Bill Wolf






            Karolyn and her friends were living in a little cracker-box house on Cottage Row in Venice, in Los Angeles, right on the beach.  John de Roy was going to chiropractors’ school somewhere around there and Jonathan was working in a bakery and living in a little house not far away, so we all had lots of reasons to go to LA from time to time.  Russell and I were there, Fern, Jeffrey, and even Billy King.




            One time when I was there, a hunky kid from Scotland was hanging out with us and after trying and failing to put the make on him, I suggested to Karolyn that she should try.  “What, him?  Forget it,” she said.  Then after a while she looked again and had second thoughts.  Much later, they would marry.


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            Karolyn wanted to get away from the beach and get a place to do her sewing and work.  She had driven around the downtown area a few times, where the garment district is located, and had liked the funky old brick buildings and the general run-down and artistic atmosphere of the place.  She noticed an old brick, three-story hotel that looked abandoned except for the California Daily News, which turned out to be the only Japanese daily newspaper in the country, on the ground floor.  The owner and editor of the paper, a Mr. Yashiki, twice told Karolyn that the upstairs was not for rent!  Period!  Undeterred, she suggested to Billy King that he accompany her to talk to the owner again.




            Well, Billy asked Mr. Yashiki if he could “at least look around” upstairs and see what the place was like.  Well, Mr. Yashiki took him upstairs and Billy loved it, of course.  He persuaded Mr. Yashiki to “at least consider” doing something with the top floors and that he was the man to do it!  Billy walked out the door with the keys.  That's the way Billy works.



            Karolyn moved into the old hotel that very night, she was that anxious to get away from the beach.  Of course, the place was a wreck and she huddled on the floor of one of the back rooms, afraid to sleep for the first three days.  (Later, of course, Russell would take lots of beautiful black and white photos of the place, these.)



            The hotel had been built in the ‘00s, for dock workers along the Los Angeles River one block away, now a monstrous concrete spillway, by the way.  The hotel had been closed for many years and boarded up.  Each floor had sixteen rooms off a maze of dark hallways.  Many of the rooms had remained untouched since their final occupant had fled the hotel.  During the war, this whole area had been swept out and into concentration camps just north in the Central Valley.  Homes, businesses, hotels, were abandoned to themselves.  Covered with layers of dust and rotting fabric, the old beds and vanities sagged.  Then too some of the rooms had been used for storage over the years, by Mr. Yashiki, and were full of big piles of junk.  All were filthy, covered with years of dust and soot.



            Billy had left town at the time but was due for some reason to return a few days later.  Karolyn had begun to clean out a couple of the rooms in the back on the first floor when I decided I’d better get down to LA and give her a hand.  We worked around the place for a few days and managed to set up a little “apartment” or so, using the two adjoining room on the left in the back, the old, makeshift kitchen and the toilets.  The other rooms, the hallways, the entrance stairs, and of course, the whole top floor, were still a disaster.



            About this time, Jonathan came to live there and cleaned out another room for himself.  It happened to be the most readily available of the other rooms because someone had used it for living somewhat recently.  It was an inside room, with no natural light and the walls had been pasted from floor to ceiling with big color photos of big-titted naked women, like from Playboy and Penthouse.  Poor Jonathan.  The irony was not lost on our group.  But it was clean and solid, sort of, and Jonathan liked it and made himself at home.  The pictures on the walls earned the little room the nickname the “sex room.”  Soon all the rooms would have names.



            I was back and forth a bit and, of course, Karolyn and Neil’s big wedding happened later that year, and I made myself a cute little LA studio for a while and would have many good times in the old hotel, but meanwhile I was in San Francisco, with the gang and doing lots of sets and enjoying myself.




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            That year I won the regional Emmy for best set design in, I guess, Northern California, or at least our “region.”  It was for this children’s show called Buster and Me, a combination puppet and live actors, sort of gentle comedy set in a “curiosity shop” (gee, where does this sound familiar?), and out the windows in the back yard was a big old shade tree and up the tree lived Buster and Vanilla, his sister, two puppet chimpanzees.  Well I built the shop (verrrrry cute) and the tree in the yard (adooooorable) and the little his- and hers-tree houses above (even cuter!).  The one interesting diversion, I guess for me, was the necessity to construct the set to accommodate the roll-around chairs of the puppet operators, which must move freely several feet BELOW the floor of the set.  The entire set therefore had to be built several feet above the studio floor and all furniture or props must have extensions below or small tables at that same height.  Live actors walked around on movable raised walkways and could not cross paths with the puppeteers.  The idea was the camera never saw the floor (notice the camera angles on any such puppet show).  At one point the production sent me to New York to visit the sets of the Muppet Show to see how they were done, which was interesting.

