being abused right now, and by what is in fact a privileged caste, possessed of exceptional physical strength and know-how or a lot of money, or both. All the rest of our wilderness, the vast majority, is hardly ever visited, less now, in fact, than 30 years ago. Conservation means carefully controlled, nondestructive use — “sustained yield.” That is not what we are getting.

[September 2, 1962]



Classic Humor Becoming Politically Incorrect

If you see somebody twisting himself into a pretzel around one of the chairs on Enrico’s terrasse, it will be me trying to tie myself into a diamond hitch. If you see me gliding sinuously up Broadway, snapping at flies, don’t be perturbed, I’ve just been “marked,” as grandma used to say, by too, too many Golden Trout. I can do without a single one till next summer. I don’t want to see one or hear about one. After two weeks about 8000 feet along the Kings-Kern Divide, I feel haunted by those gold fish.

Criminals and some police call the third degree “showing you the goldfish.” That’s how I feel, as though I had been shown the goldfish. Which reminds me of one of my daughters’ favorite jokes. ABCD goldfish. LMNO goldfish. OSAR goldfish. OICMAR goldfish.*

We wrote this recently on a card for some little girl friends of my daughters and their mother objected. I thought she objected to the mild hint of profanity in the second sentence. No. She said I was telling her girls anti-Semitic jokes. This took me some time to figure out — Abie, as in Lincoln, is presumably anti-Semitic. What is going to happen to humor if this sort of thing keeps up? Radio and TV are long since gone. Steppin Fetchit would be inconceivable in the movies today, or Potash and Perlmutter in a slick magazine. Now even children’s humor is being invaded by the over-sensitive pressure groups. I am all for “Catch a tiger by the toe,” but the line should be drawn somewhere.

I will never forget the time John D. Barry, a bygone popular columnist in San Francisco, told the story about Otto Kahn and the hunchback. It had been told to him by one of the town’s leading rabbis at lunch and he repeated it in his column. I’m not going to tell it for sure, because the sky fell in on poor old Barry. Lights flashed, bells rang, it snowed subscription cancellations. Yet the anecdote is extremely pro-Jewish, and in addition strictly an inside job. Furthermore, Otto Kahn told it about himself, as a true story.

Here is an inside one, a favorite rabbinical pulpit anecdote, let’s see how many people think it is anti-Semitic:

Two cap makers started out from Grodnick in Poland on their wanderjahre. Every place they went Yitzel got a job and Schmelke got none. Warsaw, Hamburg, London, always it was the same story. But like a good comrade, Yitzel always shared his wages with his partner.

Finally they came to New York. Every day Yitzel left two dollars on the dresser. Schmelke said he was looking for work, but as a matter of fact, he went to the library and read Nietzsche. Finally Yitzel said, “Look, Sam, for a year now I’ve been keeping you. It’s hard on me, two dollars a day. Besides, I’ve met a nice girl and I want to get married. I’m going to need the money. Can’t you make a special effort? Maybe if you hunt hard, a good job will turn up.”

Next evening Schmelke came in to the furnished room and said, “I’ve got a job.” “Nuh? A job already? Doing what?” “With the caps. A designer.” “What shop?” “A landsman, Meyer Rosenberg. I met him today in front of the library on Fifth Avenue. He’s got a big shop.” “Meyer Rosenberg from Grodnick?” “That’s right.” “When do you start?” “I get paid from today, but I don’t start for a week, I got to travel to the place.” “A week? Where is it?” “Buenos Aires.” “Buenos Aires?” “Buenos Aires.” “Buenos Aires!” “Look, what’s the matter with Buenos Aires?” “It’s too far.” “From where?”

Now go ahead, make something of that.

[September 5, 1962]



*If the letters are pronounced, it can be read: “Abie see the goldfish. Hell, them ain’t no goldfish. Oh yes they are goldfish. Oh, I see’em, they are goldfish.” Or something like that — there are many variants which you can find by searching “ABCD goldfish”.



