San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



February 1965

San Francisco’s First-Rate Ballet
Our Deteriorating Theatrical Infrastructure
The Wrong Educational Priorities
Pussyfoot City
Proposals for Chinatown
Highlights of a Pleasant Week
The Assassination of Malcolm X
Education Beyond the Classroom



San Francisco’s First-Rate Ballet

That was the week of the great San Francisco Kulturkampf or was it Kulturkatzenjammer? For a while there it looked like by Lent we’d all be back jumping around the fire and going “Ugh!” while warming up a missionary. I’ve had enough panels, committees, and phone calls from New York newspapers. If we survived the earthquake (fire, excuse me) we will live through the departure of the Actor’s Workshop.

We decided to rest up watching the opening of the San Francisco Ballet, one place we still hold a front position in the performing arts of America. On the way we had dinner at Rocca’s on Golden Gate Avenue.

For years there was one citizens’ committee I had always wanted to form, The Citizens’ Committee for a Decent Restaurant Within Walking Distance of the Opera House. At last we have it, and what a pleasure and relief it is in this crazy town of “early curtains.” They put out a Petite Dinner. There is nothing little about it, petite seems to mean “served promptly so you can get to the show.” I’m all for publicizing them, not just for their food and hospitality, but for public service.

The new piece at the ballet was Life: A Do-It-Yourself Disaster by my esteemed colleague and rival, Beau Caen, the man about town. My other colleagues, the critics, didn’t like it, but us columnists when we turn ballet scenarists have got to stick together. He said nice things about my Original Sin and I think his lively sequel on the same subject was great and rather grim fun.

True, it needs tightening up and phrasing or modulating choreographically — but that is precisely what Lew Christensen always starts doing immediately after opening night.

One thing we all agreed on was that the ballet company is marvelously toned up. Three years ago the male contingent was nowhere, the best dancers had left and almost everybody was young and half trained. Today we have one of the strongest corps of masculine dancers I’ve ever seen anywhere outside of Russia. As for the girls, who ever could quarrel with them?

Since everybody was in the opening show it would be invidious to single anyone out for praise. They were all great. This is what ballet is for — the last realm in which woman rules as woman and in all her glory.

Do go, come this weekend. You’ll love it. If you’re puzzled by the scheduling, these were the only nights the show could get in the Opera House. We still need that new theater. The Kulturkampf is still on and I’m all for every citizen putting in his two cents. Keep the heat on City Hall till they do something.

[February 3, 1965]



Our Deteriorating Theatrical Infrastructure

Here’s a little hassle entirely due to the chaotic inadequacy of our now most notoriously deteriorating cultural plant. Sunday, today, the San Francisco Ballet will be in the Opera House for the premier of their new ballet, The Revolt of Lucifer, to music by Hindemith. In the evening Ruth Page will be across the parking lot with the Chicago Opera Ballet at Nourse Auditorium. She will be giving Bullets and Bonbons, a dance telling of Shaw’s Arms and the Man.

We’ve never seen this in San Francisco, and Ruth is famed for her dramatic ballets, many of them silent treatments of great operas. If a ballet on Shaw’s play is as good as the old musical comedy The Chocolate Soldier was in its day, it should be very worth seeing.

How did this doubling up on one day occur? First, the spotty scheduling of the San Francisco Ballet is due to the fact that there is no proper theater for them left in The City and these are the only dates they can get into the Opera House.

Second, we have no master calendar and central clearing office for bookings. This is something I’ve been advocating for years while other people have been drawing down pails of foundation money to make surveys and eventually timidly suggest the same thing. By the time the California Music Foundation and the Ballet management had found out about the conflict of dates, it was too late to correct it.

And last, what is a dance company doing in Nourse Auditorium? This is not a real theater, but a dismal, abandoned commercial high school assembly hall. Its stage is clumsy, inadequate and dangerous for any dance performance. But it’s all we have to offer.

And not last, but most important, what is a solid square block in the heart of the Civic Center complex doing occupied only by parked cars? Are we men or automobiles? What is our city for, us or our cars?

