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the curmudgeons out there with newspaper columns, few are as
inexhaustible or irascible as Bruce Bratton. Never watered down, Bratton's
opinions have been getting Santa Cruzans all riled up on a weekly basis
for the past 31 years. He is not a man who conjures up a lukewarm reaction.
People either love or hate him and according to Michael Gant, editor of
Metro Santa Cruz, the majority of letters sent to the paper employ
phrases like "please can that good-for-nothing Bruce Bratton ..."
"But I'm really just the
messenger," says Bratton. It's a lovely Thursday afternoon, and Bruce
and I are sipping coffee at the Javah House, one of his regular hang outs.
"I don't create these problems. I hear about them, often before anyone
else." Bratton says that most of the people who get so angry about
what he writes aren't reading carefully. "They just see a certain
issue in print and the red light goes off."
Unlike other weekly columnists,
Bratton rarely sticks to a single topic. His full-page column, which always
features a historical photo of Santa Cruz that he has managed to dig up,
is divided up into 8 or 9 sections, each with its own headline. "It's
because I'm interested in so many different things," he explains.
In the same column, readers will be treated to topics as various as Bratton's
reductionist movie reviews ("he says in one line what takes some
reviewers 500 words," gushed one fan in a recent letter to the editor),
the city council's latest ineptitude and his highly controversial stance
on Girl Scout cookies.
"I've probably written
more about Girl Scout cookies than anything else," he says. "Because
I've really believed that they're bad since the seventies. It's made some
people stop speaking to me. They get really irked. But it's not like I
have anything against the Girl Scouts, I just don't know why they can't
sell something else that's healthy. I also don't like to see little girls
competing like that." Plus, he points out, the money doesn't even
go to the scouts but to the big corporate bakeries that manufacture the
Another contentious issue that
Bratton never tires of harping on, is fluoride. "I've been going on about
how we should get fluoride in the water since the sixties," he says.
"It has separated all of my friends. These days I just put it in there
to spice things up."
Bratton has been getting the
goat of readers since the first sentence in his first column over thirty
years ago. "At that time, I was working for Good Times,"
he recalls, "and I pissed everyone off by writing about the lighthouse,
you know, the one over there by Steamer's Lane. It isn't a real lighthouse,
you know, but a mausoleum in honor of a dead surfer. I wrote something
about how it was a good thing that he hadn't been eating a hamburger when
he died, because then we'd have a big statue of a hamburger instead
of a lighthouse. Oh boy! The mother wrote me a letter! I still have it."
In real life, Bratton is a
lot less feisty then he seems in print. Unlike other rabid activists from
the psychedelic revolution, Bratton has aged extremely well. With his
customary cane, impressive height and shock of white hair and beard, he
comes across as a mix between Walt Whitman and John the Baptist. But before
becoming the walking, talking Santa Cruz institution that he is today,
Bratton put in hard time doing radio slots on KCBS, KPFA and KGO, which
he landed by making a name for himself as a founding member of the vaudeville
band, the Goodtime Washboard 3. During those early years, Bratton was
an active supporter of experimental theater and film, assisted scores
of political campaigns and fought many land-use battles, including successful
ones to keep nuclear power plants our of Bodega Bay and Davenport. "I
have always just been involved," says the 67-year-old.
A native of Lockport, New York,
Bruce moved to California with the Bratton family when he was 18-years
old. His mother had arthritis and the weather in New York "wasn't
conducive to much of anything," let alone stiff joints. The young
Bruce had always been fascinated by California, and quickly adapted to
his new surroundings. After two years in the army's K9 Corps training
German Shepherds, he attended UC Berkeley, majoring in Communications
and Public Policy. There he did student broadcasts for KPFA and wrote
for the university newspaper, The Daily Californian, for which
he covered the first Monterey Jazz Festival. "I wanted to go to the
festival, but I didn't have any money," he says, giggling.
It was during this period that
Bratton spent an afternoon with Aldous Huxley. "I saw him at the
supermarket," says Bratton, "as bizarre as that sounds. I'd
read the Doors of Perception and I wanted to discuss my LSD trip
with him. I told him as much and he invited me over to his house, so I
went." Bratton says he also spent an afternoon with Stan Laurel of
Laurel and Hardy, but doesn't offer any details.
After finishing college, Bratton
worked as a scientific illustrator at the Biochemistry Virus Lab, where
he did some of the earliest drawings of RNA and DNA chains. During this
time he married and had two daughters, Hillary and Jennifer. He was investigated
by the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) for communist activity in the
mid fifties, but by the end of it, the CIC was offering him a job, which
he refused. He also founded the Goodtime Washboard 3, which appeared on
Bing Crosby's Hollywood Palace. "Our first record was called 'Don't
Blame PG&E, Pal,'" remembers Bratton, who played the washboard
and the musical saw. The Goodtime Washboard 3 also wrote a song about
Oakland, since Oakland didn't have its own song. "The lyrics were
like 'Of all the pretty cities, she's the lead-a / and don't forget the
tube to Alameda,'" sings Bratton. "It got enormous airplay."
