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, August 6, 2009

The Skipper returns

Hey, boys and girls! Guess who's coming back to town?
Skipper Sedley! And he's bringing King Fuddle with him!
For those who didn't grow up around here, Bruce "Skipper" Sedley and his puppet sidekick, King Fuddle, were stars of children's television in the Bay Area during the 1950s and early '60s.
From 1957 to 1960 they hosted the Popeye cartoon show on Channel 4. Then they hosted the Three Stooges program on Channel 2 from 1962 to 1964, with Skipper's name changed to "Sir Sedley."
King Fuddle actually started life as Professor Fuddle, a weather forecaster who was never right, on Sedley's radio show on KROW (now called KABL), "Nick and Noodnick."
Sedley was "Noodnick," replacing the original Noodnick, the late, great Don Sherwood. Other deejays at the station included Phyllis Diller and Rod McKuen.
He left KROW in 1952 to make films with Russ Meyer, who later became famous as "King of the Bs," producer/director of cheesy movies with great titles, including "Beyond the Valley of the Ultra Vixens" and "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!"
In 1957 Channel 4 was looking for a show to compete with the Mickey Mouse Club on Channel 7, so it hired Sedley and Professor Fuddle to host Popeye cartoons.
A few months later Sedley visited Children's Fairyland in Oakland, where he saw coin-operated record players playing nursery rhymes. He was told that they were always breaking down, so he suggested a new, state-of-the-art technology called the tape recorder.
Using a repeating looped tape, he invented Fairyland's celebrated Talking Storybooks, activated by a Magic Key that the child inserted into a lock and turned.
"There is no doubt that the Magic Key is the single most enduring icon we have at the park," says Fairyland's executive director, C.J. Hirshfield. "I constantly hear from thirty, forty and fiftysomethings, 'I still have my key!' And I always reply, 'And it still works.'"
Professor Fuddle's name was promptly changed to "King Fuddle of Fairyland," and Sedley began promoting Fairyland on his show. He gave away Magic Keys as prizes, did personal appearances and remote broadcasts from the park, and worked many of Fairyland's characters and sets into the show.
The Talking Storybooks were such a big hit, Sedley started making them for other places, including the San Francisco Zoo, Bronx Zoo, and the 1962 Seattle World's Fair.
Eventually, he realized the technology he had created could be used for wider applications, so he invented the magnetic security card keys that are used in hotels and parking lots. The first card keys were made in his kitchen, using a pasta roller he bought in North Beach.
Nowadays he lives in Hong Kong. But he and King Fuddle will be at Fairyland on August 29 for Puppet Day, where they'll present a ceremonial one millionth Magic Key to some lucky child. (They'll also be there on August 30.)
And, in Sedley's honor, the San Francisco Bay Area Puppeteers Guild will hold its 53rd Annual Puppet Fair at Fairyland that same weekend, featuring free puppet making for children and performances by local puppet companies.
"We are hopeful that many of yesterday's children will bring THEIR children to meet King Fuddle," says Sedley.
If you want to see what he and King Fuddle looked like back in the day, you can watch a video of a complete Skipper Sedley Puppet Show at www.sedleyandfriends.com.

Monday, August 3, 2009

'58 at 50

(Above: Oski the Bear)