East versus West in Art

I wonder at what point in my life I came slowly and reluctantly to the conclusion that, by and large, art is a failure? I can’t remember. I can’t even remember, in fact, if it was slowly and reluctantly; maybe it occurred in a sudden flash of illumination looking at the Sistine ceiling or listening to the Ninth Symphony.

Thinking it over, I suppose this really means Western art and specifically Western art since the Renaissance. Our civilization has come to expect of the work of art that it express in its fullness the autonomous, self-determining, utterly free individual “man” as he was invented by the Renaissance.

Or else we look to the work of art to provide us with those ultimate insights into reality that other societies have found in religion.

All this has led to is a six-hundred-year-long orgy of outsize immodesty. Man is not free and self-determining in the Renaissance sense; he is only free as water is free to run downhill. Freedom is to be found only in humility — the accurate estimate of limitations. Paintings can decorate churches and temples — they can also decorate boudoirs — with little difference in real effect.

Music can grace a social evening. Poetry comes in handy to read to a girlfriend on a hike in the spring countryside. Novels are written to waste the leisure of women. And so it goes — and it goes for Cézanne, Dostoevsky, Beethoven and Michelangelo, too.

This is why the art of the Far East is so much more satisfactory than our own. The painters of China and Japan knew exactly what painting could accomplish, and they sat down and accomplished it. The poetry of Tu Fu is about himself and his friends and the ordinary things that happen to them — like exile, disaster and death — and evening on the Great River with the rain coming on.

Think, in contrast, of the whole windy rhetoric of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment or Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, or Milton’s Paradise Lost. Sometimes the critics have come along later and debauched the defenseless artist with metaphysics. Maybe The Brothers Karamazov is really only a detective serial about a murder in a family of infantile and disordered neurotics. Maybe Moby Dick is an adventure story for boys. Read Van Gogh’s letters — he never claimed that his pictures were chunks of bleeding flesh torn from the beating heart of the universe — quite the contrary — he thought of the later ones as bright and cheerful decorations which he wished could bring beauty to the walls of workers’ flats and cottages. Today, thanks to cheap reproduction, his wish has been fulfilled.

What moved me to all this long disquisition was an experience at the Brazilian Show at the San Francisco Museum. The walls were hung with a shocking collection of provincial rhetoric — exactly like the oratory of the underemployed lawyers and idle generals who run South American countries. Suddenly I saw, across the room, a big, lovely pale rose smear above a long gray smear, all on an eggshell background. I said to my daughter, “This is one time when the only picture I like in an abstract expressionist show will not be by a Japanese. This is a Brazilian show.” Mary crossed the room ahead of me and read the label and burst out laughing. The label said, “Manabu Mabe Correction 285, 1961.” I forgot that there are almost as many Japanese emigrated to Sao Paulo as to California.

The reason for this of course is that the Japanese have been “abstract expressionists” for hundreds of years — and their Chinese teachers before them since about 1000 A.D. They know what to expect when they sit down to paint or when they go to a gallery to look. And they are not disappointed. Maybe they don’t know much about art, but they know what they like.

Mary and me, we bought a pot — “Hugh Paine, Bowl, Volcanic Body, $10” said the label. He wasn’t a Brazilian, just a San Francisco potter. It would do nice to serve potatoes in.

[September 9, 1962]



Starved Infrastructure

Some years back there was a big drought in the East. The reservoirs ran low and water in New York City had to be rationed. In Moscow, Pravda published an editorial accusing the United States of spending so much money on preparation for war that we could not provide the inhabitants of our greatest city with adequate supplies of drinking water.

The American press took up Pravda’s editorial with great glee. Here was the most absurd of all examples of lying Russian propaganda, on a par with their claims to have invented fire, the wheel, and the dry martini. It had everybody in stitches.

There was only one trouble. In essence the accusation was perfectly true. In as wet a climate as New York state, the richest city in the world should be prepared to meet the most severe drought conceivable.

All over America essential services, normal activities of states and municipalities, peacetime governmental structures are starved while federal taxation, primarily for war, past, present and future, skyrockets.

I’m not being moralistic about this, much less pacifistic. It’s just a fact.

