San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



December 1965

A Great Actor’s Workshop Production
A Train Up Mount Tamalpais?
Poetry on Record
Mafia Toes in the Door
Voices Outside the Inn
Passing the Buck
Year End Thoughts
Some Traffic Suggestions




A Great Actor’s Workshop Production

The Actor’s Workshop production of Saul Bellow’s The Last Analysis is a perfect demonstration of what a good director and a good bunch of actors can do regardless. It is an evening of excellent entertainment with several deeply moving moments.

Watching Abe Vigoda work in the lead role is a joy. There’s been nobody like it since Groucho Marx, comic acting in the Great Tradition everybody wonders what happened to. Vigoda certainly sets a high standard for the rest of the cast, but by and large they live up to it.

They say Bonnie Beecher really is a Bunny retired to the highbrow theater, but she certainly projects a perfect image of a Bunny retired to highbrowry, and she works at it every minute. Richard Bright as the Ratcatcher acts like something that fell off of Ken Kesey’s truck, and with extraordinary skill — what he does seems easy to do, pretty standard ham comic, until you try to imitate it.

So it goes — everybody’s at top form. Winifred Mann has a somewhat more relaxed role than she’s been getting; poor Nancy Bond has to run around nekkid again — but she does it very well. The scene where she does the bumps and grinds while Fanny Lubritsky imitates, instrument by instrument, the pit band, is funnier than almost anything ever at the Kearney Burlesque of happy memory.

A good time was had by all. Which just goes to show — because the play is strictly nowhere. The script is by a semi-retired Partisan Review intellectual who is trying to make it on Broadway with a boost from the Ford Foundation. If you listen carefully, you realize the speech is not speech, Saul Bellow has a tinnier ear than Dos Passos or Farrell. People just don’t talk that way.

But the point is, unless you’re a critic and prejudiced against Saul Bellow to begin with, as I am, you don’t notice. You don’t notice any of the faults of the play, and it’s faulty throughout. The company sees to it that you don’t notice. Hancock’s direction and Vigoda’s furious comic pace and the enthusiastic cooperation of everybody on the stage — it all hits you at once and keeps hitting and you are quite carried away.

I don’t know why John picked dogs like Milk Train and Analysis for his first season, unless to show what a great director he is — OK, John, I believe you.

Be sure to go and see the show, you’ll be thoroughly entertained, just don’t pay too close attention to the script. Pretend it’s Harold Lloyd.

When is this crazy town going to get off the dime, or dimes? This new Actor’s Workshop is far better than the old one. Vis-à-vis New York, we got the best of the bargain. It has turned out two excellent productions and one superlative one. It is much better subscribed than it used to be, the audiences are happy and the company morale is high. Yet they are in another of those financial crises. There are at least 100 people in this town who could, any one of them, write one little check for 100 grand and solve all problems. And there is a mass affluent society of arrived upwardly mobile technicians and intelligentsia who could, amongst them, pony up the dough within the week. What’s wrong? What do the San Francisco upper classes think money is for?

The San Francisco Museum has just convulsed itself with the greatest fund drive in its history — and raised the price of maybe eight first-class pictures.

The International Repertory Theater is broke and unless rescued will have to abandon one of the best little theater plants in the world.

The Interplayers, the Cathedral, the Playhouse, get by from week to week. All the people connected with these companies work for nothing or for a tiny fraction of what they could get at any other job — much less in Hollywood, on Broadway or television.

San Francisco’s leading artist was up for sherry the other afternoon. He doesn’t have a dealer in the Bay Area — it isn’t worth the trouble. Another painter, quite his equal, I didn’t even know lived here. All I know about his doings is the invitations I get to vernissages in Paris, and articles in L’Express.

This man was to have a comprehensive show here, shared with Minneapolis and southern California. At the last minute San Francisco backed out — the cost of the catalog was beyond our budget. This is one of the most successful modern artists.

[December 5, 1965]



A Train Up Mount Tamalpais?

Once in a while there’s a ray of light, somebody comes up with a sane idea of what to do to improve the community. Now a fellow wants to revive the wiggly railway up Tamalpais. Great. The top of the mountain is a splendid recreation area, and the best way to enjoy it is to ride up and walk down.

