William Saroyan’s “Painted Word” Art Exhibit Premieres in Saratoga

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Saratoga, CA, 6/27/2022 —  William Saroyan - author, Californian, Armenian - was incredibly popular in his lifetime. Writing about the immigrant experience and the human condition, Saroyan’s prose is just as accessible and relevant today as it was when he wrote it in the mid-20th century. Born in 1908 to Armenian immigrant parents, Saroyan would win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play The Time of Your Life, the Academy Award for Best Story for The Human Comedy, and would influence authors as varied as Jack Kerouac, Stephen Fry, Kurt Vonnegut, and Peter Coyote.

On August 1st, 2022, the first exhibit of Saroyan’s art output this decade will open at the Saratoga Library in Saratoga, California. This exhibition will feature seventeen pieces by Saroyan from the 1930s and 1960s, as well as material relating to his career as playwright, screenwriter, and lyricist. 

He created art throughout his life, beginning with geometric pencil drawings in the late 1920s and early 30s. These works, often drawn on Vanity Fair Florists stationary, reflect the Art Deco architecture and design of the time. By the late 1950s, he was creating watercolors and ink drawings. The forms he painted, line-based with an expressive color palette, were Abstract Expressionist in nature, exploring form and color theory while still maintaining a constrained presentation that spoke of his earlier works. Some point to his friendship with Manuel Tolegian, former travel partner of Jackson Pollock, as being key in helping define new styles in expressive painting.

The exhibit opens on August 1st and runs through September 30th, 2022, in the main entry hall of the Saratoga library. Library hours are Mon-Tues – 10am to 9pm, Wed-Sun – 10am to 6pm. The exhibit was curated by Chris Garcia and Dori Myer. Materials about the exhibit will be available in print, and on-line on the Forever Saroyan website – http://foreversaroyan.com.

As a celebration of the exhibit, Forever Saroyan will be hosting a special event on August 6th running from 1pm until 5pm. There will be a special exhibition of artifacts about Saroyan, as well as an audio-video presentation featuring the words, and music, of William Saroyan. At 2:30, author Mark Arax will speak about Saroyan’s impact on him, how Saroyan viewed the world in his time, and how he’d see the world of today. Mr. Arax is an author and journalist whose writings on California and the West have received numerous awards for literary nonfiction. He is a former Los Angeles Times and The California Sunday Magazine staff writer and has authored four books, including the William Saroyan Prize winner The King of California.

Forever Saroyan, LLC, was founded by Saroyan’s cousin, Charles Janigian, to preserve, protect, and honor the memories and legacies of the Saroyan and Minasian families. Although this is a privately funded family archive, we make our unique materials available to the world via our website, www.foreversaroyan.com and local exhibits, so that the next generation of scholars and enthusiasts will study and write about Saroyan and his family.

For further information or photos, please contact Chris Garcia –

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The Place of Places - 1707-A Divisadero Street, San Francisco, 1929

 

 

Welcome back to the Place of Places, a chapter-by-chapter analysis of William Saroyan’s 1972 memoir, Places Where I’ve Done Time. Today we take out a lease at 1707-A Divisadero Street, San Francisco, 1929.

This one takes place at Divisadero only slightly. Really, it’s about the small but important places he could remember from his early years. He begins, “The places that I have experienced and remember from time to time but mainly forget are here and there, although quite a few are gone” (Places Where I’ve Done Time). He recalls the original address of the Fred Finch Orphanage before the street was renamed; he recalls the Sequoia School, the first school he attended, which was in Oakland; he recalls the small grocery store next to the school with the benevolent grocer; and then the room on Laguna Street in San Francisco where he was allowed to leave the orphanage and stay with his mother for a short time; and then he lands at Divisadero Street, where he briefly lived with his mother and siblings when he returned from his New York trip in 1929.

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Because this chapter covers quite a number of places, we can break them down but also put them in one emotional place for Saroyan. These are some of the places where he felt a bit of security in his very chaotic early years. 

