San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



February 1966

Corporate Patronage?
Strindberg and Genet
One Freeway We Do Need
The Ballet’s New Season
As Machiavelli Said . . .
Twenty Years from Now
Community Complacency





Last week I went down to Coalinga to give a reading and lecture at Coalinga College. Imagine. Last time I was in Coalinga it had at least 50 brothels and not more than 50 books if you counted the telephone directories.

Now it has a college where poets come to read, and the head of the art department paints pretty good abstract pictures.

If you don’t know what or where Coalinga is, it’s like nowhere, straight west of Fresno, over a range of hills on a plateau at the foot of the Coast Range, which at this point interposes three separate ranges which act as rain screens. I think the rainfall is six inches a year.

Yet it is not quite desert, but an extreme example of the interior Coast Range dry savannah, sparse grass, enough for thinly distributed cattle range in the winter, and a long period of estivation (the opposite of hibernation) from May to December. Well water is undrinkable.

At one time water was hauled in, now it is processed by two new experimental methods, but it still isn’t very nice.

In recent years they’ve come to raise quite a bit of very long staple cotton, irrigating by wells, though how they keep the soil washed out of alkali I don’t know. Every year, of course, the water table drops deeper and deeper.

Coalinga came into existence as the central town of the old Kettleman Hills oil field. Every year too, the oil gets harder to get up. Yet the town persists and in fact improves.

From now on for a month the drive down there is one of the most interesting and novel you can take in the state. From 10 miles beyond Hollister I drove over 75 miles without passing a single car traveling in either direction, only those working on the road.

Coming back I passed three. There is more traffic across the desert to Timbuctoo.

We’ve had plenty of rain this year, so the wild flowers will be coming out around the middle of February, and you can take a side trip and see the Pinnacles.

You can come back through Fresno and see the Mall and realize what we could do with Market Street if we just had the gumption.

Coalinga is the perfect argument for a meaningful state arts council — not the thing Pat Brown cooked up to delude the beard-and-sandal vote and grease the limbs of a few artistical lame ducks and give a couple of Phi Bet’ foundation bums money to make Another Study — but a real, functioning booking and exchange and organizing center to use the facilities we have right now.

Think — many of the kids at both Coalinga High School and College have never seen a live actor or a live musician, except for a mickey mouse dance band.

All over the state, music groups rehearse for weeks and then put on a show for one night only. Really great plays are excellently produced and acted, often far better than the commercial theater, and then are seen two weekends by students and faculty of one school.

The number of pictures turned out annually, if laid edge to edge, would probably cover the state. It would be so easy to have traveling exhibitions showing all the time in all the Coalinga Colleges and High Schools.

Within a block in any direction of where I live in Haight-Ashbury there must be a couple of pretty fair young jazz musicians who never get a chance to play except when they can crowd to the stand after 3 a.m. on an off night at Soulsville.

Coalinga, like most of the towns in the poison-oak belt and in the far northern counties, used to be one of those places with the old sign out: “N——R, DON’T LET THE SUN SET ON YOUR HEAD!”

It would do such paleface villages a world of good to meet folks who come bearing music, whether dark brown ribs-and-chittlin music or pale tan tamale music. And the kids would eat it up.

Why don’t we get programs like this? Why can’t we even get one started in the City? The cost would be practically nothing. We spend enough to blow up one bamboo bridge, repaired in a night, to run such a program for a year. That’s why.

There’s no loot in it, no pork. And politicians are only interested in rewarding their friends and punishing their enemies at the swill trough. They better get with it, before it burns down around their ears.

[February 6, 1966]



Corporate Patronage?

What is the basic difference between patronage in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Houston, and other towns now jumping with art, music and letters, and San Francisco? Money. Vast quantities of money.

How come they throw a benefit bash in Boston and raise approximately 100 times the sum we do for the same cause?

What is wrong with San Francisco is that patronage is still personal, socialite, and controlled largely by the elderly wives of the oldest members of the pinnacle group of the power structure — the 40 angels that dance on the point of a needle.

For years the Ex’s critics and commentators have been saying that we need to wake up to the potential corporation patronage that lies all about us untapped. Now everybody on all the papers is taking up the cry.

