San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



January 1965

Stimulating Mail
Police versus Homosexuality
Inadequate Cultural Infrastructure
The Mafia Invasion of North Beach
Cultural To-Do List
Highways and the Future
A Great Week of Local Theater
Misdirected Education
A Theatrical Body Blow




Stimulating Mail

The first Sunday column of a new year. All sorts of letters in response to last week’s, outlining a few plans and asking for suggestions. I was impressed, as I have been for some time, by how many letters came from religious people, far from cranks and fanatics, just concerned people who welcomed public discussion of such matters.

I wonder if I have discovered a demand which is not being met to the full in the local papers? Something different than the necessarily broadly tolerant coverage of the religion editors, but quite the opposite, controversial, opinionated, provoking? The only column in the country like this, to my knowledge, is in the Baltimore Sun papers, where it certainly seems to attract and stimulate readers.

Other letters run to conservation, city planning, civil liberties, the free speech fight at Berkeley, cultural matters, especially the issues raised lately by Jerry Ets-Hokin, the Vietnam war, and last but far from least, voices from both Left and Right crying that the Pope, the world, the country, San Francisco and the younger generation are going to the everlasting bow-wows.

If my mail is any indication, Americans are less afraid and less guilty than they were a year ago, and not quite so eager to dash out and reform the world. They are more concerned with domestic problems and even more with personal ones. They are demanding a freer and richer life. Many, maybe most, now have enough of that vaunted new leisure, whether on high salaries or on relief, to insist that some of it be turned into the “creative leisure” they are always reading about.

Many people are worried about what is happening to San Francisco and fear that we are undermining the foundations of our special way of life, that free and gracious community that has made us the world’s favorite city. It’s not just view-destroying high-risers, pollution and filling the Bay, freeways and urban renewal — lately people have been writing in and asking, “Why don’t you do something about what is happening to North Beach?” or “Is the Mafia taking over San Francisco? Are we becoming another Calumet City?”

I hardly ever go to North Beach anymore, and I must say that when I do I am horrified. Whiskey Gulch — Jerry Ets-Hokin was right.

As life gets easier, it also gets more complicated and new strains develop which people are unprepared to handle. I, too, think the remark by the highest authority that we never had it so good since the birth of Christ verges on the impious as well as the impertinent.

I don’t think we are going to the dogs, at least not for keeps, but we are certainly going through an all-pervasive change of phase. In 20 years many of the concrete, day-to-day facts of life are going to be very different, and as the facts change, values are going to change, too. Not the basic ones, maybe, but almost all the secondary ones.

A great deal of the things we do and the reasons we give for doing them today are utterly redundant. Instead of recognizing this and changing the things and reasons, we allow people to take over the redundancy. Humans, alas, are always more expendable than prejudices.

Still, as Galileo said, “it does move,” and as it moves it scares the wits out of those who look back fondly to the good old days when it didn’t. Of course, it really did in those days, too, but they have forgotten that, if they ever noticed. Hence the frantic letters to the press.

Is life “better” than it has been since the birth of Christ? Certainly not. It is different, but about the same, for us as it was for the Roman citizen; for most of the world it is very much worse. Most of the world is hungry all the time, unfed, unclothed, unhoused. Don’t they know that at the White House? Anyway, the birth of Christ was a specific and direct challenge to that very “better” being enjoyed by the affluent Romans.

I’m still worried by that priest who had the Holy Family putting up at a first-class motel, with the best obstetrical care. I think of a young Spanish California girl, pregnant, married to a sympathetic Mexican handy man, washed out by the recent floods, wandering in an old jalopy over the roads of a land conquered from her ancestors as her labor pains come on.

They were trying to get back to the San Joaquin village where her family had lived, but when they reached it, they could find no relatives, and there was no room at the motel. So the baby was born in the barn amongst the cows and horses, with a bracero midwife in attendance and some sheepherders who were down from the hills and sleeping in the barn, too, trying to help out and make things comfortable. There are facts and values, too, that will be a long time changing.

Thanks for all the holiday good wishes and Happy New Year to you all.

