Recent Comments

    Reflections on a Hallowed Club Infused with Spiritual Energy

    reflectBy Barbara Price

    Twenty years ago this summer, I was sitting in the audience of a Joan Armatrading concert at the Berkeley Community Theater just before the show began, and my partner at the time leaned over to me and whispered, “I don’t know what you’re thinking right now, but whatever it is is reverberating two feet beyond your head.” I laughed and said, “Tell you later.” I’d just received a message loud and clear that I was to drive up and down Highway 24 in the Oakland hills, and find a perfect place to create a community center and performance space primarily for women. That led me to the Montclair Women’s Club on the corner of Mountain and Thornhill.

    The club had been built as a hunting lodge by a group of men from San Francisco. It was the first piece of land broken out of the old Spanish ranchero in the East Bay hills. Ground was broken in 1919, but by the early 1920s, the building had become a traditional Women’s Club until 1994, when it was sold to Moyer Realty. They were looking for someone to operate the building as a rental venue. I told them I wasn’t interested in renting the club and operating it for someone else—I wanted to buy the Club. I didn’t have the financing and any idea how I would get it, but I thought I would figure that out later. We worked out that I would lease the building with an option to buy it within 15 months. I picked up the key on October 8, my birthday.

    I spent a couple of weeks just sitting in the bare bones of the Club and waiting for inspiration. Slowly I began to get images of how this utilitarian rental hall would become a beautiful, welcoming center for feminist cultural activities and performances, and would be financed by occasional rentals for weddings and other life celebrations. The entire club was white inside and out; no color, no draperies, no indirect lighting. There were sliding glass aluminum doors and two very utilitarian bathrooms.

    I put the word out to friends that I was doing a “barn raising” and that everyone was welcome. Alix Dobkin had just moved into the house I shared with Susan Brennan. Retts Scauzillo was driving a school bus in San Francisco, but had evenings free. Peg Morris ran a t-shirt company in the South Bay, but put in lots of hours and brought her rolling scaffolding. We cleaned every surface, primed and painted—often a number of times as I was working my way through the color palette of Mark’s Paint shop with advice from Jade Freed, a professional painter.

    One night it was raining, and a woman came in under a full slicker and said, “I go by here every night on my way home and see you all in here climbing the walls with paint brushes. What are you doing?!” We laughed and gave her a paintbrush and she came nightly thereafter, crawling in the overhead kitchen cupboards, cleaning and painting. Even the inside of the cupboards had to look good. Late at night when we were exhausted, Alix would keep us going by calling out every old joke she could remember. More and more women came, giving a few hours (or days) at a time.

    One night, Elizabeth Seja Min walked in and said, “I think you need a piano and I have one to spare.” It turned out to be the first practice piano played by Antonia Brico as a child (the first professional woman conductor in the world). That old 1920 Estey was the club piano for about 15 years—played by Mary Watkins (she always professed that she loved that old seasoned piano), Ady Torf, Barbara Higbie, Tammy Hall, Margie Adam, Cris Williamson and even Dave Matthews, plus so many others. A few years ago, Vicki Randle walked in and offered a significant upgrade with her much newer piano from Los Angeles, which wouldn’t fit through her living room window when she moved back to the East Bay.

    One day, I was testing a deep color of Cranberry Red (which I had mixed myself at the paint store) on the walls of the foyer. Friends hesitantly suggested that it was way too intense and alarming to be the first thing that greeted people. I said, “But it’s magic. You walk in through a narrow opening that expands into a large open room and it’s all red. What could be better? It kind of secretly anoints everyone in the Goddess when they enter.” I was getting skeptical looks. Then Judy Grahn walked in to consider the club for her Goddess Series (that went on for several years), and pronounced, “This is my color!” She had published Blood, Bread and Roses. That sealed the deal. The warm magical color has been a hallmark of the club ever since.

    I contacted my old friend Dreamwalker, who had been the quilter at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival during the 20 years I was producing it with Lisa Vogel. I invited her to come stay with me for a few months and paint a mural on the wall of the bar. I had dreamed a fanciful garden named Lilith’s Garden that would be beautiful, fun and playful, and yet imbedded with much magic and deep women’s energy accessible to all. She manifested that, and sponged a dozen colors of latex paint on the walls, which took two weeks. She then began to apply the images. The corners began to crack. We had thought the walls were plaster, but in fact they were 10 layers of paint and 3 layers of wallpaper going back to the 1920’s.

