Sometimes, we want something to happen so badly, that we will do just about anything humanly possible to make it so. But, no matter how hard we try, plan and anticipate, it seems that we just can’t force a yield. NOPE. Not happening.
Then, in that final minute, we wonder whether trying one last time might be the magical push that will work—or maybe just one more try after that? Perhaps another?
Let’s face it. It seems that it would be a cryin’ shame if we gave up just one moment too soon. Then, how do we know when to stop? A reasonable person would understand how to decide that tricky question. But, are WE reasonable? Sometimes, we’re NOT!
So, here’s the deal. All we wanted to do was create a little one-room studio apartment in Italy. That sounds so romantic, yet easy enough. Then the twelve months project turned into four grueling years, and we were on the verge of giving up—calling it quits—surrendering to the powers that be—bowing to the bureaucracy—admitting defeat. Then, Voila! One last gut-wrenching try turned our building dirge into a victory dance. Ahhhh!
What we learned was this: there is no real answer to the question of when to let go. The dilemma is always “of the moment.” It can’t be graphed, outlined, critical-pathed or magic-8 balled ahead of time. We’ll quit when we quit . . . or not. Perhaps we might muster an ounce of courage and effort in the last seconds of trying. Give it one more go. When that final push results in success, we are reminded to NEVER GIVE UP! This may be a fool’s lesson, but we’ll take it. ALWAYS try one more time! TRUST in yourself and the process—there could be magic just around the corner!
We invite you to read our BACK STORY—called “Meeting the Notaio.” It’s the story with a happy ending, no matter what trials and tribulations are encountered.
NO! We just can’t find that darn tombino. In Italy, of course, language results in many quizical and/or dumbfounded glances. In this instance the word tombino verrrrry loosely translates to mean, a large underground junction box. It is the heartbeat of many systems that feed into a country dwelling like ours. Running underground for about 120 meters (roughly 400 feet) are electrical cables, telephone lines and water systems. The tombino is a heavy concrete lidded box. In our Tuscan hideaway, stealthily secluded underground are many of these cement cubes about 5 feet on all sides. Typically unseen and NOT generally a topic of conversation. However, in these post-pandemic times, it has earned the distinction of being one of the most important talking points in our little corner of the world. Once found, you could probably hide in one, but we wouldn’t recommend it. But, WHERE, oh where, is my tombino? That’s the million-euro-question. Typically they’re fairly easy to locate, but unfortunately, ours has been covered over by years of crunched and compacted gravel mixed with gritty dirt. You get the picture?
It seems that our utilities have been interrupted by a tiny little country mouse who has nibbled through the yummy gray sheathing on the power cable to create a hole for water to seep in. Once the cable gets wet, you’re only months away from full-on corrosion. One day we’re feeling the “power”and the next day our “current” strength is completely gone. Living Without Power is of course, annoying, unacceptable, and even dangerous. The only way to remedy the situation is to locate the exact position of the “nibbled-through nuisance wire”—good luck with that! We had no choice but to locate all 7 of the buried tombini under the driveway as the first step in our problem-solving process. The first six, okay. Number seven, no way. What a challenge—trying to find a “nibble in a dirt-pack.”
Now, electricity certainly is a utility that we have come to enjoy on a daily basis. With the flip of a switch, we have light. The familiar click of a gas stove reminds us that it uses an electric ignition. But more than a mere creature comfort, it’s essential for surviving frigid winters in Tuscany. Without power, there’s NO heat. Without heat, cast iron radiators freeze. When they freeze, they burst. And they are NOT tidy bursters. They spray and spit rusty water as far as their cracks will allow. The force exerted from them mimics little explosions. It’s certainly not a pretty sight, and hopefully you’ll never have to witness or clean up such a disgusting mess.
During the pandemic, our neighbor informed us that we had suffered a loss of power in the winter. Yikes! We immediately flashed a joint memory of bursting radiators. Since it was too cold and nearly impossible to repair the electrical lines mid-winter, we borrowed electricity from a neighboring building. Using a very LONG extension cord (as a temporary measure), we kept the radiators happy enough that they didn’t crack-up under the stress. So when warmer weather arrived, we kicked into high gear to find a quasi-permanent solution for the electricity issue. Hence, we found ourselves in a desperate search for that seventh elusive tombino, which was the key to our success.