What’s good for General Motors et al. may be good for the country, but only in the sense that what’s good for the human inhabitants of the country is eventually good for the manufacturers of their machinery. Even poor abused Engine Charley Wilson never meant it the other way around.

Why can’t we build over this parking lot one or all of those facilities we are constantly and forcibly reminded we have to have?

Alas, poor Ruth, she got caught in our ineptitude. If you’re a real dance fan, you’ll go to both shows. The sharp contrast in styles in one day will be an education in the art of the dance.

Meanwhile bear in mind and keep reminding City Hall that we don’t need another committee, we don’t need another study. We don’t have to find out anything, we know right now. What we need are a couple of new buildings, right now — like last summer.

As for the Actor’s Workshop brouhaha. We can get along without it. If the same funds were divided up between The Playhouse, the Interplayers, the International Repertory Theater, the Mime Troupe, we’d still be better than New York’s now thoroughly commercialized Off-Broadway circuit.

What we really should be doing is persuading Kermit Sheets, our most tirelessly pioneering director, to stay with The Playhouse, or at least in San Francisco. We should help the Interplayers reorganize — I for one suggest the leadership of George Hitchcock, whose Provoked Wife is the best thing they’ve done in years and years.

We should give Ernest Lonner of the International Repertory the recognition and support he deserves as a truly avant-garde director who knows more about the theater than anybody else around here, and who runs a complete school and laboratory — a genuine actor’s workshop, something the other one never was.

And of course, there’s Ronnie Davis, the best thing to appear in the public parks since they put up Portals of the Past on the lake. Life would be lots duller without his Mime Troupe.

I say this because I think the Powers That Be are constructing a long-wearing political football out of the Workshop issue. Things like this that get the electorate stirred up, even the highbrow electorate, and that can be fobbed off with promises, are God’s own gift to politicians. I grew up in Chicago where Build The Subway Now was a vote catcher for 90 years.

What we must have is a 1500-seat theater of top musical and theatrical efficiency, right now. Jack Shelley was going to take a sledge hammer to the Embarcadero Freeway. OK, let him find a nice lot and start laying bricks. This is not a “political issue” (always sounded like a nasty disease to me) but an absolute need that cannot be ignored.

[February 7, 1965]



The Wrong Educational Priorities

There is a spreading vulgarity and shoddiness in the way things are being run in Sacramento which is beginning to wear out the patience of many people who originally supported this administration enthusiastically. Not least is the chaos in the state’s educational financing. And the least admirable aspect of this matter is the evasiveness and contempt with which all demands for explanation have been met.

The Frederick Burke School is crippled as any sort of grammar school and destroyed as a demonstration or teaching school. State College professors are asked to take salary cuts. Courses in the arts and humanities are lopped all over the state. Yet this is supposed to be just a mistake, just an oversight, just a typographical error. But whose? Nobody knows, or if he does he ain’t tellin’.

This is an insult to the public intelligence. That much money doesn’t get lost or fouled up by accident. Tactics of this sort lie at the root of the recent troubles in Berkeley. They reflect an all-out attack on humane education by the military-industrial complex. The entire educational system is being overhauled and rebuilt for the sole purpose of producing a buyer’s market for semiskilled technical labor.

Until we embarked on our Moon Race and Mars Race it was possible to prepare for a large variety of life vocations and to begin this preparation early. Each year, by one means or another, these opportunities for broad education and diversity of choice are being narrowed. It’s slide rule or else.

It is simply not true that we are facing a shortage in the fields of science, technology, highly skilled technicians, engineers, and similar workers in our onrushing automated and computerized industry. Quite the contrary, serious underemployment already exists in some of these categories.

Without exception, authorities on the subject agree that future opportunities are going to be best in service, entertainment, the old professions, the arts, and in social work and other techniques of interpersonal relations and social guidance.

Yet there is absolutely no way in which a child entering junior high school can begin preparing for a career in music, art, theater, dance, medicine, law, literature unless he is prepared to carry an exhausting burden of outside classes — and his parents can afford it.

