Friday, September 20, 2013

Hometown Video

On a recent visit to Placerville this past August I took a lot of video of Main Street, Gold Bug Park and environs and put together this little tribute to my hometown.  Enjoy!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Good-bye to Chuck's

A long standing restaurant on Placerville's Broadway has closed its doors.  Chuck's was a surviving road side stop from the days before Broadway was taken over with fast food chains and best of all it took over serving the signature dish, "Hangtown Fry," after the Blue Bell closed on Main Street.  To read the whole story in The Mountain Democrat click HERE.

Chuck's on Broadway.  Photo by Krysten Kullum.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A Very Unusual Week

And now for a little historical fiction...

It seemed a little warmer than it had been as I walked up Main Street, though Camino had seen some snow only days before.  After following my wife’s orders to pick up the Hormel chili at Raley’s (two for thirty-five cents), I ran into the new manager of the Empire Theater, Bill Beach, who was putting up posters for the new movie, Model Wife, with Dick Powell and Joan Blondell.  When ever I see him he always has a big smile for me and a hearty, “How you doin’ Jimmy!”  I stopped to say hello and ask Bill how his new job was going.  He told me that he also had a Donald Duck to go along with the picture.  Too bad I didn’t really have time to catch the show during the two days he was running the cartoon because Donald Duck is my favorite.  Too much was going on that week.  It’s amazing how only the week before there was peace and this week we were at war with Japan and Germany both.

Bill told me all about plans for the the following Monday kiddie Christmas matinee of cartoons and a visit from Santa to be sponsored by the Eagles Club.  This reminded me that I had a few minutes to pop into Cash Mercantile to maybe find a last Christmas present for my wife, June.  As I walked back down to the store, I heard a piano student across the street, above Wadell’s, from Emerie Rudland’s studio.  I recognized the tune as “I Only Have Eyes For You.”

While I was poking about Cash Mercantile, I overheard a sales lady talking to another woman that Mrs. John Miller received a wire that her daughter was safe in Honolulu and was “doing overtime at Fort Shafter.”  Apparently the girl was safe.  How interesting that a girl from Placerville had been in Hawaii on Sunday and experienced that extraordinary event.  I can’t begin to imagine what it was like, but I was sure thinking about it a lot all week.

The kids at school were all very worried about what would happen next as Principal Larson called an assembly in the auditorium to listen to the President speak over the radio Monday.  District Attorney Henry Lyon was there to speak while we were waiting and to try to calm the students and tell them not to fall into hysteria.  Henry Lyon is the chairman of the County Council of Defense.  The day before we were all shocked to hear about the attack in Hawaii and now we were going to get the full story as President Roosevelt came on the air:

Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.  The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.  The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.  Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation. As commander in chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.  No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.  With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God.  I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th,1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.
We all knew war was declared, but it was something again to hear the President say it on the radio and for the school to all be in the auditorium together to hear it live.  What did all of our plans for the week matter when we were at war?  And yet, we could not let the Japanese cause us to freeze up and take away our way of life.  No, life must go on as usual as best it can.  We had a Christmas program planned with the band and Glee club and Dorothy Clark’s original play, “The Other Shepherd,” to go on Thursday night.  I walked up to Gladys Veercamp, the general chairman of the Christmas Festival, and said to her, “I don’t think anything should stop us from going on with the Christmas program Thursday.”  Gladys agreed wholeheartedly, spoke briefly to  Principal Larson and then made the announcement to the students that the El Dorado High School Christmas Festival would go on, which was news greeted by cheers from the students.
The President’s address was on Monday and then on Thursday, the day of our show, the news said that Germany and Italy had declared war against us too.  Now it’s complete, the entire world is at war and life as we know it is changed forever.  However, none of this stopped us from giving our performance and the auditorium was packed.  The school band opened with “Chantique de Noel” and then launched into “American the Beautiful,” and I would lay money down that there was not a dry eye in the house––at least there wasn’t a dry eye anywhere near me and June pulled a hanky out of her purse.  “I’m not going to get through this very well, am I?” she half joked.
After the band played “At Christmas Tide,” Professor Talbot walked on with his Glee club––the boys looking very dapper in blue blazers and red bow ties.  John McNie was on the chimes and the Glee club did a very nice “Deck the Halls” as well as a few other Christmas songs.  The audience was very appreciative and then June and I strolled around to visit with people during the intermission.  All anyone could talk about was the war news, boys joining up with the armed forces, and wondering what would happen next.  We all agreed that it was nice to have this holiday event to keep us occupied and feel the solidarity of our community, but none of us could keep our minds off the events in the news.
I excused myself to check back stage and make sure the crew for the play was ready to go.  I found Dorothy Clark biting her nails and suggested there was nothing more she could do but to go out in front and watch.  “But how can I, Mr. Edwards?” she said, “I’m much too nervous––this is my first play.”  
I told her that since all the actors were in their place, rehearsed and ready to go, that there wasn’t anything more she could possibly do, but to just let fate take its course.  “That’s not very reassuring, Mr. Edwards,” returned Dorothy.  “I’d better stay back here and watch from the wings or I might make a scene.”
I gave the kids signs for good luck and then headed back out to my seat as Mrs. Veercamp was blinking the lights.
For the second half we had Dorothy’s play, an original and modern act commemorating the Nativity.  Edith Thompson sat in the wings as prompter because one boy was a last minute replacement and didn’t have his lines down cold, but the troupe did a nice job.  Burly Ray Lunley was Joseph and I chuckled because I never thought that kid would ever dare to step on stage.  He is a star on the football field, but who knew he could be such a natural actor?  He was convinced to do it by Margaret Brown, who plays Mary and I think the two have a rather serious crush on each other.
Donations at the door went to the Red Cross, which was a perfect choice all things considered.  The Christmas Festival was a nice program all the way around and everyone was quite happy with it.  June and I went down to the Blue Bell afterwards for pie and coffee with Rose and Larry.  Behind the counter the radio was going and in between songs was the constant repetition of the war news.  Nothing was new, but somehow we were all interested to hear it and would quiet down every time a news report came on.  We heard that some 1500 were killed at Pearl Harbor.
Saturday, June and I attended the Shakespeare Club’s Christmas concert with choir and the first concert of the season by the Placerville Philharmonic Orchestra.  They played serval classical pieces conducted by Evelyn Farrell.  George McKee was soloist and sang a beautiful “Oh Holy Night.”  The Sacramento Junior College choir made an appearance too.  They are a great big choir with a rich sound that gave me chills.  Before hand, we tried for dinner at the Raffles Hotel, but the dining room was full with the Miners’ Association.  I peeked in and there seemed to be a full house, which means there was probably sixty of them.  They were voting to save Coloma’s historical assets.  We ended up walking past the Empire to the Nugget Cafe for dinner.  George from Placerville Hardware and his girl were leaving as we walked in the door and we chatted a bit.  George filled me in on the good news that the Cougars won the basket ball game over Nevada City Friday night.  After filling up the tank at Richfield’s we drove over to the Shakespeare Club for the concert.  The Christmas lights were quite nice everywhere and for the moment, the world seemed normal and at peace.
June and I decided that for Christmas day we would catch the matinee of Joan Crawford and Robert Taylor in When Ladies Meet at the Empire and then drive up to Strawberry Lodge for their $1.50 full course dinner.  For New Year’s Eve we’ll be joining Larry and Rose for the Native Son’s dance at the Odd Fellows Hall––the Frank Dames Orchestra will be playing.  We’re all trying to go on as normal and we will, but what is going to happen to us the world?  I sure hope and pray that our military can handle a war with Japan, Germany and Italy, but it is hard to imagine how when the allies are in such trouble right now.  Perhaps our combined forces will prevail.  I know they must!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Homecoming 1983

