Growing up in Berkeley, California, meant that I was exposed to higher education even before I entered college in 1961. The experience was in some ways like being a college student, but also had some interesting twists.
The thing for which Berkeley was best known was its status as the home of the flagship campus of the University of California. I don’t recall when I learned the word “campus” or first saw one. My earliest exposure to all the elements of a campus occurred around age 8 – which would have been in the year 1951 — when I was living at my grandparents’ house in the Berkeley Hills. My boyhood friend Walter Alvarez, who was around 11 at the time, asked me if I would like to “see where my dad works.” I said “sure, why not,” got permission from my parents, and rode with Walter and his father, Luis Alvarez, through a park-like area that was, I was told, “the Cal campus.”
Then we made our way up a winding road, through a guard’s gates, to the Radiation Laboratory that sat on the top of the hill behind the U.C. Berkeley campus. We toured several buildings. At the Cyclotron, the atom-smasher that was Walter’s father’s workplace, I watched metal fly across the room, attracted by the Cyclotron’s powerful magnetism. In a long, low, shabby, wooden building nearby, Walter and his father showed me a slender, metal structure that extended the length of the interior. It looked like a lumpy metal snake, or like an automobile crankcase. Walter’s father kicked it. “I built this,” he said matter of factly. I was unimpressed and wondered why Walter’s father wasn’t working on anything more exciting. Years later, I learned that I had been standing next to one of the world’s first prototypes of a linear accelerator, one of the inventions that later earned Walter’s father a Nobel Prize.
I also had ties to the Cal campus through a friend, Randy Mosher, who was the son of one of the librarians at Cal. I knew Randy from the seventh grade onwards, when we met each other in junior high school homeroom and played on junior high volleyball and basketball teams. Randy was a dutiful student. He also liked mischief. In summer we often went to the Cal employees’ pool together. As the son of a UC staff member, Randy could use his entry card. I used the card for his brother, Al, who was five years old. The lifeguard always snickered and said, “ok, AL, you can go on in.”
The Cal campus was the place where I saw my first college football game, around age seven. Parents of neighboring children gave me a ride to Memorial Stadium in Strawberry Canyon. The guards let us in for free. I learned what a college marching band was. I tried to figure out how the cheering section did their card stunts. After the game, under the stadium seats, midst the web of steel girders, I stood in the crowd as the Cal coach, Pappy Waldorf, came out of the locker room to give the fans his comments on the game and the week’s performance of Cal’s star running back, Johnny Olzewski.
Then, as the sun started to go down, and the fog made its way up from the Bay into the hills, my friends and I did one of the things boys have always done, marching alongside the band as it made its way down the hill, back to its quarters. By the time I was twelve years old, this Saturday routine was a ritual. My friends and I capped off the day with a game of touch football at nearby Live Oak Park. It was our way of making the excitement last as long as possible.In junior high school, I got a job selling souvenir programs at the football games. Each program sold for fifty cents and you got to keep a nickel of that for yourself.
The second season of my work happened to be the year the Cal football team, with its All-American Joe Kapp at quarterback, won the Pacific Coast Conference championship and was invited to play in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. My friend Steve and I were two of the top sales boys. We were invited by the management to go to Pasadena to sell football programs and receive free tickets to the game. Steve and I took the Southern Pacific train to Los Angeles and stayed with friends of his parents. We rode an old Los Angeles trolley to Pasadena and sold programs outside the stadium. Then, on the steps inside, we watched as Cal struggled unsuccessfully to defeat Wisconsin.
By the time I reached high school, the Cal campus was also an educational force in my life. Our science classes made day trips to the Cyclotron and the newer Bevatron, which had been invented by Edward Teller, a Nobel Prize winning physicist who was the father of my classmate, Paul. For high school Latin class, our teacher assigned us to spend a Saturday roaming the campus identifying at least 50 copies of elements from ancient Greek and Roman architecture. My friend Steve and I catalogued Doric and Ionic columns, pediments, porticoes, keystones of arches, and all manner of Classical construction. On another day trip, led by my English teacher, I walked with my fellow students up the street to the University’s huge research library. Our class was studying Huckleberry Finn at the time. We walked down a long hallway, our footsteps echoing off the marble walls, and entered a room where approximately ten adults were seated around a large wooden table covered with old pieces of paper. These happened to be the original manuscript of Mark Twain’s novel. A bibliographer invited each of us to hold the sheets in our hands.
When we were Seniors at Berkeley High, in 1960, Steve and I got jobs working in the press box at Memorial Stadium during the Cal football season. We had the majestic responsibility of distributing the brown paper bag lunches to the reporters. The jobs paid almost nothing, and we only worked on the Saturdays when Cal played at home. But the money was secondary. We coveted the chance to be at the center of things – to see the game from the highest spot in the stadium, to hear the cheers and the bands, to peek into the booths where the radio and TV announcers described each play in machine-gun voices, and to see the rows of manual typewriters where the sports writers for all the local papers and the wire services composed their stories.
As I stood behind each writer, I peeked at his creation and learned. I was surprised to discover that the lead in a story was usually written last and almost always traded on the same popular images regardless of which reporter I observed. So, for example, at the conclusion of the Cal-Army game, I watched as one reporter wrote “Cal was defeated today, after a tough battle, by Army’s heavy artillery.” At the next typewriter I saw “Army used a howitzer (its quarterback) and a tank (its fullback) today to grind down Cal’s under equipped infantry…” and so on.
My friends and I also liked to hang out in the business district near the campus, along Telegraph Avenue and College Avenue. Occasionally we went into the bookstores, but that was mostly to skim the pinup magazines. We were more likely to go to the pool halls, where we could smoke cigarettes and have the illicit thrill of winning fifty cents from a Cal student or one of the local bums. We also browsed in the clothing stores, spending very little money but examining row after row of polished cotton slacks and buttoned-down sport shirts in the latest Ivy League style, so we could learn how college men dressed.
To make myself feel even more a part of things, I liked to get my haircuts at a barbershop near the campus, in an old building on Telegraph Avenue that was less than a block away from Sather Gate, the ceremonial entrance to Cal. One afternoon, when I was in the shop, the barber told me I wouldn’t be able to come back. He could see from the look on my face that I felt hurt, and he explained that the situation had nothing to do with me. All the buildings in the block were going to be torn down, he said, to make way for a new university structure, something called a “student union.”
I had never heard the term, and I asked what such a building was. “It’s an idea they got from the Midwest,” the barber explained, “and it’s sort of like a big central hangout. There’ll be a beer place, with a crew shell hanging from the ceiling, and a bookstore and a bowling alley and a room with chandeliers for dances.” I asked who was going to pay for everything. “The people over in Sacramento,” he answered. “The legislature is worried that college students are too apathetic. The Governor says the new building will solve the problem. It will pep up the campus social life and give clubs a place to meet, and just kind of increase activity generally speaking.”
At the time I heard those words, I had no way of knowing how ironically accurate they would become. The student union building was constructed; it was ceremoniously opened; it became a very popular gathering place; it stimulated the traditional kinds of activities, like dancing and club meetings; and then, in the early 1960’s, the patio in front of the structure became one of the favorite stage sets for Mario Savio, the Free Speech Movement, and the student revolution. By then, I was away at college, and the relatively quiet Cal campus of my high school years was a memory.
For a long time I assumed that Cal would be the university I would attend. But somewhere along the line I began to think that I might want to go away to college.
I remember the afternoon, shortly after I began high school, that I mentioned this idea to my grandfather Harry, who had always advised me to be sure to get as much schooling as I could. Harry was a retired Navy man, a gunnery officer who had received decorations for bravery in both world wars. His politics were very conservative. He was sitting in his living room and drinking his two daily shots of gin. He asked me why I was considering anyplace other than UC Berkeley. I told him my high school counselor had said it was a wise idea to get away from your family after age 18. Harry slammed his fist on the coffee table and asked “Who put that communist idea in your head?”
I told him that Franklin Roosevelt had gone away to college. That made him angrier. So I told him Dwight Eisenhower had also gone away to college. That stumped my grandfather. All he could say, after a long silence, was “Well, that’s different. He was a military man.”
My parents left it up to me to decide where I wanted to go.
During my senior year of high school, I sent admissions applications to UC Berkeley, UC Riverside and Stanford. In early Spring I received notification that I had been admitted to Stanford with a large scholarship. I said yes immediately, having never set foot on the campus, and began preparing for Autumn Quarter and a new journey.
I go back to the Cal campus from time to time and think about the wonderful experience I might have had there as an undergraduate. During football season, at the annual Cal-Stanford Big Game, I cheer for Stanford, but probably not as loudly as I would if I had not grown up in Berkeley.
