An inside look at the creative adventures of prolific local writer-filmmaker Geoffrey Dunn. Why his three new books and big MAH exhibit are poised to showcase Santa Cruz history in the most captivating light.
Nearly a quarter-century ago, Santa Cruz writer and filmmaker Geoffrey Dunn released a collection of his writings in a volume entitled “Santa Cruz Is in the Heart,” the first edition of which sold out in a few weeks and which has gone into a phenomenal six printings over the years. Dunn’s writings, with their unique mixture of personal reminiscences and observations, along with their revelatory accounts of regional history, capture the zeitgeist of our community as few others ever have.
This fall, Dunn will release a trio of books on local subjects—including a second volume of “Santa Cruz Is in the Heart,” featuring an entirely new collection of works written over the last two decades—while the Museum of Art & History is staging a major exhibit and an extensive, countywide series of programs of the same name that explore the dynamics of his writings and films, along with his in-depth, sometimes troubling, historical research.
MAH is calling the exhibit, which opens Aug. 30, “immersive” and draws upon Dunn’s vast collection of photographs, works of art, community artifacts, film and audio clips—and, perhaps most significantly, his narratives—to create a multi-sensory reflection on the greater Santa Cruz community and its often-contentious history.
A nationally celebrated author on American politics and a featured contributor at the Huffington Post, Dunn is nothing if not remarkably prolific. He says he has spent the last year or so “refocusing” on local subjects and completing “backlogged” material and research projects that he set aside a few years ago while writing his best-selling polemic, “The Lies of Sarah Palin.” After engaging in what he calls “a nasty bout with cancer,” he says the last few years have been an “intensely creative period” for him, “liberating in many respects,” and he has already embarked on a series of new film and writing projects, along with completing a play set on Monterey’s Cannery Row that he started several years ago—all while being actively engaged in the community and with his extensive network of friends and family.
Dunn took time out to discuss the upcoming exhibit, his books, and his life-long, albeit ever-changing, love affair with Santa Cruz.
Gloria Nieto: I guess you can go home again …
Geoffrey Dunn: Well, Glo, I guess that remains to be seen. And in this sense, Santa Cruz is constantly changing, at a very rapid rate it seems to me, and so I’m not sure it’s really the same place in which I grew up, and certainly not the same place it was, say, a hundred years ago. Which has always been part of the motivation for me writing about it—trying to capture various moments in time.
Nieto: A lot of things have changed for you personally since the publication of your last book. Health issues, family losses, life in general. It’s not always easy, obviously. I am wondering how any of these changes have affected your perspective as you look further into the history of Santa Cruz and the region?
Dunn: I like to think that I have a wiser, broader perspective on life and the community than I did 30 or 40 years ago. A different vantage point certainly. And in many ways I’m a much better writer than when I was younger. But youth also has its benefits. I was more open to engaging new peoples and new communities back then. There’s nothing like that “coming of age” period in your life. But I have always been of the opinion, to borrow a phrase from one of my favorite bards, that he or she “not busy being born is busy dying.”
Nieto: But death always seems to be lurking around the corner for you, especially with such a large, multi-generational family.
Dunn: It’s true that I’ve lost a lot of loved ones in recent years—my mom [Lindy Stagnaro Dunn, now 98, a matriarch of the Italian fishing family] is the last surviving member of her 10 brothers and sisters—and I’ve lost many great friends and colleagues in recent years, as you know—my Aunt Gilda [Stagnaro], Tony Hill, Don Yee, Jim Houston, Chris Matthews—the list is endless. Plus close friends and family members who weren’t as public but were part of the fabric of my life. But I now have an entirely different perspective on loss and death than I did when I was young and maybe even as recently as a decade ago. I do my best now to live in the moment. And the dead come back to me. They do. You know that.
Nieto: Yeah. With a Halloween birthday I am always aware of the thin line between us here and those who have crossed over.
Dunn: Every day is the day of the dead. I remember us talking once about how, in Mexico, when they call out the names of the dead, the community responds with “Presente!” Meaning, they are here, they are with us. And really, I suppose, that’s at the core of the MAH exhibit. The notion, that the past is present and that the lives of those who have gone before us are very much a part of the present. I feel that even more strongly today than I did 20 or 30 years ago.
Nieto: I know you took a lot of deaths very hard.
Dunn: I took them all hard. I still do. You and I go way back. As you know, I drank and brawled as a response to that loss in my twenties. I was quick to the draw …
Nieto: Tequila as I recall.
Dunn: [Laughter]. Bingo. That was indeed a favorite. The rawer and less refined the better. No más.