Great, here is one place we can use a united front. Go to the library. Make two lists. First, list the largest corporations in the Bay Area. Next, list the major patrons from the Symphony, Opera, Ballet programs and the museum catalogs. You’ll quickly discover what is wrong. If you know the names, you will also discover that those corporations that do give money do so because their presidents and chairmen are personally members of the ancient and honorable order of the Forty Families. The business gives the money because of the man — or, chances are, his wife.

Now it is true that the Mellons, “Pickles” Heinz, the late Walter Paepcke, the Cadburys, the Fords, the Rockefellers, Joe Pulitzer, the Schlitz Beer people, the Peabodys — and so on down the line of the country’s corporate patrons — are civilized people, some of them so civilized that I even know them socially, and that, as individuals, they give considerable money to the things they are interested in, but most of the large sums come from their corporations as a direct expression of business policy.

I will never forget the shock with which I learned that the young Negro writers who came to the conference last year at Asilomar were paid for by Schlitz Beer out of a regular corporation fund.

It was impossible to raise a penny locally in this way for the conference.

There is no reason why the big local corporations should not even undertake some self-starting activity. The walls of Chase National Bank constitute one of the finest museums of contemporary American art. The Paul Masson winery, hardly a billionaire’s enterprise, sponsors one of our most enjoyable musical series — “Music in the Vineyards.”

Most of the office buildings occupied largely by one big business have good small auditoriums. They could start right to home. There are probably a half dozen quarters unused amongst the employees in any of our biggest enterprises.

How about a PG&E Music Hour every Saturday at noon in the building’s auditorium?

But at least all these giant industries of the technological revolution could buy onto the lists on the programs, along with the hereditary box holders. Somebody should tell them that the technological revolution depends directly on the cultural revolution, and vice versa.

(P.S. They laughed when I wanted to abolish the Highway Commission.)

[February 7, 1966]




Strindberg and Genet

The Father at the Actor’s Workshop and The Blacks at the Playhouse, both seen on one weekend, made for quite a massive dose of something or other, which it is easiest to call by its cant name, alienation.

Another cant phrase, now so popular, is “enlargement of consciousness.” Currently this just means getting intoxicated in a highfalutin way, and, as my friend Herb Gold says, from what he sees, most of these people with enlarged consciousnesses would have been well advised to have kept them small, as small as possible.

There was another phrase once that Matthew Arnold used of drama which enlarged consciousness. He said of Sophocles that he saw life steadily and saw it whole. Vision of this kind has practically vanished from the arts. We think of it as the distinguishing characteristic of the great classics.

In fact it was never very common. Maybe it can only be applied, of all the world’s dramatists, to Sophocles. Certainly not to Shakespeare, who is as neurotic as the best of us in Titus or Troilus and only steady and whole in vision in The Tempest. But Strindberg and Genet are something else.

Strindberg was an advanced sado-masochist, a pathological hater of women, and spent long periods of his life in a state of delusional mental illness.

Genet is a sociopath for the textbooks, both a confessed and convicted homosexual prostitute and thief, and, he would like you to believe, a murderer.

It is true that guilt-crazy malevolent women like the wife in Strindberg’s play show up in the California divorce courts every day. Perhaps our divorce courts and lawyers manufacture them. And their number has both increased and become more vocal since his day. Still, the family scene of The Father is as typical as the relations of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.

Genet’s The Blacks is a charade of race relations as seen from the Underworld, African Negroes and French colonials through the eyes of a thief, pimp and homosexual prostitute. It is as far from seeing things steadily and whole as can be imagined. Things are bad between the races and everybody is hurting — but not in this way.

Both The Father and The Blacks are great plays, indisputably modern classics. Why? How did these people ever get into the company of Sophocles?

It has been said, wisely, of King Lear that it is not a tragedy, but a comedy of horror. Certainly The Blacks and The Father are comedies, almost archetypes of “black comedy.” Rightly the local companies play them as comedies. If The Father is elevated to the stark generality of a Sophoclean tragedy, it is simply false. Any universal conclusion based on The Blacks would be silly paranoia.

