Ojai

All posts by Bret Bradigan

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Fall OQ Celebrates Ojai

Kim Maxwell of KM Studio’s “Townies” Podcast

Welcome to the Neighborhood

‘Townies’ Podcast Shares Ojai Stories With the World

By Jesse Phelps

When the sun exits over western peaks, drenching the Topas in rosé, it’s easy to bask in another moment of Ojai exceptionalism. After a traipse down a mountain stream, or into a gallery filled with local plein air originals, or out of a theater having witnessed a talent-laden performance, it’s easy to think that, yes, this valley is a crazy, special place. It is. And yet, in the immortal words of Donald Fagen, it’s also a “town like any other.”

When Kim Maxwell — she a progenitor of the Ojai Playwrights Conference and the former Theater 150 — launched The Townies Podcast this past spring, she captured that dialectic full force. Here are genuine stories — some fictional, some funny, some painfully personal — read by the writers in an intimate space that, in truth, could only live in this place. And yet, as the name implies, the themes, the details and the truths embodied in each of these parables connect the teller and the listener, the student and the teacher, and maybe this exceptional town, to the equally wondrous outside world.

The 30-minute podcast is organized around diverse themes by co-producers Asa Learmonth and Lily Brown (Maxwell’s daughter, who she calls “sharp as a whip”) such as “Growing Pains,” “Love, Am I Right?” and “We’re Only Human.” There are also a few special episodes that clock in at an hour. It’s tonally eclectic; each episode starts with an opening sketch about the town (one in July playfully addressed the chairs-along-the-avenue controversy) and features a local musical performance. The Townies Podcast drops a new episode every other Tuesday, and as of this writing, there were 15 asking to be explored.

The stories, and the occasional dialog or poem, are the result of a writing process undertaken by each student of a ten-week course taught by Maxwell at her eponymous downtown studio, culminating in a two-night performance run on Friday and Saturday nights. Tickets for those shows, Maxwell says, are just $10, because “theater has become very expensive and very elitist, but young people and elderly people and people who live in the town need to have access to the live arts.”

Maxwell said she never intended to create a podcast but a suggestion from “her dear friend’s friend,” Elizabeth Alvarez, started her thinking about radio, at least, after a reading one Friday night. “The next night when I came back, I sat in the back row and I closed my eyes,” recalls Maxwell. “And I was like, oh my God, this needs to be a radio program.”

About a year later, Maxwell saw a rise in podcasting and realized that it could be the perfect format. She started making recordings but she says she wasn’t in love with the first generation. It took a moment of cultural upheaval to push her to make it happen.

In the lead-up to Donald Trump’s election in November of 2016, Maxwell says, “I felt this gaping need. Not just here but nationwide, everybody not communicating, and feeling disenfranchised and left out and not heard and judged. It felt like empathy needed to be cultivated again. I think, and a lot of studies prove, that stories are the foundation of the development of empathy.”

When she heard former First Lady Michelle Obama ask what people would do as their part of the national dialogue, Maxwell says, “It got crystal clear for me. I don’t know what my part is in the national dialog — but I do know what to do with 800-square-feet in the heart of Ojai.”

At her friend and co-contributor Rain Perry’s suggestion, she took what she had to local sound wizard Ken Eros. He helped her transform the podcast into a professional-level production, and the rest is history. “He’s just created layers and layers of interest and sound that we didn’t have before,” Maxwell says.

Working with her daughter, Eros and Learmonth, who originally came all the way from Bennington College in Vermont to intern at her studio, has been an incredibly special experience. “If any one of my dream team weren’t in place,” she says, “I wouldn’t have a podcast.”

Given her political proclivities and her ability to create a safe space for expression, it may not surprise that many of Maxwell’s students are women (Episode 8, “The Agency of Women” is one of the hour-long special episodes), and/or people of color. And while Ojai has an unfortunate and perhaps well-deserved reputation as a lily-white community, it’s also a town in a county built as much on agriculture as tourism. Maxwell said it was important to her to make sure that a Latino population easily overlooked by some — and, bottom line, a wealth of minority perspectives — were given a forum and a voice.

“Social justice is unbelievably important to me, and also to my daughter,” says Maxwell. “Most of the people who usually end up (at Kim Maxwell Studios) are change agents.”

The majority of people in her class are “in transition,” she says. “There’s something happening in their lives: They have either recently empty-nested, or a husband or wife has passed away, or they lost a job, or they just graduated from college and there are no jobs available. In my teen class, it’s the island of the misfit toys. It’s just a place where you come and you share your story and you realize that you’re just not so different from everyone else.”

That feeling translated to the podcast’s unveiling party at Topa Mountain Winery in March, an event attended by about 400 people despite frigid temperatures (for Ojai, anyway). It was the kind of thing that Maxwell, who grew up in Canada and then moved to Los Angeles before discovering Ojai, came here to find. It didn’t take her long, even back then. “I felt like I flourished artistically, I felt like I flourished as an activist and as a political entity. I felt like I was living a much smaller version of myself when I was in LA,” she remembers.

And that might be at the crux of what makes being a “townie” special, and one of the many reasons Maxwell is a perfect person to facilitate and broadcast these small-town stories, that in the end make both teller and listener larger through the connection they form.

The podcast has a feel of community even within this community; it sometimes seems much like a window into your neighbors’ house, if those neighbors lived in a performers’ commune and spent equal time trying to make one another laugh, think and cry. “The real magic in here happens, one of my students calls it, between the chairs. There’s just this amazing ensemble, this amazing community that builds over the course of ten weeks,” says Maxwell.

Naturally, many of the pieces focus on drama and a love of performance. Just as many, however, delve into more personal topics, and many of these, such as “Siete” (Episode 8, “The Agency of Women,” Litzy’s story of her mother’s immigration to the US, have the power to conjure deep emotional responses in resonance with the performer’s courage and honesty.

Some comedic highlights include local barista Megan Bergkvist’s “The Whole Arbolada” (Episode 5, Our Little Pleasures”), a hilarious story of what happens when a leisurely drive through the oaks goes terribly wrong, and Perry’s story, “Wasted,” (Episode 1, “This Life of Ours”), about the first time this well-respected, multi-talented performer got high as an Ojai teen.

Amaury Saugrain

Ariana Cohen

Doug Green

Emilio Uribe

Emma Bailey

Her students, of course, wax effusive about the time they have spent with Maxwell, and her ability to help them conjure and open up. “The podcast is a little window into the magic,” says Katie Rae Newcomer, who doesn’t live in Ojai but is an “honorary townie” who has taken Maxwell’s workshop for the past couple years and has already appeared three times in the podcast (Episode 2, “We’ve Got Problems,” Episode 7, “I Hate It When You Come Home, Pt. 1,” and Episode 11, “I Hate It When You Come Home, Pt. 2”). “I hope it encourages people to take the class (or something similar in their neighborhood), to take more risks, and to love their fellow man a bit more. Stories connect us. And I think we could all use a little more connection these days.”

That connection, or mutual “permission” to be heard, to listen, and to connect, is Maxwell’s primary aim, and judging by her students’ words on-stage and off, she’s succeeding. One person who has flourished is 79-year-old, 50-year Ojai resident Kathleen Hellwitz, who started as a performance attendee before becoming a generous patron and the closing act in episodes 1 and 8 (so far). “Somehow, she puts ten strangers in the same room and, in the end, we have a common story to tell about life. It’s done in a way that we are not shamed or embarrassed or afraid,” Hellwitz says. “I’d been watching Kim work for about 25 years and become known as the front row lady, because for years I always sat there to watch her students perform. One day I told myself, ‘you’ve got to get off your butt and do something here,’ and I’m glad I did because I’ve never had so much fun in my life.”

Perry, who also performs the podcast’s theme song, agrees—and her story embodies the transitional element Maxwell highlights. “Kim and I have been working together since I first took her class back in the original Theater 150,” Perry says. “I have been a singer-songwriter my whole life, but at that moment I had young kids and I was trying to figure out who I was as a performer. I was in kind of a rut. Her class was a revelation. She taught me techniques I still use to connect with an audience in the places where we are all confused and tender, and those skills have seen me through all kinds of intimidating performance situations.”

Newcomer says, “It was surprisingly emotional to hear my pieces for the first time on the podcast. It felt vulnerable, and it felt brave. I felt very proud of myself and the work I put into each piece (alongside the brilliant and amazingly reassuring Kim, of course). But most of all, I really felt proud of Kim and Lily and the dream they chased down. I am so excited for the magical body of work from our little studio home to be shared with the world. Everyone sounds so wonderful, and all the music is transcendent. It’s just a delight to experience.”

The podcast “has been a little bit of a dream come true, and I didn’t see it coming,” Maxwell says. “Good words are contagious.”

Perhaps Perry sums it best when she says, “I think the podcast is wonderful. It’s about Ojai, but it’s about everybody.” 

Episodes of The Townies Podcast are available through iTunes and at  thetowniespodcast.org.

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The Ranch At Pooh Corner

Kenny Loggins & Jim Messina made several classic recordings at the Mother Lode Ranch.

By Mark Lewis

Back in the 1970s, the popular rock duo Loggins & Messina found a rural refuge on an Ojai ranch. Then the ranch was bought by a relative of Christopher Robin Milne, whose childhood friendship with his stuffed teddy bear inspired one of the duo’s most beloved songs.

In the spring of 1966, Kenny Loggins was a senior at San Gabriel Mission High School, and an aspiring songwriter. As the end of his high-school career approached, he was moved to write a song inspired by the first book he had ever read as a child.

“I wrote it during finals,” he says, in an interview published on his website. “We were coming on graduation, and it reminded me of the last chapter of the book ‘The House At Pooh Corner,’ where Christopher Robin is about to head out and leave Pooh and the Hundred Acre Wood behind.”

The book’s author was an Englishman, A.A. Milne, who was inspired to write it after moving his family from London to a house at the edge of idyllic Ashdown Forest in East Sussex. Here, he took his young son, Christopher Robin Milne, on walks in the forest, and wrote books inspired by the boy’s collection of stuffed animals, which included a teddy bear and a sad-looking donkey. These Winnie-the-Pooh books became enormously popular with children, which eventually prompted Walt Disney to acquire the rights to turn Pooh and his friends into animated cartoon characters. But it was Milne’s book, not Disney’s film, which inspired Loggins to write his song. This is how it begins:

Christopher Robin and I walked along

under branches lit up by the moon.

Posing our questions to Owl and Eeyore

as our days disappeared all too soon.

In the book, Christopher Robin goes away to school, leaving Pooh behind. In real life, Loggins went off to Pasadena City College, but he took his “Pooh Corner” song with him. He already knew he wanted to be a songwriter. What he didn’t know was that he already had written the song that would launch his career.

Three years later, he was hanging around the Troubadour nightclub in West Hollywood, hustling his songs to whoever would listen. He struck pay dirt with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which was looking for material for their next album. In an interview with The Ojai Quarterly, the NGDB’s John McEuen recalls his initial impression of Loggins:  “An exuberant young songwriter was hanging around our dressing room and kept saying ‘Hey! I got some songs! You wanna record some of my songs! Can I play some for you? They’re really good! I think you’ll like them!’ ”

“House At Pooh Corner,” in particular, impressed the band — especially drummer Jimmy Ibbotson, who had loved the Milne books as a child. As for McEuen, he had not been particularly fond of the Pooh books, but he liked the song’s melody and its chord changes — and the story it tells about a person longing to return to a more innocent time in his life:

I’ve wandered much further today than I should

And I can’t seem to find my way back to the wood

So help me if you can, I’ve got to get

back to the house at Pooh Corner by 1 …

The Vietnam War was raging; there were protests and riots and killings. “Pooh Corner” allowed listeners to escape from all the angst, if only for three minutes. 

“It’s a good vacation song for the mind,” McEuen says. “Even if you weren’t a Winnie the Pooh fan, the song takes you away.”

McEuen took Loggins away to the living room of his Laurel Canyon home, where they recorded a seven-song demo on McEuen’s reel-to-reel. “Pooh Corner” was the first one they laid down, and it was one of four Loggins-penned songs that ended up on the NGDB’s 1970 breakthrough album “Uncle Charlie And His Dog Teddy.” “Mr. Bojangles,” written by Jerry Jeff Walker, was the album’s big hit, but Loggins’ “Pooh Corner,” with Ibbotson singing lead, was the follow-up single.

It almost wasn’t released. The Walt Disney Company heard about it and dispatched lawyers to assert the company’s exclusive rights to the Pooh stories. McEuen gave Loggins the bad news, and Loggins shared his disappointment with his girlfriend at the time.

“Disney lawyers?” she asked. “Let me talk to Daddy about that.”

It somehow had escaped Loggins’ notice that his girlfriend’s father was president of the Walt Disney Company. She arranged a meeting at which Loggins played him the song.

“And the next day it was OK,” McEuen says. 

MESSINA SITS IN

As the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band version of “Pooh Corner” began climbing the singles charts in April 1971, Loggins already was recording his own version for his own album. The song had helped him land a recording contract with Columbia Records, which had paired him with a high-powered producer: Jim Messina.

Messina already had produced (and played with) Buffalo Springfield, and had co-founded Poco, which was pioneering a new genre; country rock. But Messina had recently quit Poco because he wanted to stop touring and be a full-time producer.

“It ended up that the first artist he wanted to produce was Kenny,” says Jenny Sullivan, the actress and theater director, who was married to Messina at the time.

Unlike Loggins, Messina had not read the Milne books. His childhood tastes ran more to TV westerns.

“I must admit that at the same age that Kenny was into Winnie the Pooh, I was into Hopalong Cassidy,” he says. “Hence my subsequent interest in country-rock music.”

Loggins’ Pooh song fell more into the folk-rock category. But it was too good not to use, especially after the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had made it a hit. 

Messina’s contributions to the album went well beyond producing, to the point that he and Loggins decided to release it under both their names, as a duo: “Kenny Loggins With Jim Messina Sittin’ In.” Three years and three hit albums later, Loggins & Messina was an established success. But Jim Messina had had enough of life in L.A. He wanted to live closer to nature.

“My father-in-law, Barry Sullivan, suggested we take a look at Ojai,” Messina says.

Barry Sullivan was a well-known movie actor and a golf enthusiast who had long enjoyed staying at the Ojai Valley Inn. His daughter Jenny remembered spending family holidays at the Inn when she was young, and later returning to Ojai as a high-school tennis player to compete in The Ojai annual tournament. Now, early in 1974, she found herself returning as a resident.

She and Messina found the perfect spot — the Cim-Bam Ranch, a former Arabian horse farm that sprawled across 20 acres in the hills high above Creek Road, just south of the village. They plunked down $200,000 in cash for it, and renamed it the Mother Lode Ranch.

“That was exactly what we were looking for,” Sullivan says.

Messina agreed, especially when he saw the stables, which could be converted into a bunkhouse for visiting musicians. Part of Ojai’s appeal for Messina was that he could corral Loggins and their backing band on this isolated ranch and focus on making albums without all the distractions of big-city living.

“We turned all the stalls and stables into little guest rooms,” he says. “We turned the main house into a recording facility.”

The band made three albums there from 1974 to 1976: “Mother Lode,” “So Fine” and “Native Sons.” These three years constitute a legendary era among many Ojai musicians who came of age in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, who suddenly found themselves rubbing shoulders with honest-to-God rock stars in their midst. (Loggins lived in Santa Barbara but spent much time in Ojai, where he rented a cottage in what is now the Troy Lodge Cottages (on Mallory Way). Loggins & Messina were riding high on the national charts — Their live album “On Stage” rose to No. 5 in 1974, with “Pooh Corner” as the lead-off track. Yet they happily socialized — and made music — with local musicians such as Alan Thornhill, forging connections that endure to this day.

“They were very accessible,” Thornhill says. “It was a very cool scene.”

They were regulars at the Ranch House restaurant, at the Matilija and Wheeler Hot Springs resorts, and in such places as the Solar Winds health-food store. Loggins would jump on stage at the Sand Dollar (now the Asian Fusion Garden) to jam with the Country Z Men, a local band whose lineup included Thornhill and Martin Young — and bass player George Hawkins, who later toured with Loggins & Messina as part of their backing band.

Sullivan and Messina also took an interest in the Art Center, where Sullivan tried her hand at directing plays, including a Christmas show featuring her father and a staging of  “The Gin Game” featuring her mother, Marie Sullivan. “And I found that I really liked it,” she says. This was the start of Sullivan’s distinguished career as a theater director. (She directed last year’s well-received Rubicon Theatre production of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”)

“Jimmy and Jenny were top-of-the-line folks,” says Scott Eckersley, who did a lot of work for the Messinas on their ranch. He installed a hot tub, helped to build a barn, and carved a bunch of wooden signs, most prominently the“Mother Lode Ranch” sign that hung over the entrance to the driveway. He also socialized there with the Messinas and their guests.

“I was there a lot,” he says. “I smoked a joint on the porch one time with Graham Nash.”

Another time, Eckersley and his wife were hosting Loggins for dinner at their home when the singer’s muse suddenly kicked in.

“He jumped up from the dinner table and started writing a song,” Eckersley recalls. The song — “Brighter Days” — ended up on the “Mother Lode” album.