None of us went to “Homecoming” our freshman year of El Dorado High School, but as sophomores, friends Jossette, Paul, Laura and I decided we would go.  We actually participated in every possible thing that year and the four of us were together for most of it.  The Homecoming football game against Foothill High School was a big deal complete with a big rally and a new theme for each day of “spirit week.”  There was Tacky Tourist Day, Movie Star Day and the infamous Senior Toga Day among others.  Jossette was directly involved with the football game as a flag girl with the marching band, so Paul, Laura and I sat in the stands cheering on Jossette and the team both.

At half time the floats that had previously rolled down Placerville’s Main Street that afternoon were on display with the Homecoming Queen candidates riding on board.  That display of rolling colored tissue paper sculptures seemed pretty cheesy to me and I half thought I would like to volunteer the next year to help build a float, thinking that I could do a much better job.  Then I thought better of it, for I was too involved in other interests to add that to my list.  Lydia Samaniego, an exotic beauty who could be mistaken for actual royalty in another setting, justly received the crown as Homecoming Queen.

Jossette lived very near the high school and could walk home, but my Dad picked the rest of us up to take us all home after the game.  The next day, Paul and I had big plans to make the girls dinner rather than going out to a restaurant.  I’m guessing this was my big idea and since none of us could drive it seemed practical as well as kind of fun.  My mother dug up a few recipes she thought I could handle and I picked “Chicken Fricassee” because it sounded the most fancy.  Paul was in charge of drinks and desert and he made a red velvet cake.  We decided to serve the dinner at Paul’s house, but I did most of my prep at my house.  Armed with my timing directions for getting everything to come out of the oven hot and on time, we were assured of a fine dinner.  When I told Jossette the name of the dish we were serving, her mother referred to it as “Friggin’ Chicassee” for the next three years.

Jossette’s mother dropped off she and Laura at Paul’s house and all dressed up in ties, v-nick sweaters, dress pants and brown Sperry topsiders, Paul and I entertained the girls with our usual brand of sophomore humor we all usually enjoyed.  Paul’s parents went out to dinner to leave us alone to do our thing, so it was really up to us to take care of everything.  I had to keep going into the kitchen to check on things.  I got the idea to put on an apron and hide it under my sweater.  I sat out with the gang chit-chatting about this and that and mentioning how I had to keep track of time for the oven.  Then I announced that it was time to take dinner out of the oven and stood up, letting the apron drop out from my sweater, transforming myself into insta-chef, and made an exit into the kitchen.  This incited the desired effect of the girls falling over with laughter.

The girls were surprised that the dinner was rather complicated and yet came out so well, as if boys couldn’t put a dinner together.  A lot of fifteen year old boys might not be able to turn out a gourmet dinner, but I had help from a mother who was quite a clever cook, as well as I had spent my eighth grade year making dinner almost every night when my mother went back to school in San Francisco and wasn’t home during the weekdays.  Paul’s cake was spectacular and my very first red velvet.  Paul’s parents came home right on schedule and his father drove us to the dance at the school gym.

I assume we had pictures taken, though I don’t seem to have any evidence of this, and had a great time dancing to a live band in the small gym, which was much easier to decorate and made a nice environment.  When dances were held in the big gym, half the gym was always empty while the dance was down at one end.  I was a bit envious of the older boys arriving in blazers and stylish looking suits, though plenty were doing the v-neck sweater and tie as Paul and I were doing.  Eric Hagstrom, a foreign exchange student from Sweden, looked the most pulled together.  His European cut suit, shoes, tie and haircut were so sophisticated and made all the rest of us look like the small town hicks we were.  He was the nicest guy in the word, infiltrating every click in the school with his sunny disposition and participating in both sports and the arts.  He even played the disc-jockey character in our production of Grease that year.  Just his luck for Eric to be placed in Placerville rather than any number of more exciting places, but he sure made the most of it and seemed to always be having a blast.