The recent boost in the San Francisco tax rate has everybody in a dither. True, it’s exorbitant, but so are wages and rents and dividends and prices and all the other transactions from which the taxpayers will obtain the money that they will then spend for city taxes. Yet if we hadn’t already built the essential structure of the city, we’d be in a pretty pickle. Thank the Lord we got some of the buildings up, some of the parks laid out back in the days before the dollar-and-a-half hamburger.

Who doesn’t object to the new Hall of Justice? What’s wrong with it is simple; it was the cheapest thing money could buy.

In their folly they will probably tear down the old Hall of Justice. Get out and take a look at it next time you go past. It is a replica of one of the most beautiful of the Medici palaces in Florence. Look at the green marble columns, look at the hardware, look even at the window glass. You don’t have to be a contractor to know who would object if the city had tried to do the same kind of job in 1960. Every single living taxpayer.

Look at the lavish imperial architecture of the City Hall. If we had to rebuild it, we’d have to settle for a chicken house and a couple of silos by some cheap provincial imitator of Mies van der Rohe.

The occasion for these observations was a visit I took last Sunday to McLaren Park. This is one of the most beautiful sites for a park anywhere in the world. Go out and take a peak at what we have been able to do with it with all the lucre we’ve made on our “exorbitant taxes.” It is an abandoned dump. Think of what John McLaren himself could have done with it, back in the early days of the century when he was building Golden Gate Park and there wasn’t any income tax or hydrogen bomb and no dogs and monkeys were going to the moon.

[September 12, 1962]




Down to McAllister Street to the International Repertory Theater to see Strindberg’s Creditors and his Ghost Sonata.

During the course of the winter they are planning to do a whole series of Strindberg plays, and nothing could please me more. Besides, Ernest Lonner, the director, is the only local representative of the German, Swedish and Austrian dramatic style of its heyday. This may make him something of an anachronism in the era which has evolved out of Stanislavski, Expressionism, the movies and all sorts of other influences unknown in the days when Ibsen, Strindberg, Schnitzler, Sudermann, Hauptmann and Bjornson were writing. It does, however, give him a special flair for their plays.

This is the theater I knew as a child and I get great pleasure watching Carol Cowan behave just like the first Heddas and Noras and Miss Julies and Teklas I ever encountered. I don’t know where this young woman came from or where she has played before, but under Lonner’s coaching she is becoming one of the most highly accomplished disagreeable women ever to take scissors to the vitals of a man on the local stage.

Creditors is about as near as Strindberg usually comes to comedy. It is not a tragedy, but a tragic farce, somewhat like “Tell me Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” and other jokes of that order popular a few years ago. Except for a few speeches, it employs the straight language of naturalism, yet it all adds up to a kind of frightening charade. It does not, however, distort reality, nor is it symbolic; rather it focuses and clarifies it.

Watching these three absurd people whipsawing each other to destruction you realize only too well that this sort of thing, relatively uncommon in Strindberg’s day, is all about us now in every divorce court and on every shrinker’s couch.

The Ghost Sonata is one of the very greatest symbolic plays ever written. If I were asked to name my favorite plays I’d certainly include it, along with Agamemnon, Mandragola, The Tempest and Phèdre. In recent years it has also become a favorite of the avant-garde theater, as well it might, since, though over half a century old, it is still more avant-garde than almost anything from the latest Paris “anti-theater.”

I should say that Lonner’s production is somewhat better than Roger Blin’s in Paris at the Gaîté Montparnasse along about 1949, that launched the play’s post-World War II popularity. The startling fact is that Lonner’s job is less amateurish. Yet Blin is a famous leader of the new theater, with his pick of actors in Paris, and the International Repertory Theater is just an amateur group on McAllister St., way off on the gaslight circuit at the edge of the earth.

I have only one adverse criticism. I thought the makeup was a most unsuccessful compromise between naturalism and mask. Long ago I did the design for this play myself and I used highly formalized makeup — almost like Chinese military plays — and rigorously naturalistic period costuming.