A year ago I made a return visit to Berkeley to attend a friend’s wedding. Having grown up in the city, I felt a rush of memories, including ones prompted by the stroll I took through Berkeley’s commercial center in the area of University Avenue and Shattuck Avenue. Walking there today you find a preponderance of boutiques and foreign restaurants and coffee bars catering to students from the nearby University of California campus. Most of these establishments have moved into storefronts that made up a very active business district when I was in high school in Berkeley in the 1950s. My walk through Berkeley’s commercial center as it is today brought back a flood of memories of the kind that, I’m sure, many Californians experience when they revisit neighborhoods that have undergone their version of the radical, continuing change that is so much a part of the state.
To have a full social life as a teenager in the 1950s usually required access to a car. That fact, in an indirect way, led me to become much better acquainted with downtown Berkeley. During the winter when I was sixteen years old and in the eleventh grade at Berkeley High School, I took the driver training course offered at the school and obtained my driver’s license. But I needed money to pay for personal liability insurance. My parents didn’t have enough to cover the full amount. My father offered to assume part of the cost if I could find a way to pay the remainder. I thought I might be able to earn what I needed by finding a job for the holiday shopping season in one of the stores in downtown Berkeley. Looking back, I find it interesting that I never considered searching anywhere else. For example, I could have looked for work at a factory or a lumberyard in the industrial area of Berkeley, down by the shore of the Bay, or I might have hunted in Albany along San Pablo Avenue, at one of the grocery stores or at the bowling alley. I must have concentrated on downtown Berkeley as a way to make more connections with the city I regarded as my community.
The search for work enlarged my understanding of cities. Each time that I went into a place of business and asked the first employee I met if there were any job openings, I was told to go to the back of the building and introduce myself to the manager. This was the first time I ever thought much about the fact that a store was not only its sales area but also the storage rooms in the rear, the Spartan room where the employees ate their lunch, the shabby hallway with the coat hooks and the thumping gray metal machine that punched the time cards, the semi clean bathrooms, the accountant’s offices where a pale skinned man sat at a desk covered with receipts, and the office where the manager presided at his desk, talking on the phone and gesturing to you that he’d be off the line in a moment. I went in and out of many stores: department stores, stationery stores, drug stores, insurance offices, music stores, men’s clothing stores, movie theatres, grocery stores, hardware stores, candy shops. Finally I found a job as stock boy at Taylor’s Leather Goods. This was the ultimate back room experience. Out in front, the store was spacious, brightly lit, festively decorated for the holidays, and filled with the pleasant chatter of prosperous customers who could afford to buy the shiny leather briefcases and finely tooled luggage that the establishment had been offering for seventy-five years. But where I worked, in the rear of the store, the space had a different character. The stock area consisted mostly of shelves where the inventory was kept. In the middle was a wooden table, lit by a few bare, hanging bulbs, where I was stationed. I unpacked items wanted for the floor, packed recently sold items for shipping, did gift wrapping, went out onto the floor from time to time to sweep and dust, and occasionally left the shop to run errands and make deliveries. At first I worked after school. Then during Christmas vacation I worked all day, sometimes twelve hours. As one day followed another, I noticed that, in contrast to the quiet of my area, sounds out on the sales floor became louder and louder, like an ocean roar, as the number of customers in the store increased and shopping season intensified. The holiday break from school began to feel like immersion in a machine. I had never viewed it in this way before.
Although I was in the back, I felt a strong sense of community at the store. I got to chat with interesting customers when I carried their packages to their cars. High school friends dropped in to say hello or join me for lunch. The salespeople enjoyed having me and asked me about myself and told me riotously funny stories about the customers. The owner, though brusque, was a courteous and fair man who took time to teach me things like how to work a cash register and how to monitor inventory. I also had the good fortune of being next to a full time companion. Near me, at another dimly lit table, surrounded by boxes and shelves, was the luggage repair area. This was a major source of income for the store, thanks to the skill and reputation of an odd character who proved to be a counterpoint to my search for ways to belong. He was known to everyone as Herman, the Trunk Man. That was how he introduced himself to me, my first day at work, as he suddenly emerged from behind a row of shelves and sat down on the stool at his worktable. He was about five and a half feet tall, with a stocky build. His hair was white and he was bald on the top. He wore rimless gold glasses and had a round, shiny face. He seemed like a slightly threatening version of Santa Claus. He wore a solid colored, blue gray sport shirt and old brown slacks. He seemed to be about fifty years old and he spoke in a tenor voice with a German accent. He picked up some tools from his worktable and began repairing one of the pieces of luggage that was in front of him. As he worked, with his eyes nearly always focused on the job, he struck up a conversation — the first of many we had during that holiday season.
On certain topics, Herman never volunteered information. I never quite knew where he came from, or what his family life had been, or exactly where he had learned how to repair luggage. I guessed that he was from the Midwest – maybe Chicago or Milwaukee – and had been brought up there by German-American immigrants. He seemed to have been married and then to have moved west after the death of his wife or a divorce. His major topics of conversation were gambling, drinking, smoking, sex, and gossip. It was the world of one of the magazines, the Police Gazette, that I peeked at from time to time at newsstands. He liked to smoke small cigars while he did his repair work. On one of the shelves near his table he kept a leather-covered flask of whiskey. From time to time he offered me a sip, which I accepted once or twice, although I didn’t like the taste. When he asked about me, he usually wanted to hear stories about the girls my friends and I knew. He was always looking for racy stories and was usually disappointed by the ones I came up with. But he did enjoy the dirty jokes I told him. High school students usually have a rich supply as a substitute for the sex they seldom experience. Herman also liked to talk about gorgeous movie stars. I concentrated on the ones that interested me, like Anita Ekberg and Gina Lollobrigida. Herman preferred the stars of earlier generations, like Claire Trevor and Joan Crawford. The one he kept coming back to was Clara Bow. He seemed to have been to every movie she ever made. Probably his sexual awakening had taken place during the early era of sound movies when she became famous. “She was known as the ‘it’ girl,” Herman advised me again and again, “and let me tell you, my boy, she did have ‘it.’” In his focus upon Clara Bow, Herman seemed to me to be trying to capture something – perhaps to achieve a higher degree of sexual adventure than he had attained, perhaps to recapture a relationship with some beautiful young girl who had disappeared long ago, perhaps to have lived a life filled with more big-city adventure than he had the courage or the unscrupulousness to make possible. I could tell that he wanted to wander but also knew that, for some reason, the best strategy was to stay put, spending most of his hours planted firmly on a stool in the back of a shop in the sedate downtown of a medium sized city.
Taylor’s Leather Goods was the place where I first worked in downtown Berkeley. My second downtown job came about a year later. It also presented me with a life story that was an indirect comment on my desire to belong. With my father away on his final tour of Navy sea duty, I thought I might be able, if I could get a job, to help my mother financially and get a head start on paying for college. I went back to downtown Berkeley and again walked the streets until I found work – for the second time — as a stock boy. This time I worked at Kaufmann’s Draperies. The owner, Julius Kaufmann, was a Jewish refugee. In the early 1930’s, he had owned a prosperous drapery shop in Vienna. When Hitler annexed Austria, Mr. Kaufmann took what he could of his personal fortune and fled with his wife to Cuba. In Havana, he opened a new shop and steered it to prosperity. In the process, he caught the eye of Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s evil dictator. One day, as Mr. Kaufmann later related to me, Batista summoned Mr. Kaufmann to his palace and demanded all of his money. Batista gave Kaufmann a choice: Turn over the money willingly, making it easier for Batista to get to it, or die, along with his wife and new baby boy, in which case Batista would, after some inconvenience, find the money anyhow. Batista told Kaufmann that, if he cooperated, he would be allowed to fly with his family to the United States, where the U.S. authorities would, no doubt, take pity and allow him permanent residence.
Mr. Kaufmann and his family arrived in America shortly after the end of the Second World War. They were accepted and relocated to California, where, it was thought, they would find employment in the postwar economic boom. At first, however, Mr. Kaufmann could not get a job. No one wanted to hire a person with a German accent. Finally, the owner of a fabric store in Oakland gave him a chance. Mr. Kaufmann quickly became the top salesman. Then, with the help of friends, he obtained the financing to open his own establishment in Berkeley. By 1961, when I began working there, Kaufmann’s Draperies was the largest fabric and drapery store in Northern California.
Mr. Kaufmann was a complex man. He was highly intelligent and farsighted. He was a strong leader but also democratic in the sense that he would take off his suit coat and perform any job in the store when necessary. He was not averse to sweeping the sidewalk in front of the store or taking his turn at one of the big workbenches in the back, measuring out and cutting and sewing a large length of cloth. He was compassionate, as, for example, in making no-interest loans to employees in distress and allowing extra time off for emergencies. He was also a good father in some ways. His son, Walter, was a graduate of Boalt Law School at the University of California. But against all this Mr. Kaufmann had many weaknesses. His store was his domain. In his mannerisms, he was an Austrian martinet. He considered it his right to yell at employees, to berate them, to humiliate them in front of others, and to make cutting remarks. He did not encourage dialogue or tolerate disagreement.
