San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



November 1965

Performing Arts Needs
The Royal Danish Ballet
Out-of-Touch Culture Oligarchy
San Francisco Theater Beats New York’s
Sloth or Revolution
New Apple Carts
Henry Wallace
Shake Up San Francisco with a Teach-In
Bees in My Bonnet




Performing Arts Needs

There are several points made by Jerry Ets-Hokin in his attack on Proposition B with which I agree.

What is desperately needed is: (1) a 1000-seat house to indigenous local companies such as the Actor’s Workshop; (2) a series of 500-seat neighborhood houses which could be used for low-cost works by local companies; (3) the establishment of a theater program in the neighborhoods; (4) a conservatory of the performing arts at the Palace of Fine Arts; (5) operation of existing neighborhood facilities, school auditoriums, recreation centers, in the evenings as well as in the daytime; (6) an art in the neighborhood program sponsored by the Board of Education, with neighborhood exhibitions, concerts and training; (7) a new home for the San Francisco Museum, now housed in the originally temporary shelter of the Veterans; (8) active participation of all the professional directors of the performing arts in every important detail of the planning of any building in this field.

Every one of these points is well taken. All of them have been more or less bypassed by the planners and proponents of the rebuilding of the Opera House complex. They should certainly not be.

We need to get to work on every one of these things. Some of them, the neighborhood activities especially, involve the very life and safety of the City.

If we don’t get off the dime with a wholesale saturation program on neighborhood social and cultural reconstruction we are going to blow up just like Watts, and don’t you think we aren’t.

We need Proposition B, too. The present plant is inadequate and worn out. Whose fault doesn’t matter now, we have to bring the place up to modern standards regardless of who let it run down.

True, other cities have managed to tap large sums of private patronage for such enterprises, but the brutal fact is that the extremely small circle of patrons in San Francisco is already far overextended in expenditures.

Again, it doesn’t matter that they are a very closed circle indeed, and brutally rude to interlopers, and also think in terms of pre-war currency — some of them in pre-War One money, when eggs cost two bits a basket.

That’s the way the ball bounces, all those balls to do art good you read about in the society page, and the bread bounces with it.

If there is no Jack Heinz to write a check, we’ll have to write our own. But believe me, we the people should make it clear that from now on it is OUR Civic Center culture complex. It will not be the private pleasure palace of Pacific Heights and Presidio Terrace, as Jeremy, taking his rhetoric from the speech on changing the name of Arkansaw has called it — not that it ever in fact was.

Coming up at the Opera House are “the Danes,” the great Royal Danish Ballet. There is no question but what they are one of the top five companies in the world, but it so happens that their unique and naturally graceful style makes them my own very favorites. More on this Sunday.

[November 1, 1965]



The Royal Danish Ballet

Extra! Extra! Dog Bites Man! Extra! Extra! Normalcy Hits Show Biz! A week or so ago, talking to Ginny Kolmar, of Kolmar, Sales and Kolmar, who are doing the PR for the Royal Danish Ballet, she said, “Gee, these are hard people to do publicity for. They don’t do the accepted things that make hot copy. They are nice, warm, unneurotic folks, the very antithesis of most show biz characters. They drink quietly and inconspicuously, they hold their liquor, they don’t fight, they don’t have scandalous love brawls.”

To my mind this is about the hottest copy imaginable. The Russian companies are pretty normal, too — but they are a little prissy about it. What distinguishes the Danes is their easy, relaxed, natural grace — as people and as dancers. That’s their gimmick, that’s their PR peg.

How can you have sexual scandals in a city like Copenhagen where the sexual revolution is long over and the relations between men and women are the most simple, direct and honest in the world? How can you have the alcoholic capers of café society in a country where people learn to drink practically straight alcohol and never bat an eye and where the gentlest beer flows like silken water?

That’s what makes them different, these Danes, they have learned to live easy from childhood. Furthermore, their company takes care of them from cradle to grave and there is none of the crowding at the trough, none of the terror of old age, none of the bitterness that besets ballet in America.

All this shows, believe me, in the way they dance. But there is another factor, little understood even in ballet circles. When they were last here, the Danes went out to Fleishhacker Pool with people from the S.F. Ballet. They turned out to be almost as good swimmers and divers as dancers.