[January 3, 1965]



Police versus Homosexuality

There are certain subjects agitating the public mind which I approach with a diffidence amounting to extreme distaste. Three of them are race, narcotics addiction, and homosexuality.

The first, of course, should not be a problem at all and is not amongst truly civilized people. Many people think that this should be case with the third as well, but certainly homosexuality, like addiction, is a medical, psychiatric and moral problem, not a question to be solved by the police.

In the larger social context the evidence is conclusive that it is just as impossible to stop addiction or change homosexuals by imprisonment, harassment, persecution as it is to change a person’s race. Years ago I was instrumental in sponsoring a chapter of Narcotics Anonymous, modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, in New York, back at the very beginning of the narcotics explosion that is overwhelming all methods of control in that city. The meetings and salvage activities were a great success until the members discovered that they were being followed and photographed by the police — both city and federal. After the first couple of meetings the cops were following them home and shaking them down.

That was the end of that. Today there are more addicts in one New York high school than there were then in the whole city.

For a long time now the churches, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish, have been seriously concerned about their responsibility to the increasing number of homosexuals in our society. This is not an issue the clergy can possibly avoid, because homosexuals come to them constantly for counsel and help.

The Quakers, the Anglicans, the English Roman Catholics — as well as the Austrian and French — have issued semi-official statements on the problem. This is an extremely important moral question which is causing some of the finest theological minds in the world considerable worry and searching of soul. No one has found any ready answers.

Except the San Francisco Police Department. Last Friday they visited in force a party at California Hall given by the Council for Religion and the Homosexual. They harassed the participants, ordered the party to cease and desist an hour early and engaged the clergy and lawyers present in debate, insulted them personally, “We see by your rings you’re married, how do your wives accept this?” and gave them lessons in theology and law — and ended up arresting three of the attorneys.

I personally believe that a party called for such a purpose should have policed itself to the extent of forbidding men to come dressed as women. I don’t care what sort of clothes people wear, but everyone knows that a “drag party” gives the police running and barking fits. There are enough of them given every weekend in San Francisco, it was imprudent to have one for this purpose.

Prudence should be a clerical virtue, even though, notoriously, it is not a policely one. However, the Police Department is not a faculty of law or theology, nor should the police intimidate, much less arrest, concerned people, authorities in those subjects, who are seeking solutions to a problem which they, the police, have never been able to solve or even “abate.”

[January 6, 1965]



Inadequate Cultural Infrastructure

Come the New Year, I always try to have my own little manifesto, concerned with the things that interest me and that they hire me to talk about. This time I missed by a week, but here it is.

One thing that held me back was the series by George Dusheck in the News Call Bulletin, contrasting cultural activities in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Another thing, I was hung up writing a long article for a New York paper on the same subject. Apparently “San Francisco Ain’t Cultured No More” is going to be the headline for the next six months.

Is it true? No, but it is dangerously close to it. Things are running down fast hereabouts, other things are chronically and incurably in bad shape, and, most important, San Francisco lags far behind other cities in the recent and sudden outpouring of both interest and money for culture.

We have a repertory theater, the Actor’s Workshop, universally recognized as the best of its kind west  of the Rhine, the best, in fact, not wholly underwritten by the state anywhere. It does not have, let alone a permanent home, even a bona fide theater but has to make do with a poor auditorium a women’s club long ago unloaded onto the Marines.

We have three large museums. Their permanent collections are provincial and they no longer seem to have the money available to mount or share in many first-class traveling shows. There is a constantly growing criticism, so far muted, but likely to burst out loud very soon, that one of them is being badly mismanaged. Two are uninterested in local art. The other is under the dictatorship of a tiny group of allowed clowns and institutionalized imitation rebels.

It is utterly impossible, indeed the idea is inconceivable, for a painter to make a living off the local art market by just selling pictures. The painters who live here hold down non-artistic jobs or teach — which is itself in fact a “non-artistic job.” Most of the good painters who have lived here have long since left.

