Bill’s Dancing Man Studio space was divided into 3 portions; an art gallery as you walked in, a photography studio, and a small loft with a stairway where he slept at times. There was a faint smell of old dark-room chemicals when you walked in the door. The place had once been a darkroom and photo lab (Calypso labs). Bill had set up the gallery portion nicely, building a couple extra walls for display and he set up a track lighting system. If you walked into the gallery on a day after the opening, no one would come out to greet you. You would simply quietly walk amongst the art. I had done that a few times and wondered if there was anybody even there, in the back room maybe. Generating sales or people potentially stealing artwork, neither of these things seemed to be a worry for Bill. It was a nice laid back kind of feeling, an old Santa Cruz from the hippie days feeling. Bill had first rented his shop there on Maple St. in the late-seventies and spent more than 30 years there until he had to give it up. His business dwindled slowly as he was unable to keep up with the changing economic realities. Photostats became obsolete, other galleries popped up around Santa Cruz, mostly ones that did not charge for shows and finally his image-capture business died off because he never made the shift to digital photography. But in his heyday in the 80’s and 90’s his Dancing Man Studio/Gallery was a happening place.
Bill’s son once described his father as having “front-loaded his life”. What I think he meant was that Bill really enjoyed himself during his younger years. Bill was known for his parties at his Art Studio. I’ve had dozens of people who used to show art at his Dancing Man Studio come into my frameshop and feel a wave of nostalgia for his old place.
Bill didn’t live large, his house was just the one room which he didn’t own himself. His workshop was spartan but functional and the rent was low. But there were signs that Bill imbibed in the mind altering substances. At the entrance to his office was a large photo of a couple of his friends proudly standing in front of a cannabis plant as big as a Christmas Tree. Not a big deal by today’s standards, but in the 80’s and 90’s that was unusual. An artist client of mine likes to tell me the story of how wild Bill’s art openings used to be. He never really mentions anything too wild except for saying they were wild. And, that on one occasion Bill offered him a line of cocaine, which he declined. But I take it that there were others at the party who didn’t decline. Another small clue into Bill’s “front-loaded life” came from Bill himself. I was talking with Bill at his pea-pod house. He was going through some of his old picture looking for some he did for Milo. As he shuffled through the photos, he told me a story or two pertaining to whichever one we were looking at. And many of them were taken at his art openings. At this stage, Bill’s mind was giving out on him. He was aware that I was there and who I was, but seemed confused about several other basic things. We talked about the small loft he kept upstairs at his art studio and how his wife didn’t like it when he took other women up there. He didn’t say it but I assumed he meant she didn’t like it when he had sex with other women. A fairly understandable reaction on her part.
Those were just a couple of hints as to why Bill had a reputation as a partier even though he projected a very calm demeanor. I never witnessed any drug-soaked parties at Bill’s studio. In total I only went to 3 art openings there. The first one was Kathy Bertrand’s which was well attended, and the second one was put on by another artist/customer of mine. I can’t remember his name but he had some connection with Jim Morrison of the Doors. I framed a series of black and white photography of party scenes, kind of autobiographical in nature. I used a small rounded clear maple frame and a white mat. They were completely unstaged and natural scenes, many with Jim Morrison and friends in them, mostly in various states of stupor. I knew the Doors music but didn’t even recognize Jim Morrison until this photographer customer pointed him out to me. I can’t remember this customer name’s but I’ll call him Steve.
Steve grew up inside the early rock and roll scene around LA. He learned to drink, drug and party like they all did so well. I guess that is how Jim Morrison killed himself. Steve had come to Santa Cruz to attend UCSC. A large percentage of UCSC student body came from Southern Calif and they seemed to have more money than us Northern Californians. Steve had grown out of that extreme drinking and drugging life-style which he came to see as decadent and self-destructive. Though I would guess he still enjoyed his weed on occasion. This collection of work I framed for him chronicled that. There was a lot of drunk/drugged looking eyes and postures, mainly creating the impression of people trying desperately to be happy but being deeply depressive underneath. There was one picture of his that reminded me of Bill’s outlier nude photo. It was a photo of a big breasted topless young woman looking happy and giving her attention to Steve, behind the camera. I remember Steve pointing out that picture and expressing his regret. He was so wasted at the time and during their relationship he couldn’t appreciate her at all.
I went to Steve’s opening at the Dancing Man, it was a quiet Saturday in the summertime. There was hardly anyone there. Steve had a small table with a bottle of Jack Daniels on it and a few shot glasses around it. It was a kind of art statement. The photos I framed for him lined the walls but there seemed to be nobody there to witness it. Steve was unhappy, probably that so few people had shown up. He later came into my shop and expressed more anger, as though he had been conned into spending a lot of money on framing and putting on an art showing and getting so little out of it. He was the only person I can remember who did that, even though I ‘ve seen how the expectations new artists have for their art showings often exceed reality. Bill probably dealt with a lot of that at his gallery. Everybody has something they feel is important that they are bringing to the world, with artists it is a kind of visual storytelling. Rarely is that feeling of importance we feel inside ourselves mirrored by the world outside ourselves. Someone like Jim Morrison who did have the world outside himself telling him he was important, was apparently even more unhappy with his life. I would venture to guess that this human tendency to be disappointed, has little to do with actual life circumstances, but much more to do with expectations of what those circumstances should be.
But Bill seemed very contented amidst this storm of artistic expectations. Unfazed by anyone elses expectations of what he should be doing. This photo Bill took of the Copperhouse is in the same vein as much of his other black and white work. It has a very nostalgic feel even when it is new and fresh. But with the added years it becomes almost depressing in a bittersweet way. Kind of like sweet old memories when you try and look back towards them, reaching but never touching. The Cooperhouse has a lot of memories for old-time Santa Cruzans. Anybody who lived here during the 70’s and 80’s knows the Cooperhouse as a kind of anchor for what was known as the Pacific Garden Mall. The Pacific Garden Mall was a pedestrian mall designed with tree-lined streets and a focus on its historic buildings. It was designed by my neighbor at PaperArt, Roy Rydell in the late sixties. Roy Rydell owned the sprawling old Victorian next to PaperArt. I met him a few times but didn’t learn until later that he was the main designer of the Pacific Garden Mall. It was Chuck Abbott who instigated the idea and got the downtown merchants to go along with it. Coincidentally I also became friends with Chuck Abbott’s son, not knowing his connection to Roy or the Pacific Garden Mall.
Here is a short bit from a Santa Cruz Sentinel article dated 10/03/09:
Architect Mark Primack, who was employed by Rydell in the 1970s, said Rydell was influenced by the theories of harmony with nature embodied in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. “Roy used a lot of hexagonal shapes on the Mall. And when you do that, you lose the 90-degree angles. You take the sharp corners off and you allow people to move freely diagonally across the street.”
The Pacific Garden Mall was opened in November 1969. Tiny the Musical Clown made balloon animals. The Santa Cruz High School Band performed.
“The design was beautiful,” said neighborhood activist Ralph Meyberg. “There were brick planters, lots of vegetation that brought in birds and butterflies. It was human scale. It flowed, it curved. The planter boxes allowed people to sit on the edges comfortably. It was very successful.”
They heyday of the Pacific Garden Mall was Bill’s era. Most stories about the Cooperhouse start off with the Band “Warmth” which used to play outside. It was a kind of mellow jazz band. Here is a link to something recorded during those days: Warmth 1977 on YouTube. I can imagine Bill sitting outside, with a drink, listening to Warmth, perhaps talking up some woman. I don’t known if it ever happened but I can imagine it.