San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



April 1965

More on North Beach
Factory-Style Education
International Plays in Our Little Theaters
In a Timeless Hurry
Easter and the Story of Job
Bob Dylan
Nostalgic Art Show
Ghelderode and Euripides




More on North Beach

Another column on the North Beach problem — forgive me for bringing it up again, but it is important to clear up the picture and define the true issues.

I have spent some time circulating around the Beach recently, talking to all types, but especially to the Old Guard of residents, property owners and operators of the long-established businesses.

What did I hear? Get rid of the beatniks. Run out the Negroes. Close the interracial places. Close the ones that run “subversive” entertainment — meaning Dick Gregory, The Committee, or even Mort Sahl, much less Lenny Bruce. Close all the gay bars. As for the strip-and-clip joints, perhaps a majority of the Old Guard are in favor of them. “They bring in lots of tourist money.”

At the same time, everybody is worried about the drug pushers, and the conspicuous increase in a new kind of prostitutes, both male and female, a large percentage of whom are thieves. Most of this petty criminality is blamed on the beatniks and the Negroes.

At the same time, everybody longs for the good old days when the Beach was a genuine Latin Quarter, and revels in the new affluence of the fast buck.

You can’t have it both ways. The people who object to places like the Jazz Workshop, The Committee, Mike’s Pool Hall, the hungry i, Finnochio’s — even, of all places, Enrico’s — have never been in them. It does no good to tell them that Finnochio’s is one of San Francisco’s most ancient institutions, the favorite stop of Grey Line Tours full of country school teachers and that it has never, since it was on Stockton Street during prohibition, been a hangout for gay people themselves.

As for the new comics, again, if you say they are no more subversive than Max Lerner, Sydney Harris, Jules Feiffer, or several outspoken Bishops, they are just funnier, you discover the Old Guard is as unfamiliar with these spokesmen as they are with such highbrow institutions as The Committee.

As for the Jazz Workshop, this is one of the most respectable places in America of its kind. It is a leader in the effort to cut jazz loose from the rackets and treat it as serious music for a serious audience. The only objection to it is that it is interracial.

A large percentage of the people the Old Guard call beatniks are upper-middle-class professional people who let down their hair, put on sandals and indulge in mild abandon after the day’s work on Montgomery Street. They are the very ones who pay the fantastic rents and real estate prices and remodel the old slums. And they make up the steady patronage of the Old Guard’s restaurants.

On the other hand, all over the Beach, mingled with the middle-class, suburbanite and conventioneering crowds, drunker than peach orchard bears, you can see ragged male and female hoboes, pill pushers, petty thieves and drunk rollers, and a brand-new regiment of fancy girls, just arrived from Chicago, Detroit, East St. Louis, New Orleans.

Like everybody in America, these people are both black and white. What attracts them to the Beach are the crowds of well-dressed drunks out for a night of hell raising. Where people show up in mobs looking for dope or women, other people will show up to sell them those commodities.

What is wrong with the Beach is that the entertainment business is being taken over by the entertainment racket. San Francisco is assuming the appearance of an Organization town. People ask, “Do you mean the Mafia is moving in?”

Even J. Edgar Hoover dodges questions of this kind. How should I know? But there are any number of places that give off the same brutal fetid odor as the joints in Calumet City and New Orleans’s Latin Quarter and Greenwich Village.

Any number at all is too many. Once these boys get in, they corrupt every aspect of a city’s life and soon they can’t be got rid of. Like a metastasizing cancer, they are everywhere in the body politic and inoperable. Ask Dean Lohman, head of criminology at Cal, formerly Sheriff of Cook County. He tried. Briefly. Out he went.

Eventually these enterprises destroy property values. In 1930 Chicago’s Near North Side was a rapidly rising Bohemian district of remodeled old homes. “Beatniks,” artists, writers, social workers, lawyers, advertising men, journalists, were paying good prices for small apartments. Land values were soaring. Then the strip-and-clip joints spread from North Clark Street to Rush and North Wabash. Michigan Avenue held, but barely. Behind it was a criminal slum, filthy by day and dangerous by night.