I learned all of these things about Mr. Kaufmann gradually, and from my vantage point. As a high school student, not yet eighteen years old, with college still ahead of me, I did not have the training or the vocabulary to put what I was seeing into any theoretical framework. But I did know, from common sense and my high school history classes, that I was getting a very detailed picture of the life and sentiments of a man who had been driven out of the world he loved, and who needed very much to carry a part of that world, the world of Old Europe, with him.
To maintain that sense of connection, Mr. Kaufmann observed a variety of rituals. Even on the hottest of days, he came to work in a three-piece wool suit. He was very formal with every employee, addressing almost everyone as Mr., Miss, or Mrs. Several times a month, he sent me across the street to the local tobacco shop to pick up the small German cigars he loved to smoke. He talked thoughtfully about the articles he read in the papers and about books. He and Mrs. Kaufmann regularly took in plays and concerts in Berkeley and San Francisco. He donated generously to charity and was an active member of local service clubs. He sought to be admired not only for his success in business, but also for the place he held culturally and socially in his city.
The most nervous I ever saw Mr. Kaufmann act was during the two weeks before the scheduled visit by members of the family who owned the largest department store in West Berlin. Mr. Kaufmann spoke with each of us individually to emphasize his concern that the visit would take place without incident. He ordered us to undertake a special cleaning and decoration of his entire store. He told us to be especially polite and diplomatic if any of the visiting Berliners happened to speak to us. The day the guests arrived, Mr. Kaufmann was wearing his best suit, silk tie, and cuff links. There was, however, something a bit sad about the actual visit. All four of the Berliners – two men and two women – had svelte bodies and wore the latest, rather colorful fashions from Europe. There was a modern, almost Italian look to them. Mr. Kaufmann, with his short, stocky body and his dark suit with the old fashioned cut, looked like he was having difficulty keeping up. And the visitors carried their bodies haughtily, as if to remind Mr. Kaufmann that they owned a vast department store while he was merely the keeper of a big shop. As I watched Mr. Kaufmann’s guests go through his store that afternoon, I hated them. Mr. Kaufmann may have been an autocrat, but he was also a decent and incredibly brave man who had suffered too much. He deserved more respect than his guests were giving him. And I was confident that, after he was gone from the world, many, many people would remember him with gratitude and admiration.
We have all heard someone comment, “You know, I never thought that kid would grow up to be famous.”
Several of my relatives began saying that to me in the 1980s when they started to run across news reports about one of my childhood friends from the 1950s.
In 1951, when I was eight years old, my mother, my father, my younger sister and I took up temporary residence with my mother’s parents and their three sons at my grandparents’ new home in the Berkeley Hills. My father was a hospital corpsman in the Navy at the time. He was serving on a ship stationed in San Francisco Bay and was awaiting notification to proceed north to his new duty station at the Navy base in Bremerton, Washington, where all of us would be going when the word came.
The house in the Berkeley Hills where we were staying was only around a year old at the time. It was located on one of the highest promontories in the area, on a large lot that my grandfather had purchased simply by paying the delinquent property taxes. My grandfather was an armed teller for the Crocker Bank in San Francisco. He had gone into this line of work in 1945 after serving as a gunnery officer in the Second World War. He used his financial knowledge to find the vacant lot. His oldest son, a decorator at a department store in Oakland, designed the house. A licensed architect put in the final details and then worked with a local contractor to complete the construction. The style of the house was daring, like so much of the architecture in postwar California. It was single-story, very horizontal, with numerous large windows of plate glass, exterior walls that combined white stucco and panels of redwood, and an interior that seemed to create almost no barriers between the living spaces and the front and back yards. Most of the other houses in the neighborhood were nondescript structures built in the 1920s. My uncle’s design seemed almost intrusive by comparison, and in this sense a fitting metaphor for my family’s situation.
The house put all of us in touch with a class of people we might never have known if my grandparents had bought property elsewhere. Given the highly desirable views and the cost of property, Berkeley in its hilly areas was an upper middle class neighborhood — and in some areas a very rich neighborhood. My grandparents were only able to enter by buying at a bargain rate and doing much of the property improvement with their own hands.
And so they found themselves next to new types of acquaintances: corporate executives, attorneys, members of major San Francisco accounting firms, doctors and dentists, professors from the University of California, and retired admirals and generals. All were white. All had black maids and Japanese-American gardeners. Nearly all had college degrees. Into this environment, we came: My Scotch-Irish grandfather, who had left school at age 13 to become a Navy gunner, was a short, stocky, hard swearing, muscular man who had once been the wrestling champion of the Pacific Fleet (or so he said). My grandmother, from a Portuguese Catholic family in Hawaii, had been educated at a convent school for girls. She had an olive complexion, dark eyes and short, shiny black hair; she seemed almost Arabic in appearance. Her defining trait was a lighthearted, entrancing laugh that could cheer up an entire roomful of people. My oldest uncle, the department store decorator, never planned on college and never went; he was not only visually talented but also a gifted singer who, because he disliked show business people, turned down offers in New York City to join Fred Waring’s choir. The next oldest uncle loved to hunt and fish, drove a beer truck after leaving high school and then joined the Air Force during the Korean War, and was talented in mathematics. He went to college because his fiancee, a teacher, insisted. My youngest uncle was a talented gymnast who hated his studies in school but was handsome and an amazing dancer. He knew cars well enough to steal them and get in trouble with the law. Then, after graduating from high school, he married, entered the car business himself and eventually owned a dealership. And there was the eldest child, my mother, who eloped to Reno to marry my father but always remained close to her family.
Some of the neighbors didn’t like us. We were never invited to certain homes. Other neighbors were fascinated and liked the change from routine we provided. Next door, for example, there was an accountant who had grown up in a stuffy family. He dropped by often. He loved it the night my youngest uncle, by then a car salesman, arrived at one a.m. with three cars full of friends and hangers on from an Oakland nightclub, accompanied by a five-piece Cuban dance combo that played as they walked up the path in our front yard.
One of our upper middle class neighbors was the Alvarez family. Luis Alvarez, the father, was a famous scientist. He had pursued Physics at the University of Chicago during the years when Enrico Fermi was conducting the experiments that led to the world’s first controlled atomic chain reaction. In Chicago he married into a family as wealthy as his. In the 1930s he and his wife moved to Berkeley at the invitation of Ernest O. Lawrence. In the Second World War, Dr. and Mrs. Alvarez moved to Los Alamos and helped to make the Atomic Bomb. They had two children: a daughter, Jean, and a son, Walter. After the War, the family returned to Berkeley and moved into a house just down the street from the one my grandparents owned.
We might never have come into contact with the Alvarez family, so great were the class barriers, if I had not become friends with Walter. I was 8 years old at the time. He was 12. One day, I think it was while playing army man with several of the neighborhood kids in a vacant lot near our house, I met Walter. He found me refreshing. He was brighter than the other kids and he could see that I was, too. He enjoyed jokes and pranks just as I did. In his case, the proclivity had been passed on from his father, who used puns and absurd mechanical toys to relieve the mental and emotional strain of his intellectually demanding profession. Walter especially appreciated my ability to tell funny stories, which came easily thanks to a great fondness for conversation and wisecracks on both sides of the family. A free-flowing, communal feeling trailed along with me from my working class relatives. It gave Walter a release from the propriety of his own home.
At Walter’s house, life was heavy with civilization. There were Middle Eastern carpets on the floor, serious paintings on the walls, bookshelves in every room, and models of New England sailing ships in large glass cases at the top of the stairs near the bedrooms. The living room was dark and had just one small window that did little to take advantage of the view from the hills. For dinner, in the formal dining room, Walter had to put on a clean white shirt. Before the meal, however, he was required to sit at the family’s grand piano and do his daily practice. The first time I heard him, I was entranced by the beauty of the sound. I had never heard classical music before and I asked Walter what “tune” he was playing. He explained that it was one of Chopin’s Polonaises.
When Walter came to my family’s house, there was as much culture as at his, but it was untutored. My uncle Buddy, home from work, might be singing in the shower. My grandfather Harry, in a Hawaian sport shirt, might be telling lies about his experiences at sea. My mother, Flo, might be asking Walter what he liked about school, surprising him with the intelligence and perceptiveness of her questions.
The largest contrast between the two homes was the light. Walter envied the way the view of the entire Bay Area seemed to come right through our living room window, just as I envied his pedigree and social position and his parents’ formal education.
Walter and I spent most of our time together roaming the neighborhood. We did the kinds of things two smart aleck boys would do. One day, for example, we got some soap powder and used it as imitation white paint to put a sign on the concrete of the street with the words “Caution, Apes Crossing.” Most cars stopped. In the front yard of a house down the hill, where a pretentious couple lived, we constructed a sign made from orange crate wood and nailed it to a post. The sign read, “A former burlesque queen lives here.”
