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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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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 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.)

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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Fall Calendar of Events

Ojai Y.E.S. is producing "Rent" through Oct. 25

Ojai Y.E.S. is producing “Rent” through Oct. 25

 

“Rent” comes to Ojai“Rent”

Date: Continuing to  Oct. 25

Time: Friday 2:30 p.m., 7: p.m., Sunday, 3 p.m.

Location: OYES, 316 East Matilija Avenue

Contact: 646-4300

ojaiyes.org

 

“TASTE OF OJAI”

Date: Sunday, Oct. 25

Time: 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Location: 10th fairway at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa’s golf course.

Contact: (805) 798-0177

clubrunner.ca/ojai

One of the most prestigious food events on the Central Coast, produced by the Rotary Club of Ojai to benefit their scholarship and community grant programs.

 

Jane Peterson “Solo Works in Mixed Media”

Date: Continuing to Nov. 1

Time: Thursday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Sunday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., or by appointment

Location: galerie 102, 102 West Matilija Street

Contact: 640-0151

galerie102.com

 

“Small Works”

Date: Continuing to Nov. 15

Time: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Location: Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts, 8585 Ojai-Santa Paula Road

Contact: 646-3381

beatricewood.com

 

“Jeff Mann: A Catalogue of Unnatural Works

Date: Continuing to Nov. 15

Time: Thursday and Friday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.,  Sundays 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., or by appointment

Location: The Porch Gallery, 310 East Matilija Street

Contact: 620-7589

porchgalleryojai.com

 

“Sergio and Friends” and “Birds of the Valley”

Date: Continuing to Jan. 3

Time: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Sunday noon to 4 p.m.

Location: Ojai Valley Museum, 103 West Ojai Avenue

Contact: 640-1390

ojaivalleymuseum.org

 

NOVEMBER

16th Annual Ojai Film Festival

Date: Nov. 5 to Nov. 12

Time: varies

Location: Varies

Contact: 646-8946

ojaifilmfestival.com

 

“Author Academy wITH ZHENA MUZYKA”

Date: Nov. 7-8

Time: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Intensive two-day retreat with inspirational author.

Contact: 805-633-0924, Th omas@Zhena.tv

 

“7th Annual Merchants Backyard Sale”

Date: Nov. 7

Time: 9 a.m. to 4 p..m.

Location: Behind the Arcade, in the Plaza.

Contact: Any downtown merchant

 

Alasdair Frazer and Natalie Haas in concert

Date: Nov. 11

Time: Gates open at 5 p.m.

Location: Dancing Oaks Ranch, 4585 Casitas Pass Road

Contact: 665-8852

ojaiconcertseries.com

 

“Painting” — Stella Baer

Date: Nov. 14 to Dec. 13

Time: Thursday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Sunday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., or by appointment

Location: galerie 102, 102 West Matilija Street

Contact: 640-0151

galerie102.com

 

“Holiday Home Look-in and Marketplace”

Date: Nov. 14 and Nov. 15

Time: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Location: Varies

Contact: 646-2094

ojaifestival.org

Ventura County Pastel Association Exhibit

Date: Nov. 7 to Dec. 2

Time: 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday

Location: Ojai Art Center, 113 South Montgomery Street

Contact: 646-0117, ojaiartcenter.org

 

“Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol”

Date: Nov. 27 to Dec. 20

Time: Friday and Saturday 8 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m.

Location: Ojai Art Center,

113 South Montgomery Street

Contact: 640-8797

ojaiartcenter.org

 

“Legends of the Celtic Harp”

Date: December 3

Time: Doors open 6:30 p.m.

