Monday, March 20, 2017

Of Steampunk and Stories

By C.J. Hirschfield

For 16 years, as an artist employed by the City of Oakland, Bob Schultz created sets for Children’s Fairyland. Although he left our park 40 years ago, the whimsical sets he worked on – including Dragon Slide; the Owl and the Pussycat; Geppetto’s Workshop; and Rub-a-Dub Dub, Three Men in a Tub —have made Schultz, as he now prefers to be called, a park hero.

And Schultz – a former Navy aircraft mechanic with an arts degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts – didn’t stop creating when he left us.

Now 81, the “Grandfather of Steampunk” recently opened a new show within walking distance of Fairyland. “Schultz and the Machinery of the Absurd,” at Classic Cars West Gallery in Uptown through April 28, features a dozen wheeled creations that combine the functional and decorative, with supernatural overtones and an absurdist sense of visual humor thrown into the mix.

Schultz and dog companions with one of the pieces in “Schultz and the Machinery of the Absurd.” 

I met with Schultz at the gallery, and he shared stories about his time at Fairyland, the loss of his longtime studio and the show that he hopes will have people shaking their heads. The dashing man that many people describe as “bohemian” was wearing a hip leather jacket and a turquoise ring.

Schultz certainly demonstrated his sense of the absurd while he was at Children’s Fairyland. He modeled the Three Men in a Tub figures after Nixon, de Gaulle and LBJ, and placed mischievous elves in trees around the property. His favorite set is the Owl and the Pussycat, where he lovingly planned a waterfall that would fall in beautiful sheets. He recalls the days when our island set (donated by “Trader” Vic Bergeron) featured more than a dozen monkeys, as well as alligators and parrots.

Three Men in a Tub, circa 1972. Richard Nixon is the Candlemaker, Charles de Gaulle is the Butcher, and Spiro Agnew is the Baker.

For more than 30 years, Schultz’s studio along the 5th Ave. marina at the Oakland Estuary has been a playground for working artists. “I collect rusty steel,” he says, “and I have tons of it.”

When he says “tons,” he’s not exaggerating. He sold his place to a philanthropist nine years ago, and thanks to Oakland’s hot development environment – the adjacent Brooklyn Basin project recently broke ground – it will soon be sold again. This time Schultz will have to move out. Much of Schultz’s 22,000 square feet of stuff will be given away. “It’s better to give with a warm hand than a cold hand,” he told me. What he doesn’t give away will go to his house in Martinez that he shares with his wife, Carol Russell, whose family business is Phoenix Iron Works.

Opening-day ceremony for the Owl and the Pussycat set, 1969. Bob Schultz is in the center in striped shirt.

Schultz’s current show features pieces that look like a small-scale cross between Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and Burning Man. Motorcycle, diving bell, little auto, wheelchair, spinning wheel—the pieces resemble these items, but all contain various flights of fancy that suggest the playfulness that can be found in the salvage.

Whimsical steampunk vehicles are featured at Schultz’s show at Classic Cars West Gallery, through April 28.

There are stories associated with each of Schultz’ creations, and he shared many of them with me. The details would take up far too much space for this column, but lightning, ions, static electricity, an aquasphere driven by Hawaii’s mythic menehunes (leprechaun-like little people), barnsful of sheep, irradiated rubies and an iodized Uncle Al in Nebraska all play a role. The stories are being transcribed and will be incorporated into the installation in time for Uptown’s First Friday event on April 7.

Before I left, Schultz told me one more story. This one was about Lolo, who worked as a ticket-taker and clown at Fairyland many decades ago. Before she came to Fairyland, Schultz said, Lolo worked the carnival circuit. On one swing through Oklahoma she purchased “Gold-toothed Jimmy,” a mummified bandit. Schultz swears she gave Jimmy a proper burial with a headstone.

Is this a true story, or another of Schultz’s imaginative tales? Who knows? Who cares? A good story is a good story, and Schultz’s life reads as one of the best.

“Schultz and the Machinery of the Absurd” continues through April 28 at Classic Cars West, 411 26th St., Oakland.  Hours are Wednesday through Saturday 11 to 5; Sunday 11 to 3.

C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children's Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation's first storybook theme park.

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