57. A Day At Creeds

57. A Night At the Opera in Berkeley: "A Day At Creed's"  

(Note: this is an expansion of a paragraph-long account of the same matter that appeared in Reminiscence 2 above, "Music A.")  

My daughter Sarah emails me (10/5/08) that she has just been given a CD by a woman in Berkeley named Marian Whitehead, whose husband Burns MacDonald was at UCB in the1940s when I was there, and owns old 78 RPM records of the chamber opera "A Day At Creed's" for which I was librettist. She made the CD from the 78s as a present for her husband, and is giving a copy of it to Sarah, who will send one to me, and I (see end of this) will somehow make it available to anyone who wants to hear it. But first, the story behind it.

A close friend during my late high school and early U.C. Berkeley years was the composer Gordon Cyr, who later taught at Tyson State U. in Baltimore and died recently. We came together with other music lovers often to play records (exciting then, when not everything was available) and talk about music. The two of us, from high school on, made grand plans for musicals and operas, using my literary talents for the libretti and Gordon's compositional gifts for the music. They included a musical for a senior year performance at Berkeley High; an opera based on the Irish legend of Deirdre (libretti for both these still exist); and a grand Wagner-like cycle based on the Arthurian legend, libretto never written; none were ever composed.

By 1949, when I was back from the Army and working toward a B.A. in Oriental Languages at Berkeley, also producing a weekly rare-record program on Radio Station KPFA, Gordon and I were living in a big rented house on Hillegass Ave. in Berkeley with three other people: Bill Pinckard, Don Aird, and Walt McKibben. A large living room on the ground floor, with a big entry hallway opening into it through broad double doors, permitted us to have regular musicales for many friends who were music-lovers and record-collectors, sometimes with recorded music, sometimes live. Gordon and I conceived the idea of realizing at last, as one of these musicales, our high school plan of doing an opera together. None of our projects had ever been carried out, we realized, because they were too large-scale; this time we would do a very small opera, for performance by ourselves in our living room. Bill Pinckard, who couldn't either sing or play the piano, was page-turner; the other four of us performed all thirteen parts in the opera, changing costumes fast, with no more than three of us on stage at one time, the other at the piano, wearing a bathrobe with "ORCHESTRA" painted on the back. Gordon had to write the piano parts to fit the pianistic abilities of whoever was playing, from his own small skill to Don Aird's high mastery (Don played the overture and other difficult parts), with Walt and me in between.

Our subject: Creed's Bookstore, then located in the block of stores that stretched at your right as you came out of Sather Gate toward Telegraph Ave., with Sproul Hall, UCB's administration building, at your left. (Later this block was torn down and replaced by the present Student Union complex.) Creed's, besides selling textbooks, was an extensive old-book store stretching back through a number of rooms, all with shelves up to near the ceiling and piles of unshelved books on the floor, all with the unforgettable old-book feel and smell celebrated in e.g. Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop (Morley was a favorite writer of mine in early years.)  I had worked briefly at Creed's before my Army service, and went back to working there as a part-time clerk when I returned in 1948, even though I had a GI Bill fellowship. The manager of Creed's was Earl J. Schilling, a portly man with a goatee beard whose wife (never seen, reputed to be fearsome) owned the store. It was patronized by the best of Berkeley's literary lights and some from San Francisco, along with UCB students and professors. Earl Schilling would play the guitar and sing ballads and Shakespeare songs; one regular played an Irish harp. It could be the subject of another long Reminiscence.

By the time I returned from the Army, Creed's had changed in two ways. First, it had begun selling used records (78 RPM albums, mainly) and so was a hangout also for record collectors. When we wrote our opera, Earl Schilling was complaining facetiously that the records were taking over his beloved book business. The other was that the new clerks in the store belonged to a Berkeley group of literary-musical gays: Al Lewis, Ph.D. candidate in Ancient History at UCB; Morrill Folsom, antiques enthusiast and lover of esoteric lore who later had a store (The Connoisseur) on Telegraph Ave. near Dwight, close to Moe's; and a younger man whose name I don't remember. I spent a lot of time with them, at Creed's and outside, and for a time was suspected of being gay myself; I liked them and enjoyed the company of their friends (including the poet Robert Duncan).

My libretto, then, was set in Creed's, and was about the critical day when the number of records had come to equal the number of books, so that the next acquisition or sale would determine the future of the store. I played Earl Schilling; Gordon was Al Lewis, Walt was Morrill Folsom. Don Aird, needed most at the piano, played Simon Q. Legree, the villain who would try to buy away rare records from people bringing them in for sale. And there were nine other parts, real and imaginary people who came into the store. Another real one was Dr. van Wyck, a retired professor who came to sit with Earl and tell long shady jokes from his seemingly endless repertory. Some of Earl Schilling's favorite sayings ("Treat them like books, boys, not like bricks!" "That's a good-un, tell me another!" were set into the libretto, and I tried to catch some of Al's and Morrill's speech and habits in writing their parts.

A note on the title: Gordon thought of "Creedo in Unum Bookstore," which I never liked, but which is sometimes attached to it. I have called it simply "A Day At Creed's."