I don’t know how much Paul actually cared about dancing, but he seemed to always be willing to go along and had a good time being part of the group.  On the other hand, Jossette, Laura and I were avid dancers and were out on the floor most of the night.  After the dance my father was waiting to pick us up and we gave Jossette a ride the few blocks home.  Paul got out to walk her to the door like a gentleman.  Realizing that the headlights were lighting up Jossette’s door, my father was thoughtfully discrete and pulled back as if to turn the car around, thereby taking the lights off the door.  Earlier in the week my father had tried to have “the talk” with me about dating and said that if I might want to kiss my date goodnight that it was appropriate and I should do it.  At that time he didn’t know I was gay, but I did and kissing anyone goodnight was not in my thought process, but now I got the message that it might be expected of me.  I might have been a little nervous about it, but not for the kiss itself or what a kiss might imply to my relationship with Laura, but because it was all wrapped up in my general wish to just not deal with my sexuality if I could help it.  Things like the expectation of a kiss after a Homecoming dance brought my adolescent issues to the fore and it made me uncomfortable, but I figured I could man up and kiss Laura goodnight when the time came.  I found out later that Jossette had taken full advantage of her darkened doorstep and gave Paul a doozy of a kiss.  Paul never mentioned it and I never brought it up with him.  When my turn came at Laura’s door, my dad again backed those headlights away from the door and the kiss went well I thought.

The interesting thing about the relationship between the four of us was that, although Laura and I always pared off and Paul and Jossette always pared off, we weren’t “dating” each other.  We were a unit moving from party to dance and back again together.  This suited me fine and I had a very enjoyably social sophomore year with my unit.  Although I don’t seem to have any photos of that Homecoming, I do have photos from my senior Homecoming when I didn’t go with Laura, Jossette and Paul.  Now I have no idea why and I remember that “the unit” wasn’t even on the scene.  I went with a girl named Amy that I had met during the previous summer doing the Interarts program.  I kissed her at her door too, though I did my own driving.  I felt the kiss was my duty and perhaps she felt it was her duty too, for although we remained friendly because we were both in the school musical together, we had little to do with each other after that goodnight kiss.

Save for that sophomore Homecoming dance and the senior prom, the dances of high school all seem to blend together, but I was at most of them.  It seems that after the spring of 1983 there were no more live bands at the dances and it was always a deejay.  I’m sure that was the more inexpensive choice and in the end I don’t think any of the students minded.  We liked our “Thriller” and “Footloose” as well as if not better than some live band.

At our twenty year high school reunion, Laura and I went together and got out on the dance floor to do our usual routine, but the dancing at that event didn’t really go over.  Everyone sort of moved out into the hotel lobby to talk while the deejay was left almost alone in the ballroom to play music to himself.  When I’d pop my head in there might be a few thirty-somethings twitching for old time sake, but most of us just wanted to catch up.  We were missing Jossette, but Paul showed up and he and I pulled up a couple of chairs and just sat and talked and talked.  We had been neighbors together and school chums and double dating partners, but I hadn’t seen him since the ten year reunion and that’s how it goes.  I did reconnect with Jossette for a very short time thanks to Facebook after not having heard from her since I was twenty and Laura and I have never lost touch.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Turning On the Light

One of the truly (and rather recently) famous citizens of Placerville was Thomas Kinkade, who emerged in the early 1980s with his detailed and nostalgic paintings of small town settings––dozens of which are based on various corners of Placerville and the foothills.  He has painted Main Street, Placerville, several times––the most famous of all being the painting commissioned for the El Dorado County library, prints of which were sold for a nominal fee to help raise money for the new library, but now sell for quite a bit of money.  The original is still a prize attraction of the Library.

Little did Kinkade think that he would have a gallery devoted to his work on  Main Street, Placerville when he was growing up with his brother, Patrick and single mother.  They lived in a cute little house that needed repairs, but that has been preserved on canvas as the idealized “Christmas Cottage.” There is also a rather uneven, saccharine, semi-biographical film about growing up in Placerville by the same name that stars Marsha Gay Harden as his mother and Peter O’Toole as his neighbor and art mentor, Glenn Wessels.  Jared Padalecki plays Kinkade as a college age student, who returns home when money runs out for school and helps Placerville get out of the 1970s recession by painting a mural of Main Street on the side of a building.  This never happened of course, but a similar happening occurred with that library painting.  The film also mentions the mayor’s plan to call Placerville the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World” to wake up the sleepy town by enticing a tourist trade.  We know that actually happened.

The disappointing thing about the film is that although Placerville is practically a supporting character in the story, none of it is shot in Placerville or any place that looks particularly like it.  There aren’t even any authentic exterior establishing shots edited in.  Some day it would be nice to see a story about Placerville that actually used Placerville, though it would most likely be about the Gold Rush and so it would have to be recreated as a movie set anyway.

Thomas Kinkade graduated from El Dorado High in 1976 and went on to study at U.C. Berkley at the suggestion of Glenn Wessels.  Wessels was a prolific artist that retired next door to the Kinkade’s in his 80s and was willing to pass on his knowledge of painting to young Thomas, who was a relentless sketcher as a child.  He always had pencils and paper in hand and carried a small sketch book with him all through his life––never knowing when the next inspiration would hit him and he’d need to get it down on paper immediately.

Kinkade only made it through Berkley for two years and then attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.  After college he and friend James Gurney set out on a cross country trip, ending in New York, where they scored a job writing The Artist’s Guide to Sketching for Guptill Publications.  The book was very successful and brought them to the attention of Ralph Bakshi Studios to work on backgrounds for the animated film, Fire and Ice in 1983.  From this point, Kinkade’s paintings started to sell in various California galleries and prints became in demand.