The Atheneum Foundation has done wonders in creating a season of music, drama and dance in the hitherto scarcely used Mountain Theater. Quietly and with little money they have given us one of those Summer Festivals everybody’s always talking about and nobody ever really does anything about. The big problem is logistic. It is a troublesome place to get to by auto, especially if there’s any traffic. The narrow road is both tedious and dangerous for heavy use, yet improving it would surely destroy the beauty of the mountain. I vote for the return of the railway. Next on the agenda — the return of the ferries.

Marin County would be greatly helped by a new high-speed interurban rail system along the three main lines of travel, from Santa Rosa, from Tomales Bay, from Mill Valley, and maybe from Tiburon. It is hardly to be believed that all efforts to accomplish this have failed. We better wake up.

The population of California is certain to more than double before the end of the century. If we don’t declare war on the automobile right now we are going to discover that we have come too little and too late. It won’t be long now before the Bay Area, once the most beautiful urban site in the world, has become unlivable. It can happen in the twinkling of an eye.

Look at Tahoe. There are very few slums anywhere in the world as hideous. And the slums of Calcutta or Leopoldville are due to poverty. The nightmare of Tahoe is due to greed . . . a money slum. Twenty years ago, ever ten years ago, something could have been saved. Now the only thing to do with the shores of Tahoe is to demolish every construction of man and start over — like 50 percent of Chicago or all of Harlem.

I’ve got a lot of enthusiastic mail about my suggestion for a teach-in in Urbanism for the people who run the city, if that’s what you can call what they are doing. Many of my correspondents have been men of learning, affluence, concern. But not a single member of the oligarchy, not a single politician, so much as peeped.

What’s the matter, chums? Are you really under the impression you don’t need educating? “Invincible ignorance” the theologians call it. It excuses many mortal sins, but it can’t excuse the slow destruction of a community by sloth, greed, vulgarity and provincialism.

[December 6, 1965]



Poetry on Record

San Francisco is considered the place where the revival of oral poetry, now immensely popular all over the world, first began. Poetry readings draw enormous audiences — if the poets have something to say those audiences wish to hear. Dylan, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg are runners up on the Beatles, and I don’t do so bad myself.

The pre-war generation of reactionary Metaphysicals, the boys in the textbooks and square type anthologies, are lucky to bring out 50 people, but the new poetry of direct speech and social responsibility has become an effective force in modern civilization — in San Francisco, Warsaw, Budapest, Moscow or Barcelona, it’s the same story, poets once again are at the growing point of society.

I’m moved to these observations by James Broughton’s new record, which he just sent me for Christmas. Thank you, James. It is thoroughly entertaining and yet deeply moving.

Broughton is a master of the whimsical tone, the unexpected insight and the hidden bite. With the harpist Joel Andrews he has worked out a method of presentation that differs from the poetry and jazz combination Patchen, Ferlinghetti and I popularized years ago, and has more in common with the use of modern poetry in the French café chantant, an old and certainly socially effective form.

It would make an ideal Christmas gift for most any literate person of any age. The Bard and the Harper, James Broughton and Joel Andrews, Gleeman Records, MEA Box 303, Sausalito, Calif.

There is a lot of this stuff around now, some of it very good indeed. Caedmon Records have been doing the leading poets, mostly of the old Establishment, for years and years. Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, Ogden Nash, Edith Sitwell, e.e. cummings, Marianne Moore, Conrad Aiken, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Robert Graves, Wallace Stevens, Stephen Spender, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, they managed to get practically the entire generation of classic American Modernists, one of the great outbursts of creative activity in the history of literature, before they had passed away. Besides, they issue all sorts of other poetry albums, from Homer to Jean Cocteau.

Their taste is strongly conservative, but the attitude of the two young women who started the company on little but hope and a mouth’s rent, years ago, was “first things first.”

Lately they’ve been doing the complete plays and poems of Shakespeare, performed by the best actors they could obtain, and they are now almost through. I decided to splurge and bought a whole mess of them for my daughter for Christmas, seeing as how she is certainly committed to the theater.