We directed our most inspired impudence at the house where the crabbiest family lived. It happened to be right next door to my grandparents’ house, which was important because our prank involved heavy lifting. My two older uncles often gave parties for large groups of friends. There was lots of gin, whiskey, and beer. After the parties, the empty bottles and cans ended up in our backyard in cardboard boxes, where they remained until the family made the next drive to the city dump. One evening after dark, Walter and I carried all the liquor bottles to the front yard next door and spread them in the shrubbery and all over the lawn. Next morning, all day long and into evening, pedestrians stopped, and passing cars slowed, to register their amazement that any family could be so besotted. Walter and I had to clean up the yard and each lost an allowance. I sometimes wonder if, today, a prank such as ours might cause a homeowner to phone the police. Times were different back then.
The thing that Berkeley has always been best known for is its status as the home of the flagship campus of the University of California. That fact was hugely important in my life. I don’t recall when I learned the word “campus” or first saw one. My earliest exposure to all the elements of a campus — a zone, usually in a natural setting, where there were buildings and people devoted to advanced learning — occurred around that time at age 8 when I was living at my grandparents’ house. Walter asked me if I would like to “see where my dad works.” I said “sure, why not,” got permission from my parents, and rode with Walter and his father through a park-like area that was, I was told, “the Cal campus.” Then we made our way up a winding road, through a guard’s gates, to the Radiation Laboratory that sat on the top of the hill behind the rest of the university.
We toured several buildings. At the Cyclotron, I watched metal fly across the room, attracted by the powerful magnetism. In a long, low, shabby, wooden building nearby, Walter showed me a slender, metal structure that extended the length of the interior. It looked like a lumpy metal snake, or like an automobile crankcase. Walter’s father kicked it. “I built this,” he said matter of factly. I was unimpressed and wondered why Walter’s father wasn’t working on anything more exciting. Years later, I learned that I had been standing next to one of the components of the world’s first linear accelerator, and that the odd object was one of the inventions that earned Walter’s father a Nobel Prize.
After my family left the Berkeley Hills and moved to Bremerton, I lost touch with Walter and did not hear anything about him for many years afterwards. Then, in the early 1980s, when I was back on a visit to the Bay Area, one of my uncles handed me a local newspaper and said, “Say, didn’t you used to play with a kid named Walter Alvarez? Well, he’s in the headlines.”
From that first newspaper article, and others that followed in later months, I learned that, after high school in Berkeley, Walter had attended Carleton College in Minnesota, obtained his Ph.D. in Geology at Princeton, and eventually joined the faculty at UC Berkeley, where he and his father Luis had developed a revolutionary theory that, 66 million years ago, because of the impact of a giant asteroid or comet on planet earth, a mass extinction had eliminated 75% of all species, due to ejection of large amounts of rock debris into the atmosphere, cutting off most access to light, lowering temperatures, and fouling the atmosphere. The result was elimination of all non-avian dinosaurs, with only smaller mammals and birds surviving. Walter and his father had propounded their theory before the 1980s and attracted worldwide attention because of it. The theory appeared to be confirmed in the 1980s by discovery of the largest impact crater on the planet, in the subsurface of the Yucatan Peninsula, dating precisely from the time of the extinction. Then in 2010 an international panel of distinguished scientists upheld the Alvarez findings.
I have not had any contact with Walter since the early 1950s. But from time to time I read about his many discoveries and honors, and I remember the pleasure of having him as a friend and I imagine myself drinking a toast to him, using whatever whiskey might have remained in the bottles we scattered on that neighbor’s lawn many years ago.
For a fascinating memoir about Walter and his family, get a copy of the book by Luis Alvarez, Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist (1987).
(This rather long but I hope interesting post talks about a time, the late 1950s, when the medium of radio was still important for more than talk shows and music, but was being superseded by television. In those days you could drive along the highway on the east shore of San Francisco Bay and look out your car window at the tall broadcasting tower of radio station KRE, one of the many stations in the San Francisco area that traced their origins back to the 1920s when the city was, for a time, a national center for commercial radio. My high school in Berkeley produced a radio program that you could hear every Saturday morning on KRE. This post tells you a few things about it.)
During the tenth grade, when I had begun my first year at Berkeley High School, in 1957, I read an article in the school newspaper describing “Berkeley Hi Lites,” which was the name of our school’s weekly radio show. This was the first I ever knew of the program. The article said there weren’t very many high school radio shows anywhere in the United States, and it talked about the four members of the senior class who wrote and performed the programs. The show aired every Saturday morning for fifteen minutes on the Berkeley-based radio station KRE, which donated time. The article told me that, if I tuned in, I could hear cool jazz, news about our school, and comedy sketches.
I remember being fascinated by the article, although, at the time, I couldn’t explain to myself why. I do remember thinking that it might be fun to be on such a show, but I was not in a confident time of my life, and seniors seemed on a high pedestal, so I didn’t indulge in ambition, and didn’t even bother to tune in to sample the show, because I was usually busy with other things on Saturday mornings, such as sleeping in late, doing chores in the apartment where our family currently lived, or riding my bike to the local park to begin a day of hanging out and playing pickup basketball.
A few months after reading the article, I ran across another, longer story on the program, in the city paper, the Berkeley Gazette. This one showed a photo of the staff gathered around a radio studio control panel. The picture brought back memories from around age eight, of playing with toy walkie talkies that imitated the ones soldiers used in the Second World War and the Korean War, and the Western Union telegraph set I got as a Christmas present in the seventh grade.
The article in the Gazette included character sketches of the Hi Lites staff. I remember two of them. The Editor for the show was Bob Gordon, then also Editor of the school newspaper, where he wrote a long, philosophical column every week on topics important to the rest of us, such as maintaining “school spirit,” need for enlarging the cafeteria, whether the fraternities and sororities at our school ought to continue to exist, and hobbies of our teachers. In the article, Bob Gordon said he was fascinated by radio and was doing the show to “get it out of my system” before going on to college and some career other than media. The other staff member I remember being mentioned in the article was Tim Laddish, probably the best drama student in the school at the time, who was the star of the Senior Play, Teahouse of the August Moon. He explained that Berkeley Hi Lites had “a staff of four and a captive audience of eight mothers and fathers.”
I was entranced by the article and I knew then that I wanted to be on the show someday. I thought I might have a chance to be chosen, because Gordon and Laddish seemed to be a lot like me: smart, good with words, in love with communication, not popular in the way some people were — the ones who could be elected student body president or sweep girls off their feet, yet also not in the nether world of people who weren’t genial, socially appealing, or unable to lead in or out of class. Thereafter, I made a point of tuning in the show from time to time.
If you were a child in America in the early or middle years of the twentieth century, then radio was probably a very large part of your life. From the time when broadcasting first became extensive, after 1920, until the rise in dominance of television, after 1950, radio was one of the major forms of connection between a young person and the larger world.
My first specific memories of listening to the radio are tied to the year 1952, when I was almost nine years old. This fact startles me, because my earliest recollections of things in general go back to age three. From the time of my birth, in 1943, radio would have been all around me. And I have vague memories of hearing it in those very early years. For example, I think a radio was playing in the background one afternoon on a hot summer day in 1948, when I was five years old, at my grandmother’s house, and the owner of the local dry cleaners dropped by to pick up some clothes that needed pressing. Similarly, I have a vague remembrance from the year 1951 or 1952, when I was seven, and my father was away during the Korean War, and my mother was at work, that one of my uncles was taking me for a drive in his Buick convertible and the radio was wafting loud music into the air as we sped down a pleasant, tree lined residential street. But my memories don’t become definite until later, when my father had returned from the Korean war and our family was living in a two story apartment in the Navy housing complex in Bremerton, Washington, where he was serving a tour of duty as a hospital corpsman at the Navy Medical Center. My mother, my sister, my father and I were grateful to be together again and settled after a great deal of moving around, and all my early memories of listening to the radio are associated with that feeling of calm and togetherness.
One of the sports my father followed on radio was college basketball. Across Puget Sound from us, in Seattle, the University of Washington was in its glory years as a national basketball power. Their star forward, the All American Bob Hoobregs, was a master of the hook shot. It and the set shot were the main ways of scoring in that era, making the hook shot very dramatic whenever it interrupted what was otherwise a slow, almost static style of play. There was a distinctive rhythm to the broadcasts of the games as a result. With the sounds of the crowd in the background, the announcer’s voice went along at a steady, staccato pace. “Jones passes to Smith. Smith passes to Johnson.” Then suddenly the pace changed. “Oh, Hoobregs looks like he’s moving into position. Johnson fakes. Hoobregs weaves. There’s the pass! And it’s HOOBREGS. He goes up, hooks, and it’s IN, for TWO MORE POINTS!” To visualize these moments as fully as possible, my father often played the radio in our parents’ bedroom, with the lights off, lying on his stomach and using the time to get a rest after work. I would lie on the bed with him, and sometimes he would put his arm around me, providing one of those few, cherished kinds of physical closeness that men allowed one another.