Life is just as hard for a musician. I doubt if there is a single member of the San Francisco Symphony who lives on his income from that source alone. It would be a tight squeeze for an unmarried person in a cheap boarding house. No jazz musician has ever lived here and just played jazz, in local clubs, except for the members of the Lu Watters-Turk Murphy Good Times Music school.

The San Francisco Ballet is over the hump and now can give many of its members enough wages to live — the most meaningful definition of “self-supporting.” It still needs plenty of patronage, but on the whole it is our most successful cultural enterprise and one of our best advertisements. There are several other dance groups, both modern and ballet. Not one gets an adequate showing locally. Ann Halprin’s troupe is one of the two most famous modernist groups anywhere — except in San Francisco.

The town is full of writers, but only two national literary magazines are published locally, and those, Ramparts and Contact, in the suburbs. There are no literary markets whatever in The City itself, and very few for journalism or commercial writing. There is no national publishing house. “The San Francisco Renaissance” lives by benefit of the Post Office.

We have at least three other theaters each as interesting in its way as the more famous Actor’s Workshop. Nobody, but nobody, makes a decent living in any one of them. We have a Negro repertory company which attracts little interest and less audience. Frank Silvera’s Amen Corner is running into its second year in Los Angeles.

We have an immense amount of chamber music available, but except for the YMHA, school auditoriums and the Hall of Flowers, no place for it to be played. There is no place adequate for most of the better touring concerts, either. The Budapest String Quartet has to make do with Nourse Auditorium, the dismal anti-acoustical auditorium of an abandoned commercial high school. We have two unique avant-garde groups — the Tape Music Center and the Composers’ Forum. The facilities available to them are minimal.

Last, but not least, there is no educational program, beginning in grammar school and continuing through college, focused on any of the arts, available anywhere in northern California. This, I might say in closing, is an absolute essential — all artists are “prodigies.”

These are just a very few of the things that are wrong. Come next Sunday, I will try to suggest a program to just barely begin to start to try to commence to ameliorate if not remedy some of these conditions. Meanwhile, write me a letter.

[January 10, 1965]



The Mafia Invasion of North Beach

We started the New Year off not with a bang or a whimper but with a sigh of replete satisfaction. We had New Year’s Day dinner in La Strada, where we hadn’t eaten for the better part of a year.

It is unchanged, still a wonderful restaurant with Italian high cuisine of a type rarely found in America — or Italy either for that matter, and with one of San Francisco’s most hospitable hosts, Nino Brambilla.

We hadn’t strolled on Broadway or sat on the terrasse at Enrico’s in a long time, either. It was a shocking experience. Is this what we want San Francisco to become? In all the mobs of teetering, drunken squares the sight of a good old-time beatnik was a relief. Alas, on closer inspection, most of them were obviously just plain hooligans or stilyagi.

Is it true that the Mafia are taking over San Francisco’s entertainment districts? Certainly any experienced night life observer, after a walk down our two nightclub rows, would say, “This is an Organization town.”

It is precisely in North Beach that the oldest and best of San Francisco’s traditions linger on. How strange the survivals look in the context that has suddenly sprung up around them. In the midst of the turmoil and fakery, the carnival of strip and clip, it is as incongruous to find a restaurant like La Strada as it would be to find a great restaurant from Verona flown through the air to alight in the midst of Calumet City or New Orleans’s French Quarter.

Enrico’s, La Strada, The Committee, The Jazz Workshop, Cho Cho, all these places are relatively new, but they are a genuine fulfillment of the best traditions of North Beach, which was until recently still one of the world’s greatest Latin Quarters or Bohemias.

But what are some of these other joints? They are the same kind of places, run by the same kind of people who long since destroyed Greenwich Village or the Near North Side in Chicago or the French Quarter in New Orleans. Can San Francisco afford to tolerate the growth of a night life slum?

Fisherman’s Wharf passed a point of diminishing returns and now is trying valiantly to reform itself. Nothing depreciates faster than the fast buck. The old North Beach, still hanging on for dear life, was our finest natural community, with the richest neighborhood life.