I saw The Blacks in both Paris and New York, and this show stands up in comparison. Gene Frankel’s production was full of sparkling business, but the actors had too much show biz chrome plate. The Paris show was amateurish and suffered from being under the eye of Genet.

Our company gives the play a relaxed but rambunctious treatment, rather like the goings on in an old-timey store-front church, which is just what it needs. It would be unfair to single out anybody for special praise, there is an extraordinary sense of ensemble, of cohesion, which was noticeably lacking in New York and Paris. This and the roll-and-bump tempo keep the lines from dragging, the principal problem with garrulous old Genet. (I suggest cutting the dialogues between the two queens. They are hopelessly sluggish and redundant.)

It’s a wonderful show and a landmark in the history of the San Francisco Negro community, even it the majority of that community will never hear of it.

I disagree totally with one of my colleagues about The Father. I think all the cast were excellent, but most especially Wendy Wasdahl, who was the best I’ve ever seen in the role. Sure, she was frightened and ill at ease and gauche on the stage. She is supposed to be. What do you think Strindberg wanted a child to do in that domestic hell, skip rope and whistle?

Hancock’s conception of the play is thoroughly sound. A pendulum of love-hate, tenderness-frigidity, swings all through it, clocking the emotions of each character, even the orderly. It is emphatically not an arrow-straight march to death like Agamemnon and Electra, but an ambiguous and ambivalent comedy.

I’ve thrown the lamp myself, two different productions, and seen it thrown more times than I can remember. I think this was one of the most satisfactory and most profoundly understood, most Strindbergian, Fathers I’ve even seen.

I do agree that the set was quite a moment in the history of stage design. Hancock said he’d do a “fourth wall down room” realistic play. What a room! What a room! They should have the artist, Bob LaVigne, take a curtain call of his own.

[February 13, 1966]



One Freeway We Do Need

There is only one freeway proposal which does not damage the City and that, in my opinion, is the so-called Golden Gate Freeway.

Of course, improperly planned, it too could do irreparable damage, but if planned with taste, imagination and a sense of human values it would be a great improvement aesthetically and financially to what is now a dead area — the light industry district between the north waterfront and Telegraph Hill.

Furthermore, although the initial investment would be in the neighborhood of $100 million, it would more than pay for itself if properly managed.

The present location of the piers is exceedingly uneconomic, as well as unstrategic. They have no relationship to the main industrial concentration on this side of the Bay. Just as we moved the commission district, we should pick up the entire waterfront and move it as far south as possible. That’s where the action is, where the industries are.

We could construct two enclosed basin harbors at the southeast corner of the City which, if we spent the money, we could make unequalled in the Western Hemisphere. Expensive? Of course, but no more than the harbors we are building in Vietnam. You have to spend money to make money, and in this case the investment would certainly pay off.

If we don’t do something like this, the day will surely come when a first-class port will be dredged and built in the South Bay and then the present Embarcadero will be obsolete for sure.

I don’t think the Golden Gate Freeway should be built on land at all, much less tunneled under Telegraph Hill, but should run along the line of the present pier heads, with lagoons inside the causeways and a strip of park along the water’s edge. Behind that, the land now held by the Port Authority or given over to very modest light industry and warehouses would immediately become the most desirable residential property on earth.

Since much of it is backed by the cliffs of Telegraph Hill, the apartment buildings could be stepped back from moderately low rise to high rise against the Hill, where they wouldn’t obstruct anybody’s view. This is potentially the most valuable land anywhere in the City and it is certainly not a first-class tax earner at the present time.

The major problem would be around the corner. How are we going to cross the Marina and Aquatic Park without spoiling present values? That’s another question, but one that must be answered by any proposed freeway around the east and north perimeter of the City.

The route now planned for the next Bay Bridge is going to make a tremendous difference in business and population distribution, and a plan to move the port south would take advantage of this.

I personally believe that it would be wisest to continue a perimeter freeway all the way to the new ports, and take up the south piers as well. This would do far more to upgrade South of Market than the present urban renewal plans. It economic effects would be felt at least a mile inland.

[February 14, 1966]



The Ballet’s New Season

The San Francisco Ballet has started off its new season with one of the best trained ensembles it has ever had. All the boys have been brought up to a high, uniform level of accomplishment, something which has never been true before.