Another program my father liked was the Bob Hope show. Hope was hugely popular at the time, particularly among combat veterans, like my father, who remembered the tours Hope made to boost morale in the Second World War and in Korea. More than I realized at the time, the shows were very male-oriented. Along with the constant mentions of “our boys overseas,” there were frequent guest walk-ons by sports stars, and comic interviews of voluptuous actresses like Jane Russell and Jeanne Crain. Like the basketball broadcasts, the Bob Hope broadcasts were moments of male bonding for my father and me. This was especially so when Hope’s jokes became sexual, like the time he told an acrtress to reach into his pocket. She said, “I feel funny.” He said, “Reach a little lower and you’ll feel nuts.” As my father and I shared such moments, an indirect initiation was taking place, an addition to the conversations he had with me every few years to tell me more about women.
My mother found other things to do when my father and I listened to sports or Bob Hope. She wasn’t sports-minded. And she found my father’s love of “jokes” — which he got from his family’s roots in Iowa — to be rather heavy and contrived. Having grown up in Hawaii, in a family that was partly Portuguese, she preferred humor that was tied to quick, witty comments about sudden occurrences.
She would, though, often listen to Jack Benny. She loved his wry observations and incredible timing. She also liked the fact that a woman, Jack’s neighbor Mary Livingston, was a major character. And she felt comfortable with the ethnic variety of the cast. Benny was Jewish, his butler was a Negro, and Benny’s daffy friend, the singer Dennis Day, was Irish like my mother’s father.
There were a couple of shows my mother truly enjoyed. One was “You Bet Your Life,” the quiz show hosted by Groucho Marx. My mother wasn’t particularly a fan of the movies the Marx Brothers had made. But she did love Groucho as he came across on radio: the raffish, debonair, well-read, incredibly quick interviewer of a long parade of fascinating guests. And she was charmed by Groucho’s announcer, George Fenneman, who had a beautiful, courtly voice and, as one knew from photographs in magazines, a most handsome appearance.
The other show my mother loved was Titus Moody the Noted News Analyst. Every Sunday evening, Moody gave his wry, idiosyncratic comments on the news of the week. His broadcasts supposedly originated from Maine, and he spoke with a down east, nasal accent, personifying the region, rural roots of America and the wisdom therein, as he put into perspective the foibles of modern, big-city America. Things like pine trees, regional dialects, and small town rustics were not, generally speaking, of much interest to my mother. But she was refreshed by Moody’s barbed irony, independence, and contrariness.
When our family listened to the radio, my sister sometimes joined in. At age 5, she was too young to follow a lot of the details, but she liked sharing in the general feelings of our moments together. There were also, on Saturday mornings, some shows that she and I both enjoyed: Buster Brown, and No School Today, with Big John and Sparky.
Our Own Radio Shows
One day, when we were living in Bremerton, my father came home from work with something he called a tape recorder. I had never seen such a machine in my life. He explained what it did. It had been sitting on a table in the office next to his medical lab, he said, and no one was using it, so he was bringing it home to have some fun. At that age, I didn’t think to ask why a tape recorder would ever be of use in a medical laboratory. I simply knew that it was now on an end table next to the couch in our living room, and I waited for the weekend, when, my father said, all would be revealed. Saturday came, and, that afternoon, my father set up the machine. He was planning to put together his own radio show, he explained. Well, not a real radio show. We weren’t in a broadcasting studio. But we were going to create the sound and feel of a radio show, for comic purposes, to liven up a party that he and my mother would be going to — one of the many that took place in the housing project, as all the neighboring couples and their families got to know each other and took turns inviting groups to drop by for drinks and conversations about their military experiences, the places they had lived, and their dreams for the future. We were going to do a “take-off,” my father said, of a radio detective show. My father would be the announcer and director and producer. I would be the helper. My sister and my mother, who were standing nearby, laughing in disbelief, would be the actresses. My father would be one of the actors, and I would be another.
Over the next couple of hours, following my father’s directions, we put the show together. I don’t remember the whole of it, just fragments, like
“Then she walked in. She was wearing a low cut evening gown with tennis shoes, ready for anything, dancing or basketball.”
“”…after robbing the bank, the two lovers quietly slipped away in their stolen aircraft carrier.”
We thought it was hilarious.
Radio at my Grandparents’ House
After Bremerton, there was a hiatus in my remembrance of radio. Probably it was the result of what was, literally, a shift of scene, when my father was transferred to duty in the Bay Area, and we moved in with my grandparents at their house in the Berkeley hills. My memories of radio shift from my father to my grandfather. Actually, at my grandparents’ house, television played a larger role than radio. Their big TV set dominated the living room, and we all sat around it in the evening enjoying programs together. Off in one corner of the living room, however, there was an old, chocolate brown, table model radio, in art deco styling with brass tuning knobs and a clock face dial. It sat on top of a long, low-lying bookcase, one of the very modern, almost Polynesian pieces of furniture, designed by their son the department store decorator, that filled the very modern house. The radio didn’t blend visually with its environment. It was a leftover from earlier years, one of the objects my grandparents cared about enough to save even after discarding most of the less artistic hodgepodge they had dragged around.
So far as I could tell, the radio now was used only once a week, when, on Sunday nights, after our family dinners, my grandfather insisted that the TV set be turned off so he could listen to Walter Winchell. In those years, Winchell was still a powerful force in broadcasting, one of the pugilistic New York City reporters who shaped American public opinion. As my grandfather sat on the end of the living room couch nearest to the radio, and lit up what would be the first of many Phillip Morris or Pall Mall cigarettes smoked nervously in the ensuing minutes, Winchell’s rat-a-tat-tat voice came into our lives, with the famous signature opening, “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea…” Then came the rest of the program — a blend of national news, gossip about celebrities, anti-communism, and low-key insults directed at whichever prominent persons had, of late, disagreed with Winchell.
I responded strongly to the scenes of my grandfather listening to Winchell. One reaction was that radio was very magical. It did nothing more than pump words and sounds into our living room, and yet, there sat my grandfather, magnetized. Another reaction had to do with a sense of changing times. The nearby TV set was, in a different way, even more powerful. The radio seemed of an earlier era. Except perhaps for sports and music, it was becoming the thing we went to only for programs that had not yet shifted to television. My other big reaction had to do with New York. It was a hugely influential place, I suspected. A lot of the stuff on TV and radio came from there, and the city continued to affect my mother’s family even though they were 2500 miles away from it.
My Radio World
Radio also connected me with unseen places that were closer to home. When I was thirteen years old, and in junior high school, my parents bought me a clock radio. I could set it to turn off at night and to wake me up in the morning. It provided me background music as I dozed off to sleep. For the first few months, I tuned in to the stations that played all the rock and roll hits and slow ballads that teenagers liked during that era, like Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender.” But then, as I got in the habit of listening longer, I tuned to new stations and listened to programs that lasted until Midnight or later. The journey led me to the stations that were broadcasting from the Black area of Oakland – a part of town that I knew only from the window of a car. In deep, resonant, mellifluous voices, the announcers on these stations introduced me to Rhythm and Blues and Gospel, and the communities from which the music sprang. I was fascinated. And I carried the knowledge thus gained with me to Berkeley High School, where white people were the minority.
A possible chance to be selected to the Hi Lites staff came near the end of my eleventh grade year. A small notice in the school newspaper announced that tryouts would be held after school at the on-campus studio where Hi Lites was produced. The custom, I knew by then, was to select three people who would be high twelfth graders while on the staff, plus one person who would be in the low twelfth grade and be the probable next Editor when he (the idea of it being “she” never crossed anybody’s mind) entered high twelfth grade. I doubted that I would be chosen, but I knew the practice of tryouts would be valuable, and I remember my mother saying, so often, you don’t get anything if you don’t apply.
On the scheduled day, around 3:30 in the afternoon, I went from my last class in the main building at Berkeley High, across the big courtyard to the auditorium building; the part of it behind the big stage, where there were several classrooms, none of which I’d ever been in. On the third of the four floors in that area of the building, I found and entered the Public Speaking classroom. It had no windows and had a great deal of soundproofing — squares of white press board with little holes in a crisscross pattern — on grayish white walls. Most of the room was filled with one-piece, blond, oak chair desks arranged in two horseshoe shaped rows, enough for about 35 students. At the end of the room nearest the entrance doorway, a teacher’s desk faced the student desks, while, near the teacher’s desk, also at front, was a speaker’s podium. I assumed that the podium normally would face the students, but on this afternoon it faced away from them toward a large, double-glassed window that looked into the radio control room that annexed the classroom. Hanging above the podium, from a long gray bar, was a gray, chunky microphone, in the elongated, hexagonal shape typical of many microphones in those days, the letters RCA in red on one side, each letter made to look as if it was vaguely like a bolt of lightning.
Most of the student desks were unoccupied, but about ten were not. I assumed that the guys at these desks were candidates like me, and I noticed that only two were from my own H-11 grade.
