The Silver Anniversary
Looking back at a quarter century
There’s nothing like a little perspective to add sanity to your world. Enmeshed in the sometimes arduous, often rewarding process of putting out a paper every week, it’s a rare occasion that we can step back and take a look where we’ve come from. That, exactly, is what this issue is for. Though the numbers are fuzzy (25 years ago, apparently, the science of record keeping was still in its infancy), calculations show that the various incarnations of this newspaper, shot through with a steadying thread of commitment to Sonoma County and the North Bay, have reached the venerable age of 25.
It’s not an age to be mocked. The quarter-century mark, for many, is a time of taking stock–an adulthood in its infancy. Though as our profile of exemplary shows, it’s not an age lacking in perspective and wisdom. Luckily, it didn’t take the Paper/Sonoma County Independent/Bohemian 25 years to find its way in the world.
From its origins in Guerneville as a stalwart West County community paper, then slowly moving east (to Forestville and then Santa Rosa) over the years, and expanding to cover all of Sonoma County and then all of the North Bay, the paper has seen (and covered) the triumphs and pains of the fast-changing county and the region, all the while evolving and adapting itself.
And that is entirely thanks to an incredibly talented roster of employees. The pages of the Bohemian today are littered with past staffers, including Greg Cahill, who helmed the Independent/Bohemian for seven years and now serves as our contributing music editor; Gretchen Giles, once bylined as Gretchen Mikalonis, tireless associate editor-cum-freelance weaver of words; and David Templeton, who has been taking notables to see movies for his Talking Pictures column since 1994. That’s a lot of movies. You’ll find pieces by all of them in this anniversary issue.
But of course, there are so many more. More recent names include Sara Bir, our current staff writer, as well as former staffers Patrick Sullivan and Paula Harris, who still pop up every once in a while. Other names may be familiar in different contexts: Yosha Bourgea, Daedalus Howell, and Zack Stentz have all moved on to writing poetry and making films.
Michele Anna Jordan is renowned for her food writing. Sara Peyton keeps her finger on the pulse of the local book scene, and Bruce Robinson manages KRCB. John De Salvio, Nick Valentine, Simone Wilson, Janet Wells, Liesel Hofmann . . . well, the list is long–and that’s just the editorial staff. The business side of the paper has been run by an able group since day one. The truth is, this paper is built on the backs of our staff, our advertisers, and our readers. Thanks for a great 25 years.
Aching Breaking News
25 years of stories–some serious, some seriously strange–from the pages of the North Bay’s best alternative newsweekly
By Greg Cahill
These are stories big and small. On the surface, the river of people and events that feed the news pages can seem insignificant (not another wastewater story!) or profound: Remember when the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights visited Santa Rosa in 1998 to investigate allegations of widespread police abuse after a string of officer-involved shootings and inmate deaths at the county jail?
During the past 25 years, the stories on these pages have run the gamut: gay bashing on the river and the slow response of local sheriff’s officials to the attacks; landmark sexual-harassment rulings against local schools; the Catholic Church’s efforts to limit reproductive services countywide through owning and controlling the leases at medical centers; and a pair of slick Hare Krishnas who rode their shiny new BMWs into Occidental a few years ago with plans to purchase Ocean Song and transform the secluded farm into a big international spiritual retreat.
Sometimes the news struck a nerve. Over the years, this newspaper has been boycotted by angry liberals, picketed by pissed-off conservatives, vandalized by God knows who (but he sure could swing a sledge hammer), and targeted with death threats.
Overall that coverage chronicled Sonoma County as it morphed from a rural and relatively isolated North Bay conclave into the largest county in the North Bay. That growth brought suburban sprawl, traffic congestion, pollution, gang activity, and skyrocketing housing prices. The quaint West County apple orchards gave way to industrial-sized vineyards, and high-tech businesses sprouted where alfalfa once flourished in Petaluma.
Now there is a glut of grapes and high-tech is at an all-time low.