            Anyway, I won the Emmy and, of course, there was a big awards ceremony and I invited Maria and we went together and had a good time.


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            That year too, our good friend and long time AAA member, Tommy Ammiano decided to run for the School Board of San Francisco.  He had been an elementary school teacher for years, as had his lover Tim, and they had been some of the first “out” gay teachers in, well, the country, and Tommy got himself on the front page of the chronicle.  I hadn’t had much to do with his campaign until he came to me one day and said Bill, I want to do a float for the gay parade this year, you know, to promote my campaign.  Do you think we could do it?  Well, we all said, Yeah, of course, let’s do it!

            Tommy managed to borrow an old flatbed truck and we covered it with a big cartoon, cardboard school bus, all yellow and black.  We filled the windows with kids from his school and put Tommy on top like a giant Cowboy!  Now I don’t say we were crucial to his campaign, but he went on to win what would be his first public office in a long career.  We’ve always been proud of our Tommy!


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            About a year earlier, Russell’s uncle, Tom Ellison, had died and Russell had volunteered to help clear out some of his uncle’s things.  Russell’s father, Al and his brother, Tom, couldn’t have been more different.  Al had worked all his life for the phone company, dear ol’ Ma Bell, rising to Vice President (one of many, I’m sure), and lived a conservative, middle-class existence in the suburbs.  His brother, on the other hand, had never held a steady job, never even lived in a HOUSE!  He made a meager living selling personalized matchbooks and ashtrays (!) to local bars in the northen Bay Area around Vallejo, California.  He lived like a hermit in an old rented garage and collected old junk, clipped news articles out of the paper, sent away for nut-preacher-type audiotapes and believed in all kinds of conspiracy theories like Richard Nixon was a robot sent by alien space beings, etc.  Well, of course, he was always a shameful subject in the family, Al and Dorothy just rolling theirs eyes, but Russell never really had those hang-ups, and so when he died, Russell volunteered to go up to Vallejo and empty out his garage.  I guess Al was pleased to let him.

            So, we ended up with boxes and boxes (and boxes!) of Tom’s stuff and Russell took his time going through it and throwing a lot of it out.  However, as you can imagine, a lot of the old stuff was fascinating and right up our alley, old news clippings, calendars, ashtrays, girlie books, old photos and scrapbooks of more old photos.  Of course, Dorothy and Al didn’t want anything to do with it but Russell loved it all and soon came up with the idea to exhibit it all and put on a show, called “Vallejo Garage.”

            At that time, just across alley from the back door of the studio on Fourteenth Street there happened to be a row of garages under an Edwardian apartment building and one of the garages was for rent.  We talked to the owner, our neighbor, and he agreed to rent us the garage for one month.  There Russell recreated Tom’s old living space, filling it with all his old junk (and lots of ours, of course).  In the studio, as the first part of the exhibit,  were all the best of the old things, the photos and clippings and girlie calendars, nicely displayed on the walls and in display cases.  At the back door, a sign directed the viewer that the exhibit continues out the back and across the alley, where an attendant was waiting to usher the viewers into the small garage.  There Russell performed a real-time portrayal of his uncle.  Dressed in his uncle’s clothes, among his uncle’s things, Russell sat, and read, and listened to the stupid audiotapes from the nut-preachers, and laid in his uncle’s bed, fully clothed, for the entire time the exhibit was open, nearly a week during August of that year..

            He got a good bit of publicity and lots of people came, many finding it unusual, eerie, moving beautiful.  His friend sk dunn stayed for hours.  Russell’s folks came to see it but just sort of shook their heads, it was too close to reality for them and, I’m sure for his father, to see all his brother’s worthless junk made into museum artifacts was too much to understand.  Well, they never really understood any of Russell’s art.

            It was a gorgeous piece and the photos of Russell as his uncle are classics.  “Vallejo Garage” was one of Triple-A’s finest exhibits.



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