Poetry is not something in print. It is living speech to living, participating people. I would rather recite my poetry to jazz in any night club, or on any soapbox, than have it appear in the most prestigious literary quarterly. If you can’t be there, at least you can have the voice on records and certainly Shakespeare wrote for the voice and ear and not for the book and eye.

All the major recording companies are now slowly moving into this field and some of their plays, particularly, are very good. Trouble is, the big outfits are geared to the manic commercialism of Mad Alley and they don’t have the low overhead and resulting flexibility and courage of an anti-Madison Avenue operation like Caedmon. On the other hand, if you dig something more far out and contemporary, there is that, too.

If you want the postwar poets, who mostly write specifically to be read aloud, there are records of the major San Francisco poets, Patchen, Robert Duncan, Brother Antoninus, Ferlinghetti, Louis Simpson, I think McClure, myself, and an anthology of all of them. Badly needed are records of Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen. And there are records of Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg.

These things do not enter the ordinary channels of “exploitation” and promotion, and so are seldom reviewed anywhere, and they are sometimes trouble to find. San Francisco retailers, with few exceptions, enthusiastically discourage such orders.

I thought I’d do a full dress piece on the subject for you, since people are always wondering if it might just be possible, just for once, to find an unusual Christmas gift which was specifically suited to an individual taste. Well, if your giftee likes poetry, you’ve got everything from Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon to Allen Ginsberg to choose from, and even Allen Ginsberg likes Shakespeare — anyway I guess he does. I’ll ask him. Somebody ask Bob Dylan.

[December 12, 1965]



Mafia Toes in the Door

Saturday the Actor’s Workshop held its decisive press conference. Today it makes its decisive announcement. Today we’ll know what The City wants — Greasy Thumb Gusik or Shakespeare.

The hotel tax is a promotion fund. The question is — what are we promoting? What are we selling the world when we holler “Oyez! Oyez! Come one, come all!” What in the long run is most profitable to The City? Is it true that there is a fast buck to be picked up competing with Vegas, Calumet City, the French Quarter?

There is only one trouble with fast money. It’s fast. It’s made of snow and melts in your hand before you can do anything with it except maybe buy a few swimming pools and machine guns.

I am all for a broad spectrum of entertainment, basketball, roller rinks, naked ladies on the piano, on to chess tournaments and Ionesco and tape music. There are strong arguments for regulating prostitution and gambling as against trying to totally stamp out these two ancient amusements of man, and I don’t want to go into this issue now. There are two strong arguments against running a half-open town with the main emphasis on whoopee.

First. To each his hustle. Is this what San Francisco can do best? Can we compete with Vegas and Calumet City? Is this what people come to The City for? Is even the most rowdy and red necked convention lured here because “You can find any pleasure you want in San Francisco”? I doubt it. What we have to sell is the most civilized, urbane, gracious, and tolerant community in the USA. We are rapidly destroying that unique asset, but as of now, we still have it.

Second. There is no such thing as a half-open town. Fast women, slow horses, crooked cards and straight whiskey are big business today. Big, Big Business. You have to deal with them if you’re doing to deal in the big time. It’s The Organization or else. And once they get in, nobody is immune to organization.

Ferlinghetti thinks I’m a square because I point out the dangers of the North Beach free-for-all. I don’t care a hoot if all the people on Broadway decide to go naked tomorrow. It’s so simple. I’ve run a book shop on the Near North Side of Chicago and after I left, it was destroyed by the Organization.

The people who now have their toes in the door are tinhorns, but the big boys are watching how they make out. In five years, if all goes well for them, you won’t be able to run a book shop or an automobile agency without paying off, or your plate-glass insurance and then your life insurance premiums will put you out of business. In the twenties the biggest racket in New York for a while was the artichoke racket. If you wanted to sell artichokes, you ponied up. If you didn’t, you went into the river with a slab of concrete around your neck.

I vote for Shakespeare, or even Allen Ginsberg. They are safer. And the dividends they pay are steady and no kickback.

[December 13, 1965]


Voices Outside the Inn

“The time draws near the birth of Christ. The moon is hid, the night is still. The Christmas bells from hill to hill answer each other in the mist.” So Tennyson.

