A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Barber Of Civility

Memo to President-elect Obama: Don't change your hair style.
Sez who? The late Milt Pitts, barber to the presidents. He cut every chief executive's hair from Richard Nixon to the first Bush, and he knew Carter was a goner in 1980 the moment Carter changed his part from right to left.
"You never change your style so dramatically overnight," Milt told me shortly before his death in 1995. "It unsettles people. It indicates a vacillating nature."
Milt was the barber at the old Sheraton-Carton Hotel (now called the St. Regis) in Washington. Twice a month, the Secret Service would chauffeur him to the White House, where there was a tiny, one-chair barbershop in the basement, right underneath the Oval Office.
When I first met Milt in 1985, he showed me a cigar box containing a lock of Ronald Reagan's hair.
"Look!" he said proudly. "Completely natural! You can tell it hasn't been dyed!"
Though he claimed to have liked all the presidents, it was obvious that Reagan was his favorite.
"The first thing I did was get rid of that pompadour. I gave him a layered cut, about 2 inches long, pretty even all around. Nancy walked in and said, 'Ronnie, don't you look good!' I knew right then and there, if Nancy liked it, I was a winner."
So what did he do with Nixon's hair?
"When Nixon first came to see me, his hair was much too long, about 8 inches, and it was dripping with Brylcreem. I took out all the grease and cut it back to 3 inches, longer in the back and fuller on the sides. It looked a lot better."
Mostly, Milt and his celebrated clients indulged in small talk. (Reagan, for instance, loved to reminisce about his old movies.) But there was one time when a president shared his inner feelings: It was Nixon, the night before he resigned.
"When I brushed him off and helped him on with his coat, he said, 'We did a lot of things right, but we've made some mistakes, too. No question of that. I'll see you sometime, perhaps at the Carlton.' Needless to say, there were tears in both our eyes."
And what was Ford like?
"The first Sunday after Ford took office, I was in the back yard mowing the lawn. My wife came out the back door and said, 'The Secret Service is calling you!' They said the president wanted his hair cut right away, and they were sending a car out to get me.
"When I got to the White House, in came Ford in his shirt sleeves, accompanied by a bunch of aides. He looked at me and said, 'Milton, I need a little haircut. Let me explain a few things to you. My hair is thinning and light, and if you cut the sideburns too short, it'll look like I have no sideburns at all. And I use Vitalis.' I said, 'Mr. President, everything you're doing is wrong.'
"All the aides started laughing, so I said, 'Excuse me, Mr. President, it's your hair I'm referring to.' And he said, 'I'm sure glad to hear that!' I gave him a shampoo, a razor cut, blow dry and a little hair spray. That way, it made his hair look thicker and fuller."
And the elder Bush?
"I've been cutting his hair for 18 years and it's never changed: shampoo, a layered cut while wet, sides short, blowdry, and a little spray. Just the way he likes it."
Milt had a shot at cutting Clinton's hair, too. He was recommended by another one of his customers, George McGovern, but he blew it a few weeks before the inauguration.
"A newspaper reporter interviewed me, and I said that Clinton looks like he has the same barber as Don King. After that, my chances went out the window."
So which president was the biggest tipper?
"To tell the truth" said Milt, "none of them has ever given me a tip."