This is what made it a tourist attraction. It attracted tourists who fell in love with it and decided to stay and who, because they were the kind of people that loved this kind of life, made enduring contributions to San Francisco.

Unless this old North Beach can reform itself and reclaim the neighborhood, the whole district will go slowly down hill. The joints will eventually close; fast bucks are snow money and melt away. Like the Near North Side, there will be nothing left to do with the wasteland that was once our Little Vegas but to Urban Renew it out of existence.

[January 13, 1965]



Cultural To-Do List

Wuxtry! Wuxtry! San Francisco Ain’t Cultured No More. Wuxtry! Wuxtry! Looneyville Assumes U.S. Leadership in Arts!

I suspect we are all falling for a Los Angeles Times circulation stunt.

In the first place, Mrs. Chandler did not build that cultural center with her own little trowel. She certainly is a hard-working, dedicated woman, but an awful lot of other people put up an awful lot of money. In the second place, so what? Most of the authorities on such subjects believe that ostentatious centralization of cultural activities is a serious mistake. It catches votes and it gets pictures in the newsweeklies and picture magazines, but it defeats the basic purposes of good city planning and community organization.

Furthermore, it can well be turned into one grand pig trough and pork barrel, with nothing to show for it but a half-a-billion-dollar concrete and steel mistake. This is what happened with New York’s Lincoln Center.

I just took a little trip down to Babylon-Beneath-the-Smog and I have to report it hasn’t changed a bit. It has acquired another outsized bit of Wilshire Boulevard Modern. Forest Lawn and Disneyland remain Southern California’s cultural utterances. I think we’d better stop making comparisons and start worrying about what’s wrong with San Francisco, sui generis, not comparatively. What’s wrong with us?


In the first place, we have a civic structure consciously designed to short circuit and ground out all imaginative leadership. This is as true of the Health Department as it is of Streets and Sewers. There is nothing wrong with the arts that isn’t wrong with the whole municipality.

We need a new charter. We need commissions that can do things, not just make vague recommendations. We shouldn’t have to appropriate $250,000 to replan Market Street, we should have a department where such plans continuously evolve with the growth of The City as an essential part of our civic government.

We should have an Arts Commission which can do something effective in advancing our cultural life, not just recommend the right brand of cyclone fence for the City Dump. The offices of Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer should be defined to enable leadership and initiative, not to inhibit it.

Of course a do-nothing mayor can manage to do nothing no matter how you define his job. Still, although everybody admits that our city government needs total restructuring, there isn’t even an organized sentiment for a new charter.

Let’s forget about Lincoln Center and Los Angeles’s Palaces of Culture. What can we do here and now of the many things that demand doing? We can rebuild the stage and correct the acoustics of the Opera House and build an annex for essential services to it. We can rebuild completely the interior of the Veterans Auditorium so that it can be used; at present it is literally useless. We can build a new theater and concert hall combination, preferably something that can be used as either or both a 750- and a 1500-seat house, for both music and drama.

All these jobs should be done under the closest supervision of the people who are going to use them and their wishes should take precedence over the fancy pictures of architects and the wholesome desires of the contractors to maximize their take.

New forget, Lincoln Center is essentially a fraud, it does not meet the requirements of the leaders of New York’s performing arts, whatever they may say on television.

The Actor’s Workshop needs a home of its own. Other groups besides Ronny Davis’s Mime Troupe should be encouraged to use the parks. Why not poetry reading, chamber music, dance? Parks and Recreation should set up a full-dress program of this sort. We need right now a well-organized plan for the use of our great elephant, the Palace of Fine Arts.

Jack Shelley promised the beard-and-sandal vote the earth with a little gold-anodized fence around it. Harold Dobbs promised them a volunteer Arts Council which would act as permanent advisors to the Arts and Planning Commissions.

Shelley has done nothing about his grandiose campaign talk. I suggest he implement the sensible program of his defeated opponent. The first thing this body could do is open up a central booking and coordinating office for all the manifold cultural activities that go on now in the Bay Area.