Often the news focused on local heroes and more than a few zeroes (Frank Riggs, where are you, baby?). Randy Shilts, chronicler of the AIDS epidemic, died in 1994 at his ranch in the Sonoma County redwoods. Mario Savio, UC Berkeley free-speech movement cofounder turned popular SSU math professor, revived his activist leanings to oppose state anti-immigration legislation shortly before his untimely death in 1996 from a heart attack at the age of 53.
And then there is Mariann Hopkins of Sebastopol, a former college secretary who developed health problems related to the silicone breast implant procedure she had in 1976 after a double mastectomy for breast cancer. Her case became the first of its kind to reach the U.S. Supreme Court (which upheld a $7.3 million settlement in her favor) and led Dow Corning to reveal that it had withheld from the public incriminating studies that showed its implants were potentially harmful.
Here are 25 stories–some serious and some seriously strange–culled from the pages of The Paper, the Sonoma County Independent, and the Bohemian. These stories dip into the social, political, and cultural slipstream to show our community at its best and its worst.
1978: Cazadero Conflagration
The Paper debuts in Guerneville shortly before a summer blaze sweeps through neighboring Cazadero. The weeklong fire destroys 30 homes and hundreds of acres of forest; many wild and domestic animals perish. The Creighton Ridge fire is sparked from a lawn mower, spreads quickly to dry tinder, and soon flares in high winds. Four firefighters suffer burns when flames force them to abandon their bulldozer in the area called Hell Hole. A crew of 500 firefighters saves the Magic Mountain subdivision south of Cazadero.
1979: Say What?
Local law enforcement officials turn over to the FBI a printed note found next to the body of Roy William Dale, who died of an apparent suicide in a 1974 Chevy Camaro parked at a Fort Ross Road turnout. The cryptic note implicates Dale in the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, stating that the hit had been conducted under the command of “the Big H” and alludes to a connection between the fatal 1968 shooting of Sen. Robert Kennedy and a plan to kill his brother Edward (“Two down, one to go”). Strangely, Dale’s hands and feet were tied. A hose from the car exhaust ran into the interior of the vehicle, and (even stranger) the windows were taped tight–inside and outside.
1980: Secret Warfare
Did the Japanese bomb Sonoma County toward the end of WWII? A reader speculates that high-explosive incendiary bombs sent by balloon on air currents across the Pacific Ocean in a little-known chapter of modern warfare may still lie unexploded in Guerneville. Experts estimate that 10 percent of the more than 9,000 such devices of a super-secret 1945 program actually made their way across the Pacific. A U.S. Army P-38 shot down the first one on Feb. 28, 1945 (several children had been killed by one in an incident in Northern California). Others fell in Sebastopol, near Calistoga, Cloverdale, and (gulp) Guerneville. The U.S. government censored press reports lest the Japanese gain knowledge of the campaign’s effectiveness.
1981: Close to Home
Cazadero resident and human rights activist Mark Pearlman and two others are gunned down in a hail of bullets at the Sheraton Hotel cafeteria in San Salvador. The murders, carried out by a right-wing death squad, underscore the continuing terror of the U.S.-backed regime.
1982: Strange Air
After 30 years broadcasting from Pool Ridge in “Monteeeee Rio,” the 750-watt KRJB radio station leaves the airwaves for lack of advertising dollars. The station, the only one serving West County at that time, had broadcast an eclectic mix that included vintage radio dramas and foreign-language news programming. Station owner Mike Erickson, who kept two coyote-crossed dogs by his side, was renowned for on-air tirades against “dirty hippies” and “welfare bums.”
1983: Big Pac Attack
An unknown assailant–clad in camo fatigues and a ski mask–strikes a blow against the emerging video-game craze when he strides into the Hiding Place restaurant in Guerneville, hoists an axe, and smashes a Ms. Pacman game table. Stunned patrons are left to ponder his motives as the intruder dashes out the door and speeds away in a waiting car, leaving the axe buried in the table. Ted Kaczynski in training?