Location: 441 Ojai Valley Woman’s Club,

East Ojai Avenue

Contact: 665-8852

ojaiconcertseries.com

 

“Love and Plum Pudding”

Date: December 5 to Janurary 6

Time: 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday – Sunday

Location: Ojai Art Center,

113 South Montgomery Street

Contact: 646-0117

ojaiartcenter.org

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This Space Available

Aerial view of downtown Ojai, courtesy of David Byrne/Focus Flight

Aerial view of downtown Ojai, courtesy of David Byrne/Focus Flight

Goode’s News Part II — Plans Emerge for Key Downtown Site

By Mark Lewis

When The Ojai Quarterly posted a story on Facebook about a new proposal to redevelop the school district’s downtown property, we evidently struck a nerve. The story (from our Summer 2015 issue) was shared on several Facebook community forums, generating long threads of commentary that added up to a Town Hall debate about the future of Ojai. The proposal comes from Eric Goode, a longtime East End homeowner and a high-profile New York hotelier, and his friend Jonas Svensson, an independent investor who lives west of the Arbolada. Their idea is to build a boutique hotel of 50 to 75 rooms somewhere on the 7.5-acre property, while preserving and repurposing the historic Ojai Elementary School buildings that currently house the district offices, Chaparral High School and Chaparral Auditorium. (The skate park and the park-and-ride lot would not be affected.)

Their plan is still in the formative stages and has not yet been presented to district officials, who in any case are not actively seeking proposals for developing the property. But the mere suggestion that a chic hotel might be planted in the heart of downtown Ojai dismayed some longtime residents.

“This would be another nail in the coffin,” Wendy Barr Franklin wrote on one Facebook thread. “A delight for those wanting a little Palm Springs closer to L.A. and a sad, sad day for the rest of us. I don’t expect a return to the good old days when we didn’t need a single stoplight but it’s disheartening to see my hometown disappearing one rock wall chunk at a time. And please don’t cite this as ‘progress’ unless you consider the inability to make a left turn onto Ojai Avenue progressive.”

The negative comments drew a vigorous rebuttal from Paul Leon, an Ojai native now in his third term as the mayor of Ontario. Leon is a regular visitor to Ojai, where his mother still lives, and he noted that many streets badly need repaving. To Leon, that indicates that the city is underfunded and needs the tax dollars new development projects would generate.

“I understand the desire to maintain the ‘old’ feel of Ojai, the town I grew up in, but there has to be some compromise,” Leon wrote on the same thread. “Ojai depends on tourism. That is the major industry there. It does no good to deny it; embrace it, and plan for a better way to capitalize on it … If you develop correctly and quickly, you can maintain your character while building your city’s income.”

That in turn drew a response from Craig Walker, who serves on Ojai’s Historic Preservation Commission.

“No one resents the tourists; we just don’t want tourism to dictate the character of our town,” Walker wrote on the same thread. “There has to be a balance … in favor of those who make their homes here. Especially since tourists come here because of our Ojai way of life.”

Walker cited the protracted struggle in the 1960s and ‘70s to prevent a proposed freeway from coming through the valley, as well as the activities of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, as examples of how the community has fought to retain its small-town flavor in the face of relentless development pressure.

“The people of Ojai have worked hard over the years to limit growth and preserve our quality of life,” he wrote.

As it happens, both Eric Goode and Jonas Svensson are supporters of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, and both say they like Ojai the way it is. But, echoing Leon, they contend that in preservation as in football, the best defense is a good offense. They pitch their hotel project as a pro-active move that would help to preserve the town’s ambience, by pre-empting outside developers who might some day swoop in and foist something inappropriate on the site.

But what would be appropriate for this site? The question is well worth asking, because the site is so big and so strategically placed that whatever is done with it will have a profound impact on Ojai’s future. It already looms large in Ojai’s past.

 

SCHOOL AS  JEWEL

“Growth” and “development” were things to be celebrated in the Ojai Valley of 1895, when the two-decade-old community found that it had outgrown its original one-room brick schoolhouse on Matilija Street. A new Nordhoff Grammar School was built that year at the corner of Ojai Avenue and North Montgomery Street – an imposing, two-story, wood-frame building comprising four classrooms and an auditorium, crowned by an impressive bell tower that loomed over the downtown business district.

For the next three decades, this was the most important building in town. Its Assembly Hall served the community as a dance hall, a theater, a concert hall and a place to hold meetings. It was where people came to vote on Election Day, and where they gathered at Christmastime to light the communal tree and watch Santa Claus pass out presents to the children. The Assembly Hall hosted the town’s first Roman Catholic services and its first motion picture show. It was the epicenter of village life.

But by 1927, the town had once again outgrown its grammar school. The school district jacked up the old one and moved it out of the way, and hired the distinguished Santa Paula architect Roy Wilson to design a new, Mission Revival-style school on the same site. The old school was retained for its Assembly Hall until 1937, when a new auditorium was completed and the 1895 building finally was demolished. All that remained of it was its bell, which was transferred to the new school’s bell tower.