A Guy With A Heart

This is a bittersweet day for Al Hart fans.
On the upside, it's his 81st birthday.
On the downside, he's decided to call it a career after more than four decades as the voice of KCBS. Your last chance to hear him will be next Wednesday morning, when he and John Madden do their final shmooze-fest.
His biggest fans are his peers at other radio and TV stations, who understand how hard it is to do what he makes look so easy.
"He's the gold standard in our profession," says Tom Newton, assignment manager at KRON. "All our star reporters are huge Al Hart fans. And it's not just here; people feel this way about him in newsrooms all over town. He's the guy we all want to be."
It's so rare to find someone who is not only the very best at what he does but also one of the kindest, sweetest, most decent people you'll ever meet.
People ask me if anyone can possibly be as nice as Al comes across on the radio. And the answer is no.
In real life, he's even nicer.
We've all had the unhappy experience of working with people who could be described as "kiss-up, kick-down guys." Al is the exact opposite. Longtime KCBS engineer Andy Ellis calls him "the anti-prima dona."
Kitty Rea, who was one of KCBS's first female engineers back in the 1970s, remembers most men at the station treating her like a second-class citizen, assuming she'd gotten the job only because she was a woman. But not Al.
"He never acted that way towards me or any of the other women," she says. "Here was this broadcasting legend treating me not as a lowly little girl tech who was supposed to make him look good, but as an equal. And this was way before it was fashionable or required to treat women like that in the workplace."
The women who have worked at KCBS over the years invariable call him "an old-fashioned gentleman," and it's a perfect description. He treats women with respect because he treats with respect.
Al was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he learned the values of decency and tolerance common to that area. His early career included stints in Rhinelander, Wisconsin ("WOBT, home of the Ho-Dads") and Shreveport, Louisiana ("KTBS, in the heart of the Ark-La-Tex"), where he was billed as "Your pal, Al, the guy with a heart."
In Shreveport he launched a second career as a pop singer for Mercury Records. His biggest hit was "Tears Are Only Rain To Make Love Grow."
In 1966 he moved to San Francisco and went to work at KCBS as producer of Dave McElhatton's morning drive show.
It was an inspired pairing. Al invented a host of colorful characters - including Charlie the Checker and Larry Fatooker, coach of the Milpitas Mud Hens - and pretended to call in, and McElhatton pretended to interview them. The audience loved being in on the joke and ate it up.
When McElhatton moved over to Channel 5 to anchor its nightly news, Al gracefully - that's the only way he knows how to do anything - moved into his slot. And he became a Bay Area institution.
In 2000 he retired from his daily morning show to take care of his wife, Sally, who was dying from Lou Gehrig's Disease. After Sally's death KCBS coaxed him back to shoot the breeze with Madden (another big fan of his) on Wednesday mornings.
He's won every award in the book, including being in the first group to be inducted into the Bay Area Broadcasting Hall Of Fame. But more important than any award is his place in the hearts of everyone who has ever known him.
I've known him for more than 30 years. And one of the biggest honors of my life is that this great and good man thinks of me as his friend.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sweeter Sounds