He starts with the Fred Finch Orphanage, which we have established was a significant place was for him. Though he hated it, its strict rules were predictable, its employees firm but not abusive. In his later years, he would even come to appreciate it in some ways. Though he pushed the envelope many times as a child, testing the boundaries of rules and their enforcement, the Fred Finch Orphanage kept a tight ship that tried to teach the children self-discipline and resilience. It was the first home address he could remember, for better or worse. The attachment was strong because there was no alternative. Given his mother Takoohi’s options, she probably considered it the most stable and secure place to put her children.

finchSaroyan remembers the orphanage at 3361 Peralta Way. It was “the official address of the Fred Finch Orphanage in Oakland, or so I have come to believe. Whatever the name of the street was, it was changed to Coolidge, obviously during his administration as President” (Places Where I’ve Done Time). The orphanage was at 3670 Peralta Avenue, and around 1928 the street was renamed Coolidge, likely for the president who had just reached the end of his service. In the early 1900s, many cities in California were absorbing smaller towns and consolidating them into urban neighborhoods. Oakland was growing and absorbing many hamlets immediately around it, having to rename some streets to avoid duplication. It’s not clear if this was the reason for the name change, but these years saw expansive growth and change in California.

Near the orphanage was the local public elementary school, the Sequoia School. He explains that the administrators made a great show of planting a redwood tree in front of the school and describing how huge it would get as a type of affirmation or motivation for the students. Redwoods aren’t the same as giant sequoias, but they are related, and their Latin name is Sequoia sempervirens. They are native to northern California, but they don’t just grow anywhere. They typically need coastal or valley fog to flourish. Oakland was so named because it was a healthy home for oaks, not redwoods. So, when Saroyan and his brother Henry anonymously return to the school years later to take a look around, the tree is long gone, having not survived. This is meaningful in its own way – the great redwood failed to thrive while the Saroyans were able to. Saroyan didn’t have to much to say about the Sequoia School in his writings, but he does note that the orphanage provided lunches to its wards at the school. And in this way, it was another secure, reliable place. When he moved to Fresno, he had much more negativity towards schools, teachers, and administrators. The Sequoia School was sort of an extension of the orphanage.

kewpAfter that, he remembers the grocery store next to the elementary school. The grocer would give him and his friends a licorice strap, a jawbreaker, a wax Kewpie, and “many other penny marvels” (Places Where I’ve Done Time). Before the 1920s, people generally didn’t select their own items at a grocery store. When the first self-serve grocery store, Piggly Wiggly, opened in 1916, it was advertised as an “adventure.” When Saroyan was a boy, people went to the counter, made their grocery request, and the clerk selected the items, many of which were behind the counter. In this way, people got to know their clerks or grocers and even more so vice versa. This benevolent grocer persona would appear in Saroyan’s scripts and stories later in his life. The grocer in Oakland was particularly memorable, and of course the kindness of an adult would have had outsized importance to orphans. “But I have never been able to forget this good grocer” (Places Where I’ve Done Time), he writes. This wasn’t a place that shooed the children away or worried about theft. Instead, it was a safe place to go hang out as kids do, and the adult in the room gave them free items rather than threats. He names his friends Sammy Isaacs and Teddy Dolan, and with those names, whether real or fake, Saroyan is telling us they were Jewish, Irish, and Armenian kids, all of whom were from immigrant groups that were maligned by existing Americans. Again, this grocer’s kindness would differ from the reception he and his Armenian friends received in Fresno later.

Then he remembers the furnished room on Laguna Street, where he stayed with his mother for a short time while she served a wealthy family in San Francisco. He was a latch-key kid and liked to ride the back step of an ice wagon until his mother pulled him off and walloped him. He says the orphanage insisted he return, but it’s more likely that his mother couldn’t manage a small, wild boy in San Francisco, and sent him back to be with his siblings. He tells us going back to the orphanage was “all right, it was no big deal, although I went right on hating the place” (Places Where I’ve Done Time). In this book and others, he makes much of how strong and resilient he had to be as a little boy –  no tears. The Saroyans had been through a lot, but it’s also just as likely that young Willie was re-traumatized each time he had to leave his mother. Though he had to change schools and was apart from his siblings and lacked the order of the orphanage, being with his mother as a young boy would have been the safest, most secure place for him to be emotionally. His wild nature and her focus on earning enough to support the family made their reconciliation on Laguna Street brief, but probably a much-needed salve for the young boy.