The new, Mission-style auditorium also was designed by Roy Wilson, who was a busy man in those days. He also designed a new building for the San Antonio School on Carne Road, and a new Mission-style campus for Nordhoff High School on El Paseo Road. All are still in use today. (The former high school campus now houses Matilija Junior High School.) Wilson also designed Bill Baker’s Bakery, directly across the street from the downtown grammar school. Today, the former bakery is a restaurant called Azu, where people sit and gaze across Ojai Avenue at Wilson’s 1937 auditorium, unaware that both buildings were designed by the same architect at roughly the same time.

In 1953, Nordhoff Grammar School changed its name to Ojai Elementary School. In 1954, due to seismic safety concerns, its bellfry was removed, and the old bell was placed on display in front of the building, where it remains today. But Ojai Elementary School is long gone; it closed in 1976. The building’s North Montgomery Street wing now houses Chaparral High School, an alternative program for at-risk students. Its Ojai Avenue frontage became the Ojai Unified School District offices, including the boardroom where the property’s ultimate fate may be decided.

 

CHANGE COMES TO OJAI

School enrollment in Ojai has plummeted since the ‘90s, putting financial pressure on the district. Its downtown property is potentially of great value to a developer, so the district from time to time has contemplated various ways of cashing in on it. The current board is not interested in selling the property, but has left the door open to possibly signing a long-term lease, if a developer were to come forward with a compelling concept that would significantly boost the district’s income.

Cue Eric Goode and Jonas Svensson, who revealed their interest in the property in June. But they have not yet made a formal proposal. Meanwhile, the City Council has expressed interest in designating the former Ojai Elementary School a historic landmark, which might further complicate the redevelopment process. The school board is wary of the city’s idea, but whether the building is landmarked or not, it could not be redeveloped without the city’s cooperation.

“Our plan is to continue to meet with people who want to hear about our thoughts for the site, as well as engage with people from both the city and the school board,” Svensson told the OQ. “What we currently are working on is to prepare for the formal process we have to go through to realize the project, and planning to find a constructive way to engage with the community to get input and ideas that could be useful.”

In that spirit, the OQ conducted an informal and unscientific survey to see what ideas might be out there. Among the more popular suggestions: affordable housing, a retirement community, a performing arts center, a community swimming pool, and a bowling alley.

Some people say they would welcome another townhouse-style condo development, like Los Arboles on South Montgomery Street. Others cringe at the thought of another upscale condo cluster.

Marc Whitman, the architect who designed Los Arboles, favors a different approach for the school district property. He sees it as the site of an “artists village,” perhaps along the lines of the Working Artists Ventura project in Ventura, where market-rate condos support affordable living and working spaces for artists.

“I also see an extension of the downtown commercial district in that location with shops, restaurants and things for people to do, such as art and music studios,” Whitman told the OQ. “The existing courtyard could be made into a European style courtyard surrounded by restaurants and music venues. In other words, it could be a great epicenter of creative activities in our downtown that could enhance our lives and make Ojai the richer for it.”

A similar idea was offered by Hallie Katz, co-owner of the Human Arts Gallery in the Arcade. She points to the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Va., which is an old munitions factory repurposed into a complex of working artists’ studios and galleries. Why not do something similar with the former Ojai Elementary School buildings?

“Man, that would be cool,” Katz says.

Despite all those negative comments on Facebook, many people would welcome a boutique hotel on that site — especially one created by Eric Goode, who is known for developing well-designed projects like New York’s chic Bowery Hotel.

Steve Edelson, who owns the Ranch House restaurant and other Ojai Valley properties, says he supports Goode’s project. In fact, Edelson says, he would support just about any development proposal for the school district site.

“There is a growing demand for retail and housing here in beautiful Ojai,” he says. “History has shown over and over that restricting growth only leads to prices that exclude the lower and middle class, and herein  Ojai we need to be accessible to all. It seems wrong that you should have to have enough money to stay at the Ojai Valley Inn or afford a million dollar house to be here.”

