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Barry Schrader
Columnist

 

I currently have columns running in 3 newspapers;

  • Tri-Valley Herald : Looking Back
  • Valley Times : Do You Remember?
  • The Independent : Do You Remember?

The Articles appear in the Herald and Independent on Thursdays,
and the Times on Sundays.

They will also be found on this page each week as well.

 

If you've missed any please follow the links on the dates to catch up.

Archive Page

Danville celebrates its most famous citizen

By Barry Schrader.................................October 6, 2005

Sixty-one years after he left his house on the hillside, playwright Eugene O’Neill was recognized with a monument across from the Danville Library on Front Street last week.

Danville’s most famous resident died 52 years ago. It took until 1974 for a local foundation to save the historic Tao House from the wrecker’s ball and then turn it into a National Historic Site (legislation was signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976, thanks to the efforts of state legislators Daniel Boatwright, John Nejedly and others).

For those who don’t follow the theater much, you should know that O’Neill was the first American playwright to ever receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded to him in 1936. He also earned four Pulitzer prizes in drama for his plays “Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie, Strange Interlude, and Long Day’s Journey into Night.” His only comedy, “Ah, Wilderness!” has been performed by thousands of high school and thespian troups around the world.

O’Neill’s early life was much like that of another Bay Area literary figure, Jack London, my favorite writer who lived for two years of his boyhood in Livermore. O’Neill spent time at sea, lived the life of a derelict, worked as a reporter on the New London Telegraph, submerged himself in alcohol and attempted suicide, all before the age of 25.

It was much later, in 1937, that he and his wife Carlotta found the isolated and picturesque hillside property above Danville and purchased 158 acres. They moved there and began building their dream home—Tao House—three days before Christmas that same year. O’Neill produced some of his finest works during his residency there—including “Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Iceman Cometh, Hughie,” and “A Moon for the Misbegotten.” Despite continuing health problems and depression over world affairs and the war, he proved to be very prolific during the six years in the then-rural San Ramon Valley. Finally in 1944 after his servants and driver left because of wartime, he and his wife sold the house and moved to a San Francisco hotel. But he never wrote another play after leaving Tao House.

The reason they chose Danville was because Carlotta had been raised in this area, as well as her daughter and a grandson. She dedicated the rest of her life to fulfilling her husband’s wishes to live in an isolated, fortress-like home and take guardianship of his creative life. She was his muse and called the “dragon lady” due to her protectiveness. O’Neill loved the place because it was absolute country, no trace of suburbia or city life, and had inspiring views of the valley below.

Danville residents didn’t see much of the famous playwright, however, as he had a chauffer-driven car, shopped and visited mostly in Oakland and San Francisco, and the driver picked up the mail, dry cleaning and groceries for them. But occasionally their wandering Dalmation named Blemie had to be retrieved from the streets of town. All these tidbits I learned from talking to Beverly Lane who is a resident expert on the O’Neills, along with several other locals on the foundation.

It is fitting that the town finally memorialized its most famous citizen with the unveiling of the public artwork in Front Street Park. Thanks to the longstanding efforts of the folks who operate the foundation (see website at www.eugeneoneill.org) visitors can see a completely restored house and grounds, plus have access to the research library as well as educational and artistic programs. If it hadn’t been for the foundation and legal efforts of the National Park Service, the local Kuss Road Homeowners Association would have cut off road access to Tao House and it wouldn’t be available to the public today.

***

The question about the famous alum of Valley Campus (now Las Positas) generated a quick response from Dottie Laird of Pleasanton whose late husband Ralph was a friend and fellow political memorabilia collector with former Congressman Jim Rogan. The congressman paid tribute to his old friend with a special resolution in Congress before Ralph’s death.

Back in the early 1970s Jim dropped out of high school, but found new direction and educational stimulation through Valley Campus and its supportive staff when it first opened in 1975. In his book, “Rough Edges, My Unlikely Road from Welfare to Washington,” he tells great anecdotes about Livermore’s Straw Hat Pizza where he worked, about his poly sci instructor Esther Goldberg, and then his encounters with Pleasanton-Livermore Democratic Club rabble-rouser Birdie Bianchi, plus attorneys Allan Grossman and Dave Harris. Then-State Assemblyman Floyd Mori also earned some ink in his chapter entitled “The Party of the Little Guy.”

Rogan has not only been a Congressman, but also Majority Leader of the State Assembly, a gang prosecutor in LA, and most recently Undersecretary of the US Department of Commerce and Director of the Patent and Trademark Office in the current Bush Administration. He will be the keynote speaker at an upscale GOP fundraiser at Blackhawk later this month and said he hopes to return to the Bay Area in November when he would like to visit his old alma mater Las Positas and address the students there.

***

The question for next time: What is the name of the new book just published by former Pleasanton resident and Vietnam War hero, Major Lee Basnar? He visited here a year ago to introduce his book on his Vietnam War experiences, and said he would next write an adventure story about his 16 years in the Alaskan bush country, which he has now completed. Lee was once president of the Tri-Valley Exchange Club and is remembered fondly by many club members yet today.

 

The columnist can be reached via email at :

Historian2sbcglobal.net

or by snailmail at:

Barry Schrader
PO Box 446
Livermore, CA. 94551

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