Finally, he remembers 1707-A Divisadero. It was just across the street from where the family had lived on Sutter Street, which we covered in Chapter 3. Apparently, his mother had gotten tired of climbing the flights of stairs at Sutter Street. Both of these apartments were only blocks from Bill McDevitt’s used and rare book shop and going there was “part of the whole business of being connected to paper and print, words and punctuation marks, language and books” (Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in Forever).

After he became ill and returned to San Francisco from New York in 1929, he was back with his family. “I worked whenever there was a job, and for $10 I bought an enormous old-fashioned baby-grand piano – sometimes I put a blanket on top of it and stretched out up there for a nap” (Places Where I’ve Done Time). His mother was probably very annoyed at this purchase, as she had been when he bought his precious Victor phonograph and a typewriter when he was a child. Later, in the house on 15th Ave, he would have a player-piano. Saroyan was never formally trained as a musician, but he loved music and instruments. He loved to be surrounded by them even if the most use they could get was as very stiff bedding. He would incorporate music into most of his plays and used his natural rhythm in his writing. Eventually he wrote lyrics, including those for the 1951 hit Rosemary Clooney song, “Come on-a My House” with his cousin Ross.

PianoIn Obituaries, he writes, “I had to have music, that is to say, and I was interested in all kinds of it. The music of the blacks in those days was called ‘race music,’ and the whites hadn't yet discovered it. I had listened to gospel, and slave, and sorrow, and jubilation music sung and played by blacks, because it was also my music, as of course so was Paul de Greef's playing of Edvard Grieg's Concerto, which became my morning music—shaving, having black coffee, and going out by the nickel streetcar ride either to a job or to look for a job. It was a young time, it was a joyous time, it was a sorrowful time, it was a great time, this sort of thing didn't begin with Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities: everybody has experienced it and put it into spoken or written words, but most of all it was a muscular time, a time of holding out for the best, a time of believing for instance that the one (and only) right girl would be found by me, and she in turn would be looking for me, and we would know it simultaneously, and there we would be. All of this was in all of the music I listened to, but it really showed up very meaningfully in the song ‘What Does It Matter?" sung by Irving Kaufman, and I played it so much that everybody in my family, and everybody visiting the various flats where we lived, also came to know the music, if not the words, and to hum the music. The music is blue—not black, not white, not the blues of the blacks, nor the blues of the whites, but the blue of youth, and of something that has come to be identified as romanticism when it appears in writing.”

New York had been jarring and exciting, but going back to the family home on Divisadero was a place where he could continue his inner journey while relying on others for food and money, to some extent. While he did odd jobs, the inconsistency of which annoyed his family members, their unconditional love allowed him to live there and pursue his writing so that he could get to the pedestal of 1934. While he fought with his family at times, they were a safe port in a storm and Divisadero allowed him to take the time to decompress his experience in New York and turn it into something meaningful and substantial. Though, his greatness would truly materialize on Carl Street.

This chapter condenses a number of small but influential scenes for Saroyan. Though this book alternates between miserable places and happy places, there are some that could have been forgettable had they not all contributed to the puzzle of his eventual success as a writer. And for that he pays his homage here.

 

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The Place of Places 57 - Hollins Street, Baltimore, 1940

 

Welcome back to the Place of Places, a chapter by chapter analysis of William Saroyan’s 1972 memoir, Places Where I’ve Done Time. Today we travel to Hollins Street, Baltimore, 1940.

Twitter043We are back in time to the good days, when Saroyan was making money and was knee-deep producing plays. Like in Boston, he was having theatre tryouts in Baltimore. This time it was for the play Love’s Old Sweet Song. He was struggling with its tone, not knowing whether to present it as a tragedy or a farce. Saroyan was always changing his plays up until they were staged, finding that the performances often gave different depth than the words on paper alone. He was much more attuned to finding flaws when it came to his plays than his fiction, which remained largely unedited by him.