I have before me the 1939 and the 1965 editions of the Lowell High School Announcer. The decline in offerings in music and the arts is tragic. This is our premium high school. The same is true of George Washington. As for the schools for the less culturally privileged kids — matters are still worse. In 10 years we are going to have a huge surplus of would-be engineers and a shocking shortage of well-rounded citizens.

[February 10, 1965]



Pussyfoot City

Since everybody’s got him a committee, I am forming one of my own. It will be called the Committee to Change of Name of San Francisco to Pussyfoot, the Home of Run Around.

There are a baker’s dozen of absolutely crucial issues confronting The City. Unless we meet them immediately, and with comprehension and comprehensiveness, with truly imaginative grasp of the demands of the onrushing future, San Francisco is going to go on withering. In the year 2000 it will be just San Jose’s quaint suburb, a kind of outsize Olivera Street.

Each of these issues is taken up in turn by City Hall, federal agencies, pressure groups, citizens’ committees. For a week it’s all over the papers. As the furor dies away and the poop sheets from the various publicity men give out, the public is left with a vague impression that something has happened. Six months or two years go by, and here’s the same old sick cat, squalling on the doorstep, mauled over but unchanged.

People have written in asking, “Why did you reverse yourself on the Actor’s Workshop issue?” The answer is that nobody did anything but gabble. The Mayor met the problem with a dose of that old-timey political specific, the soothing syrup called evasive Irish charm. (Babies cry for it.) The Workshop Board decided to have another quilting bee and pass the mink-lined tin cup at the white tie prayer meeting. Blau and Irving sat tight and said nuttin’. Nobody dared so much as ask the Ford Foundation or the Lincoln Center Board if it was their policy to encourage the destruction of San Francisco’s regional theater.

It was all a perfect picture of what’s wrong with San Francisco. As Gertrude Stein once said, “a large imposing picture, very carefully painted all over, but painted to represent empty space.”

Far more important things than this have turned up unregenerate on the doorstep during the past week. The paper has been fussing about the lack of coordination of planning for a new Market Street for months. Lo and behold, what vague plans exist turn out to be totally incompatible.

It is hard to believe this is really happening — or not happening. We have the chance to turn one of the slummiest downtowns in America into one of the world’s great thoroughfares. At the same time we can solve one of the worst traffic nightmares ever to confront a city planner, the skewed diagonal of Market Street. And of course, we are supposed to be embarked on a public rapid transit development which is being watched all over the world. It is ironic to read magazine articles and foreign papers which talk about BART and Market Street on the basis of dream drawings and then discover that we have advanced several steps behind of nowhere.

The beautiful Ferry Park we were going to build is, it turns out, just dream drawings, too. And those have only just come in. The old Hall of Justice has been wandering around in committees like a free-floating haunted house for years. At least, at last, the buck seems to have been passed for keeps to Justin Herman. I don’t agree with all of Herman’s ideas, but I certainly agree with him more than with all those other people who have no ideas at all and who dance about like thistledown on the blasts of every pressure group that blows.

There is not a single department of our municipal structure that is not suffering from frustrations and impactions of this sort. Naming them all over would just be tedious scolding, but they’re there — everywhere. Whether it’s the Zoo, the sewers, the Health Department, the buildings and zoning, slum clearance, our famous culture, muggings and murders in the streets, racial imbalance in housing and schools, deterioration of our juvenile detention facilities — on and on and on and on it goes.

Who benefits? A few tweedy boys with Phi Beta Kappa keys who grind out Study after Study after Study.

This is what leadership is for — a dynamic mayor and a small group of young, dedicated civic leaders could cut through all this nonsense and come up with clear definite policies which could be put into action in a matter of months. Where are they? Not in City Hall, which resembles nothing so much as an early rejected story by James Joyce, a perfect replica of the political habits of 1902 Cork. Local Negro leaders love to repeat James Baldwin’s popular cliché — “the Power Structure.” What power? What structure?