Male dancers have no sooner been trained adequately than they have quit. Leading dancers, like Thatcher Clarke, Terry Orr, Michael Smuin, have not stayed with the company long enough to give it the strong center of gravity that comes only from real danseurs nobles.

The present male contingent is still not a group of truly first-rate men, not in comparison with the historic greats of ballet, but none of them are incompetent, although some are certainly lazy.

Some of the girls are growing up. Sue Loyd is slowly acquiring that mature elegance that makes all the difference. For a while it looked as though she was going to be stuck as an ingénue.

Lynda Meyer, of course, seems to have been born to bathe in champagne and have her droshky pulled down the Nevsky Prospekt by Grand Dukes. Let’s hope she stays with the company for a while. She is certainly one of the most valuable “properties,” as they say in show bizness, to show up in ballet for years.

What has made the difference is money. Ford money, hotel tax and popular support, especially on the road, have made it possible to pay a living wage to more people than ballet ever paid before.

When I was a boy, my girl, who was the prima of the Chicago Opera Ballet, used to leave her makeup on, grab a taxi and dash from Aida to Ike Bloom’s Midnight Frolics and kick and wiggle for the rest of the night to support her career — besides modeling during the day.

The company now has an adequately trained corps, some rather impressive leading dancers, and the money to hold them.

What it needs badly is depth and substance. If the first and second shows were any indication, and there is nothing to indicate otherwise in the scheduled repertory, the ballets themselves are too middlebrow, some would say too lowbrow, to stand up against contemporary taste.

Balletino to a Vivaldi concerto was one of these old-timey Balanchine “pure” ballets in leotards. Vivaldi was the Baroque era’s gift to Muzak — the first word in wallpaper music — and the ballet was like that.

Most of the things people do if turned loose in their long underwear are pretty hackneyed. If you’re going to fill the stage with folks scampering around in leotards, you’ve got to think up new and arresting stunts for them. Trouble is, given the limitations of classic ballet, Balanchine exhausted the possibilities some 20 or 30 years back.

Furthermore, why do things to contrapuntal music if most of the time you ignore the counterpoint? Back in the days when the little toy dog was new and the Opera House had just been built, Adolph Bolm was doing things to Bach and his friends and neighbors that were continuously interesting because he cast his dancers, or blocks of dancers, for each voice and sometimes for separate instruments. If you do that, you can make even Vivaldi interesting. Otherwise, why not stick to Tchaikovsky?

I don’t understand the choice of Balanchine’s setting of the Mendelssohn Scotch Symphony. Its Scotchness is highly questionable. If you want the cast to wear tartans, there are dozens of better pieces. The music to La Sylphide is not very Scotch, but it is certainly a great ballet and literally lapped in tartans.

Are the rights controlled by the Danes? Seems to me it is done rarely in New York and London. Balanchine’s choreography is incoherent and his scenario is meaningless. What on earth is happening, if anything, and what is the point of the vague reminiscence of La Sylphide?

The new ballet to Colin McPhee’s Tabuh Tabuhan is a step in the right direction. All sorts of stuff is taken from the vocabulary of Southeast Asian dance, Indonesian gamelans and Deutsch glockenspiels and other odd augmentations of the orchestra.

Good also is Carlos Carvajal’s emphasis on ensemble. All the stage needed was a little napalm to make everything right topical.

Pity it couldn’t have been given back to back with The Green Table, a ballet very badly in need of revival.

Ballet is a dramatic art and people who go just for the battements are like people who say all that counts in opera is the singing and who willfully suspend their incredulity while that Australian woman sings about how she is dying of TB and Starvation.

Without intellectual substance and dramatic structure and intensity, ballet becomes boring.

In the long run it even bores the dancers, which is why they leave for impure companies like the German ones who are always doing expressionist-existentialist nightmares more genetic than Genet and more ionized than Ionesco.

[February 20, 1966]



As Machiavelli Said . . .

One of the laws of smart politics is: Never create an irreconcilable opposition around an issue which will by its nature endure through several elections. The great secret of all permanently successful politicians is, without doubt, that now popular Texanism, “consensus.”