More 2 cum, as they say. Write me some more letters, and thanks for all those who have already done so.

[January 17, 1965]



Highways and the Future

In the next few years all the southern approaches to San Francisco are going to be “improved.” The road along with coast will be turned into a four-lane divided highway. The Skyline Boulevard will be widened in places. From San Francisco to a turnoff near Millbrae it will be made part of the new freeway down the middle of the Peninsula. This means the east shore of Lake San Andreas.

The Bayshore Freeway is already undergoing improvements, and eventually it will be paralleled to the east by a second freeway, at least as large, built over the mudflats.

All this would be genuine improvement, if it weren’t for two things.

First, the automobile is technologically obsolete right now. Everything about it is obsolete, the internal combustion engine, the production line, the sales organization, the fuel, the drive line, the control mechanisms, the labor structure.

It was the high point of the development of the mechanical and industrial age; today it is an all-devouring anachronism. It is destroying the cities of the world. Paris, London and Florence are as unlivable as Los Angeles. It is defacing the countryside with fabulously expensive roads that will be nothing but encumbrances to the planning of traffic at the end of the century.

Second, it should be obvious by now to all concerned people that both the Highway Commission and the Governor are anti-conservation on principle. To paraphrase the old Army saw, “If it moves, relocate it. If it doesn’t move, get it on the tax rolls. If you can’t get it on the tax rolls, cover it with concrete.”

Public opinion has forced the Highway Commission to promise to use landscape artists to put the finishing touches on freeway plans. But the public must make sure that “landscaping” does not become a euphemism for prettified destruction of already existing beauties of the landscape.

There is more to being a landscape architect than making a few renderings of cloverleaves and cutbacks planted with trees and shrubs which won’t look like the drawings until after we’re all dead and the freeways have been abandoned. There’s more to landscaping than ordering a million eucalyptus saplings, a billion oleanders and several trillion mesembrythemums.

The Spring Valley Lakes and Waters Reservation, the forested ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains on to the south, and what is left of the oak and grassland savannahs down the center of the Peninsula, give San Francisco one of the most beautiful approaches in the world. Much of this is already ruined. El Camino Real was perhaps California’s first ribbon slum of neon signs and automobile graveyards.

The new roads present us with a different problem. They do not deface the landscape, but, if permitted, will simply obliterate it altogether. Only that well-known and seldom practiced civic virtue, eternal vigilance, will keep them from doing so.

[January 20, 1965]



A Great Week of Local Theater

There has seldom been a week in the history of the local theater when there were so many good shows. All our best groups are at the top of their individual forms. This alone should be sufficient answer to the amateur sociologists who have suddenly discovered that Los Angeles has become the cultural capital of the earth and left San Francisco behind as a dusty old museum.

What availeth it a city if it spends a billion dollars on a concrete, glass and steel palladium and has nothing better to put in it than a tenth-rate flop by Arthur Miller — as happened recently in New York’s Lincoln Center? Here to home, this summer, we let Ronnie Davis’s Mime Troupe put on Molière’s Tartuffe, Machiavelli’s Mandragola, and Jarry’s King Ubu, in the public parks, for free.

Recently a New York paper asked me if I could think of some one thing, person or event that would concretize San Francisco’s cultural life and show how it differs from other American cities. This morning in the mail came The Keeper’s Voice, a little magazine which promises to act as an open forum for the keepers of the San Francisco Zoo. It contains, along with a bit on first aid and another on the need for more help, a quotation from Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, another from Topsell’s Historie of Four-Footed Beasties, a poem of Ranier Rilke about a panther, translated by the editor, a collage of animals’ heads, and a poem by the editor on “Love Among the Antelope.”

Well, that’s San Francisco. Have you any idea of what kind of people work in the New York and Chicago zoos as keepers? They don’t read Rilke, that’s for sure.

Back to our repertory theaters. The Actor’s Workshop has always shown a special talent for Chekhov. Their Uncle Vanya is done with great style and verve. Despite the fact that their available stock company caste does not fit any of the roles, the result is not failure, but a radically new interpretation of the play. Most significant, their production is neither better nor worse than the Uncle Vanya Ernest Lonner did last year at the International Repertory Theater. It is just different. Seeing the two so close together is a revelation of the depths of meaning in the play.

