We're in Don DeMenno's garage across the road from a bounteous Apple orchard – one of many that bring tourists to the Gold Country hills year around. But we are worlds and centuries away while in Don's garage/studio. Don is a master mold maker who's worked for some of this country's most accomplished bronze sculptors. His skill took many years to master and a temperament that I lack – one that's largely centered on patience.
I've brought Don a panel for the Caldor Tribute monument I'm making to honor the countless people who saved our mountain homes from the ravages of last year's forest fire that consumed 225,000 acres. The work starts with clay images sculpted on a piece of 4-ft. by 2-ft. plywood. I'm making six panels (three, two-sided bronze depictions of aspects of fighting the fire. When I'm done with a panel, we next make a urethane mold – a negative of my positive clay images. It's a messy, sticky hands-on process that takes about a half-day of work for each panel.
We combine two gallon-sized containers of viscous liquid components that interact and start a process of slowly hardening to a flexible, rubbery consistency that is a perfect mold of the clay relief I've done on the panel. We've framed the panels so that we can pour a few layers and later use brushes to capture the texture of details. Once dry, we pull the mold off the clay (all my sculpting work is history and discarded), and the negative image is ready for the next step – applying melted casting wax to once again make a positive image.
Throughout the process, I try to watch and listen so that my own skills improve (a lot of room for that) and also because Don is fascinating. A man who practices a very ancient craft that reaches back into 6000 years of human history and whose personal memories of Hollywood in the 1950s and '60s are as vivid as the golden screen. Let me start with a short description – To the casual observer, Don is a quiet man, not one to draw attention to himself. He's methodical, patient, never asks for attention or praise. Not seeking the spotlight. But through our many hours of mold making, I've been amazed and entertained by this meek man who puts up with my impatience and teaches lessons in art and life.
Don was born in New York, the son of Italian immigrants. His uncle, 'Jock' Giranda, had a gig with Cecil B DeMille in New York and followed him to Hollywood when the famous producer moved his operation. Don's family also relocated to glitzy Los Angeles. By that time, his uncle had already been a stunt rider and a jockey. He was a great introduction to the magic of Hollywood.
Don's teenage years were filled with sightings of movie stars and opportunities to take part in the scene. He remembers filling in the crowd for a Dick Clark TV (American Bandstand-fame) summer show that filmed daily. He recalls that Paul Revere and the Raiders was the house band, lip-syncing their music.
"They wanted a crowd, a background of a bunch of kids whooping and hollering," Don explained. On one trip to Universal Studios, the teenage Don found himself having lunch in the commissary with actor Jimmy Boyd – the kid who made the song "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" a nationwide hit. He also appeared in "Inherit the Wind," in 1960. The film used the 1925 "Monkey" Trial that focused on creationism to highlight McCarthyism. The young Boyd testified:
"Howard: He said that men sort of evo-luted from Old World monkeys.
Matthew Harrison Brady: Do you hear that, friends? Old World monkeys! According to Bertram Cates, we don't even descend from good American monkeys!"
Before Don's lunch was over, the star gazing got even better – Doug McClure (the rugged cowboy in the 1960s hit series, The Virginian) came and sat down with them. And then the entire crew of McHale's Navy walked by, led by Academy Award-winning actor Ernest Borgnine. But the day offered even more.
After lunch, Don's party of four walked into a dark rehearsal studio with just one person framed by a bright spotlight – Doris Day was rehearsing a dance. Don met her and shook the star's hand. On other occasions, he encountered Ray Charles, and Ike and Tina Turner.
Don went to the nightclub (once named the Moulin Rouge) where he opened the lobby door for Robert Vaugn – the "Man From Uncle." And then there was the chat he had with Charlton Heston at a studio party and the chance encounter with James Darin – they "talked motorcycles," Don remembers. One of Don's favorite pastimes was cruising Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards on his Honda 150.
My friend talks about these brushes with fame while smoothing out urethane and touching up things I've done that don't meet his professional standards. It's not bragging when he talks about his Hollywood days – it's joyful mental meandering to relive moments far different than those we might expect today – in a mountain village, isolated from city life. Where there are more trees than people and one lonely movie theater miles away.
But now it's Don DeMenno who has the audience. I'm amused and fascinated by his tales of youth and Hollywood and 24-hour days in which the stars shone brightly. At the same time, we're making art together – me learning and Don teaching. When the afternoon is over, Don wipes his hands with a half-sheet of paper towel and carefully cleans his tools, returning them to their particular places. I've got urethane stuck to my arms above my elbows, blobs of rubber drying on my jeans and shoes. It's also in my hair.
I'm grateful for his patience with impatient me. And for sharing stories about encounters with movie stars whose names and faces were only distant technicolor dreams to a small-town girl from Minnesota. When the near-impossible dream of the Caldor Tribute stands tall on our mountain, we'll have a new memory that's shared.
Thanks for your time and attention - I value both! I also love to hear from you - reactions, stories from your own life, ideas? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org - I read and respond to all your emails!
Also - Please check out my campaign to raise funds for the Caldor Tribute project HERE - I'd appreciate any suggestions and observations about how I can do this better and be successful!