To Ojai resident Cindy Convery, however, the Goode-Svensson project might compromise the town’s viability as a small-town community where people still feel connected to their neighbors. She fears that a successful hotel on that site might push Ojai past the tipping point on its way to joining Carmel, Solvang and Sedona as communities that have sold their souls to the tourist industry.

“Even a small hotel, say 75 rooms, means about 150 tourists per night on one of the already busiest corners in town,” Convery says. “Plus the 75 or so employees. Good for that business? Sure. Good for a real town where we have perhaps one of the last connected communities in Southern California? No way.”

Instead of leasing the downtown site for a hotel, she says, the school district should rededicate it to serve the public, “with a wonderful and affordable community preschool for qualified families, after-school programs and maybe an indoor farmers market on Wednesday afternoons in the auditorium. Keep Ojai a town, not a money machine.”

Money of course remains a long-term issue for the school district, which is why this valuable property may yet be put in play. And that would be a good thing for Ojai, says Nicholas Deitch of Mainstreet Architects in Ventura.

About seven years ago, Deitch worked on a preliminary proposal for this same site that was similar to the Goode-Svensson plan, in that it too involved a boutique hotel. The school board did not embrace that earlier plan, and it may or may not embrace a Goode-Svensson proposal. But at least Goode and Svensson have reopened the conversation about what might be done with the property – 7.5 acres of prime real estate that Deitch describes as “sitting just about at Ground Zero in downtown Ojai.”

“Those kinds of parcels represent a huge opportunity for the community,” he says, because they provide a rare chance to define the future in one fell swoop.

“The reality is that there is no such thing as a ‘no change’ option,” Deitch says. “Things are going to change.”

The choice, he says, is to try to control the process, or to just let it happen.

Which brings us back to Mayor Paul Leon of Ontario, who attended Ojai Elementary School in the ‘60s and whose name is inscribed in concrete near the old school bell on display outside the district offices.

The Ojai he grew up with is gone, he says, but the Ojai of the future is still up for grabs.

“Get creative,” Leon wrote on that Facebook thread. “Set a vision. Protect your way of life for the future of Ojai. It can be done right.”

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Fall OQ Has Arrived

 

Photo by Guy Webster

Photo by Guy Webster

Just in time for August’s final weekend, the Fall OQ has hit local newstands.

The latest iteration of Ojai’s local magazine is jam-packed full of features from our finest writers and photographers. We draw your attention especially to Mark Lewis’ followup to his Summer issue article on hotelier and conservationist Eric Goode’s plans for the school district HQ. The proposal for the 7.5 acres has sparked spirited debate – not only about the downtown parcel, but about the future of Ojai.

Anca Colbert’s profile of pencil artist Jeff Mann also touches on his glorious Hollywood career, as the go-to production designer who has created the looks of such masterpieces as “Star Wars.” And Jesse Phelps delves into the secret recipes of success of three local restaurants who turn 30 this year.

Look for this issue out this weekend in and around town. Or you can download the entire magazine at theojai.net. Spread the word.

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Summer OQ Hits The Stands

The OQ's Summer Issue

The OQ’s Summer Issue

The newest issue of Ojai’s local publication, Ojai Quarterly, will be available in limited release today. Look for it downtown through the Arcade and other high-traffic locations.

The cover features an important cultural milestone, the English language release of the beloved classic, “The Little Prince.” Ojai artist Alex Juhasz designed the puppet for the title character, and was involved as a lead artist in the $82 million production, which features an extended stop-motion animation under the supervision of his mentor and fellow Ojai resident, Jamie Caliri. The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last week, and will go into wide release in November. The film will feature an A-list cast of voices, including Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard and James Franco. The story, by Jesse Phelps, focuses on Juhasz’s many other artistic endeavors, such as the creation of “The Babadook” monster for the Australian horror movie of the same name, considered by many, Stephen King among them, to be the scariest film in recent years.

Perhaps the biggest story of the issue, however, is the announcement by renowned hotelier and conservationist Eric Goode, proposing a major development for downtown Ojai on the site of the Ojai Unified School District headquarters. Mark Lewis reported this story, which includes an exclusive interview with Goode and his partner in the enterprise, Jonas Svensson.

The magazine also features the usual collection of work from Ojai’s unusually talented writers and photographers.