Today it is an Urban Renewal Area.

[April 4, 1965]



Factory-Style Education

Things are looking up for the beleaguered University. In the last week the doctor has offered, if not ordered, three prescriptions that could go far to curing the basic disease.

What is that disease? Inhumanity. Today the University is a frightfully congested factory manned by a production-belt crew with little actual contact with their work, turning out a product, skilled hands for the military-industrial complex, which is already obsolete.

Not for nothing have I been calling it River-Rouge-Beside-the-Bay for lo, these many years. Like the automobile industry and the vermiform appendix, it lingers on from a less civilized past.

One thing wrong with the contemporary education factory is simply lack of room. This is as true of Harvard or Reed College as it is of Berkeley. It is hard to be humane, humanitarian and humanistic in Grand Central Station at 5 p.m., and that’s what the campus at Berkeley is like.

“Campus” indeed! Soon the only grass will be that grown in bottles in the botany laboratory. Inflation and land speculators together have made it almost impossible to get a decent environment for education in California anymore.

If a new campus could be developed in the Presidio it would be possible to start off on a real adventure in education. Trees and lawns and vistas of mountains and Bay — there is an ecology of humane living which would do more for true education than any conceivable course of lectures. The Presidio site would be a long step towards overcoming our basic failure — the failure to turn out civilized people except by accident or defiance.

I have visited Peggy Guggenheim’s Ca’ Leoni in Venice. I can’t imagine a more gracious place for headquarters of “UC Abroad.” Her collection of paintings is the best there is of the paintings of the past 30 years. It is the reflection of a truly confident taste and love, augmented by the best possible advice. Dealers didn’t tell her what to buy. She chose for herself or listened to people like Sir Herbert Read, perhaps the most knowledgeable of contemporary critics.

The great Arensberg Collection was offered to UCLA. They turned it down. In fact, some of the Regents thought it was a joke. Another chance like this one is not likely to come again.

There is only one trouble — the place is not large enough for anything but a nucleus of a school abroad. However, there are plenty of other sites in the vicinity, best of all, perhaps, the hills above Vicenza.

And last, the scheme to operate the Actor’s Workshop under the auspices of the University Extension. UCLA already has just such a theater and it has been fairly successful. However, there are so many problems involved that I’d like to devote another Wednesday column to it. I’m all for it, mind, but it is complicated. We have a lot to learn from the UCLA project, which is not quite so rosy as it seems to the naked eye.

[April 7, 1965]



International Plays in Our Little Theaters

The other night the Orb Theater opened on the same night as the Aldridge Players. All The Lovely People, it said on the Society Page, were going to be at the first, so I went to the second. Me, I think the principal cause of San Francisco’s famed Culture Crisis is All The Lovely People.

I must say that the Aldridge Players, if they are going to survive, have got to do better by themselves. They presented two plays by the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka. There are far better African writers, most of them South Africans.

American Negroes seem to be under the impression that South Africans are all a bunch of Toms or it wouldn’t be possible for them to get published. Quite the contrary, if they have one general characteristic it is a hard self-confidence, no mean virtue if you’re being hunted for your life, under house arrest, or confined to a mass slave pen.

Soyinka’s plays were sure African, all right, but they were amateurish, and dealt with Nigerian problems which he was unable to generalize and make universally applicable. The actors tried hard, but they seemed to have been self-directed. Even so, some of them were very good, and deserved better plays and some creative direction.

A good Negro theater in San Francisco is a project close to my heart, which is why I am being frank. It would be insulting to “make allowances.” These people are no more “culturally deprived” than I am.

On the other hand, since it seems impossible to sell any of the local theaters except the Playhouse and the International Repertory and the Mission Community Center the idea of interracial casting, there is only one way in which we can develop a cadre of skilled Negro actors and that is by what W.E.B. Du Bois called self-segregation. The final measure of the success of the Aldridge Players will be when the still mostly segregated little theaters of San Francisco will no longer be able to ignore their actors.

At the International Repertory is a play with many of the same faults as Wole Soyinka’s. It is Rabindranath Tagore’s Post Office. It is inordinately slow-paced. It was translated by Tagore’s worst translator, himself, into mid-Victorian mystical English, frightfully British, and yet with an unmistakable flavor of provincialism and unnaturalness.