Two things really distinguish Thomas Kinkade’s work.  Foremost is his quality of light at dusk and dawn, especially coming from street lamps and windows.  His branding is that he is “the painter of light.”  Branding is the other thing that distinguishes his work, for he found a way to make a great deal of money during his lifetime by diversifying the business of painting canvases.   His images appear on anything that will take them: mugs, jewelry, sculptures, greeting cards, posters, calendars, journals and more.  Even recently I found a sale table of boxed Christmas cards with one of the Placerville Victorians by Kinkade on it for $3.50 at a Walgreens down the street from me in Queens, NY.  His image as a mass producer of art may lower his stature for some, but he was simply a very good business man and no one paints quite like him.  Or do they?

There is the Thomas Kinkade Studio where apprentice artists are employed to add oils to give that extra magical glow on copies of his originals and they are all mentored to paint with his techniques.  The company that is now “Thomas Kinkade” plans to continue to release new “Kinkades” thanks to the small army of artists who can put out the paintings in the same style.  In a way it’s like the release of a Disney film without the actual Walt Disney there to have produced it.  The brand survives even if the originator is gone.  Unlike Van Gogh or Matisse, at least Thomas Kinkade was able to know financial success during his life time.

Kinkade said he never painted any two paintings the same way and he was always interested in developing new techniques, even utilizing new technologies to help him in his work.  If he could find a time saving way of achieving the same effect that used to take him longer, he would employ it.  He was not only interested in quality, which shows, but he was also interested in quantity, because he was sales minded.  Kinkade was never just an artist for art’s sake, but he was determined to never go back to his family’s life of struggle when he was growing up in the 1970s.

Mainly, Kinkade made a series of sketches, sometimes individually sketching the smaller details of a tree or a person that would end up in the bigger painting.  Once he finished a final sketch he transferred it to canvas mounted on hardboard with a thinned out Elmer’s glue.  Once the technology advanced he began to scan the sketch and have it printed on the canvas so that he didn’t have to painstakingly recreate it again.  He then painted in acrylics, his paint of choice.  Then we went back over the painting with colored oil pencils for fine line work and oil paint to bring out the luminous quality of the lights in the windows, sky and street lamps.  He’d go over the light sources again with an air brush to give that halo glow around the light sources for the final effect, which he called “turning on the light.”

Kinkade died unexpectedly at the age of 54 on April 4th, 2012.  His paintings are widely known, though none of them hang in the great museums.  However, like Van Gogh and Matisse and so many others, I’m sure the day will come when one of those Placerville Main Street paintings hangs in the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Why not?   After all, the great artists of the past have been merchandised aplenty––just take a tour of the MET’s gift shop to find all the mugs, posters, calendars, magnets and such that are made from the great works of art.  The difference is that those old artists never had the chance to participate in the profits and Kinkade did.  Then there is also the fact, for the people of Placerville at least, that their own son, Thomas Kinkade, thought to idealize Placerville so lovingly in his paintings.

Main Street, Placerville, 1916.  By Thomas Kinkade.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Apple Hill

Although I have mentioned Apple Hill often in past articles, I would be remiss if I didn’t devote a chapter to that very unique phenomenon of El Dorado County.  The area known as Apple Hill starts in Placerville, on the very next hill from where I grew up, and finishes in Pollock Pines eastward.  The main artery of Apple Hill is the winding Carson Road, along which are many of the key growers of apples, pumpkins, vineyards and Christmas trees.  Every fall the area is packed with tourists making annual trips to enjoy every kind of goodie that can be made from an apple and enjoy some of the most picturesque scenery in Northern California.

This conglomeration of ranchers operating under the PR friendly banner of “Apple Hill” is really a very recent thing, having come into being as the Apple Hill Growers Association in 1964.  It was four men, headed by Gene Bolster, a local grower, looking for a way out of a debilitating pear blight.  Yes, friends, it was all pears before 1965, but between 1958 and 1965 the pear output dropped from 52,000 tons to 8435 tons.  The few apple trees were surviving and so the growers rebuilt their farms by embracing the apple.  Bolster and Ed Delfino, the county agricultural commissioner, took a look at the success of ranches in Southern California’s Oak Glen and modeled Apple Hill on the same bylaws and marketing campaign.

Bob Tuck came up with the Camino pet name and very quickly over the summer of 1964 the association put together their program and held their first press picnic to introduce the world to Apple Hill by the end of August––always the opening of the season.  Since the original 16 ranches banded together, there are now some 90 members when you include the tree farms and wineries.  But, it would take more than banding together and a focus on the apple to entice people into the area.  Clarice Larson had the idea to show off all the different uses of the apple and created the first place to sample apple pie, candy apples and the like.  Of course, this is the key to the tourism and most barns have a bake shop as well as other enticing reasons for a car to pull off Carson road.  There are fruit and vegetable markets, craft fairs, train rides, fishing ponds and wine tasting among other lures.  Apple Hill quickly became a destination and it was in full swing as I was growing up in the 1970s.

A resident falls into a pattern of sticking with his favorite spots in Apple Hill, such as Santa’s Acres for Christmas trees (sadly, no longer in operation) or Able’s Acres for Halloween pumpkins.  One might have a favorite place to get an apple donut or apple pie.  My parents prefer to get their produce from Boa Vista Orchards as opposed to the grocery store.  There are a number of good wineries, but how do you beat the full experience of the Boeger Winery, which starts out anyone’s Apple Hill tour as it is located practically at the foot of Carson Road.