Messina, meanwhile, had written “Be Free” for “Mother Lode,” which he describes as “the soundtrack” of his time in Ojai. The song is about a man stuck in the city who yearns to escape to the country:

I want to get away and live  my life

in the rivers and trees.

I want to spend the days making rhyme

and be free.

Ojai was Messina’s refuge from L.A., but at the same time, his and Jenny’s presence here brought a touch of L.A. rock ‘n’ roll glamour to Ojai — especially on July 14, 1974, when the couple hosted the wedding of Jenny’s sister Patsy Sullivan to the songwriter Jimmy Webb, composer of “MacArthur Park” and other classic hits. Several rock stars were among the reported 400 guests at the ranch that day, including Joni Mitchell, Harry Nilsson and Johnny Rivers. The bride arrived in the vintage Rolls Royce that James Dean had used in the movie “Giant,” and there was also a tethered hot-air balloon on hand (because Webb had written the Fifth Dimension hit “Up, Up and Away”).

“It was quite the splashy event,” Sullivan recalls.

It was big news in Ojai, for sure. People tried to crash the party as though it were Woodstock.

“We had guards everywhere,” Eckersley says.

The Loggins & Messina era in Ojai eventually came to an end due to two mostly amicable divorces: that of Loggins and Messina, who went their separate professional ways in 1976, and that of Messina and Sullivan, who split up a couple of years later. Whoever bought the ranch from them in 1978 did not keep it long, because a year later it was sold again — to a buyer named Milne.

THE TWENTY-

ACRE WOOD

Mimi Milne did not read the Pooh books as a child, but she knew she had some sort of connection with them because of something that happened when she was 9 or 10 and visiting her paternal grandfather.

“He pulled out a book with ‘A.A. Milne’ on the front of it and he said, ‘This is my uncle.’ ”

Or perhaps he said “cousin.” Anyway he asserted the family connection, which Mimi in later years enjoyed sharing with people who were intrigued by her last name.

“People would say to me, ‘Oh, are you related to A.A. Milne?’ And I’d say, ‘As a matter of fact I am!’”

Mimi’s father, Frank Milne, never talked about the Winnie the Pooh connection. He was more interested in telling stories about his own very interesting life.

Frank Stanley Milne was born in 1910 on Blue Bell Hill in Kent in England, not far from Ashdown Forest. But there is no evidence that Frank ever met his cousin A.A. Milne, and he definitely never met A.A.’s son Christopher Robin, who was born in 1920. By that point, Frank’s father already had packed up his family and emigrated from England, eventually settling in Portland, Ore.

Frank’s colorful career included a stint as a bootlegger during Prohibition. Later, he served with the Army in Europe during World War II. After the war he hired on with Harry Mann Chevrolet in Los Angeles, where he worked his way up to general manager and eventually bought the dealership.

When Chevrolet introduced its Corvette sports car in 1953, Frank Milne was quick to spot its potential. Under his leadership, Harry Mann became reportedly the largest Corvette dealer in America.

“He was Mr. Corvette,” Mimi says of her father. “When the Corvette came out, he just zeroed in on it. He said, ‘This is going to be the future of Chevrolet.’ ”

In 1979, Frank was pushing 70 and still going strong at the dealership, but he was receptive when his wife, Eva, told him she wanted to buy a ranch in Ojai. According to Mimi, Eva arrived at this decision while she was staying at the Oaks at Ojai spa. She went for a walk along Creek Road and had an epiphany near the driveway of her future home.

  “She said ‘Yes, a place like this.’ She got back to the spa and she called David Mason,” Mimi recalls. “He says, ‘Oh, I have a perfect place for you.’ They drove up tdriveway and she said, ‘This is it.’ “

Mason recalls it a little differently.

“I sold it to them because of a silver teapot,” he says.

The teapot was an item for sale in his Village Florist shop in the Arcade. (Mason also sold real estate on the side.) Eva came into the shop one day and admired the teapot, and they struck up a friendship.

“She’s probably one of the nicest people I’ve ever known,” he says.

When she told him she wanted to buy a ranch in Ojai, he showed her two places she liked: The property on Creek Road and another on Carne Road in the East End. Eva then had Mason show both places to her husband, and Frank voted for the erstwhile Mother Lode Ranch. He cashed in his collection of gold Krugerrands and bought it.

“He just fell in love with it,” Mason says. “When Frank and Eva bought it, I wrapped up that silver teapot and gave it to them as a housewarming gift.”

Mimi soon followed her parents to Ojai, establishing her Bird in Paradise clothing store on East Matilija Street in the space now occupied by the Porch Gallery. (Mimi’s current business is Ojai Chocolat.) She didn’t live on her parents’ Creek Road property, which they called Oak Tree Ranch, but she spent a lot of time there.

“We used to have great parties up there,” she says.

Eva, an organic gardener, gave lessons on how to compost. Frank was notable in Ojai for his collection of sports cars — not just Corvettes but a Ferrari and a Lamborghini, most of them painted a vivid red. His brother Doug Milne moved in and spent years working on a biography of Howard Hughes, which he never published.

The Milnes became aware of the Loggins & Messina connection to the ranch when a nostalgic Jim Messina dropped by one day to have a look around.

“Years ago, he came up and talked to my Mom and Dad,” Mimi says.

None of them noticed the coincidence that linked the Milne name to the beloved Loggins & Messina song “House At Pooh Corner.” Mimi was not present for this conversation, but if she had been, she probably wouldn’t have made the connection either. She was familiar with Loggins & Messina, but had not noticed that one of their songs was inspired by the work of her father’s famous relative.

“I knew their music because it was of the time,” she says. “But I never really paid that much attention to the song.”

RETURN TO POOH CORNER

“I put in this fence.”

Scott Eckersley indicates his handiwork — the picket fence, the barn, the hot tub hut. It is May 2017, and he has not set foot on the former Mother Lode Ranch in almost 40 years. On a table near the swimming pool sits a photo album, opened to reveal a glossy of Jimmy Webb and Patsy Sullivan exchanging their vows there back in 1974, with two long-haired blondes in the background: Joni Mitchell to the left, Ojai’s own Martin Young to the right.

“That’s Martin,” Eckersley says, smiling. 

Frank Milne died in 2008, at 98. Eva still lives on the ranch. There have been many changes over the years, but the same buildings are still there, and the pool, and the magnificent view.     

Jim Messina weighs in via phone and email from his Santa Ynez ranch: “Please extend my love to the people of the Ojai Valley for making my life and Jenny’s a whole lot better because of their community, friendship and support.”

Messina is not just being polite. He still has all those wooden signs Eckersley carved for him, which now adorn his barn in Santa Ynez. He looks back fondly on his Mother Lode Ranch period, when Ojai played the role of the Hundred Acre Wood, providing an idyllic refuge for him and Jenny and their friends, until — like Christopher Robin — they had to move on.

“It was a really creative spot,” he says.

Messina and his second wife have put their Santa Ynez place up for sale and are preparing to move to a ranch in Montana. But he’ll take at least one Ojai souvenir with him: Eckersley’s “Mother Lode Ranch” sign.

“We’ve got to do that,” he says. “We’ll put it up on the barn someplace.”

Loggins could not be reached for an interview, but he regularly drives to Ojai from his home near Santa Barbara to make albums at Brotheryn Studios on Bryant Street.

“He still comes here constantly,” says his producer, Brotheryn’s Jesse Siebenberg (who as a musician has toured separately with Loggins, Messina and John McEuen).

Loggins also frequently revisits his song “House At Pooh Corner.” After he became a father, he wrote a new verse and re-recorded it as “Return To Pooh Corner,” the title song on his 1994 album aimed at children. Six years later he released a similar album,More Songs From Pooh Corner.” He sang the song during his reunion tours with Messina in 2005 and 2009, and it remains a staple of his live shows.

The same is true of John McEuen, who still performs the song with his sons Jonathan and Nathan, both of who are longtime veterans of the Ventura County music scene. (Jonathan’s upcoming album currently is being mixed in Ojai.)

Jonathan McEuen says he learned the “House On Pooh Corner” song by listening to the original reel-to-reel demo Loggins recorded in John McEuen’s living room all those years ago. John, Jonathan and Nathan performed it live in Ojai last September at the Topa Mountain Winery, where they introduced the song to a new generation of Winnie the Pooh fans.

“There were a lot of kids there,” Jonathan says. “They loved it!”

The McCuens at Topa Mountain Winery.

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Ojai’s Favorite Son

Bill Paxton, 1955 to 2017

By Mark Frost

Ask around and you’ll find almost everybody in town has a story about Bill. A friendly encounter in line at the post office. A sideline chat between parents at a soccer or rec league basketball game. A surprise appearance, raising people’s spirits at a post-mortem election dinner. All united by a common takeaway: Pleasant surprise that he seemed so friendly, so real, so down-to-earth, so interested in you. So “not-Hollywood.”

Ojai’s attracted more than its share of show business “royalty” over the years, all the way back to the silent era, when child mega-star Jackie Coogan cruised through town in his chauffeured Rolls, or Charlie Chaplin and Great Garbo showed up for lunch with Krishnamurti. A steady stream of “fame refugees” have sought sanctuary here ever since, a retreat from the pressures of the grinding, cutthroat business lurking behind Hollywood’s phony glamorous façade. The valley’s reputation as a healing center, a place to lick your wounds, or seek your true “self” is more than genuine. The ideal spot for that “second home” to strike a balance with the bruising rough-and-tumble of Tinseltown. That quest has delivered a succession of stars to the doorsteps of our finest realtors and frequently straight into escrow. More often than not these seekers end up bouncing right back out again, within a year or two or five. Not the “right fit.” Too — what’s the right word — “rustic.” More often than you’d imagine the lack of “restaurant diversity” is mentioned. And so the restless celebrities continue their search for sanctuary elsewhere.

Sometimes, truth be told, and by whatever quasi-mystical means one might use to describe such a deliberation, it seems the valley decides you’re not right for it. (And — per Seinfeld — not that there’s anything wrong with that.) The folks who stick around come to feel that, for a wide variety of reasons, they belong here. Those who don’t move on. And the valley, through some sub-sonic frequency, quietly affirms the call.

   

Bill and Louise Paxton, young newlyweds, found Ojai in 1991. They bought a rambling, ramshackle ranch house out in the — then — not quite as fashionable East End. Most recently owned by a successful screenwriter, before that it had been home to a die-hard commune of alternate-lifestyle hippies, and before that, when it was built in the ‘40s, a citrus rancher’s modest bungalow. Far from a household name at that point, Bill was just beginning to make his mark in memorable supporting roles, most notably for his friend director Jim Cameron in “Aliens.” The couple fell in love with the Ojai Valley, the solitude, peace and quiet, languorous rhythms and seductive beauty. The valley welcomed them. Surrounded by citrus and avocado groves, they put down roots.

Bill hailed from Fort Worth, Texas, the son of John Paxton, a prosperous businessman from Kansas City who’d inherited and successfully carried on his father’s firm, selling hardwood to furniture manufacturers throughout the mid-South. After John married Mary Lou Gray, a former model and fashion director for a Chicago department store chain, they moved to Fort Worth — a more central location for John’s expanding business — and raised their four kids. Bill always credited his parents with providing a worldly education, steeped in high and popular culture, with a deep appreciation of literature, as well as the fine and performing arts. John was not only becoming a serious collector of some of America’s best artists, he secretly harbored a childhood passion he would only get a chance to indulge years after his retirement: he wanted to be in the movies. Over time that dream slowly seeped its way into young Bill’s ideas for his own future as well.

Letters of introduction from John to some of the screen’s golden age luminaries like Howard Hawks and Hal Wallis — friendships his dad had fostered on the course at Shady Oaks Country Club in Fort Worth, Ben Hogan’s home turf — brought Bill west to Hollywood after high school at the age of 18. He knocked around for a while without much luck, then gave New York University’s theater department a year, before landing back in Los Angeles for good. He fell in with a group of like-minded actors, writers and musicians, made a splash with some music videos he directed — one, “Fish Heads,” was broadcast on Saturday Night Live — and by happenstance found his first real break working in the art department of a forgettable Roger Corman sci-fi quickie. He quickly impressed the Canadian-born production designer on that picture with his boundless energy and cheerful can-do attitude, and an enduring friendship was born. That commanding, no-nonsense fellow was James Cameron. 

A few years later, while in London shooting one of his first supporting parts in a studio picture, “The Lords of Discipline,” Bill spotted a lovely young English woman waiting for a bus. Their eyes met for a moment, and in a flash Bill jumped on board after her and turned on the charm without even knowing where the bus was headed. “Twickenham, it turned out,” he’d say with a grin. “Wherever that was. But faint heart never won fair lady.” Five years later they were married.

As Bill’s career advanced — work that would eventually take him around the world, building a body of work whose range and popularity rivals that of any actor of his generation — the Paxtons restored that East End ranch house to suit their down-home needs and tastes, and fashioned the perfect place to raise a family. Their son James joined them there in 1994; daughter Lydia followed three years later. Over the years, as more opportunities arrived, Bill’s career strategy evolved from “say yes to everything” to the luxury of picking and choosing. He often turned to fellow actor and Ojai neighbor Malcolm McDowell – one of Bill’s acting idols — for career advice.

“At that point in his life Bill was a wild stallion, running on adrenaline and moxie,” Malcolm recalled recently. “But he’d started to realize he needed a bit of craft to go with it, and to his credit he worked hard to get it.”

When more studio jobs followed, Bill found he could afford to become more selective about the leading roles starting to come his way in independent pictures. A sea change in the movie business had begun: As the majors morphed into purely corporate enterprises they turned more and more to global audiences for their core business. A swing-for-the-fences mentality gradually took over the executive suites but bigger budgets meant studios needed to downsize their risk; a steady stream of “B” pictures with “A+” budgets became the strategic center of their portfolio. But an impulse within the creative community to keep on creating “cinema” for an audience still interested in grown-up, provocative pictures persisted. In these years before the rise of premium cable on television – which would ultimately replace them – the late ‘80s and ‘90s became a kind of mini-golden age for the American art house movie.

As one of the few actors who kept a foot in both the mainstream and independent world, this enabled the more artistically ambitious side of Bill’s instincts to find his way. He developed an eye for sharp material, not just for the part on offer, but for the story: Interesting, complex characters who were there to serve a good narrative or theme, not the other way around, and many of his choices were memorable: a punk urban vampire in “Near Dark,” the haunted sheriff in “One False Move,” leader of a down-home family of grifters in “Traveler,” the morally troubled older brother in “A Simple Plan.” All films willing to consider and explore the darker side of the American dream. A clear aesthetic had emerged through these choices, and this dual track strategy led him inevitably toward a desire to produce and eventually direct. His directorial debut in 2001 — “Frailty,” a disturbing Southern Gothic horror story about toxic distortions of religion and masculinity  — confirmed the conclusion: Bill was a filmmaker.

       

A big part of what grounded Bill — and what made him so accessible and likeable on screen — came from the distance he continued to maintain between his personal and professional selves. Keeping his home and family life in Ojai throughout his career, away from the PR nonsense and castle intrigues of movie business politics, helped his equilibrium. As a group, movie stars run an occupational risk of commoditizing themselves into reliable “products” that studios lean on to sell tickets. Nowhere near as much fun as it’s conventionally perceived, it’s a far from enviable existence that can isolate and separate these quasi-mythical demi-gods from the prosaic joys of everyday existence. “Fame” — that elixir our culture reveres as a means to escape or defy whatever troubles vex us — is in many ways deranging.

That Bill had worked his way up on the other side of the camera — performing virtually every job on a picture — helped inoculate him against its perils. Even when he’d climbed to the pinnacle, the rarified position in the business known as Number One on the call sheet — AKA “leading man” — he insisted on seeing himself as just another member of the crew. Every project develops its own particular culture over time and Bill loved the nomadic camaraderie of life on the set, but he’d learned that its tone and chemistry depended on the attitude of the people at the top of the sheet; producers, directors, leads. He made a point, in the early days of any picture, to learn every last person’s name. Making the set a better workplace doesn’t guarantee a better outcome, but it helps create a better human environment in which good work can thrive. The creation and maintenance of that culture mattered to him, an attitude far from universal in the business. The notion of hundreds of artists united in the pursuit of a common artistic vision may sound hopelessly idealistic in such a bottom-line business, but if your goal is to entertain or inspire your fellow human beings, why settle for anything less?

My time with Bill began 15 years ago. He’d made a movie with my sister 10 years earlier, we knew each other’s work and had a lot of friends in common, but we’d never met. The occasion: he wanted to direct a picture I’d written, based on a book of mine, and I came away thinking: So that’s what happened to Huck Finn when he grew up. From the start I knew he was either going to sell me something I didn’t even know I wanted to buy, or we were going to go paint a fence together. The first time you meet him and he gives you his full attention it was a little like being caught in high beams. He was a top-shelf salesman, a skill integral to his principal occupation; this was also, I learned later, a legacy from his father. He seemed so high energy, alive to the moment, and available; but this wasn’t just about selling. I later realized he was like that every other time you were with him, too.