Let me repeat, again, watching Strindberg, or other playwrights like him from the same period, I always think, over and over, the same thoughts. In the days when these plays were written, capers of this kind were a special caste privilege. They were peculiar to the decadent ruling and administrative classes of Middle Europe before the First War . . . like the extraordinary follies of the Viennese burghers and their wives that make up Freud’s case histories — or Wilhelm Stekel’s.

Today, as they paddle about in our all-enveloping river of gold, the American working class and their wives talk the same way. All about me where I live in a neighborhood of Post Office employees, stenographers, longshoremen, housemaids, hod carriers’ helpers, it’s “My career versus my marriage, my lover, my analyst, my abortion, my divorce . . .” and so on, ad nauseam, as the Existentialists say.

It’s social democracy and desegregation — but not in the sense the words were used by Eugene V. Debs or Frederick Douglass.

[September 16, 1962]



The Continuing Appeal of King Tut

Maybe, to historians of culture, or even of religion, in the distant future, the Twenties will be known as the period of the construction of the major myths of modern times. Recently I overheard a little boy say, “Who do you think you are, you big cheese — Jack Dempsey?”

Lindbergh, Dempsey, Al Capone — man has soared to greater heights of aviation, sports or devilment since, but they still remain the archetypes. When one of the newsweeklies did a cover story on Dave Rockefeller, a giddy young woman of my acquaintance asked, “What’s he doing, still giving away dimes?”

What would happen if the papers ran an announcement, Isadora Duncan and Irene Castle in joint dance recital in Lincoln Park, music by Paul Whiteman with Bix Beiderbecke on horn? If you’d like to know, pay a visit to the Palace of the Legion of Honor come Sunday.

When I suggested to my daughters that we go see King Tut’s treasures, Mary knew all the details of the curse of his tomb, and her younger sister Katherine had heard about it. This tale, one of those legends of modern times, was the joint invention of somebody on the London Express and Abe Merritt in the American Weekly. It was erected on the flimsiest of foundations, but it still haunts the imaginations of little girls, and believe me, in its heyday it was good for some terrifying illustrations and breathtaking copy.

Driving to the Legion through Sea Cliff, we got into a traffic jam, and at the museum discovered a double line stretching out past the courtyard. It was all too much for us and we decided to see the show some weekday. However, flashing my press card, I squeezed through to the desk and asked, “What’s the count?” “It will pass 3000 by closing time,” said the beautiful, weary and amused blonde who the public, for sure, has never forgotten.

Do you suppose this is all a cooked-up job on the part of Liz’s publicity department for that picture [Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra]? They’ve done everything else but soap Vesuvius and bring on an earthquake.

The original discovery of King Tut’s tomb had a lamentable effect on the architecture of the American nickelodeon. Egyptoid, or at least Tutoid, jewelry can still be found in the jewelry cases of the Salvation Army and the Goodwill.

And I danced with many a slinky serpent of old Nile on the floors of Midway Gardens, the Trianon and Ike Bloom’s Midnight Follies, to the music of Benson or Goldkette or Coon-Sanders Bands.

Do you suppose it will all happen again? The public, for sure, has never forgotten, for they are turning out in their thousands. OK, Sheba, pass me a Maraschino and let’s walk the Airedale.

[September 19, 1962]



Church Architecture

Although the building of a church is nobody’s business but the religious group that is going to use it, still, the cathedral churches of our predominantly secular modern American cities do, in spite of everything, represent a spiritual focusing of the entire community, a sign manifest of the dedication of the life of the city — whether everybody wants to be so dedicated or not.

In pointing out an American cathedral to a visitor we should at least be able to say, “This is Roman Catholic (or Anglican) San Francisco.” But the worshippers in such a building are not some race set apart, they are us — San Franciscans. So at its best the entire community should be able to point to a cathedral and say, “This is, in a special sense, us.”

I hope the vacuum created by the disappearance of St. Mary’s makes us realize that San Francisco is one of the few cities of its size in America with no really first-class ecclesiastical architecture of any sort, derivative, eclectic or modern, Christian or Jewish.

