THE FOUNTAIN : In Santa Barbara by the Sea, Even Symbolic Dolphins Can Cause a Lot of Trouble

Michael Fessier Jr.'s "In Search of the Chicken Cackler and Other Unlikely Missions" (Capra Press) is due out this fall.



1782 - 1982















I heard of the dolphins' appearance, swarms of them, as many as a hundred, from several people. It was a lovely story, a little goofy maybe, like nearly everything connected to the fountain, but nice, and when the people told it their faces glowed. "No one has ever seen bottle-nosed dolphins this far north," they said.

No one?

"No one I ever talked to," one woman said.

After a while it occurred to me that they were talking about a miracle. No one said in so many words that these particular dolphins had heard that the fountain was in trouble and so had come to lend their support, but that was the implication.

As happened so many times over the fountain's often fantastic five-year history, one was asked to take a position: Do you believe? Do you believe that while Victor (Sky Eagle) Lopez was conducting the site-blessing ceremonies there at the entrance to Stearns Wharf, as he held to his lips the abalone shell containing the smoldering purple sage and blew the smoke to the north and east, the south and west, that there in the Santa Barbara noonday sun, with no clouds in the sky and with the air as ocean-scrubbed clean as on the day of creation, so clear that Santa Cruz Island looked close enough to touch , that as Victor Lopez was invoking "Father Sun and Mother Moon" and asking that all animals be blessed, "the ant to the elephant," and as he called upon the gods of Chumash Indian ancestors, the Stone Age oceangoing people who had held this turf for 10,000 years and exist now only as small clay figures tending tiny painted fires up at the Natural History Museum, that as he called upon all of that while bicyclists, skateboarders and runners cruised by and tourists smiled, that at just that moment, a few hundred yards off the beach, pods of good-time dolphins were popping their shiny smiling beaks out of the water. Supporters? "Go Dolphin Fountain!"

Do you believe that?

It was supposed to be just a fountain, a little something of cement or stone that sprayed or bubbled or, like the lion faces downtown in the patio of the Acapulco restaurant, spat.

How complicated could a fountain be? In Santa Barbara, the answer is: very. It is a careful city, with a large investment in the status quo, a city where any change, no matter how minor, is vigorously monitored and discussed by an alert public and their elected officials. Known as the Friendship Fountain in its inception, it could not have seemed more innocuous. It would replace a small flower garden, 20 by 25 feet, that sat just in back of the parking kiosk at Stearns Wharf. No one then could have known of the fountain's curious power to provoke emotion and controversy. "It has a history of decision-making which for convolution, irony and betrayal rivals any medieval chronicle of a 1,000-year war," wrote Santa Barbara News-Press reporter Linda Egan at one point.

Decision-making is the key phrase here. The fountain had to take a specific form that would inevitably symbolize some value or belief--historical, mythical, aesthetic--and all the city of 74,000 had to decide was what that form would be. So what seemed so simple was in fact extraordinarily difficult, bringing into collision rich and poor, assorted ethnic identities and a great array of differing beliefs as opposing factions battled back and forth across the tiny plot of land like religious armies of the Middle Ages. Something important was at stake.

The Friendship Fountain was proposed in 1980 by a small, intense widow, Louise Lowry Davis, who saw the fountain as a kind of miniature Statue of Liberty, opening its arms to tourists far from home. Pledging $10,000 toward its construction, she asked only that it carry this pleasant salutation: "May All Your Days Be Filled With Loving Moments, Gentle Smiles and the Joy of Friendship." In this fountain, standing in what looked like a giant cement champagne glass, would be a "young, thinly clad woman" holding a palm frond. Some insisted she was meant to be St. Barbara herself, yet since St. Barbara is not a saint, at least not a church-authenticated one, and religion itself is a bit dicey in our spiritually tangled times, an element of ambiguity was purposely built in. "It could be seen as St. Barbara," Richard Taylor, the architect who designed her, said. "On the other hand, she could as well have been a UC Santa Barbara co-ed." Taylor is a South Carolinian, and he laughs in an affable Southern sort of way when he tells you this.