1984: Not So Mellow
Who says West County is a hippie haven? A boycott of local businesses against rival newspaper the Sebastopol Times escalates into a brawl after the co-publisher and editor is arrested for punching a flower deliveryman. The boycott began after the Times ran an inflammatory editorial stating that Speaker of the State Assembly Willie Brown should be called a “nigger.” The editorial draws statewide condemnation. The flower guy is simply at the wrong place at the wrong, er, Times.
1985: Growing Pains
The transformation of Petaluma, Santa Rosa, and Rohnert Park into bedroom communities for Marin and San Francisco workers begins to put a strain on such smaller West County communities as Forestville, Sebastopol, Sea Ranch, and especially Bodega Bay, which has recently opened up to commercial and large-scale housing development. The big Santa Rosa sewage spill of ’85 sends a messy message that the county isn’t ready for this unchecked growth. These concerns set the tone for county politics for the next 15 years.
1986: If the Creek Don’t Rise
Two thousand residents flee their homes when a record-breaking “mountain of water” (49 feet 1 inch) deluges Guerneville and its environs in the great flood of ’86. And, no, folks didn’t learn their lesson–eight years later, the scene is repeated.
1987: Legacy of Love
The tiny Starcross monastic community in Annapolis attracts national media attention after it announces the group is caring for a five-month-old baby girl with AIDS, an unprecedented move. Starcross becomes a model for similar organizations, caring for AIDS children from Romania and Uganda and beyond.
1988: Jackson Action!
Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson stops in Santa Rosa in May, drawing local progressives and farm-labor activists. He vows to “reverse the Robin Hood” fiscal policies of Reaganomics. He loses, but the glow lingers.
1989: Preservation Society
The Paper selects West County activist Lenny Weinstein as its first Person of the Year. The soft-spoken sign painter, known for his tenacity and political wiliness, played a pivotal role breaking a four-year impasse and getting the state to designate the Sebastopol-to-Jenner route of Highway 116 a Scenic Highway. “I came here because this was a rural heaven,” the Bronx native notes. Meanwhile, the Department of the Interior announces that a two-year lease process that could result in oil drilling off the Sonoma Coast will continue, and Santa Rosa officials propose building a sewage pipeline running off of Salmon Creek.
1990: Frankly Speaking
In a major upset, Windsor real-estate developer and Republican challenger Frank Riggs, a political neophyte, unseats longtime Democratic congressman Doug Bosco. Riggs, who runs as “a Republican environmentalist,” later stuns his party as the only Republican in the House to vote against President George Bush’s 1991 Gulf War resolution. Party leaders soon whip him into shape. The Sonoma County Independent wins his ire for a cover story chronicling Riggs’ conversion into a foot soldier for Newt Gingrich’s conservative Contract with America.
1991: Breaking Ground
Plans for a new outlet mall in Petaluma and other major projects around the county prompt a front-page article on commercial developers that have targeted Sonoma County, and how to stop them. One idealistic suggestion: Boycott the new stores while counting your riches. “Out of the heap of our discarded distractions, a sense of purpose greater than our own wants and needs is likely to emerge.” The outlet mall is built anyway. Shoppers are few and far between.
1992: The Art of Eating
Michele Anna Jordan remembers Glen Ellen novelist and food writer M. F. K. Fisher, 84, who dies June 22. Fisher, known as the grand dame of food and a sensualist, turned the world on to the joys of gastronomy through words filled with wit, warmth, and wonder. Her influential work helped lay the foundation for the region’s current reputation as a culinary center.
1993: Fighting for Choice
A couple of weeks after Dr. David Gunn is slain in Florida by one of the pro-life movement’s shock troops, Santa Rosa physician Chistine Cummings is targeted by local Operation Rescue fanatics. After the Gunn murder, Cummings speaks out for choice on national TV and details plans to continue providing reproductive services at her blockaded women’s health clinic.