These days, the Oakland City Library features the tune on its website.
During this time, Bratton became
heavily involved in the free speech movement and did a lot of door-to-door
campaigning for fair housing. "Politically speaking, it was a time
of chaos," he says. "It revolutionized politics and got me involved
in an enormous amount of political activity." He also wrote for the
entertainment magazine, Nightlife.
After six years as a professional
illustrator, Bratton worked in TV and radio. He went from producing and
directing at KCBS, to "running the show" at KGO. In fact, KGO
decided they liked Bratton so much they'd "elevate me out of the
creative part and make me sign checks." But Bratton could see that
everyone else at KGO had ulcers. So instead, he moved to Santa Cruz and
took up the humble but fulfilling work of carpentry. He immediately became
involved in the city's political and cultural scene. He helped get Shakespeare
Santa Cruz off the ground and served on the board of directors of several
cultural groups and nonprofit organizations. And of course, he got into
a tangle or two. "I wrote a press release about a proposed housing
development at Wilder Ranch that the Register-Pajaronian printed,"
he says, laughing. "Because of that, I became the target of a 121-million-dollar
libel lawsuit, which we defeated in court." Before he knew it, he
was writing a column for first edition of the weekly newspaper, Good
"Back then, Good Time's
motto was 'lighter than air,'" says Bratton. "They only printed
good news." This, of course, put a damper on Bratton's style. "I
could never write about politics," he says. "Not then. It was
all light, frothy fun stuff. Never anything that might endanger a sponsor."
Bratton recalls his legendary fights with then editor Jay Shore. "Every
week I'd go in there and I'd have to close the door," he says.
He remembers receiving advice
from Herb Caen, whom he ran into often over the years. "Our trio
played for his birthday, which he shared with Jessica Mitford," says
Bruce. "I have a great photo of Herb and me backstage at the Santa
Cruz Miss California beauty Pageant. I talked to him often about column
writing, ego, why do it. What I really remember him saying was that 'there
sure is a lot to write about.' Which doesn't seem like much unless you
write a column." Another big influence on Bratton was Wally Trabing,
who wrote a daily column for the Sentinel for about 30 years.
After a few years, he quit
Good Times and worked for the now-defunct Independent, but
soon he was back at Good Times. "I think I quit Good Times
at least three times," he says. During his love-hate relationship
with the feel-good weekly, Bratton was hired as a columnist for the Santa
Cruz Sentinel, the county's daily paper; but he got fired after six
months, after calling the owner of the Seaside Company and the Santa Cruz
Boardwalk, Charlie Cannfield, "greedy."
Bratton went on to write equally
bombastic columns for Santa Cruz Magazine, The News and
The Express, none of which exist anymore. The last time he went
back to Good Times, he had a major "disagreement about spelling"
with editor Carol Atkinson. (Bratton likes to use phonetic spellings,
like sez.) "Nitpicking!" says Bratton. "The last time they
fired me, the editor threatened to call the police if I didn't leave,
so I figured it was a good time to leave Good Times once and for
all." Before when he got fired, there had always been an apology
on his answering machine by the time he got home. Not this time. Instead,
there was a message from the Metro's editor, Dan Pulcrano. "I have
no idea how he found out I'd been fired so quickly," claims Bratton,
who has been working for the more news-oriented alternative weekly ever
Being a columnist is just Bruce's
hobby, though. What he does in order to eat is work for the Small Business
Development Center at Cabrillo College. "I'm a consultant,"
he says. Conflict of interest? Not according to Bratton. "I never
write about clients," he sez.
Bratton likes to emphasize the
fact that he wouldn't want to be a reporter. "I'm not going for facts,"
he says. "I'm relaying my opinion about a movie or city government, not
a fact. I don't have to be fair. I don't have to give the other side equal
Now that he is free to speak his
mind, he says he doesn't get invited to judge contests or cut ribbons at store
opening as much as before. "I really miss that," he says. "Its
great fun to be a part of the community in that way."
Even so, he keeps plenty busy as it is. Nancy Abbey, the sister of the famous Ed Abbey and Bratton's partner of eighteen years, keeps him company. These days he's got a new band, bluegrass this time: The Hot Damn String Band, which features such illustrious members as Jim Houston and Annie Steinheart. He also does a bimonthly radio spot on KUSP reviewing movies. He tells me his favorite movies of all time are the Wizard of Oz and the Thief of Bagdad. "I also like most new Dogma school films," he adds.
Photo credits: Bruce Bratton portrait by Andrea Perkins. Background collage components: Octagon and Town Clock (parade) courtesy of Santa Cruz Public Library; lighthouse and Dame Carmelita Cottage courtesy of Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.