The Scholar in the Kingdom of the Mouse, II: The Ben Sharpsteen Museum

You might think scholarship is boring.  Dull as dirt.  Best reserved for those in the monastery or the ivory tower.

You’d be wrong.

Scholarship is an adventure, a  treasure-hunt.  And the quest brings surprising and unexpected discoveries.   Researching the George R. Stewart biography, for example, I discovered that famous writers like Stephen King and Wallace Stegner and William Least Heat Moon, musician and composer Philip Aaberg, scientist Dr. James D. Burke of JPL, and Jimi Hendrix were influenced by Stewart’s works.

Walt Disney was also a great fan of Stewart.  He even hired Stewart to work at the studio as a consultant.  Stewart discussed ideas with various studio personnel; then submitted a report about the potential for American folklore films, and educational films.   Stewart’s recommendations went to Ben Sharpsteen, legendary Disney producer and director.

In preparing materials for donation to the George R. Stewart Collection at the University of Nevada, Reno, I happened upon a copy of Stewart’s report to Sharpsteen.  The copy came from the Walt Disney Archives (Stewart’s copy is in the George R. Stewart Papers at the Bancroft Library).  That discovery inspired a wander through Wikipedia and Google to find what was available online about Ben Sharpsteen.  Sites recorded his extensive contributions to Disney, where he began as an animator, became a Director (Pinocchio, Dumbo), and eventually produced True-Life Adventure documentaries – work which earned Sharpsteen and the studio multiple Oscars.

And there, among the Google listings, was a golden Sharpsteen nugget:  he and his wife, Bernice, had founded a museum, in Calistoga, California, at the base of Mt. St. Helena.

The Ben Sharpsteen Museum preserves and interprets several chapters of California history, with emphasis on the pioneer days and Sharpsteen’s work for Disney.  Trip Advisor gives it a 4.5 rating.

The museum includes the home of Sam Brannan, who started the Gold Rush when he rushed through the streets of San Francisco waving a bottle filled with gold, yelling, “Gold, boys, Gold!  From the American River!”  (Brannan was a businessman – he started the Gold Rush so he could profit from selling supplies to 49ers.)  The Brannan cottage contains exhibits and artifacts from the pioneer era in California, including some from the Donner Party, and a massive diorama of the Hot Springs Resort that Brannan founded in Calistoga.  (The resort was supposed to be named the “Saratoga of California,” they say, but Brannan’s consumption of the celebratory champagne at the resort’s dedication befuddled his tongue and he toasted “The Calistoga of Sarifonia!” and Calistoga it is.)

The Sharpsteen Museum includes a Robert Louis Stevenson exhibit.  Stevenson and his wife, Fanny, visited the area on their honeymoon; and Stevenson used local geography and history in the writing of Treasure Island.

And so we circle back to George R. Stewart, who explored the area in 1919-20  researching his Master’s Thesis on Stevenson and Treasure Island.  Stewart had been fascinated with Stevenson’s novel since he discovered it as a boy in the family attic in Indiana, Pennsylvania.  Stevenson’s use of maps in the book became a foundation of Stewart’s later work.

Treasure-island-map

Stevenson  once wrote “It is my contention—my superstition, if you like—that he who is faithful to his map, and consults it, and draws from it his inspiration, daily and hourly, gains positive support…. The tale has a root there: it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words….As he studies [the map], relations will appear that he had not thought upon.”  Stewart’s ecological novels and histories, like Stevenson’s Treasure Island, would be based on maps.

Stevenson once admitted the scenery in Treasure Island was based partly on California locations.  Inspired by that comment, Stewart set out to discover what areas or history were foundational to the novel. He explored the area around Mt. St. Helena, including Calistoga (and with his passionate interest in the Westward Movement, which led to books like Ordeal By Hunger, it is certain he visited the Sam Brannan Cottage.)

Stewart’s field research in the Calistoga and Mt. St. Helens area, his interviews with pioneers who remembered the Stevensons, and his geographic explorations gave him the answer:  Flat-topped Spyglass Hill was based on flat-topped Mt. St. Helena.  The Stevensons’  honeymoon spot, an abandoned mine on St. Helena – the Old Juan Silverado Mine – gave readers the name of one of the great characters in literature, “Long John Silver.”  There is a collection of photographs in the George R. Stewart Papers related to his Stevenson research; some may be from his 1919 reseach trip.  (Stewart also met and interviewed Stevenson relatives during his 1921 bicycle trip through Europe – three elderly cousins in Edinburgh who remembered RLS as a boy; and Lord Balfour in England.  Davey Balfour, the hero of Kidnapped, was based on a real RLS relative.)