More than 320 members of Cal's Class of 1958 (class motto: "None so great as '58") attended their 50th reunion Oct. 3-5, the largest 50th reunion in Cal history.
They cheered when basketball captain Earl Robinson led them in the Cal spell-out, cried when they sang "Hail To California" and reminisced about what Cal was like back in the day.
"One difference is that Telegraph Avenue went all the way to Sather Gate," said reunion chairman Roger Samuelsen. "There were restaurants across the street from the Administration Building (now known as Sproul Hall), where the student union is today."
The most popular was Jules' Coffee Shop, where everyone met for a mass kaffe klatch every day at 10 a.m.
"You arranged to not have a 10 o'clock class; and if you couldn't avoid one, you'd take one for which Fybate notes were available," said Gail Follett Hughes. "I don't know why, because the coffee was terrible. It tasted like metal."
At Sather Gate the students bought ice cream from the Crunchy Munchy Man ("Cruncy Munchy/Great after lunchy," the jingle ran). And before football games at Memorial Stadium they bought frozen fruit ices called Gremlins, which the guys in the men's rooting section laced with vodka.
(Yes, there were separate rooting sections for men and women.)
Social life revolved around fraternities and sororities, with elaborate ceremonies and rigid rules.
"You couldn't wear blue jeans or Bermuda shorts in public, or you'd be 'campused' the next weekend," recalled Sharon Foster Strong. "And if you weren't inside your sorority house by curfew, you'd be locked out.
"If you were 15 minutes late, the house president would be wakened. Fifteen minutes later, the housemother would be wakened. And if you still weren't there 15 minutes after that, they'd call the dean of women, and she'd send the police out looking for you."
One of the most elaborate rituals was the pinning ceremony.
"They always took place on Monday nights, which was dress-up night at the sororities, with everyone wearing high heels and hose," said Lynn Springer Pettit. "We would sit around the dining table, trying to guess who was getting pinned.
"A lighted candle, in the color of the boy's fraternity, would be passed from girl to girl until it came to the one who was being pinned. She'd blow it out, and the rest of us would start screaming and congratulating her, and her sorority big sister would pin the pin on her sweater."
Libby Sutton Middleton added, "Then, if she were lucky and her boyfriend belonged to a local fraternity, the boys from his house would gather on our front porch and serenade us."
Strong interjected, "Another difference between then and now: Notice the correct use of the subjunctive."
Meanwhile, Jack Saroyan and Don Kosovac fondly recalled tearing down the goal post after the 1953 Big Game (a 21-21 tie that knocked Stanford out of the Rose Bowl), rushing the crossbar out of Stanford Stadium just ahead of a mob of angry Stanford fans, and driving it back to their fraternity house, Pi Kappa Alpha, in Berkeley.
"And that crossbar is still hanging from the ceiling of the dining room!" Kosovac said proudly.
But it wasn't all hijinks. Then, as now, Cal was blessed with some of the finest professors in the world, including Armand Rappaport teaching American diplomatic history, Raymond Sontag teaching European cultural history, Josephine Miles and Charles Muscatine teaching English, and Richard Aiken teaching embryology.
"Aiken was a consummate artist," said Pate Thompson. "He would create these gorgeous drawings on the backboard that I admired so much, I would come an hour before class and watch him do it."
Patricia Pereira Nielson added, "Rappaport once gave me back a paper and said, 'You didn't tell me anything I didn't already know.' It was the first time I realized that learning is more than regurgitation."
So what does Cal 1958 think of Cal 2008?
"Well, Telegraph Avenue looks dreadful, but the essence of the university is still in great shape," said Strong. "We might not agree with everything that's happened since we graduated, but remember what Clark Kerr said: 'The university isn't here to make ideas safe for the students; it's here to make the students safe for ideas.'"

(This story originally appeared in the Jan/Feb issue of California magazine.)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Best Basketball Coach Ever

(Above: Coach Pete next to the statue of himsef at Haas Pavillion)