So we ended up painting that fence, when he directed “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” We had a supportive studio and a budget that was more than adequate to the task but wasn’t going to cause them any sleepless nights, and we were on a somewhat distant location in Montreal, doubling for early 20th century Boston. But Disney’s lack of heavy-handed oversight or creative interference owed more to the crystal clear impression of clarity and control they received from Bill’s leadership. He was brilliant with casting and actors and crew. His instincts for picking the right department heads were unerring and he enabled them to do their finest work. He had cast iron stamina — honestly, the sheer weight of the job half-kills you; you give over your entire life to it — but throughout he appeared to have the energy of five men. He was tenacious and he could be fierce in defense of his ideas but was invariably open to the possibility of a better one, no matter where it came from, and he was always able to hold his over-all conception and design in every particular. I’ve never worked with a director who was more committed to getting every single detail exactly right.

The white-hot maelstrom of film production is always a potent revealer of character, but a casual trip to an art museum with Bill one Sunday proved revelatory: I learned his life had, from the start, always been dedicated to art. He was a serious collector of serious painters, another gift from his father — who was a very serious collector and had raised Bill to become a patron of the arts. According to his good friend, renowned artist and Ojai neighbor Mick Reinman, the result was clear: Bill had a discerning, expert eye.

“It showed in his own collection,” says Mick. “He didn’t buy off the rack. It was all eclectic, personal, particular to him. He learned the habit of studying and buying art from his dad, but he ran with it further. It was in his blood. And he was a really talented artist himself. Every time he took a cell phone picture it looked like art. The book of writings and drawings he did about his trips down to the Titanic for that documentary with Jim Cameron is exquisite stuff.”

A good working definition of an artist is someone who goes through life refining their ability to perceive truth and beauty in the world and in people, and communicating that in the work they produce. Although he was invariably modest about his own abilities — he always insisted on calling himself a craftsman — by this criteria Bill was an artist in the fullest sense of the word. Directing a movie brings together every discipline of the arts into one comprehensive effort — it’s as demanding a profession as you could hope to find, to the degree that only a rare handful ever master it. If you had to reduce it to a single quality it might be this: film directing is, quite simply, the possession — and ability to effectively convey to others — of good taste. Another close friend and colleague, David Blocker, produced both of Bill’s films.

“To most people, Bill’s filmmaking talents were overshadowed by his acting achievements, but Bill was an incredibly talented director,” says David. “He had great passion for film and his knowledge of all the arts was vast. People might not have known that about him because of the easy way he carried himself, but he had a deep comprehension and understanding that always surprised the experts working in his filmmaking orbit. He was a monumental talent in front of and behind the camera.”

Bill’s favorite metaphor for film directing was an orchestra conductor; you clearly don’t know how to play every instrument as expertly as each individual artist, but you had damn well better know enough about it to persuade them to play the music the way you believe it ought to be heard. That’s the heart of the job of the person in that rickety canvasback chair with their name on it. Although he developed a number of other projects, including one that was close to going into production, “Greatest Game” turned out to be the last movie Bill ever directed. This is another genuine loss, as he already shared a characteristic common with every exceptional filmmaker: he applied to every aspect of the process a ferocious commitment to rooting out the truth of what the scene was trying to say, what the character was trying to say, what the line was trying to say, and how his next shot was going to service all of the above.

   

So, a year and a half of your life goes by, utterly consumed. You go out on the road to sell the finished picture — as you might suspect, this part came easily, second nature to Bill. Then you wait. In our case, the opening weekend was disappointing. The studio had already confessed they weren’t entirely sure how to market a period golf picture to a “modern, four-quadrant audience.” You steel yourself to the possibility of disappointment, but when you get that call on the first Saturday morning and the numbers aren’t what everyone had hoped for it breaks off a little piece of your heart.

And that’s, as they say, show business. The experience recedes into the distance.  Often, usually, that’s the end of it. Relationships fade. You might catch the picture on cable some day down the road. Maybe you’ll watch, maybe you’ll switch it off. The memories, given the outcome, might be too painful. But a funny thing happened to “Greatest Game” once it made its way into the DVD and home video market. It landed. Found the audience that had been there for it all along. Within two years it had turned a profit. The Golf Channel made it a centerpiece of their play list. Fans of the game, fans of the genre, people who knew nothing about the sport at all, started calling it a classic. The same description that Bill had always been convinced it could one day achieve.

A few years later we attended a special screening together in Boston — the occasion was the 100th anniversary of the real event the book and film had celebrated, the victory of Francis Ouimet, the first American-born US Open Champion in 1913. Later in life, Francis started an educational charity to help poor kids who’d worked as caddies get a college education. Today the Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund gives away over a million dollars a year to deserving recipients in Massachusetts. Five thousand people packed the Boston convention center that night, and as a bonus we spent a full day with the Fund’s other honoree, the King himself, Arnold Palmer. Six years after the fact, Bill got to take the victory lap he deserved.

We took a walk down Boylston Street that night. It was a few weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing. The street was lined with flags and posters for “Boston Strong,” and near the explosion sites, piles of shoes. Sobered, we hardly said a word. In an uncertain world, the resilience and character of the city that had produced Francis Ouimet was on full display. “Ain’t that America,” Bill said.     

The year before my family and I had moved from LA to Ojai. Bill’s relentless salesmanship about the valley had, over time, proved irresistible. Lucky us. We found the place we’ve called home every since, and the welcome Bill and Louise provided to “Shangri-La” – seen through their eyes — made that feel like it had always been here waiting for us.

   

Bill had a lot of gifts, but arguably his greatest was his gift for friendship. Most of those close pals he’d knocked around with during his salad days in LA — the fellow dreamers you so easily lose touch with once success waves its wand at you — were still part of his life. The longer you knew him the more you came to realize he possessed an astonishingly wide range of acquaintanceship. If you were ever out in public with him, and saw the kind, self-effacing and graceful way he interacted with people who approached him, you’d instantly know why. He was interested in everything and everybody in a way that said we’re no different, we’re all brothers and sisters. We may be standing in different places, but we’re all on the same ground.

Bill Paxton was utterly unique and at the same time he seemed like… everybody. He had some kind of primal American DNA stamped on his soul. That helps explain his range; over four decades he played nearly everybody. One of the reasons folks loved Bill so much on screen is that just about everybody could see a piece of themselves in him. I think there was another reason as well: He was a genuinely good person and, in the mysterious alchemy that occurs between lens and subject, the camera read that like an MRI.

I’ve also come to think that, in any age, Bill would have had a memorable career on our silver screens. The studio system would’ve known exactly how to utilize his prototypical American nature and his particular set of skills, perhaps even more efficiently than in these last 40 years. Who knows? His presence was so vivid, so vital and full of life that people at any time and place would have responded to him in the same way.

The downside now — for those of us who knew him personally — is that his absence is equally oversized. His sudden, tragic loss still shocks and bewilders, feels senseless and strange. On a local level, he’d woven his life into our community, drawn strength and derived character from it, and given both in return. It might be nothing more than the filter of my own idiosyncratic response, because of his key role in bringing us here, but for me Bill and our town remain woven together, in some fundamental way, inseparable. We’d seen a good amount of each other over the last few years. He was used to a high-octane pace and had a somewhat restless soul but it’s comforting to know that he appeared to have recently reached a pleased and peaceful place in his life, taking stock, appreciative, feeling blessed. He and Louise seemed closer than ever. James and Lydia had both left the nest, successfully taking their first steps into adulthood. Whatever demons Bill wrestled with over time — and every artist does — it seemed that he’d gained the upper hand. That was good to hear and know and, now, remember. The valley is laden with memories of good times spent with him here for me, as it is for all his friends. Over time, the sense of loss they carry with them will surely undergo some sort of alchemical transformation into gratitude, bank into the kind of warmer flame that sustains you through colder days.

That’s my hope, anyway.

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The Case of the Missing Alibi

Photo of Robert Clark by Erle Stanley Gardner, taken the night of his first election as Ventura County Sheriff in November 1922.

Intro By Patricia Clark Doerner

Bob Clark’s father, Michael Hugh Clark, lost his mother during the Great Irish Famine.  In 1858, he boarded the CALHOUN, departing for New York, settling in Wisconsin, with his two siblings, Tom and Winefred.*  When he got word of the Irish Brigades forming in New York, under the direction of Irish Revolutionary Thomas Francis Meagher, he left immediately to join the Union Army under Brigadier General Meagher; the secondary purpose, so stated by all, was to gain fighting skill sufficient to recapture Ireland from the British.  Unfortunately, soon after enlisting, he was captured by the Confederates.  The defining moments of his life were spent In Andersonville, where he, along with the other prisoners, searched feces for scraps of undigested kernels of corn.   

When he was released, he married Margaret Lynch.  She was a quiet little woman, loved him dearly, but could not help him escape the demons that haunted him.  None of his children, reported Cousin Howard Bald, could remember seeing him smile.  By the time the youngest son, Robert Emmett “Bob” Clark arrived in the family, Michael Hugh had virtually disappeared into the Backcountry.  The older boys supported their mother and the younger children.  Bob thus escaped the brooding savagery of his father, and took to his own pursuits: dare-devil racing his stagecoach (the stories abound); joining the newly formed Forest Rangers, being stationed in Castaic with his new bride and, while there, settling the long-standing Jenkins-Chormicle Feud—another story for another time.

Throughout his many adventures, Bob made even more friends, one of them being Erle Stanley Gardner, who wrote the following story.  It was Gardner, well-known author of the Perry Mason series, who shot the obviously staged photo of Bob on November 7, 1922, the night Bob was first elected Sheriff of Ventura County.

*All three siblings, Michael Hugh, Tom and Winefred (Thompson) eventually settled in the Ojai Valley.

By Erle Stanley Gardner

So sensitive is the balance of justice that sometimes the slightest thing — something as slight even as a puff of summer breeze — has been known to upset that balance.

That is precisely what happened one time, years ago, up in the bailiwick of my good friend Bob Clark, in Ventura County, California.  And had it not been that Bob Clark — one of the greatest law enforcement officers ever to pin on a badge — pursued that puff of wind to an astonishing discovery, the freedom of an innocent man would have been sacrificed.  The entire course of a human life would have been unjustly altered.

But that is the kind of man “Red Bob” was, and is, although he now is retired from the field of endeavor to which he devoted many years. Over those years, Bob hung up a record seldom equaled. It is a record in which he, although a policeman extraordinary, often worked as hard and as doggedly to prove a man innocent as he did to establish his guilt — if the evidence raised a doubt as to the latter.

Bob was elected sheriff of Ventura County in 1922, at a time when the only police force in the county was in the city of Oxnard. I was practicing law in Oxnard at the time, and came to know Bob and his methods of working well.  In the rest of the county he and his two deputies were the only law. And the county embraces a geographical area nearly as large as some of our eastern states.

During the noon hour, one hot summer day in the early 1920s, three men entered the bank of Hueneme, a small town a few miles from Ventura. In the bank at the time were only the cashier, the vice president and two girl clerks.

The invaders pulled pistols and forced this quartet back into the directors’ room in the rear. Then the three men grabbed up $12,000 in gold from the vault and fled.  They made a clean get-away, since the bank employees carefully obeyed the robbers’ instructions to remain silently in the room for a full 30 minutes.

So it was more than an hour after the robbery before Bob Clark got to the scene.  He quickly decided the gang must have had a hideout some place which they could reach within the 30-minute interval they had specified to their victims. Therefore, he made no attempt to launch an immediate chase.

He showed the holdup victims photographs of known bank robbers who had operated in the area in the past. They made a positive identification of a man we will call Knox, who was living in Stockton, over 300 miles from Hueneme.

Knox was arrested and Bob began some adroit questioning, without revealing the exact nature of the crime in which he was interested. He probed into the suspect’s movements before, during and after the time of the robbery.

Knox would account for his time the day before and the day after, but he could not remember where he was the rest of the week. To an experienced officer like Bob Clark this was a memory pattern just a little too convenient.  It was the story of a typical alibi of a guilty man trying to cover his wrongdoing.  So he was now even more convinced that Knox was the man he wanted.

Knox knew he was in real trouble and began to tax his brain to recall his whereabouts on the day of the robbery. 

And then it came to him!  He had been in Stockton helping dig a basement under his sister’s house.

“Can you prove it?” Bob Clark asked. “My sister will tell you it’s true,” Knox said.

But Bob knew the word of a near relative must be somewhat discounted in a situation like this. Most people will stretch the truth in an effort to save a loved one in trouble. There must be something else!

Then Knox remembered that there was something else.

In the first place, he had needed some cement and forms and had stopped by a lumber yard to purchase these. But it was a cash sale.

The chances that the clerk would remember Knox — or the day the purchase was made — were remote.

Knox desperately cudgeled his wits and remembered something further he’d done that day in Stockton.

He had received notice that the power company was going to turn off his lights if he didn’t pay the bill. So he drew an advance wage from his sister to make this payment. He had gone to the power company office during the noon hour.  The clerk, an attractive blonde, wasn’t too friendly, since the bill was long overdue.

He had handed her the money and the bill. The latter was muddy and covered with cement, having fallen out of his pocket while they were pouring the basement walls. The bill was so smudged and dirty, he remembered, that instead of trying to mark it “paid” as was the routine practice, the blonde clerk wrote him a receipt from her book.

But he hadn’t bothered to keep the receipt.

“She crumpled up the muddy bill,” Knox told Clark as he tried desperately to recall every tiny incident that might support his story. “She tossed it into the wastebasket, and then…

He stopped and his eyes began to widen.

“And then what happened?” Clark said.

“The wind!” Knox almost shouted.  “A gust of wind came in the window and blew the bill aside. It never landed in the basket!”

Clark, a little skeptical, began to question Knox minutely on this fantastic new bit of recollection. He neither discredited nor accepted it. He could have tossed aside the incredible fragments the suspect began to dredge up from his tortured memory. He could have proceeded against Knox on the strength of the bank employees’ identification.

But he didn’t.

Knox told him he now remembered seeing the muddy slip of paper veer in the gust of breeze and flutter toward a half-open drawer beside the basket.

“It must have hit the open drawer,” Knox said, wincing as he realized how weak a straw he was seizing.

“I remember seeing it hit the side of the drawer.  If it fell inside and is still there, you can prove my story’s true.”

Slender as the likelihood of truth appeared to be, Clark felt it should not be cast aside untested. He and his prisoner drove the 300 miles to Stockton and went to the utility office. They met a cool reception and eventually a snotty rebuff from the blonde clerk. But the manager was more cooperative when he heard the story. With a thinly veiled grin of disbelief, he led them back to the girl’s desk.

“This the drawer?” the amused manager asked. Knox said it was. The manager pulled it open and rifled through a pile of papers it contained.

The muddy bill was not there.

Knox sagged against the desk. The trace of amusement began to fade from the manager’s face and he looked at the two men as if he were beginning to doubt the sanity of everyone involved, including himself.

“Pull it all the way out,” Bob said.

The doubting manager complied. Bob knelt and thrust his hand deep into the interior of the drawer niche. Then a  broad grin spread across his face. He pulled forth a crumpled bit of paper, smudged gray with dried cement.

It took only a moment then to check the receipt files of the clerk and determine that the bill had been paid on the date in question.  But that was no proof that Knox had paid it in person. The clerk had no recollection of who had paid the bill.

Only the muddy slip of paper, which had planed down in the gust of breeze and lodged incredibly between the drawer and the desk niche that contained it, proved that Knox had told the truth.

And only the persistence of Bob Clark, an officer who put aside the temptation of an easy conviction to trace down every tiniest possibility of truth, saved Knox from a life sentence, which he figured to draw because of his previous bad record.

The next-to-final trick in the game was played when a man was arrested later and led Bob to a secret cache where $8,000 of the missing funds were recovered.  Still later, Bob nailed the other two bank robbers in Texas — along with most of the remaining loot.

There are countless stories about Bob Clark, one of the finest of his breed it has ever been my privilege to know. But this one I’ve always liked best of all.

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The Baron of Wheeler Hot Springs

Baron Baptiste comes from a distinguished lineage of yoga teachers.

By Mark Lewis

Nationally known ‘power yoga’ teacher Baron Baptiste is the new owner of Ojai’s long-shuttered Wheeler Hot Springs resort. Can he bring it back to life after a 20-year hiatus?

The first hint came by way of Instagram on July 29. “An amazing future opening up here in Ojai,” posted Baron Baptiste, a well-traveled yoga entrepreneur who currently makes his home in Park City, Utah. His location that day apparently was the Ojai Valley Inn, but his focus was six miles to the north up Highway 33: Wheeler Hot Springs, the defunct resort with the long and sometimes troubled history.

By November, the news was out: The Baptiste Foundation had paid $3.65 million to acquire the historic, 84-acre Wheeler property from its previous owners, dentist Daniel Smith and his wife, Maureen Monroe-Smith, of Malibu, and their partner Rickey M. Gelb, a real-estate developer based in the San Fernando Valley. This was exciting news in Ojai, where many people have fond memories of soaking in Wheeler’s natural hot springs, which have been closed to the public since January 1997.