Later, Stewart would write his discovery about Treasure Island into Storm – the first ecological novel and the book from which we get the practice of naming storms.  Each chapter ends with a “litany” of landforms or places.  Here is the beginning of the litany of the coastal peaks:

“This is the roll-call of those chief summits rising against the first in-sweep of the storm from the ocean.  Mt. Sanhedrin.  Mt. Kinocti that watches above the lake.  Sulphur Peak on whose slopes the geysers fume and spout.  Then flat-topped St. Helena, named for a Russian princess, transmuted in romance to Spy-Glass Hill.  …”  [emphasis added]

Disney, who produced what is perhaps the best film version of Treasure Island, would also film Stewart’s Storm for the Disney TV show.

So the circle continues:  Stewart discovers where Spyglass Hill is located, explores Calistoga along the way (and certainly the Brannan Cottage).  Later, Walt Disney hires Stewart as a consultant, and he sends his recommendations to Ben Sharpsteen – who eventually turns the Sam Brannan Cottage into a museum, interpreting some of the same history as Stewart – that of the Donner Party, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Disney.

(It’s a personal circle, too.  Our family friends, the Broughtons, had a Disney connection.  Bob Broughton was in charge of the multiplane camera, the camera department, special effects.  The multiplane camera crew included the first employees in the new Burbank studio, working on Pinocchio.  Bob worked closely with Ben Sharpsteen on the complicated 6-level shots. Eventually, Bob, like Ben Sharpsteen,  became a Disney Legend.)

Inspired, I called the Ben Sharpsteen Museum.  Two members of the Board of the Directors, Kathy Bazzoli and Pat Larsen, answered by speakerphone.  It was a pleasure to talk with them – they’re knowledgeable and enthusiastic.  Kathy followed up with an email that referenced a book for sale in their bookstore, Dutton’s “They Left Their Mark,” which mentions Stewart’s research.

If you’re a Disney fan (and who isn’t?) or a Robert Louis Stevenson fan (and who isn’t?) or a George R. Stewart fan (and there are millions of those), I encourage a visit to the Sharpsteen Museum…and to Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, on the slopes of Mt. St. Helena.  The Sharpsteen Museum is certainly at the top of my travel list.

 

 

Is Maria Dead?

USA Today has run a front-page article announcing that names used for last year’s devasting season have been retired, never to be used again.  If the newspaper, or those who killed the names for storms had done any research, they’d have learned that Maria stands apart for all storms and should have never had her name retired.

Maria was the name George R. Stewart had his Young Meteorologist give the tiny storm he was tracking.  Maria would grow into a hearty adulthood, reshaping the human and natural world over the twelve days of her life.  She was a West Coast/Sierra Nevada version of a great hurricane.  Her interaction with humans gives his fine novel its ecological focus and can’t-put-it-down drama.

Stewart’s naming of the storm was an idea borrowed from Napier Shaw.  (Always ethical, GRS admits it in the beginning of the book.)

13647699

STORM is the book that gives us the practice of naming storms.The book was widely-read, especially the WW II paperback version issued to GI troops, (The GI version had the kind of racy cover encouraging young men to read it in search of the action the cover promised.)  After the war, some of the military  readers – Vic Moiteret comes to mind, since he eventually became “Chief Areologist” (Meteorologist) for the Navy and had influence – and the idea was adopted as a formal practice.

better infantry journal storm

Now we’re told  Maria’s name is no more.  (Ironically, it’s not Maria that caused the greatest human suffering, but national inattention to post-storm conditions in Puerto Rico.)

Be reassured!  Stewart’s Maria has NOT been put to death.  If the World Meterological Organization or the national  fishwrap had bothered to do some research they would have discovered that the first named storm, the one which gave us the practice of naming storms, is NOT “Maria,”  “Mar-ee-a.”   It’s “Maria” – pronounced, as GRS puts it, in the old-fashioned way, with a long i:  “Mar-eye-a.”  Since Walt Disney filmed the novel for TV and Lerner and Loew “borrowed” the name for one of their best-known songs,  Maria will thrive whether the WMO puts their Maria out to pasture or not.