Alongside two trusty electricians, we energetically swung picks at the hardened earth and scraped the loosened dirt with our shoes and shovels to clear the debris. After multiple attempts and without success, we shifted again and again, to a different digging location, every time someone shouted “Let’s dig here!” The driveway started to look like giant gophers had taken up residence, randomly having popped up, leaving gaping holes and massive mounds of gravel. Our day ended on a note of dismay and discouragement.
But persistence persisted. Later that evening, our neighbor sent a text, “WOW, I found it.” No, he hadn’t been out digging in the dark, but he had discovered an equally valuable treasure—a single photograph of the house during construction. Some 20 years before, in the foreground, just barely within the frame was an old cement-covered Tuscan wheelbarrow balanced across a hole in the ground—a square hole. Safety first! There, beside that rusty-wheeled implement was a chunk of concrete shaped like—yes, a square lid. In the silence of the night, our sleuthy neighbor dug through hundreds of photos to find perhaps the only picture ever taken of thatlonely tombino during construction.
As with any Italian problem, endless loud talking and arm-waving is required, along with a dash of clever insight. But the noise, persistence and cunning almost always pay off. Fortunately, our neighbor snapped pics of the more mundane phases of construction—capturing momentary glimpses of life “uncovered.” We’re not finished with the repairs yet, but we currently have direction. Having a plan and renewed hope is certainly em-POWER-ing!
Related Story and Music
You might check out another story called “Living Without Power” that we wrote and recorded back in 2009 amid a devastating hurricane. Following is the music if you want a quick listen.
You’ve probably heard of the dog breed called the Blue Heeler. Well, our experience tells us that most dogs are amazing healers of a different kind.
Anyone who has ever had a dog can probably attest to the fact that canines, as well as other different pets, seem to have a sixth sense. It’s a multifaceted and magical capability that goes beyond empathy, love and loyalty to include powerful “healing.” Yes, that’s a big statement, but it’s true—dogs are “Mystical Doctors” rather than “medical doctors.”
For example, our little 9-pound doxy is a profound Healer. We’ve had many dogs over the years, each with a unique personality and special talents, but none have been quite like our little Sara. She seems to be hard-wired to heal.
If one of us is having a sad or down moment, she seems to single the “patient” out, making physical contact her top priority. She’s always focused on the one in need, leaving the capable other to fend for themselves until her healing is done. It’s as if she’s a sponge, spontaneously drawn to soak up the sad or wounded energy. We joke about the magical capabilities, by calling the process, “fur-therapy.” She thinks it’s just “being a dog.”
In these pandemic days of video medical appointments and tele-therapy, she insists on laying on the needy lap—a circle-dog all curled-up to provide optimal care. Time and energy are unimportant to Sara. She’s there for the duration, taking in the stress while imparting warmth and comfort.
Recently, Em had a tele-therapy session and Sara assumed her normal healing position in his lap. Then, as Em became agitated, Sara suddenly began to shiver. She seemed uncontrollably cold, which is odd given that it’s summer in California and human laps are typically especially warm. Em noted her strange behavior. The session ended rather abruptly due to his intense emotional reaction. What did Sara sense?
Following the session, Em lay on the bed to regain his balance. Normally, Sara would assume her familiar conditioned position on his lap to snooze. But she behaved differently. She refused to sleep and instead, she turned away from him and laid down at the foot of the bed. He called and coaxed her to come to him, but she completely ignored his requests and, in fact, wouldn’t even look at him.
Then Em noticed something he’d never seen before. Sara continued shaking, but now it didn’t seem that she was cold. Instead, It looked like she was shaking to throw off the negative energy she had absorbed from him. Our conclusion was that his negative mood had been too much for her. She had reached overload! Apparently she was just too maxed-out and couldn’t convert the bad energy to good. Furthermore, she refused to come anywhere near him for the rest of the evening.
The following day, Em regained perspective and equilibrium and Sara couldn’t get enough of him. Perhaps she deemed the remaining energy work to be possible. Or maybe he was feeling so much better she just wanted to soak-up some of that positive energy. In any case, her presence was sorely needed and made all the difference in his day of recovery.