Encountering the Cast
Behind the teacher’s desk sat a smiling man who appeared to be about sixty years old. He wore thick, seemingly frameless spectacles, and his gray hair was in an angular crew cut of the kind so popular in the ‘fifties. He wore a tasteful, gray suit with small checks, and his black penny loafers were perfectly shined. His voice was raspy but full of color, interest, and animation. He smiled often and warmly and gestured with excited sweeps of his arms as he talked to a student standing in front of him. He laughed often and seemed to love to laugh. Remembering photographs from our high school yearbook, I recognized him as Richard Ehlers, the faculty adviser to Berkeley Hi Lites and one of the two teachers of Public Speaking at our school.
Between Ehlers and the doorway, as I entered the classroom, there were two older students who offered their hands and introduced themselves as Mike Collins, Editor of Hi Lites, and Doug Jones, the current L-12 on the staff. Collins was then also President of the Senior Class, and Jones was known as one of the wittiest people in his class. After the handshakes, Collins walked past me and through the nearby doorway that led into the control room. Through the window I could see he was talking to the student engineer at the panels. Jones kept on chatting with me. It was his role, one could tell, to greet and orient everyone. After a bit of this, he asked me to join the others at the students’ desks.
A few more candidates arrived. Then Ehlers advised Jones to begin. Jones waved to Collins who came in from the control room, welcomed us formally, and explained the selection procedure. There were to be three phases. First, we were to go through the control room into the classroom on the other side of it, which also had a podium and a microphone, where we would be tested on technical skills of pronunciation and sight reading. Second, we would return to the podium in Ehlers’ classroom, and, using the microphone there, say a bit about ourselves and our reasons for wanting to join the staff. Both “mike sessions” would be recorded on tape. Then, after all candidates completed the first two steps, there would be a third step to test skills in writing for radio. We would all sit at our desks and be given half an hour to draft a comedy sketch, complete with speakers’ parts and production cues.
We were soon shuttling from room to room, guided by Collins, Jones, and the two other members of the staff, who had been near Ehlers’ desk. As I proceeded through the three parts of the test, I was amazed at how relaxed I felt and at how deeply I was enjoying everything. I ran through complex pronunciations without a single error, intuitively sensing the rhythms, cadences, and meanings of the sight readings. I was slightly nervous when asked to talk about myself and my interest in the show, but it was a kind of nervousness I didn’t mind, having to do with the stimulus of challenge and the pleasure of heightened talk. Writing the sketch was also fun, although I did worry that my approach would be too obvious. I took an old, old joke — one of the many my father liked to tell — and packaged it in dramatic form. There were these two guys, ya see, holding up traffic for miles on the East Shore Freeway. They had a panel truck. While one of them drove at hardly a mile per hour, the other walked alongside hitting the truck with a baseball bat. Drivers behind the truck honked and yelled to no effect. Finally a police car pulled up. “What’s going on here?” the officer asked. “Well,” said the guy with the bat, “we’re in the bird delivery business. We’ve got a ton of canaries in the back of this truck, but it’s only a half-ton truck, so we need to keep half the canaries flying at all times.”
This was not the world’s greatest joke, but I liked it, and I hoped others would. I dressed it up with stage directions and breaks in the dialogue, decided it was serviceable, and turned it in to Jones. Mr. Ehlers thanked me for coming and said we’d all be contacted personally with the results within two days. The efficiency and courtesy of the whole process was impressive.
As I rode the city bus home that evening, my instincts told me I had done well, but not well enough to become the L-12 member of the staff.
The Hi Lites staff and Mr. Ehlers must have stayed late that night, because, the next day, in the morning in home room, I was given a personally addressed envelope with a typed letter inside, signed by Ehlers, informing me that I had been selected to join the staff. Collins ran across me that afternoon as I was walking in the hallways of the main building between classes, and he congratulated me. Jones phoned me in the evening and asked me to join others on the staff for their next regular Friday afternoon session, when they would put together the show and begin integrating the new crew.
So began a weekly routine that was to continue for a year. Every Friday after classes and other matters, I went over to the radio studio in the auditorium building and put together Saturday morning’s show with the rest of the staff.
For the first few weeks on the staff, I was told simply to watch and learn. Soon, however, I was given specific assignments: writing part of the news; occasionally doing introductory and closing announcements; taking one of the parts in the weekly comedy sketch; and, most often, writing part or all of the sketch.
There was an unstated, shared ritual to the production of each show. Between 3:30 and 4:00 pm, everybody drifted into the studio, did a lot of wisecracking, chatted with Mr. Ehlers, and, for those who smoked, lit up a cigarette. By four we were settled into business. The Editor gave us all his ideas for the content of the week’s show. We discussed the concepts and sometimes suggested changes. Ehlers listened and sometimes proposed ideas in a low key manner. The Editor accepted the plan and asked Ehlers if it was OK. Usually there was no problem. Occasionally he vetoed a line or an idea if it seemed off color or too controversial. We then parceled the work. One of us wrote and delivered the news. One picked the music. One worked with our engineer, George Craig, to set up microphones and sound effects equipment. One or more of us wrote the comedy sketch. In the midst of all this, somewhere around 6:30 pm, somebody volunteered to walk up the street to Herb’s, the local hot dog and hamburger joint, about eight blocks from the high school on the other side of Shattuck Avenue near the University of California campus. As the evening wore on, the sounds of the studio mixed with the smells of hamburger meat, onions, French fries, mustard, ketchup, hot mayonnaise, and cigarette smoke. Ehlers occasionally added to the atmosphere by lighting up a cigarillo. But I never once saw him eat any of the food from Herb’s. He had an ulcer and preferred to bring a bag lunch, which was his dinner.
Delivering the Tape
We were good at our work, and the standards of quality, though rigorous, were not too high for people of our age, so we usually got the show together in three or four tries. Sometimes that meant we finished as early as 8:00 pm. Sometimes we had to stay as late as 11:00 am. Ehlers was with us throughout the process. Typically he sat at his desk and graded papers, with one ear tuned to us, now and then intervening tactfully with advice or enjoying the laughs.
When our work at the studio was done, we waited while George quickly and efficiently prepared a master copy and a duplicate of the final tape. The duplicate then had to be delivered to KRE. Our high school had production facilities, but no broadcast facilities, and none of the technology to transmit, via phone line or other means, to the station. Each Friday evening, one of us, whoever had a car, had to take the tape and drive several miles, from the high school campus on Grove Avenue, through the industrial area of Berkeley, down to the dark, marshy area near the freeway, where Berkeley descended into the east side of San Francisco Bay. KRE had its tall transmission tower there, and a small, two story, almost windowless building which was its production studio and broadcast center. Inside, at the hours when we delivered the tape, there never seemed to be more than one person — a man who did triple duty as announcer for late night music programs, his own engineer, and custodial attendant for the building. I would not have wanted such a job in that part of the city, but the man assured us he felt very safe and that nothing bad had ever happened. And there was great pleasure in delivering the tape. In such a setting, one could almost feel the magic by which electric signals would float through the dark ether to offices and homes, bringing together an invisible community.
Actual broadcast of Berkeley Hi Lites took place each Saturday morning at 10:00 am. Even after joining the staff, I seldom listened to the program at this time. I preferred to sleep late or make myself a big breakfast or head off to the park for pickup basketball. When I did listen in, it was usually to check on some detail I’d forgotten to note the evening before, such as whether I’d pronounced a certain word correctly, or the success of a sound effect. I did, however, listen in on Saturday mornings with my father, whenever he was home from U.S. Navy sea duty. The show was something he and I could share. It brought back memories of all I had learned from him about humor, and the fun our family had enjoyed whenever he got in the mood to borrow the tape recorder and compose parodies of popular programs.
Why the Show Existed
Berkeley Hi Lites could exist because of two forces. Foresight was one, traceable back to the late 1940s when the city of Berkeley had the vision and the commitment to build a civic auditorium and to make it serve double duty as a tool of education by attaching it to the high school campus and including a fine arts complex specifically for use by students as well as the community. This was a rather strong statement of values. While the high school made do with athletic facilities only slightly changed since the 1920s, it enjoyed the use of a well designed, multi-million dollar structure that contained not only a 3,500 seat auditorium used for many city events, but also classrooms and related facilities for drama, public speaking, dance, chorale, band, and orchestra. Guided by teachers of great talent, students at my high school were being given immense knowledge and were compiling outstanding records in all the branches of the arts simultaneously with my involvement in Hi Lites. Very few public schools in America have ever offered such opportunities to their students.
The other force that made Berkeley Hi Lites possible was Richard Ehlers. It is one thing to have a physical facility, another to know what to do with it. The radio studio was not used imaginatively until Mr. Ehlers joined the high school’s faculty in the early 1950’s, and part of the benefit of being on the staff was the chance to get to know him. Ehlers’ parents were German Americans. I think he grew up in Ohio and went to college in the midwest. After college, in any case, he felt the lure of the big city and, even though the Depression had begun, decided to go east and see if he could break into drama or radio. He went to Manhattan and, with no formal training, won out over some 300 applicants in the competition for a job as a part-time radio announcer. “My voice wasn’t raspy in those days,” he often told us. “I had to have an operation for cancer after the war, from too much smoking,” he explained. In New York, his work in radio announcing led him into acting as well. He had minor parts in various radio plays — his favorite was playing the character “Professor Glockenspiel” regularly on one radio show — and he appeared as a minor character in a few stage productions both on a off Broadway.