As you drive down the long entry way into the valley of the gorgeous Boeger acres, you feel that you are entering another world––a little bit mid 19th Century and a little bit Land of Oz.  The site dates back to 1850, developed by the Fossati-Lombardo family, with the original house, cellar and distillery in use today.  A modern building houses a busy tasting room and gift shop.  During Prohibition the vines came out and the pears went in.  After the pear blight the ranch was sold to Greg and Sue Boeger who converted it back to vineyards and cultivated the surviving original old vines as well.  1974 was opening day.  Since then the famous Merlot has been served at the White House and the Boeger Zinfandel was presented to Queen Elizabeth II. in her majesty’s 1982 visit to California.  Now grown and well studied in the family business, son Justin continues the art as Head Winemaker.  I personally love the Hangtown Red, which is an ever changing blend of left over grapes.  My friend Laura and I tasted the unique red wine when we were back visiting for our high school reunion and Laura walked away with a case.

Able’s Apple Acres, run by four generations, has a very good location at the corner of Carson and Hassler, so they get the traffic going two ways.  Across the street is a pond with ducks quacking, surrounded by green grass and a white fence.  Below the picnic barn and bake shop is a cellar burrowed into the side of the hill that sometimes had a haunted house for October.  The halls were made of stacked hay bales and it was under populated with ghosts, but I liked it when I was small.  This was a good place for pumpkins and I liked their apple fritters a lot, though my brother swears by the apple fritters at High Hill further up Carson.

Boa Vista is run by Carl Visman, the brother of George Visman who started High Hill.  Boa Vista is a terrific road side farmer’s market where you can pick up your produce and apple goodies as well has buy lunch and eat it on their picnic tables with one of the most picturesque views around.  Branching off from this spot is North Canyon Road, which takes you to the rather large El Dorado Orchards.  I think of this place as the Grand Daddy of the apple barns because it seemed like it had the most going on when I was a kid.  It was chiefly the place where I got my caramel apples and there was that big craft fair where my mother and Val Sullivan had their booth that started The Last Straw and where there was a train that took a trip around the pond called the Apple Ridge Express.  You really parked it and spent some time when you went to El Dorado Orchards and our trips to the area with out of town visiting friends and relatives would always start with that farm.

George Visman was born in Placerville in 1929.  After schooling and military service, Visman returned to El Dorado County and bought the Gatlin Ranch in 1961.  He renamed the place High Hill and his sons, Jerry and David, continue on in the family business, serving some 100,000 guests a season.  High Hill is the other really big one and has taken the place of El Dorado Orchards in my heart as the real Grand Daddy, for it’s such a lovely spot and it serves anything you could possibly want from an apple ranch.  It may have been behind El Dorado Orchards in the 1970s in terms of knowing how to best carter to the tourists, but it caught up fairly quickly.  The view across the fishing pond is wonderful.  You can rent a pole and catch a fish.  There is a campus of buildings housing produce, lunch items, chocolates, and my favorite apple pie––a mountain of apples encased in a perfect crust.  You can watch the mill make apple cider and there is an apple pealing machine that dates back to 1850.  When I was a kid they even gave helicopter rides.  Their craft fair is tucked away in a barn-like atmosphere of stalls that tunnels under the big pie house and expansive deck.  You can really spend some time there and have a full afternoon.

By Christmas it all comes to a close, but in the spring I used to like to take long bike rides up Carson Road.  Sometimes I’d only go as far as Able’s and other times I’d make it to Boa Vista.  Then the real fun was whizzing all the way back down to Boeger’s Winery and the end of Carson Road.  Spring is a nice time in Apple Hill too.  A few of the barns are open, but mostly the area is quiet and it is possible to feel that you have Carson road to yourself.  However, once you pass August, the orchard covered hills are packed with traffic and that idea to band the farmers together as an answer to a pear disaster shows itself to be an inspiration that for nearly fifty years  has benefitted the whole county.

No explanation needed.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

From Downey to Disneyland

It was a dare, but the twelve-year-old boy was up to it.  His big brother aspired to be an actor and the Pasadena Playhouse of Pasadena, California was having auditions for a production of Eugene O’Niell’s, Ah, Wilderness!  This turn-of-the-century hometown play was filled with parts for young people and 16 year old Joe Kirk was hoping for one of the better teen roles—hopefully the central teen character, Richard.  The play was set to star Will Rogers, Jr. as the father, too!  Joe got a copy of the script and studied the part of Richard.  He noticed that the show also had a part for 10 to 12 year-old little brother.  So, Joe dragged his little brother along to the audition.  Fate was not in Joe’s favor, for the role of Richard was already cast.  The part was given to one of the most important working teen actors of the day, a former Disney contract player named Bobby Driscoll.

Driscoll’s credits were great; he had two junior Oscars and had played plum roles in Walt Disney’s Song of the South, So Dear To My Heart and Treasure Island.  He was also the voice of Peter Pan.  But, the more surprising outcome of the audition was that Joe’s little brother, Tommy Kirk, won the role of the little brother in Ah, Wilderness!  Joe went on to become a dentist, but Tommy went on to become….

“I remember meeting the director and his associate sitting at a table,” said Tommy, “They were friendly and asked a few questions.  Then we got a call and they said, ‘Come back to another meeting.’”  As it turned out, Tommy and his brother had come on the wrong day—they weren't reading for children.  Tommy walked up to the director and tugged at his pant leg, “When are you going to read for the part of Tommy?” asked the youngster.  “Who did you come with?” asked the director, “Show me.”  Tommy pointed to his brother Joe and his friends.  “You came here under your own steam, didn’t  you?”  Tommy replied that indeed he had come under his own steam with his brother.  The director was impressed and let Tommy audition.

“What can you do,” asked the director? 