Nieto: So you have changed …
Dunn: I have different outlets. I write at night now instead of making the rounds to all the dive bars.
Nieto: No more visits to the Nasty Asti?
Dunn: You know my old haunts. But it’s more productive. Plus, I love being home with my family.
Nieto: Historians can be accused of living in the past. How do you balance that with your present life?
Dunn: I find it just the opposite. It’s my way of forcing myself into the moment. It keeps me from getting too far ahead of the curve.
Nieto: So how does all this play into the museum exhibit?
Dunn: I’m very excited and also a little, how should I say this? … anticipatory, about the exhibit. It’s entirely new ground for me. A different medium. It’s going up as we speak. When the whole idea of a “Santa Cruz Is in the Heart” exhibit was first raised, I had a fundamentally different concept of what it would be. It was first brought up under the old leadership at the museum. But when it came to life again under Nina Simon [MAH executive director], we had some discussions about it, and she said, “You’ll have to put your trust in me …”
Dunn: I’m one of those people who really appreciates “traditional” museum exhibits, especially old paintings and artifacts and old photos. I go wherever and whenever I can. My favorite space in Santa Cruz is the permanent history gallery at MAH. I absolutely love museums. Even so-called “bad” ones. That said, Nina has absolutely blown new life into MAH, changed its dynamic, brought it into the 21st Century. The old walls have come crumbling down. I’ve become a huge fan of hers. But when it came to an exhibit based on my writings, I was initially thinking inside the old box, as it were. I couldn’t break through. I wanted to build it around paintings and photos and artifacts. I was stuck. And so we continued our dialogue.
Nieto: What happened?
Dunn: At some point on a cross-country flight I was reading an article in the New Yorker about the Tate Museum in London. I had been there about five years ago. And there was a quote in it that hit me like a bolt of lightning. I called Nina from Miami International.
Nieto: You weren’t getting arrested again by the Feds …
Dunn: [Laughing] You know me too well. One of the things that Nina kept saying was that I was selling my writings short in respect to the exhibit. I was too much into one-dimensional paintings and photographs that didn’t contain a narrative. She was very straightforward and up front about it. It was refreshing. And challenging. She wanted to build the exhibit around narratives. And so I cut loose from that point on and put my trust in her. It’s been like a big wave that you see outside and you catch it and then ride it and try to get all you can out of the ride.
Nieto: Ah, a surfing metaphor. We’ll get back to that.
Dunn: Several months ago Nina introduced me to MAH’s new Exhibitions Manager, Justin Collins, who came up with the conceptual designs for the exhibit, and we started to play with his ideas. He’s a jewel. Then my old friend at MAH, Marla Novo, curator of collections, was brought into the discussion. She’s a “home girl” and we share a similar local sensibility and history, so she was a welcome addition to the mix. I’ve written literally hundreds of pieces about Santa Cruz. We brought the stories down to a little more than a dozen—the Three Princes from Hawaii who first surfed here, to moments of vigilante violence; from golfer Marion Hollins, who founded Pasatiempo, to some more personal stories about my mom’s Italian fishing family, which powerfully influenced the early part of my life.
Nieto: Are you happy with the results?
Dunn: I just saw the rough exhibit for the first time. I was blown away. Justin and Marla and Robbie Schoen have done a brilliant job. My approach was to engage the process on MAH’s terms and it’s been a thoroughly dynamic and exhilarating experience. Old dogs can learn new tricks. MAH’s entire staff has been great at every turn. All of them. They’ve heard me out. Engaged the dynamic. Respected my boundaries. Pushed me a little. Slowed me down. It’s been a great ride. And it’s still not over. In fact, it’s just beginning.
Nieto: Cool …
Dunn: One of the things I’ve done is dig into my film and video vault and pulled out a few little surprises—snippets of Don Yee at The Teacup [a legendary Santa Cruz bar that was destroyed during the 1989 earthquake], Freddy Alnas [a Filipino farm worker] singing “Mexicali Rose,” George Ow talking about growing up in the last Santa Cruz Chinatown, old home movies of my mom and my aunts in the 1930s and ’40s, footage of Fay Lanphier [the former Miss America] from the 1920s. [Laughing] Justin doesn’t know it yet, but I still am going to pull out a few more things during the run.
Nieto: Did other people contribute material?
Dunn: Yes, yes. There will be several items never before seen publicly. Linda Yamane is contributing some amazing Ohlone artifacts, including some very rare basketry; Gene Pini of Pasatiempo has made a couple of Marion Hollins’ personal golf clubs available; Kim Stoner is loaning some ’60s surf materials; my mother has contributed her photo book from the 1920s and 1930s. One of my favorite pieces is a rare Yount surfboard from the early 1960s contributed by my cribbage partner Pete Pappas. It’s an eclectic collection.