Yet it is a very good play, and in the hands of a director who knows how to compensate for these blemishes, is deeply moving on impact, and haunting in its aftereffects. Not least, it offers the actress who plays the little boy one of the theater’s great roles.

The problems are so great, and so very special, that I would never have believed that a local company could make the play convincing 40 years after it had vanished from the repertory. I was pleasantly astonished. Larry Grinnell did a masterful job of organizing an all-pervading atmosphere of slight hallucination. Gesture was unrealistic, theatricalist as they call it. The direction was rhythmic and carefully modulated. Not least, Grinnell gave the actors a slight British Indian accent that made the lines believable. Stephani Priest as the dying little boy, Amal, was superb.

The last two numbers were Claudel’s Exit Judas and Ghelderode’s The Women at the Tomb. Ray Romano made Claudel’s windy monologue convincing and even moving, and that’s a hard job. The Ghelderode is one of those scary hen parties like Garcia Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba. Like it, there’s a juicy bit for all the ambitious girls in the company. Like Alba, The Women runs down at the end and the last three minutes are hard to put across. And again, Garcia Lorca and Ghelderode were both anti-woman.

Still, it’s a great play and the IRT company makes the most of it. It is an idea bill for the season, deeply religious for those who are religious, and at least a facing of the mysteries of the end of life for those who are not.

Good Friday at 8:30 p.m. at St. Aidan’s Church on Diamond Heights, there will be a Passion Play, Suffered Under Pontius Pilate by Michael Driver, a young local writer. After all, it is in the great Masses of Holy Week, in which the participants take parts like actors, that the European theater began again in the Dark Ages.

The vicar of St. Aidan’s, Father Cromley, is one of my favorite people. He is always in some holy mischief. If it isn’t civil rights, it’s the rights of homosexuals, or alcoholics, or the hidden poor, or the restoration of the theater to the church. God bless St. Aidan’s, that tiny church.

[April 11, 1965]



In a Timeless Hurry

Reflection: Any state in which the mind considers its own content.

“By reflection I would be understood to mean that notice which the mind takes of its own operations, and the manner of them, by reason whereof there come to be ideas of the operations of the understanding.” John Locke.

“The return into itself or intensification of the individuality of any state following upon its being proved or illustrated by something other than itself which is shown to depend on it or presuppose it.” Hegel.

For both Christians and Jews this is a holy week, culminating in Passover or Easter. In each person’s life the year turns back upon itself and is weighed and judged and life begins anew, resurrected, escaped out of bondage.

That of course is what is wrong with the completely secular civilization in which we live. It provides no chance for reflection. Life is not permitted to turn back and judge itself. We exist in a timeless hurry in which the present is never matched against the past and future. The entire structure of our society is designed to hurry us on, like caroming billiard balls, moving from oblivion to oblivion in strict accordance with Newton’s laws of motion. No feedback. No fail-safe. Just impulse buying in the great supermarket.

The most barbaric animist in the jungles has more sense than we do. The most primitive religions have times in the year when their followers can reflect on the meaning of themselves in the stream of time. Even our civil holidays have been emptied of all but commercial content.

What would happen if, come this Fourth of July, everybody in America reflected on the contrast between the 13 newly self-liberated colonies and the immense uncontrollable empire of bread and circuses and barbarians at the gates and slave revolts in the streets that we live in today?

During Lenin’s lifetime the Bolsheviks celebrated a number of revolutionary holidays — the anniversary of the Paris Commune, of the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, of the 1905 revolution, and so on. Stalin discontinued them. They lent themselves too easily to a contrast between past hope and sacrifice and present reality.

Soon in the U.S.A. it will be Memorial Day, an almost forgotten holiday, in which we used to decorate the graves of the boys in blue who died, they thought, to free the slaves. What do we see, a hundred years later, when we reflect Selma on Chickamauga?

Passover, Holy Week, and Easter give us a chance to turn all human history, as well as our own lives, on their pivots and reflect all time and our own hearts upon themselves in judgment. What an opportunity for sanity in a mad world! I wonder who takes advantage of it?

