PD arts writer Dan Taylor: From the basement to the stars
“Behind the Byline” introduces you to those who write stories, shoot photos, design pages and edit the content we deliver in our print editions and on pressdemocrat.com. We’re more than journalists. As you’ll see, we’re also your neighbors with unique backgrounds and experiences who proudly call Sonoma County home.
Today, we introduce you to arts and entertainment writer Dan Taylor.
One of my first memories is seeing my parents onstage. It was an extremely low-budget community production, and really more of a skit than a play, but I still can picture them in too-big coats and floppy hats, shouting back and forth across a nearly empty stage.
The arts were a way of life for them. Neither earned a living at it — my father was a veterinarian and my mother a teacher — but their devotion to the arts was evident in many of the things they did.
My father painted with oils and watercolors, made wood-burned reproductions of Charles Russell’s paintings of the Old West, wrote stories peppered with puns and played a dozen different musical instruments. My mother played cello and piano. They kept a ceramics kiln in the basement of our home just north of Seattle.
Naturally, I followed all of those pursuits in my own way. My first love was cartooning, but I also took violin, piano and drum lessons, performed in high school and college plays and entered college as an art major.
When I heard an inspiring lecture at the University of Washington from a former newspaper editor, I decided to pick my own job definition: arts journalist. I reasoned that it worked for H. L. Mencken, who declared himself “a critic of ideas.”
“Fine,” said a cynical friend. “But how do you earn a living at it?”
First, I worked out my own course of instruction. Once I’d taken all my required classes in college, I chose as my electives surveys of art history, classical music and opera. I wrote a piece for the school magazine on a new training program for professional actors.
Once out of college, I spent nearly five years at a daily newspaper in eastern Washington state covering police, city government and the courts, while slipping in features on visiting musicians and local theater.
I not only accumulated some clippings for future job applications, but I got to meet the Limeliters folk trio, singer-songwriter Bill Withers, opera singer Beverly Sills, comedian Victor Borge and ukulele player and popular late-night talk show guest Tiny Tim.
Next I went to work as a full-time arts writer at the Sun Newspapers of Omaha, a group of urban weeklies with a 50,000 paid circulation that had just won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigation of finances at Boys Town.
The owner of that publication was financier and investment guru Warren Buffett, and I covered his wife Susie’s performance as a cabaret singer. It was a relief for a nervous new hire like me to discover she could really sing.
There were always visiting artists on tour, providing chances to interview Joel Grey of “Cabaret” fame, comedian Steve Allen, Leonard Nimoy of “Star Trek” and Henry Winkler, then a sensation as The Fonz on “Happy Days.” Some of the interviews were in person and others were by phone, but they all added to my ongoing education.
Best of all were movie star Henry Fonda’s election-year visits to his home state of Nebraska, where he’d rent a hotel suite in downtown Omaha and, between pitches for his favorite liberal political candidates, share stories about his famous friends, including director Josh Logan and actor Jimmy Stewart, with passing references to his sometimes infamous kids: Jane and Peter.
Once, Fonda recalled making a film that was re-edited and retitled after its initial release. “That ain’t the picture I signed up to make,” Fonda drawled. “But I’m too bored to fight it.” (That became a motto for me: Disappointments are inevitable, but just move on.)
From there, I reentered the world of daily newspapers at a small paper in eastern San Diego County.
As always, I focused on the arts, but there were news stories, too. I had learned early on that if I wanted steady work, I had to do a little bit of everything. I did get to meet country singer Merle Haggard, who talked about having served time at San Quentin for burglary.
Finally, I found my way to The Press Democrat in 1981. Shortly after I arrived in Santa Rosa, the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts opened and again, over time, I met some big-name visitors, including the Righteous Brothers, Lou Rawls and Roy Orbison. And I talked to Steve Allen again. (I didn’t expect him to remember me, and he didn’t.)
Then nine years ago, the Green Music Center opened, soon bringing Audra McDonald, Ben Harper, John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett to perform, and I was there for those shows.
Sometimes there were multiple encounters with the same person. I interviewed Joan Baez first about her music and later about her paintings, and Eleanor Coppola about both her art and her filmmaking, at different times.
A friend at a pub once told me, “I am going to mention a famous person and if you say you’ve met them, I’m leaving.” (I had interviewed the person in question, Garrison Keillor, in San Francisco, but I said nothing to my friend.)
Most people seem to enjoy the name dropping and ask me who I’ve interviewed, and I’ve only mentioned a small sample here. But at each paper I wrote for, I found the local talent was every bit as interesting as the visiting stars were.
I won’t forget the stagehand in Omaha who wrote musicals about Lucifer and Dracula, or the man who overcame his physical disabilities to start his own acting studio in San Diego.
Here, at my fourth paper, I have had a long time to get to know the locals better: actors, artists, musicians, dancers, poets, playwrights, actors, directors and novelists.
More than ever, the pandemic experience has demonstrated how resourceful creative people can be, exploring the possibilities of online-only and outdoor events, and discovering new avenues for expression. Now they are using what they’ve learned as they cautiously emerge from the shutdown.
Some readers say they find the daily news dreary. Accidents will happen, disasters may be unavoidable and crime, unfortunately, may always be with us, but there are ways to make our lives better, and one of them is through the arts.
You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 707-521-5243. On Twitter @danarts.
Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat
Do you take fun seriously? I know I do. Tell me what you want to know about arts and entertainment in the North Bay to make the best use of your leisure time and money. As a longtime local arts journalist, I have learned where to look and who to ask.