1994: Flip Flop
Marc Klaas, father of slain Petaluma 12-year-old Polly Klaas, discusses ways that he and others manipulated the media to keep Polly in the public eye, only to be manipulated in return by image-savvy news hounds and struggling politicians–including President Clinton and Gov. Pete Wilson–all hoping that the “three strikes” law would boost their careers. With “three strikes” law on the books, Klaas later opposes a state ballot initiative that would make it even tougher to rescind the statutes that sent three-time felons to jail for 25 years to life, even for nonviolent offenses. “I just don’t happen to think that stealing a basketball, which is considered a serious nonviolent crime . . . should be held over somebody’s head for the rest of their life,” he tells the Independent. Klaas later reverses that position and often can be seen on CNN’s Larry King Live touting the draconian law he helped to usher onto the national legal landscape.
1995: Who’s Sorry Now?
One year after local priest Gary Timmons is arraigned on molestation charges, victims decry “a conspiracy of silence among church leaders.” The arrest prompts a series of articles on the topic in the Independent, concluding that the Timmons case suggests a much wider culture of pedophilia in the church. Disbelieving Catholics assail the newspaper for its supposedly blasphemous coverage. Lawsuits stemming from similar cases will nearly bankrupt the Santa Rosa archdiocese and topple the bishop.
1996: Fatal Flaws
Sonoma housekeeper Maria Teresa Macias, a mother of three, is gunned down on the street by her estranged husband after repeated efforts to get Sonoma County law enforcement officials to issue a restraining order. The Independent details the shortcomings in the district attorney’s office, the sheriff’s department, and the courts. Several years later, the Macias family wins a wrongful death lawsuit against the county.
1997: Magic Bullets?
A year after voters approve a series of landmark urban-growth boundaries in an unprecedented first-in-the-nation action, four more Sonoma County communities jump on the UGB bandwagon, hoping to contain rampant development and recapture the county’s pastoral heritage.
1998: Gridlock at the Polls
The overwhelming defeat in November of sales tax measures in Marin and Sonoma counties that would have funded nearly a billion dollars in transportation improvements, including $175 million for rail service, threatens to unravel the fragile coalition of environmentalists, business leaders, and public officials who spent eight years constructing the transit fix. Enjoy the gridlock.
1999: The Wrath of Grapes
West County residents are seeing red over rampant vineyard expansion after years of environmental degradation, pesticide drift into schools and homes, and the loss of agricultural diversity. The Town Hall Coalition, a grassroots group of local environmentalists, leads the way under the guidance of former Sebastopol mayor Lynn Hamilton and Occidental hair stylist Debra Anderson. Their efforts lead to a tough hillside ordinance that reigns in at least some vineyard conversions.
2000: Sprawl Brawl
Voters reject the Rural Heritage Initiative requiring voter approval for the next 30 years of any amendment to the Sonoma County general plan calling for significant development of agricultural land. Backers say Marin’s poor land-use policies had led to a northward exodus of workers and businesses, squeezing environmental resources and pressuring Sonoma County communities to transform pristine farmlands into acres of suburban cul-de-sacs. For those concerned about continued sprawl in the face of UGBs, well, now you know whom to blame.
2001: Puppet Government
Argyle Sox didn’t make it into office, but he had lots of supporters in his failed bid for a seat on the San Rafael City Council. The fact that Sox is a floppy-eared dog with mismatched eyes–and is a sock puppet to boot–did not deter some voters from tossing him their support. Assisted by his trusty “campaign manager,” actor-artist Robert Cooper, Sox wowed supporters with stump speeches along the lines of “I heard there are already four puppets on the council, so I thought I’d fit right in.” Incumbents are unamused. Maybe he can be a write-in candidate for governor.
2002: Local Boy Makes Bad
He’s been dubbed a parents’ worst nightmare. John Walker, a 20-year-old former San Anselmo resident, is catapulted into infamy a year earlier when he is found–long-haired and grubby–fighting alongside Taliban forces in Afghanistan. He clambers out of a sooty basement in Mazar-i Sharif and lands in plenty of legal hot water. His lawyer successfully pushes a public relations strategy in the hopes that Walker will face charges resulting in a few years’ prison time and beat treason charges, which would have carried the death penalty.
2003: Red, White, and Blues
Petaluma makes national news when it becomes the second city in the nation (the other is Boston) to reject an anti-Patriot Act resolution. So far, 123 municipal, county, and state governments in 25 states have passed similar resolutions.