“I do impressions,” returned the 12 year old boy.  So, Tommy proceeded to imitate an old Baptist minister.  He had done the impression once before at school and sent an audience into fits of hysteria.  The routine worked on the director too and after reading from the script, Tommy was asked to return for another interview.  He did and they told Tommy he had the part in Ah, Wilderness!  This time it was the day of the planned children’s audition.  A big line of kids and their stage mothers were outraged to hear that the part of Tommy was already cast and they were sent home.

Brother Joe took Tommy to rehearsals and performances and had a lot of fun being a part of the back stage scene.  Tommy found acting to be a lot of fun himself.  He never had stage fright and felt very natural on stage.  He was a big fan of Bobby Driscoll, having seen him on the big screen in Treasure Island.  Working with a movie star seemed very exciting to young Tommy and he became good friends with his on stage older brother, “Bobby was extremely nice.  I was thrilled.”

Ah, Wilderness! opened at the Pasadena Playhouse on August 19, 1954, just weeks before little Tommy Kirk was to enter the eighth grade at East Junior High School in Downey, California.  His mother, Lucy Virginia, a legal secretary and his father, Lewis Al Joe, a journeyman machinist, had settled there when Tommy was two, hoping for a better line of work than they had experienced in Louisville, Kentucky where Tommy was born.  Joe Kirk suffered from earaches and the family felt that a move to California would also be better for their oldest son’s health problems.  The Kirk family was working class, moving from Downey to Fresno to Berkley and back to Downey as war time work dictated.  The Kirks bought a home in Downey and then rented it out while they worked with Lucy’s Uncle in Fresno for a time.  Interfamily relations were never ideal in the Kirk family and soon they were back in Downey living in their home, which was formerly a bank building.  The house was filled with marble walkways and floors with windows of cut glass that created rainbows.  Downey in the 1940s and 1950s was a small town.  Near by the house was a river filled with trees and bamboo.  The area was surrounded by orange groves and the little town boasted two soda fountains.  Los Angeles seemed very far away to the young Kirk boys in those simple days.

Tommy’s father was Baptist and there was a history of Baptist ministers on his side of the family.  Tommy’s mother was Methodist, but the family never went to church together.  Joe Kirk went to Sunday school because his friends did, but his parents never oversaw a religious upbringing.  In fact, the Kirk boys had very little supervision.  Lucy worked hard and raised most of the money to take care of the family.  Al Joe’s money was his own and he did little to help out the family finances.  The father of the Kirk family was an alcoholic and as mean as a snake.  “My mother was Joan of Arc and my father was the beast that walked,” said Joe Kirk of his parents.  Joe looked at his parents as the angel and the devil and the Kirk boys took a lot of abuse over the years due to their father’s uneven temper.  The rules of the house continually changed—once the boys memorized one set of rules the father would change them.

Every now and then there would be a note telling the family that the father had left for Kentucky.  The family was never invited along and the Kirk boys never knew their grandparents on their father’s side of the family.  Al Joe Kirk felt he had to go back to Kentucky to feel good about himself again.  He was raised there and for some reason, he periodically found it important to go back.

Grandfather Kirk was a judge in Kentucky and had been in the U.S. Senate.  He died early of cancer and his death caused great financial hardship on the family.  Al Joe Kirk was the youngest of ten children and grew up spoiled and indulged.  All of the older siblings found a profession in life, but Al Joe got by on his good looks and charm.  He started in on marriage early at sixteen and throughout his life had five marriages.  Tommy Kirk’s family was part of the third marriage.  The Grandparents had a large home in Kentucky.  It was the kind of home where the Grandmother drew a line down the center of the house with one side being hers and the other side being his and the two didn’t communicate for the next twenty years.  The Kirks were still split from the Civil War and the issues of North and South permeated the family all the way into young Tommy’s childhood.

Tommy was a confident boy and artistic from the start.  His favorite subject at school was art and he was continually sketching.  Dinosaurs were some of Tommy’s most favorite subjects to draw and some of his artwork made it into episodes of the Matinee Theatre television show.  For a time, Tommy thought that he wanted to be a scientist and he busied himself with little experiments.  One such experiment was a product to help plants grow that he called “Anti-Grow.”  The solution was made from water and crushed marble from around the house.  Tommy went around sprinkling his “Anti-Grow” on all of the plants.  His brother Joe logically suggested that he might call it “Plant-a-Grow” instead since it was supposed to make things grow.

The boys often took the bus into Los Angeles on Saturdays to go to the movies.  They would spend the week collecting bottles and by Saturday they had enough to catch a matinee.  On a dollar the boys could ride the bus, see the movie, and even enjoy a bag of popcorn.  Tommy also enjoyed a game of tennis, but his carefree days of finding ways to entertain himself and fill time were coming to an end.

In the audience of Ah, Wilderness! was a representative of the powerful Gertz talent agency of Beverly Hills.  “An agent came backstage and introduced himself and gave me his card and said, ‘Would you have your folks call me?’”  Tommy gave the card to his parents after the show that night and they called the agency.  What the Gertz Agency saw in this young pre-teener was a real kid who could act honestly in a completely believable manner.  Without any training, this boy had a natural talent and a likable, down-home personality.  Tommy seemed corn-fed and truly American.  He was cute—not pretty, and he read lines as if he meant what he was saying.  The words seemed to flow as if he had thought them up himself.  Tommy even received exit applause at the end of one of his scenes every performance.  Tommy also played roles in two other Pasadena Playhouse productions, Barefoot in Athens and Portrait in Black before launching into the world of TV and film.

At the age of twelve, this self-proclaimed “theatrical novice” scored a job on the  Lux Radio Playhouse followed by his film debut in the Jerry Fairbanks short subject, Down Liberty Road in 1955.  This was also Angie Dickinson’s first movie and Marshall Thompson also starred.  The director started filming Tommy’s big scene with the back of his head to the camera.  Somehow, Tommy convinced the director to change camera angles so his face would be in the shot.