This story is an anecdotal, intuitive recollection of “a day in the life with Sara.” There’s nothing scientific or measurable. However, when you find yourself in need of some therapy, rather than asking, “Is there a doctor in the house?”, why not consider fur-therapy. Simply ask, “Is there a dachshund in the house?” We think someone will answer the call and come running.
An addendum: As usual for a weekend, we went to get coffee at one of our favorite coffee bars. A woman sitting next to us, noticed Sara and turned toward her. We introduced Sara and the lady smiled and asked to pet her. Then, she requested, “May I hold her?” We gently handed over all 9 pounds of Sara and she was immediately comfortable with the stranger. Then we glanced at the woman’s face to see that tears were streaming down her cheeks. She said, “You have no idea how much I needed this love, thank you sooo much!” Sara responded with a couple of quick licks—which always means, “You’re welcome.”
Related Story and Music
Sara’s older half-sister Isabella (Izzi-B) was our previous “Mystical Doctor,” hanging a shingle outside our home for 16 years. She later became a well-known Italian personality after many adventures in Tuscany. The following story called “Isabella” was written for her in 2013 and we share it now in her loving memory.
When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. We’re ready! Teachers have been and continue to be around us all of the time.
In the early 1950s, teachers were often contained within a small box in the living room. Of course, we’re talking about the newly minted Zenith TV set. Aside from family and close friends, our early influencers and heroes often arrived via the flickering black and white screen. Animation was reserved for Saturday morning cartoons, so during the week, we watched other role models. Truth be told, much of our character and many values came from popular figures like Andy Griffith, Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers. To help guide us through our family dynamics, we watched Ozzie and Harriett Nelson, June and Ward Cleaver (Leave It to Beaver), Margaret and Jim Anderson (Father Knows Best), or Steven Douglas (My Three Sons). Although devoid of diversity or feminism, underlying values like honesty, respect, responsibility and family still came through loud and clear.
By the time we reach the ages of two or three, most of us are capable of conceptualizing fundamental values. With each passing year, those values are re-enforced, emphasized and strengthened. The imprint of those early experiences leaves an indelible mark, even if the values morph and change over time.
Recently, our daughter and her family left for a vacation/family reunion in Tennessee. Instinctively, one of us said goodbye with the phrase “Happy Trails,” as a cheerful sendoff. Even if you don’t know where the phrase originated, you would most likely interpret it as “safe travels,” “godspeed” or something like that, which it is. But it’s also so much more.
Upon later reflection, we talked about how that phrase “Happy Trails” so easily rolled off the tongue that day, after so many years. When we were about three years old, we were hypnotized, sitting on the floor in front of the TV with “rabbit ears” on top. We peered into the grainy image on the screen to see Roy Rogers and Dale Evans perched atop their famous horses, Trigger and Buttermilk. They smiled and effortlessly performed one good deed after another with their trusty dog, Bullet always close-at-hand. Their side-kick, Pat Brady sometimes showed-up in a cloud of dust around his old reliable Jeep, Nelly Belle. Once the deeds were done and all was right in the world, Roy and Dale would send us off with their familiar theme song, Happy Trails. Smiling and content, we’d sigh and then patiently wait for the next episode—promised with the line in their song, “until we meet again.“
Roy and Dale delivered such a kind-hearted, values-laden message for impressionable young hearts to hear. They were dependable and generous cow-folks who lived the same values both on and off the screen. Authentic. The real thing. That song was lovingly written by Dale when she thought The Roy Rogers Show needed a theme song, and Dale just showed-up at rehearsal one day with music in-hand and asked everyone to just give it a try. She thought they might like it and they did! From that day on, Happy Trails became an integral part of everything they did together. Long before the idea of marketing a show such as theirs, Happy Trails became their well-known brand—how appropriate for the wild west!
“It’s funny how some words stay in your head,” is a line from a song we wrote back in 2007 called Settle Down. Surely some research has been done to explain those snippets that become loop-tapes in our brains. We’re fortunate to share a history that includes similar experiences and simpler times—nice people who modeled family values, having five children of their own. With an engaging and uplifting message, Happy Trails has become a sweet, value-able reminder of those times and the many good deeds that the “Rogers partners” shared with us—some really great teachers have appeared.
The following video contains footage from the original Roy Rogers Show—introduction and closing song.