[April 14, 1965]



Easter and the Story of Job

During Lent I have been reading a small selection of religious books, the new Anchor Bible Job, two books by the theologian Karl Rahner, Teilhard de Chardin’s Hymn of the Universe, and the life of Father Perrin, the French Worker Priest. All the rest, as I read and thought about them, came to take on the character of commentaries on the first.

Job is perhaps the strangest book in the Bible. There is nothing specially Jewish about it. In fact it may well have been written by an Arab or an Edomite. The Almighty of Job is an intellectual’s God, indistinguishable from the Allah of Mohammed.

The book is a flyting, as they call it in Scots, a poetic dispute of a form that goes back to the beginning of literature. As Job and his friends argue about the moral mystery of the universe the poem builds up a massive tragic irony, culminating in the voice of the Almighty in the whirlwind and dying away in the relief of anticlimax.

The answer to the questions of the Almighty is that they are unanswerable. Job can only submit for he is confronted with a mystery far more impenetrable than any mystery of cult, ritual, miracle, or dogma, the inexorable creativity of the universe, which swallows up good and evil, pleasure and pain, beauty and chaos, plus and minus. If they are resolved in some infinite purpose it is utterly inscrutable to man.

Existence, being itself, confronts man, from the dawn of his self-consciousness, with an unsolvable riddle. Why does anything exist at all? Why must man be forced to take part in existence with his knowledge of good and evil? Why can he not be as oblivious as the salmon in the waterfall or the worms in the earth?

To these questions there is not an answer. There is only an act — the act of faith.

To the faithless, faith itself is as absurd as the mystery it confronts. How unreasonable, how utterly irrational were the thousands and thousands who marched into the gas ovens chanting, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

“The whole universe is aflame. It is in fact God, God alone, who through his Spirit stirs into ferment the mass of the universe. Though the phenomena of the world remain the same — the material determinisms, the vicissitudes of chance, the laws of labor, the agitations of men, the footfalls of death — he who dares faith reaches a sphere of creaturely reality in which all things, while retaining their accustomed texture, seem to be made of a different substance. Everything remains the same in appearance, but everything becomes luminous, animated, loving. God is born, without any violation of nature’s laws, in the heart of the world.”

So says Teilhard de Chardin. He was obsessed, as no one since the author of the eighth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, with the at-one-ment, the incarnation, the resurrection, of God in the world, in man, and in a human community of love.

The story is that once, in the middle of the Gobi Desert on a scientific expedition, he found himself without either bread or wine. So he celebrated Mass without them and consecrated and offered up the whole world. For Teilhard, when the whirlwind of Job spoke he divinized man, not by lifting him to deity, but by emptying deity into him. Shaddai, the Almighty, becomes Job, the Man of Sorrows. This, says Teilhard, is the answer to the riddle, a mystery of love more incomprehensible still, but the explanation of the creativity of the universe.

Emptying — the Greek word is kenosis — has become a popular word in the religious revolution that is overtaking old ways in all the churches today. Two generations ago Bishop Gore of Oxford used it to explain the life of Christ. Today it is the ruling concept for ethical activists like the worker priests of France (who, contrary to American information, still exist). It is not just a Christian idea. All over America young rabbis are rejecting their old ethnocentric role and demanding the right to give themselves totally to their community. They march in demonstrations and jump in segregated swimming pools and give counsel and pastoral care to the people in their neighborhoods, regardless of Jew or Gentile.

This is an Easter column and the point is that this is what Easter is about. The people committed to love and faith and hope, says Karl Rahner, are spread abroad in the world in a Diaspora, like the Jews in exile, to empty themselves into life and redeem it — to become one with it and to resurrect it. They are called to be “that dearest freshness deep down things” because of whom “Nature is never spent.”

[April 18, 1965]


The quotations in the last sentence are from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “God’s Grandeur.” An entire essay on Job is included in Rexroth’s Classics Revisited.