Nieto: What about all the programming taking place during the exhibit? Aren’t they a little like reality shows?
Dunn: [Laughing]. Nina believes in taking things and ideas out into the community. One of the concepts is the idea of “popup museums,” two- or three-hour events held at various places throughout the community. People are invited to bring materials and engage materials …
Nieto: What does that mean?
Dunn: It means just that. People in the community have photographs and artifacts and stories. And questions. They’re out there. I’m promising to bring new materials to each of them. I’ve been working with MAH’s community programs coordinator Nora Grant on these. She’s been absolutely great and very tolerant of my rather unbridled enthusiasm. I had about 50 ideas for popups and walks and talks.
Nieto: But why a Chinatown popup in three parking spaces at Comerica Bank [see schedule]. What can we see there that wouldn’t be available at a brick and mortar place like the museum just down the street?
Dunn: That parking lot was once the location of a major Santa Cruz Chinatown. And just down the street was another. And a little further another. I was working with someone the other day who has lived here for 20 years who said to me, rather incredulously, “Santa Cruz had a Chinatown?” I was a little startled by it. The last Santa Cruz Chinatown lasted into my lifetime. I want people to feel where it was by being there. To sense the physical space. And to engage others in a discussion. The popups are interactive. They invite discussion and dialogue and sharing. It’s an anti-authoritarian concept of knowledge and information.
That same day there’s a two-hour history tour entitled “Ghost Walk” being led by my dear friends George Ow, who grew up in the last Chinatown, and Sandy Lydon, who has researched and written extensively about Chinese American history. It’s gonna be the hottest ticket in town.
Nieto: It’s quite a crew.
Dunn: I’ve invited lots of friends and colleagues to lead and host these events. I don’t pretend to be an “expert” on anything, except maybe fish cutting and the in-field fly rule. Many years ago, I read a passage about teaching and learning by the great Brazilian educator Paolo Freire. And basically he asked: Do you want to fill a bucket or light a fire? I am hoping that the exhibit and walks and popups light lots of fires. I’m not into filling buckets—unless I’m fishing. Which reminds me, one of the popups is at the wharf [Oct. 12] and we’re inaugurating the centennial celebration of the wharf, which is a very important place for me, personally and culturally. I formed my view of the world from the wharf. I’m working with Lisa McGinnis of City [of Santa Cruz] Parks and Recreation—so the exhibit reflects a broad network of community groups and communities.
Nieto: OK, well what’s up with the popup at the Surf Museum? These stories are not about your standard Santa Cruz surfing fare.
Dunn: My friend Kim Stoner and I have been working together for a long time on researching the roots of surfing in the Americas related to the Three Hawaiian Princes, who first surfed here in 1885. And we keep discovering little tidbits. In the exhibition, we use the story of Antoinette Swan, who had royal Hawaiian lineage and serves as the linchpin in Santa Cruz of this important history. And no one has really ever told her story before. Why is this Hawaiian woman living in Santa Cruz? What was her story? Why does it matter?
So you’re right. It’s not your standard Santa Cruz surfing fare. It digs deeper. It probes. It uncovers new material. I found an image of Antoinette in the Hawaiian Archives. No one here had ever seen one of her before that discovery. That photo serves as the lead image of the section about her story.
Ditto with my story on Miki Dora [Southern California surfing icon of the 1960s] who surfed here one day at the Rivermouth when I was a kid in 1967. I was there that day. I had some clear memories of it. And, of course, I did some research and found a photo of him surfing the Rivermouth during the very month I remembered it. My late friend Tommy Hickenbottom remembered it, too. But I look at the moment in local history through my own coming-of-age lens and then reflect on Dora going through his own battle with cancer as an adult while I was going through mine. So it’s local surfing history through a slightly different lens. And, like I said, this whole process is going to be like riding one very long wave.
Nieto: You are offering different chapters of Santa Cruz history—books, tours, artifacts, information—not usually accessible to tourists or even locals.
Dunn: That’s the plan. But it’s all being framed in a different dynamic. Nina’s book is called “The Participatory Museum.” It’s about being interactive with information, not one-directional. When I was still teaching at UCSC, I would always tell my students that they collectively already knew more about any subject than I did. Nina understood how to take that concept and apply it to the museum. She has lit the path for me, as it were.
Nieto: So what are these other books you’ve written?