Is the piano mightier than the sword? That's what pianist Sarah Cahill aims to find out when she premieres her new musical project, "A Sweeter Music," Jan. 25 at Cal Performances' Hertz Hall.
Cahill asked 18 eminent new music composers - including Terry Riley, Yoko Ono, Frederic Rzewski, Larry Polansky, Jerome Kitzke, Pauline Oliveros and The Residents - to compose works about peace, and they all rushed to accept.
"Any time Sarah asks me to write a piece, I say yes," said Polansky. "I don't care what it's about, I'm just flattered and honored that she asked me."
"She's just fearless and will try anything," added Kitzke, whose score calls for Cahill to speak, sing and rap the keyboard lid with her knuckles. "She's a great musician."
"This is the third or fourth piece I've written for Sarah, and she's always able to handle anything I throw at her, which is quite a variety, " said Oliveros. "This time, I've written a 12-bar blues with the audience joining in, singing, 'We want peace on Earth.' I think it's going to really rock."
"A Sweeter Music" will get its world premiere Jan. 25 at Cal Performances' Hertz Hall, augmented by a three-screen video projection by Cahill's husband, award-winning video artist/director John Sanborn.
The concert will be preceded by a panel discussion featuring Cahill and some of the composers on Jan. 23 at Wheeler Auditorium. Then Cahill will take "A Sweeter Music" on tour - first across the country and then to Europe and Asia.
The title is a quote from Martin Luther King's Nobel Prize lecture: "We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody, that is far superior to the discords of war."
"It was Frederic Rzewski's arrangement of 'Down by the Riverside' that first gave me the idea," she said. "After reading news about the latest deaths in Iraq, I would sit down and play his music as a kind of catharsis.
"I kept thinking that there needed to be more pieces like this, that can provide solace and inspiration. I know a number of composers who, like me, feel so frustrated and helpless in the face of a senseless war and need to express their response in some form."
Some of the pieces are overtly anti-war, such as "Dar al-Harb," composed by 17-year-old wunderkind Preben Antonsen as a tribute to his cousin, who served in Iraq.
"He was an interrogator, which means he did all the things the government says we don't do, and he was damaged by that. The piece starts out very simple and very calm and gradually gets more and more violent, and by the end it's just an enormous flaming mass of fury with no order at all. Like the war."
Others are more pro-peace, such as Riley's gentle "Be Kind To One Another Rag," which he plays to his grandchildren at bedtime.
"When Sarah called and asked me to write an anti-war piece, I said, 'No, but I'll write some music for peace,'" said Riley, who was arrested on the first day of the Iraq war for sitting down in the middle of the street. He was sentenced to community service, which he performed by writing an anti-war song.
The premiere of "A Sweeter Music" is the latest installment in Cahill's long association with Cal Performances, which goes back more than two decades.
"She was the first person I met when I came to Berkeley," said Cal Performances Director Robert Cole. "I had just flown here to accept this job. After I signed the contract I stopped into a restaurant on Shattuck Avenue for a bite to eat, and there was this young woman playing Chopin - and beautifully, too. I thought, 'What a high class town this is!' And she's been one of my favorite collaborators ever since."
Described by the San Francisco Chronicle as "a reigning diva of avant-garde pianism," Cahill is popular with her peers because her behavior is anything but diva-like.
"You're going to have a hard time finding anyone who doesn't adore her," said Bonnie Hughes, executive director of the Berkeley Arts Festival. "She's incredibly generous, always thinking of things for other musicians to do. I mean, look at this project."
In addition to her concert career, Cahill promotes new music on her weekly two-hour radio show, "Then and Now," on KALW-FM in San Francisco, writes music criticism for local newspapers and music publications, and produces concerts such as the annual "Garden of Memory," which showcases up to 40 different musical performances at the Chapel of the Chimes Mausoleum in Oakland.
She and her brother, archaeologist/art historian Nicholas Cahill, an Indiana Jones look-alike who is directing the excavation of the palace of King Croesus at Sardis in western Turkey, grew up in an academic and artistic family in Berkeley.
Their father, James Cahill, Professor Emeritus of Art at Cal, is a leading expert on Chinese art. Their mother, Dorothy Dunlap Cahill, is a well-respected art connoisseur, according to UC Berkeley art department chair Pat Berger.
Cahill grew up listening to her father's collection of rare historical recordings of Bartok, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, and at 7 started studying with Sharon Mann, a nationally recognized expert in Bach's keyboard music
"She was the youngest student I've ever had, by far, but she was an adult in disguise," said Mann. "Her Schubert was the first thing I noticed. Children usually want something more direct, less subtle, but she was able to access music that was suggestive and nuanced. It was breathtaking to be around her."
One of her favorite pastimes was playing four-handed duets with her father, a talented amateur pianist in his own right.
"I took the hard parts and she took the easy parts until she got better than me," he said. "Then we reversed roles."
He realized just how good she was when she was 12.
"I heard her play a Brahms intermezzo, and I thought, 'My God! My daughter is telling me things about Brahms I never knew before!'"
In addition to a love of music, her father bequeathed her another legacy - one of the world's greatest collections of early, pre-Alfred E. Neuman Mad magazines, which she keeps in a safe deposit box.
Skipping her senior year at Berkeley High, she went directly to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where John Adams composed "China Gates" for her.
He was the first of many composers who have dedicated works to her, including Riley, Rzewski, Oliveros, Kyle Gann, Andrea Morricone and Evan Ziporyn.
Among her biggest fans are other pianists.
"She's an amazing technician," said Jerry Kuderna, a leading interpreter of Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter. "She has the technique to play anything she wants, but she is so devoted to building this repertoire of pieces that only she can play. And that's her special gift."
Cahill says the decision to specialize in new music was a no-brainer.
"When you play classical music, the audience's attention is on how you're playing the piece. But with new music, the emphasis is on the composition itself. I like it that way. There are so many pianists playing the same Beethoven sonata, but I get to introduce a new piece by Terry Riley."
So can music really stop the war?
"I like to remember what Frederic Rzewski said: 'Music probably cannot change the world. But it's a good idea to act as though it could.'"

(A slightly different version of this story appears in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of California Magazine. A video of Cahill playing 'Down by the Riverside' can be viewed online at http://calperfs.berkeley.edu/presents/media/2006/edge_fest/Rzewski_Cahill_High.mov)