A number of television appearances followed including a guest star appearance on the very popular Gunsmoke TV series.  Once he got started, Tommy never stopped working.  In fact, by 1955 Tommy seemed to be all over the television.  His brother would drive him to interviews and he usually got the job.  After a while, the family hired a sitter to drive Tommy to his jobs. His photographic memory enabled him to be a great success in the live dramas presented on the Matinee Theatre.  Tommy was given leading roles with as many as three hundred lines and he ended up doing thirty-five episodes of Matinee Theatre, which ran from 1955 through 1958 on NBC at 3 PM.  There were also appearances on The Loretta Young Show, The Man Behind the Badge, TV Readers Digest, Big Town, Crossroads and another feature with Sterling Hayden called The Peacemaker from Warner BrothersTommy was an instant success, but putting all of his early television and film work aside, 1955 also marked his most important audition.

Walt Disney was holding a big audition to find the right young man to play Joe Hardy opposite Mickey Mouse Club favorite, Tim Considine in a “Mouskeserial” based on The Hardy Boys books.  “A lot of kids tested for the series, including me, and I was fortunate to land the role,” said Tommy.  Fortunate indeed, for it lead to his long time association with the Walt Disney Company—the machine responsible for making Tommy one of the top teen actors in Hollywood.  Disney sent some pages of the script to Tommy’s agent after seeing him in Down Liberty Road and he memorized them for the audition.  There was a number of Joe Hardy hopefuls watching Tommy audition with Tim Considine and he felt as if he was pretty raw.  However, a few days later his agent called to say that he had won the role.  The money was the best he had been paid for a TV show and to Tommy it seemed like a fortune.  Tommy had a bank account now, and 20 percent was set aside in a trust.  The rest went to pay for the sitter and other expenses, including the family’s general living costs.  Tommy was now a very busy boy, for he had only finished four of his thirty Matinee Theatre episodes and now he was also a Mousketeer.

There were two editions of The Hardy Boys series: “Mystery of Applegate Treasure” and “Mystery of Ghost Farm.”  Both editions played between September 1955 and the fall of 1957.  Compared to his attractive co-star, Tim Considine, Tommy is instantly noticeable as the stand-out actor.  Tommy demonstrates, in this early part of his career, his gift for presenting a true and honest person on the screen.  There is a rather moving scene in “The Mystery of Applegate Treasure” when Tommy expresses his passionate desire to be a real detective like his father.  It is moving only because Tommy Kirk seems so desperate about it—being a detective is his dream and he wants it so badly that he can taste it.

The difference between Tommy Kirk and the other child actors in the series (some of the adults too) is that the stakes are high.  This approach is the sign of a great talent.  Since none of the other actors in the series seem to be committing to the world of the Hardy Boys quite like Tommy Kirk does, it can only be assumed that his good performance is not due to the director bringing it out of him.  Nearly all of the other kids in the series sound like they are just reciting lines.  Tim does better than most—and his handsome good looks made him very popular with audiences, but Tommy is actually turning in a performance of merit.  It is no wonder that he would be selected to play the pivotal teen role in Disney’s next live action film, Old Yeller.

Besides The Hardy Boys, Tommy was given a Mickey Mouse Club assignment that would influence the rest of his life.  As part of the Newsreel segment of the show, Tommy was assigned to cover both the Democratic and Republican conventions.  Tommy interviewed Senator Everett Dirkson on “Why I should be a Republican,” as well as interviewing Governor Frank Clement of Tennessee on “Why I should be a Democrat.”  He watched Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower, Eleanor Roosevelt, Thomas Dewey and John Kennedy.  “But, I saw everybody who was anybody in politics in that era and it was fantastic.  I was at both conventions for their duration, and it was like a dream.  I’ll never forget it,” said Tommy.  The experience nurtured Tommy’s passion for a good debate and it taught him to follow the politics of his country very closely.  This aspect of his personality even came up in a 1964 press release for the film Pajama Party which stated that he, “never misses an opportunity to attend a political convention or a debate.”

There were other small assignments given to Tommy on The Mickey Mouse Club such as a voice-over on a show from Denmark called “Boys of the Western Sea.”  There was also a segment that Tommy and Annette Funicello would introduce about how kids lived in different parts of the world.  Tommy’s relationship with Annette Funicello was rather distant:  “We got along.  I was smart enough to realize that, if I’m gonna be under contract [at Disney] and she’s under contract here, it’s very important that we get along well.”  Even though he played her boyfriend in eight films, Tommy indicates that he had a work only relationship with Funicello: “…I always tried to behave nicely toward her, and she was nice to me.  Well, she’s nice toward everybody.”

Tommy made another TV appearance in 1957 in the second half of the fourth anniversary episode of Disneyland.  The Mousketeers honor Walt with a song and dance salute to the TV show on its third anniversary (“Going on four,” adds Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran).  Tommy Kirk is among them and says a few words of congratulations to Uncle Walt.  Although he was photographed for publicity in the regulatory mouse ears, Tommy was never a singing and dancing Mousketeer.  He sits behind Walt the whole time with Kevin Corcoran (also a serial player, but strangely dawning the Mousketeer wardrobe) watching the other kids put on the show.  The episode serves as an intriguing plug for a future project that would have featured Tommy and the other Mousketeers in a movie based on the “Oz” books to which Disney had acquired the rights.  Although some of the project’s songs are featured and fully staged with the Mousketeers performing as the Oz characters, the film was never made.