But the young, thinly clad woman would remain only an idea, since soon after receiving the commission, the sculptor hired to create her was murdered. Giovanni Schoeman, a South African, had done well in Santa Barbara selling fanciful gold statues of naked women ("Snow Fairy" and "Dreamer") at the Sunday art show. Schoeman, 40, was a man of many layers, some of which he had successfully concealed--the conviction for armed robbery back home was one, and whatever got him killed another (diamond smuggling was rumored, but never proved). He was a dabbler in alchemy, in magic, and saw in the fountain a chance for legitimacy, which had previously eluded him. But his past got to him first, and in the blink of an eye, he was gone, taking the lady with a palm frond with him.

In terms of the dolphin saga, Schoeman's death registered largely as an unsettling aberration, an ominous portent of the fountain's essential perverseness, its instability. It suggested to city officials the need to get the fountain project under control .

"Friendship" wasn't making it either. Insufficient money had been raised under that name, and since 1982 was the 200th anniversary of the Presidio, the military outpost Spain had set up among the heathen on the scrubby coast of 18th-Century California, the fountain was transmuted into a "Bicentennial Fountain."

Until now city officials had not realized that the proposed fountain site was so crucial to the city's sense of itself. "We must be very careful when we put a piece of jewelry on the very foot of our city," a member of the Landmarks Committee cautioned.

So the city set up a competition, sent out a call. Who in all the land could come up with a little something that would say what everyone would agree it should say, if only they could agree on what that was?

This is where Bud (nobody calls him James) Bottoms came in.

Bottoms was himself in a terrible muddle. "I was a little suicidal," he says.

His depression wasn't that much different from that of a lot of people his age and circumstances: 54, just divorced, not working, kids all well launched from the nest. He was an artist of all arts, teacher, environmentalist-activist with a minor in oddball inventions. (Acti-Mates, plastic creatures that perch on the edge of drinking glasses, were one of his.) But now inspiration ran low. He was an idealist with a theatrical flair. He needed a cause to believe in.

His just-concluded 26-year marriage had ended in one of those brave last-gasp group efforts meant to glue the disintegrating family together. He, his wife, Betty, and their four grown sons had built a house up in the hills, in Rattlesnake Canyon. But as that project ended so had their marriage, and now Bottoms had gone to live on his 24-foot boat in the harbor, trying to dream up that most difficult-to-find part--the one that has meaning for you and that someone will pay you to play.

He'd spent a lot of his breadwinning time as art director for Tempo, GE's Santa Barbara research facility. It had the serene, smokeless surface the city generally insists on in its industries. But under that, hidden from view, Tempo was increasingly involved in military research, including such lethal matters as underwater warfare and the testing of nuclear devices. Bottoms had been into solar power and recycling and everything environmentally benign before almost anyone, so as an idealist, he was happy enough to be gone from Tempo, but he hadn't really come up with anything better. He'd been set free, but to do what? "I had no idea."

His sons, the successful film-acting quartet of Timothy ("Paper Chase") and Joseph (star of the "Santa Barbara" soap), Samuel ("Apocalypse Now") and Ben ("Stalk the Wild Child"), all had good parts. "I didn't know who I was," Bottoms says.

Besides being a real Southern Californian, Westwood born, he was a real Santa Barbaran since migrating north years ago to attend the University of California at Santa Barbara. A real Santa Barbaran gets intimately and protectively involved with his environment (Bottoms organized GOO--Get Oil Out--after the 1969 Platform A oil spill). A real Santa Barbaran also says the kind of things Bottoms does about all the money he could have made in New York or Los Angeles if he'd let himself be tempted away. This comes with the suggestion that leaving Santa Barbara, last remnant of the lost paradise of California, is selling out.

The thing was, he loved the place. "People care here. There's a real jealous possessiveness. It is an environment that is actually unique. People know they have a jewel here, a last stand. A core of people believe that."

But it had all seeped away. Sometimes it didn't help that his sons made so much more money than he. That could be depressing. Timothy owned a ranch up in Monterey where Dad had been hanging out trying to write film scripts. They hadn't worked out.

So it was time to get the old self-esteem together, and Bottoms found himself taking therapeutic sculpting classes at Santa Barbara City College. He'd always wanted to but had never had the time.

Bottoms was still a good-looking man with the sharp, high, leading-man cheekbones he'd passed on to his actor sons. He was an easy laugher, whimsical, great at parties and a little sly around the edges, a charming fellow that people liked having around. He was as well, at 54, setting off one more time to attempt, with confidence he didn't really feel, something he hadn't done before. When he heard about the fountain competition it sounded like a chance, but there were only 24 hours left before the deadline. What he needed was a small miracle.

