Times Past

Entertainers offer relief during troubled times

The Roger Wagner Chorale in 1965. The chorale produced singers including Marilyn Horne, Marni Nixon, Herve Presnell and Salli Terri.
The Roger Wagner Chorale in 1965. The chorale produced singers including Marilyn Horne, Marni Nixon, Herve Presnell and Salli Terri.

“Yo ho ho and up she rises, yo ho ho and up she rises, Yo ho ho and up she rises, early in the morning.”

I was delighted to hear the lyrics of “What shall we do with a drunken sailor?” coming out of the entrance to the auditorium at the San Luis Obispo Library as I brought refreshments for a children’s program in the late 1980s. The song had been one of my favorites as a child, sung for my entertainment by a crusty old seadog who claimed to have been “with Adm. Dewey at Manila Bay in 1898.”

“Mr. Henry,” as I knew him, lived in an apartment building owned by my Aunt Harriet and Uncle Bruce Hess in Redondo Beach. No matter how exciting the newsreels from the Pacific front were at the Strand Theater in 1944-45, the stories of the Spanish-American War and “Mr. Henry’s” sea shanties seemed more real.

I hadn’t met another “shantyman” quite his equal until my wife, Liz, introduced me to David Baumgarten.

I was reading David’s memoir titled “The 14th Day of Christmas” at midnight last Monday when the news of the bombing at the Brussels Airport was reported. The news hit both Liz and me very hard. We’ve done a good deal of research in Belgium and made many friendships. We couldn’t get to sleep until after 3 a.m. and only then because Liz reminded me that professional entertainers like David help people get through difficult moments.

When I introduced myself to David, we discovered that we had a lot of interests in common, particularly our mutual love of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts.

We’d both grown up around the entertainment industry in Southern California. And while I can’t sing a note on key, we both love choral music.

As a teenager, I tried to attend every venue of The Roger Wagner Chorale, which produced singers like Marilyn Horne, Marni Nixon, Herve Presnell and Salli Terri. I was amazed to encounter a member of the chorale, a disciple and close friend of Roger Wagner, in San Luis Obispo.

Reading “The 14th Day of Christmas,” I discovered many other shared interests and experiences. We both saw what was billed as “the world’s first feature length motion picture in Natural Vision 3-Dimension,” Arch Oboler’s “Bwana Devil” at Paramount Theater in Hollywood in 1952. There was the thrill of being handed a pair of cardboard-frame viewing glasses followed by the visual excitement of having things appear to leap out of the screen. Other than that, the man-eating tigers, which were the real stars of the film, seemed rather tame.

But David’s life has never been tame, from being the only child of star-crossed parents to when, as a young boy, unintroduced and unannounced, he walked in the front gate at Bob Hope’s mansion in Toluca Lake, where Hope introduced him to Jerry Colonna, the zaniest of Hope’s radio show colleagues.

David has lived a life filled with both adventure — he was for 15 years the official shantyman aboard the schooner SS Californian, California’s official tall ship — and some pathos. He has found true happiness in his marriage to novelist Marianne Kennedy.

On Friday, April 8, at 7 p.m., David and Marianne will star in “Close Encounters with David Baumgarten & Marianne Kennedy” at the Steynberg Gallery, 1531 Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo. The event is hosted by radio’s Guy Rathbun. There is a $10 admission fee.

The event is a perfect, life-affirming respite from the craziness that has beset our world.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.