For several years, he also told us, he lived with a French dancer who had made her way to America. “We were in love and I wanted to marry her, but she didn’t want to settle down. Every month we waited in fear until she had her period. When the war came, I lost track of her.” Ehlers felt very alone by then. His father had died when he was a boy and his mother died at the end of the ‘thirties — “of a broken heart” was all he would say. I can’t recall what Ehlers did during the war. It may be that he wanted it kept secret and never told us. After the war, he became chief announcer for NBC radio west of the Mississippi River and got to know everybody in radio in Hollywood and San Francisco. He said that, bar none, Groucho Marx was the wittiest man he had ever met.
Ehlers might have continued his radio career if health problems hadn’t arisen. But there was the throat cancer which took away the resonance and sonority of his voice. Then he needed an eye operation. After years and years under the bright studio lights (they are not as bright in radio as in television, but they are bright), he developed cataracts and had to have surgery. These two crises created the need for a new career. Already on the West Coast, he enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, earned a Master’s degree in English, and got a credential to teach in the public schools. Berkeley High School had the good sense to hire him, and the effects were soon noticeable in the quality of our school’s public speaking courses and the proper use that could be made, at last, of the radio studio.
Ehlers never married. His closest female friend at Berkeley High, and his closest neighbor and colleague, was Florence Schwimley, Berkeley High’s Drama teacher, whose classroom — the one where the pronunciation part of the tryouts had been held — was directly on the other side of the radio engineer’s booth that both separated and joined their work. Like Ehlers, Miss Schwimley was a migrant from Manhattan, where she had been in the theatre for many years before deciding to slow down and move west and go into teaching. The Little Theatre building at Berkeley High was eventually renamed the Florence Schwimley Theatre in her honor. What Ehlers was for those of us interested in speech, she was to students interested in the stage.
I don’t know if there was anything sexual between Miss Schwimley and Mr. Ehlers. I don’t think so and I never would have asked. To this day I prefer to think of them as the best proof I have ever seen that Platonic friendships are possible.
I hardly ever ventured into Miss Schwimley’s classroom. This simple territorial fact was one symbol of my general fear of serious drama. I was completely comfortable with the idea of conveying my personality to hundreds of listeners via radio, or even at a podium in a theater, but the idea of baring myself on stage, alone or even with a small group, was frightening. To be accurate, I should say it was the idea of portraying deep emotion in front of many eyes that scared me. Comedy routines on a big stage were familiar to me, going back to many years of campfire skits at summer camp, and parts in student vaudeville shows in junior high. The prospect of giving a speech or being a master of ceremonies also appealed to me, allowing for what I knew, even then, was the normal, small amount of stage fright that actually results in a more alert presentation. But the heart of Miss Schwimley’s world wasn’t my world, much as I liked to attend the plays her students put on. And I didn’t know how to sing, play an instrument, or dance, so those roads into drama were closed to me as well.
Nevertheless, when I think of Berkeley Hi Lites, I think of Miss Schwimley almost as much as I think of Mr. Ehlers. The connections came partly when he talked about the fun he had with her, and partly when she dropped into his classroom to chat. “Flo and I found the greatest restaurant,” Ehlers might say. Or, “We were over at the Curran Theater in San Francisco last night to see The Music Man. Wonderful!” Or, she might be at the chair next to his desk, passing the time of day, as I walked into the room. “Good afternoon, Gary,” she might say, “Dick and I have been talking about the Senior Play. We’ve decided it’s going to be The Diary of Anne Frank.” Or, “Hello, Gary. Here to put the show together? Dick tells me you boys were horsing around more than usual last week. Remember, he needs his sleep. Try to finish by ten this time.”
There was always a certain manner to Miss Schwimley’s talk. Like Mr. Ehlers, she was careful and fluent in her pronunciation, and she had his ability to be your friend and superior at the same time. Like Mr. Ehlers, she loved to laugh. And, like him, she was quick and observant and took in just about everything occurring around her. But, unlike Ehlers, her comments, even the simplest one or two word utterances, had a crafted quality. She was not calculating or manipulative, but every statement felt as if it was a line from a play. I think she truly believed that all of life is a play. And one also sensed, in her eyes, a strategic quality derived from drama. If Ehlers was a performer and presenter, she was the director-producer — so much so that, even in the simplest conversations, I always thought she was about three steps ahead of me. It was symbolic, and would have been so even if Mr. Ehlers hadn’t had cataracts, that she drove whenever they went anywhere in a car together.
Some of the Shows
I have strong memories of several of the Berkeley Hi Lites shows.
One I recall well was the audience participation program we did about halfway through the semester. We advertised it for several weeks in advance, with notices in the school paper, posters in the hallways, and extra announcements on preceding broadcasts. The afternoon when the audience appeared, all of us on the staff were very nervous. We were used to recording the show in an empty studio, at our own pace, with the option of repeating segments to get them right. But now, there were about 60 people staring at us, the microphone was live, and we had only one chance. There was also another kind of disorientation. Most of the students who came to hear us had black or brown faces. We were four white guys, and we suddenly realized that we were operating on the assumption that most of our listeners were white, as well, even though whites were the minority at a school attended mostly by Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and Mexican-Americans. But the unease was only temporary. We felt a sudden, surprising joy in sharing laughs with people from the neighborhoods of Berkeley where we seldom ventured.
Another Hi Lites program I remember well was the one we recorded on a Friday morning in front of 2900 students at one of our regular high school assemblies. The Principal gave us fifteen minutes to do what was, in effect, a long commercial. Using the speaker’s podium on the auditorium stage, and recordings from past shows that we pumped through the electronic speakers around the giant room, we gave our fellow students a capsule history of Hi Lites and some samples from old tapes and urged them to tune in on Saturday mornings. When we finished, the assembly then continued with the major entertainment of the morning, a performance by two comical folk singers, still relatively unknown, the Smothers Brothers, who were appearing at one of the clubs in San Francisco.
Learning to Write Comedy
One of the hardest parts of directing Berkeley Hi Lites proved to be writing the comedy sketches. When I first joined the staff, I thought that the process would be fairly easy. In day to day life, friends enjoyed funny comments I made. As far back as the ninth grade, I had gained some confidence as a sketch writer, doing satires to fulfill some of my assignments in English classes and writing and starring during a student assembly in a wild parody of the then-popular Walt Disney TV program Zorro. After writing some five comedy sketches for Berkeley Hi Lites, however, I felt my spark beginning to fade. Ideas didn’t come easily. Lines were boring or forced. I kept using the same characters. I was beginning to do little more than ape comedians like Bob Newhart and Shelley Berman who were famous at the time.
I didn’t know why this was happening, but some kind of instinct told me I was probably not the first person ever to have such an experience. Remembering how much help I had found there at other times, I went up the street, one day after classes, to the public library. In the card catalogue I found a large heading for “comedy” and a subcategory containing about ten cards for “comedy writing.” Most of the books under the subheading looked pretty amateurish. Even at age 17, I had enough of a sense of quality to know that good comedy writing ought to involve more than mere preparation of lame comments for toastmasters.
But one of the books did look promising and I went into the stacks and pulled it off the shelves and ended up standing right there and reading it almost in its entirety. It was a thin, red covered volume by Fred Allen, the famous radio comedian from the 1930s and ’40s. The book was part memoir, part manual. Allen started by recalling his earliest days in radio. Encouraged by friends who enjoyed his patter at Manhattan cocktail parties, and after exploiting a couple of appearances on quiz shows and variety hours, Allen soon got a job for himself as a regular on a half hour weekly radio show. For the first and second weeks, he was a sensation. The audience loved his jokes and he found the material easy to write. But then, as he sat down at his desk on Monday to write the show for the next weekend, nothing came out. He realized, all of a sudden, that he had written every joke he knew. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was left in the well. Panic set in and Allen paced the streets in a nearly crazed condition as he contemplated losing his job and his career.
But then Allen had the good sense to phone a friend who was a veteran comedy writer — an event which, in Allen’s opinion, was the real beginning of his career as a professional comedian. The friend pointed out to Allen that all great comedians go through the panic he had encountered. But they make their way out of it when they realize that jokes have underlying patterns. As a comedian, all you do is rework the patterns. Take the joke about Thomas E. Dewey, for example, the one the Democrats used in the 1948 Presidential election campaign. Dewey walks up to a man on the street and asks, “Say, can I borrow a nickel. I need to phone a friend.” The man on the street answers, “Here’s a dime. Phone all your friends.” Well, that joke was probably told at elections in ancient Athens. “I need a drachma to pay a boy to deliver a message to my friend, etc.” Allen went on to explain that the process of elaboration and reuse of such old standards could be very elaborate. He used Bob Hope as an example, pointing out that Hope had entire file cabinets full of jokes, cross-referenced under headings such as “mother-in-law” and “introducing a speaker” and “Crosby, Bing” and that Hope kept a string of writers on retainer to adapt the jokes to any occasion whenever Hope phoned them.
