Sunday, February 20, 2011
Bay Meadows, Revisited
You don't go to Redwood City, 25 miles down the peninsula from San Francisco, for the waters, or a tattoo. (Although there was a lovely epidermal adornment establishment within walking distance of our hotel. Part of the sign on the front door said, "No Children." A card in the window said:
I hadn't had a haircut in three weeks, yet I felt that I still would have been turned away had I gone to the back door. Instead my wife Pat and I headed over to the old Fox Theatre, on Broadway, where there was the premiere showing of "The Last Train From Bay Meadows," Jon Rubin's ode to the track, in nearby San Mateo, that closed down in 2008, after a 75-year run. The Fox, more or less, has been around longer than Bay Meadows, since 1929, and besides movies has been a forum for an eclectic mix of entertainers such as Bill Cosby, B.B. King and Woody Allen. Had Pat known that Allen once played the Fox, dishing out riffs with his clarinet instead of punch lines, she might not have gone. Because of Allen's questionable private life, she has been off him for a long time, and has even discarded the autograph she obtained one night when he played Michael's Pub in Manhattan.
Rubin, a tall, hirsuted moviemaker, was the only one at the Fox who had rented a tuxedo. He said there was no money to be made from this film, it was a labor of love, and as one of the talking heads who occasionally appears on camera, I can vouch for that. Rubin made some comments to the audience before the screening, and at one point broke down as he recited the names of all those who helped him, including the staff at the San Mateo County Historical Association. I was not surprised. When Rubin first outlined the project to me, over lunch at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood, he was already teary-eyed. "The end to Bay Meadows was the loss of a very real thing to many, many people," he said. "It is very sad, and very poignant."
The film starts with Bay Meadows' final days, including the running and Michael Wrona's emotional call of the track's last race. Artie Shaw, whose clarinet immortalized the song more than any musician or singer, plays, ironically, "Begin the Beguine" in the background. Then Rubin segues quickly to Kyne, who shot crap with almost everything he touched. He once bet $1,000 that he had a standardardbred who could swim the San Francisco Bay. "Blackie" did, too, and he must have liked it. On the far shore, he turned around and threatened to swim back. Kyne brought "Blackie" to the restaurant that night, when the bet was paid and more than a few wassails were hoisted.
Rubin doesn't miss much, although one omission is Jerry Hollendorfer, the legendary Bay Meadows trainer who will be in the Hall of Fame some day. There's the Ralph Neves story, about the day the jockey was pronounced dead on the track, then escaped from the morgue and raced back, hoping to win some more races and win the $500 watch that Bing Crosby was offering; the Ron Hansen story, about the troubled jockey disappearing off the end of the San Mateo Bridge; the story about Seabiscuit, who was undefeated in five starts at the track; and the Tom Chapman story, about how he replaced Hansen in a big race, painted the winning horse and jump-started an artist's career. Lost in the Fog, one of the last great horses to run at Bay Meadows, gets his due.
"The closing of Bay Meadows was like tearing the roots out of your heart," Chapman said during one of Rubin's interviews. "I walked across the track one morning, shortly before the track closed, and I felt like I was witnessing the ancient ruins of a ghost town."
If the film drags at all, it's during the second section, when some of the Bay Meadows spear carriers--program sales persons, the man who delivers the straw bedding and hay, mutuel clerks--are allowed to tell us more than we really need to know about their important jobs. They were part of the day-to-day goings-on at the track, and no one day could have been entered into the books without them, but a primer on racetrack occupations catches Rubin at cross purposes for a while.
But only for a while. Bill Kyne would have liked "The Last Train From Bay Meadows." He would have bet money on it.