Believe me, this discovery rocked the locals. Why? Because it’s an absolute law in old-timey ballet theory, which still prevails, that swimming is very, very bad for dancers. “It softens the body and exercises the wrong muscles. It develops the breasts and makes the girls look heavy.”

That’s right. That is just precisely what the Danes have had in mind for many years. They were pioneers in the study of the orthopedics of dance. What happens to the dancers’ bones and muscles? What does this mean in terms of graceful motions? Long ago they hired specialists, doctors and technicians to find out.

It didn’t take them long to discover that the classic ballet methods produced muscle-bound people, and that this produced rigid, inflexible patterns of movement. Muscles that pulled one way were overdeveloped, the compensating muscles that pulled the other way while the first set relaxed were atrophied.

As everybody knows, Balanchine’s company looks as though his girls had been recruited from Auschwitz in its last hours. With bodies like this you can only do well the geometric convolutions Mr. B. considers “abstract ballet.”

This is like “eye music,” the modern tone row stuff that is evolved by theory in the composers and is intrinsically unbearable. Music occurs first of all in great composers, even the tone row boys, in the ear, as a hidden song. So just now there isn’t much music going around. So dance loses its essential meaning when it ceases to be the natural expression of the body’s grace — of its own joy in itself.

Certain schools of modern dance have been saying this about ballet for 70 years. The Danes were the first to take this criticism seriously except curiously enough the master of those who know, Diaghilev himself. Nijinsky’s L’Après-Midi d’un Faune is, as we forget, based on the vocabulary of Dalcroze eurhythmics. The Dalcroze system, still taught in Germany, is too limited and cranky. The Royal Danish Ballet School put such ideas on a scientific basis.

As the years have gone by these ideas have spread abroad from Copenhagen and the introduction of scientific orthopedic study of the dance is what accounts for the startling change in the style of the Royal British Ballet — though not of their sensation-making “guest artists,” who are not in fact anywhere near as good dancers as anybody in the “second line.” But such ideas seem to be having a hard time indeed seeping through the stone walls of the Balanchine orthodoxy.

Nobody has yet caught up with the Danes in natural grace, uninhibited joyful motion. That is why above all other companies they are a sheer simple pleasure to watch, and why they give the impression that anybody, once she learned the steps, could do it. Incidentally, that is why I couldn’t care less if their male star, who makes all the balletomanes behave like Beatlemanes, dances or not.

The essence of their kind of dance isn’t even “a strong supporting company,” but a company in which each person is master or mistress of beautiful motion in the position in dance to which God or the director has seen fit to call him or her. What is wrong with ballet, as with opera, are the Callases, the Tebaldis, the Nureyevs, and this arrogant lad as well — if he don’t like the public, let him stay to home.

[November 7, 1965]



Out-of-Touch Culture Oligarchy

I supported the Opera House bonds, but with considerable skepticism, as the only way in which a vitally important job could get done in time.

However, during the KQED brainstorm program in which I took part, Allan Temko blew his cool, as they say, and said to a member of the Establishment: “What’s the matter with you people? If you want to be an oligarchy, why don’t you try to be an oligarchy that does things right, like the Medicis? You are an oligarchy that does everything wrong.” To which I silently said, “Amen.”

The vote against Proposition B was mostly just the flat refusal of the electorate to spend money. But its overwhelming size was an expression of total lack of confidence in the oligarchy.

It is perfectly true that they seem to be incapable of doing anything right. They are, amongst themselves, deadlocked on every important issue involving the life of the City.

And so the balance of power passes to the fast buck realtors and the penny ante mafiosi. In default of well-planned civic responsibility on the part of the power elite, San Francisco is slowly being destroyed by the petty greed of people who normally have no power at all.

The Establishment has made a nice thing for itself hereabouts for these many years . . . middlebrow felicity in tuxedo. Today the community has outgrown it completely. The Tape Music Center, the new and vital Actor’s Workshop, the Composers’ Forum, the Mime Troupe, the Both/And, the radical small galleries that get buzzed by the fuzz for sexy welding sculptures, the Committee, the Blue U. and dozens of other enterprises like them, this is where the action is.

Not, certainly in the S.F. Symphony with its night school course in music appreciation, or the museums with their bargain-basement traveling exhibitions and the pitifully provincial permanent collections.