There are always irreconcilables, of the far right, of the far left, vegetarians, prohibitionists. But the intelligent politician never permits the electoral mass to become polarized, to divide society sharply into positive and negative. Two-party democracy thrives on a comfortable confusion of values, a folksy blurring of distinctions.

We are seeing today, in microcosm and macrocosm, in local and national politics, these polarizations grow to an ominous intensity. It is ironic that it is precisely under Lyndon Johnson and Jack Shelley, “consensus” politicians whose motto is borrowed from the disc jockeys, “I jes loves everybody, specially you, baby,” that unbridgeable gulfs have opened up.

The President runs a danger of being pushed into a position in Vietnam from which he cannot retire gracefully and with salvation of face.

After such global concerns, San Francisco freeways seem trivial, but there’s a parallel. To judge from the Haight-Ashbury and Richmond district organizations, the local shopping papers, countless on-the-spot conversations, and from the ear-to-the-ground politicians who live in these neighborhoods, the opposition to the Panhandle-Golden Gate Park-Park Presidio Freeway is organized, relentless, and will be unforgiving if defeated.

The consequence, the freeway itself, will be a permanent, inescapable fact. A big section of the voters now believes that the whole front of the world’s most beautiful park will be destroyed and that the proposed route is about the most damaging that could be chosen out of the entire city.

Golden Gate Park is not an exclusive possession of the City but a national asset like Yosemite. People all over the country will be watching what we do to it.

A powerful negative poll is being built up in the electorate for sure, and it will not go away. Indeed it will discharge quite a bolt when ballots come round again. This is bad politics.

The smart thing to do at this point is regain maneuverability. As Machiavelli said, never invite implacable opposition. Doing so is extremism, and you know what happened to the fellow who advocated that.

I have my own extremist suggestions: abolish the present Highway Commission and set up a new one that will act on human not internal combustion principles, and second, accept the undoctored draft of the Creighton-Ciampi-Warnecke report. Or rather, accept the nature of its doctrine as a basis for decision.

I’m the fellow who said, in one of the first of these columns, that we should declare the city a national park to save it from itself.

[February 23, 1966]



Twenty Years from Now

Last week I moderated a panel for the annual Youth Association town hall meeting. The subject was “The City Twenty Years Hence.” The only person who kept to the subject was the mayor in his introductory speech.

The panelists soon got bogged down in the issues concerning the City in the immediate future — freeways, housing, employment, racial minorities. Rightly so, because, of course, the City in 20 years depends on what we do now or soon.

The biggest problem is the scissors movement of jobs and men. Light industry is leaving San Francisco. The City is becoming more and more what in fact it has always been — a commercial, administrative, financial center. This means that white-collar employment opportunities increase.

Meanwhile, the inflowing population is mostly unskilled and at best semi-literate, in the large majority of cases. If the white-collar people are single or childless they rent or buy expensive dwellings in certain limited areas. Once they get children, they tend to leave for the suburbs.

There is a very slowly growing movement back to town, but the objections of middle-class parents (Negro as well as white) to the poorer children in the public schools keeps this reverse trend still limited to people without children of grammar school age. Where families have bought homes in the core area, they have mostly bought bay window Victorians and deslummified them. The children then tend to be sent to private or parochial schools — again, this is true regardless of color.

The unskilled, undereducated population in the same neighborhoods goes right on increasing by leaps and bounds, and doubling and tripling up in the old houses and flats.

How are we going to solve this contradictory movement of people, employment and neighborhood development? The answer is, and everybody is afraid to admit it, we aren’t. Not in this generation. We can look for a steady increase of large-scale subsidized housing and ever more large but fatherless families on Aid to Children funds. Over against this there will be a much smaller increase of high-rise condominiums and museum-piece restored single-family dwellings, both occupied by people who model themselves on the jet set.

The only solution is drastic educational revolution, and intensive propaganda for birth control. Both have powerful forces aligned against them, and neither, even if put into effect tomorrow, would begin to pay off for another 20 years — not on any socially significant scale. How many people really understand how grave the dilemmas are that face us?