Dunn: One is entitled “Vintage Bargetto” (La Vita Press), which celebrates 100 years of winemaking in the region by the Bargetto family of Soquel. It’s written with family historian John Bargetto. I moved from Westside Santa Cruz to Soquel when I was a kid and grew up not far from the winery, so I’ve always felt an affection for many of the Bargetto cousins. It’s a fascinating story of immigration and the pursuit of the American Dream in the Soquel Valley. Ed Penniman designed the book and it’s an absolute work of art. Sandy [Lydon] wrote a lovely afterword. We’re going to have a book- signing event and wine tasting at MAH, and John and perhaps some other family members will discuss winemaking from the perspective of four generations of vintners.
The other book, which is coming out later this fall, is a history of Santa Cruz Sports [Arcadia Press], which is driven by images I’ve collected over the past 40-plus years. I thought Arcadia was the perfect venue for it because their books celebrate photographs, but there’s also a very subtle historical narrative that shapes the book. And there’s going to be a big release and a very special event with all these local historic sports figures attending at MAH. I’m really excited about it. But those are down the road. The exhibit begins this coming weekend (Aug. 31) and extends all the way through Nov. 23.
Nieto: Will any of this be available online after the tour days? Broadcast on local cable? How about a Cruzio series like Netflix is doing?
Dunn: I’m checking in with Community TV about running a series relative to the exhibit this fall. I’m also going to have my daughter Tess [singer/songwriter] set me up with a running blog.
Nieto: Can you tell me what is new in your updated book?
Dunn: It’s not really an “update,” it’s really an entirely new second volume, with only a couple of the stories updated, like the title piece about Freddy Alnas [Filipino farmworker and fish cutter], that recently appeared in Good Times. But the stories are mostly about working people, visionaries and dreamers like Fred Swanton and Marion Hollins, people whose dreams often came crashing down around them, but who left their mark on the community.
Nieto: What drew you to these new stories?
Dunn: Different historians are interested in different topics. I originally focused on various ethnic histories of Santa Cruz—Chinese, Filipinos, Italians, African-Americans, Latinos—those who were largely overlooked by traditional Santa Cruz historians. I’ve spent a lifetime tracking down these stories. Literally. Some of my folders date back to high school. And the stories keep unfolding. Like the Three Princes story. Or the Chinese story. Or the Native California story. We keep uncovering new material. Sometimes my perspective on the story changes and sometimes it doesn’t. And now more and more I’m interested in individuals—Antoinette Swan, Hollins, Swanton, ZaSu Pitts, Henry Cowell, “Frosty” Hesson.
Nieto: On a personal note, I will be very interested in what you turn up about Latino history in Santa Cruz. It would be interesting to me in terms of the informal segregation we have had here for so long to see how the stories can be told differently.
Dunn: Several of the stories in the exhibit and the new book engage Latino history. One of the figures celebrated in the exhibit is Josefa Pérez Soto—known popularly as “Old Chepa”—a Californio, whose life was literally marginalized not only by the Yankee power structure of her time, but later by historians. Another powerful image in the exhibit is the lynching of Francisco Arias and José Chamales on the Water Street Bridge in 1877. I tracked down the original photograph of the hanging; it took me decades to find. It’s an at-once fascinating and haunting document of institutionalized racism in our community. And what’s amazing to me about this image in particular is that there are the faces of many children who were present at that hanging—and who lived in Santa Cruz into the life span of many Santa Cruzans still living here today. So in terms of cultural memory, it’s only one generation removed.
Nieto: Do you ever get tired of telling local stories?
Dunn: You know, I imagined that I would tire of them, to be candid. But I haven’t. I thought maybe I was done with it, that this second volume would be the last. But I’ve already started the third volume. I’m tracking down a really important African-American story that took place here circa 1907 to 1910. And a story that took place here involving the railroad and the Chinese in the 1870s and 1880s. I’m more excited about these stories than I was 30 or 40 years ago. And part of the process of the exhibit will be to “deconstruct” how I put these stories together, how they become a formal narrative. And I’m hoping that by the end of the exhibit I’ll be done with one of them and that will be my holiday gift to the community. Because these stories really are the community’s stories, they are about who we are—where we’ve been and where we’re going.
The books and the exhibit simply contribute to a community self-discovery and, I hope, a community conversation. As they say at the jai alai games in Tijuana, Vamos a ver.
Nieto: Uh, they say that everywhere.
Dunn: Of course they do. That’s the point. May one hundred flowers bloom. n
For more information, visit santacruzmah.org, and take note of the following pages.