Does the Establishment have anything to do with all this? To ask is to laugh. The only thing the leading representative of the culture oligarchy has done for the City’s significant culture this year is to use his immense power to ban Ronnie Davis’s Mime Troupe, one of the few internationally famous expressions of San Francisco’s culture, from the public parks.

Not only that, but he didn’t have the courage to fight poor little old Ronnie on the merits of the case, but had to get him on a technicality. If Ronnie Davis is obscene, let’s not try to kick him out for walking on the grass.

We need, culturewise, nothing more badly than creative use of the parks — far more than we need new dressing rooms in the Opera House.

Yet we do absolutely nothing about democratization of culture, but sit listening to a worn-out opera diva in our tuxedos while the insulted and injured bone up for the night of the long knives. Wake up!

We need a new charter. We need a new master plan. We need a planned program for the broadening and enriching of the City’s cultural life. We need . . . you can name it, Mr. Elite. We’d better get with it before it’s too late.

[November 8, 1965]



San Francisco Theater Beats New York’s

I put off doing the S.F. Actor’s Workshop Edward II until I could get to New York to compare the ex-Actor’s Workshop Danton’s Death. Well, Edward II is, in every way, superior to Danton. If you haven’t been, go.

Danton’s Death is a mediocre play, superficial and windy. Büchner accepted the myth of the accusers of Danton, which is like accepting the Moscow Trials.

The only point of the play is, “The Revolution devours its farrow.” News: Dog Bites Man! André Malraux made three profoundly searching novels out of similar subject matter, Büchner only a string of noisy platitudes. The libretto for Andrea Chenier is considerably deeper, much more so Orphans of the Storm or The Tale of Two Cities.

Nevertheless, Danton was completely over the heads of the NYC audiences and most critics. The night I saw it, at intermission a well-dressed and apparently well-educated woman was complaining to her husband about the costumes; she thought it was the Russian Revolution. A leading patroness said to me, “Why did they put on such a difficult and depressing play when we gave them such a beautiful theater?” The critics liked what was bad and damned what was good.

Bob Symonds plays Robespierre, not at all like Goldwater as the critics said, but like Le Bon Franklin. This is an interesting comment on rationalism, but in fact Robespierre was much more like Savonarola.

Robespierre looked remarkably like Tom Rosqui — but Rosqui has only doubled bit parts. The real Danton’s resemblance to Bob Symonds was remarkable, but again, that role is taken by Alan Bergman, just another Broadway actor with a depressing resemblance to Errol Flynn.

Best piece of casting is Roscoe Lee Browne as Saint-Just, a splendid job of character acting in the great tradition of the classic historical movies. Browne answers once for all the arguments against “intercasting.” Theatrical illusion is total from the moment he appears; never once do you think of him as a Negro, but always as exactly what you’d always imagined Saint-Just to be.

Again, Gail Fisher as the wife of Camille Desmoulins makes the best of a bad break — a part almost as silly as the one she played here in the disastrous The Rocks Cry Out!

The cast is not coordinated. Like our recent unhappy La Bohème, everybody is playing in a different theater, Method, Broadway, musical comedy, Off-Broadway Moderne — the antitheatricalism of the Thirties is dominant, but what a mixture!

The former San Franciscans came through — Rosqui and Elizabeth Huddle and Ray Fry and Robert Phalen are always in control of the stage, always projecting for sure — but they are on for only brief moments.

Browne simply insists on complete theatricality and doesn’t let anybody distract him. Maybe the play should be reorganized around him.

Very funny. I went with Gloria Oden, poet and editor of a scientific journal, who happens to be a Negro. I told her about my long quarrel with Herb over intercasting. As Negro after Negro came on stage we burst out laughing. You’d have thought the French Revolution took place in Haiti. After the show Jules and Alan Mandell came up, and first off, after introductions, said practically in unison, “Now Kenneth, you’ve got to realize there are better Negro actors available in New York.”

Again we laughed. Oh yeah? Better than Hank Brown or Marguerite Ray, who never got anywhere in Workshop auditions? And how about the best girl in Danton, who was out here and available? Oh well.

Design, decor, lights, costumes — this department was dominated by the Jo Mielziner school of Post Ziegfeld Moderne, a flavor of old-timey slickery I tired of the first night I saw it, 40 years ago.

