Thunder Road, Etta James, Judi and me

Thunder Road is a teenage drug and alcohol center in Oakland that is so much more.  It includes family counseling activities and training for life.

My friend, Joel Selvin, rock critic for the San Francisco Chronicle went to the center to help establish a music department and ended up being a huge supporter.  He put together an annual “Roast and Jam” at San Francisco’s oldest nightclub and invited local celebrities to be “roasted” and local musicians, who probably had similar problems as the kids, to perform.  He was able to have Van Morrison, Sammy Hagar, Huey Lewis, the Doobies, and on and on show up.  And Herbie Herbert, manager of Journey, became a mainstay of the roasters.

Bill Graham, Joel, Sammy Hagar and others were roasted, and I think Joel ran out of victims and asked me to be skewered.  I was an easy target because my computerized ticketing company, BASS, was constantly assaulted for its service charges.

So Judi Flowers and I went to work on fundraising and getting roasters.  We put together a great silent auction that I believed raised about $30,000.  Included was an amazing donation from Pixar’s John Lasseter who gave a private tour and lunch of their wonderful facility in Emeryville .  I think someone paid about $6,000 for that prize.  We had great rock and roll items, band jackets, photos, and it was terrific.

Frank Deford, America’s best writer and commentator on sports and other subjects, flew out and thoroughly laid me out.  He of course knew me from my Roller Derby days, and mentioned that I went from “Tickets” in Roller Derby (see my post on Tickets) to Tickets for admission.  Roger Ebert sent a video in which he mentioned my film “Derby”  for which he gave 4 stars,  and said he was angry because I had gone from producing movies to just producing tickets;  and Willie Nelson’s video, which brought the house down, accused me of getting him in trouble with the IRS because of my “scalping”  (not true!) of his tickets.

Then came the music,  The house band was Booker T and the MGs, then Joel’s wife Keta Bill (what a blues belter!) performed with Sam from Sam and Dave, then Bonnie Raitt (what a woman, not only did she not get paid, but she and her husband made a great cash contribution), then for the final performance, the unbelievable Etta James.

Even then Etta was not feeling well, but her voice, song selection and total command contributed to a performance that could never be captured on discs  But her best performance was earlier in the day.

At each of these benefits it was arranged that about 15 of the Thunder Road teens who had done well at the facility were brought to the club to see the sound checks of the various performers. Although I was not on hand, Judi was when they came to hear Etta.  She had them sit in front of her and spun a tale of her own transgressions with substance abuse that were so personal and terrifying that it obviously had an impact on all who were there.  She told them whatever they had done, she had done worse to herself and only through the grace of God was she still here.

I know the kids all got the message.  And that is the best memory that Judi and I have of the incomparable Etta James.

Cars 2 and Sonoma

After I finished my stint with Ticketmaster, I moved to Sonoma in 1993.  I didn’t know a soul in town but my realtor, Peter Krause, was kind enough to connect me with some of the locals.

So I got to become friends with the Nicholas family, the Cuneos, the Germaines, the Stolmans, the Coats, the Sharps, the Smothers, Suzanne Brangham, the Lasseters and so many more.

Short summary:  Bob Nicholas and his father developed the butter-ball turkeys for Armour;  the Cuneos were the Sebastiani winery; Nicky Naylor Germaine is one of the nation’s leading realtors, her daughter Jenny was a great assistant to me and a great friend; the Stolmans had done so many things I may write about them later; Michael and Valerie Coats I had known from Bill Graham and BASS, wonderful PR and community person who had left “The City” to leave in Sonoma; The Sharps had emigrated from back East and developed a winery and sausage company; Tommy Smothers and his brother Dick helped us raise money in Oregon for Seltzer Park with a great performance; Suzanne Brangham represents the heart of this community:  she founded MacArthur Place hotel (stay there!), the General’s Daughter restaurant, Ramekin cooking institute, the Red and White Ball, and she drove teenagers on Friday night to events.  And of course John and Nancy Lasseter, with their wonderful sons, and he headed Pixar.