Pete Newell, the coaching legend who led Cal to its only NCAA basketball championship in 1959, died last Nov. 17. And his friends are still trying to figure out how he managed to cram so much living into only 93 years.
He was one of only three coaches - along with Dean Smith and Bob Knight, who called him "one of the cornerstones of the game" - to win college basketball's triple crown, taking the Bears to both NCAA and NIT titles and coaching the gold medal-winning U.S. 1960 Olympic basketball team.
"With all respect to John Wooden, it's no coincidence that he didn't start winning all those championships at UCLA until Coach Pete retired," says Joe Kapp, who, in addition to his illustrious football career, played hoops for Newell at Cal. "The last eight times they played, Coach Pete won all eight games."
Newell also achieved great success in the NBA as general manager for the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers, which he turned into champions by trading for Kareem Abdul-Jabar.
But first and foremost, he was a teacher.
"I always looked forward to practice because I knew I was going to learn something new each time," says Bob Dalton, who played guard on that championship team. "It was like going to a lecture by a great professor like Raymond Sontag or Ernst Frankel, anticipating what he was going to say. We all listened in absolute silence, hanging on every word."
"Teaching was his life," adds Ned Averbuck, who played forward and center. "He considered the court to be an extension of the classroom. He would lead you to the threshold of the right answer without imposing it on you."
The day after Newell died, John Madden said on his radio show, "He was such an incredible coach and teacher, he would have been a success in the NFL or any other sport."
And Bill Walsh, who was an assistant football coach at Cal at the tail end of the Newell era, said shortly before his own death, "The person I admired the most and always wanted to be like is Pete Newell."
Peter Francis Newell was born Aug. 3, 1915 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and grew up in Los Angeles. Through the persistence of his mother, a classic stage mom, he became a child actor before he reached kindergarten, appearing in several "Our Gang" movies.
In 1921 he was up for the starring role opposite Charlie Chaplin in "The Kid," but lost out to Jackie Coogan - to his great relief.
"I hated acting," he said. "All I wanted to do was be home playing ball."
He attended Loyola Marymount University, where he starred on both the baseball and basketball teams.
"I think he knew even more about baseball than he did about basketball, but basketball was his true love," says Rene Herrerias, Newell's assistant coach and eventual successor as head coach at Cal.
After college he spent a year in the Brooklyn Dodgers' farm system before joining the Navy, where he served from 1942 until 1946.
His coaching career began in 1946 at USF, winning the NIT - then the most prestigious tournament in the country - in 1949 and perfecting the zone press defense that became his teams' hallmark, as well as a model for other coaches, including John Wooden, who installed it at UCLA.
And his innovative "reverse action" offense - the basis of many NBA offenses today, including the Lakers' "triangle offense" - was simple but deadly, relying on perfect execution instead of gimmick plays.
After a four-year stint at Michigan State he became head coach at Cal in 1954. Longtime San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Glenn Dickey, '57, was a Daily Cal reporter at the time.
"Coaches sometimes brush off college writers, but Newell treated us on the Daily Cal with as much respect as he showed to writers from the area's newspapers," he wrote after Newell died.
Like Pappy Waldorf, Newell never yelled at his players for making a mistake.
"He didn't have to," says Herrerias. "He just gave you 'The Look.'"
"He could look right through you," concurs Herb Friedman, a guard from 1955 to 1957. "But when the play was perfect, his eyes would light up and get bigger and bigger, and a big smile came across his face from seeing the purity of the action."
Newell was a master psychologist, with an unerring feel for which players performed best with a pat on the back and which performed best with a kick in the pants. But he had no patience with goof-offs.
"You haven't lived until you've been thrown out of the gym by Pete," says forward Bert Mastrov.
He didn't have the greatest talent in the world. Yet his 1959 squad beat a Cincinnati team starring Oscar Robertson in the NCAA semifinal and a West Virginia team starring Jerry West in the final.
"The secret was that we were a team," says Mastrov. "There were no stars with Pete. Everyone was equal."
"He was able to take a group of fairly mediocre players and make us believe in ourselves so much that we never had to look over to the bench for the play," adds Dalton. "We were maybe the smartest team ever."
Part of the credit goes to Herrerias, who prepared detailed scouting reports on each upcoming opponent.
"By game time, we were better at running their plays than they were," says Dalton.
Many of his games were won in the fourth quarter because his teams were in better condition than the opposition.
"He brought in (track coach) Brutus Hamilton to teach us how to run more efficiently, and he made us run through the hills in Strawberry Canyon," says Friedman. "If anyone didn't finish running the hill, everyone would have to do it again."
But at the peak of his success, after winning the 1959 NCAA title and the 1960 Olympic gold medal, he quit. He was only 44.
"It was my health," he explained. "I was carrying it all inside. I was smoking too many cigarettes, drinking too much coffee, and I couldn't eat anything from Thursday to Sunday."
He moved up to the Athletic Director's job in 1960, serving until 1967, when he began his second career in the NBA.
In 1976 he retired to take care of his ailing wife, Florence, who died in 1984. Asked if he ever considered remarrying, he replied, "Only when I'm alone and driving in the diamond lane."
A devout Catholic, he attended Mass every day until failing health forced him to cut back to once a week. His first prayer was always for Florence.
After his retirement he launched his third career: founder and director of the annual Pete Newell Big Man's Camp, where more than 200 NBA stars learned the fundamentals of playing the post. Among them: Bill Walton, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal, who said, "He's the best teacher there is!"
But he refused to accept money for his instruction, explaining, "I owe it all to the game. I can never repay what the game has given me."
In 2001 he added the yearly Tall Women's Camp for WNBA players.
He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979, and in 2000 the NCAA created the Pete Newell Big Man Award, bestowed on the top college frontcourt player in the country. In 1987 the playing surface at Harmon Gym (now called Haas Pavillion) was named the Pete Newell Court.
That same year, the late Japanese Emperor Hirohito awarded him one of the country's highest honors, the Order of the Sacred Treasures, for his contribution to teaching basketball in Japan.
But all these honors pale compared to his place in the hearts of his players.
"There's an old Jewish prophecy that the earth has 36 righteous men; and as long as they're here, the world will be just fine," says Mastrov. "I think we just lost one."

(A shorter version of this story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of California magazine.)