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An Introduction

"There are places I remember

All my life though some have changed

Some forever not for better

Some have gone and some remain
All these places had their moments

With lovers and friends, I still can recall

 Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I've loved them all…"

"In My Life", 1965 Rubber Soul - John Lennon & Paul McCartney

This is not what I intended to do but then that often happens. In the spring of 2010, I started thinking about how important my time at the Coffee House Positano was for me. I considered writing a little something about my memories of those days as a "vignette" along with other such remembrances I was planning to write someday. Almost immediately, I found that there was a lot to say and no one else was saying it. In the process of this initial exploration, I found a lot of information about Positano and, surprisingly enough, that the place had an amazing life after it closed, when it became an arts community that lasted for thirty-one years and had over fifty people as residents. So I leapt in with both feet. What started as a short remembrance became a major ethnographic and historical research project. My intention here is to continue my interest in being reflexive and of combining the autobiographical with the ethnographic that I discuss elsewhere.

Now for some personal background - In 1957 I was separated on the way to a divorce, living in a studio apartment in West Los Angeles and working for an appliance store in Santa Monica and avoiding finishing my college degree. One of my helpers on the truck was a would-be rock and roller named Johnnie Orvis. While Johnnie grew up in an affluent neighborhood, he affected a pachuco style of dress and speech that was, at the very least, amusing. Johnnie told me of a place in Malibu where Bohemians, other strange folk and a lot of nice looking "chicks" hung out. It was "far out" according to Johnnie. He thought I would like it. I have recently discovered that after we stopped working togetherr, a Johnnie Orvis formed a band, The Smoke, in the late 1960s. I have no idea if that is my old work partner but I think so. In any case, I am grateful for his introduction to Positano.

When I arrived at Positano in the fall of 1957 not long after it opened, I knew immediately that this was just the sort of place I was looking for in my quest to find Bohemians or whatever they were called and a lifestyle that I had dreamed about even as a high schooler in Oak Park, Illinois. I vividly recall as a high school senior (1953) I cut school, as seniors are supposed to, and went to downtown Chicago - The Loop. I went to my first foreign film at the Fine Arts on Michigan Avenue across from the Art Institute. As I was leaving the theater, I saw a young man coming down the famous steps of the Art Institute. He was wearing dirty white buck shoes, rumpled chino pants, a black turtleneck sweater, a parka, beard and beret. One look at him and I knew that is how I want to look someday. Why, I will never know, but eventually I acquired most of that "look."

In 1955, while working as a mail clerk for Cook Bros. Equipment Company in Glendale, California, I was fortunate to have as a work companion a Stanford dropout who introduced me to alternative/underground literature. In particular was the poetry of Kenneth Patchen, who I came to really like. When I returned to college, I discovered that Patchen was performing nearby with Allyn Ferguson and the Chamber Jazz Quintet – a precursor to the Poetry and Jazz that became popular with the San Francisco Beat poets. I found the alternative world that Patchen represented very attractive.

Positano was just what I was hoping to find so I became a regular. Ther were interesting looking people engaged in serious conversations or playing chess, drinking exotic kinds of coffee and eating "unusual" sandwiches while some were playing a form of jazz I had not heard before. Shortly after, I was laid off from my appliance delivery job. Luckily, the Duttons hired me as the dish washer. I think I took the job partially because I was laid off and partially because I really wanted to become part of the life I saw there. Soon thereafter I was asked to become the janitor and moved there into what had been the "chauffeur's" apartment.

Initially, I lived in one of the bedrooms next to the office. At one point, Mike asked if I would remodel what had been the "chauffeur's" apartment attached to a row of carports. There had been a small fire but all that was needed to be done was to repair a few places and paint. I now had my own space with a bathroom.

For a brief time, I had an ex-con roommate whose name I have forgotten. Lorees was contacted by the California state parole board and asked if she would offer a job and a place to stay for a man the board thought might fit into the scene at the coffee house as he was majorly involved with theatrical productions at San Quentin. He was a sad character. A habitual offender – a car thief. We got along and, for a time, he did fit in but soon he left and shortly afterward he died in a car crash in a stolen car. I also met Rick Strauss, a professional photographer who specialized in publicity shots of movie and television stars. At one point. he asked if he could use the coffee house as a set for some photos. The Duttons agreed and so in exchange for helping Rick on the shoot, he took some great portraits of me.

This is me supposedly trying to teach Ed "Kookie" Burns of 77 Sunset Strip fame to play chess. Notice the Lux Radio Theater mug. Mike bought them to the coffee house when he left the show.