Walt Disney was looking around for a project to feature the popular Mousketeers, but most of them were let go when the TV series folded due to rising production costs.  A few remained to appear in other projects, most notably Annette Funicello and most significantly Tommy Kirk.  Disney offered Tommy a seven-year contract and he jumped at the chance.  Going to work at the same studio everyday would have taken a great burden off of his family having to run Tommy around to various auditions—his schedule was more or less set for the following seven years.

While on the Mickey Mouse Club, Tommy continued to attend public school.  He was teased more than praised by his peers for being a television star.  However, all of that ended with the seven year contract and Tommy went to school at the studio.  There was a Mrs. Penny who took Tommy to and from the studio every day.  She had two children, Victoria and Mark, with whom Tommy became friends.  Mrs. Penny was a conniving woman who started spreading around a lot of nasty stories regarding Tommy’s father.  She was hoping to have his parents declared unfit and take Tommy into her custody and profit by him.  None of this ever materialized, but Al Joe was smart enough to leave Tommy alone at home.  He knew that under the protection of Walt Disney he couldn’t lay a hand on Tommy—the studio wouldn’t have it.  The other boys in the family had a harder time with their father than Tommy did for they were not magically protected.  By this time there were four Kirk brothers in all, Andrew and John were the youngest.  Tommy could talk down to his father and get away with it while the other kids caught hell for it.  Andy (named Andrew Jackson Kirk, III. after his uncle and grandfather) was treated the worst by Al Joe.  The youngest, John, didn’t have it so bad at home as the father had mellowed by the time John reached his teens.  It was definitely not “Leave it to Beaverland” in the Kirk home, but on screen, Tommy’s growing up was the American dream come true.

In his first major motion picture, Old Yeller, young Tommy Kirk, still a Mousketeer serial player, displays the best use of his talents—arguably the best use of his talents during his entire career.  He truly gives an amazing performance and one wonders why the Academy did not recognize him with a junior Oscar.  He had already been nominated for an Emmy award for his work on Matinee Theatre.  The part of Travis Coats is a challenging one for it requires an acting talent that can run the gamut from high drama to comedy, not to mention some rigorous physical demands.  Tommy is drug by a mule across a field at top speeds, he is attacked by wild hogs and he is required to sit in a tree and rope the hogs—lifting them up to his level once he has caught them.  Tommy gives a confident and fearless performance filled with adventure and charm.  He develops, for the first time here, his truthful sibling relationship with Kevin Corcoran as the little brother—“...two promising newcomers…” as Variety put it.  Dorothy McGuire as the mother is perfect and although Fess Parker receives top billing he is barely in the picture.  “Fess Parker, at that time, was on the outs with Disney—I presume over money,” said Tommy.  Disney was notorious for paying lower salaries than any other studio for its top talent.  “This was simply his last contractual obligation and he only worked about three days on this film, but good, competent, professional that he is, he came in and did it.  I think he helps the movie a lot.”

Tommy Kirk’s performance is truly exemplary—not only because there is not a single dishonest moment in the film for him, but for a specific scene—the very climax of the film where Tommy is forced to shoot his suffering dog.  There is a close-up on his face as he points the rifle, anguishing over the thought of having to do it.  He is trying with all of his might to be brave, but for a second he drops his head into his arm and cannot find the courage to do it.  We cannot stand to see him in such pain—the situation is as miserably sad as can be.  Then, suddenly, Tommy lifts his head with determination and pulls the trigger.  Tommy delivered the scene to its fullest potential under Robert Stevenson’s guidance and it should be marked down as one of the most beautifully realized moments by a child actor in films.  Tommy credits director Robert Stevenson, and justly so, with the quality and sensitivity with which Old Yeller was made.  “I worshipped him,” declared Tommy, “I really loved him.  He’s the reason Old Yeller is so good.  He’s a very nice man, very gentle. I loved him like a father.”

Leonard Maltin said in his book, The Disney Films, that, “In many ways the outstanding performance of the film is that of Tommy Kirk, complete with Texas accent.”   Maltin also noted that Tommy “…carries off the full range of intense emotions with uncanny skill.  Knowing that he was capable of this makes it all the more sad to watch him in the bumbling comedy parts he played later on.”

Quality roles like Travis in Old Yeller do not come around for teenage actors very often.  Unfortunately, though he was handed some of the better teen roles of the 1960s, Tommy would never get the chance to show the full range of his talents again—not even in adulthood where he most definitely should have had the chance. “I’ve always been annoyed by that, but it’s water under the bridge,” said Tommy of his lack of dramatic parts.

Old Yeller and his second feature, The Shaggy Dog, established Tommy Kirk as a prominent young star.  Unfortunately, none of the films that followed would allow him the opportunity to display his excellence in the world of drama, but he was as able in the world of comedy and spent most of his time at Disney in screwball fantasies.  His appeal is classic, for he plays the underdog who gets ahead.  And he gets ahead on his own merits, by drumming up the courage and good character to make it through the toughest of odds.  “Tom in the movies was the way he was in life,” says his brother Joe, “He was that charming, that funny, and that serious.”

Those qualities Joe Kirk describes struck this writer, at the young age of twelve or thirteen, watching a release of Swiss Family Robinson on the big screen in Placerville’s Empire Theater and noticing Tommy Kirk for the first time.  Next I noticed him popping up on TV here and there as his old movies began to be shown from time to time.  So, although he was an icon of my parents generation, and perhaps remembered most fondly by those who grew up with the original Mickey Mouse Club, because of Disney’s tradition of continually promoting their old product, my generation got to see some of Tommy on the big screen too.  Today’s teens are seeing him on TV and DVD.  He is difficult to miss, although he is strangely unfamiliar when his name is mentioned.  From the small town of Downey to the wonderful world of Disney, Tommy Kirk had quite a trip.

Tommy Kirk in Old Yeller