Hardly a New York critic objected to anything I found objectionable. They thought the play too deep, too modernistic, too stylized. It was simply too good for New York.

Let that be a lesson to both us and Herb Blau. I don’t want to put down Herb. He tried. But he chose wrong all along the line. He should have opened with something the Workshop knew thoroughly and did superlatively — Volpone or Lear, for instance — and not been afraid of New York, but confined his cast to the original Workshop people and concentrated on polishing their own special style.

Now for Edward II. John Hancock is a great director, and this is the great play he needs to show off his best talents. It is as remorselessly theatrical as a trapeze or lion taming act, with the stunning punch of a kind of highbrow “Ice Follies.”

In some mysterious way Hancock has managed to meld what, given San Francisco conditions, must have been little better than a pickup cast, into one smoothly functioning organism, all inhabitants of “one world” of hallucination. Direction is not just rhythmic, with a beat, but the beat swings, so the result is like a ballet to music by Thelonious Monk.

Costume and design give just the right tone of lunatic ragamuffins to king and clown alike. The stage is not just mobile (turntables are not that important), it is always dynamic, as the stage in Danton, for all the machinery, is both static and diffuse.

And yes, Miranda, it has Negroes, several good Late Gothic 14th century British Negroes, the best available in the City.

I think this town is wearing out and coming apart, but in this particular case, you’re lucky to live in San Francisco. But be sure to see Danton if you’re in New York.

[November 14, 1965]



Sloth or Revolution

We need a revolution. San Francisco is like a steam engine with the piston frozen, the safety valves tied down and the fire blazing away full blast, while the engineers sleep, play cards or quarrel over what to do under the impression they are running a windmill.

Something’s got to give pretty soon or the City is going to fall apart with a loud and messy bang.

The decade of the Sixties is going to go down in American history as the time of the awakening of the cities. All over the country places that were once decayed, disorganized and destructive of all human values of their inhabitants have come to life, bestirred themselves, reversed the “core city” blight, the rush to the suburbs, the constipation of traffic, the pollution of water and air, the polarization of the population into the very rich in their condominiums and the very poor in their subsidized housing projects.

This is a period of spectacular growth of provincial theaters, small art museums, symphonies, chamber music groups, dance companies — processes that began long ago in places like Worcester, Mass., and Toledo, Ohio, have now spread to Roswell, N.M., or Pocatello, Idaho.

Henry Miller once said of Pittsburgh, Pa., that it looked like the droppings of prehistoric monsters. It doesn’t look that way anymore.

Meanwhile the City that everybody loves, the only city in the Western Hemisphere that is an international possession, like Florence or Venice or Paris, a city that belongs to everybody, sinks deeper and deeper into a morass of frantically busy, elaborately disorganized sloth.

Sloth. As a secular vice it is another word for habitual laziness. But in the Catholic Church it is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. St. Thomas says it is sadness and torpor in the face of a good which the soul has to achieve. It is the ingrained habit of spiritual constipation.

It is sloth that is what is wrong with the oligarchy that has run the City for three generations. They are busy enough, Lord knows, everything moves except what should move. Why? It is so simple.

The San Francisco power elite came to leadership in another age and they still function on the principles that were effective in that age. They spend pre-Roosevelt dollars in a pre-Keynesian economy to turn the wheels of a mechanical, pre-electronic technology.

It is no accident that the man who is making all the rumpus, and who led the massive revolt against the oligarchy that was the vote on Proposition B, is Jerry Ets-Hokin, a young tiger in the electronics business. It’s the transistor against the gear box.

Jerry’s new nine-point program for the cultural revolution is just jim dandy. So are a number of other well thought out plans to take apart the City and put it back together again.

But nothing will happen until a new cadre of leadership offers itself. They don’t have to be all that young — but they have to be living in the latter half of the 20th century, and they have to be willing to assume total responsibility, act decisively and then stick by their guns.

Employment opportunities for dedicated young millionaires seeking careers as professional revolutionaries are wide open.

The body politic has got to start rhythmic kicking, coordinated breathing, far-reaching strokes with maximum pull — because if we don’t start swimming, we are surely going to sink.

