"By Any Other Name"

by Jan Richman, S.F. Gate, 26 March 2001

Descending the long staircase down into the anomalous bit of Victoriana that is the Morcom Amphitheatre of Roses, eight acres of plush forested valley in the middle of a hilly residential neighborhood between Piedmont and Grand avenues in Oakland, you squint to scope out the perfect picnic spot.

Alas, the rose bushes that stretch for rows and rows along the valley floor are less than lovely this time of year. Blossomless, they are knobby, knurled and knotted, like the trees where the flying monkeys perch in "The Wizard of Oz," nothing but brown sticks with hacked-off ends. The garden is interrupted by a long reflecting pool and, at the other end of the valley, a latticework gazebo that makes you want to don lederhosen and time-travel back to when you were 16 going on 17, innocent as a rose.

But to your right, above the garden, is the amphitheatre itself, lined with benches. Its cloistered and shady terrace seems ideal for this warm day, surrounded on all sides by tall conifers and fragrant eucalyptus.

As you make your way to it, you pass through the rows of placards sticking up all over the desolate domain. The litany of species names reads like a band lineup on an all-ages night at Gilman Street, or a glimpse down the magazine aisle at an adult bookstore:

American Glory, American Beauty, American Honor, Barbra Streisand, Lady Diana, Lucille Ball, Drummer Boy, Blue Girl, Prima Donna, Royal Star & Garter, Chrysler Imperial, Sunset Celebration and Endless Dream.

You stroll by the pond, where a small boy operates his remote-controlled boat. Roosting on the cement lip that protrudes from the water, he stands like a superhero with his feet apart and one hand on his hip, waving his wand with panache, commanding his tiny vessel to plow through the unnaturally green water in a zigzag pattern common to art deco fabric design and drunk drivers' trajectories. "Rawrl!" he yells victoriously, over the motorized sound of the plastic boat hurling itself through shallow water.

As you climb next to the three-tiered, English-style fountains that lead to the amphitheatre, your companion is already headed toward a prime bench with your sack of sandwiches. Crossing the patio toward the bench, you almost trip over a pile of junk spread out on the stone — rags, boxes, ceramics, assorted stemware — and wonder if someone is planning a rummage sale. That's when you notice a man asleep on the ground near the pile, his head resting on what appears to be a Raggedy Andy doll.

"I hope you're not planning to camp out here all night!" you hear a shrill voice warn, just as you take the first bite of your tuna sandwich from your picnic spot. Glancing up, you see a small, wizened woman with wild white hair hustling across the patio toward the sleeping man. "They have weddings here in the mornings, and the cops'll come and throw you right off of here!" She swats at the air as she approaches him, as though to shoo him from the territory.

"Oh, no," says the supine man, waking up fast. "I'm just here with the film crew, watching their props until they're done shooting." He gestures vaguely westward, toward the distant gazebo. Suddenly he rises and grabs something from the pile — a large pole capped with a shriveled-looking human skull. There is a ratty tuft of hair sprouting from its apex. He shakes it at the cat lady and laughs. "I'm protecting the goods!"

This type of behavior seems rude and witchy even to the lady, who hauls off to the corner bench and commences a series of whistled tunes. She removes a bag of cat food from her coat and makes several equal piles as six or seven scrawny felines begin to appear out of nowhere.

The prop pile, you now note, seems to be full of things like chalices decorated with green-eyed vipers. After wiping your mouths and slam-dunking your balled-up trash, you and your companion decide that this is one film shoot you definitely need to check out.

It's quiet on the "set" as you approach. Inside the gazebo are three beefy men in ludicrous puffy gold lam� garb. (Are they supposed to be extraterrestrials? Fey Roman soldiers? You're not sure.) They are "tied" to "pillars" while a busty, orangey-tanned girl in an almost unbelievably small thong bikini waves a whip at them.

"Do what I tell you!" she yells shrilly, reminiscent of the cat lady. Backing her up just behind the gazebo's steps, you now see, is a throng of similarly (un)dressed "Baywatch" babes whose bikinis run the gamut of Easter pastels, each carrying a rather large "spear." You stand there gaping, wondering what sort of cinematic genre this particular spectacle belongs to — is this the outdoor scene in a soft-core porn movie (leading the plot toward more scintillating indoor action)? Or just a really bad, really low-budget far-fetched sci-fi thriller?

Even though you are standing 20 yards away from the gazebo, in what you thought was a discreet, tucked-away place among the scraggly bushes, a small man in a black bomber jacket and baseball cap seems to be waving his arms at you, motioning you to move out of the way of the shot. You scamper away, sort of embarrassed to be caught in the act of gawking, and pass a little girl in a yellow dress who has been similarly shooed.

"What's going on over there?" her mother asks her.

"Oh, they're doing some weird movie or something," she says, and skips over to the scruffy cream tortie who's raspily meowing and rubbing up against a plaque that reads "Audrey Hepburn."

©2001 San Francisco Gate

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