“I swam in the pool at Wheelers growing up in Ojai, and enjoyed the hot tubs and restaurant back in the ‘80s,” said Suza Francina, a longtime Ojai yoga teacher, author, and current City Council member. “I’d love to see it come back to life if it was handled with sensitivity and respect. So I am very curious about what Baron envisions.”

Baptiste isn’t saying. At least not yet. But he seems quite excited about the property’s potential, to judge from the Wheeler image he posted on November 28: “In Ojai … standing in a beautiful dream made real.”

If that dream involves hosting yoga retreats at Wheeler, Baptiste will soon be having some interesting conversations with Ventura County regulators. Presumably he is well aware of the challenges the previous owners faced in trying to win county approval for reinventing Wheeler as a modern resort with overnight accommodations. After eight fruitless years, the Smiths and Gelb finally threw in the towel in 2015 and listed the property for sale as a potential private residence rather than as a resort. But its purchase by Baptiste, in the context of Ojai’s growing popularity as a destination for yoga-loving visitors, suggests other possibilities — if the new owner can persuade the county to go along.

Baptiste did not respond to email and voice-mail queries from The Ojai Quarterly, but his Instagram posts imply that he has big plans for the property. One of the hash tags that festooned his Nov. 28 post was especially suggestive: #baptistesanctuary. A 40-acre resort is a lot of sanctuary for just one person.

Another clue: Per county records, the purchaser is not Baron Baptiste the individual, but his Baptiste Foundation, a nonprofit organization which according to his website “discovers new partnerships to share the transformative power of Baptiste yoga with everyone, everywhere,” by bringing yoga to groups of people “who need it, but might not have access to it” — including armed forces veterans and active-duty personnel, people recovering from addiction, and victims of domestic violence.

Whatever his plans may be, Baptiste has not yet formally presented them to county officials. 

“I did meet with several interested buyers for the Wheeler Hot Springs property this past summer, though I do not recall their names,” county permit-administration official Winston Wright told the OQ in late January. “There are no active applications to open the facility.”

WHEELER DEALERBaron Baptiste is only the latest in a long line of owners to view Wheeler Hot Springs through the eyes of a visionary. That Nov. 28 post began with a quotation from the song “Ruby Tuesday” by the Rolling Stones: “Lose your dreams and you might lose your mind.” An apt sentiment, given how things turned out for the property’s original dreamer.

Wheeler Blumberg, for whom the springs were named, discovered them one day in 1888 while he was hunting deer near the North Fork of Matilija Creek. Blumberg homesteaded the surrounding acreage, built a hotel on the property, and extended the road there from nearby Matilija Canyon. The resort prospered, but Blumberg did not reap the benefit: He went mad in 1907 and died screaming in a padded cell. 

Subsequent owners, including the television personality Art Linkletter, continued to operate the resort for the next 90 years, with varying degrees of success. Bad luck dogged many of them, including Evelyn and Frank Landucci, who acquired Wheeler just before it was destroyed by the great flood of 1969. They rebuilt it and added a popular restaurant, which their son John later successfully promoted as a jazz nightspot until he was killed by a falling tree near one of the springs. By 1993 the property had passed to the control of Tom Marshall, who ran it straight into bankruptcy four years later. The Smiths acquired the property for $3.3 million in 2007, but were unable to reopen it. Now it’s Baron Baptiste’s turn to try his luck.

(For a detailed account of the tangled and often fraught history of Wheeler Hot Springs from 1888 through 2011, do a Google search for “New Owners Confront Old Issues” by Mark Lewis, originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of The Ojai Quarterly.)

Baptiste, 53, was born into an American yoga dynasty. His parents, Walt and Magana Baptiste, were San Francisco yoga pioneers, and his sisters, Sherri and Devi Ananda Baptiste, are notable yoginis in their own right. Baron started out teaching in the family studio; then he headed to Southern California to study under Bikram Choudhury before branching out on his own, with a clientele that included Hollywood stars like Raquel Welch, and later the Philadelphia Eagles pro football team. Baptiste eventually landed in Boston, where his studios were enormously popular, and he won a national following as the author of such books as “Journey Into Power: How to Sculpt Your Ideal Body, Free Your True Self, and Transform Your Life With Yoga.”

There have been some bumps along the way. A 2006 profile of Baptiste published in Boston Magazine described some acrimonious business-related lawsuits (one of which involved a son of the late Robert Kennedy). The magazine also quoted a dig at Baptiste by his former teacher: “ ‘He’s not doing yoga,’ Bikram said. ‘He’s doing aerobic exercise. He’s doing Jane Fonda.’ ”

To be fair, the same observation has been made about all modern yoga teachers, presumably including Bikram himself, by Ojai’s own Jiddu Krishnamurti. “I don’t know why they call it yoga, it should be called just exercise, but that wouldn’t appeal to you!” the sage said in 1979, in response to a question from his audience. “You can do this kind of yoga exercise for the rest of your life, but you won’t awaken spiritual insight, nor will the awakening of a higher energy come into being.”

Nevertheless, modern yoga is enormously popular in America, and Ojai is increasingly popular as a destination for yoga-minded visitors. This is due in part to the valley’s long association with Eastern spiritualism, which (ironically) goes back to Krishnamurti’s arrival here in 1922. Francina remembers taking classes at the World University in Ojai many years ago from the legendary yogini Indra Devi (who also visited Baptiste’s parents’ studio in San Francisco).

“The whole yoga community is extremely familiar with Ojai,” said Calleen Cordero, a well-known footwear designer who until last year hosted many yoga retreats at her Calliote Canyon property just south of Wheeler Hot Springs. “It’s a really popular destination, and not just with L.A. people. We got a lot of inquiries from East Coast people as well.”

Why Ojai? Cordero names three factors: Its bucolic setting, with plenty of hiking trails and nighttime views of the Milky Way; its long association with New Age spiritualism; and its proximity to Los Angeles.

“It’s only an hour and a half from L.A.,” she notes, “and Los Angeles is a Mecca for yoga.”

A yoga retreat on the Wheeler property would have a fourth factor going for it, Cordero notes: the hot springs. Many yoga enthusiasts are fond of soaking in natural hot springs rich in minerals, which are said to have healing properties.

It was the local hot springs, in fact, that originally led to the founding of Ojai, then called Nordhoff, back in the 1870s. This town started out as a health resort, conveniently located near the springs of Matilija Canyon. A century later, when the Landuccis bought the Wheeler property in the late 1960s, Evelyn Landucci’s initial idea was to turn the resort into a Southern California version of Esalen in Big Sur. If Baron Baptiste does turn the property into a yoga center, it will have come full circle.     

Yoga DestinationOjai was a yoga Mecca in its own right during the annual International Ojai Yoga Crib gatherings organized by Kira and Eric Ryder of the former Lulu Bandha’s studio on East Matilija Street. These gatherings, which drew hundreds of yoga instructors from far afield, are no longer held. But the valley still is home to some 15 yoga venues of various sorts, and yoga is “an integral part of the Ojai lifestyle,” said Veronica Cole, director of public relations and marketing for the Ojai Visitors Bureau.

“It’s definitely part of our marketing strategy, but not so much yoga only — it’s more about health/wellness/mindfulness and everything that entails,” Cole said. “What we’ve been seeing is that yoga venues have begun offering additional activities which speak to a sense of community, such as get-togethers to enjoy food, reflection, music and seminars.”

That sounds like the definition of a yoga retreat, such as those that take place periodically at Casa Barranca, also known as the historic Pratt House, high up on Foothill Road. Owner Bill Moses does not advertise the property as a yoga retreat; per his agreement with the county, he merely makes it available, discreetly, for group rentals. But many of the people who rent it are yoga teachers hosting weekend retreats.

For Moses, yoga pilgrims are the perfect Ojai visitors. They’re here seeking peace and tranquility, so they’re quiet and don’t bother the neighbors.

“They’re the least impactful, the most respectful” visitors a town could ask for, he said. “It’s the opposite of Vegas.”

Moses said he does not know Baptiste’s plans, but he can see Wheeler Hot Springs as a yoga destination: “If they did in a way that was environmentally OK, I think it would be great.”

Suza Francina also would welcome a yoga retreat on that property, with the same caveat.

“I would not like to see the land heavily used in a way that brings a zillion more cars up that stretch of the highway, but (perhaps) they could mitigate the traffic by not allowing daily trips back and forth (in a retreat you usually don’t leave the area),” she said. “But first we have to see if the county even allows yoga retreats up there.”

There’s the rub. The previous Wheeler Hot Springs owners complained of county resistance to their plans. And Calleen Cordero said she sold her nearby Calliote Canyon property last year after running into permit problems. Nevertheless, Cordero thinks that Baptiste probably has the resources to make it happen.

“If you have money and you do it to code,” you can get a conditional use permit, she said. “All you have to do is build things to code.”

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Inventing Ojai

Edward Drummond Libbey, famous glassmaker and city father.

Edward Drummond Libbey, famous glassmaker and city father.

Edward Drummond Libbey had a vision. Now, 100 years later, we are living in it

By Mark Lewis

The Emperor Augustus famously boasted that he found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble. The industrialist Edward Libbey might have said the same of Ojai — that he found it a village of sticks and left it a village of stucco. One hundred years ago, inspired by the City Beautiful Movement, Libbey created an idealized, Spanish-style pueblo here in the Ventura County backcountry. In the process, he established a template for all of Southern California to emulate.

For a prominent New York art dealer such as Henry Reinhardt, the speck on the map labeled Nordhoff, Calif., was about as far off the beaten trackt as a town could get. But a canny dealer must pursue his prey wherever it leads him, and Reinhardt was after big game: “Brook By Moonlight” by R.A. Blakelock, a painter for whom Reinhardt was organizing a major exhibit at his Fifth Avenue gallery.

The Ohio glass magnate Edward Drummond Libbey recently had made national headlines by purchasing “Brook By Moonlight” for the astounding sum of $20,000 — the most money ever paid, to that point, for a work by a living American artist. Reinhardt wanted to borrow this famous painting for his exhibit. He knew Libbey well, having advised him during the creation of Libbey’s pet project, the Toledo Museum of Art. Now, early in 1916, Libbey was planning a major expansion of that museum, which presumably was the main reason he invited Reinhardt along on March 21, when he drove from Pasadena to his winter home in Nordhoff.

“E.D. Libbey Motors Into Town,” headlined The Ojai newspaper, over an item that identified Reinhardt as a passenger in the car. Libbey “had several important projects incubating,” the newspaper reported, without going into specifics.

Indeed he did. The biggest ones — by far — were back home in Ohio, where Libbey was in the process of setting up the Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass Co. (later known as Libbey-Owens-Ford). Another of his glass companies was perfecting the first fully automated system for manufacturing electric light bulbs, a system Libbey later would sell to General Electric for a handsome profit. Meanwhile, he was scheming to corner the glass-bottle market, which he already dominated.

Amid all this business wheeling and dealing, Libbey also maintained his focus on the Toledo Museum, where he continued to serve as president. He recently had pledged $400,000 for its endowment, and he had acquired “Brook By Moonlight” to enrich its collection. Nevertheless, he readily agreed to loan the painting to Reinhardt for the upcoming Blakelock exhibit in New York.

Having bagged his quarry, Reinhardt presumably did not tarry long in Nordhoff. The art dealer’s appraising eye would have found little to attract it in the town’s dowdy downtown business district, where a ramshackle collection of wood-frame storefronts lined the north side of the main drag. The south side was dominated by an equally ramshackle wood-frame hotel, the Ojai Inn, the town’s original building, then 42 years old and showing its age.

Reinhardt might have been surprised to learn that Libbey now owned this hotel, and several other strategic property parcels in the vicinity. As with his purchase of “Brook By Moonlight,” these real-estate purchases had more to do with art than with commerce. Libbey had a project in mind for which he himself would be the artist, and Nordhoff the canvas.

 

HOUSE OF GLASS

Edward Libbey was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1854. He followed his father into the cut-glass tableware business and eventually moved his firm to Toledo, establishing that Ohio town as a center of the American glass industry. In 1893, he boosted his business substantially by creating the very popular Libbey Glass exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Libbey took a personal hand in this project, moving into an apartment above the exhibit for much of the fair’s duration. As a result, he found himself a charter member of the City Beautiful Movement.

Some 27 million visitors passed through the fair’s gates from May 1 through October 30, at a time when the nation’s population totaled only 63 million. The main attraction was the White City, a fantastic, neoclassical metropolis made mostly of plaster and wood, and painted shiny white to look like marble.

This was a time when America’s fast-growing cities were ugly agglomerations of factories, tenements, row houses and mansions, thrown together on the fly as the nation mutated in the span of a single generation from a mostly rural, small-town society to an urbanized industrial powerhouse. The White City inspired the fair’s visitors with an alternative vision: a well-planned city composed of exquisitely designed buildings, carefully laid out in harmony with one another. It was an idealized mash-up of classical Rome and modern Paris, transported as if by magic to the shore of Lake Michigan south of Chicago’s fetid stockyards and slaughterhouses. It stunned people, and it inspired them.

Could America remake all its cities along these progressive lines, and create a better world? Not merely more beautiful, but better in every way? It was worth a try, anyway. Thus was born the City Beautiful Movement. The White City itself was only temporary, like a movie set; it burned down the following year and was gone. But many who had seen it in its glory went home determined to replicate it in their hometowns as best they could.

In Toledo, Libbey joined a group pushing for the city to host an Ohio Centennial and Northwest Territory Exposition in 1903. As head of the exhibits department, Libbey promised to outdo Chicago’s fair. Alas, Ohio’s state legislature declined to approve the necessary funds, so Toledo’s exposition never materialized. Undaunted, Libbey (with his wife, Florence, and their like-minded friends) went on to found the Toledo Museum of Art, and eventually to house it in a handsome neoclassical temple that would have looked right at home in the White City.

The Libbeys had done what they could to uplift Toledo, but the Ohio winters remained unimproved by their largesse, so they took to wintering in Pasadena. That California city had a lot to offer, but it was short on trout streams, and Edward Libbey loved to go trout fishing in bucolic locations. He also enjoyed riding horses in wide-open spaces. His Toledo friend Harry Sinclair recommended the Foothills Hotel in the Ojai Valley, where riding trails were plentiful, and the nearby Ventura River teemed with wily steelhead trout. And so in due course the Libbeys came here for a visit, sometime in the winter of 1907. Florence was not much for fishing; she continued to prefer Pasadena. But her husband fell hard for the Ojai Valley. In 1909, he hired the prominent Pasadena architects Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey to design a lovely Craftsman-style bungalow on Foothill Road south of the hotel. This would be his winter home for sixteen years, until his death.

He loved the view from his house across the valley toward the Topa Topa Bluffs. He was less fond of the unlovely village of Nordhoff down on the valley floor. Another man would simply have ignored it. After all, the homely little town was invisible from his house high up on Foothill Road. But Libbey was not disposed to endure an unsavory sight that blighted the landscape. Not if he could do something about it. And, as it happened, he could.

Toledo was too big a city for one man to beautify. Libbey had placed his stamp on it, first with his factories, then with his imposing West End mansion, and finally with his museum. But it was beyond his power to reinvent Toledo as an idealized White City on the shores of Lake Erie. Nordhoff was a very different proposition: a tiny winter resort dominated by far-sighted town boosters who welcomed improvements, aesthetic and otherwise. Here, Libbey could be confident that his reach would not exceed his grasp.

His timing was propitious. Sixteen years after its birth in Chicago, the City Beautiful Movement was still going strong, boosted periodically by new world’s fairs that tried to outdo the White City of beloved memory.  St. Louis had made a particularly big splash in 1904 with its Louisiana Purchase Exposition, at which Libbey Glass exhibited the world’s largest punchbowl — all 143 pounds of it, which won a gold medal and made the cover of Scientific American. This fair was immortalized by the hit song that years later would be featured in the Judy Garland movie: “Meet me in St. Louis, Louis, meet me at the Fair. Don’t tell me the sun is shining any place but there!” Ah, but California boosters knew where the sun really did most of its shining — in the Golden State, where in 1909, two cities were competing for the right to host the 1915 world’s fair celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal.

As Hunt and Grey were designing Libbey’s new Foothill Road house, other architects already were at work on San Diego’s proposed Spanish Colonial Revival version of the White City, scheduled to rise in Balboa Park. Then San Francisco jumped in with a rival vision, featuring a mostly neoclassical “Jewel City” to be built in what is now known as the Marina District.

As both cities proceeded with their planning, people elsewhere in the state began to catch the fever for creating planned communities with unified architectural themes. First out of the gate: developer J. Harvey McCarthy of Los Angeles, who acquired a thinly populated town site in Merced County in 1910 and renamed it Planada, “the City Beautiful.”

Perhaps because he originally was from San Diego, McCarthy favored the Spanish rather than the neoclassical motif for Planada. In California, and especially Southern California, people had been putting up Mission Revival buildings for decades, but no one had ever tried to design an entire community in that style. McCarthy was the first. He built a Spanish-style hotel, a bank, a department store, an apartment house and several other buildings in the same vernacular. At Planada’s grand opening in June 1912, a reported 10,000 people from all across the state trekked by train to the San Joaquin Valley to gawk at what McCarthy had wrought.