Click the following link to hear the fully orchestrated version of “Happy Trails,” with complete lyrics and interesting historical photos.
Historic photos/video courtesy of vintage.es, Getty Images and YouTube—thanks.
Related Music and Story
You might also be interested our musical story called “Settle Down” which deals with similar ideas about how simple words and values can stay with us for an entire lifetime—and how we can spend a lifetime trying to actually live them.
We were born right smack-dab in the middle of the 20th century. Our entire lives have been full of national middle-class possibility. The Great American Dream was truly achievable, if not expected. The idea was so ingrained in us that we never thought consciously about it. Hard work was the key. As Americans, ideals were at our fingertips—the promise of equal opportunity for all, freedom, prosperity and justice. Right? We fully understood the power of that promise and took full advantage of our privilege. Privilege. Back then, we had no idea that being white had anything to do with anything. But now, we clearly understand that isn’t true. As most “people of color” would say at that time, those years may have seemed more like an American nightmare.
The President of the US at the time was Harry Truman, who signed an Executive Order calling for military integration of races in 1948. Shortly after that, in 1954 the Supreme Court declared an end to Jim Crow laws that allowed separate schools for black and white students. That seminal case, Brown v. The Board of Education, signaled the beginning of the end of state-sponsored segregation.
So we were born into the era of desegregation—at least that was our assumption. Seventy-three years later we caught a first-hand glimpse into a different perspective, through a virtual reality documentary film, “Traveling While Black.” The Canadian/American film was directed by Roger Ross Williams and released in 2019. It was both shocking and powerful for us. The film was set in Ben’s Chili Bowl, a well-known diner in Washington DC. Through the magic of 3-D headsets, we sat virtually with three African-American people in a 4 person booth, listening as they talked about their experience as traveling citizens. It seemed so realistic. Clearly, we had lived in different times, places and cultures. The truth is, we were fellow Americans, but to those people of color, we were inhabitants of totally different countries on opposite sides of the earth. What they said was disturbing and deeply sad.
In 1936, during the era of Jim Crow laws mandating segregation, New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green wrote the “Green Book” to help those of color navigate the hostile and often dangerous American highways and byways. The automobile generally symbolized freedom and made leisure travel possible. Disturbed with “separate, but unequal” public transportation, African-Americans bought cars, if they could, to gain some degree of control over their lives. But even though they could travel, they were often met with a hostile experience—routinely denied access to motels, restrooms, diners, and all other necessities while on the road. The “Green Book” became an essential guide to avoid “discomfort, discrimination, segregation and insult,” as George Schuyler wrote in 1930. It truly was a stressful period in American history where unconscionable discrimination was openly enforced until 1965 when many of the laws were finally overturned. But that certainly wasn’t the end of disdain and discrimination.
Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice sat across the table from us at Ben’s Chili Bar, recounting the details of the tragic day when her son died. Everyone in the diner respectfully turned to listen—you could have heard a pin drop. On November 22, 2014 a 12-year-old African-American boy, full of promise, was killed in Cleveland, Ohio. A 26-year-old white policeman, Timothy Loehmann, was the on-duty officer that day. Rice was carrying a replica toy gun which was all the reason Officer Loehmann needed to justify shooting him. The event happened in the blink of an eye. The squad car pulled alongside Tamir, who visibly shrugged his shoulders. In the police camera footage that’s all we saw. But Loehmann responded to the shrug with gunshots. Tamir died the following day.
Our experience that afternoon in the Chili Bowl was terribly uncomfortable, as we sat there alongside the community of color. We were riveted to every word painfully shared by Samaria Rice. All eyes were focused on her and also on us, her booth-mates and the only white people in the room. They looked to us for minute indications of shock, sadness, empathy, solidarity—humanity. Whether traveling across our country or even within their own neighborhoods, people of color have told similar heart-wrenching accounts. Tamir’s story is but one sad tale of events—amid countless insults and injury over centuries. We hope that the “regulars” at Ben’s Chili Bowl who were peering into our faces, saw the empathy and humanity they longed to see.
The hope for shared humanity was the overarching message in the “movie. “The “Green Book” remains an important historic reminder that change and promise may be slow in coming, but they are always possible. We must believe that—and make it so.