‘Santa Cruz Is in the Heart’ Popup Museums
Sept. 14 , 12-2 p.m. “Surfing Is in the Heart,” with Kim Stoner. The history of surfing in the Americas began in the summer of 1885 when three Hawaiian princes first surfed the mouth of the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz. Bring your rare surfing photographs, old surfer magazines or posters, or other local surfing memorabilia to share and explore. The Surfing Museum (Lighthouse Point).
Sept. 28. 12-2 p.m. “Chinatown Is in the Heart.” Explore the “hidden” history of the Santa Cruz Chinese communities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Bring any Chinatown photographs or memorabilia or stories you might have. Comerica parking lot. (River and Front streets).
Oct.12, 12 – 2 p.m. “The Santa Cruz Wharf Is in the Heart.” Celebrate 100 years of wharf history with a very special Popup Museum serving as the kickoff of the wharf’s centennial celebration. Bring photographs, artifacts, stories and maybe even a fishing pole. Fine wines by Vino Prima will be available as well as hors d’oeuvres by Firefish Café, Olitas and more. Wharf Commons.
Oct. 26, 12 -2 p.m. “African American History Is in the Heart.” Santa Cruz African American history extends back to the 1860s, but much of it remains unwritten and unexplored. Bring family photographs, memorabilia, archival materials, recipes, stories and legends. Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, 517 Center St.
November 9, 3-5 p.m. “Drinking Is in the Heart”. There’s an underworld to Santa Cruz history—including speakeasies, brothels, rum-running during Prohibition and more. It’s possible some old rum runners may also show. Enjoy happy hour at The Red, 200 Locust St.
Nov. 23, 12-2 p.m. “Watsonville Is in the Heart—Working in the Fields.” The Pajaro Valley has served as an agricultural engine in Santa Cruz County for more than two centuries. Bring your contribution to this history. California Agricultural Workers History Center at the Watsonville Library, 275 Main St., Watsonville.
Santa Cruz Is in the Heart’ Book Events
Oct. 11 (Friday): The Museum of Art & History will host the book launch of Geoffrey Dunn’s “Santa Cruz Is in the Heart: Volume II” (Capitola Book Company) from 6-8:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 11, Atrium.
Nov. 8 (Friday): The Museum of Art & History will host the book launch of Geoffrey Dunn’s “Images of America: Sports of Santa Cruz County” (Arcadia Press). This event will host a unique gathering of local sports stars in Santa Cruz history and will also feature a talk by Dunn on the history of Santa Cruz sports. Get your book signed by dozens of athletes highlighted in the book. A benefit for local youth sports. 6-8:30 p.m. Atrium.
Nov. 22 (Friday): The Museum of Art & History will host a wine tasting and book-signing event, featuring the new book, “Vintage Bargetto: Celebrating a Century of California Wine Making” (La Vita Press), by John Bargetto and Geoffrey Dunn, designed by Ed Penniman, and with an afterword by Sandy Lydon. Sponsored by Bargetto Winery. 5-7 p.m.
‘Santa Cruz Is in the Heart’ Walks
Sept. 22, 10 a.m.“New Brighton Is in the Heart,” with Jeff Barnes. The California State Beach just east of Capitola is one of the jewels of the California coast and hosts a delightful Visitors Center called “Pacific Migrations.” Meet at Pacific Migrations Visitors Center. Free.
Sept. 28, 10 a.m. “Ghost Walk” —exploring Santa Cruz’s Chinatown, with George Ow and Sandy Lydon. Rarely will Santa Cruzans have the opportunity to explore the history of Santa Cruz’s Chinese community with two of our most celebrated experts. Tickets: $15 adults. $10 kids/members. Limited to 100 people. Sign up at MAH.
Oct. 6, 10 a.m. “The Powder Works Is in the Heart,” with Barry Brown. Santa Cruz was once the home of one of the largest gunpowder industries west of the Mississippi. Meet at Paradise Park. Limited to 50 people. Sign up at MAH. Free.
Oct. 20, 10 a.m. “Slow Adventures Are in the Heart—A Self-Guided Walk Along the San Lorenzo River,” with Margaret Leonard. The San Lorenzo River winds its way through the heart of Santa Cruz and has helped to shape its culture and history. Meet at MAH. Free
Nov. 3., 11 a.m. “Cannery Row Is in the Heart,” with Tim Thomas. While Cannery Row is not in Santa Cruz County, there are many links between the Santa Cruz and Monterey waterfronts. Meet at the Clement Hotel, 750 Cannery Row. (Right next to Bubba Gumps.) Free.