Bob Dylan

In the newspaper business it isn’t considered cricket to even notice the competition. This time I just can’t resist the temptation. Last Sunday an opposition column [probably Ralph Gleason in the San Francisco Chronicle] led off with the statement: “the winds of change, which have blown so strongly in recent years that they have sharply defined the gap between the generations, have produced in Bob Dylan the most eloquent spokesman for human justice since Thomas Paine.”

This is certainly about as rash a statement as anybody could make, but, although I don’t agree with it, I’m not interested in disputing it. What is important is that it could be made, by a mature man with a sharp ear and a sharper taste in popular entertainers, jazz, folksongs and related subjects.

I suggest you borrow your kids’ Bob Dylan records and play them over for yourself, listening carefully. This treatment will doubtless give many a conventional parent running and barking fits. Let’s hope it gives the intelligent ones furiously to think. As it says on sundials, It Is Later Than You Think. The schism of the soul, as Arnold Toynbee called it, between the generations in the U.S.A. is deeper and wider than you think.

Bob Dylan’s songs are a cry of anguished moral outrage against the mess the oldies persist in making out of a world in which all men could be guaranteed lives of peace and modest comfort if only the will existed. The social protest, pseudo-folk singers of the last generation were ultimately derived from Café Society Downtown, and they were only too obviously politically motivated. For this reason alone few people listened to them for long, least of all the young, who have sharper ears than any critic for the cooked up voice of protest.

But nobody is manipulating Bob Dylan. This is a voice from the grass roots and the heartstrings of an ever increasingly alienated youth. Only a little while ago the limits of social protest, at least amongst white singers, was the team of Peter, Paul and Mary. Now the kids put them down as, for all their good intentions, “too show biz.”

Dylan and Joan Baez draw unlimited crowds. Joan, in fact, sings in the largest auditorium available wherever she appears, and ties up traffic. And neither she nor Dylan are buying any of it at all; their attitude towards our society is simply, flatly, that it is wrong.

This is why angry letters to the editor about how the students at Berkeley should be given a taste of strap oil and made to study their lessons, show only that the writers are unaware of the profound and constant sense of outrage felt by thousands and thousands of the most articulate and sensitive and intelligent young people today.

Even if the general public is not yet aware of the meaning of what is going on, the policy makers in Washington are, and so are those in the churches. When a society starts to split, to come apart at the seams, it is in danger of foundering.

[April 21, 1965]



Nostalgic Art Show

What an uncanny sensation it is, to walk about the galleries of the de Young Museum and look at the show of American Impressionists and realize that, when I was a boy, I knew some of these men personally . . . not some, actually, quite a few.

It’s like looking at the mummy of Rameses and noticing a deformed hand and remembering that you once played marbles with him in grammar school. Most of them were still alive on the eve of the Second War. Paintings by them or like theirs still dominated the big Art Annuals as late as the onset of the Depression.

Last month in one of New York’s most fashionable galleries one of the latest and most “in” artists exhibited a large collection of carefully modeled replicas of human feces. One of my own favorite young artists works mostly with rags, rubbish, broken glass, and ghoulish bits of half-burned wax dolls. Elegant hostesses of the jettest of the jet sets pay upwards of $7500 for exact copies, indistinguishable from the originals, of Campbell’s Soup cartons. Pottery Associations solemnly show “found pottery,” that is, broken china from the city dump.

On the other hand, the Sanity in Art people, even in the Art Show at the North Dakota State Fair, no longer seem to be able to make it. They aren’t just no longer convincing, they aren’t very good anymore.

What went wrong? What broke the mainstream, damaged the escapement? Who stole the governor off the donkey engine? How did the sugar get in the gasoline. The answer of course is in the first paragraph. You don’t have to be a genius to find the hidden face of the devil and win a Buick. Two World Wars and a ten-year economic crisis. And now we seem to be headed for another. Another one or the other. It won’t be long now before we will be the rubbish in a Bruce Conner collage.

So it is nice to be able to go to the Park and wander through galleries closed away from the present, back into the world of the Teddy Roosevelt administration. Art and politics and economics and international affairs — they were all a kind of robust fun in those far-off days.