Long live our Maria.

 

Earth Day Reflections on George R. Stewart

I am convinced that the Founding Father of Earth Day and the Environmental Movement was George R. Stewart.  Many contributed, of course – Mary Austin, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, the Sierra Club, Stephen T. Mather, Ansel Adams, TR, Gifford Pinchot, and so on.  But before Stewart, the preservationists, conservationists, and environmentalists spoke mainly to a literate urban elite, not a vast middle class.  So the ideas stayed within a comparatively small circle of people.

George R. Stewart, professor at Berkeley, was a member of that elite circle; but he was also a great admirer of the common man.  His interest was in educating the general literate middle class about the ecological point of view.   So he wrote for that audience (and did it in a manner so well-researched and literate that he also reached those in the small circle of elite environmentalists).  His first ecological novel, STORM, focused on common folks as ecological heroes.

In FIRE, his next ecological novel, Stewart makes the different but related views of the common man and the elite when he  introduces two characters who represent the views of the two groups:  In one of the most remarkable passages, an old ranger and the young college-educated Chief Ranger debate the value of fire in the ecosystem.

Stewart used several techniques to reach the literate middle class.  Primary among these was basing the novel’s human protagonists on the common man – and in fact at times using the real stories of real people who became the real-life models for the heroes in his novels.   Johnny Martell (as I recall the name) apparently did walk across the front of a Sierra dam as storm water poured over the dam’s top.

Other characters, like  The Junior Meteorologist, are never named — thus making them Everyman.

Letters to Stewart show how powerful and appreciated was his presentation of common folks as environmental heroes.  In one, now in the Stewart Papers at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, a supervisor involved in the incident with the over-flowing dam, thanks GRS for showcasing the daily courage of such people, most never named or known.   In another, relating to Earth Abides, the writers talk about how that book encouraged to “the little people” like themselves. (That letter is also in the Stewart Papers.)

STORM and FIRE became international best-sellers and Book-of-the-Month Club selections.  Millions of people, most of them NOT in the older environmental elite, read the books and were educated in the ecological/environmentalist point of view and were inspired to see humans and their world in a entirely new way.  Although there was little in the national media about that viewpoint – the media, like the government, is usually years behind the general literate population – it had spread widely, long before there was an “Environmental Movement.”

Some elites helped the process when they, like GRS, spread the word.  Walt Disney, a great fan of Stewart, presented a fine short film version of Storm on the widely-viewed Disney television program and the ecological message of the novel reached a massive audience.   A Storm Called Maria, aired in 1959, trumpeting Stewart’s educational message to a huge audience.  Since it was airing when the Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams/Nancy Newhall exhibit, This Is The American Earth, was first presented, the Disney film saw its influence – and the teachings of GRS – multiplied exponentially.  Those who’d read the GRS novel could see the characters – especially the storm, Maria – come to vivid life, reinforcing the message that environmentalism belongs to all of us.  Those who’d not read the novel were educated in the ecological point of view by the film.

Since Disney used real people in the real roles they play in the novels, it underscored the idea that common men and women, not simply the elites,  are environmentalists.  Disney’s subseqent TV film, “A Fire Called Jeremiah” expanded the audience and reinforced the GRS message.

By the time Stewart wrote Fire he understood what his vision was and how he could teach it to others.  In an extraordinary letter, sent in 1948 in answer to questions from the publicist for the Book-Of-The-Month Club, Stewart wrote:

I consider the main theme … to be the problem of the relationship of man to his environment.  I really think of myself, in most of my books, as what might be called an ecologist.  

Long before “ecology” became a common phrase, Stewart had realized he was teaching his readers – his vast number of readers, some in the elite but mostly middle class people – the values and principles of the ecological or environmentalist point of view.  He was doing it as early as the mid-1930s, in his ecologically-based history Ordeal By Hunger.  But by 1948 – seven years before This Is The American Earth and two decades before the first Earth Day, Stewart was preparing his readers – teaching them – educating them – to the ecological point of view.

Clearly, George R. Stewart was a Founding Father of Earth Day.  Perhaps THE Founding Father.