This portrait was my reward for helping Rick. It remains my favorite.

My duties as janitor meant that I got up early – natural for me – to clean the place - the "Big" room and "Dining" room plus the kitchen and office. It took about 4 hours. As Mike and Lorees stayed up late, I became de facto Michael and Winston Dutton's baby-sitter (but he was "Winnie" then). Not an easy task as they more or less told me to stuff it when I tried to discipline them. Michael recently told me that his memories of childhood were that he and his brother were able to do just about anything they wanted. I was finished by noon and often spent the afternoon on the beach. One walked down the road to the Pacific Coast Highway, crossed it and there was a really nice beach that almost no one else except the Coffee House folk frequented. Lorees and I were even able to pick mussels off the rocks at the beach – good eating! Easy days.

Death on the highway at Positano

As the side of the road on the cliffside of the Pacific Coast Highway often filled up early, patrons were forced to park on the oceanside. Crossing the Pacific Coast Highway even in the 1950s, was dangerous particularly at night.  As far as I can recall there was only one fatal accident when the mother of someone I knew was fatally injured by a car she did not see.  David Dutton, the driver of the old Carryall, ran up to the coffee house for help and I was the first person he found.  We went back down to the highway. He attempted to alert the oncoming traffic to slow down and move away from the center of the road when the woman lay dying.  I covered her with a blanket; tried to stop the bleeding; and tried to comfort her but she was already unconscious.  Someone called the highway patrol and eventually an ambulance arrived but it was too late.  It was my first encounter with death.

I lived and worked at Positano from the fall of 1957 to the spring of 1959. I left to get married and return to UCLA where I became an anthropologist. I returned to the place with my family in the fall of 1963 after Positano had closed down.

"Mussel" Rock

From left to right - Jay, Aaron, Carmela and Maria Ruby,1964

We lived there with Lorees Dutton and her children until the fall of 1964. As I was working full time at UCLA's Archaeological Survey and trying to prepare for the German language exam required for all doctoral students, I spent relatively little time at the former coffee house. Strange as it may seem, I had no idea that Jerry Ziegman and his friends had already moved into the cottage and were preparing to transform the property into an arts community. I lost track of the Duttons and the coffee house until I started this study.

What This Study is About and Why – An Intellectual Rationale

I find the need to explain/justify my work daunting.  Hopefully what follows will do the job as this work appears to be somewhat unusual.  I will attempt at this point to summarize the salient features of the study. It is an ethnography, a historical reconstruction of the recent past and a personal memoir – a combination of genres not often seen.  It is a study of a Bohemian coffee house in Malibu, California that existed during the late 1950s and early 1960s in a rural location – one seldom associated with Bohemia.  It was simultaneously typical and atypical of  Bohemian establishments. It is a subject not commonly researched by social scientists.  Finally, this is an early attempt to produce a scholarly enhanced ebook – a format that has the potential to alter the way academics communicate their findings.

While I make an argument for Positano’s uniqueness, the culture of this place can also be viewed as the “last gasp” of a traditional form of Bohemianism that occurred at a time when other forms that changed the very nature of this counterculture were emerging. In 1957 when coffee house Positano opened, Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road was published.  It announced the beginning of the public’s awareness of the so-called Beat sub-culture and the emergence of a formally underground movement into the light of day.  Venice West, the apparent center of Los Angeles Beatdom, was becoming a major tourist attraction. At the same time, artists associated with the Ferus Galley were in the process of transforming Los Angeles from a cultural backwater to a critically regarded international art center.

During the next several decades, Bohemia became transformed from a subculture regarded by some as positively dangerous to, at least initially, a topic of extensive media coverage that contributed to the reduction of the Beats and the “California Cool” artists into a dismissible cliché.  In time, Bohemia was further diminished to something somewhat socially acceptable, a slight deviation from mainstream society that Deener (2012) has recently termed “fashionable Bohemianism.” From that point of view, the culture of Positano can be understood as the beginning of the end of a traditional Bohemian world.

Positano’s uniqueness is complex. It differs from most 1960s Los Angeles coffee houses as well as older Bohemian establishments in that they were all located in urban settings. Bohemia is a child of the city.  These places were easily accessible, open long hours, and allowed patrons to spend their days socializing or even working – think Hemingway writing Farewell to Arms (1929) in a Parisian café.  Positano was situated on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in  one hundred-thirty acres of wilderness fifteen miles away from Santa Monica, the closest city.  There was no sign to indicate its location and the owners seldom even advertised its existence.  Customers discovered it strictly through word of mouth.

