BJ Blanchard: Notes from Glen Ellen, Jan. 11

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Some 50 years ago, as the 1960s were winding down, creative young artists continued to seek adventure – many flooding north to Sonoma County, and to Glen Ellen between 1965 and 1980. This is a story of one of those artists: Don Ponte.

“Arriving to Glen Ellen in 1969 was like stepping back into a painting by Thomas Hart Benton,” says Ponte (pronounced Pon-tee), referring to the artist who painted the rural American Midwest during the 1930s. “The wood and brick buildings, the historic architecture, the rural feel, the Rustic Inn, gave the town the look and feel of the Wild West.”

Glen Ellen people recognize Ponte by his look. He’s a “tall drink of water” wearing a crumpled straw hat and wrap-around sunglasses. Many people who came to Glen Ellen between 1965 and 1985 seemed to be looking for a change. Ponte, for example, was fleeing the conventionality and conformity of his Menlo Park childhood.

“I was an artist from childhood, and studied at the San Francisco Art Institute in my 20s,” says Ponte. “Abstract expressionism, the popular painting trend there, just wasn’t me.”

In nearby North Beach, he hung out on upper Grant Avenue at the Coffee Gallery and Cafe Trieste, while working for the renowned Henri Lenoir at the beat-era Vesuvio Cafe across the alley from City Lights Bookstore. But when a friend asked him in 1968 to help on a construction job building a “sensory room” for clients of the Sonoma Developmental Center – then called Sonoma State Hospital – he jumped at the chance.

Ponte quickly met a kindred spirit in artist Timothy Dixon while shopping for brewers yeast and vitamins at the Faith Health Food store where the Glen Ellen Star is today. Dixon’s work, like Ponte’s, is Sonoma County-centered, colorful, figurative, and now sells for thousands of dollars.

“Glen Ellen was just a great place to land in 1969,” he said. “On lunch break from the state hospital, we’d come into town and play pool in the back room of the Rustic Inn. It had a rough feeling but people were accepting and I never saw any fights. I remember the rifle above the bar, though. And Eddie Haddam, the ‘town mayor’ was a frequent patron. I even remember there were cockfights out on Dunbar Road.”

The Three Nations Bar was on the ground floor of what is now the Chauvet Hotel. It was a popular drinking establishment for years with sawdust on the floor and barbers’ chairs, until several motor cycle clubs began to frequent it and, well, maybe some trouble was caused.

“We hung out a lot at the Londonside (resort), on the creek past Hippie Hollow on Warm Springs just past the blinking yellow light,” said Ponte.

The Londonside - whose slogan was “Always a Friendly Welcome”- offered swimming, cabins, picnic grounds, drinks and dancing. In its day, Londonside was a popular old resort with small cabins along the creek. The main building had a knotty pine interior and stuffed animal heads on the walls. By the 1960s, it was getting worn down and had a loose, free-wheeling feeling, as many young people began to rent the little cabins. Chef Jack Cardini owned it for awhile and cooked huge Italian meals. Ponte recalls “many wild nights” at the resort.

Ponte’s work, like Benton’s, has a fluid, sculpted quality that depicts everyday people and scenes of a life in Glen Ellen circa 1990s. He has rendered several paintings of Glen Ellen scenes. The image of the boy on a bicycle by what is now the Jim Berkland Bridge is a favorite.

Several others depict the Jack London Saloon, and a charming one of the SDC Administration building is much-loved. He has captured, in the style of Thomas Hart Benton, Glen Ellen before it disappears. Several of his works have been transposed into post cards and sold in the Glen Ellen Market. Some have been used as posters for the Glen Ellen Village Fair. Ponte works in the studio behind his enchanting house at the foot of Hill Road. He lives with la belle femme Francaise Yannick in the house where they raised their son, Jean-Paul, who is completing his MA in environmental studies at Humboldt State University.

Glen Ellen is full of these interesting people, living under the radar, and with colorful stories to tell.

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