[February 14, 1965]



Proposals for Chinatown

Let’s hope The City’s decision to let Justin Herman’s urban redevelopment solve the problem of what to do with the old Hall of Justice sticks. As I said last week, I don’t agree with all his ideas, but at least he has clear, rational ideas and our civic buck-passing agencies are scared to death of them.

Portsmouth Square and Chinatown generally are extremely serious problems that everybody pretends aren’t there at all. If the block on the east side of the Square can be redeveloped into something, anything, that will be an asset to the community. Such redevelopment will ginger an all-out improvement for Chinatown.

God knows it needs it. There is only one kind of community in America which compares in vital statistics with San Francisco’s Chinatown and that is a rundown Indian reservation, Rates for TB, infant and mothers’ mortality, wages, cubic feet of habitation-per-person — in everything but social disorder and delinquency, Chinatown is one of the worst spots in the country. Yet we insist all this is quaint, it’s our greatest tourist attraction. It’s Old San Francisco. It’s Our Priceless Heritage.

Bunk. For example, there is nothing Chinese about the architecture of Chinatown except some curlicues applied to the roofs of tenements. Imagine Portsmouth Square lined with genuine Chinese architecture, both traditional and modern. Imagine Grant Avenue lined with beautiful arcaded buildings, the pavement gone and replaced by narrow gardens landscaped in the traditional Chinese fashion. Imagine the packed tenements gone, and above the arcades decent apartments whose minimum standards were at least those of the present Ping Yuen projects.

Then we’d really have a priceless tourist asset. As it is the street is actually deteriorating, except for a few banks and other large institutions that have come up with some very handsome designs in the last few years. But notice, with few exceptions, these are simply façade jobs and interior decoration. For three or four stories above, things remain basically unchanged.

Of course it is true that the hundreds of little shops make plenty of tourist money. But this has nothing to do with the improvement of the Chinese community itself. Furthermore, if traffic were removed from Grant Avenue, in a few months they’d discover they were making more money, not less; the present congestion is bad, not good, for business. You don’t buy incense burners or pottery from a car window.

And certainly a block-by-block rebuilding of the whole street would increase enormously its tourist appeal.

There is only one way to enlist the support of the Chinese community, which is notoriously apathetic, and that is by demonstration. Maybe we can start with the Kearny Street side of Portsmouth Square.

[February 17, 1965]



Highlights of a Pleasant Week

People are leaving The City so fast that poor me, who has to get my twice-weekly bit in in advance, gets scooped all around.

I hope you noticed that Lew Christensen, director of the San Francisco Ballet, is leaving, as I intimated some time ago, and so is George Culler, director of the San Francisco Museum.

What do we care, as long as we can go to Fisherman’s Wharf and buy a live baby turtle with the Golden Gate Bridge painted on its back, and then go to Broadway and watch a sweaty 15/16 naked girl overwork herself on top of a piano? That’s what people come to San Francisco for, isn’t it?

Nonetheless, all the troubles I’ve seen to the contrary notwithstanding, last week was most enjoyable. Two new ballets of Lew Christensen’s, Stravinsky’s Octet and Lucifer to music by Hindemith, very polished jobs indeed. Monday, full moon, Golden Gate Park under frosty haze full of moonlight, and a Chamber Music Society concert at the Hall of Flowers.

Here at least two of our locals got some recognition. Mort Subotnick played a velvety, lyrically phrased clarinet in one of Mozart’s most sumptuous pieces, extremely modernistic in its day and still full of unexpected sounds. Margot Blum sang three Malagasy songs by Ravel — again, about as far out as that Art Nouveau composer ever got — and she did them perfectly, sounded like the Princesse de Polignac herself. If Margot keeps on building up a repertory of songs of Cette Belle Époque, of the classic modernist first quarter of the century, she is going to become somebody very special on the concert stage. Only Jennie Tourel does these sorts of things better, and she is getting along in years.

Finally, there was a piece for tape, fiddle and movie by Mort himself. It shocked some of the audience, but it certainly didn’t shock me. In fact I found it, like so much “new musical resources” compositions, a bit sentimental, once you got past the resources and concentrated on the music.