Have we come a long way in 25 years, baby?
By Gretchen Giles
A couple of years after Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude packed up their court documents and silky white parachute fabric, having completed the legally contentious 1976 Running Fence project that cast Sonoma and Marin counties into the international art world limelight, things appeared to have settled down to backwater-normal in these parts.
A drifter from Berkeley who arrived in Guerneville with a dog and a harmonica got the front page of The Paper because he was an interesting character, not a bedeviled homeless person. Struggling into its third year, the Russian River Jazz Festival cost just $8 a day and featured Count Basie.
Yet at a small rural college in Rohnert Park, acclaimed painter and Healdsburg resident Richard Diebenkorn was modestly exhibiting in a group show. Sonoma State College, not yet a university, opened its art gallery in 1978 with Diebenkorn and a host of other who’s-who Northern California artists, among them William T. Wiley, sculptor Peter Voulkos, painters Sam Francis, Joan Brown, Wally Hedrick, Nathan Oliveira, Manuel Neri, and Ed Moses appearing with a breathless list of others.
Susan Moulton, then head of the school’s art department, said her opening exhibit heralded “what promises to be a cultural renaissance north of San Francisco.” And, to a thrillingly large extent, she was absolutely correct.
It just took the rest of the North Bay a few years to catch up with her vision.
Sitting in the Guerneville library, which itself didn’t exist in 1978, I hand-crank the microfilm technology of the era. An ancient item marrying the microscope to the overhead projector to the sewing machine, the microfilm allows a peek back 25 years (OK–24 years, as the earliest editions of The Paper are lost to us) and the predictable discovery that it’s exactly the poignant experience I had expected it to be. But not for exactly the reasons I had expected.
I knew that I’d chuckle at the groovy haircuts and wide lapels but had the curious surprise of mourning the stillbirth of the feminist movement as I wound the film by. Writing about the Women’s Art Festival at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in August 1979, The Paper critic Elaine Affrante noted with assurance that “every piece sparkled with the consummate self-esteem that is associated with women’s endeavors in music and art.”
The notion of a “women’s art festival” itself seems oddly quaint, if not near illegal. Men can’t actually be excluded, can they? It seems as shocking now as would be announcing a “white men’s art festival,” though many museum exhibitions are of course little but.
Affrante’s bald statement is ludicrous enough to make such pioneering artists as Louise Bourgeois shudder but might bring a smile to other pioneers, such as Judy Chicago. Her Dinner Party (19741979), featuring 39 ceramic place settings celebrating women both real and mythic, exactly matches Affrante’s era.
I keenly remember the thrilling shock of walking around the installation’s opening at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art at age 17, amazed that there were so many women worthy of eating at Chicago’s table, most of whom I had never heard of in school. Today, we tend to take such history (my gosh, remember herstory?) for granted, finding ourselves instead being somewhat irritated at Chicago for insisting on being a “woman artist,” as if her gender matters.
Hearkening back to the knotty fuss of macramé, the long work of coaxing appliqué onto Levis, and the lumpy pottery of the brown-bread hippie table all called to mind a harried braless woman in a handmade patchwork skirt called “Mom.” Then, she and her friends were women artists; handsome and hale today, they are merely artists–though they might insist on a capital A.
And many of the most enduring and most exciting art institutions that we have today in the North Bay are helmed by, if not exactly filled with art by, women.
Created in 1982, the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin County brought the creativity of the San Francisco arts community to a weird and successful partnership with both the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the National Park Service. But the Headlands Center didn’t really find its way until 1986, when it began its residency and exhibition programs for artists and the public. Today, this is among the best hothouse working environments for up-and-coming artists whose names aim to be solidly recognizable tomorrow.
The Cultural Arts Council of Sonoma County began its association with state funding in 1983, and in 1985 launched the first ARTrails open studios tour. With a roster of some 150 participating artists, ARTrails now generates over half a million dollars of stay-at-home money annually. Of course, this year sees the state contributing no bucks to the CACSC.