Grace Cathedral and St. Dominic’s are good examples of careful Gothic reconstruction. I have no objection per se to archaistic architecture, but neither building can compare with the best examples of this style in America — for instance, St. Vincent Ferrer, the Dominican church by Ralph Adams Cram in New York — let alone with dozens of such churches in England.

St. Anne’s in the Sunset is an extremely pleasing Romanesque structure, but it isn’t Richardson’s Trinity in Boston, much less the breath-taking modern combination of Byzantine and Romanesque architecture that makes St. Louis Cathedral one of the most remarkable religious buildings in North America.

Again, we have a number of churches like St. Brigid’s on Van Ness Ave. which demonstrate what an inspired architecture can do, remodeling rather unpromising material. I sometimes think the most satisfying church in the city, architecturally speaking, is the little Danish Lutheran church, St. Ansgar’s on Church St., a small triumph of modesty, taste and discretion.

The archdiocese has announced that present plans are for a contemporary church. This is all to the good. For years it began to look as though the spirit of the Age was irredeemably atheist, as far as architecture was concerned. The only churches that looked like churches were the archaistic ones.

Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamps looks religious all right, but like a place to worship bears and bisons, not any god since 6000 B.C. Matisse’s chapel looks like a courtesan’s bedroom, or a place to buy very expensive perfume — and so it went. The very thought of a religious structure emitted by Mies Van der Rohe is frightening.

Suddenly things have been picking up. A critical point has been passed, as when water turns to steam, a breakthrough has occurred, because all over Europe and America in the past 10 years we have been getting some profoundly impressive religious architecture, truly devout church buildings.

At the same time, the liturgical revival, now over 70 years old, has suddenly caught on in the grass-roots parishes with priests and people. “Audience participation,” as they say in the theater, has become acceptable, with conspicuous results in the architecture of churches, especially amongst French Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans.

I for one think the prospect of a new cathedral is an exciting thing in the life of a city and I would like to see some audience participation from the whole community. There are a number of stimulating books on liturgy and architecture I would like to recommend in the hope that they might provoke widespread discussion.

They are: Louis Bouyer, Life and Liturgy (Sheen and Ward, 1956); Peter Hammond, Liturgy and Architecture (Columbia University Press, 1962); Ernest B. Koenker, The Liturgical Renaissance in the Roman Catholic Church (University of Chicago Press, 1954); Henze and Filthaut, Contemporary Church Art (Sheed and Ward, 1956); P.R. Régamy, O.P., Religious Art in the Twentieth Century (Herder and Herder, 1960).

I guarantee you’ll find them full of surprises.

[September 23, 1962]



Superb Verdi Productions

Sitting watching Don Carlo unfold last night, it occurred to me that I was beginning to take the San Francisco Opera Company for granted.

It’s considered smart to put down local art, music, ballet, theater. It shows you’re not provincial. In some cases the put-down may be justified — but the brutal fact is, that by depreciating the Opera you just reveal that you are provincial — that you haven’t seen much opera elsewhere.

Another middle-brow affectation is contempt for opera as such. This has two aspects, often united in the same person. One, it’s supposed to be just a place where rich women show off their powdered shoulders and their diamond dog collars. This is the Maggie and Jiggs approach. Two, you go only for the music and loll in your seat with tightly shut eyes. The plots are silly and the singers are all fat and middle-aged. If this is your attitude, you usually go only to Wagner or Mozart, or, unbelievably, to both. This is known as the Don Giovanni, pronounced Gee Oh Vanny, approach.

Opera, of course, is music-drama. It is not a bastard form, the result of Romantic confusion of the arts; it is the oldest, most classic form of drama. As such it has its own inherent dramaturgy and its special styles of acting and its own requirements for text.

Even the best plays cannot be transformed directly into the complicated relationships of singing voices. Macbeth, Othello, Wozzeck, Lulu (when, by the way, will we see Lulu in San Francisco?), the great comedies of Beaumarchais, in each case, the text was not violated for opera — it was opera-ized.

W.H. Auden is on record as believing the libretto by Boito of Otello is a decided improvement on Shakespeare. Be that as it may, Otello is certainly a kind of artistic unity, and one of the most effective ones.

