Remembering Philip Slater


Remembering Philip Slater

May 15, 1927 – June 20, 2013

by Alyson Lie

On Sunday, October 13, a memorial service was held at the First Presbyterian Church on High Street in Santa Cruz for one of the town's true treasures—Philip Slater, the well-known author of the 1970 classic, The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point.

Phil left the prestigious world of academia at Brandeis University behind and moved to Santa Cruz in the early 70s.  Here he pursued—not the “American Dream” with its soul-crushing isolation in the search for success—but all things engaging and creative. He went on to write ten more books on the ills of modern culture, several novels and many plays, acted and directed in local theater, joined a men's group which he continued to attend till his last days, played tennis, went sailing, and took long walks along the beach or in the mountains with family and friends, often under the delightful influence of hallucinogens—a secular sacrament he'd observed since his first exposure in the 1950s during the days of early government experimentation.

I met Phil in an actor's workshop led by local playwright, actor, and director, David Zarko. The group eventually distilled from over twenty participants to a core of half a dozen or so dedicated practitioners in theater arts. We moved from our meeting place in a church on Washington Street to the upper level of a carriage house behind a Victorian on Locust Street and continued improvising and rehearsing scenes from Shakespeare, one acts by Chekhov, Ionesco, and others.

As we perfected our performances and prepared to take our work out into the world at large, the group adopted the name Parsifal's Players, the perfect trope for our earnest little troupe—and for the times. Our emblem was the image from the Rider-Waite tarot deck of the classic Elizabethan fool holding a white rose, all his possessions dangling in a sack at the end of a staff propped on his shoulders, walking heedlessly towards the edge of a cliff. This was Santa Cruz circa mid-to-late 70s—before the Reagan years; a much younger Jerry Brown was governor of California, made infamous by Doonesbury cartoonist G.B Trudeau as “Governor Moonbeam.”

In those days, Santa Cruz was crawling with artists, writers, actors, mimes, jugglers, musicians, wacky food faddists and spiritual seekers, a few of them sincere, most just harmlessly delusional. There was theater and music everywhere one looked: any given afternoon at Cafe Pergolesi, then behind Bookshop Santa Cruz at the north end of the mall, one might witness Celtic music, including bagpipes and concertinas; Tom Noddy blowing peoples' minds with his bubble magic; The Flying Karamazov Brothers juggling clubs. The card-carrying Communist, retired logger, and saw player Tom Scribner kept court at the Tea Cup Lounge at the corner of Front Street and Pacific avenue most evenings after a day of performing on the street.  This was a time when playhouses out numbered movie theaters by at least three to one: The Storefront Theater on South Pacific next to the Avenue Bar, the little black box theater in the Art Center, Bear Republic Theater, Theater For Your Mother, The Staircase Theater in Soquel, and, of course, the colleges. Acting troupes performed Shakespeare in San Lorenzo Park on the duck pond, the most poignant soliloquies invariably interrupted by sleep-deprived ducks: 

Edmund: Thou, nature, art my goddess. To thy law my services are bound. Wherefore should I stand in the plague of custom and permit the curiosity of nations to deprive me...

Duck:  Quack, quack, quack.

Audience: (laughter)

Parsifal's Players would eventually perform their scenes in cafes, synagogues, the Art Center. One evening, we marched up the stairs of Pearly Alley Bistro dressed like medieval troubadours, singing Sumer Is Icumen In. I'll never forget Phil's hilarious rendition of the monologue Take a Pew by Beyond the Fringe. He stood at the podium in dark coat and white collar—wholly convincing as a minister with his patrician manner and waspish good looks—and delivered his lines in perfect deadpan: “From the Book of Genesis, chapter 27, verse 11: 'My brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man'....  Life—life is like opening a tin of sardines, we're all of us looking for the key.”

Parsifal's Players eventually disbanded, but most of us continued to work in theater in one form or another. My partner at the time and I had the pleasure of performing one of Phil's early plays, Citizen Klein, in the as yet unnamed black box theater in the Art Center. The setting was a suite in a hotel where two honeymooners are interrupted by a distressed young man who enters stage right then exits stage left through a window, falling to his death. This scene repeats itself, and each time the couple fail to stop him. They eventually realize he's a ghost and with the help of hotel staff and a psychotherapist they eventually cure the spectral young man of his obsession—the end.  Phil sat in the house during every rehearsal, taking notes and laughing at our gaffes and miscues, encouraging us to improvise our way out of all the mess-ups.  For Phil, unbridled play was the thing. When the going gets tough—find a way to laugh yourself out of it.  By the end of the run, Phil had added extra scenes and characters, changing the script to the very last performance.

By the mid 80s, my partner and I left for San Francisco to pursue careers in writing (me) and painting (my partner). Phil stayed in Santa Cruz and continued to write and perform, eventually becoming president of the board of the Actor's Theater. He even returned to academe, teaching writing at UCSC and Transformative Studies at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco.

I returned to Santa Cruz in 2011 after many years on the east coast, twenty of them in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working in publishing and communications and helping to raise two remarkable young boys who are now remarkable young men. I ran into Phil several times after my arrival: the same huge smile, the same sense of ease, the same laughter. The last time I saw him was a year ago at a friend's art studio. He made a point of mentioning that David Zarko had always said our performance of The Swan Song (Phil played Vasili Svietlovidoff, the aged comedian; I played Nikita Ivanitch, the prompter) was the funniest he'd ever seen. I vaguely remember during one of Svietlovidoff's more lugubrious speeches lobbing a stuffed animal at Phil and then getting hit with it later in the play. As to why there was a stuffed animal on the set, I have no recollection.

Phil's memorial service was tender, urbane, and spiced with occasional laughter—as he would have hoped.  There were easily over a hundred people there. Each of his four children, a grandson, his wife, and a close friend from his mens' group gave heartwarming and at times irreverent testimonials to Phil's life as father, grandfather, husband, and dearest friend. I managed to keep the tears back for most of the service, but when it was over and we headed for the reception, I saw David Zarko at the back of the sanctuary and fell apart. We hugged, sobbing for a long, long time. As we released each other and began wiping our tears, blowing our noses, I said: “Oh, look at us! This isn't about us.” David smiled through his tears and said, “Yes, it is!  It's about all of us.”

 Alyson Lie has been published in an anthology on gender issues and written for  Peacework Magazine (no longer in publication), the Review Review, and 429 MagazineShe is a freelance writer and editorial assistant at Catamaran Literary Reader.