Edward Libbey presumably was not among them; June usually found him en route to Europe with Florence. But he must have been well aware of McCarthy’s heavily publicized project. Certainly Libbey knew what was going on in San Francisco, which by this point had won the right to host the federally approved Panama-Pacific International Exposition; and in San Diego, which had settled for holding a concurrent Panama-California Exposition on a more regional basis. Both cities were hustling to get their fair projects designed and built. At some point amid this statewide vogue for planned community building, Libbey began devising his own plan for little Nordhoff.

He made his first move in the late summer or fall of 1912 by buying the Ojai Inn. Soon the town was abuzz with rumors about what his plans might be. No announcement was forthcoming, so William L. Thacher, founder of The Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament, wrote to Libbey to ask what he had in mind for the tennis courts behind the hotel, where the annual tournament was held. Thacher shared Libbey’s reply with The Ojai, which printed part of it on Page 1 on Oct. 11:

“Regarding the Inn, I shall probably make no changes for a year or two and in all probability it will remain open for guests until such changes are made.”

And indeed, not much happened for the next year or two. Then, in the spring of 1914, Libbey expanded his downtown holdings by buying the parcel at the southeast corner of Signal Street and Ojai Avenue, long occupied by a blacksmith shop. Shortly afterward, on April 17, Libbey hosted a banquet at the Ojai Inn during which the town’s leading citizens organized the Ojai Valley Men’s League to coordinate community improvement efforts in the wake of a disastrous flood. (The Men’s League would eventually change its name to the Chamber of Commerce.) According to The Ojai, Libbey had not been among the banquet’s scheduled speakers, but nevertheless he rose to the occasion:

“As a pleasant surprise to many, E.D. Libbey responded to a request from the Toastmaster, and gave a witty and entertaining talk, relative to his new interests in this place. He spoke of our great possibilities and of the future of the valley if we organized ourselves into a body for the advancement of the interests and enterprises of the community.”

In Planada, meanwhile, things were not going well. J. Harvey McCarthy had sold the project to a group of Los Angeles investors who soon found that they had bought themselves a Potemkin village — not a real town at all but a display town in the middle of nowhere, which showed few signs of growing into an actual community. In May 1914, the Los Angeles Times described McCarthy’s attempt to defend himself before a stockholders’ meeting:

“To 1,000 stockholders of the Los Angeles Development Co. he appeared in his old role as empire builder, out of whose creative genius was to spring a city in the midst of a desert, a prosperous, thriving community pulsating with traffic and industry and supported by a back country of orchard, field and garden; upon whose magnificent idea was to be constructed a new city to stud the crown of the Golden West and throw into the urban race of California a new rival, brimming with youth, glowing with promise, and throbbing with vital purpose.”

Instead, only two years after its grand opening, Planada already was a ghost town, “a deserted, but by no means forgotten village,” according to the Times account.

So Planada was a failure. But it was hardly California’s only planned-community project of that era. Others included Krotona, a Theosophical Society in America colony that was taking shape in Hollywood’s Beachwood Canyon. And the Socialist politician Job Harriman recently had announced plans to create Llano del Rio, a communal utopia in the Antelope Valley.

Moreover, the San Francisco and San Diego expositions had not even opened yet. When they did, in January 1915, fairgoers were dazzled by what they encountered in the Jewel City and Balboa Park. Here was palpable proof of what thoughtful urban planning and high-quality architecture could accomplish. Almost 19 million people visited San Francisco’s fair during its year-long run, and close to four million visited San Diego’s fair during its two-year run. And Edward Libbey was prominent among them. His reaction to the San Francisco fair was printed in a pamphlet titled “The Legacy of the Exposition,” published in 1916, for which the fair’s organizers solicited blurbs from “thinking men and women of national and international importance.” Libbey delivered a glowing endorsement:

“All citizens of the United States take pride in the great success of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, in that it typifies the highest ideals of all our people, east, west, north and south. We join in the toast to a greater America and a more enlightened world.”

The pamphlet identified him as “President, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio.” In intellectual and cultural circles, that was his claim to fame. But Libbey by this point was spending more time in Nordhoff than in Toledo. Inspired by what he had witnessed in San Francisco and San Diego, he was now ready to try his hand at creating his own idealized community — not in Ohio, but in the Ojai Valley.

 

FROM NORDHOFF TO OJAI

It was the first day of spring in 1916, and for Nordhoff it would truly be a season of rebirth.

When Libbey motored into town on March 21 with the art dealer Henry Reinhardt in tow, the glass magnate had a lot on his mind. As we have seen, his lengthy to-do list included cornering the American glass bottle market; creating a new Libbey-Owens company to exploit the glass sheet market; perfecting a fully automated way to manufacture light bulbs; expanding the Toledo Museum of Art; and contributing “Brook By Moonlight” to Reinhardt’s campaign to revive the painter R.A. Blakelock’s career. To this formidable agenda, Libbey soon added another item: “Reinventing Nordhoff.”

According to the architect Richard Requa, it was Harry Sinclair who provided the specific suggestion that finally kicked Libbey into gear on this project. Sinclair in 1914 had hired Requa and his partner, Frank Mead, to design a Mediterranean Revival-style house on Fairview Road, not far from Libbey’s house on Foothill. At the same time, Mead and Requa were designing Spanish-Moorish-style buildings at Krotona in Hollywood. So they were well qualified for Libbey’s Nordhoff project on two counts: They had demonstrated their mastery of the fast-evolving Spanish/Mediterranean Revival style of Southern California architecture, and they had participated in the development of a planned community.

Let Requa set the scene:

“One morning in early spring, some 10 years ago, two men were sitting on the edge of a raised rough plank sidewalk in front of a dilapidated shack,” the architect wrote in a 1925 article for the San Diego Union. “A remnant of a sign over the battered, creaking door informed the curious visitor in letters hardly legible, that the shanty housed the Nordhoff post office. It was but one of a group of decaying structures that formed the business center of a small community all but hidden among the trees of a magnificent grove of live oaks in one of the most picturesque of California’s foothill valleys.”

The two men, of course, were Edward Libbey and Harry Sinclair.

“Seated on the plank walk they were silently contemplating the row of ramshackle shops across the road,” Requa continued. “On one corner was a livery stable in advanced stages of decay, and opposite stood the remains of the village blacksmith shop, both reminiscent of the days of horse-drawn vehicles. Suddenly Mr. Libbey turned to his companion and remarked that he would like to do something for the community, something original and worthwhile.

‘Why not make it over into a quaint Spanish town, in the spirit of the early California and Mexican settlements,’ replied his friend.

‘A splendid idea,’ rejoined Mr. Libbey.

“In response to a telegram, I appeared on the scene the next day, and the feasibility of the scheme was discussed. After several days of study and sketching, the project was found to be entirely practicable and in addition, the transformation could be made at a surprisingly small cost considering results attainable. … His generous offer was eagerly accepted and in less than a month the obscure village was a scene of boom-like activity.”

Clearly, Requa’s synopsis compressed the sequence of events for the sake of telling a good story. But overall, it seems to be a reasonably accurate summation. By June 1916, Libbey had acquired all the land that comprises today’s Libbey Park; torn down the venerable Ojai Inn and the Berry Villa; graded and paved South Signal Street from Ojai Avenue to the railroad tracks (today’s bike path); and hired Mead and Requa to bring his vision to fruition.

Libbey might instead have hired architects well versed in the Beaux Arts neoclassical style, as exemplified by San Francisco’s Jewel City. That was the style Chicago had used for the White City, and the one Libbey had chosen for the Toledo Museum. But he had seen Balboa Park, and he knew Sinclair was right: The Spanish/Mediterranean approach was the more natural choice for Southern California.

(It was also much cheaper to place a stucco arcade in front of the old buildings than to tear them all down and build an entirely new business block of brick and sandstone and marble.)

In the middle of all this activity, it seems likely that Libbey traveled to New York later that spring to view the R.A. Blakelock exhibit in Reinhardt’s Fifth Avenue gallery. This exhibit made national news due to its poignant circumstances: Blakelock for many years had been confined in a New York state hospital for the insane, leaving his wife and children impoverished. Libbey’s purchase of “Brook By Moonlight” for a record price had refocused the public’s attention on this painter and his tragic plight. Blakelock’s doctors gave him a one-day pass to travel to Manhattan to view the exhibit. “Yes, that’s the masterpiece,” he said, upon viewing “Brook” for the first time in 25 years.

As for Libbey, he was busy creating his own masterpiece, 3,000 miles away in Nordhoff. And people were noticing.

“Some morning, not far distant, the village of Nordhoff is going to wake up and find itself famous,” the Ventura Free Press commented in August.

Construction material was piling up on both sides of Ojai Avenue, the newspaper noted: “Something is surely doing. Ask what it is and the Nordhoffite will throw up his hands and mention the name of Libbey. ‘Why, it is going to be another Montecito,’ you are told.”

Surely “the very rich” would soon flock to the Ojai Valley, where they would “build fine houses and improve the valley to the limit of their limitless purses.” The Free Press congratulated Nordhoff on its good fortune.

Actually, Nordhoff would never be famous, at least not under that name. As Libbey’s project advanced, his local allies, who included Ventura County Supervisor Tom Clark, launched a campaign to change the town’s name to Ojai, a Chumash Indian-derived word that seemed more in keeping with the Spanish-style architecture that henceforth would define the town. In January 1917, the Board of Supervisors approved the name-change request and forwarded it to Washington.

“Mr. and Mrs. E.D. Libbey arrived here yesterday,” The Ojai reported on Jan. 26. “Mr. Libbey’s first salutation, upon meeting Supervisor Clark, was followed by the query: What town is this? ‘This is Ojai,’ replied Mr. Clark, and the gentleman from Ohio smiled quite happily. Now, all our home folks know that Mr. Libbey has fathered ‘the Ojai Beautiful,’ and it will be gratifying indeed, if his creation is accepted as the child of his dreams.”

Things were now moving fast. Mead and Requa had designed a Mission-style facade for the north side of the street, obscuring the ugly storefronts behind a handsome stucco arcade, modeled on one at the San Juan Capistrano Mission. On the south side, the former blacksmith shop at Signal Street gave way to an impressive new post office featuring a Spanish Colonial Revival bell tower 65 feet tall, modeled on the campanile of the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Havana, Cuba. East of the bell tower, a Mediterranean-style pergola lined the avenue, screening a newly installed plaza and park. (Libbey had retained the tennis courts, presumably to William Thacher’s relief).

The Arcade was finished first, and made an immediate impact. In February, San Francisco architect C.L. Cobbe visited the town and pronounced himself mightily impressed. Cobbe, whose specialty was municipal-improvement projects, predicted to the Ventura Post that Mead and Requa’s makeover would be widely emulated by other resort towns in the region:

“The work being done at Nordhoff at this time will make it one of the most charming cities in Southern California,” Cobbe told the Post. “The work there is such that it will be the source of valuable pointers to other localities similarly situated which hope to improve themselves as a summer resort.”

By spring the work was done, and the U.S. Post Office had approved the name change. During a community-wide party in the park on April 7, 1917 — the first Ojai Day — Libbey handed the deed for the property to Sherman Day Thacher, representing the newly formed Ojai Civic Association. Then Libbey marked the occasion with a speech in which he explicitly claimed Ojai for the City Beautiful Movement.

“Art is but visualized idealism,” Libbey told the crowd. “… Thus we are today celebrating, in the expression of this little example of Spanish architecture in Ojai Park, a culmination of an idea and the response to that spark of idealism which demands from us a resolution to cultivate, encourage and promote those things which go to make the beautiful in life, and bring to all happiness and pleasure.”

 

THE VILLAGE BEAUTIFUL MOVEMENT

That was only the first phase of Libbey’s plan. Subsequent phases produced the El Roblar Hotel (now the Oaks); the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel (now the Ojai Valley Museum); the Ojai Valley Country Club (now the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa); the Ojai Valley School; the Ojai Valley Library; and the Arbolada. The school district and local businesses jumped on the bandwagon, gradually filling out a mostly Spanish-style streetscape that now runs the length of Ojai Avenue within the city limits, and beyond. (Recent notable Spanish-style additions include the Topa Mountain Winery and the remodeled Ojai Valley Community Hospital.)

Libbey, who died in 1925 at the age of 71, is remembered in Toledo as a titan of industry and a patron of the arts. In Ojai, his name now graces the park he gave to the city and the outdoor theater within it, and local historians revere him as the man who gave the town its distinctive look. But few realize that what Libbey accomplished here reverberated far beyond the borders of this isolated valley.

Planada did eventually develop into an actual town, but it turned out nothing like the Spanish-style planned community envisioned by J. Harvey McCarthy. Llano del Rio, Job Harriman’s would-be socialist utopia in the Antelope Valley, went bust by 1918 and was abandoned. But Libbey’s Ojai experiment worked, and it endures. He set out to build a better town in every sense, and many would agree that he succeeded. His converts even included the Theosophists of Krotona, who in 1924 abandoned Hollywood for the Ojai Valley, where they created a Spanish-style campus that fit right in with Libbey’s concept.

Of course, it didn’t end with Ojai. As architect Cobbe had predicted, what Libbey did here touched off a Village Beautiful Movement with a specifically Southern California twist. Richard Requa went on to oversee the creation of Rancho Santa Fe, designed from scratch as a pseudo-Spanish community. The same model inspired planners and architects in Palos Verdes, in San Clemente, in Westwood — all across Southern California and even beyond (e.g., in Coral Gables, Fla.). The most famous example remains Santa Barbara, where in 1922 the civic activist Bernhard Hoffmann publicly proclaimed himself an admirer of Libbey’s Ojai project. Three years later, an earthquake cleared the way for Hoffmann to do for State Street what Libbey had done for Ojai Avenue.

Almost a century has passed since that epochal day when Libbey handed the park deed to Sherman Thacher. Over the years, Spanish-style business districts have become so commonplace in Southern California that they now comprise a visual cliché. But the original model retains its appeal in places like Santa Barbara — and here in Ojai, where it all began.

In April 2017, this town will come together as a community to celebrate the Libbey centennial in the park that bears his name. People who live beyond the valley’s borders are unlikely to take much notice of this anniversary — but they should, because they too are Libbey legatees, even if they’ve never heard of him.

Edward Drummond Libbey left his stamp on the world in more ways than one, and his Ojai centennial marks the milestone moment when a dusty, one-horse burg in the middle of nowhere became the unlikely model for a reimagined Southern California.

(Craig Walker contributed research to this article.)

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Hollywood’s Big Chill

Jessiqa Pace photographed by Matt Alberts

Jessiqa Pace photographed by Matt Alberts

Looking at Ojai from the Outside In

By Jessiqa Pace

Photos by Matt Alberts

For someone who lives in Los Angeles, the quiet nighttime chirping of crickets is a luxury. I’m an actress, model and filmmaker who followed my dreams to one of the most expansive metropolises in the world.

It was about a year and a half ago when I began to wonder if a place existed where I could escape the noise and stress of living in Los Angeles. A place that I could get to quickly, but far enough that I wouldn’t feel the pangs of life in LA. I had heard about Ojai, but in my mind it didn’t’ sound like much was going on there except the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, a high end resort. Ojai was the place where Hollywood glitterati went to relax and refresh.

I’ve never been one to follow the flock and the idea of going to visit a resort didn’t attract me, but a chance encounter with a very unpretentious stranger on a hike deep in the Malibu mountains convinced me that I should find Ojai on my own terms. This hiker told me that it was her oasis away from Los Angeles. She and her husband would spend one weekend a month in Ojai to hike, eat well and relax. It sounded to me like a place I needed to explore, so the moment I could get away I jumped in the car and headed north.

Just to be clear, I do love high-end spas and have spent my fair share on luxurious treatments to relax, but I’m more interested in finding a unique experience, something new and surprising, or perhaps something I didn’t even know existed.

The moment I set foot in the town of Ojai, I fell in love. Here’s the thing about Ojai, it’s a quiet, beautiful upscale bohemian community sitting cozy and prominent in the valley of the Topa Topa Mountains, an area previously inhabited by the Chumash Indians. The Chumash thrived in this area, so why not the boho-chic central coast crew looking to live “the good life.” And that’s exactly what they’re doing, living the good life.

My first trip to Ojai, I literally came to town with absolutely no plans. I used Yelp to find The Rancho Inn, a retro-cool motel on the west side of town. I called to see if there were any rooms available and got ahold of Sheila Piala who put me on hold while she checked their vacancies. She called me “honey” and I instantly liked her.

“Honey, are you still there?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“We are all booked up … but … the yurt is available if you would like to stay in that?”

“The yurt? Ummmm…can I come by and take a look?” I had heard about yurts but I had never actually seen one.

“Sure honey, come by.”

I drove to The Rancho Inn and met Sheila, who showed me the yurt. I took one look and said, “I’ll take it.”

