Once Upon a Redwood:
A Tale of Mendocino Stories & Music Series

Story by Maria Goodwin

The tale of how Mendocino Stories and Music Series came about began with Bonnie Sanger a few years ago. Bonnie was a beloved local character, a wise old woman, long-time community resident—an acupressure practitioner, costume designer for Gloriana Opera Company—a benevolent crone cherished by many. Bonnie, in her declining years, still continued to graciously receive her many comrades. She confided to friend Pattie DeMatteo that she wanted to see her collection of notes and writings, Conversations with Grandmother Redwood, made into a book. Pattie assured her dying friend that she would make it happen. She talked with James Maxwell (Max), artist and website designer who, equally inspired, said, “Let’s do it!”

Bonnie’s story was typed on scraps of paper. She and Pattie worked to organize these into a book, and despite her health, Bonnie proofed the whole story in its website form. A final proof was completed the day Bonnie died; she never saw the final version. The book was eventually published by Cypress House Press.

Bonnie’s passing brought her many friends closer together. The website hosting her book was a way to keep Bonnie’s spirit alive and the home page reflects her influence. Out of that grew what is today Mendocino Stories and Music Series. “You don’t know at the time how one situation impacts another—who could have guessed then how this simple beginning would grow into something that’s now such a part of the community,” says Pattie.

“Mendocino is a magical area of rare beauty. A gathering place, she attracts kindred sprits—nature lovers, poets, artists, musicians, writers and lefties abound.” That gathering place of Bonnie’s enduring quote morphed into a moveable feast—that of the many events fostered by Mendocino Stories and Music Series.

Mendocino Stories went online in 2006. The online store selling books, (including Bonnie’s book) artwork, and CDs soon followed. Early in 2007 a group of writers gave the first Mendocino Stories and Music Series presentation—an evening of storytelling by various locals who, as impromptu historians, imparted rarified accounts of the “The Sea Gull Years.”

That signature event set the tone for many subsequent evenings. Max acknowledges David Jones, the owner and manager of the historic Sea Gull Restaurant and Cellar Bar that, for many years, was a meeting place for locals, a focal point for the entire Mendocino coast from Point Arena to Westport. In 1976 the building was destroyed by fire; Jones rebuilt it within six months and it blossomed anew, more vital than ever. Jones sold it in the late eighties, and the famed Sea Gull Cellar Bar was no more.

In March of 2007, two months after the Sea Gull night, came “The Early Years and How We Came to Town” featuring many long-time residents telling stories of how they arrived in the special place of Mendocino and why life here is so rich. What drew them here? Why did they stay? Newcomers were enthralled and old-timers invigorated by the re-telling of a shared past.

“When we started out a few years ago we had lots of ideas and lots of enthusiasm—the community rallied and the concept just took off,” says Pattie. “Max and I meet regularly for lunch at Café One to brainstorm and plan. In the early days, we contacted likely groups or individuals, but before long people were approaching us. Initially events were held every other month, but there were so many talented people who wanted to present, we began scheduling events monthly. There were poetry nights, writers groups reading, a variety of music, singer-songwriter nights, and often several groups sharing billing the same evening.”

A suitable venue is essential to presenting a seamless performance. Pattie enthuses regarding Tom Kravis’ long-time support. His Mendocino Hotel and Hill House Inn both provide the perfect atmosphere—a bistro-like ambience with food, drink and excellent service. The cabaret environment promotes conviviality—people come well ahead of show time to visit with friends, have a drink or a meal; it’s a community gathering place much as was the old Sea Gull Cellar Bar. Tom says the Series has been very successful because “...it’s owned by the locals—the performers and the audience—it’s a grassroots effort that has flourished due to strong continuing local support.”

Using private homes as alternate venues has proved to be a huge success as well. The intimate atmosphere of a comfortable, inviting living room has been the perfect setting for acoustic concerts of internationally-known Franco Morone and Raffaella Luna; singer-songwriters such as Todd Walton and Marcia Sloane; Gwyn Moreland and Morgan Daniel and others.

Mendocino Stories and Music Series events are not just entertainment, but more importantly a place for artists and their friends to convene. Pattie says the beauty of the events has been a rekindling of community focus reminiscent of the Sea Gull times. The event is not over when the evening ends, it remains a subject for conversation as neighbors greet one another later on and relive the afterglow.

The variety of presentations is an eclectic rendition of a wide spectrum of cultural tastes. Early this month, January 9, was an evening of luscious harmonies featuring the Acafellas, In the Mix, and special guests, a women’s group – 7,8,9. Acafellas director Joe Rosenthal points out that a capella singing catches people on a deep emotional level. “It’s more than the mechanics of our rehearsals,” he says. “Something wonderful happens in performance. Both singers and audience have expectations and that interaction creates a sustaining payoff for us all.”

January 29 features singer/songwriters Michael Ehlers, Jamie Gilliam, and a trio (Rose Knight, Denny Knight and Steve Garrison) from the The Rose Knight Band playing music with a country flavor, with band member Marcel Guarachi joining for select “popabilly” songs.

The Groovinators play at the Hill House Inn, ideal for dancing, January 30. February will be a regrouping time off for the hard-working Mendocino Stories and Music Series staff. Gordon Black hosts an evening of poetry with the venerable ruth weiss, and others on March 19, 2010, another not-to-be missed evening.