He wanted to create something at least a little personal, but what in terms of "fountain" could that be? Like a man rummaging through a drawer of dead watches for the one he knows is in there, the one that works, he rummaged through the things that had meaning for him, things he loved, and soon came up with so large and obvious a thing as--the ocean. He'd always loved it. "I belong in the water. I do better there." He lived on the water when he wasn't in it. He'd raised his boys in part on the fish, abalone and lobster he had personally taken from the sea. The ocean was definitely something he believed in.

And there it was, a bronze model he had made of two mammals he could identify with--dolphins playing around the tail of a diving whale. Heartfelt but on the ordinary side. The judges ignored it.

There were 23 entries, heavy on what one judge sardonically called "fish doing something or other," and from them the panel selected a design in the austere bank-plaza mode: three "free-standing walls" loitering around an oozing rectangle of water. "It is a much more important architectural act than any of us realize," said Paul Mills, chairman of the panel and then-director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. "It's a major change in direction. Santa Barbara has stuck to its guns on Mission Revival for 50 years."

Mills, who has a neat military mustache and sober unsmiling eyes, is an art historian and a vexillologist--a collector of and expert on flags. He and his wife live on one of Santa Barbara's most dramatic hilltops, with a king's view of the coastline, where he flies his flags like a man whose imperial instincts are there for all to see. Santa Barbara itself has a flag--it carries a crown to represent King Carlos of Spain, king when the Presidio was established--and at times it would be flapping away up there on Mills' flagpole. He knew what ought to represent the city far below, and it certainly wasn't leaping dolphins, "an idea that was new and creative back in the '20s, an idea that in the ensuing 60 years has become repetitious to the point of being uncreative."

He was in many ways a natural opponent for Bottoms--the intellectual versus the emotional man. Mills believed in art that instructed and led, not in art that was dictated by "the people," who, in truth, he did not quite believe in. " 'The people,' " he says thoughtfully, "is a term, a constituency, which is manipulated a lot more than it actually exists."

Yet it was the nonexistent people who would shortly send the three free-standing walls to the showers along with the thinly clad young lady and the other fountain rejects. When they saw the slabs in the paper the people wrote in and said nasty things about them. "It reminds me of a Paris urinal," said one of the more articulate lay critics. And "amid a storm of criticism," as the News-Press called it, the slabs were withdrawn.

The 23 designs were put on display at the library, where the people were asked to vote. Two thousand sixty-six did and "by overwhelming margin" chose Bud Bottoms' dolphins.

What seemed conclusive soon proved only a lull in the battle, a time for opponents to entrench. At least now they knew each other. On one side were Bud Bottoms and his supporters, and on the other were the powers that be.

The powers that be were interested in protecting and promoting many significant values, prominent among them a belief that almost nothing was more important than maintaining the look of the city's immaculate surfaces. For much of this century an organization called Santa Barbara Beautiful possessed nearly governmental influence, eliminating billboards from the approaching highways and preventing, with a passion that sometimes bordered on civic narcissism, the construction of buildings more than five stories high. The city itself had come to resemble a beautiful, infinitely vain queen surrounded by court advisers, each competing for her ear. And each firmly opposed to the plebeian dolphin coming ashore and moving in next door.

"They're OK for Marineland but not for Santa Barbara," said the Architectural Review Board. The Visual Arts in Public Places found them "pleasantly inoffensive but inadequate to meet the standards for public art." Most damning of all was the Landmarks Committee, which whispered vicious accusations of heresy in the queen's ear: The dolphins were insufficiently "dreamlike," insufficiently "romantic," insufficiently--oh, and this was a stinger--"Hispanic."

At first Bud Bottoms fought back with a whimsical offense, taking an ad in the News-Press that read: "Wanted: Romantic Latino Dolphin Needed to Model for Frustrated Sculptor. Apply Stearns Wharf."