Photo by Glenn Franco Simmons.

In 1996 Carolyn Stolman called me.  She was quite a film buff and thought it would be a great idea to start an Italian Film Festival in Sonoma, with the proceeds to help restore the Sebastiani Theater, a beautiful 340-seat movie house that had been built on the Plaza in the early 30’s by the family, but has been sold and was pretty run down inside.  A resident of the town, Roger Rhoten, was managing it and really struggling to make ends meet.  His wife and friends worked with him; between movies Roger, who is quite a magician, put on live shows with local talent.

I thought it sounded like a good idea.  We would try and get Italian films; Sister Cities of Sonoma would be the sponsor and it would be quite simple.  Just one thing, Carolyn knew I was a promoter and “out there” so I would run it and she would just stay in the background (never happened).  She called in a number of her friends and we formed a volunteer board for the festival.  Our first thought was to tie in with the Mill Valley Film Festival and we met with the director; unfortunately he didn’t think it was a good idea at all.  So off we went.

I am not going through all the trauma and tribulations of the next year as that is a whole separate story, but lo and behold we came up with a festival (1 Italian film) for 1997.  We were able to get Francis Ford Coppola (who lives in Napa) to endorse us,  Ron Gibson lined up some sponsors, and then there was John Lasseter.

John had a great success with “Toy Story” in 1995, which changed animation forever….one of the highest grossing and best films of the year.  John lived over in Armstrong Estates, just about a half mile from the Plaza.  I contacted him and to say he lent a hand would be the understatement of the year.  We had some great programs already in the festival, including students from the local high school, a film on the Italian heritage in the area, and the Cuneos, Sebastianis, and Mondavi’s would be on hand, but we didn’t have the other spark we needed, and John provided it.

Because he had worked at Disney prior to coming to Pixar,  he was able to bring in Richard Fleischer who created and directed 20,000 leagues under the sea.  He also brought people from Lucas and ILM who had a fascinating session on the new techniques on special effects, and of course John had a wonderful presentation of what Pixar was doing and I remember clearly his showing a series of line drawing animation that he had done many years ago which I think he based Monsters, Inc on.  And he explained that the most important thing he learned at Disney is that the story and the characters in it carry the film even more than the animation.  And that has been the attribute that to me differentiates Pixar from  all the others in the field.

We “sold” the seats in the theater to our subscribers.  Their names are on the backs of the seats and with this and the other funds we, along with the Friends of the Sebastiani and Roger, where able to tear apart and reupholster every seat, lay new carpet, paint the theater and it is a gem of the community today.  Rudolph Fabrics obtained all the material at cost and provided supervision.  Many others helped.  And the following year we were able to raise money for stage lights for live performances.  I resigned the following year and it is now in its 15th year (be sure and attended, a wonderful small festival in the best town in the world).  Kevin and Rosemary McNeely now head it.  Kevin gave an out-of-work actor (so the story goes) a place as his roommate in New York.  As a result, Kevin and Bruce Willis are lifelong friends, and Bruce attends the festival (sometimes) and tapes video to promote it.  He and Demi were married in Sonoma.

John was and is a pillar of our community.  He also raises money for Juvenile Diabetes as one of his sons has the disease.  And this is great:  whenever a Pixar film opens nationwide, John makes certain it is booked at the same time for its run at the Sebastiani, which is primarily an art house.  And that helps to keep the theater going.  And John makes certain that other children’s organization are helped, as there is a separate organization set up under the Pixar name to work with various charities and groups.

Another great Sonoman is Steve Page, who is the head of Infineon Raceway, where Nascar comes every June as part of the national circuit to race on this beautiful 2 and 1/2 mile road course nestled in the hills.  Of course John and Steve know each other, John has driven the track, watches Nascar, and need I say more?

Now if I can just get him to watch Roller Derby at Craneway (Emeryville , Pixar’s headquarters is nearby) or in Sonoma County where he lives, maybe in three years or so you will see a film based on the 911 amateur Roller Derby leagues in 35 countries and the wonderful characters who skate in a theater near you.