The Rancho Inn is one of my favorite haunts because it’s where I first met some of my good friends in Ojai. It’s at The Rancho Inn where I met Branden Peak a favored local living in a beautiful modern Airstream trailer on The Rancho Inn property. Branden teaches a wide fanbase about conservation, living with solar energy, driving on biofuel, harvesting water from local sources, living in small spaces and the benefits of this lifestyle on the environment. It was over glasses of beer at Chief’s Peak, the watering hole at The Rancho, where I met many lovely people who I now call friends. I still love to stay at the Rancho Inn. The yurt is no longer there, but the rooms are awesome, decorated in a retro-rancho vibe.

After my first visit, I felt more focused and I could tolerate living in Los Angeles knowing that Ojai was only an hour-and-a-half away. I would dream about the possibilities of spending more time in Ojai. When Los Angeles became too much again, I would jump in the car, drive up the Pacific Coast Highway and, with every mile north, the stress would peel away. It became a routine. Every month or two I would find myself drawn back to Ojai.

The first thing I do when I get to town is go to Hip Vegan for lunch and say hello to my friend Brit Larramendy who has taken my order at least two dozen times. This vegan restaurant is so good it even turns on my meat eating friends. According to Yelp I am “the Duchess” of Hip Vegan because I’ve checked in so many times.

Next stop is usually Silver Boutique to see what they have in store. I always stop at this boutique and find a little gift for a friend or a treat for myself. This boutique carries the vibe of Ojai style, with affordable flowy upscale-casual dresses, tops and jewelry.

I’m willing to go out on a limb right now and say Bart’s Books is the coolest bookstore in the country. If you haven’t been there, then you must see it for yourself. If I run into an out-of-towner who asks me where to go, I send them there and they all love it. Grab a book, find a nook and relax. It’s a nice way to spend the afternoon.

If Knead Bakery is open, I like to stop in and grab some of the most decadent organic baked goods I have ever tasted. The cheddar dill scone is amazing, but everything will make your mouth water. If you go to Knead, make sure to bring cash — they don’t accept credit cards — and check their operating hours.

Meditation Mount is my sunset spot. This ethereal temple sits atop a peak overlooking the entire valley. From the meditation garden you get a very special view of the citrus groves and the surrounding mountain range. To see the valley vista visitors must walk the Path to Peace, twisting and turning through eucalyptus trees and Birds of Paradise. The first time I found this place I remember being so moved by it’s spirit. As I watched the sun set, I thanked the universe for all the moments in my life, both good and bad, that led me to find Meditation Mount. If you haven’t been there, you must experience it.

After sunset, if I’m not dining at Osteria Monte Grappa, an incredible Italian restaurant, or The Deer Lodge, a local favorite with fantastic food, micro-beer on tap and live music, or having a drink at Chief’s Peak, then you’ll find me at Caravan Outpost.

Caravan Outpost is that unique experience that I was talking about. This boutique motel is like nothing I have ever seen before. It’s that place I didn’t know was possible. Caravan Outpost has cultivated a community of creative conscious people. Every night, there is a campfire with food, spirits and marshmallows. Every day is filled with fun activities. I’ve never slept so well as I did in an Airstream at Caravan Outpost. This brand is smart, sustainable and it’s a taste of a lifestyle that anyone who has a sense of adventure will appreciate. If you aren’t sure about staying there, go for a campfire or one of their monthly events with yoga, music, food and drinks. You are guaranteed to walk away with a new friend and a story to tell. Say hello to Branden because there’s a good chance you’ll see him there.

The thing about Ojai is that there is always something to do. The thing about Ojai is that it’s a community that will take in a soloist like me looking for a place to unplug and unwind. The thing about Ojai is that there is so much to explore, hike, try, eat, drink, shop, discuss, create, listen, be heard and laugh. The thing about Ojai is that when I fall asleep at night, I can hear the sweet sound of crickets chirping.

Guy Webster - photo by Lisa Gizara @GizaraFineArts.com

Guy Webster – photo by Lisa Gizara @GizaraFineArts.com

For 75 years, the legendary photographer Guy Webster led a charmed existence. Then health problems laid him low, to the point where he could no longer operate a camera or ride his beloved motorcycles. Now he is willing himself toward recovery, and cultivating a philosophical detachment toward what he has lost, and reveling in the richness of what remains: his family, his friends, and his memories of a truly extraordinary life.

By Mark Lewis

Ojai has no shortage of raconteurs, but Guy Webster is in a class by himself. Walk by NoSo Vita in the morning and you’ll likely see him sitting there with a cup of coffee in his hand, holding forth for a table full of friends. Drop by the Porch Gallery on a Saturday evening to attend an art opening and there he’ll be, sitting on the veranda at the center of a group that is hanging on his every word. And he drew a big crowd on Aug. 14 at the Ojai Valley Museum to hear him talk about his world-famous collection of classic Italian motorcycles, five of which were on glorious display in the background.

Over time, this collection has totalled more than 350 bikes, but Guy has sold most of them off. Since suffering a stroke in April 2015, he walks with difficulty and he can’t ride at all. Embracing the rehabilitation challenge, he took himself from wheelchair to walker to cane. More recently he took a tumble that has set back his recovery process, but he still maintains a hectic travel schedule, and when in town he still makes the rounds. On the eve of his 77th birthday, he sat down with the Ojai Quarterly to reminisce about his life and career.

TINSELTOWN TEEN

Guy Webster made his Hollywood debut at the age of 1 in November 1940, appearing in the hit film “You’ll Find Out,” which starred the popular bandleader Kay Kayser. The supporting cast included Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Bela Lugosi. According to the Internet Movie Database, Guy was cast as “an infant.” No screen credit, alas. But he did have one laugh line, of sorts: When someone asked him what he thought of Adolf Hitler, he stuck out his tongue and blew Hitler the raspberry.

“My father trained me to do that,” he says.

What had brought little Guy to a sound stage at such a tender age?  Blame it on another child actor, Shirley Temple. Several years earlier, the Fox studio had lured Guy’s father, the lyricist Paul Francis Webster, west from New York to write songs for Temple, then the biggest star in the world. Paul apparently only wrote one lyric for her – a lullaby she sang to her doll in “Our Little Girl” (1935). But he found Southern California very much to his liking, so he settled in Beverly Hills and became one of the movie industry’s most successful lyricists. Guy’s own film career ended where it began with “You’ll Find Out,” but his father went on to garner 16 Oscar nominations and three wins during his four-decade Hollywood career.

Working with such legendary composers as Hoagy Carmichael and Duke Ellington, Paul Webster wrote the words for many hit songs, at least three of which are now considered standards — “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” and “Black Coffee,” both composed by Ellington, and “The Shadow of Your Smile,” composed by Johnny Mandel.

Hits were nice, but it was Paul’s film work, mostly for MGM, which financed his Beverly Hills lifestyle. He installed his family — wife Gloria, sons Guy and Roger — in a handsome, three-story Tudor Revival house on North Crescent Drive near the Beverly Hills Hotel. Still, everything is relative, even in Beverly Hills.

“I thought we were poor because we didn’t have a tennis court,” Guy says.

Guy was a serious-enough tennis player at Beverly Hills High School that he came up here to play in The Ojai Tennis Tournament — his first exposure to his future home.  But sports heroes did not inspire awe in Beverly Hills, where Guy’s peer group included many children of Hollywood celebrities who were also future stars themselves: Edgar Bergen’s daughter Candice, Danny Thomas’s daughter Marlo, Frank Sinatra’s daughter Nancy, Judy Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli. Guy’s good friends included Terry Melcher, whose mother, Doris Day, had sung Paul Webster’s Oscar-winning song “Secret Love” in the 1953 film “Calamity Jane.”

This sounds like a glamorous childhood, but Guy says it left him prematurely jaded, because it exposed him and his friends to the seamy side of their parents’ Hollywood lifestyle. This was during the “L.A. Confidential” 1950s, a time when Lana Turner’s teenage daughter Cheryl Crane came home to Beverly Hills from Ojai’s Happy Valley School for spring break in 1958 and stabbed her mother’s gangster lover Johnny Stompanato to death, in what was ruled a justifiable homicide. That’s an extreme example, but Guy and his friends saw things that did not square with the picture-perfect Hollywood image.

“We knew what was going on,” he says. “It shocked us. We saw it all. I didn’t like it.”

He escaped first to Whittier College and then, as a foreign-exchange student, to Copenhagen, where he hung around with “highly intelligent people” who were artistic rather than materialistic.

“It seemed like a respite for me to be away from the over-abundant life in Beverly Hills,” he says.

A political science major, he admired John F. Kennedy and planned to go into politics. But a short stint in the Army during the early 1960s diverted him into photography. His superiors at Fort Ord asked him to teach some of his fellow soldiers how to use a camera. He had never used one before, but he read some photography books and bluffed his way through, and found that he had real talent.

“I went nuts for it,” he says.

He had planned to attend grad school at Yale after he left the Army, but instead ended up at the Art Center College in Los Angeles, with the goal of becoming a fine-arts photographer who would show his work in galleries. And so he would — eventually. But first he had to make a living, and that led him to Hollywood.

Guy’s father did not approve of his career choice, and declined to fund it.

“He thought I’d be a paparazzo,” Guy says. “He cut me off financially at a very early age.”

So Guy started working for the many record companies based in Los Angeles. He already had connections in the industry, including his old friend Terry Melcher.

This was 1963, when the pop charts were still dominated by teen-idol types who were crooners rather than rockers. The labels offered Guy plenty of work shooting Hollywood-style portraits of popular young singers like Wayne Newton — and Johnny Mathis, who had scored hits with several Paul Francis Webster songs, including “The Twelfth of Never.” But Guy was more in tune with people like Melcher who were more into rock ‘n’ roll.

As a singer, Melcher comprised half of Bruce and Terry, a vocal duo he had formed with the future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston. As a songwriter and a record producer, Melcher had his own company, T.M. Music. Despite its name, T.M. was dominated, not by Melcher, but by his high-profile business partner, the singer Bobby Darin. Melcher connected Guy with Darin, and as a result, Guy ended up photographing  Darin for Capitol Records. It turned out that Guy’s then wife, Bettie, was good friends with Darin’s then wife, the movie star Sandra Dee, so the two couples began socializing together.

Darin personified the changes that were in the air. He had started out in ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll (“Splish Splash”), then segued into his Sinatra mode (“Mack the Knife”), and was now exploring new sounds — not only country and folk, but also surf music and its subset, hot rod rock. The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean currently were scoring hits in this genre, so Darin and Melcher decided to try their hand at it. They co-wrote “Hot Rod USA,” which Melcher then put on an album he and Johnston were co-producing called “Three Window Coupe.” (Any conceptual resemblance to the Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe” was entirely not coincidental.)

“Three Window Coupe” was credited to a group called the Rip Chords, although Melcher and Johnston apparently did most of the singing in the recording studio, and the L.A. session players known as the Wrecking Crew provided the music. Having recorded the album, Melcher needed an eye-catching sleeve for it, so naturally he called his friend Guy. The resulting cover shot featured a hot-rodded Ford V8 parked incongruously on a beach, garnished with a surfboard and the putative Rip Chords, ogling a comely young lady in a bikini.

“Columbia Records loved it,” Guy recalls.

This was his first album cover. Little did he realize that this would be the format where he would make his biggest mark on the culture.

Like Bobby Darin, Guy straddled the fault line between the glamorous Hollywood of the ‘50s and the trippy counterculture of the ‘60s. He would make the scene at the Whiskey a Go Go, a new discotheque on the Sunset Strip, where rockers like Johnny Rivers ruled the roost; but he also frequented the old-school Cocoanut Grove nightclub on Wilshire Boulevard, where he had been introduced to Bettie on a night when he was there with “Moon River” and “Pink Panther” composer Henry Mancini, a family friend. The 1960-64 period represented an overlap between these two eras, and Guy had a foot in each camp.

Nevertheless, he saw where things were heading. The new generation was getting ready to take over, and he would be on hand with his camera to record the transition. But nobody yet knew how cataclysmic this particular transition would turn out to be.

 

COVER BOY

The Rip Chords’ biggest hit single was “Hey, Little Cobra,” with Terry Melcher, uncredited, on lead vocal. It peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on Feb. 8, 1964. One day later, the Beatles made their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and the world changed, practically overnight. When the Beatles played the Hollywood Bowl in August, Guy was there, looking on from a premium box as a guest of the elderly gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, of all people. She scored the tickets, but he brought the credibility.

“I was the hot photographer in the music business, and so she invited me to come with her,” he says.

Guy couldn’t hear much music that night, due to all the screaming by the teenage girls in the audience. But he could see everything quite clearly, and he knew he was looking at the future. Hot rod rock soon went the way of the Dodo, and “Three Window Coupe” made no headway on the album charts, suddenly dominated by British Invasion groups. But American rockers would soon regroup, with help from a new wave of hip, young producers, one of whom would turn out to be Terry Melcher.

Doris Day was still the biggest female movie star in America in 1964, but her son’s contributions to mid-1960s culture would prove more enduring. Now a full-time producer at Columbia, Melcher had moved on from the Rip Chords to Paul Revere and the Raiders. Then he took on a new group called the Byrds, and produced their cover of a not-yet-released Bob Dylan song, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The single shot up to No. 1 in the spring of 1965, establishing folk rock as an alternative to British Invasion rock. For a time, the Byrds were hailed as America’s answer to the Beatles, and Melcher was the producer with the golden touch.

That summer, Melcher introduced Guy to another young producer, Lou Adler, who had just founded Dunhill Records. Adler asked Guy to shoot the cover for a new Dunhill album, “Eve of Destruction,” by a little-known singer named Barry McGuire. Guy posed McGuire in a manhole and shot him in black and white, to create a dramatic, gritty-looking image to go with the title song. Released as a single, it went to No. 1 during that epochal summer of ‘65, when rock ‘n’ roll matured into rock music, and “the Sixties” finally kicked into gear.

That fall, when it came time to produce the Byrds’ follow-up album to “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Melcher hired Guy to shoot the cover. Guy’s evocative, arty creation for “Turn! Turn! Turn!” earned him his first Grammy nomination.

People today much under the age of 40 cannot conceive how important album art was in the pre-digital era, and especially in the vinyl era, when LPs were physically big enough to give photographers and art directors scope for their creativity. Their work had a huge impact, because album buyers would hold the sleeves in their hands and stare at the cover while the music played in the background. This was a new art form, and a relatively short-lived one, much like the MTV music video of the 1980s. But album art was a very big deal in its day, and especially in the ‘60s, when the rock audience went supernova.

Chart-topping albums that might once have sold thousands of copies now sold in the millions, and every copy was a visual showcase for photographers like Guy Webster. Rock fans took their music very seriously as an art form, which meant that the album covers must be art too, and the people who created those covers must be artists. And so they were.

“Turn! Turn! Turn!” was just the beginning. That same fall, Guy created at least three other covers that remain iconic today.

For Dunhill, Lou Adler asked him to shoot the cover for the first album by a new group, The Mamas and the Papas. During the shoot in the group’s Laurel Canyon house, everyone got high together, to the point where Guy was no longer very steady on his feet. This was not the way he usually worked, but on this particular day it worked out well. When all four members of the group crowded into the bathroom at one point, inspiration struck.

“I said, ‘I’ve got it — get into the bathtub,’ “ Guy says. “I put the camera on a tripod because I couldn’t hold it.”

The resulting shot — John Phillips, Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty sitting in the tub, with lovely Michelle Phillips recumbent upon their laps — became the eye-catching cover image for “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears,” the 1966 album that featured the monster hits “California Dreamin’ ” and “Monday Monday.”

Guy Webster's classic photo of the Mamas and the Papas.

Guy Webster’s classic photo of the Mamas and the Papas.

Meanwhile, Adler introduced Guy to the Rolling Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who told him that the Stones would be in L.A. soon to record their album “Aftermath.” Would Guy like to shoot them? Yes he would, and shortly thereafter he found himself escorting Mick, Keith & Co. up into Franklin Canyon north of Beverly Hills for a photo shoot near a reservoir. One of these shots, featuring Brian Jones in vivid red corduroys in the foreground, provided the cover for the Stones’ 1966 album “Big Hits (Green Grass and High Tide),” while portrait shots from a later session in Guy’s studio ended up on the cover of their 1967 album “Flowers.”

Then there was Simon and Garfunkel. Columbia assigned Guy to photograph this up-and-coming duo for the cover of their second album, “Sounds of Silence.” He took them up to Franklin Canyon and captured the image that still endures: two young troubadours on a country road, looking back at the camera as they head uphill toward parts unknown.

After the shoot, Guy brought Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel home to meet his parents, and Simon brought his guitar from his car and played the album’s title song for Guy’s songwriter father, who loved it.

One might assume that by this point in the ‘60s, Paul Francis Webster’s day was done. Wrong. Paul won his third Oscar in 1966 for co-writing “The Shadow of Your Smile,” which also won the Grammy for Song of the Year, beating out the Beatles and “Yesterday.”

Around this time, Paul was hired to write the lyrics for the theme song of a new animated TV show, “Spider-Man.” Ever versatile, he came up with lines that would soon be imprinted on millions of young brains: “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can.”

