GRINGO LESSONS, by Bill Whaley June 15, 2003
"Gringo Lessons" by Bill Whaley TAOS DAILY HORSEFLY
[An interesting and amusing article. Dean Stockwell is mentioned in the
section titled 'Lawrence and Drunk']:
In May of 1974, the Mudd combine leased me the Plaza Theatre Bar above the "new" Plaza Theatre on the southwest corner of the Plaza. Downstairs I paid a minimum of $1,200 a month plus a percentage of the gross for the comfortable 200-seat cinema. Upstairs, the variously named "Upstairs Bar" or "Airport Lounge" seated 60 or 70 but could accommodate 150 for dancing. Mudd charged $800 a month plus a percentage of the gross for the bar. During the summer months, when the grosses were high, Mudd, the millionaire heir to the Cypress Mine fortune, squeezed as much as $3,000 a month out of me for the two operations. I could have rented the whole north side of the Plaza for that kind of dough. I felt more like a money-changer than an entrepreneur. At night the demons of debt kept me awake. As I made my rounds on the Plaza during the day I acquired the unpleasant habit of belching to relieve the pressure from the knot in my stomach.
In contrast to the pastoral appearance of Taos valley-the lovely snow-covered Sangre de Cristos and the fiery gold-orange glow of the
sunsets-and despite the serenity of the stars hanging in the heavens over the desert, the Plaza itself could turn nasty and brutal after
night fell. As I dragged a smelly patron out and up the stairs from the theatre or held up an inebriated drunk by the arms as I carried him down the stairs from the bar, I was put in the delicate position of not breaking the neck of somebody who was trying to slug me. I was as much a bouncer as I was an entrepreneur during the Plaza years.
When I arrived in Taos, circa 1966, a bar fight on the Plaza between two drunks was a simple disagreement between two inebriated guys or gals. By the seventies, politics had become an excuse for anti-social behavior. Frequently, a drunk would say, "You are throwing me out because you don't like 'Indians' or 'Chicanos'-you honky cabron, gabacho." Or a hippie might say, "Don't you know about aqui en Taos, man? Like, you're not hip, you capitalist pig."
On the Plaza you saw everything. Lesbians necked on park benches next to los viejos (old men) who gossiped about the news. Pedestrians carefully stepped over the occasional drunk sleeping on the sidewalk. Long-haired Peter Mackaness wore a poncho and danced to his own choreography, accompanied by his flute. Dennis Hopper strolled by, a forty-five concealed in his leather purse which he used to shoot at the moon. Texans in turquoise leisure suits, drowning in squash blossom jewelry, headed for Clark Funk's Don Fernando emporium of southwestern curios.
Beat-up pick-ups were parked next to Cadillacs. Bankers, while on their way to take their morning coffee, discreetly eyed bra-less hippie chicks who panhandled for change. Taos Pueblo Indians adorned with sacred Penney's blankets collected tips from tourists after posing for
photographs or telling stories. At La Cocina, Jim Wagner and Dave Nesbitt discussed painting and framing in the afternoon while they
waited for Gene Sanchez and Gil Archuleta (who had real jobs) to arrive. Next door at Tano's bar, you might see Richard Trujillo emerge to check out the chicks. He carried a big knife in his belt, his dark thick hair fell down his back, and he could laugh as easily as he snarled. The guys at Tano's liked to watch the unending number of hippies descending from Volkswagen buses, which prompted a fair number of cat calls. Ageless Willie Taylor, dressed in overalls with big pockets where he kept a big pistol, looked like a Louisiana sharecropper. Willie sometimes kept company with his buxom black "niece." Leo Salazar carved santos in the morning and hawked them at the bars in the afternoon so he could buy drinks for friends in the evening. The high riders and low riders, hot cars and souped-up pick-ups roared and squealed, laid rubber, jumped forward only to slam to a stop. The kids greeted the tourista-"Hey, blondie, que pasa?" For sport, they chased the occasional "pendejo" hippie down an alley. The cops drove around or stopped their cars to talk but generally ignored the action.
The Plaza Bar
You approached the Plaza Theatre Bar by walking up a broad set of stairs with three landings-designed for muggers. The hallways were decorated with art and valuable Indian pots-for the sake of thieves. The lounge had soft comfortable couches-for hippies and junkies to sleep on. Paying customers sat at custom-designed wooden tables and chairs. A former freelance photographer with Life Magazine cover credits, Shel Hershorn, made furniture. By this time everyone in town had worked for Harvey Mudd. An eerie painting of a red fox hung above the bartender's head behind the thick plank at the five-stool bar. A fancy sound system filled the room with tunes courtesy of Bob Dylan or Phoebe Snow. A color TV was set in the recess over the stage, which was covered up by an Indian blanket when we weren't watching the Watergate drama.
From the large picture windows in the bar you could look down on the Plaza through a mesmerizing veil of snowflakes in winter or watch the
seething masses of people during fiesta in summer. Toward five o'clock, drop-out New York stock-broker Dick Gordon (R.I.P.) weaved across the Plaza from La Cocina. He came upstairs to drink a few more Margaritas while watching the news on TV. Then he passed out at a table. When Nixon resigned in August of 1974, we jeered as he flashed the victory sign and got in his helicopter. I bought drinks for the house. The next day, and for the rest of the summer, nobody showed up for happy hour and the news. Tricky Dick got me in the end.