The first performance, in our hallway (with the audience watching from the packed living room), was an eagerly awaited, major Berkeley event.
Several people came in tails; someone in the lobby rented opera glasses so you could look through them the wrong way and seem to be at the Met. We performed a kind of ballet during Intermission, which I won't describe. It was a night to remember. We performed it twice more at our house, and once (sponsored by Phi Beta Kappa) at an auditorium on campus; and finally on radio station KPFA. For this, since listeners couldn't see the action, I added commentary, delivered ad lib by myself. It was from this performance that the recording was made. Alfred Frankenstein, the leading S.F. music critic, happened to hear it and summoned Gordon and me to his office to learn how it had happened; he would have written a review if we had planned another performance, but there were to be no more performances. Of the participants and the real people portrayed, only I (the Ishmael of this particular white—or shaggy--whale) survive to tell the tale.

Ever since, scattered groups of old Berkeley people have met from time to time to listen to the recording and feel nostalgic. Don Aird, who became conductor of the Berkeley Chamber Singers, and I were invited to one of these some ten years ago? I kept a set of 78 RPM records and would play them for visitors and old friends, becoming in the end rather tired of it—much of it, I came to feel, is dated and topical, unfunny unless you knew the people and situations. But now, learning that it still has its admirers and (judging from Sarah's response) still seems funny to some sympathetic listeners, I have decided to make the CD available to readers of this website. I will describe in a Blog, but also here, how to obtain the disk: basically, it will be the first of a number of disks I mean to offer to readers of this website—calling them JCahillDisks (to distinguish them from the far more distinguished recordings made by my eminent pianist-daughter Sarah Cahill, see sarahcahill.com on the web), and my research assistant Barry Magrill will send one to anyone who sends me a note asking for it, along with your mailing address and a $10 bill (or two fives, or whatever.) U.S. paper money only; the only alternative is a postal money order for U.S. $10. No personal checks, no foreign currency, no i.o.u.'s. The $10 will pay for the disk, Barry's time, and the postage. My mailing address: 4085 West 40th Ave., Vancouver, BC, Canada V6N 3B9. JCahillDisks to be offered later will mostly contain pictures instead of music, and often will accompany and illustrate texts accessible on my website.

P.S. Reading the above and listening again to parts of the disk, I want to add some notes, mostly about Gordon Cyr.

I forgot to mention, first, that a part of the libretto, the opening chorus and patter song and one stanza of Morrill's aria, appears on my website as the last item under CYCTIE, as CYCTIE2. When I was typing in my literary works from old manuscripts, I found that my copy of the libretto contained only the first few pages; the rest had been lost.

Listening to it again impresses me, more than I have realized for years, with how good the music is—solid, clever, allusive, sometimes intricate, never hackneyed or dull. I have no idea whether a score exists anywhere—if it does, it is among Gordon Cyr's preserved musical scores. As I wrote, he taught during his later years at Tyson State University in Baltimore. For a time he would return to Berkeley and appear with recordings of his recent compositions, which his old friends had to listen to; I never understood or appreciated these later works. But I was musically deaf to nearly everything post-Stravinsky, so it was my weakness. I did like his songs. (An obituary for him appears on the web.) It was hard to talk with Gordon in these later years, as I tried to do several times by phone; he had become a devotee of the cult of believers in Edward deVere, the l7th Earl of Oxford, as the real author of the "Shakespeare"' plays and sonnets, and wanted to talk only about that.

From his high-school days on, Gordon loved musical jokes and parodies. When he received his military draft notice in the early 1940s (he was never drafted, bad eyesight or something) he set it to music and went around Berkeley performing it for friends, accompanying himself on the piano. He founded the Celestial Revenge Publishing Co., to publish works giving old composers their revenge on modern composers who had used their music without their permission. The only such work actually composed was (really by Gordon, of course) Pergolesi's "New Arrangement of the 'Dance of the Adolescents' from 'The Rite of Spring' for Harpsichord or Clavichord"—a reduction of this powerful orchestral work to a keyboard piece in Baroque style, which Gordon would play on the piano. This gave Pergolesi his revenge for Stravinsky's use of his music in "The Fairy's Kiss" ballet. Announced but never composed was Henry Purcell's "Old Person's Guide to the Chamber Orchestra, On a Theme by Benjamin Britten," similarly giving Purcell his revenge for Britten's "The Young Person's Guide to the Symphony Orchestra," which presents variations on a theme by Purcell. I can't recall others, although they were announced. We made up our own names for old composers; at the top of one of Gordon's compositions in Mozart style I wrote, "Derived by Cyr, with subtle witchcraft/ From the works of W. A. Ditchcraft" (Moat's Art = Ditch Craft, get it? Sorry.)

So, the recording of "A Day At Creed's" (or, as Gordon wanted to call it, "Creedo in Unum Bookstore") seems to be all that survives of what was a substantial and admirable work of music. I hope our offering of copies of the disk will win new admirers for Gordon's strong and fine (and funny) achievement.

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