“There will be no more serious wars in this century,” they said then. Soon capitalism and socialism would tame each other in those gentlemanly clubs called Parliament or Congress, there’d be no more panics and no more sweat shops and the latter three-quarters of the century would see the ushering in of The Great Society.

As for the relations between the races in America, Booker T. Washington would solve that question. He was teaching those Negroes to improve themselves, modestly.

It is scary, spending too much time in a show of paintings like these. Ostrich feathers began to grow on the heads of the women, and my own tweeds began to change to a Buster Brown suit. The Last Days of Pompeii. . . .

It is not just that these artists seem unworldly in their innocence. They communicate a happiness unknown to either artist or public today. The pictures may not be in fact all impressionist in style, but they are mostly open air paintings.

If the landscape wasn’t really idyllic, it always looks that way by the time it gets to canvas. If there are people, they are enjoying themselves on beaches and merry-go-rounds. If they are indoors, they are playing music or reclining dreamily and demurely on sofas. But more important still — the artists so obviously had such a good time painting.

You can just see them, with their camp stools and portable easels, their smocks and palettes and bulldog pipes, wallowing in the lush materials of oils and terps and paint and canvas, on some windy hillside, with cloud shadows and brilliant sunshine chasing each other from horizon to horizon. The canvas bucked and bounced, the paint ran together on the palette, the easel blew over — it all gave that feeling of spontaneity to the finished job.

Lord have mercy upon me! Did I paint that way once, in the hills of the Chicago Forest Preserve, a high school boy studying at the Art Institute?

How can I get back there? It would be so nice, just once before I’m gone, to go over to Marin County and paint a lovely picture of some flowering buckeye above a curving brook. Or I could even stay to home and do a sweet pure naked girl dreaming on a sofa. Maybe if I hurry I can just manage to do it.

[April 25, 1965]



Ghelderode and Euripides

This is going to be Ghelderode season in the local theaters. The International Repertory Theater has been doing The Women at the Tomb for several weeks now. They did Pantagleize briefly at USF and now it has just opened at the Playhouse. Next month the IRT will do Mademoiselle Jaïre, and the month following, Escurial.

This is all to the good, because Ghelderode is certainly one of the century’s most important playwrights and San Franciscans have seen too little of him.

Let me say flatly that I think the production of Pantagleize at the Playhouse is the most stimulating and adventurous job of direction and design I have seen in San Francisco in a long time. Maybe since Maurice Browne and Michio Ito, or Sam Hume.

I should be good and mad. I left off directing 32 years ago, and had just agreed to return and direct Escurial for the IRT, more or less in the style of the very avant-garde Polish Laboratory Theater. What was my amazement to see all sorts of things being done by Mike Linenthal and Ann Burger, the designer, just exactly the way I would have done them.

This is what makes the paranoids of Hollywood and Broadway yell, “I was robbed!” There’s no possibility of this — they just approached the same playwright with what I would call thoroughly contemporary sensibilities.

Bill Raymond in the title role was marvelous — an outlandish combination of Chaplin, Kermit Sheets and a vest pocket Bob Symonds. Everybody in fact was just perfect, but Don Pedro Colley has suddenly graduated from being a “type” to being an impressive actor, and this is a big gain for the local theater, for sure.

At SF State, Euripides’s Iphigenia at Aulis.* Like Shakespeare, it’s hard to go wrong with one of the great Greek tragedies. Students love to do them, and if it wasn’t for the academic theater, we’d see them all too seldom.

This producation is very much worth seeing. It’s a thoroughly dramatic play in a modern sense, as some Greek tragedies are not. In the cast are two people of, not promise, but most respectable achievement, Donna Setrakian as Clytemnestra and Baker Salsbury as Achilles. They are the best student actors to show up since Rekow and Locatell made the theater at State a major competitor of our local companies.

The settings are so-so, but, as in Anthony and Cleopatra of a couple of years ago, the play is crippled by simply awful costumes. But go see it — it’s a moving experience, regardless of minor lapses of taste in dress making.

[April 28, 1965]


*One of Rexroth’s four plays is a version of Iphigenia at Aulis. It is included in Beyond the Mountains (New Directions).


“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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