In 1967, both Paul and Guy were nominated for Grammys: Paul for Song of the Year for “Somewhere, My Love,” set to the tune of “Lara’s Theme” from “Dr. Zhivago;” Guy for the “Turn! Turn! Turn!” cover photograph. Neither Webster won that year, but both continued to thrive. Paul remained a successful songwriter well into the ‘70s, outlasting the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas and Simon and Garfunkel. He died in 1984.

(For those who are keeping count, in addition to “Secret Love,” Paul’s other Oscar win was for “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” in 1955.)

 

GO-TO GUY

By 1966, Guy Webster had established himself as a go-to guy for every record company in Hollywood, so it was hardly a surprise that fall when Jac Holzman of Elektra Records hired him to create the cover for the debut album by a new group Holzman had signed. What was a surprise, at least for Guy, was that when the band showed up at his studio for the shoot, the lead singer greeted him like an old friend. It turned out they had met years before when Guy was taking a philosophy class at UCLA.

“Guy, it’s Jim.”

“You know me?”

“Guy, we went to UCLA together.”

“Oh my God. Jim!”

It was Jim Morrison, much thinner and with much longer hair than when Guy had last seen him in the classroom. The group, of course, was the Doors, and the album cover, dominated by Morrison’s handsome face, would earn Guy his second Grammy nomination.

“The Doors” was released in January 1967, and by June the single “Light My Fire” was igniting the charts. This was the eve of the Summer of Love, and the Doors clearly were going places — but they would not be going to the summer’s inaugural event, the soon-to-be-legendary Monterey Pop Festival, which took place that same June.

Jim Morrison and the Doors. Morrison was a former classmate of Guy Webster.

Jim Morrison and the Doors. Morrison was a former classmate of Guy Webster.

The festival was the brainchild of Guy’s L.A. circle — Lou Adler, John Phillips, Terry Melcher and others. The Doors, for whatever reason, were not invited to join the line-up. But Guy was invited to attend, in an official capacity. He had created the influential flowerchild image featured in the festival brochure, and he was there in person to shoot Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Who as they passed into legend.

In the wake of Monterey, Herb Alpert invited Guy to head up the art department at A&M Records. Guy accepted, in part because he could see that rock was now becoming a big business, which meant more corporate interference with the creative types. Photographers like Guy would henceforth have less control over their work. But A&M as an independent label employed fewer suits and could allow Guy more autonomy.

In her 2009 book “Who Shot Rock & Roll,” the photography historian Gail Buckland described Guy Webster’s 1960s oeuvre as “part of the collective unconscious of an entire generation. The look of a Webster photograph is the look of the period; he took the photograph of the gorgeous, seemingly naked blonde in a pool of water with flowers surrounding her that was the centerpiece of the brochure for the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967. He identified and isolated a look and an attitude, and then millions copied it. His photographic record of the sixties is as descriptive, in its own way, as Kerouac’s is of the fifties.”

During his rock ‘n’ roll heyday, Guy photographed an extraordinary range of notable recording artists. In addition to the above-mentioned legends, his subjects included Bob Dylan, Sonny and Cher, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Liza Minnelli, Nancy Sinatra, Chicago, Procol Harum, Nico, the Turtles, Carole King, Taj Mahal, Judy Collins, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Rivers, Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66, Captain Beefheart, Barbra Streisand, Earth, Wind & Fire, Randy Newman and Igor Stravinsky, along with many others.

(Local note: Guy created striking covers for the first two Spirit albums, both produced by Lou Adler. This band included former Ojai residents Ed Cassidy and his stepson Randy Wolfe, a.k.a. Randy California, along with future Ojai resident John Locke.)

One classic album cover Guy might have shot, but did not, was “Smile” by the Beach Boys, the projected follow-up to their classic 1966 album “Pet Sounds.” Nobody shot “Smile,” because the group’s resident genius, Brian Wilson, apparently had some sort of mental meltdown in the spring of 1967, and the much–anticipated album never came out, at least not as originally conceived.

Guy took many photographs of Wilson and the Beach Boys in the mid-1960s – he joined them on tour a couple of times, and he was there in the studio when they recorded the complicated vocal tracks for “Good Vibrations.” Brian Wilson paid tribute to Guy by writing the foreword to “Big Shots: Rock Legends and Hollywood Icons, The Photography of Guy Webster,” a lavishly illustrated, coffee-table book published in 2014.

“When Guy worked with us in 1966 and 1967 there were many different sessions with lots of different people on the dates, haunting the hallways,” Wilson wrote. “I was pretty focused on producing the music, so I was never certain where Guy was lurking, but man, he was right there.”

 

Webster's photo of Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival was among the many featured in the "Who Shot Rock and Roll?" exhibit.

Webster’s photo of Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival was among the many featured in the “Who Shot Rock and Roll?” exhibit.

INTERLUDE: HELTER SKELTER

Back in the day, the Beach Boy whom Guy was closest to was not Brian but his younger brother Dennis, the group’s drummer. And it was through Dennis Wilson — and Terry Melcher — that Guy began hearing about an aspiring singer-songwriter named Charles Manson.

Manson was a creepy ex-con with a harem of young female runaways, whom he shared with Dennis in order to worm his way into the Beach Boy’s confidence. Thus did Manson penetrate the Hollywood rock ‘n’ roll world — Guy’s world.

“I was invited to Manson’s party at Dennis’s house in Pacific Palisades,” Guy says. “I didn’t go, but I heard all about it from my friend Ned Wynn.”

Wynn, the son of actor Keenan Wynn and the grandson of actor-comedian Ed Wynn, reported that Manson and his “family” had served up a sumptuous feast and then announced to their guests that all the food had been foraged from garbage dumpsters.

Terry Melcher did not attend that party either, but he was introduced to Manson another time, via a person who had met him through Dennis Wilson. As a producer, Melcher had a professional interest in cultivating new songwriters. Some authors who have written about Manson assert that Melcher initially was intrigued by the charismatic charlatan. Guy says these authors are mistaken.

“Terry wanted nothing to do with him,” Guy says. “He was too spooky and scary.”

But Manson evidently saw Melcher as his ticket to the big time, and was angry when Melcher declined to punch that ticket.

At the time, Melcher was living with the actress Candice Bergen in a rented house at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. (Guy says it was he who originally had set Melcher up with Bergen.) Guy himself never crossed paths with Manson at that house, or anywhere else. But he recalls attending a small dinner party there during which Manson’s name came up. Melcher and Bergen had only three guests that night: Guy and Bettie and Melcher’s mother, Doris Day. Melcher told them that Manson had been to the house, and that he (Melcher) was worried about what might happen. So he and Bergen were vacating the premises.

“Candice and I are moving to Malibu,” Melcher announced.

The address was a secret, Guy says: “Only his mother and Bettie and I knew.” Nevertheless, Manson somehow got wind of this move. He knew that Melcher had left Benedict Canyon behind. But Manson evidently wanted to send the producer a message. (And perhaps to touch off an apocalyptic race war while he was at it.) On Aug. 9, 1969, he sent his minions to the Cielo Drive house to kill whoever was there — which turned out to be Sharon Tate and her houseguests.

Guy was camping upstate amid the sequoias with Bobby Darin and their families when the news came over the radio about the mysterious slaughter in Benedict Canyon, at an address he knew very well. It would be months before police identified the killers, but Guy already had an inkling.

“I had a cognition — it could have been Manson,” he says.

All Hollywood was terrified.

“It put a damper on the wonderful ‘60s,” Guy says. “Everything was peace and light, and then you had this monster unleashed on the public. It scared everybody. People armed themselves.”

Guy bought a guard dog to protect his family, and Bettie took to wearing a .25 on her hip. (They and their three kids lived in Beverly Hills, not far from Benedict Canyon.) Terry Melcher hired armed guards to provide around-the-clock protection for himself and his movie-star mother, lest there be further depredations by murderous hippies. But it was melanoma rather than Manson that eventually claimed Melcher’s life, in 2004. (Doris Day is still very much with us, at 92.)

“Terry and I stayed friends ‘till he died,” Guy says.

 

EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS

Having taken over the record industry, Hollywood’s longhaired Young Turks next made their move on the movie industry. Older stars like Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor made way for the likes of Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda — and Jack Nicholson, whom Guy met in 1968 on the set of “Easy Rider.” Guy by this point had developed a sideline gig shooting celebrities for the Los Angeles Times, so it was a natural segue for him to shoot what were called “specials” for the film studios. His book “Big Shots” features Nicholson on its cover and plenty of other film stars inside, alongside the rockers.

(For an analysis of Guy’s approach to portrait photography, see Anca Colbert’s “Art And About” column in the Summer 2014 Ojai Quarterly.)

Guy had come full circle. Having grown up within the Hollywood world, he had returned to it in triumph. Rock stars now outranked film stars in terms of cultural prestige, so actors like Nicholson were eager to be immortalized by the same photographer who had shot the Doors and the Stones.

The irony is that by this point in his life, Guy was getting ready to leave the Hollywood scene behind. He had been working hard since he was a teenager.  In 1971, he rented out his Beverly Hills house and took his family to Europe for what would turn out to be a very long break.

“I took off and I didn’t come back for five years,” he says.

Guy loved living in Florence and summering on Minorca, and he found plenty of professional work to sustain him in Europe. He also began acquiring Italian motorcycles at this time. But ultimately his marriage to Bettie foundered, so he returned to L.A. (and to Beverly Hills) in the mid 1970s to pick up the pieces. He got involved with the stylistically innovative WET Magazine (“The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing”), and he married the actress and model Leone James and began a second family. Which is what finally brought him to Ojai.

 

THE BRIDGE

Guy being Guy, the story he tells of how he and Leone got together is a long and compelling tale involving a Hollywood film premiere (“Superman,” 1978) and an ice-skating outing (with the Olympics gold medalist Dorothy Hamill, who later married Guy’s friend Dino Martin, a son of the film star Dean Martin who had given Guy one of his first motorcycles, but that’s another story). Suffice to say that he and Leone met, fell in love and began planning a life together.

“We didn’t want to raise children in Beverly Hills,” he says. They considered New Mexico and Oregon as alternatives. Then one day in 1979, Guy stopped off in Ojai while en route to Santa Barbara, and he happened to see the picture of a certain house on display in the window of a real-estate office in the Arcade. The house was on Reeves Road in the East End, and the driveway crossed a white bridge to get to the property. The bridge is what really caught Guy’s eye.

“I had a cognition,” he says. “I was supposed to buy this house.”

The house had started life as a barn on the old Soule Ranch (now Soule Park). Zadie Soule sold it circa 1948 to a Russian ballet dancer named C. Kahn Bashiroff, a Cold War defector who had settled in Santa Barbara and wanted a weekend home in Ojai. Bashiroff moved the barn to the Reeves Road lot and began converting it into a house. When Guy first encountered the structure three decades later, it still needed a lot of work. Undeterred, he bought it the very next day, and he and Leone moved in in 1980.

“We spent 20 years remodeling it,” he says.

At first they just spent weekends here. But the people they met in Ojai were interesting and the valley was beautiful, so they found themselves spending more time up here. “When the kids came along, we just stayed,” he says.

And so Guy Webster finally left Beverly Hills behind him for good, and put down roots in Ojai. His and Leone’s two daughters, Jessie and Merry, attended the Oak Grove School. Many friends from L.A. who came to visit were inspired to buy houses here too, he says, mentioning Mary Steenburgen, Malcolm McDowell and Peter Strauss among others. Meanwhile Guy continued to work as a photographer, commuting via motorcycle to his studio in Venice.

Thirty-six years have passed since Guy moved here, and he has long since become an Ojai institution. The girls grew up and moved away, but he and Leone remain. (No longer on Reeves Road, but still in the East End.) They have houses elsewhere and spend a fair amount of time on Martha’s Vineyard, but for Guy, Ojai is home.

 

ZEN, MOTORCYCLES, MAINTENANCE

Guy took a career victory lap in November 2014 when Insight Editions published “Big Shots: The Photography of Guy Webster,” which won much applause and several awards. But four months later he landed in the hospital for quadruple-bypass surgery. The operation on his heart was successful, but it triggered a stroke that put him in a wheelchair. No more tennis, no more golf, no more riding his motorcycles, no more taking photographs.

“But I can talk,” he says cheerfully.

He concedes that he wasn’t this chipper in the immediate aftermath of the stroke. Having led a charmed life for so long, he faced a difficult adjustment to his new reality.

“I was very depressed and angry, but I kind of thought that this was a lesson for me,” he says. “My life was so perfect from the cradle to the wheelchair. Now I had to learn how to live as an invalid.”

Not that he accepted that he would remain one. He made considerable progress toward recovery before a fall down some stairs put him back in the wheelchair. Now he is once again out of the chair and using a walker and progressing toward a cane. He hopes eventually to regain his ability to operate a camera, but he knows he may never again ride one of his bikes.

“It was like my church to get on a motorcycle and ride out into the wilderness,” he says. “To have it taken away was frightening.”

Guy says he relies on the Buddhist philosophy of non-attachment to help adjust himself to his new circumstances. He has given up his photography studio in Venice, and he continues to sell off his motorcycle collection. But he has his wife and his children and grandchildren and his many friends, and he is content.

“I’ve always had Buddhist leanings, all my life,” he says. “You have to make the little things in life just as important  as the big things.”

Thacher graduate Nayla Kid

Thacher graduate Nayla Kid

Star student Nayla Kidd surfaced this week after a two-week disappearance. Kidd was a graduate of prestigious Thacher School. Link takes you to Kidd’s post-reappearance interview with the New York Post.

http://nypost.com/2016/05/29/why-i-had-to-escape-my-ivy-league-life-and-disappear/?utm_campaign=SocialFlow&utm_source=NYPTwitter&utm_medium=SocialFlow

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The Storyteller

Mark Frost at his ranch, photographed by Caitlin Jean Gaese

Mark Frost at his ranch, photographed by Caitlin Jean Gaese

Ojai writer Mark Frost is working with David Lynch on the sequel to their classic television series “Twin Peaks,” set in a small town in Washington state. But Frost’s next writing project will be set in a different small town: Ojai.

BY MARK LEWIS

When Mark Frost moved to Ojai four years ago with his family, he was not quite sure what he was getting into.

“I’d always been a big-city guy,” Frost says. “I didn’t know what to expect.”

The only small community Frost really knew well was Twin Peaks, the fictional setting of the classic 1990s television series of the same name, which he co-created with David Lynch. Twin Peaks is an idyllic-looking place – until Frost and Lynch pull back the veil to reveal a surreal snake pit full of psychotic drug dealers, greedy intriguers, and murderers possessed by evil demons. A person nowadays who binge-watches “Twin Peaks” on Netflix might easily develop an aversion to small-town living.

But to Frost, Ojai is the opposite of Twin Peaks.

“There’s something very special here,” he says. “There’s a kind of magic that you rarely find in other places.”

Nevertheless, Frost has been spending a lot of his time in Ojai thinking dark thoughts about strange doings. The explanation is simple: He and Lynch were writing a “Twin Peaks” sequel, which will feature many of the original cast members, including Kyle MacLachlan as FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper. Currently in production with Lynch as director, the sequel is scheduled to debut early next year on the Showtime premium cable network.

So the fictional town of Twin Peaks is much on Frost’s mind these days — but then so is Ojai, which will figure prominently as a setting for his next project, a book about Krishnamurti. Nor will that be the first book Frost has set in this valley. He may only have lived here for four years, but in a way, his association with Ojai goes back four decades, to the very beginning of his career.

 

BACKSTORY

Frost was born in Brooklyn in 1953, and grew up in New York, Southern California and Minnesota. His father was an actor and his sister became one too, but Frost would rather put his own words on paper than read someone else’s aloud.

“I knew I was going to be a writer by the time I was 7,” he says.

After spending two years in a high-school internship program at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Frost enrolled in the drama program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, with the goal of becoming a playwright. But in the summer of 1974 he took a break from his studies and went out to L.A., where a Carnegie Mellon alum named Charles Haid introduced him to another alum, Steven Bochco.

Bochco at the time was story editor of “McMillan and Wife,” a TV series starring Rock Hudson that was produced by Universal Studios.

“He got me in at Universal,” Frost says.

As a result, Frost stayed in L.A. and launched his career by co-writing two episodes of the Universal series “The Six Million Dollar Man.” It starred Lee Majors as Steve Austin, an astronaut-turned-cyborg who, per his backstory, had grown up in Ojai. (The town would figure even more prominently in a spin-off series, “The Bionic Woman.”)

“It’s almost like it was foretold that I was going to end up here,” Frost says.

It did not seem that way at the time, however.

“I was aware that the show had an Ojai connection – it was mentioned in the scripts – but it made no impression on me,” he says. “At the time, I don’t think I even knew it was a real place.”

Then he began hearing about Ojai in a different context.

“My interest in Krishnamurti and Theosophy dates to the ‘70s, under the category of ‘spiritual curiosity’ for a young adult who was decidedly non-religious by nature and nurture,” Frost says. “K was still speaking in Ojai and I did have a couple of close friends who attended lectures in the Oak Grove, but regrettably I never made the trip.”