George Hitchcock has done a splendid job of directing in The Provoked Wife at the Interplayers. Again, this might be considered competition with the Workshop’s recent, similar Country Wife, both bawdy Restoration comedies. It is not — it is as different a theatrical conception as could well be.

Hitchcock has formalized every movement and has kept a bouncy rhythm going in the speech, so that the effect comes close to ballet or to Mozart’s Figaro. There is no problem with appropriate casting in this play. Everybody is completely convincing in his role, and the two female leads, Paula White and Kenna Hunt, are superb.

Talk about casting, Shaw may have written Captain Brassbound’s Conversion for Ellen Terry, but he must have seen Lynne Arden coming 65 years hence. She isn’t Ellen Terry, but she is sure funny and she understands completely how to put across Shaw’s malicious and affectionate anti-feminism.

Finally, the International Repertory Theater has taken on Eugene O’Neill’s Great God Brown. This is one of the world’s most difficult plays to put across. When it first came out it provided vaudeville comics with burlesking gags for a couple of years.

Ernest Lonner seems to have a special fondness for these director’s nightmares. Who else around here would have dared attempt Strindberg’s Damascus? Answer, nobody, and nobody in the United States in 80 years. As of this writing I haven’t seen Great God Brown but if it is as effective as was Damascus, and I suspect it will be, Lonner will have earned himself another gold star.

While this was all going on, what should Gerhard Samuel and the Oakland Symphony do but Stravinsky’s Persephone. This is the most crystalline of all Stravinsky’s Neo-Classic works, and for that reason, and because it depends on flawless performance and perfect coordination of usually disparate elements, the most difficult to bring off. Any little flub and it lays an egg, and a very addled egg at that.

Samuel put if all together, speaking Persephone, singing narrator, chorus, orchestra, and molded everything into shape like one of Brancusi’s Golden Birds, which was just what Stravinsky intended.

The moral of all this is, it’s not the Palaces of Art and the Pavilions of Music you build, it’s what you put in what you’ve got. Next week, more concrete suggestions for how to make things better for the arts in San Francisco. I’m still mulling over your letters.

[January 24, 1965]



Misdirected Education

Between the federal government and the Ford Foundation, the state and the municipality, there is so much talk of so much money for education that the public is hopelessly confused and has not even noticed that there has been a serious curtailment of funds available for education this year. Furthermore, what new funds are forthcoming are for the wrong things.

It is widely believed that we need vast numbers of technically trained people to fill all sorts of waiting jobs. This is simply not true. We are already overproducing engineers and technicians. There is a surplus of trained labor right now in new fields like electronics.

We now have a technologically advanced society which could be made genuinely affluent throughout simply by reorganizing the wage structure. For such a society we need people trained to enjoy life as well as to program computer cards.

Why then the onslaught on the humanities, the depersonalization of education, all the hullabaloo about training the youth of Harlem to fill engineering jobs they will never get?

It’s so simple. The Free Speech Movement and Clark Kerr agree perfectly here. Education, especially in California, is being taken over by what Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex,” and against which, in his last official words, he warned the country.

We can now destroy every living being on this planet in a matter of minutes and we can send missiles to all the nearby planets and do the same thing.

Yet we go on, piling up the fireworks. Why? It’s so simple — overkill is superprofit. The unending proliferation of extermination makes no sense, but it makes some people a lot of money.

It has been pointed out again and again by the new economists that the technological revolution has made classical economics, whether Marxist or laissez faire, obsolete. The source of profit is no longer naked labor power. However, if an enormous labor surplus of highly trained skills can be created, we, or “they,” can enjoy the same highly profitable buyers’ market for labor as in the good old days.

As a matter of fact, as our society becomes ever more automated and computerized we are going to need ever fewer engineers and technicians in proportion to the general work force. What we are going to need are trained people in human services in the widest sense — from head shrinkers to saxophonists, from pet doctors to acrobats.