Here strange cries arise from Marin City, Hunters Point, the Fillmore, the slums of Vallejo and the Mission District. “We’ve had enough,” they say. “Is there anybody out there? Is anybody listening? We don’t care anymore if there is or not.”

Have you ever seen Hunters Point? It lies off the lines of traffic to anywhere, its road ends with it, it’s the social jumping off place.

News that 14-year-old girls were peddling their bodies attracted droves and droves of sightseers to Fulton and Webster Streets. Get in your Mercedes and go sightsee Hunters Point. Get around and walk around. Mix with the common people. And try the core city proper, the Tenderloin and the dead area from the Civic Center to the Fillmore. Spend an evening pub crawling in the neighborhood bars. This is the land of broken hearts and lost souls. Loveless City.

Christians believe that the creative principle of the universe became incarnate as a helpless baby in a culturally deprived family quartered in the cruel midwinter in a stable.

Theologians call it “kenosis,” emptying. They say Christ emptied himself of all power, out of love for the powerless, and became poor as the poorest.

For a long time the churches have been comfortably quartered in the inn.

In the last few years, here and there around the world, and most especially in France, the clergy — the pastors — the shepherds who have inherited the power of the church have begun to sleep restlessly in the inn. Some of them have said, “What are those voices outside?” and when the landlord has said, “They are people sleeping in the stable. There is no room for them in the inn,” a very few of the pastors have said, “That’s where we belong. That’s where we started out almost 2000 years ago — and where are we now?”

All great revivals in the churches are traceable to evangelical inspiration, to an attempt to get back to the human life of Christ and his disciples.

This is the meaning of the worker priests in France, of the urban life committees and core city missions and the neighborhood coffee shops, of the concern with homosexuals and Negroes, the aged and unemployable, the alcoholics and narcotic addicts, the delinquents and dropouts.

A few, not really very many, of the clergy, and still fewer, proportionately, of the laity, have awakened to the fact that if the church is to survive, it must take upon itself the kenosis of its Founder. It must strip itself of power — of miracle, mystery and authority, as Dostoevsky put it — and become one with the vast crowds for whom there is no room in the inn.

People need love, they need friendship, they need community, these they’ve always needed. Today they don’t get so much as acquainted. There’s no place to go but to the corner bar. (It’s against the law to call it an inn in California.)

In various cities, most especially Chicago, there have grown up church-sponsored, nonsectarian coffee shops, where people can meet and engage in vital dialogue, one to the other. Usually there is nothing specially religious in evidence in these places, nobody tries to convert anybody to anything except the beginnings of community.

In some cities the core city churches, abandoned by their old parishioners, have been turned into little theaters, social centers with coffee and conversation, jazz and art exhibits.

For a while we had such activities in San Francisco, but most of them have died out, or died down. All I know of now is Intersection, the coffee house and art center on Ellis Street, Freedom House on Fillmore St., The Place, a largely teenage hangout which is doing something to really integrate the Lakeview and Ingleside districts, the Glide Foundation, which attempts to inspire and guide local initiative in this field, and some activity at Hunters Point.

San Francisco seems to be marking time. Tensions have arisen between the middle-class congregations and their ministers, or within the church establishments, or between competing clergy.

Maybe it is a lull. Maybe we are gathering strength for a new effort. Let’s hope so.

Who speaks for those outside the inn? They are beginning to speak, loud and clear, for themselves. Who listens? Anybody there?

[December 19, 1965]



Passing the Buck

I always enjoy agreeing with my colleagues, especially Dick Nolan. So I want to register a supporting opinion alongside his piece last week on the Actor’s Workshop.

If the City wants a civic repertory theater it should be prepared to pay for it. Like, money. Like a lot of money. Not $25,000. If the Junior Establishment, the sons and daughters of the Forty Families, the vice presidents and the people with new money, want a theater that reflects their slightly chancy middlebrow avant-garde taste, they should be prepared to pay for it. Not $50,000, but a lot more. They are not poor.

The shameful thing about the whole business is the cowardice, niggardliness and buck passing.

Behind the scenes, powerful opinion from another age makes itself felt in City Hall. Nobody wants to admit it — but what really scares the politicians is a bunch of aged paper tigers.