Still set on becoming a playwright, Frost returned to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where he was a “literary associate” for several years. But he kept in touch with Bochco, who meanwhile had gone on to develop a groundbreaking police drama, “Hill Street Blues,” which debuted in 1981. (The cast included Charles Haid as Officer Andy Renko.) Bochco lured Frost back to L.A. to join the writing staff starting with the third season, and Frost worked on 35 episodes as a writer and/or story editor.

“Hill Street” was an enormously influential show. With its large ensemble cast, its gritty themes, its realistic sets and exterior locations, and its use of sophisticated cinematic techniques (including handheld cameras), the show looked and sounded like nothing else on TV.

Another innovation was its complex narrative approach: “Hill Street” featured multiple story lines, many of which unfolded from week to week instead of being wrapped up neatly within each hour-long episode. During its seven years on the air, the series racked up 98 Emmy nominations (including one for Frost) and a record 26 wins.

“It was a hell of a ride,” Frost says.

The “Hill Street” writers’ room constituted a challenging, competitive, high-pressure environment, where Frost had to keep up with the likes of David Milch (who went on to fame with “NYPD Blue” and “Deadwood”) and Anthony Yerkovich (who went on to create “Miami Vice”). To decompress, Frost liked to get away from Hollywood occasionally to relax on a golf course. As it happens, there was a good one in Ojai.

By this point, Ojai was no longer the make-believe home of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman. But it was the real-life home of Linda Kelsey, an old friend of Frost’s from Minneapolis (and an Emmy-nominated actress on “Lou Grant”).

“I remember her telling me about it,” Frost says. “I started coming up here to play golf at the Ojai Valley Inn. Who knew that that would end up being my home course?”

After three years on “Hill Street,” Frost tried his hand at screenwriting, and he began to incorporate supernatural elements into his scripts. Among his early efforts was “The Believers,” adapted from a novel about a murderous voodoo cult. “The Believers” was produced and directed by the noted filmmaker John Schlesinger, with Frost serving as associate producer and directing some of the second-unit work.

“That was sort of my master’s education in filmmaking,” he says.

It was around this time that Frost began working with the writer-director David Lynch. Best known at the time for “Eraserhead” and “The Elephant Man,” Lynch was wrapping up work on “Blue Velvet,” and preparing to make a film about Marilyn Monroe. The script was to be adapted from “Goddess,” a recently published Monroe biography.

“David and I were introduced by a mutual agent of ours at the time, who thought we would hit it off on the Monroe project,” Frost says. “We met over coffee and did hit it off and went from there. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes a creative match like that persist other than chemistry and affinity and, as it turned out over the long haul, tolerance, friendship and success.”

The Monroe project didn’t pan out. But Frost and Lynch went on to collaborate on a script called “One Saliva Bubble,” a comedy about two sets of twins and switched identities. Steve Martin and Martin Short signed on as the stars, with famed producer Dino de Laurentiis providing the funding. Frost says they were only a few weeks away from production when the De Laurentiis production company went bankrupt., pulling the plug on the film.

Next, the ABC network suggested that Frost and Lynch try their hands at creating a television series. The result was “Twin Peaks.”

The two-hour pilot episode aired on April 8, 1990, and created an immediate sensation. Co-written by Frost and Lynch and directed by Lynch, it introduced MacLachlan as Agent Cooper, who arrives in Twin Peaks to investigate the murder of a local high-school student named Laura Palmer. Twin Peaks is a small community surrounded by a thick forest, which hides many secrets. Cooper soon finds that nothing in this bucolic-looking town is as it seems.

As the series unfolded during the first season, the clues lead Cooper to a supernatural suspect, a demon who has possessed a local resident. But which one? Viewers tuned in week after week hoping to find out who – or what – had killed Laura Palmer.

“We were trying to do something a little different,” Frost says.

They succeeded, and then some. “Twin Peaks” was unlike anything seen on TV before.  Like “Hill Street Blues” before it, but to an even greater degree, “Twin Peaks” was novelistic and cinematic. It was also deeply, compellingly weird.

Frost and Lynch took a surrealistic approach to storytelling, grafting dream sequences and otherworldly elements onto their murder-mystery plot. On one level, the show came across as a parody of a genre that did not actually exist: the horror soap opera. But on another level, “Twin Peaks” was genuinely scary. It was smart and funny and creepy and disturbing, all at the same time. It caught America’s imagination and became a cultural phenomenon, the sort of hit show that everyone talks about, whether they watch it or not.

Lynch was a recognized film auteur, and “Twin Peaks” seemed to be of a piece with “Eraserhead” and especially with the much-celebrated “Blue Velvet.” But Lynch was not involved in every episode. He had other irons in the fire, such as directing the film “Wild At Heart,” while Frost, as the “Twin Peaks” show runner, kept his hand on the tiller. When the show took off, both co-creators found themselves in a powerful media spotlight.

“It was like hanging on the end of a rocket,” Frost says.

In addition to its edgy themes and artsy affect, “Twin Peaks” stood apart for its long-form approach to storytelling. At the end of the first season, viewers still did not know who had killed Laura Palmer.

“Long-form drama was always very compelling to me,” Frost says. “I felt we could take it further.”

Ultimately, they may have taken it too far, at least for TV audiences of the time. Halfway through the second season, under pressure from the network, they finally identified the killer. After that, some of the audience faded away, in part because ABC kept moving the show to different time slots, and in part because it was frequently pre-empted by coverage of the Persian Gulf War.

“The wind went out of the sails,” Frost says.

Amid diminishing ratings, the season ended with a cliffhanger episode designed to pique viewers’ interest in Season 3. But at that point, ABC pulled the plug. There would be no third season, and no plot resolution. Nevertheless, “Twin Peaks” already had made a permanent mark on the culture. Frost suspected as much, even at the time: “I felt like we were building something that might last.”

He was right. “Twin Peaks” has endured, and not just as a fondly remembered cult classic. Cultural historians regard it as a milestone television event that paved the way for the sophisticated, challenging, novelistic shows that have flourished since the advent of cable – shows like “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “True Detective” (the latter created and written by Ojai resident Nic Pizzolatto). In short, “Twin Peaks” was important, and it represents a career peak for the team that created it.

“We all realize this is going to be the first line in our obituaries,” Frost says. And that’s OK with him: “Everybody wants to be remembered for something. It may as well be this.”

 

PLAN B

After “Twin Peaks,” Frost co-wrote and directed “Storyville,” a 1992 movie starring James Spader. But he also started writing books, both fiction and nonfiction, and these days he views himself primarily an author rather than a scriptwriter.

“That was Plan B,” he says of book writing. “I now consider that my primary career.”

His first novel, published in 1993, was an occult murder mystery called “The List of Seven” that featured Arthur Conan Doyle as a protagonist, with Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, in a supporting role.

“I started writing ‘The List of Seven’ right after ‘Storyville’ – another disillusioning experience in the Hollywood shark tank, this time as a director – so Plan B was officially launched at that point,” Frost says.

Nevertheless, he continued to work for the studios as a screenwriter for hire for the next dozen or so years, to pay the rent while he developed his book-writing career. (His screen credits during this period included the first two “Fantastic Four” films, based on the Marvel comic book series.)

“It’s a terrible way to make a terrific living,” he says. “As Oscar Levant — or maybe it was Dorothy Parker — once said: The thing about Hollywood you have to understand is, underneath all that tinsel is real tinsel. The impulse to write books harkens back to why I originally chose to be a writer instead of an actor: the overwhelming desire to be able to speak, and write, in your own voice. “

He now has seven novels to his credit. (His most recent effort, published last fall, was “Rogue,” the third installment of Frost’s “The Paladin Prophecy” series for young-adult readers.) As for his four nonfiction books, they have all been inspired by historic sports contests. They include “Game Six,” about the epic sixth game of the 1975 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds; and “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” about the 1913 U.S. Open, during which a young, unheralded American amateur defeated the famous English professionals Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a playoff.

In 2005, Frost adapted “The Greatest Game” as a screenplay and then co-produced the film version, which was directed by Ojai’s own Bill Paxton. Paxton’s friend and fellow Ojai resident, the artist Mick Reinman, served as a visual consultant. And that was how Frost eventually found his own way to Ojai as a permanent resident.

“We really bonded on the movie and became really good friends,” Frost says. “I have to give Bill Paxton and Mick Reinman a lot of credit for beguiling us with tales of the Ojai while we were making the picture, which led directly to our exploratory interest here.”

Frost and his wife, Lynn, were looking to escape from L.A. and raise their son, Travis, in a child-friendly environment. Lynn grew up in a small town in Tennessee, so she was primed to embrace Ojai. Frost, a city boy, was more hesitant about settling full-time in such an out-of-the-way place. His ambivalence seems to have colored the first installment of his “Paladin Prophecy” series, which he was writing at the time. The book begins in Ojai, where teenager Will West and his parents recently have settled:

“After only five months here, he liked Ojai more than anywhere they’d ever lived. The small-town atmosphere and country lifestyle felt comfortable and easy, a refuge from the hassles of big-city life.”

But, this being a Mark Frost novel, sinister machinations are stirring beneath the town’s placid surface. Will detects intimations of a “queasy cocktail of impending doom,” which haunts him like “the hangover from a forgotten nightmare.”

Unsurprisingly, the move to Ojai ends badly for the Wests. But that did not deter the Frosts. The turning point came one day during a scouting expedition, when Mark and Lynn were driving around the East End and they passed three teenage girls walking along the road. The girls did not know the Frosts, but they smiled and waved, as people do in a friendly small town. That was enough for Lynn.

“She turned to me and said, ‘We’re moving here,’ in a way I knew better than to argue with,“ Frost says.

Continuing on their drive, they ended up at the end of Thacher Road, where they encountered a sign that was a sign in more ways than one: “Twin Peaks Ranch.”

That did it: “Six months later, we were  here.”

Four years later, all three Frosts have taken root. Travis attends the Ojai Valley School, and Mark and Lynn are big supporters of the Ojai Valley Defense Fund.

Ojai reminds Frost of the Southern California he fondly remembers from his childhood during the 1960s, before most of the orange groves were paved over for shopping malls.

The idea behind the Defense Fund is to amass a war chest big enough to deter mining companies and big-city developers, and thus to preserve Ojai as a pristine rural paradise.

“I don’t know of any other town that’s taking these steps to defend itself” from encroachment, Frost says. “It’s the walls of Troy!”

If Frost needed a sign that moving to Ojai had been the right decision, he found one shortly after he settled here, while he was playing a round at the Inn. Arriving at the 13th tee, he encountered a commemorative plaque that he had never noticed before, which highlighted two very familiar names. The plaque informed Frost that when the Inn (then called the Ojai Valley Country Club) first opened in 1924, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray played an exhibition match there. Having already written both a book and a movie featuring these two English golfing legends, Frost now found himself literally following in their footsteps.

“I have this secret theory that all roads lead to Ojai,” he says. “Every time I start down a path, it leads me here.”

He encountered yet another sign in the Summer 2013 issue of The Ojai Quarterly, which featured an article about Thornton Wilder’s time as a student at The Thacher School. Wilder is one of Frost’s favorite writers, and “Our Town” is his favorite play, so he was fascinated to read that Ojai — or Nordhoff, as it was then known — may have been the original model for Grover’s Corners, the small town where Wilder set the play.

Whether it’s Wilder or Krishnamurti, or Vardon and Ray, or even Steve Austin of “The Six Million Dollar Man,” Frost keeps turning up Ojai connections that long preceded his arrival here as a full-timer.

“This place has been calling me for a long time,” he says. “I’ve never felt as much a part of a community as I do here.”

 

BACK INTO THE FOREST

More recently, another community has been calling to Frost, the one he and Lynch invented: Twin Peaks. People who watched the original show still recall it vividly, and it has won new fans over the years via video rentals, cable reruns and Netflix streaming. Meanwhile, cable television evolved to the point where today it offers a vastly more hospitable environment for Frost and Lynch than they found on broadcast television back in the early 1990s. Eventually it occurred to them that the time was ripe to have another go at it.

In a way, Lynch had given it another go back in 2001, when he created “Mulholland Drive” as the pilot for a proposed ABC series.

“It began, much earlier, as a piece we were going to do as a ‘Twin Peaks’ spinoff, following the Sherilyn Fenn character, Audrey Horne, to Tinseltown,” Frost says. “Although I ultimately was not involved with either the pilot or film, I was living on Mulholland Drive at the time, and that’s the title comes from.”

By 2001, the concept had evolved to the point where it was no longer a “Twin Peaks” spinoff per se, although stylistically and thematically reminiscent of the earlier show. But ABC passed on the series, so Lynch completed the pilot as a feature film. Released by Universal, it made a star of Naomi Watts and earned Lynch a best-director Oscar nomination (his third). Yet he remained interested in exploring the long-form possibilities unique to television.

It took another decade, but TV culture finally caught up with “Twin Peaks.”

“David and I always stayed in touch,” Frost says. “We suddenly looked up and realized that it’s back in the zeitgeist.”

They devoted two years to writing one long script, which Lynch is now filming, with himself and Frost as co-executive producers (and with Naomi Watts reportedly among the new cast members, although Frost would not confirm this). When this epic movie is in the can, it will be carved up into multiple episodes, the exact number of which has not yet been determined.

This process represents the culmination of a career-long progression for Frost, from the single-episode story arcs of “The Six Million Dollar Man,” to the multi-episode arcs of “Hill Street Blues,” to the season-long arcs of the original “Twin Peaks,” to the series-long arc of the sequel, which Showtime is billing as a “new limited series.”

“It’s not a reboot,” Frost says. “It’s the story in continuity.”

Currently, Frost is writing a companion novel, “The Secret History of Twin Peaks.”

“I’ve just finished the first draft,” he says. “It goes back to the 18th century and weaves the tangled, mysterious history of the town, its people and the region, up through and including the events of the old series.”

He expects to publish the novel this fall, ahead of the new series premiere early in 2017.

Given that Frost was living here while he was writing the “Twin Peaks” sequel, will local residents who watch the show be able to detect some echoes of life in Ojai? Frost says that he did not consciously draw upon Ojai while recreating Twin Peaks. But he concedes that he might have done so unconsciously, because writers tend to be inspired by their surroundings, and he finds Ojai inspirational on many levels.

“It can’t help but show up in the new series,” he says. “I’ll leave it to others to figure out how that manifests itself. But that’s probably inevitable.”

 

THE POWER OF MYTH

Novels, nonfiction narratives, feature films, epic TV extravaganzas: As a storyteller, Frost is associated with just about every long-form format except the one he started out to hoping to master. Will he ever go back to writing plays?

“It’s on my bucket list, I’ll put it that way,” he says. “But if you’re a born storyteller, the format shouldn’t matter. You’ll be drawn to the process of storytelling, the way we’re all drawn to water.”

Frost will stick with the book format to tell his next story, that of Krishnamurti. He has not yet decided whether to write it as a novel or as a nonfiction book, although he’s leaning toward the hybrid approach, also known as the nonfiction novel, which Truman Capote pioneered with “In Cold Blood:”

“I’m not far enough into the work yet to say definitely which approach I’ll end up using,” Frost says, “but such a remarkable human story will dictate the style and form of the storytelling, and a hybrid approach feels now like the most appropriate.”

Frost’s narrative will follow Krishnamurti from his childhood in India, where Theosophists identified him as their future World Teacher, through his early years in Ojai, where he found a lifelong home, to the pivotal year 1929, when he rejected the messiah role and choose the philosopher’s path instead.

Along the way, Krishnamurti encountered and befriended Joseph Campbell, who will figure prominently in Frost’s book. Meeting K turned out to be a milestone on Campbell’s path to the mastery of comparative mythology.

“For me, Campbell is one of the century’s most influential thinkers, and having an opportunity to depict the way in which their paths crossed with such lasting impact is tremendously appealing,“ Frost says.

In his 1949 book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” Campbell identified what he called the monomyth, common to all cultures: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

If that sounds like a description of Agent Cooper venturing into the supernatural precincts of Twin Peaks, it’s not a coincidence. (To find out whether Cooper wins a decisive victory, we’ll have to wait for the sequel.)

Campbell’s explication of the monomyth, also known as “the hero’s journey,” is an idea that has launched a thousand plots, including the one George Lucas devised for “Star Wars.” Frost embraces Campbell’s concept with enthusiasm, on both a personal and a professional level.

“Look, at a certain point you can realize that all of life is both literal and metaphorical, and that approaching or perceiving your own journey through the lens of myth and narrative brings enormous benefit, insight and enrichment to the experience of being alive,” he says. “We need to feel connected to myth. And that’s the job of the storyteller. We’re the intermediaries.”

It’s a job Frost takes very seriously. “It’s a sacred role,” he says. And there’s no better place to perform it than here in Ojai:

“The idea of the single myth appeals to me far more than any sectarian or mediated truth,” he says. “That’s also a central tenet of K’s message, as well as Campbell’s, and that’s also in some way an essential part of Ojai’s appeal as a place.

“All these myths are free to live and thrive here, in equal measure, with none trying to crowd or drown out another. It’s a model of tolerance, civic responsibility and self-reliance that offers something like a way forward at what feels like a decisive moment for our troubled and quarrelsome species. I think truth, as K famously said, really is a pathless land. You won’t find it on a map, but you just might find it here.”