Related Story and Music
“End of the Line,” written in 2005 also explores the importance of moving beyond a dualistic world-view to become more accepting of differences; less focused on division; interested in breaking down barriers—simply more inclusive. Feel free to check it out if you’re so inclined.
On a beautiful sunny, cloudless June day in San Diego, something amazing happened. Following our lunch on the patio, we left the door wide open to let outside breezes in. Suddenly, there was a fluttering—a shadowy silhouette against the stark white ceiling. A lone monarch butterfly had decided to pay us a summery afternoon visit. She flitted silently, exploring every nook and cranny—first the bookcase, then the pictures and knick-knacks on the shelves. She floated across the room with intention, lightly touching the corner of the mantle, and then momentarily paused for a short rest on the back of a chair.
Cheryl was in the room at the time, reclining on the sofa—a post-lunch lull. She sighed when the butterfly gracefully swooped to clear the door frame, and then watched the antics as she worked her way across the room. Suddenly our unannounced guest landed directly in front of Cheryl’s face and seemed to be staring, unblinkingly at her. Wide-eyed, Cheryl lay nearly breathless, not wanting to make a sound or sudden move—butterflies are notoriously shy, you know. Could it be that this graceful visitor had a message to deliver?
Have you ever had a monarch butterfly visit you in your home—in your face? It seems pretty rare, so we felt both curious and honored. We decided reflect on the possible meaning of this impromptu encounter. First of all, the monarch butterfly is among the most beautiful of all the butterflies. Their name, Monarch, Is fitting. If there was ever a monarchy over all butterflies, one of these beauties would surely be appointed Queen over the entire Kingdom.
For millennia, cultures around the world have recognized the grace and beauty of the butterfly. Their presence has been considered a sign that we, as humans, might be on our right path, and will most probably achieve our chosen goals. They are also viewed as delicate messengers announcing an impending rebirth or spiritual transformation—arriving to help us navigate through life or simply nudge us onward along the path already chosen. Some say that they’re drawn to particular people by a specific vibration, a subtle energy that emanates from their chosen companion.
Our conclusion: this was a day of joyful reflection and celebration—perhaps it was a time for preparation, signaling some profound events about to unfold. As we continued talking about the brief visit, our thoughts, too, began to take flight. Our conversation became more playful and lighthearted. Imaginations fluttered, then soared effortlessly through the air, floating high above a beautiful landscaped urban canyon. After a few minutes of ideas, dreams and exploration, we touched ground again. All of a sudden, the world seemed more open, inspiring, expansive and exciting!
Fortunately, our butterfly-friend made an entrance that could not be ignored. We concluded that the message had, in fact, been received! We wonder, though, how many silent messengers fly close by, unnoticed every day. What clues have we missed by being too busy, too oblivious to our surroundings to note subtle changes? If nothing else, our colorful friend reminded us to watch more carefully, listen more intently and stay open, hopeful and engaged. She nudged us to pay closer attention to quiet information available to us. Surely, when it comes to magical insights and majestic influence, the Monarch definitely rules!
The saying goes that all you really need in this life is love, a therapist and a good friend, not necessarily in that order, or even all of them at the same time. The “Big Three.” It’s dynamic. For us the love can be a person, a thing or an activity; the therapist can be a religious leader, counselor or healer; and the friend can be a spouse, family member, acquaintance or a beloved pet. In fact, the best of times is when love, the therapist and the friend ARE experienced, all three together. And once in a great while, it’s possible to have all three wrapped into one—for example, in the form of that special little dog. She can be a trusted confidant, someone who will never disclose a single word you’ve said. She can deliver fur therapy that dries the most mournful tears. She might follow every step you make, mirroring the very essence of friendship. To imagine Life without the “Big Three” is to ask the question: How long can you hold your breath under water?
Not that long.
Our morning walk/exercise takes us by a beautiful sculpture that always makes us smile. The name is “Flame of Friendship” by the famous Mexican artist/sculptor Leonardo Nierman, located between the Marina and the Convention Center in San Diego. It was dedicated in 2000 as an expression of the warm friendship that exists between the US and Mexico—a centuries-old partnership, an intertwining of cultures, faiths and the very definitions of the two countries.