As I have pointed out before, this has been true ever since my childhood — Leo Ornstein, Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, Varèse, all these people lacked musical toughening. Once the clatter died away, they sounded suspiciously like Liszt, or “Danny Boy,” or “The Kashmiri Love Song” or at the best, Wagner.

As a little boy at a concert of Ornstein’s, a beefy bon vivant near us said — “Phah! Dey all sount like Vere Der Forest Murmurs.” “Daddy, what is ‘Where the Forest Murmurs’?” said I.

Actually, Mort’s piece kept me interested and alert and sometimes it was very witty. What did shock me was the discovery that many of The City’s leading patrons and music lovers didn’t even know such music was being written. They are still struggling to accept Scriabin.

Now me, when I was a young lad, I used to compose for the player piano. In fact, I was the founder of the School of Missing Music. I used to write music, make a player roll of it, and then play the negative of the roll. Every key on the piano went down full force, open pedal, except the notes I had written. What you listened to were the missing sounds.

It was terrific, a great exercise in aesthetic acuity, I was decorated by Queen Marie of Romania and spent many happy hours in Bucharest, working with a mechanical steam calliope. Those were the days — cette belle époque, indeed!

During the week we took a day off and drove down the Peninsula to look at the blossoming trees. The orchards are falling before the “developers” but there are still enough left to make the trip worth it. The hills along the Spring Valley lakes lay in an echelon of receding tones, like Chinese paintings, in the spring haze. The first flowers were up, crimson Indian Warrior, bright blue hound’s tongue, violet blue-eyed grass, and foetid adder’s tongue, tiny, delicate and uncanny.

And finally, back down to UCLA for a powwow on Creative Behavior in the Arts. This is going to take place in some Shangri-La Motel in Pacific Palisades and the university seems to be devoting a lot of time, care and money to setting it up right. I don’t know what will be accomplished, but it should be fun.

The significant thing is that I keep running down South on these junkets, and I have three standing job offers down there of the write-your-own-ticket sort, at handsome wages. Why do I stay in San Francisco, where the only things that move, move downhill? Gee, I ain’t even a Native Son.

[February 21, 1965]



The Assassination of Malcolm X

Editorial observations on the assassination of Malcolm X write themselves — “those who live by the sword . . .” Malcolm X scoffed at the mourning of the nation over the death of President Kennedy. A little over a year later, as her husband fell under the bullets, Betty X ran down the aisle screaming the very words of Jacqueline Kennedy in Dallas.

There is no need to draw the obvious moral. The problem is to apply it.

Negro leaders of unimpeachable integrity, with life records of fearless, persistent militancy, have said, again and again, that if the American Negro adopts violence as a policy in his struggle for freedom he will only destroy Negroes, not whites. For this A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, who have gone daily for many years in danger of their lives, have been called Toms, rich dilettantes, house niggers, sellouts, agents of the cops, by whiskery beatniks who just discovered that being a Negro paid off very well in certain circles.

Negro leaders who mean business in their fight for freedom laugh off the antics of the Berkeley Mau-Mau, the bully boy black poets of the East Side Village, the café-au-lait jazz musicians who only five years ago feared and hated all black Negroes and who have now become flaming preachers of Black Fascism — to white night club audiences. I don’t think it’s a laughing matter.

Those Negro intellectuals who for kicks, for women, or for money identify themselves with the poor kids who ran riot in Harlem last summer, but who, instead of assuming responsibility and struggling to abolish the conditions that provoke such riots, only foment and urge on the frustration and violence and hatred — such new style “race spokesmen” are only advocating piecemeal race suicide.

It’s so simple. Even if you wanted to kill off The Man, you can’t — there’s too many of him. Interracial violence will always be nipped in the bud — a bloody bud, but nipped nonetheless. Once violence becomes the rule, its suppression will only increase frustrations a hundredfold. These frustrations will find only one outlet — intra-racial violence. The Negro revolution will devour its own children before they are truly born.