But 20 years has taught the agency a thing or two about survival, and executive director Karen d’Or is nonplussed. Dedicated to supporting the arts through exhibition and programming, the CACSC remains a curiously absent spot on local visitor bureau websites. Touting wine, river, and sea seems to be our calling card, yet the wealth of area art is our own smart secret.
Quicksilver Mine Company owner Khysie Horn opened her first store in 1983 in Guerneville, selling local handicrafts and hanging area artwork as spill-over in the hallways and front windows. When painter Alv Wilenius’ mythic portrait of one Norse god rising naked from the sea with his face in close proximity to another naked Norse god’s genitals was hung in the window, it upset an area hairdresser, and Horn bemusedly found herself amid a First Amendment fight that gained national attention in 1985.
The painting eventually became part of television producer Norman Lear’s “First Amendment” traveling tour. Horn celebrated her 20th anniversary of promoting locals-only art on a recent hot Sunday with the opening of a new gallery in Forestville that offers no knickknacks to help pay the rent. Look for Chiyomi Longo’s important one-person exhibit this Oct. 16.
Founded in 1984, the Sonoma Museum of Visual Art began as the California Museum of Art, an unwieldy title that seemed to aspire to showcase solely California artists, and even caused a minor identity crisis among its board members. Eventually throwing that title over for the more sinuous SMOVA, this entity currently provides William T. Wiley with a solo show (he’ll even play guitar for his supper on Oct. 4) and cannily marries area artists with the work of the nationally known. Executive director Gay Dawson has helped guide the museum closer to its mandate of being the premier presenter of contemporary art north of San Francisco.
The Sonoma County Museum opened in 1985 as a historical repository, debuting with the noteworthy attendance of a 105-year-old woman and an actor in a Snoopy suit. Today, under the aegis of executive director Natasha Boas, it is poised for a high-level remodel with star architect Michael Maltzan and is showing the work of nationally known light and land artist James Turrell.
Furthermore, this museum–formerly the cultural hell of bored schoolchildren and lost tourists–has found itself a vision and commenced a years-long examination of the influence of the land upon art, and vice versa. With the bequest of the late Tom Golden, a fierce friend of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s, the SCM now also holds the world’s largest public collection of their art and will some day have the great pleasure of deciding how best to serve the public with Golden’s personal assortment of arcana and home in Freestone.
Rene di Rosa’s collection in the Napa Valley houses perhaps the most vibrant private installations of contemporary California art in the state. Opened to the public in 1997, the Di Rosa Preserve’s 54 acres offer hundreds of works by emerging, mid-career, and established artists. A thrill still goes through a reception crowd when someone hisses, “Rene’s here!” as he so often is, browsing MFA and local shows to find his next collectible favorite.
The Sonoma Valley Museum of Art came to life through the care of local patrons in 1998 and continues to pass strangely under media radar, even with stellar shows such as one-person exhibitions by Chester Arnold and–hey!–even Auguste Rodin. Currently exhibiting “Latin American Masterworks” on loan from the Rockefeller Foundation and others through Oct. 19, executive director Lia Transue oversees an upcoming transformation of this former furniture store’s facade as it moves trippingly into the future.
Back at the microfilm, I sadly see that Los Lobos and the Blasters once 0gigged at the Tropicana hotel for just $7 and I was too stupid to attend. An editorial wags that we should all just accept “the fact that we’ve gotten along just fine without the metric system thus far.” A cartoon parodies the Equal Rights Amendment–that silly, silly dream.
But I also recognize a gladness that I’m not forced to write female executive director this and woman painter that as I look briefly back over 25 years. Perhaps it’s just as well that women raised a ruckus but not an amendment. Has it allowed us to be incorporated as simply a people, executive and otherwise?
As the immediate beneficiary of all the fuss, I can’t tell. Ask your daughter.