Friendship is a fundamental human need that finds expression at many levels: personal, interpersonal, cultural and national, creating bonds that we might literally guard with our very lives. Why? Because our humanity depends on them. We share a fundamental human need for warmth and connection. May the Flame of Friendship! burn ever more brightly.
You might be interested in few other stories and songs about different expressions of friendship that have been meaningful for us over the years. Following are three musical stories that begin painting a picture of what friendship/love can look like in the everyday and how simple actions can instantly plumb the depths of feeling, emotion and life itself.
Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to become rancid. A terrible smell supposedly wafts into the air. Could that be our problem!
The smell of sweaty tennis shoes clued us in that we had issues with dampness in the small annex building, or anesso as the Italians call it. To us, it’s just our studio. We worked there most days, writing music, drawing, recording and reading. However, the small enclosed cantina, cellar beneath was the culprit, we were sure. Pretending that airing out the space above was sufficient, we tried various techniques to enhance the air quality.
One approach we tried was the muffa mangia, the mildew eater. This device was a half-gallon size plastic box with a tray suspended slightly down from the top. On this tray a block of moisture attractant is placed and as it sucks the moisture from the air, the water fills the space beneath the tray. Didn’t work. It may have worked had it been the equivalent of, say, a family size refrigerator? So we called our engineer friend, Leonardo and requested professional help. His recommendation? Claudio.
Claudio is a contractor who looks completely at home on a motorcycle. He has very dark hair and eyes to match, ties a colorful scarf around his neck and looks the part of the romantic loner. He was our man. We forgot to even ask his last name since he came highly recommended and we had immediate rapport. With an artistic wave of his hand, “Team Claudio” went into high gear.
First, they opened the cantina by removing the temporary stone wall where the door should be, only to discover that the original contractors had actually abandoned scaffolding inside. It was an absolutely disgusting scene. After 5 years or so, the wood planks had slowly disintegrated, creating the rotting wood smell that we couldn’t quite recognize from inside the studio above. In addition, a patch of mildew the size of Rhode Island heaved and slimed on the back wall as we watched. Mystery solved! The source for the nauseating smell was exposed.
Claudio assured us that he could solve the moisture problem by pouring a concrete floor, building an open grid on top of that so that air might circulate, and finally, pouring a second concrete floor on top of the grid. What a GENIUS! At this point (just between the two of us), we began referring to him as “Clau-god,” since in Italian, dio means god. He certainly was our hero, and definitely looked the part.
After the clever double-floor was installed, the guys resurfaced the walls and finally, for good measure, laid a moisture resistant tile floor making our double floor into a TRIPLE. That cinched the deal! The cantina was finally dry and consequently, so was the studio. The ominous smell of dirty gym socks quickly dissipated!
Claudio performed a final inspection and declared the project complete. We agreed and took out our checkbook. Payment was the only thing left. With pen poised above the assegna, check, I remarked, “Claudio, I don’t even know your last name.”
Tafani? Doesn’t tafani mean horseflies? “Si, si. In fatti abbiamo una stemma di famiglia, Yes, yes, in fact we have a family crest.” At the same moment, in our mind’s eye, we each pictured a flowing golden silk banner graced with a delicately embroidered horsefly. We glanced at each other as if to say, “this must be a joke.” But, it was not!
He went on to explain, however, that there had been some bad blood between some of the family members centuries ago, and that after a serious disagreement, the only logical conclusion was for the family to separate. They broke into two distinct factions. In a final act of civility, Claudio’s ancestors had chosen to amicably share the rich heritage of the family horsefly crest. After much debate, they decided to literally cut the image of the horsefly in half.
When we commented that the two halves were virtually equal, Claudio corrected our misperception, “No, no. È stato tagliato orizzontalmente, No, no it was cut horizontally.” WHAT!? WHAT!? Was he saying that one side of the family inherited the top half of a horsefly and the other crest depicts the lower half of the body, legs and all?
“Si, si. La mia famiglia è rappresentata dalla metà con le gambe, Yes, yes. My family is represented by the half with the legs.” We shook our heads in disbelief as we walked him to his motorcycle. He carefully retied his colorful scarf, tucked his dark hair into his helmet, and swung his leg over the bike. We stifled a chuckle, imagining a horsefly swinging 3 of his 6 legs over the bike. We all waved as he headed down the drive, an ancient noble insect flying away on the sultry summer winds. There was NO fly in our ointment, in fact the air smelled of honeysuckle. We watched as the dust billowed into the dusk. We sighed. There goes our hero, our Clau-god!
