Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Oakland, CA 1949-1950

Interstate 580 has radically changed MacArthur Blvd.; I walked to school along MacArthur to Park Blvd. On a fairly recent visit, once a few blocks east of Lake Merritt, I can find few landmarks. The woodsy park around Highland Hospital, the Alameda County Hospital, seems, like the older building itself, to be gone, or perhaps I see some of it on the satellite view. This whole area is low, rolling hills. Block by block, the neighborhoods seem to have been unzoned and unplanned. The house opposite ours was really poor looking, and one night the Oakland police answered to a call: woman shot (not fatally) by husband. Though the Oakland police of that time were not admired, they were by no means so busy as they became later. Our block of 25th, anyway, was not all bad; next door was a Portuguese man who raised beautiful canaries and outlined his garden plots with abalone shells. The reason we heard sirens so frequently was proximity to Highland Hospital. Most of the Emergency came in there. I liked to go shopping, window shopping mostly, on 14th Avenue, also part of my route to school; I think that the music store I found was there rather than on Park Blvd. (Even the numbered streets and blvds. had to accommodate the hills, remnants of ancient earthquakes, I guess, and Oakland is a place where it really matters to know whether one's address is a 'street' of an 'avenue/blvd'). On counters the current 10" hits lay in their brown-paper sleeves in boxes that held a dozen; farther back the lady who owned the store at her counter served those, even teenagers, who wanted red-seal singles for solos, arias or Horowitz or Menhuin, for example. The albums of longer works, with their covers signed often by one Steinweiss, were displayed on wall racks. After babysitting, I could stop to buy young Robert Merrill or a Jussi Bjoerling, for example, or something sung by Beniamino Gigli, whose films were run at the Elmwood Theater (see below). The previous Christmas I had been given (in two albums, 26 sides of 12" shellac) the complete La Bohème, with Gigli and Albanese of 1936. The 1929 Electrola's phonograph with its 8 ounce pick-up was hard on the disks; later, almost in reverence for such a gift, I bought it anew on LP, since, in any case, young Albanese was an excellent Mimi.
The first Christmas on E. 25th, 1949, turntables with pickups that tracked at only about 6 or 8 grams (but very rigid, so still punishing) became available, and I got one. The old Electrola had to be adapted, to boost the output, and, without inputs for external components, just to connect it. The first 33 1/3 rpm LPs had already been released on 78rpm shellac, but recorded on tape in the case of the Bruno Walter Beethoven 9th Symphony, which required three sides (to avoid broken movements, the bane of 78rpm—I still know where every break came in that Bohème as well in the Rudolf Serkin-Walter "Emperor" Concerto). The fourth side with the Walter Beethoven 9th was the Schicksalslied, the Song of Destiny, with Elena Nicolaidi as soprano soloist. My other first LP was the first of the set of six LPs of Wanda Landowska playing the Well Tempered Clavier of Bach. That had been recorded on disks, but with discrete selections it didn't matter. I have often mused idly on the differences of listening to music off different media. With 78s and without a drop-automatic turntable, listening was a full-time job, but one may have paid attention better. The human brain has little trouble listening over surface noise and a host of distortions (or even over air conditioners now), and perhaps one did pay more attention to the music and less to the sheer sound. One ought to pay even more attention when, now, one can really hear all the parts and not just a wash of orchestral sound (the old playback equipment being much inferior to most of the recordings), but various kinds of 'elevator music' have conditioned most of us otherwise. The 'question' is easily decided: how we listen is our choice. Nevertheless, when I do take out one-sided acoustical 78s and hook up stuff to play them, I also take the trouble to really listen.
Babysitting (or yard work if you're a boy) is freedom when you're young. Already in Brookfield Village, some neighbors had discovered that I could iron, too. Even men's shirts. Ironing was more lucrative. It was the reward for realizing that sending the youngest of us to elementary school in a fresh dress, with all its buttons on, with its hem not out, with its sashes complete meant giving her some self respect, concealing from busybodies that the mother of the house was not well, that we no longer had a washing machine, etc. We did have a washboard and stationary tubs. That doesn't sound like freedom? Well, if you do enough to have pocket money and to be bossy to your mother, on Saturday or Sunday, all the way from 98th Avenue, you can take the number 6 streetcar all the way on East 14th Street (which the new maps seem to label International Blvd) to downtown Oakland and on up Broadway to where College Avenue forks off it (there was an old and good Italian restaurant there, too) and on up College to Ashby Avenue. And there is the Elmwood Theater. There I saw all the Gigli films that later were on VHS by Bel Canto Society. There I saw, every year in the early Fall, Kenny Baker in The Mikado (I must not have been the only one who adored it) in terminal Technicolor. There I saw The Importance of Being Earnest, the one with, among others, Joan Greenwood, and much else. In particular Harry Baur as Beethoven. I began to keep a scrapbook of my favorites from the ads on the movie theater page, but I also kept in it clippings of, for example, the death of Wanda Landowska and of Richard Strauss, for whom at that time I only knew the tone poems from the 78rpm albums. Observation: when there is less coverage accessible, one is likely to remember better what one does have, or is it just remembering the first things you learned in youth? Now that you can get DVDs of almost everything I saw at the Elmwood, let's celebrate the last days of the big streetcars. They were much wider gauge than European ones. Admittedly, they made College Avenue from the fork at Broadway still in Oakland to the UC campus in Berkeley almost impassable. But they were clean and bright and airy, roomy, and the older cars had woven wicker seats; incapable of starting or stopping very suddenly, they rang their bells all the way, at each street of any importance. The motors and all those steel wheels on steel tracks were fairly noisy; conversations were practically private (until the electrical contact ceased when they stopped, so that there were many predictable jokes in which children asked their parents blushable questions at just that moment). They were slow. Plenty of time to think, plenty of chance to read all the signage. There was, and in part still is, a lovely neighborhood of early 20th century brown-shingle houses, just above Ashby Ave. and just east of College, where, when my necessarily generous allowance for delays got me to Berkeley before the theater opened, I would walk and study domestic architecture; it is, after all, one of the best periods of one of the best genres, of which the Gamble House is the masterpiece. This love of the Elmwood's movies (soon to be eclipsed in importance by first-run foreign films at Oakland's Tower Theater, then Berkeley's Cinema Guild, at first in places like the Odd Fellows Hall, and even that in the 50s, not the late 40s) gave me the pleasure of the streetcars very shortly before their demise. More of the electric trains later.