Odds and Ends
From half-assed runners to little lost whales, we look back on 25 years of weirdness in the balmy North Bay
Throughout human history, whenever something unpredictable and amazing occurs–floods, infestations, social upheavals, art festivals–there are those among us who will quickly rise up to loudly whine, “When will things go back to normal again? Why can’t everything just return to normal?” They are the normalcy cheerleaders. They speak the word “normal” as if it were synonymous with “good,” “true,” “holy,” and “rock solid.” Well, let’s get it out in the open once and for all.
These people are assholes.
Because, let’s face it, normalcy is not normal.
Sure, we’ve gotten used to a certain amount of normalcy over the eons. As the Orderly Rigors of Civilization have had their predictable, state-sanctioned way with the world, human beings may indeed have acclimatized themselves to a certain amount of normalcy–but that doesn’t mean we like it.
Just look what happens whenever something weird happens, when, for example, a humpback whale swims up the Petaluma river or a bunch of psychology students start making multicolored prints of their buttocks at the local university, or gender crusader Joe Manthey tries to stop Take Your Daughter to School Day because he thinks it’s sexist. Whatever.
What’s the first thing we do when something like that happens? We tell everyone we see, don’t we? We call our mothers. We send out e-mails. “Did you hear about the whale? Did you hear about the multicolored butt prints?” We can’t stop talking about it.
And we know why, don’t we?
Weirdness, it seems, is important. Weirdness is more than just an occasional spice of life. Weirdness is life. We thrive on it. And fortunately for those of us who live in the North Bay, there has always been plenty of weirdness around to sustain our inherent human compulsion to celebrate the offbeat while telling normalcy to take a flipping hike. Just in the last quarter century, so many weird things have happened around here we’re surprised nobody’s ever published an article about it. Let’s correct that right now. Here then is a short review, in no particular order, of some of the North Bay’s weirdest events and occurrences from the last 25 years.
The Ass-to-Ass Run
It seems weird now, but then it was good, clean fun. Old-timers from Sonoma County may remember the Brass Ass. Actually, it was the Brass Asses, a pair of pizza places located in Cotati (near what is now Oliver’s Market) and Santa Rosa (in the Montgomery Village shopping center) way back in the ’70s and early ’80s. Some locals are still praying for a Brass Ass resurrection, almost 20 years after the last Ass shut its doors. The Ass is missed for several reasons, One, locals enjoyed saying “Brass Ass.” Two, the pizza–especially the meatball pizza–was to die for. But best of all was the Ass-to-Ass race, an annual marathon that began at the Cotati Ass, stretched over to the Santa Rosa Ass, and back again. An immensely popular event, it reveled in the sheer weird-ass outlandishness of its own name. Those lacking in motivation were permitted to participate in a shortened version of the run, called the Half-Ass, in which runners stopped for beer and pizza in Santa Rosa and never bothered to run back to the starting line. It was, as they say, a more innocent time, when folks were proud of their Asses, and didn’t mind saying so.
Pat Paulsen Declares (Again)
When longtime Sonoma County resident Pat Paulsen declared his candidacy for the 1996 presidential nomination, he became the first “politician” in history to run his campaign on the Internet. The joke, of course, was that Pat Paulsen, a straight-faced comedian who died of brain cancer the following year, had been running for president in just about every presidential election since 1968, when he announced his candidacy on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. For his first few tongue-in-cheek runs at the nomination, Paulsen always declared as a Republican but switched sides somewhere along the way, irritating the Democrats as much as he had once embarrassed the Republicans. The best thing about his final run for the ultimate office, was that, as an Internet candidate, he now stands as the front-runner for best web-produced political stunt. Web surfers who weren’t alive when Paulsen first started running didn’t realize the campaign was a joke. High school reports still frequently cite Pat Paulsen as a high tech political pioneer. Now that’s weird.
A Whale of a Tale in Petaluma
As Petaluma fisherman Doug Tucker once said, “I’ve seen some weird things in the Petaluma river. I’ve seen pink jellyfish. I’ve seen sea lions.” The weirdest thing he’s ever seen in the river however–aside from the occasional drunken yachtsman–was a whale. Call him Humphrey II, after Humphrey the famous humpback who’d gotten himself lost in the Sacramento River in 1985, becoming an instant celebrity. What Tucker and a whole bunch of other camera-toting fans saw was a juvenile gray whale that did indeed swim up the Petaluma River in May of 1994, stopping at the marina to cavort for a few days before being lured back down to the San Francisco Bay. Talk about the one that got away!