Love's Old Sweet Song, like The Time of Your Life, was produced and directed by Eddie Dowling and Saroyan through the Theater Guild. It was first performed in Princeton, New Jersey, at the McCarter Theatre, Saturday evening, April 6, 1940. This was followed by two weeks at the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia, beginning Monday, April 8. The play next went to Ford's Theatre in Baltimore for one week. It opened in New York at The Plymouth Theatre on West 45th Street, Thursday evening, May 2, and closed Saturday evening, June 8th, after a run of 44 New York performances.

In addition to tweaking the script, he was also struggling with his actors, as was common for him because he often pulled interesting people off the city streets and gave them roles, to the chagrin of the trained actors. In this case, he was dealing with eleven child actors and a difficult Greek who wouldn’t pick up his cues. Saroyan found the Greek in front of the Guild offices on 52nd street in New York and enjoyed his accent and theatrical manner. He tells us that once he had words with the Greek, cues improved, and the Greek gave perfect performances, impressing even Walter Huston. In Saroyan’s dedication section in the published script of Love’s Old Sweet Song, he writes, “John Economides, the famous Greek actor, as Pericles Americanos, not only translated my lines into Greek, but brought to his part the comic solemnity and gentle anger which the role called for.”

Economides was in fact the author of half a dozen Greek satires and he staged a play in Athens that ran for 6 months. He was also an actor in Athens and then in the Greek theater community of New York. So even if Saroyan tells us he had just found an interesting character lingering around the Theater Guild, like many a show biz story, it wasn’t quite as miraculous as it seemed. Economides was probably at the right place at the right time because he saw potential there. The dedication in the notes for Love’s Old Sweet Song was probably a bit tongue in cheek, with Saroyan calling him “the famous Greek actor” when he wasn’t exactly a star. This would have been a typically wry statement by Saroyan, but not one with ill intent. Economides was someone who stood out in Saroyan’s memory as he wrote this chapter.

With the play headed in the right direction after some changes in Philadelphia and Baltimore, Saroyan was feeling good. His pal and number one promoter George Jean Nathan suggested Saroyan meet up with Nathan’s old friend H.L. Mencken. Nathan was about 25 years older than Saroyan. This is where the chapter splits in two. Though Love’s Old Sweet Song got decent reviews at tryouts, Saroyan made huge changes just before it hit Broadway, and the changes were disastrous. The play was important to Saroyan because it was his first real flop, despite his positive feelings about it. “The play got bad reviews in New York, and had a very short run. But it is a good play and it will come back.”

hirschfeldThe papers in Philadelphia were calling him “The Salvador Dali of the drama” (Philadelphia Inquirer, April 14, 1940) and found that his surrealism was pretty hit or miss. In the preface to the published script of Love’s Old Sweet Song, he writes, “The play is simultaneously naive and sophisticated.” This is Saroyan in a nutshell and was the cause of some confusion in critics frequently. And another line from the preface which again describes Saroyan’s whole life perhaps was: “The variations of love are great, but they are not really variations. Love is the one thing that is constant, even when the variation of it appears to be hate. In reality there is no such thing as hate. Hate is love kicked in the pants. It is love with a half-nelson on itself.”

menckenBut the chapter suddenly splits in two when he meets Mencken, his childhood idol. “He looked precisely as he does in his photographs. There was a wry humor in everything he said, very softly spoken, and in his presence itself. The world was a funny place, the human race was a funny race. It was a simple as that” (Places Where I’ve Done Time). H.L. Mencken was known as “The Sage of Baltimore.” He was born in the city and when he was three, his family moved to Hollins Street, where he would live for most of his life. The house would later become a museum, much like Saroyan’s Fresno house. He was a journalist, writing for The Morning Herald and The Baltimore Sun. In 1924, he founded and edited The American Mercury with George Jean Nathan. Mencken was a controversial figure with his politics rarely aligning with anything popular in his day. Like Saroyan, he was concerned with his legacy and tried to save everything. The American Mercury focused on social critique and published many of the popular authors of the time, eventually focusing on non-fiction satire.

For decades, Mencken would host or attend The Saturday Night Club, an informal group of doctors, lawyers, teachers, musicians, artists, writers, and businessmen interested in socializing, eating, and drinking. Many of these were employed by Johns Hopkins, which Saroyan references. At the time Saroyan visited him in 1940, the Club was likely meeting at Shellhase’s Restaurant, a German eatery. Mencken himself was German-American and throughout most of his life supported German causes, even during the wars. The Saturday Night Club disbanded in 1950.

In Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in Forever, Saroyan writes,

american merc"H. L. Mencken was a Baltimore man, writing for the Sun, who had moved out into the world of magazine publishing with the Smart Set, a magazine just enough before my time not to be a part of my reading experience. But when with George Jean Nathan he founded The American Mercury, I studied the first issue in 1924 from cover to cover at the Public Library. Writing on an Underwood upright typewriter at 3204 El Monte Way, I began to send him essays, which came back in terrible silence in the self-addressed stamped envelope, each manuscript with a clipped-on printed Rejection Slip. Not a word from H. L. Mencken himself, not a word from George Jean Nathan, not a word from even a clerk at The American Mercury.

And there I was sixteen full years of age getting nowhere. But how could I get anywhere? The stuff I sent out was bad. One of the essays had the title Your High School Ignoramus Speaks, which may suggest how sad the writing was, but perhaps also the unfortunate effect of Mr. Mencken’s style on one raw, inexperienced new writer in a small and barren place in America.

I kept trying to break into The American Mercury all through 1924 and 1925, and then I got mad and wrote an attack on Mencken, Nathan, Haldeman-Julius, and God— but neither The Bookman, Scribner's, The North American Review, Century, nor any of the other quality magazines wanted the thing. Need I add, the dirty rats? I just couldn't break into the writing game, as I had heard it put in various advertisements of correspondence schools.

I never took anybody's course, and I never stopped reading H. L. Mencken. He was just too funny, too good a writer, to lose simply because he had no time to notice that if my writing was bad, there was surely at least a hint of real genius between the lines. He certainly discovered a couple of interesting writers while they were still young, why not me? And then I decided, Ah the hell with it, I'll only enjoy reading The American Mercury every month, I won't even try to write for it. That was a very intelligent decision.

And then all of a sudden things began to happen. I was in, I was no longer out, and I had even had a couple of stories in The American Mercury itself, even though it was no longer edited by H. L. Mencken. But at least the format was the same, the green cover, and the paper, and the print.

We finally met at his home on Hollins Street in Baltimore. He looked precisely like a German butcher’s boy, although his father was actually a German cigar-maker. We had a nice lunch, served by his housekeeper and cook, and then he lighted up a cigar while I continued to smoke Chesterfields – pure nicotine and tar, but in those days also pure pleasure.”

The chapter about Mencken continues and it’s worth reading to understand what it was like for Saroyan to meet his idol.

Saroyan had also written to Mencken for advice in 1936 about getting into magazine editing and Mencken replies that instead he should shoot himself rather than become an editor. Mencken was something of an iconoclast.

LovesOldSweetSOng001In 1940, Mencken refuses Saroyan’s invitation to see his play, explaining that he never attended the theater, and so Saroyan meets him instead in the back room of a saloon where once a week Mencken and his buddies, most of whom were from Johns Hopkins, drank beer and chatted for a few hours. In Here Comes, There Goes You Know Who, he writes, “When I visited H.L. Mencken at his home in Baltimore and invited him to come and see a performance of Love’s Old Sweet Song, Mencken puffed at his cigar and said, ‘I never go to the theatre. Can’t stand the boobs.’ ‘The audience?’ ‘Oh, no,’ Mencken said, ‘they’re charming. I mean on the stage.”

The two kept in touch and Mencken even enlisted Saroyan’s help in understanding the Armenian-American language experience, as Mencken had written The American Language about English spoken in the United States. Saroyan’s reply is also fascinating and is worth reading in the presentation version of this article.

At this time in his life, in 1940, even when Saroyan was failing, he was succeeding. The play didn’t get rave reviews, but he got to meet Mencken. And this chapter is actually named for the address of Mencken’s house, not the Ford Theater where the play was showing. In many ways, Saroyan’s career had come full circle and meeting the person he admired as a child was the pinnacle. His career successes had become so common by 1940 that they barely rated anymore. The dopamine came from the perks of being famous and the access it grants. Here we have another chapter about the unexpected turns life takes and the importance of taking chances.

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