Generally I sold tickets each evening at the Plaza Theatre box office. Between the seven and nine o'clock shows, I went upstairs to help the
bartenders, Ron Beck and Bob Bishop. Jeff Bergerson made sandwiches. Lanky Jo Carey, former VISTA volunteer, worked the room with a wink and a laugh. She was second in town by reputation only to La Cocina's Ruthie Moya, the greatest cocktail waitress in the world. Both women were gifted. They served drinks quickly, calmed the crowd, and kept the lurkers from making trouble. We all had difficulty waking up the members of the methadone culture who nodded on the couches during the late afternoons. I always remember the time Wagner yelled at me, "Whaley, he's got a gun! He's trying to shoot me!" Wagner took the gun away from the junkie and we ran him off.
Lawrence and Film
One night I stayed home to babysit the ever-active infant Fitz, only a few months old. My long-suffering blond-haired wife, Susie, replaced me at the box-office, a welcome break from Mr. Energy. At the Plaza Theatre, we were showing Ken Russell's sensual film of D.H. Lawrence's
"Women in Love" on a Wednesday night-a sure sell-out, which meant long lines for the 9 p.m. show. About 8:30 I got a phone call.
"Bill, Alex and the Gang are terrorizing our customers. There's a long line for the second show. You've got to come down." I got Fitz up and jumped in the car. I thought to myself how your flower children and liberal Anglos sometimes go too far with the love-peace business. They would rather talk than fight, get browbeaten and bullied rather than stand up and demonstrate the basics of primordial physical
expression. By the time I got there, Alex, a 17-year-old local kid who wore his hair in imitation of an afro, was gone, along with his gang of
punks. The nine o'clock moviegoers were safely inside. During the following week, as I went about my daily Plaza tasks, I kept an eye
peeled for the members of the gang. When I saw one, I grabbed him and slapped him up against a convenient adobe wall. There I expressed my displeasure rhetorically, mentioning what I might do-despite the 50 or so members of his family that he threatened me with. On a sunny Sunday morning I stumbled into Alex by the wooden sidewalk that led from the Plaza to the John Dunn House. When I confronted him, he stepped back and fell down on the boardwalk. I leaned over him, waved my cigar in close proximity to his nose, and made my point. I never had any more trouble with Alex and the boys.
Lawrence and Drunk
Lawrence came back to haunt me again, indirectly, when I showed "Sons and Lovers," Jack Cardiff's much praised version of the novel. After
watching the movie and being impressed by Dean Stockwell's performance as the young man, I went upstairs to check on the noise coming out of the bar. Two guys in straw cowboy hats-looking like drugstore cowboys (dudes) from Angel Fire-stood at the bar. They were pounding back the drinks and yelling. Epithets echoed off the walls. The moviegoers, who had just seen the movie, were trying to discuss the finer points of literature and film beneath the din. Now, in the bar business you made more money from a room full of excited conversationalists than you ever did from live music. The great enemies of the cash register were dancing and marijuana because the twin devils deprived folks of the desire for more booze. Anyway, I saw Dennis lurking by one end of the bar, looking slightly embarrassed.
"Dennis," I said, "Who are those guys? They make you look like a gentleman."
He whispered to me, "That's Dean Stockwell."
I couldn't reconcile the screamer at the bar with Stockwell's portrayal of the sensitive young man with beautiful eyes on the big screen. Dean
had tripped on his career and lost his way in New Mexico, where he was hiding out with the hard-core drug and drink denizens of the Taos
demimonde. After floundering much like Dennis during the seventies, he began selling real estate-the last refuge of outlaw drug dealers and
ex-movie stars. Years later, I chuckled when I saw Dean and Dennis turn their life lessons into stardom in David Lynch's "Blue Velvet." Dennis
himself was once rescued from ignominy in the Plaza Theatre Bar. Somebody walked in to the men's room one night and found this big black
guy, Silk, trying to stuff the filmmaker's head into the urinal. He wanted to wash out Hopper's long-hair with a new kind of organic shampoo.
In the seventies, however, you couldn't control anybody's behavior-including your own. Some nights we had delightful crowds and polite applause at the end of a live set. But the civilized tone never lasted. No matter what kind of music you presented-folk, rock, classical-everyone began to dance, smoke, and, inevitably, fight. Even as the Chicanos and Indians began speaking about Gringo injustice, the
mountain hippies grew increasingly violent and vets from Vietnam increasingly unpredictable. We had to stay open until two a.m. and catch
the run-off from El Patio, La Cocina, the Taos Inn, etc. so that we could pay the rent and try to build up the business. Between midnight
and two, the women were loose and the customers turned into frogs.
In March of 1975, after talking to Jean Mayer at the St. Bernard, I decided to close the bar. I was up at the ski valley one day, skiing,
when he told me how much he grossed on President's Day-more in one day than I did in a month. Yet I was risking life and limb, my mental
health, and my marriage, not to mention losing my youth and destroying my potential. As I drove up toward the Valdez rim from the cattle guard and looked out into the sunset, the snow-covered peaks behind me the color of blood, I made the decision, paid off the lease, and closed the bar on the 18th of March. Bruce Lee was at the theatre in "Enter the Dragon." I got very drunk that night.
Most of the lessons from the Plaza Theatre Bar were negative object lessons: "Don't do this anymore." But there was one bright light. When I
took over the bar, a young man, Leo Santistevan, was working for the Mudd team as a janitor. He began working for me. First, he cleaned the
bar and the theatre. Later, he sold popcorn and tickets. They used to say that Leo could catch a piece of popcorn before it hit the floor in
the lobby. As Fitz, my son, grew older, Leo gave him lessons on cruising and taught him how to hang out at the Sonic or Lota Burger. Leo's
cousins, Freddie, Donald, and Derek, also worked at the theatre. There were (are) so many La Lomita Santistevans that I could never keep up
with all of them. Leo was moody but loyal and stuck with me despite my penchant for adventure as I searched for the meaning of life in the
various nooks and crannies of Taos during the seventies.