But in his heart he knew this wouldn't get him far. He knew that no matter how suspect on one level the "romantic" "Hispanic" cultural-aesthetic orthodoxy was, on another it was the real goods, as embedded in the community and its sense of itself as Excalibur in its rock. In truth, Santa Barbara could trace some of its strongest influences back to the industrial cities of the Northeast. After the devastating earthquake of 1926, rich emigrants from that region enforced a fanciful architectural notion that they brought with them, mixing the tidy New England "look" with the untidy Spanish-Mexican-American-California hodgepodge they had discovered, the way Walt Disney discovered Main Street in Anaheim. Hispanic-romantic was now truly rooted, had become roots, and would not be easily challenged or dislodged.

What Bottoms needed was some kind of surpassing mythology that predated and in some ways was more authentic than the mythology he was up against. But what had that kind of reach, that kind of authority? Right around then, what should come his way but the story of the Rainbow Bridge. Salvation!

Briefly, it is a fable said by some anthropologists and historians to be out of Chumash Indian legend. In it, Hutash, the earth goddess, scatters chilicote seeds over Santa Cruz Island, and it is out of these seeds that the first humans grow. Soon there are too many people. They're popping up all over, and Hutash has to make one of those command decisions that earth goddesses are so often forced to make. She decides to send the excess population over to the mainland via the Rainbow Bridge.

"Do not look down," Hutash tells the travelers, who naturally disobey her and fall into the sea. Then Hutash takes pity on them and turns them into--dolphins. And ever since, the Indian and the dolphin have had a special kinship.

This was pure gold, people turned into dolphins. For many, the clever little whale, the nimble oceangoing mammal, had become a perfect quasi-human. He was friendly and helpful and had a language all his own, whose precise meaning was not known but could be anything at all. "A universal creature with no ethnic affiliation," Tom Long, a retired Navy admiral and a dolphin fountain supporter, said. It was from Long, in fact, that Bottoms heard about the Rainbow Bridge. Long heard it from his neighbor, and regardless of where he got the story it certainly had power, leaping as it did over the ambiguity of St. Barbara and the chilly intellectualism of post-modern slabs. It was something people could relate to, and it proved the catalyst for Bottoms' whole campaign.

"That was the turning point," Bottoms says. "It was as if what I was looking for found me."

The group that formed around the dolphins was mixed. Many were Chumash Indian descendants who saw in the dolphins an opportunity to call attention to the culture of their ancestors, using the fountain as a kind of microphone: We were here. We ruled for 10,000 years before you. We know things about this place that you don't. Listen.

The fact that anthropologist and writer Travis Hudson, a noted Chumash Indian expert, had his doubts about the authenticity of the Rainbow Bridge legend did not discourage those who drew inspiration from it. Besides which, Russell Ruiz, a Santa Barbara historian who is himself part Chumash, insisted that it is a true legend, told by one of the "original Chumash." As usual with the fountain, one had a choice.

Then there were people such as Theresa Vance, who arrived on the scene with her own agenda. "Dolphins came into my dream state," she says. "They said, 'We are seeking you out to come to California, where you will meet John Lilly and become involved with his work.' " She was living in Eugene, Ore., at the time and sold everything to come to Santa Barbara, where she associated herself with the dolphin fountain and spent time as well with Lilly, one of the world's best-known dolphin researchers, who lives in Malibu.

Vance is 37. She is an attractive, confident woman with short red hair who suggests a young Shirley MacLaine. Her business card reads: "Theresa Vance: Healing Arts, Acupuncture Therapy-Counseling-Crystalognomy." She also has a psychology degree from the University of Oregon and is a practicing psychic. There is a drawing of a dolphin on the door of her Santa Barbara apartment, and a picture of a dolphin on a sweat shirt she wears. It was Vance who provided some of the visionary ammunition that Bottoms would use so effectively. The dolphin and the Indian were, to her mind, perfect spiritual colleagues. "If we looked down from far above to here and saw the world and asked, 'What do they need there?' . . . the Chumash and the dolphin would be a good start. The Chumash wanted to balance the universe and the dolphins wanted to protect it. Dolphins teach us our humanness. They teach us to rely on our right brain, our intuition."

Vance went before the mayor and City Council on behalf of the dolphin fountain and left them with a message: "We are all learning to let go, to let go of our need to control. We are learning to listen to our hearts more."

It dragged on, year after year, as the regal city kept glancing around the dance floor in search of someone more her type, someone--and in the summer of '83 there he was. Not so tall, maybe, and not the Robert Redford blond the city might have preferred, but boy, was he rich. His name, and what a nice sound it had, was Essam Khashoggi.