So the Harlem kid who drops out of a high school which insists he learn a lot of mathematics so he can shoot dogs to Mars and who takes up trumpet or goes to ballet school instead, knows more about education than the educators.

Meanwhile, it becomes more and more difficult to obtain a humane education in California, and impossible to get one focused on a future career in any of the arts.

[January 27, 1965]



A Theatrical Body Blow

Well, you can’t say you weren’t warned.

Here comes some more warning. When I was in Los Angeles recently I heard talk of the possibility of basing the San Francisco Opera in Los Angeles with a secondary season in San Francisco. This is the reverse of what happens now and that’s just the way people put it. “Why not have the long season in L.A. where we have the facilities and plenty of people, especially in the technical departments, and let Frisco take over our old Shrine Auditorium season?”

The San Francisco Ballet is constantly subject to cautious feelers — “How would you like to come to the Southland? We can give you far more than you are getting up there. Don’t forget, the other Christensen brother, Bill, gets a better deal from Salt Lake City than you do from Frisco.”

The Tape Music Center has been invited to move to Los Angeles. So has Ann Halprin. Pretty soon somebody will buy that ball team and there will be nothing but the wind-blown ghost of Daisy Miller wandering about the ruined amphitheater of Candlestick Park. Where will cultured San Francisco be then?

I agree with everybody, even Jerry Ets-Hokin. The lost of the Actor’s Workshop is a body blow to the community life of The City. We can’t stand another blow like that and we are going to have a hard time recovering.

The primary fault is the dilatoriness at the best, and the utter indifference at the most, of the vested leadership of The City. “Let well enough alone” was followed by “First things first.” Let’s just do what the Real Estate Association and Down Town and the Chamber of Commerce say. Let’s turn San Francisco into a Radiant City of condominiums, subsidized slums and office buildings, all as highrise as possible, and connect it with bedroom exurbia with 20-lane freeways. Let’s shovel the hotel tax into the promotion of really ripsnortin’ conventioneers and develop Broadway, Mason Street and various quiet little byways to take care of them.

The culture and beauty that brought people to San Francisco can wait. First things first.

We have coasted along, fancying that we had the best civic theater west of the Rhine. We had nothing of the sort. We had a private, nonprofit enterprise, financed in good part by Ford money. Its directors had only a vague moral commitment to The City and The City did not respond with any substantial commitment on its part.

It is absolutely ridiculous that after 10 years of world famous work the Actor’s Workshop did not even have a theater building, much less “commitment.” As the Ballet does not have. As the Chamber Music Society does not have. As nobody has but the Symphony and the Opera.

Ann Halprin plays the most beautiful theater on earth, the Teatro Fenice in Venice, before the most fashionable audience on earth — the women all look like the Byzantine queen Theodora — and rocks Europe. And then she comes home to play — where? The tiny Playhouse when they can manage time for her, or her own place on Divisadero, which is considerably less attractive than it was when it was the California Labor School. How long is anybody going to be able to stand this kind of treatment?

Finally. Go back and read Stanley Eichelbaum’s piece on the Workshop in the Wednesday morning Examiner. I agree with every word of it and I want to underscore it. Jules Irving and Herbert Blau have decided they don’t want something called the Actor’s Workshop off in San Francisco to interfere with the glittering image they are going to be constructing of themselves in what they have so whimsically termed “Manhattan’s regional theater.”

The Workshop can be saved. Its directors and their hero worshippers on the board are wrong. This is no time to liquidate everything in a flood of self-sacrificing tears. But it is going to take the hardest kind of slogging work.

There are only one or two directors of the quality of Blau and Irving available in America. Gene Frankel is one, possibly Allen Fletcher is another. Who else? Anybody brought here will have to be guaranteed a theater, mucho pronto. Ford and possibly Rockefeller money is available — but it must be matched locally. And everybody who wants a fine civic theater in The City is going to have to move surely and fast or everything will wash out in demoralization, shock — and just plain funk.

[January 31, 1965]


“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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