At the opening of The Last Analysis I sat in front of a lady who was running a moral security check on the proceedings for a large and influential group.

She never cracked a smile at any of the uproarious rumpus on stage and her comments to her neighbor passed belief. In fact, they would have greatly enhanced the comedy had they been hooked into the PA system.

There are lots and lots of people who, as Bob Dylan says, don’t know what is happening, don’t want to know, and don’t want anybody else to find out — and they’re organized. Far better organized than the well-dressed avant-garde of Pacific Heights and Presidio Terrace.

It’s not just art. All last week people were sounding off in the papers from sundry hot spots around the Bay. “We admit we have our problems, but we haven’t got a Watts.”

Oh, no? Ever been to Watts? Ever been to Hunters Point or the Vallejo Bantustans? Let me tell you a secret. Hunters Point and the East Bay ghettoes are far worse than anything in Watts. The explosion there came from the hearts of men and women, not from the plumbing.

This is the buck you’re passing from one well-manicured hand to the other — the human heart. The heart that lies deep beneath the skin that makes the difference — that you can’t tell from your own.

I was going to do a Christmas piece, and look what came up. Maybe it is a Christmas piece. Pusillanimity is the art of smoking opium on powder kegs. Ignorance and fear and sloth — the Baby in the stable stands for the breakthrough of love and understanding, through ignorance and fear and sloth and squalor, in a creative act that makes all the difference.

Whatever you may believe about the facts of the Christmas story, or the story of Good Friday, they are not symbols of pusillanimity.

The artists and dramatists and poets are telling us our society is very sick. Have you ever gone and looked at the sickness face to face? Maybe if you were to walk through Hunters Point you might realize that you were looking at a symptom of a disease whose root cause was elsewhere — maybe on Pacific Heights, maybe at an address with a street name and number uncannily like your own.

[December 20, 1965]



Year End Thoughts

One day last week was my birthday and I suddenly realized I had never noticed middle age. I seem to have leapfrogged it from lingering, chronic, possibly malignant, adolescence into second childhood.

Now that my hair is pretty thoroughly gray, I wonder when I am going to be excused from being the Voice of Youth.

I’m not compulsive about it, like a certain colleague of mine [probably a friendly dig at Ralph Gleason, the music critic who had a regular column in the San Francisco Chronicle and who later wrote for Rolling Stone magazine], whose motto has become “Don’t believe anybody over 15,” but still, people are always calling up and saying, “Can you get us 3000 words on the youngest generation of writers, deadline yesterday?” or “What’s happening in jazz since Ornette Coleman?”

I’m a family man, the farest trip I ever take is for a couple of aspirins, most jazz in fact bores me, it makes me nervous to owe four-bits overnight, I have a couple of dark-skinned great-great-grandmas, wives of Indian traders, otherwise I’m whiter than most ancient Americans — yet I go on, speaking for youth, jazz, homosexuals, dope fiends, Negroes, and miscellaneous outcasts.

I wonder, am I the Establishment’s Allowed Outcast? Would they print me if I was actually 20, had a habit, played tenor, was queer and colored?

Answer. No. Don’t think I’m not wise to you, you rascals, you. Still, I can think what I want, and write as I think, and live by doing it, for which I’m properly thankful as the year draws to its close.

It’s been Nutcracker time again. I was a little worried about the S.F. Ballet. Once again there’s been a big turnover in younger leading dancers and some new fellows. I need not have worried. This season is extra good.

The male contingent is stronger than it’s been in several years. The regular leads, Sally Bailey, Jocelyn L. Volmar, Sue Loyd, Nancy Robinson and the rest were as good as ever, and the new girls are very fine indeed.

During opera season, whenever she got a chance, Lynda Meyer showed up as a dancer of startling promise. In the Nutcracker she gets a chance to fulfill that promise. This is a young girl who will go a long way. She is already in command of a distinctive and distinguished style that brings to mind the Borzoi elegance of the second generation of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe girls.

And then, not least of my pleasures — my daughter was a Blue Flower, the first rung on the long ladder of ballet. Always before she’s been a maid of honor and immobilized behind a large wreath on a stick.