    So much water had soaked the walls for weeks that we were able to pull off large pieces of the original hand-screened wallpaper from under the paint. A large section of that wallpaper was framed by Elida Scola, and hangs in the foyer today to honor the original women who began this club. We moved on to painting the bar furniture and a whole new set of helpers arrived including Linda Tillery, Abby Abinanti, Margaret Sloan Hunter, Robin Flower, Ginny Berson and many others. Then I began to make table cloths for the bar, and draperies for my office in the adjoining caretaker’s cottage. More women came to join afternoon sewing circles and to help with the hemming—Ali Marrero, Nancy Schimmel, Terry Sendgraf and Jackie Dennis (eventually Terry ran women’s workout classes and Jackie ran women’s intuition classes here for years).

    By spring, I put out another call, and had legions of helpers climb on the roof and paint the entire exterior of the building, including my son Andres home from Los Angeles, Rhiannon, Martha Steinhagen, and so many others. There were lots of extension poles down from the roof. Susan Brennan’s parents, Bob and Helen, came to visit and they bought me beautiful new front doors before they left.

    One day I was talking to Therese Edell on the phone, and we both wished she were well enough to visit from Ohio, but she wasn’t. So I got a video recorder and taped myself walking through the whole club, explaining every corner to her. I wish I knew where a copy of that recording was now.

    Around the first Thanksgiving (6 weeks after I first turned the key), I set up a large square table in the middle of the ballroom that would seat about 40 women. I invited a group of friends who had joined the work crew for a large feast I had cooked. They included singers, musicians, writers, natural health practitioners, body workers, psychics and my friends. There was an altar on the front of the stage, for thanks and many blessings for what would be manifested in this building. We began the dinner with a musical invocation from Linda Tillery, Alix Dobkin, Lauren Carley and Ellen Seeling on trumpet. We called the directions by each musician walking in from one corner of the ballroom, singing/playing a beautiful call. We all shared stories and blessings, and Debbie Fier played the piano in the salon (my growing up piano as a child). Her daughter Reina and Abby’s daughter Emma were tiny girls and they passed trays of chocolates to everyone (eating quite a few as they went). I feel that evening protected the club, and invested it with the highest purpose. It laid the grounding for all that would follow in the next 20 years.

    So many events have happened at the club in the last 20 years. Concerts by all the musicians, from across the country and round the world covering 3 generations. There have been years of monthly breakfasts served by club members, cooked by Joan Antonuccio after she closed the Brick Hut; and monthly teas with scones and egg sandwiches and sweets from my hands, monthly game nights, monthly Third Thursday Talent Nights coordinated by Alix Dobkin, then Retts Scauzillo and me, and finally Janet Rachel. The Montclair Women’s Big Band was created here by me, Ellen Seeling and Jean Fineberg. The band played here many times for parties, concerts and dances, but also at the Grammys, the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center, and at the SF Jazz Festival with a recording at SkyWalker.

    There have been so many people who have worked on staff in all capacities over the years, and I want to name those who have given so much. Retts Scauzillo as Stage Manager, Leslie Ann Jones as the first Sound Engineer, followed by David Allen from Beach Blanket Babylon who has been Sound Engineer for many years now, KT Graham as the first Lighting Director and then KC Cohen as the Lighting Designer who was on stage crew when I was Producer of the Night Stage at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, Tia Watts who drives down from Sonoma County each time to be the Box Office Manager, of course Joan Antonuccio from the Brick Hut days is our House Chef, Sue Stacey who set up my club computer and helped in so many ways, Peg Morris who was my right hand helper in the first year and actually gave me a loan for the down payment on the club until I could qualify for a bank loan, Susan Brennan who supported me emotionally in the first years when I leapt into this crazy made-up idea, Martha Steinhagen who flew in from Michigan or the Caribbean yearly to help with all the physical and mechanical repairs, Lynnee Breedlove who worked here for several years assisting with events, and a special shout out to my son, Andres García-Price, who has crewed for shows, painted the front yard sign, provided many graphic artworks for letterhead and posters, and produced and directed the Montclair Women’s Big Band DVD. My great thanks goes to my House and Event Manager Sean Araneda who has worked with me here for the last several years from 8am–2am, setting up furniture, equipment and electrical, corralling outside vendors from band members to caterers to florists to sound and light guys to all. He’s family to me, and I am indebted to him for accompanying me on this trip.

    Of course, there have been many weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, bar/bat mitzvahs, memorials, recitals, casino parties, and art shows. This club is layered with thousands of celebrations. It is sad to close the doors on this era, but it will be transformed into its third life as a beautiful LaPort Montesorri School, and all those children will be infused with the spiritual energy embedded in this hallowed club.

    My many thanks to the Women’s Community, the LGBT Community, the City of Oakland, and to the people of the San Francisco Bay Area for embracing this club as a rich part of the great culture of the Bay Area. I treasure every minute of the whole run.

    Barbara “Boo” Price founded the Montclair Women’s Cultural Arts Club in 1996. See page 4 of this issue for more information about her incredible life, work and achievements.