All genres of music have been presented from steel drum bands (Kevin and the Coconuts), jazz (The Mendonesian Jazz Quartet), rock and blues (Smokin’ Mirrors) to Latin (Pura Vida). Versatile and popular musician Ron Nadeau (Ancient Current) says that Mendocino Stories and Music Series is doing a wonderful community service bringing performers and audience together. “MS&M is the catalyst that glues community together with warmth and creative expression so that we all feel great about where we live and who we’re living with.”

Writing groups such as Quartet have read from their Along the Way Travel Stories, and Mixed Pickles and The Usual Suspects writers’ groups have read excerpts from their published works and works-in-progress. Author Ginny Rorby states, “Max and Pattie have expanded what this community was based on—supporting local artists. They’re taking it a step further to include writers and musicians. Where else can doctors, lawyers, environmentalists, teachers, ex-flight attendants, loggers and fishermen fulfill their ‘Walter Mitty’ dreams if his fantasies had been about writing a gripping story, playing music to an audience that closes its eyes to listen, or singing to the applause of people who genuinely want you to succeed.”

Max says the evolution of Mendocino Stories and Music Series was an organic process. “I think of myself as working behind the curtain. There was turmoil and confusion as we started out, as with every new venture. We soon learned what worked and what didn’t.”

While he and Pattie work to present programs, they also seek to accommodate the audience’s taste. “We’ve gotten a feel for what people want to experience,” Max says, “and we gear our programs to that end. We want to insure people who come out for one of our evenings are going to be pleased enough to return for future events.”

As a logical offshoot of storytelling, more spoken word, in the form of poetry, was introduced by poet and author, Lydia Rand, who encouraged many other poets to participate. Soon poetry readings became an integral part of the Series.
An especially memorable night was “Voices and Visions” with Devreaux Baker, Toni Bernbaum, Blake More, and Lydia Rand presenting. Blake comments that she and her fellow poets were impressed by the receptivity of the crowd. “Mendocino Stories and Music Series provides poets on the coast an incredibly welcoming and beautiful setting in which to perform.”

Improvisational theatre came later with the addition of Hit and Run Theatre to the mix. Improv shows introduced audiences to the fast-moving quick-witted world of theatre based on audience suggestion created on the spot. Veteran improviser Doug Nunn says, “It’s been lovely to work with Pattie and Max. They have gone out of their way to bring back a lot of the cultural and community spirit that thrived here in the seventies and eighties. This has meant plenty of excellent music as well as solid comedy.”

Some evenings are devoted to honoring a specific individual such as prolific artist Olaf Palm or Vicki Fraser and her thirteen-years-in-the-making rug (“Off the Loom Party for the California Rug Project”). Other events simply celebrate the season—Christmas, a Celtic harvest festival, and so on.

While Mendocino Stories and Music Series performers are often from the community, and all for the community, they relish doing a benefit performance—a chance to give back to the community. The fund-raiser for Navarro-by-the-Sea Center’s “Save the Inn” to preserve the historic (1865) Captain Fletcher’s Inn was a rousing evening of stories, skits and music, another example of what is accomplished when people work together.

Pattie is the producer and coordinator, does publicity, runs sound, hires out if necessary, handles tickets, assisted by the steadfast core group of Max, Laurel Moss and Nelson Lindley. “The presentations have grown to as many as two events per month (and sometimes three!) and everyone involved is happy that the Series is such a success,” says Pattie, “but as the workload grows with more great ideas, volunteer help is always welcome.” Though Mendocino Stories and Music Series is an all-volunteer endeavor, it consistently produces professional-level events.

Max designs and produces all the posters. Pattie and the performers distribute the posters. Pattie writes text for publicity, arranges the venue, sound system and staging, and coordinates rehearsals. “Some people don’t know how to use a mic,” Pattie says, “they’ll need to be helped along; others have had more performance experience.” The group is flexible and works with participants of all levels. “We have our own sound system that works well for small groups. Bigger bands provide their own sound.”

Pattie continues, “While it’s a numbing amount of work handled by very few people, I have to say how much I get out of doing this. The tremendous reward of being so connected to people in the community gives me the opportunity to connect with them in a special way—it’s a unique situation when I greet them at the door and say glad you’re here, thanks for coming; they’ll respond that they want to be here. People need to laugh, and to be uplifted by the evening.

Then there are the performers who can’t wait to perform. Their enthusiasm is contagious and everyone, promoters, performers, and audience comes away from the evening feeling recharged. And people know this is a labor of love and come up to me and thank me for doing it. A vibrant community such as ours is really built on a web of friendships.”

This is the Series’ fourth season; and Pattie extends an invitation to artists, photographers, musicians, poets and writers to join Mendocino Stories ever-expanding online community. See the website for information. The www.mendocinostories.com website announces monthly events at Mendocino Hotel’s Garden Room, Hill House Inn of Mendocino, and in private homes. Events, readings, concerts, variety shows and dances showcase the rich and varied artistic talents of our diverse local community. Subscribe to receive e-mail notices of upcoming events or see events page listing dates and times. Remaining January events are scheduled for January 29, and January 30. At present, events are booked through June 2010.

If you are a patron of the arts, you are invited to sponsor your favorite artists. For guidelines for submitting work consult www.mendocinostories.com/submissions. List serve information mendocinostories-join@lists.mcn.org. Contact:
info@mendocinostories.com.

See you next time!

 

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