Gaye LeBaron: Remembering Williegate, a 'musical' scandal

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Willie Nelson was in town last Tuesday. Luther Burbank Center was sold out, jammed packed. As one who has been a Willie fan since those dear, dead days when guitars didn’t have cords attached, I was there. It was a crowd ranging in age from youngsters in their 50s to gray beards older than Willie himself, who is 86.

He hasn’t lost his mojo. He provided a country-classic playlist, mostly the ones that brought whoops of delight at the first two chords — “On the Road Again,” “Always on My Mind,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” “Whiskey River,” “Crazy,” and about dozen more.

There were a lot of Willie T-shirts in the crowd, some from concerts in the ‘70s. I looked for but didn’t see the Sonoma County classic reading:

“Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be FAIR DIRECTORS.”

At 38 years and counting, it may be that it is too long to hold a grudge.

...

The grudge wasn’t against Willie. In a strange and truly inexplicable way, he was the hero.

It was the Sonoma County Fair Board of Directors that was cast in the role of villains in the historic (using the adjective loosely) event known as “Williegate.”

Sonoma County fans have been treated to Willie’s unique talents several times since that unfortunate political adventure. Each one, as he grows older, recalls the time, 38 years ago, when Willie DIDN’T come.

The singer was bouncing off the top of the charts when he was scheduled to headline a concert at the fairgrounds in late July 1981.

There was no Green Music Center. There was no Luther Burbank Center (Henry Trione was just then gathering “investors” known as Henry’s Angels to buy the church buildings of the defunct Christian Life Center). The stars of the music world hit town just once a year in those days — to play at the Sonoma County Fair.

In the spring, when the contracts were negotiated, the main attractions were ostensibly a secret. But it was still a comparatively small town in those days and … well, you know how it is. People who had stood in line to hear Loretta Lynn the year before heard murmurs that Willie, fresh from his role in the Redford/Fonda film “The Electric Horseman,” would be on the docket for late July.

Leafing through the newspapers of the day, one can almost feel the instant outrage at what happened next, told on the front pages and creatively expressed in a month or more of vitriolic “letters to the editor.”

...

The “situation” unfolded like this:

MAY 15, a Friday, 7:30 a.m.: The note posted on the door at the fair office, where a considerable crowd had been gathering since 6 a.m., read: “All Willie Nelson reserved seats for the 9 p.m. show are sold out through fair directors presale. Pit and bleacher tickets for the 9 p.m. show are available.”

If you were one of those in line, you probably can still conjure the roars and shrieks of outrage echoing down through the years.

Nineteen of the 20 board members had purchased 1,500 tickets before they went on public sale.

The first explanation from Fair Manager Ignazio Vella was that directors were concerned Nelson’s twin concerts “might not sell out,” so they voted to order ahead of time to insure the singer’s fee, which was reported as either $50,000 or $90,000, take your pick.

The fair board president, exhibiting leadership, bought 404 of the 1,500 tickets. Either he had a great deal of “concern” — or a lot of Willie-fan friends.

MAY 17: The board president made his first comment on the matter, telling reporters about the fear that Nelson would not be a big enough draw. “We guessed wrong,” he said. He was right about that.

MAY 19: A list was published with the names of who bought the tickets and how many. Seventeen board members purchased tickets in double-digit numbers. One bought 360 and another acquired 404. In addition, two directors bought just eight family box seats, and one lone, very proud holdout, Joe Johnson, politely declined the offer.

Those who want more names can find them on the PD’s digitized website.

MAY 20: The first of a storm of outraged letters appeared in the editorial pages. The old, familiar “Name Withheld” (still allowed back then) led off with a description of the early morning surprise:

“I have never before seen a crowd change (so quickly) from nice and quiet to a mumbling, grumbling group.” Mild criticism, compared to what was to come.

MAY 27: Fair Manager Vella blamed Willie for the whole mess, saying that his decision to play San Francisco’s Cow Palace in June, just weeks before the July 29 fair concerts, drove worried fair directors into the pre-sale mode.

MAY 29: The headline read: “Willie tells fair to forget it.” Reporter Tim Tesconi’s story began: “Willie Nelson, borrowing the theme of a fellow country western singer, told the fair board to take that concert and shove it.”

(You’re dating yourself if you know the reference is to singer Johnny Paycheck, a short-timer compared to Willie.)

This was also the edition where the term “Williegate” appeared for the first time and where “stand-up” directors apologized and called upon their colleagues to do the same. Not all obliged.

MAY 31: The Board of Supervisors, who appointed fair directors, prepared an apology to disappointed Willie fans and, led by the Fifth District’s Ernie Carpenter, asked for a recall of all directors’ tickets.

Meanwhile, those who chose not to cast the singer in such a noble role referenced Willie’s voided contract with the fair, suggesting that 1) he had never actually signed it, and 2) that it may have had a standard “60-mile clause” prohibiting more than one concert within the area in a specified time period.

The Cow Palace, in South San Francisco, while a bit more than 60 miles away, is and was, of course, many times larger than the Sonoma County Fair venue.

JUNE 1: Now 17 days into Williegate, recriminations filled the air. Carpenter called for the fair president — who was his district appointee — to resign (he didn’t) and at least one director proposed a “discussion” of the role of the fair manager.

JUNE 2: The fair board announced a closed session meeting to take “a hard and fast look” at management and what part it played in Williegate. Meanwhile, the fair board president continued to refuse Carpenter’s request for his resignation.

JUNE 3: Citizens appeared before the supervisors, charging “cronyism” throughout county government, asking more “guidance” for the fair’s board and suggesting how management might have prevented the ticket scandal.

...

The critics were right. Williegate was a bona fide political scandal and it continued through June and into early July, with the focus now on management and specifically on the fair’s boss, Ig Vella.

The directors’ vote to dismiss him came on July 6, three weeks before the fair opened, 23 days before the date of the concert that wouldn’t take place.

The vote was a narrow 9-7. “One more vote,” was pretty much all Vella had to say. There is little doubt that Williegate cost him his job.

Postscript: Until his death in 2011, Vella was an iconic figure in his family’s business, the artisan cheese industry. Nor did he give up on government, becoming a charter member of the Sonoma Citizens Advisory Commission while spending 12 years on Sonoma’s Planning Commission.

If you’ve read this far you won’t be surprised to learn that the bad rap of Williegate persisted into the fair itself. The remaining directors, most of them blameless in the scandal, pleaded with the public not to let it interfere with 1) what they called the “real fair,” with the 4-H and FFA kids and their animals in the barns and the auction so important to the financing of the junior livestock program and 2) the horse races, which stood by themselves as an attraction paramount to the complex state financing of all county fairs.

As the Williegate beat went on, an enterprising printer named Steve Sass made the T-shirts printed with the “babies-to-fair directors” message. They became collector’s items.

...

Willie is a singer, not a talker, so there was no chit-chat or remembrances in his Tuesday concert. He said “Great to be here,” and “Thanks for coming” and that’s about all.

There is serious doubt that he had any personal knowledge of the 1981 scandal. An effort to check this resulted in a couple of desultory emails with representatives. My last was a polite request for someone to ask the singer if he ever heard of Williegate.

It brought a five-word reply: “That’s not going to happen.”

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