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Friends for a Lifetime

By William W. Whitney

Will Gulbrandson had been talking for weeks about the forthcoming arrival of his cousin from Minneapolis. To hear him tell it, this cousin was special. The cousin and his mother were to live just down the street. When he appeared -- a city-type obviously, too well dressed, leading a Pekingese on a leash -- we regarded him with a wary and critical eye. What was so special about this kid? And why didn't he get a real dog?

The year was 1928. I was 13 years old. The new arrival, also 13, became my best friend, a friendship that lasted 72 years. I shared many of the early influences that shaped Roy's vision, influences of the sort that would never appear on a curriculum vitae. Chief among these were the potent cultural brew that was Los Angeles in the 1930s, and an extremely close-knit group of friends.

The core of our group were four who were united in friendship as we entered high school. The four were Roy, Bruce Anderson, Warren Carter and myself. We were united in our interest in the arts and literature and by a wild, zany and defiant sense of humor. I use the word defiant because our idiosyncracies, oddball precocity and bookish interests put us at odds with the majority at a time of adolescence when it is imperative to conform.

An example of this defiance got Roy into hot water with the dean of men when we entered the University of Southern California. In filling out the entry forms, Roy listed as his religious preference the Cult of the Sacred Eye. His occupational goal: fan dancer.

We were fortified against the Philistines by our mutual admiration and the native conviction that we knew everything. In our senior year of high school, the foursome was jolted by the arrival on the scene of two aliens from the nearby suburb of Lynwood: Eric Gill and Frances Cooksey. Everyone was smitten first by their exotic beauty, which Fran enhanced with brushloads of mascara and long earrings, and second by their cult-like aestheticism and knowledge of art: Modigliani, Klee, Japanese prints, Emil Nolde, Song dynasty porcelain and the music of Erik Satie were a few of the heady enthusiasms they brought with them. We were all converted and sighed with crushes on one or the other.

Roy's marriage to Fran and the home they established in Santa Cruz created a focal base that drew the others. Warren Carter became a master of handcrafted jewelry and with his partner, Burt Kessenick, the ceramic sculptor, bought a house in Bonny Doon, just up the road from the Rydells. Bruce Anderson, the noted potter, settled in Santa Cruz. And I, motivated by this gravitational pull, moved to San Francisco.

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Equally important was the influence of the Los Angeles cultural environment in the 1930s. We immersed ourselves.

We heard Stravinsky conduct the Rites of Spring, Shonberg conduct his Verklaerte Nacht and Otto Klemperer lead the Philharmonic in stirring renditions of Beethoven and Brahms. We searched out the works of the modernist architects Neutra and Schindler. The Perls Gallery and the Stanley Rose Bookshop in Hollywood were our regular haunts, where we saw exhibits of the emerging Surrealists, the School of Paris and avant-garde Americans.

Los Angeles at that time was an active center of dance. There were annual tours of the German modern dance pioneers Mary Wigman and Harald Kreutzburg. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which perpetuated the Diaghilev tradition, also made annual visits, and we knew many members of Lester Horton's local dance company.

Although we lived near the epicenter of the film industry, our sophomoric myopia led us to view Hollywood askance. Instead we sought out with mesmerized fasination the films of Jean Renoir, Eisenstein, Rene Clair, Carl Dyer and other Europeans.

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Roy and I thought Will Gulbrandson was a know-it-all and something of a blowhard. But Will was right about one thing: his cousin Roy Rydell from Minneapolis was special.


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