Los Angeles establishments catered to young people, often teenagers.  The age range of customers at Positano was much greater – many more older adults – university professors, people in the entertainment industry and, of course, some young folks, most notably surfers.  The type of entertainment offered was another place of difference.  The LA coffee houses featured mainly folk music and, eventually, folk rock.  They were the places where groups like the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas emerged.  Acts were known in advance, advertised and often admission was charged.  In other words, these coffeehouses were more like concert venues or clubs than anything else.  At Positano, the entertainments were spontaneous, unannounced and no one got paid.  Jazz and Spanish guitar were most commonly heard and amplified instruments or even microphones were absent. 

There were some things shared among all LA coffee houses. The drinks and food offered were similar as was the presence of art on the walls – often for sale along with some books and records.  To complicate matters further, the artwork for sale at Positano was not at all avant garde as one might except in Bohemian places, it was positively retardataire.  As I recall, many paintings were in the style of Keith Finch, a well-known California abstract expressionist and Positano regular. The truly innovative works of the California Cool painters like Ed Ruscha or Ed Kienholtz were totally absent.  It is the lovely inconsistency often seen elsewhere in Bohemia. One of the more engaging features of Positano was that it was consistently inconsistent.

Where Positano differed from other LA places was that they offered poetry readings but not poetry and jazz – a popular Beat expressive format.  There were frequent chess matches, theatrical performances along with weekly lectures and discussions that ranged from authors promoting new publications to discussions of political and social issues from a variety of ideological positions.   It is not an exaggeration to suggest that Positano had more in common with coffeehouses in North Beach, San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York City than those in Los Angeles. Perhaps because Lorees Yerby Dutton, a co-manager of Positano was a San Francisco native who had lived in Greenwich Village. Certainly the liberal if not radical political nature of some of its activities separated it from the places in Los Angeles where “Valley” kids listened to long-haired ladies singing Childe ballads.  Had John Reed lived fifty years later, he would have become a Positano regular.

I have characterized Positano was being a Bohemian establishment and it was but it also deviated from those places.  What constitutes a “Bohemian establishment” or who is or is not a “Bohemian” has been the subject of much discussion.  I delve into the matter later (see Theoretical Musings section). Through time, the revolutionary aspects of the first Bohemians who regarded themselves as being at war with the Bourgeoisie became muted to the point where being a Bohemian simply meant one had artistic ambitions, wore odd clothing and avoided being employed 9 to 5.  While the staff at Positano, myself included, certainly fit that definition, those who came to the coffee house are much more difficult to characterize. The “dress code” tended to be on the very causal side with suits, white shirts and ties seldom seen. Those I personally knew and remember were mainly employed as university professors or in the entertainment industry – actors, directors, or scriptwriters.  Perhaps their mildly unconventional lifestyles would qualify them as Bohemians. It is also equally possible that many Positano customers were nothing more than cultural tourists. No one has ventured a measure as to how an establishment like Positano can or cannot be justifiably be called Bohemian. 

What exactly is the value of this study?  How can I justify asking readers/viewers to spend their time learning about Positano? Perhaps its broadest value lies in the possibility that some will reflect on the role of countercultures in our society.  Why do some people feel so uncomfortable with the demands of the norm? Why are so many people who feel the urge to be creative convinced that they must get away from the mainstream to realize their ambitions? Is Bob Dylan correct when he sings “To Live Outside you must be honest?” (It’s Alright, Ma 1965).

The large issue of the nature of countercultures or subcultures and the reason why they have played such an important part in the history of the U.S. is barely touched upon here. It deserves a book-length examination itself.  However, Positano is the proverbial microchasm in the macrocosm and perhaps small enough and specific enough for some to gain an insight into these large questions. While the term counterculture is most often associated with the 1960s when Rozak (1968) made the term famous, I believe it should be broadened to include any serious attempt to go against the grain. It is not too difficult to see the founding of the U.S. as a countercultural movement – the colonialists asserting their independence from mainstream British society. We seem to be a nation of people who are fascinated by the maverick, anyone who can’t or won’t fit in.  I freely admit to being attracted to those people from my teen years on.  When I got to Positano, I was home and in a symbolic way I never left.  There apparently needs to be Positanos for many of us to retreat to when the everyday reality of our lives becomes too much to bear.