The reason all this occurred to me at Don Carlo is that this, like The Masked Ball, is a potentially great opera which has thrown dozens of the greatest directors. I saw Matzenauer as Eboli in Don Carlo on my 15th birthday, I heard Chaliapin sing King Philip, and I’ve seen lots of Don Carloses since. Our production was way and above the most compact structure of music-drama. This is even more true of Un Ballo in Maschera.

Both operas have an almost uninterrupted history of laying very large eggs. You could write a comic novel with the leading character an old lady who had been a dresser in all of the productions of Un Ballo since 1900. It would be hilarious, but the San Francisco production was not hilarious, it was a profoundly moving and ennobling experience.

So with Don Carlo last week. It was of nobility all compact, lit like Rembrandt, El Greco and Velasquez, costumed with both grandeur and restraint (and so, perfectly Spanish), sung with the same restraint and nobility, and directed with the sharpest discrimination for the values of true music-drama.

[September 26, 1962] 



KPFA in Danger

Some years back I got a letter, quite unsolicited and unexpected, from a young man who was then publicity director for Columbia University Press. Mostly it was a business letter regarding details of my own book review program on Radio KPFA.

In closing he said, “Let me add that I sincerely believe that KPFA is the most important single cultural force in America, and this includes the museums, the music organizations of all sorts, the literary quarterlies and the political weeklies.”

This is certainly a bold statement, but there are a good many people who would not consider it a rash one.

Since those days KPFA has broadened and deepened its programming and expanded its signal area; it has given birth to two stations like itself, WBAI in New York and KPFK in Los Angeles; it has also increased its number of subscribers many fold. There are no accurate estimates of the audience of free riders, but since nobody has to subscribe, it must be enormous.

There are many theories that attempt to account for our special Mediterranean civilization here in the Bay Area. It is true that we are one of the few communities in America not settled by the overland advance from Puritan New England, but around the Horn and across the Isthmus by immoral gold seekers and adventurers and adventuresses. This may account for our cultural past, for the set of our ways.

One of the big factors in our cultural present, one of the forces that shapes us continuously as we are today, is surely the all-day and all-evening stream of high-level thought, music, controversy, drama and entertainment that pours out of the KPFA transmitter 365 days of the year and has been doing so since April 1949.

Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has said again and again that this is precisely the kind of thing he wants on the air, and he has taken commercial television and radio to task in no uncertain terms for not providing it. In fact television is just now running so scared that it has momentary fits of something that looks suspiciously like adult entertainment.

However, the FCC is now considering a move that may well cripple KPFA and other stations like it.

The Commission intends to limit the power of all new FM stations in California. Furthermore, it’s now considering cutting back the power of the existing stations to the same level. KPFA’s power would be cut back by [a factor of] ten — from 59,000 watts to 5000 watts. At least 125 of 242 northern California communities now enjoying KPFA would no longer hear the station and others would have difficulty.

The Federal Communications Commissioners have said that they will take into account all relevant information. They set October 1 as a deadline for receiving facts and opinions from stations and listeners. Since then they have run into some very complicated problems and the deadline has been extended. However, they are certainly going to issue a ruling soon.

Unfortunately, few listeners commend a station to the FCC. Usually it is the crank with a complaint who writes to such a body.

Needless to say, the proposed ruling would be catastrophic, not only for KPFA and its audience, but for all the FM stations round and about. More, it would be a major catastrophe in the cultural life of northern California.

I take a very dim view of appeals to write your Congressman to ban the bomb, or stop war, or free the Negroes, or give or not give money to private education. By and large mail of this sort is measured by gross weight only — and then in nine cases out of ten, ignored.

This is one case where a properly constituted authority has specifically asked for information and opinion from those concerned. This is, let me assure you, a crisis comparable to the threatened closing of the Public Library, one of the Museums, or the Opera or Symphony.

So — this is one time — the only time I can recall, ever — in which I advise you to write to: Newton Minow, Federal Communications Commission, Washington 25, D.C. If you can, send a carbon to your Congressman, and to Trevor Thomas, manager, KPFA, Berkeley, Calif.

[September 30, 1962]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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