[November 15, 1965]



New Apple Carts

Push has come to shove and something’s got to give. Let me reiterate — what San Francisco needs is a revolution. We need a turnover, a bouleversement, but we don’t need to turn over all the apple carts, we need a whole set of new ones.

What we have is sloth, stalemate or ignorance. Some of the most active participants in the donnybrook don’t know which is apple and which is cart. On the other hand, we have all sorts of wonderful suggestions from the sidelines, any one of which would do a world of good, but a good many of which cancel each other out.

On the third hand — and this monster has more hands than Shiva — we go right on spending fortunes for studies by high-priced boondogglers with Phi Beta Kappa keys and slide rules. There is hardly an important problem in The City’s life that has not had spent on it enough study and survey money to support a moderate high liver in comparative luxury for life — let alone a passel of widows and orphans.

I have a bunch of clipping here — Joseph Tarantino proposes the election of a board of freeholders to rewrite the Charter. Good — except how many of these elected freeholders are going to know what an efficient charter is?

The present one has more checks than a dozen banks and more balances that all the assay offices in North America. The result is it is impossible to do anything drastic in San Francisco. I’m a strong believer that the government that governs least governs best and that legislatures should never do today what they can put off till tomorrow. But not at this juncture. We need a massive dose of drasticity.

Another clip: build a new Veterans Building and take over the entire existing one and remodel it as an annex to the Opera House. Why not? Another: build a new and efficient library and move the San Francisco Museum into the present Library building. Certainly the Library building would make a better museum than library — you could keep the great staircase and hall for big sculpture.

In this case there are a couple of cruel facts to be faced. The San Francisco Museum is not a city, but a private organization. Its permanent collection is pitiful and would look ridiculous exhibited in an outsize museum.

Jerry Ets-Hokin proposes a reasoned plan of cultural development with strong emphasis on bringing art, music, theater, dance to the people who need them and can’t afford them. And he proposes a city Department of Cultural Affairs, and, first off, by vote of the Board of Supervisors, an interim office, and officer, with such title, in the executive department. Fine, but in the way of each point of his program stands the deadlocked special interests of the oligarchy. In the way of his Department stands the good old Charter.

Although Jerry has yet to learn to spell common Latin quotations or pronounce French names, he has devoted a good deal of study to what has been going on elsewhere in this field — the arts, anyway, if not all the complex problems of modern urbanism. Most members of the oligarchy simply won’t speak to him, so it is not possible to get a fruitful dialogue going.

How many members of the various commissions are as well informed as he about their special civic responsibilities? They took on the jobs, did they study up? Did they travel around and see what is happening in the hospitals or sewers or playgrounds of other cities? To ask the question is to answer it.

Furthermore, many of these people do not even know each other personally and never met except around a mahogany table. Do the bankers and industrialists on the boards socialize with the concerned members of the Board of Supervisors? Don’t laugh. England was great when it was governed from club rooms, and the greatest of all was that exclusive gentlemen’s club where everybody knew everybody else so well they could afford to bicker — the House of Parliament.

People who meet only at mahogany tables bring their own mahogany tables with them. They may be very enlightened and liberal individuals when vacationing in Paris. At meetings they function as corporate personalities. The responsible organs of The City must be made up of men who can think on their feet, at least in emergencies, and this is a state of chronic emergency that will last until we restructure our responsibilities. Boards of Directors made up of other Boards of Directors and so ad infinitum simply cannot think on their feet. Everything must be cleared through channels and the channels are all choked up.

We’ve got to get together and find out what we are doing before we can do much of anything. I have a suggestion in that regard I’ll tell you about come next Sunday.

[November 21, 1965]



Henry Wallace

So the career of Henry Wallace has come to an end. His political life ended long ago, and now that it has receded so far into the past, it is possible, in summing up his life, to judge it more or less dispassionately. Such evaluation raises several interesting historical and social questions.

Wallace, like both Roosevelts, Rockefeller, Lyndon Johnson, Stevenson, was one of the first of a type of politician which has become increasingly common in our time. He was a wealthy, well-educated man who entered politics in answer to a sense of vocation, a call to assume social responsibility.

Like almost all such men, he assumed a position Left of Center. This may not be very far left by European terms, but the crowding of people who are in politics for invidious reasons, who are benighted and illiberal and ignorant, throws the American political spectrum out of balance. Bare social responsibility takes on a reddish hue in our atmosphere.