I say all this because although I believe he was wrong and many of his opinions were dangerous, I had the greatest respect for Malcolm X as a man. He was certainly a genius. Anyone who has ever been on a platform with him will never forget the power and agility of his mind. He broke his way to leadership of his race through seemingly insuperable odds.

Unlike most mass leaders, he seemed to be able to learn from experience and his future role might have been far more constructive.

He was destroyed in mid-career by Negroes, but it is the shame of white America that he, with his brilliant mind and engaging personality, lived so warped a life and came to so terrible an end. At least he was greatly warped.

[February 24, 1965]



Education Beyond the Classroom

As poet and painter I never had it so good. Just as culture is all the rage in the public prints, if not the public mind, so creativity is the latest fad with the psychologists and educators. I could spend all my time running about the country and running off at the mouth for money.

The fact that I couldn’t make a living as a poet or painter is not relevant, and besides, an indefinite number of eager beavers in well-shined shoes are making studies of my predicament.

Still, every bit helps, and if I just say the right things maybe my great-grandson can put his two heads together and be paid good money for his fantastically realistic landscapes of the Post-Atomic World.

Last week began with a panel on the ethics of testing — particularly as it applied to the sorting out of gifted children — and ended with a three-day brainstorming R&D session in Pacific Palisades entirely devoted to the relations, actual and possible, between psychologists and sociologists and teachers of the arts. The first powwow was pretty silly, utterly lacking in sense of reality. The second, on the other hand, even cynical old me thought rather fruitful.

All our scientific research into the human personality is still in its infancy, still really prescientific in comparison with the physical sciences. Since science is by definition value neuter and deterministic and the essence of the personality is what it does freely about values, the behavioral sciences can never do more than deal with the raw matter of behavior.

Someday maybe we will be able to predict behavior, even quite subtle behavior, statistically in masses of men. When we come to the unique individual all we can say about his behavior is that in the last analysis it is unpredictable.

So when the day comes when we have mature science which can treat of the problems of human creativity, all it will ever be able to do is enable freedom of judgment, it will never abolish freedom — as for instance chemistry abolishes freedom in a determined chemical equation.

Scientists know this. It is important that the educator, who is always appealing to science for aid, realize it. Science someday may be able to provide him with all sorts of equipment with which to make judgments. It will never do more, however, than give him an efficient battery of tools for intuition to use. The problems of the personality are capable of solution only in the context of freedom, like a chemical reaction that can only take place if the component salts are dissolved in water.

This results in a basic guiding principle in all questions of education of creative people. As it is now, the great artist or writer or even scientist or mathematician achieves self-realization in spite of the educational system. He learns by himself, from his peers, or from a special master-apprentice relationship, all of them “extracurricular.” For this education he passes no tests, gets no degrees, obeys no rules.

Genuine education, too, takes place only in a context of freedom; all the other kind can do is enable it, provide the tools. Does it in fact? Can it?

So far we do this only fortuitously. Here and there a teacher is an inspired and inspiring pedagogue, even though the educators’ educators are devoted to processing such people out of existence. Here and there a little coterie of talented kids forms at a school and creates for itself a culture in the biology sense in which creativity mysteriously flourishes for a school generation.

Here and there a lonely child takes home books from the library and rigs up even more mysterious apparatus in a basement laboratory. All the school system is able to do, and then only at its best, is to try to see that Watt is not kept away from the tea kettle.

Can it do more? Can we take the adolescent gang and the off-campus coffee shop, those two superlative educational institutions, into the curriculum? We can try. It is so amusing — when we want to educate ourselves nowadays we do just what we did in Pacific Palisades. We get together for an intense, mutually generated brainstorm. Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, the Office of Education, NASA, astronomers and ecologists and musicians, everybody does it. But we try to keep it from the kids.

Why? It works, doesn’t it? Why not just such freewheeling seminars for the talented tenth at every level, from first-grade grammar school through graduate school? They’ll learn more from each other, especially if they can find inspired but inconspicuous guidance, than the system will ever teach them.

And besides, the psychologists can tap their knees and show them Rorschachs to their hearts’ content for 16 to 20 years, yet.

[February 28, 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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