Knowing the Unknown
In the mid-1970s, eccentric artist Mickey McGowan established the Unknown Museum in Mill Valley, and with its mysterious towers of TV sets, stacks of discarded lunch boxes, and jars full of formaldehyde-preserved Snoopy dolls, the place instantly became a kind of weirdness central. The subject of numerous articles, books, and television news spots, the museum met its ironic fate in 1984, when the site McGowan had been renting was purchased by Smith and Hawken and became an upscale garden shop. The contents of the museum, now more unknown than ever, are still in storage in San Rafael and continue to accumulate, as McGowan dreams of resurrecting the museum at a new site, sometime in the future. We support such a move. The world could use a shot of that kind of creative weirdness.
Francis Ford Coppola Becomes a Winemaker
In the late 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola was at the height of his filmmaking powers, having transformed himself from a director of crap (Dementia 13, Terror, Finian’s Rainbow) into an artist, crafting four of the best, most important films of the decade (The Conversation, the first two Godfather films, and Apocalypse Now.) Over the last decade, he’s done it again, only more strangely, transforming himself–right here in wine country–from a filmmaking genius into . . . a pasta-sauce guru. OK, he became a winemaking guru before he broke into the pasta-sauce market, but it’s still weird. Those of us who enjoy wine, pasta sauce, and Coppola movies (I admit it! I even own Finian’s Rainbow!) hope that he melds the three into something new and beautiful soon.
Frank Riggs Pepper-Sprays Protesters
Oct. 15, 1997, a group of tree-bark-toting protesters stage a sit-in in the offices of then congressman Frank Riggs, whose hostility toward the environment and environmental protesters becomes national news when he directs police officers to torture the protesters–on film. Using Q-Tips, the officers methodically daub pepper spray into the eyes of the protesters, as they writhe and scream (the protesters, not the officers). In defending this action, which now stands as one of the strangest and most disturbing events to ever take place in a congressman’s office (on camera, anyway), Riggs could only repeat that the protesters were “frightening” and thus deserved what they got. Riggs was not reelected, which was hardly strange at all.
Wes Craven Is Dissed by Santa Rosa
Why do the end credits of the movie Scream contain a potent put-down of Santa Rosa? It’s all because, back when Wes Craven first came to Sonoma County to film his now-classic horror-comedy, the Santa Rosa School Board gave him permission to film at the Santa Rosa High School but then backed out when they decided the final script was too gory to be deemed acceptable. After a whole lot of noise, public debate, and a couple of threatened lawsuits, Craven moved his shoot to the town of Sonoma, where the community center took over the all important role of scene of the crime. Well, one of the scenes, anyway. The crime was that Santa Rosa, once again, received national attention for being even stupider than the average Hollywood movie.
Gun Nut at the Bohemian Grove
It’s hard to say which part is weirder: a heavily armed man in a scary skull mask infiltrating the Bohemian Grove grounds in search of Satanic, baby-sacrificing captains of industry or his choosing to do so when anybody could have told him that the place was pretty much empty, with said captains of industry–who hold a mysterious annual hobnob at the Grove every year–having been gone for months at the time of the infiltration. In January 2002, the self-proclaimed Phantom Patriot (aka Richard McCaslin from Austin, Texas) was arrested after discovering that no humans of any kind were being sacrificed in Satan-worshipping rituals, as he’d been convinced of by watching some underground videotapes obtained on the Internet. Actually, there were hardly any humans in the grove at all–only caretakers and evidently relaxed security people–as the annual meeting had taken place in July. We still don’t know what kind of weirdness takes place at the Grove during those meetings, but now we do know the kind of wackos who buy underground tapes off the Internet. And we know they fit right in, here in the ever unpredictable North Bay.
From the September 4-10, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.