As Secretary of Agriculture, Wallace helped to create the inextricable morass, labyrinth and bramble bush of our subsidized agriculture. But he also saved the farmers from starvation and the country from the spreading of a violent farm revolt, a physical rebellion which was actually in being when he took office. Most important, he established a long-range policy of conservation and reclamation of the resources of the land which has endured and grown to this day.

As Vice President he accomplished little, but like Adlai Stevenson he served to focus and relieve turbulence and pressure on the Left. As candidate for President on the Progressive Party ticket, his career ended in disaster.

He got a smaller percentage of the total vote than did Eugene V. Debs when he was a prisoner in Atlanta Penitentiary, on a straight socialist, anti-war platform.

What would have happened had he been Vice President and succeeded FDR instead of Harry Truman? Many people believe there would never have been a Cold War, and that he would have been able to arrange a modus vivendi in China between the Kuomintang, the Communists, and the U.S.A. I wonder? What would have happened if Napoleon had died at Marengo? If Alexander had not at Babylon? If the German General Staff had not sent Lenin across Germany to Petrograd in a sealed train?

One thing for sure, Wallace’s amazingly low vote for the Presidency probably did heat up the Cold War. In the Kremlin they certainly decided that a pro-Russian Left in America was simply not worth bothering about. Possibly the repercussions of that defeat were more important historically than anything else in all a long, hyperactive and highly vocal career.

Possibly there is a crux at which idealism in politics passes a point of diminishing returns and is only effective in reverse.

However that may be — I do wish we had a rich and learned liberal ready to take on unlimited social and political responsibility in San Francisco. I wouldn’t even care if he did read Marx and Ouspensky and sail boomerangs for pleasure.

[November 22, 1965]



Shake Up San Francisco with a Teach-In

Last week I issued a call for a revolution. If you want to start a revolution, how do you do it? Why, have a teach-in, of course. We need to, if not overturn San Francisco’s Power Elite, upset them thoroughly. Nothing is more upsetting than education, at least so they say. The truth may not set you free, but it can disturb you.

A very large percentage of the people on our planning and control boards or in charge of the maintenance and expansion of The City’s capital structure are complete amateurs and know very little about what they are doing, supposed to do, or what other people elsewhere have done more wisely. Furthermore, amazingly enough, they very often don’t know one another.

I was talking to one of the city fathers recently about a proposal dear to his heart. I asked him what the head of the commission in charge of that particular field of The City’s life thought of it. He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “What’s wrong with asking him?” He said, “I don’t know him.” Well.

Both of these men are dedicated individuals who have bothered, unlike so many, to educate themselves up to their responsibilities. Yet they do not know each other socially. This means that they only encounter each other at mahogany tables where they are both only officials and can only speak officially, and so never actually know that each other thinks.

I have talked to a number of people who are in the thick of the great freeway controversy. I know no one in government who is really well informed about the overall theory and practice of urban traffic organization, who has familiarized himself on the spot with the successes — few indeed — of other cities, and who has seen the innumerable catastrophic failures with his own eyes. Nor do I know of any politician who has ever taken a course on the subject.

Many academic urbanists are full of rarefied Chicago canal water and Los Angeles smog, but at least they try, or try to try, and it would pay the politicians to shop around and listen, or anyway, read their books.

I propose we have a series of teach-ins three successive weekends from Friday evening through Sunday evening of hard-working sessions. As I see it, we could have panels up front of about 20 people, all of them authorities in their respective fields, and a participating audience of about 200.

I think the audience should be by invitation, but should also pay a moderate fee for meals and tuition. If meetings like this are thrown open to the public they are overwhelmed by the loquacious and misinformed, and nothing happens. The meetings should be aired in toto on television and radio for the general public, who could phone in their participation. I think there should be, amongst the panelists, the widest possible spectrum of opinion — from Paul Goodman or Saul Alinsky to Victor Gruen, designer of the new Fresno and the new Rochester. Maybe we could get some of the people from the Power Elite itself from the towns that are really jumping — St. Louis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, for instance.

I think the panelists should represent the widest range of urban problems from sewers to opera, as well as of opinion. In the cultural field, there is a problem. There are no real authorities here. Some good journalists have written books on the culture explosion, but as far as I can tell from the famed Rockefeller Report, the most reliable people are the Rockefeller Foundation’s own culture specialists.