Meanwhile, the fabric of the city deteriorates and measures of reconstruction often do more harm than good. Our commercial civilization was attacked in former years for its destructive exploitation of labor. Today the more efficiently commercial or industrial, the less immediately destructive our society is in this sense. For better or worse we now live in what Mussolini used to call a corporative state.

Capital and labor, sitting at the mahogany arbitration table, are indistinguishable. The biggest, most profitable industries are the most unionized, as well as the most automated, and we are teetering on the verge of a technological revolution in agriculture, with the resulting change to the relations of capital and labor.

The present stage of development is characterized by a far more generalized destruction of human values, due primarily to the lingering on of bygone methods of commercial and industrial exploitation — of resources more than men.

Where the issues of 30 years ago were basically wages, working conditions, now they are parks, freeways, recreation, culture, city planning, urbanism, education, community services. It is common to dismiss many of these issues as “aesthetic,” something that is the concern only of deviates and beatniks. The term is false.

All these questions are really those of the public health in the widest sense. They are questions of life and death in the relations of our over-proliferated species to its dwindling environmental resources — and to one another. They are problems of a new ecology for which we must find new answers. If we do not find them we will go under — just like the dinosaurs.

If these tendencies of unbridled exploitation, fast-buck competition, which hitherto have always operated unchallenged, and which have produced the hundreds of seemingly hopeless deadlocks that now confront us; if these tendencies continue unchecked, the picture of San Francisco 20 years hence staggers the imagination. Maybe that’s why the panel shied away from it.

[February 27, 1966]



Community Complacency

Me, I am just an old-fashioned pacifist. When people start to turn on with meat axes, my instinct is to try to turn them off. The hatreds being engendered by this freeway battle will last for years, and will certainly destroy at least two political careers.

I can’t understand why nobody will give serious consideration to the so-called Novak Plan to build a freeway out in the water at the limits of the present piers, with a waterfront park and esplanade and behind it an enormously profitable residential development. This is the only plan suggested that would greatly improve The City. What is wrong with it? Why is it that the entire perimeter of San Francisco is wasted?

Old-timers and Native Sons would never go near the ocean and so we have, all along the ocean front, little houses that originally sold for around four or five thousand dollars.

Today there are plenty of people who would like to live in view apartments overlooking the Pacific and who would pay premium rents. Yet almost nothing happens.

Chicago’s beautifully developed waterfront, which now they are trying to foul up, is the one escape hatch from what is becoming a city of horror, and the property facing it is fabulously valuable. Why do we throw away our greatest asset and instead tear up our parks and homes? We have a choice between the wilderness around Army and Potrero Streets and Chicago’s Lincoln or Jackson Parks. What’s the problem?

To go from the perimeter to the “core city,” I see by the papers that a committee of clergymen have discovered  that there are approximately 300 male prostitutes between 12 years old and 20 selling themselves in the Tenderloin district alone.

They point out that this is a result, not of some outbreak of insane “lust,” but of the destruction of the family and resulting from that, the destruction of individual identity in our love-lost civilization.

They propose that the church actively interfere, that priests and ministers go out to the lost, in bars and hangouts — just as once they went out to Iroquois or the cannibals.

What is most interesting about this is that the initiative comes from the clergy. For 40 years I went to my neighborhood parish, in the heart of the land of the nameless, back of City Hall. The congregation and the clergy, at least since a religious order left a generation ago, steadfastly refused to have anything to do with their geographical parish. They are experts at the cold shoulder — especially if you look as though you’d come from nearby.

I go there no longer. My daughter flatly refused. She said, “I am not holier than thou, and I don’t want to listen to sermons that tell me I am. I would change my religion first.”

But the next church up the street is an all-Negro church, equally exclusive, equally uninterested in the ruined and disorderly lives all around it.

This Friday is publication date for Father DuBoy’s book, The Human Church. Cardinal McIntyre may think he is a heretic and a Red, but he doesn’t say a thing that French, Dutch and Austrian cardinals and archbishops aren’t saying, backed up by the most vital theologians in the church.

Let’s hope it rocks some of our complacent sanctified Christians back on their heels. When is the laity going to get with aggiornamento?

[February 28, 1966]


“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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