I must admit it’s a great pleasure indeed, but don’t get the idea that I’m one of these show biz parents driving his daughter mercilessly before the merciless spotlights. Au contraire! I think there is only one harder job than a ballerina’s and that’s a fry cook and counterman in a busy all-night restaurant. I know. I’ve been a ballet boy in my time, and also an all-night cook in Hell’s Kitchen.

Honest, I know it sounds like a joke, but it’s true. Now all I have to do is write, and sometimes I feel like Mark Twain, who said he never did a lick of work after he left the river boats.

Maybe my daughter will give it up and become a columnist. Let’s hope not of the local, provincial, grounded, jet set — is that a grind! It’s not the booze, it’s the canapés. Poor girl.

Booze brings us to New Year’s Eve. I’m funny. I always spend a quiet evening at home. Time was, they used to close off Market Street and turn the town loose and it was great fun. Then as the years went by things got rougher and rougher and we gradually withdrew from conviviality to family calm. It’s not that old age had me be-stolen on — I just love whoopee.

Maybe it’s that since those two bombs fell, each year the prospect before us seems grimmer, the denouement nearer. Each new year seems more a subject for meditation and examination of conscience than for joy. Still, we are still alive. But that is more than a lot of other people can say, who confidently expected to be here as they looked ahead from January 1, 1965.

Funny thing, they’ll be making whoopee in Saigon and Hanoi, Brazzaville and Salisbury, Selma and Hunters Point. There will be office parties in the Pentagon and the Kremlin. Funny thing, this species I got born into so long ago. Do you suppose I chose it?

Do you suppose they said on that late December night in the infancy of the century, “Hurry up, please, it’s time. What’s it going to be? Man or alligator?”

They say time doesn’t exist up there, so I must have known what I was getting into.

Give or take a modicum of misery, it’s been fun for me, if not for millions of others. So — may your next year be as happy as last year was for me. And whoopee to you.

[December 26, 1965]



Some Traffic Suggestions

The last column of 1965. Last Monday I was on KQED with Larry Halprin and Lorenz Eitner. The conversation just naturally turned to urbanism and all its complicated problems and dilemmas — none of which seem ever to get nearer solution, at least not in the USA.

What a pity the City is bogged down in unimaginative vulgarity and sloth. As I have said so often, our problem is not “the interests,” what Roosevelt called bastions of entrenched greed, it is all those pill boxes of organized and dug-in petty selfishness.

It’s that famous Small Business the politicians are always passing laws to help that stands in the way of a creative and radical approach to the problems of the modern urban society. If it weren’t for the invincible ignorance of the small minded, it would be quite possible for San Francisco to make 1966 a turning point in the history of the American city.

The point of concentration should be the automobile. Our civilization is dangerously close to being founded on the automobile and the automobile is, from the point of view of modern technology, long since obsolete.

Since it is going to be around for a while, barring the increasingly likely total destruction of civilization, we could at least try to cope with it intelligently.

For instance, two-way roads and streets are strictly for the horses, and not even so good for them. All streets in a modern city should be one-way streets, alternating in each direction, except for the big boulevards with dividers with screening trees down the center.

All left-hand turns should be prohibited, at 45th and Ulloa just as well as at Market Street. It is not all that much trouble to go around the block.

Stop signs and stop lights should be closely coordinated to traffic load. All thoroughfares should have stop lights clearing at speeds posted on each light — and this should be the actual speed, as it often is not at present.

Traffic signals should be meshed and computerized throughout the city, and all change automatically as the direction of traffic changes during the day.

Of course we already do this to a certain extent — but nowhere near enough.

Slowly, but surely and mercilessly, the parked car should be eliminated from the streets.

Slowly but surely truck deliveries should be pushed into the night hours. Eventually all private automobile traffic should be abolished in the central business section.

The mildest of these measure would make an immense difference, right now. Every urban planner agrees they are essential if we are not to be overwhelmed with chaos, and that they are eminently practicable.

Will any of them come about in San Francisco in 1966? No. As Lotte Lenya sings, “Oh dunt esk vy! dunt esk vy! Eff vee dunt find de next leedle dollar, I tell you vee must die! Oh, dunt esk vy!”

[December 27, 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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