I think we would be well advised to ask them to come and give us their help instead of just a lot of old money. Everybody says “Gimme” to such people, they would be flattered if somebody said “Tell me” for a change. The people we don’t want are the Foundations Bums and specialists in high-priced Reports that take five years of grants to come up with something everybody knew right along.

I don’t think, in fact, that we should ask for foreign aid in this matter. The City is responsible for the mess it’s in. Let our local money pay to learn how to get out of it. Some of the largest commercial interests in the world are located hereabouts.

I’m tired of hearing poormouth propaganda from the oligarchy. They are always telling me, “There is nobody here as rich as the Busches in St. Louis, Heinzes in Pittsburgh, Armours in Chicago, Uihleins in Milwaukee. You can’t expect that kind of action in a city where the richest families are of very modest wealth.” After all, you can go to the library and get a book that will tell you that’s not true.

I think it would be nice if the University of San Francisco and San Francisco State College cooperated on staging this show. One of the manifest outward signs of inner spiritual reality in the life of a city is the involvement of the academic community in the civic life, directly, personally and creatively. And now that the Society of Jesus has assumed a position of leadership in breaking out of the isolation of Catholic education — here is a great chance to assume a general responsibility in the secular city.

How are we going to get the people to come? Pester them, force, them, shame them, and then charge them. But let’s not make it chic or In or U. We want the leaders of All The Lovely People to come, but let’s hope they leave their loveliness to home, or at the door, like pistols.

Seminars like this were the normal process of self-education in the smoke-filled back rooms of saloons by City Hall, and way back then they did all right. Now we’ve got to find another way. Three weekend teach-ins won’t save San Francisco from a fate worse than death. But they should start something — and the boys and girls who have to get to know each other can at least be introduced socially.

[November 28, 1965]



Bees in My Bonnet

I got up this morning with several bees buzzing in my bonnet. The muted meeting of the Board of Supervisors and the Highway Commission, couple with the irreconcilable conflict over the destructive cutting of freeways through miscellaneous beauty spots about the state, moved me to write a piece suggesting a final solution.

Why not set up a broad action committee to prepare an initiative for the next ballot, and to exert pressure for a similar act by the Legislature, to abolish the State Highway Commission?

California is naturally the most beautiful state in the continental USA, but it is being turned, unnaturally, into the ugliest.

Much of the blame for this can be put at the door of the Highway Commission. I think we need a new commission, completely different in construction and objectives, and we need it right away, before more damage is done.

Another bee that’s been buzzing for a long time. When is the Park and Recreation Commission of The City going to use its considerable powers and freedom of initiative to open up the parks and recreation facilities for creative neighborhood expression?

Why not Sunday jazz concerts in all the parks lining the Fillmore District, along Gough and Steiner Streets, and in Bayshore and Hunters Point?

The Musicians Union has an educational fund to pay for this. The only problem is to make sure the players are bona fide jazz musicians and not lame ducks and deadheads around the union hall.

That would be a beginning — but there are literally hundreds of activities that would make for a far happier city than would three opera houses.

Or is it that the representatives of the oligarchy on the Park-Rec believe that anybody who digs jazz (or the Mime Troupe) is a dirty Communist?

It's so inconsistent. How can anybody feel that way about Ronnie Davis and then turn around and pay a small fortune for a Picasso? Picasso, like Bettina, admits he's a Communist.

Lastly, if Monterrey won’t let Joan Baez run her Academy of Nonviolence down there, let’s invite her to San Francisco.

She doesn’t like me, and always treats me as if I was less than the dust beneath her chariot wheel, to quote a folk song she doesn’t sing, but I think she’s a great artist and a person of unimpeachable integrity. She’d be a real asset to the community.

True, she’s a troublemaker, but a quiet and gracious one, and the kind of trouble she makes, makes for creative ferment and new and strange vitamins in the heavy lump of the body politic.

Furthermore, if we don’t have Academies of Nonviolence to counteract all the Academies of Violence that crowd through the blue-gray window of the idiot box and haunt the streets and bars and bedrooms — and the printed page — seeking whom they may devour, we are going to come to a bad end. A bad, bad end.

[November 29, 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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