This is a true “Italian Moments” story in which everything happened almost exactly as described, in the summer of 2009.
Hidden bits of history are embedded within the new.
Inside new buildings and structures of any large city we find traces of grandeur, clues to a vibrant, distant past. Days-gone-by are tucked in and amongst new forms. We love the diversity and visual interest that’s generated when styles and eras get juxtaposed against each other—natural companions like a grandmother and toddler out for a walk in the sun.
When we moved to San Diego, we wanted to explore and learn all we could about how the city has cared for its elderly buildings—that tells much about who a town’s people really are. We couldn’t think of a better place to start than the old majestic theaters. We wondered: Where are they, and how have they been preserved for future generations? Here’s what we discovered.
In the beginning.
San Diego philanthropist John D. Spreckels changed the face of the city forever, with his great idea—a “Eureka!” moment. Just after the turn of the century, he decided to build a state-of-the-art theater downtown on Broadway. Completion was planned to coincide with the opening of the Panama Canal and the Balboa Park Exposition in honor of that opening. The theater was also planned to have the same number of seats as the year—1915. Spreckels hired architect Harrison Albright to design the interior in the ornate Baroque style, while the exterior was clad in the fashionably new architectural terra cotta. Their deadline, however, didn’t hold. They completed the project and opened three years ahead of schedule, on August 23, 1912. So, did they change the seat count or does the theater have 1915, as planned? That will remain as a good trivia question.
The Spreckels Theater is especially important because it was the venue that made large scale performing arts possible in San Diego. Originally, the theater presented live theatrical productions since it preceded “talkies” and the creation of Hollywood, as we now know it. By 1931, everything had changed in terms of cinema-making and it was converted into a first-run movie-house to compete with the Balboa, Fox and California theaters, which had been built in the two decades following the Spreckels first opening, The city was growing fast!
Long after the decline of the Hollywood movie extravaganzas, in 1976 the venue was renovated to once again accommodate live performances as it still does to this day. The Spreckels Theater has proudly been in continuous operation as a theater for over 100 years with the exception of brief periods for renovation.
In 1975, the Spreckels Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and continues to operate as a state-of-the-art theater for the enjoyment of San Diegans and visitors alike.
The Balboa Theater is the quintessential Spanish Colonial movie palace.
The historic Balboa Theater opened in 1924, twelve years after the Spreckels. Designed by William H. Wheeler in the Mission/Spanish Revival style, the theater holds a special place in the hearts of San Diegans, since its name has always been tied to the local history.
After years of struggle trying to save the old theater which had been vacant for over 20 years, it was finally added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. An important milestone was finally reached when after years of waiting, the city decided to fully fund its future. Following a careful renovation focused on restoring it to the original grandeur, it reopened as a performing arts venue in 2008 and has been welcomed back as a favorite performance location. The old theater holds a special sentimental attachment for those who have grown-up in the area and the many visitors every year.
The 1339 seat Balboa Theater originally housed the famous Wonder Morton organ. But, the theater was in such poor condition that the city officials decided to move it for safe-keeping. It went to its new home, The Fox Theater in 1929. From that time, the Balboa functioned without an organ. After the Balboa was restored in 2009, it was then in need of another organ. The city searched for an appropriate replacement. In Pennsylvania, they finally found another 1929 Robert Morton organ, similar to the original—one of only four in the entire world. The organ was relocated to San Diego, where it was refurbished and rededicated. The original Balboa Theater organ still resides in the Old Fox Theater, which is housed inside the Copley Symphony Hall.
The Balboa Theater is also fortunate to be located at a prominent location within the city. It is adjacent to the new Horton Plaza Park, the historic Irving Gill Fountain in the park, and the historic USS Grant Hotel—all on Broadway!
Copley Symphony Hall—Old Fox Theater
That sly Fox!
The Fox Theater first opened to patrons on November 8, 1929 with almost 3,000 seats, over twice the size of the Balboa Theater. Much has happened since then as the movie industry has gone through many changes resulting in closure of the Fox to the public in 1975. It was then converted for live productions in 1977, and reopened as a short-term use solution. Thinking that the movie palaces were relics of the past, city leaders and developers turned their focus elsewhere, even considering demolition as perhaps the best alternative.