Allen’s little book proved to be just what I needed. Reading it and digesting the lessons, I obtained confidence and perspective, although my version of Bob Hope’s joke files was more basic. At the Capwell’s department store near our family’s apartment in nearby El Cerrito, in the book section, I found a 900 page volume, on sale for one week only, entitled Ten Thousand Jokes, Toasts, and Stories for All Occasions. It was very toastmasterish. But there were nuggets, and I was able to adapt them for the humble purposes of a high school radio show. Soon, for example, the quarterback of an opposing high school football team, whom I wanted to portray as not very smart, was met by a genie who offered to grant the quarterback any wish in the world. Always thinking about bodybuilding, the quarterback replies, “Great! I’m hungry. Make me a sandwich.” “OK,” says the genie, “presto, you’re a sandwich.”
Learning about Responsibility
During the first of the two semesters I spent on the Hi Lites staff, my work was assigned to me. Doug Jones was the Editor and I was the L-12 member of the staff. I thought of myself as the assistant to the three H 12’s. Toward the end of L 12 grade, however, I began to realize that I was going to be in charge, very soon, of the entire show. At first I was pleased. A story appeared in the school newspaper announcing my new appointment as Editor. There were many congratulations from teachers and friends. I enjoyed the honor and began thinking of ideas for shows. But then something new happened. I realized that the future of the show was in my hands. This was emotionally unfamiliar territory. Although I had some experience of assuming responsibility at home and as a camp counselor, this was the first time in my life that I had ever been entrusted with the fate of a long-term project. I had Ehlers as my adviser, and I could call on past editors for perspective and reassurance. But the rest was up to me. Probably thousands of other American students in the 1950s were gaining similar opportunities for social and organizational maturation through their after- class activities. But I didn’t know them.
One of the first tasks I faced was rounding up a staff. “Recruitment” was not a word I knew at the time — except in the non-civilian sense, from old movies about the Second World War — and I didn’t have the resources to find employees the way a large organization could. All I knew was that I had learned about Berkeley Hi Lites through the papers, and I assumed that other people younger than I were also awaiting opportunities to sign up. I arranged with the school newspaper to run a small story like the one I had responded to, announcing tryouts. These duly took place.
I was shocked, however, by the low level of talent among the people who came. Most didn’t have a sense of humor. Those who did were unable to write anything resembling a comedy sketch. And the general level of intelligence was low. I recall one competitor who, during the extemporaneous session at the mike, said he felt he ought to be on the staff as the representative of the average student. “I’m just a regular guy,” he said, “not too smart, but not too stupid, either, just one of the regular guys who like to listen to the show.” In the evaluation meeting after the tryouts, I rejected him instantly, but told my colleagues and Mr. Ehlers that I felt snobbish doing so. Ehlers helped me to see why I was right. “Don’t feel guilty, Gary. Berkeley Hi Lites is for everyone. But we don’t want regular guys on the staff. The staff is the place for leaders, the Laddishes and Gordons, who go on to Stanford and Harvard.” There was an impatient, almost brutal tone in Ehlers’ voice as he said these words, a surprising amount of elitism for a man whose career had been in the world of news and entertainment for mass audiences. His words relieved my guilt only slightly. But I was encouraged that my standards were the right ones.
The Perfect Announcer, and My Two Buddies
The one, stunning exception to the low quality of applicants at the tryouts was a student from the H 11 grade named Jim Fabris. He didn’t have a knack for comedy writing, but he did have everything you would want in a radio news reporter: a deep, resonant voice; a smooth, natural delivery; clear pronunciation; a large vocabulary which he used without pretension; intelligence; curiosity; a friendly manner that made him just right as an interviewer. I gladly invited Fabris tø be the new L 12 member of the staff, knowing, as I did so, that the show might take a different, more serious direction after I left for college and Fabris eventually became Editor.
There remained the problem of finding two more staff members. I proposed to Ehlers that I simply go round up a couple of my friends who had the necessary talents. Ehlers thought this over for a few days and then gave me permission to do so. As long as we had already gone through the formal, open competition, he said, it would be fair to take special measures when no one could be found by the normal means. I was, nonetheless, faced with a difficult situation. I had to try to find people who were not only talented but who also had the necessary motivation. Putting together a show required several hours of work each week and a long term commitment.
In one of the friends I invited to join the staff, Randy Mosher, I got the commitment but not enough talent. I had known Randy from the seventh grade onwards, when we met each other in home room and played on junior high volleyball and basketball teams. Randy was a dutiful, B plus student. His father was a librarian at Cal. Randy liked mischief. In summer we often went to the Cal employees pool together. As the son of a UC staff member, Randy could use his entry card. I used the card for his brother, Al, who was five years old. The lifeguard always snickered and said, “ok, AL, you can go on in.” Randy was blond haired, blue eyed, and handsome. Girls asked him out often and he was very well liked by everyone. He was soon to be elected head cheerleader. And he was a fairly good radio actor. He had a fine voice and could use it to become many characters as needed. But he was not quick or clever and he didn’t write well. He was valuable to the show as a friend, an ingratiating personality, an actor, and a reader, but I could not look to him for material.
My friend Rick Moran, whom I also invited to join the show, was a different mixture. He was another good friend from junior high. He didn’t have Randy’s ability in basketball, but he was good in volleyball and weightlifting and was on the school football varsity team. He was quicker and wittier than Randy, and, for sheer inborn powers of logic, was one of the brightest students in our class. He also had a fascinating instinct for wild comedy, the kind that Stan Freberg was making famous at the time, and that Steve Martin was to continue much later. A lot of Rick’s humor got expressed in drawings. He often sketched caricatures in class whenever his mind wandered. I’d look over from my desk to his and I’d see a pen and ink cartoon taking form in his spiral notebook, showing, for example, our well dressed History teacher, Mr. Tudisco, as a bum on a park bench with a bent cigarette in his mouth and a Niagara of ashes falling to the ground. Rick was also a compulsive creator of dramatic parodies. I’d be walking down the street with him, for example, and I might say a word that caught his attention randomly, such as “San Francisco,” and he was onto it immediately with an ad lib. ‘We’re here in San Francisco,” he’d say in a deep voice, “at the school for future garbage men, where the new recruits are learning how to roll the cans down the hills of the city. They’ve completed the first unit of the course, rolling the cans while running along next to them, and now they’re learning how to roll while inside the cans. I’m here inside one of the cans with Hector Potrero, a former mariachi player, and Spike O’Shaughnessy, the noted boxer, who wants to earn extra money. Hector, what are your thoughts at this moment?” Rick would then proceed to do an entire, ad lib interview, playing all the characters in different voices and accents, and adding sound effects.
Rick’s weakness was his irresponsibility. You could enjoy him as a generous, humorous, sympathetic friend, but you couldn’t assume he would do what he said he would do. He’d say yes to preserve the good feelings of the moment, but he wouldn’t necessarily follow through. I knew all this before I recruited Rick to join the staff. But I needed his talents.
In addition to my program staff, I also had my engineer, George Craig. He seemed to me to be an inheritance from the show’s distant past. George was simply there, almost like the equipment he ran and maintained. He loved to laugh and to be around more colorful people. But he almost never initiated a conversation and he didn’t say very much even when you took the initiative. Least of all would he talk about himself. George had some of the characteristics that today would be associated with the term “nerd” — although the word was much less precisely defined in the fifties, had no connotation of being intentionally boring, and referred generally to anyone who wasn’t “cool.” But George was too friendly, in his nonverbal way, too cheerful, and too generous in his eagerness to be of help, ever to qualify for nerdship. It might be more accurate just to call him a “tecchie,” based on his skill, his klunky shoes, his stained and wrinkled cotton pants, his flannel shirts with the collar buttoned up, his buttered down haircut, and the bony, reed-like body that weighed no more than 120 pounds.
With this assemblage of staff members, I was able to go forth and produce the new series of Saturday morning broadcasts that continued on the old model of comedy, cool jazz recordings, and high school news for the rest of my senior year. Then, after I went away to college, I lost touch with most of the people I had encountered through Hi Lites. I do know about a few of them, however. Tim Laddish went to Stanford, then law school, and joined the office of the California Attorney General. Bob Gordon went to Harvard and became a prominent professor of Economics at Northwestern University. Rick Moran went to UC Berkeley, received his Law degree from Boalt Hall, and became a very successful personal liability attorney. And I have a fantasy that George Craig, our engineer, who always seemed bland and in the background, moved over to Palo Alto and got in on the ground floor of Silicon Valley and became a millionaire.