Interest in building an office tower in place of the theater sparked both controversy and creativity. But what about the Fox Theater? The creative solution was to completely strip away the exterior and build a new structure around it without disturbing the original theater within.
In 1985, the old Fox Theater reopened with a new name, the Copley Symphony Hall—an amazingly beautiful restoration, tucked deep inside the new office/hotel/parking tower. Imagine the old Fox Theater as the core of the structure with everything else built completely around it. No matter what goes on in our modern world, the Fox is protected and preserved. Nothing impacts the theater, since it is cocooned inside the Symphony Hall structure. The Fox has its own foundation and a buffer of space around on four sides with its own roof—literally nothing touches it. The solution was a stroke of genius, creating a true win/win for everyone involved.
While the modern work was underway outside the theater, there was a concurrent project to completely renovate and restore the inside of the theater to meet current codes and return it to its glory days of 1929, as accurately as possible. Fortunately, the company that originally painted the Fox was still in business for the 1985 restoration. So, of course they were hired again 56 years later to completely reproduce the authentic opening-day color scheme. They repainted the faded surfaces, the colors popped, and the Old Fox was revived—brought back to life for a new purpose in all of its historical beauty.
Today, during special performances, the “Wonder Morton” organ rises from its secret hiding place below the stage. The projectionist also casts images on a lowered screen, using the two original carbon-arc projectors for special showings. The combination of the sound of the organ along with the images, creates quite a breath-taking experience! We think that multi-media is a modern invention, yet at the revived Fox Theater, we get a glimpse into the creative imaginations of times gone by.
Although the grand marquee is now gone, it was a necessary compromise to save the essential parts of the theater. It would be interesting to have that fantastic piece of illuminated art positioned over the new entrance—in stark contrast to the contemporary tower—an exciting signal that a surprise awaits within: The Old Fox theater, that movie-land jewel of another era is hidden safely inside!
The beautiful Fox Theater is our grand finale. We hope you enjoyed this little tour of the “Majestic Theaters of San Diego.” If you get the chance, visit them in person—there’s nothing like seeing the real thing!
Note: The featured black and white photo at the beginning of this story is in honor of the “New California Theater” of San Diego, which opened in 1919. At the time, it was called the “cathedral of the motion picture,” with ceilings of gold leaf, murals throughout and its own Wurlitzer organ. The original beauty has since faded as neglect has taken its toll. Hopefully, some day soon, it will see its own restoration and resurgence back into the main stream of San Diego’s artistic lifestyle—a dream that is long overdue!
You might also enjoy another story about discovery, recovery and conservation called “Water’s Edge.” However, instead of architecture in a city, it dives into the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of the beautiful Italian island of Elba. Join us for an excursion into the “deep blue” with a side trip into our own psychologies.
The incomparable Vespa is known around the world, but that’s just one minor detail in the vast array of Italian accomplishments. The distinctions are many, including: food, art, the Renaissance, the Roman Empire, the Vatican, incredible villas, world-class fashion, fast cars (Lamborghini, Ferrari, Maserati ), passionate lovers, espresso, the original organized crime group (a dubious distinction), beautiful cities, culture, opera, and the list goes on and on. But, in addition to the many significant accomplishments over literally millennia, there is nothing quite like the unique Italian personality—a tireless energy, generosity and unmistakable presence, easily seen in their facial expressions, synchronized with flamboyant gestures or easily heard in their voices, as they speak. Spoken words sound like poetry, lyrical and lilting. The Tuscans are particularly proud of their language, since their favorite son, Dante Aligheri, invented it. Traveling around Italy, wandering the towns and narrow back-streets, one can find all sorts of clever, cute, hilarious and sometimes downright unbelievable Italian sights. Following is a gallery of some surprising and often quirky discoveries we’ve made over several decades of living amongst the amazing Italians. They offer a seemingly endless source of inspiration, and yes, humorous, free entertainment. Their most fascinating contributions can be found scattered around in the every-day activities. You absolutely have to love the Italians!
Cheryl & Emerson
Quality time is great—but quantity time is what relationships are built on! Take time to partner.