Contrary to its image, Santa Barbara is not actually a wealthy city. In terms of median household income, its people are poorer than those throughout the state--an estimated $23,142 for Santa Barbarans, compared to $27,342 statewide. But what it has and has had for a very long time are pockets of the very rich who tend, like Khashoggi, to live quiet, low-profile lives. The youngest of three brothers involved with Triad, a vast Arab multinational conglomerate, he lives in the peaceful green canyons of the wealthy Hope Ranch district of Santa Barbara.

There he was, a stranger in a strange land, wishing to give his new home a gift. But what did it need that was in his power to bestow? Well, there was this long-standing problem concerning the outfall of Mission Creek, next to Stearns Wharf. An elaborate proposed redevelopment of the Cabrillo Boulevard and State Street intersection would solve this problem. The new intersection would emerge in four sections, or quadrants, and in each would be a fountain and a lovely white pillar. A bit of ancient Greece in old Santa Barbara.

Whether or not this was sufficiently "Hispanic" or "romantic" was beside the point. Offered a check for $1 million to construct its new intersection, the city was too grateful to quibble. "Yes?" asked the fair Khashoggi. "Yes," breathed the thoroughly smitten city of Santa Barbara.

One small, dolphin-sized problem. One little catch. Absorbed into the intersection's white-pillared redesign was the 20-by-25-foot flower garden earmarked for Bud Bottoms' dolphins. The fact that Khashoggi's intersection actually addressed a much larger issue--the creek outfall--didn't impress the dolphin people, who still saw it as a simple good guy (dolphins), bad guy (Khashoggi) face-off. And soon, once again, impassioned voices rang, reverberating off the thick white stucco walls of City Hall. Some of the protesters were dressed like Indians. Some had dolphins on their T-shirts.

The city was for once extremely solicitous of the dolphin people's feelings, and ever-so-kindly suggested that the dolphin fountain might be even more at home over at Fess Parker's new hotel. Dolphins are very flexible creatures. Dolphins could be happy anywhere. But the dolphin people were not buying it.

"It is symbolic of the Indian himself being moved and displaced," said Christina Foss of the Chumash Assn.

Mayor Sheila Lodge, 58, an elegant woman who tends toward mannish suits and wears her hair in a no-nonsense bun, attempted some hospitable small talk with the angry visitors.

"You were lucky enough to be here first," she said to Patsy Gomez, alluding to Gomez's Chumash ancestors.

"There was no luck to it," snapped Gomez.

There's not much left to tell. The end approached. There were many more meetings, many yesses were transmuted to maybes and were reborn as yesses once again. And finally, in February, 1984, the building permit needed to construct the fountain was issued. The original Friendship Fountain had been changed to the Bicentennial Fountain, but following years of dedicated nagging on the part of Louise Lowry Davis, a compromise was reached in April: The Bicentennial Friendship Fountain.

Three bronze dolphins, two adults and a baby, were cast by Bottoms, Piero Mussi and Joanne Duby at the Artworks Foundry in Berkeley; together they weigh 900 pounds. They were trucked to Santa Barbara to sit for a year, patiently as always, in front of the Natural History Museum. They had for company the skeleton of their massive cousin, the blue whale.

In January, 1985, Emily DeWare, a rich widow from Texas living in Montecito, contributed $80,000 to build the fountain itself. (The dolphins had cost only $25,000.) She said later, "The dolphins are friends of mine. I love them. They come by my house all the time at the beach."

On July 6, the anthropologist Travis Hudson committed suicide. He was 44. Jan Timbrook, a co-worker of his, doubts that his suicide had anything to do with his denial of the Rainbow Bridge legend. Theresa Vance--the spiritual adviser to Bud Bottoms and the dolphin cause--was out on Santa Cruz Island the day Hudson died, however, and she says she received a psychic message: "Travis had been tampering with something he shouldn't have."

On July 10, three years late and before 500 people, the dolphin fountain was unveiled on its site just behind the parking kiosk. Madeline Hall, a Chumash descendant, ceremonially placed on the front of the fountain a plaque that depicted dolphins circling the earth protectively. It was taken from an Indian cave painting near San Luis Obispo. Experts differ about whether the dolphins in the painting are really dolphins. Some say they may be swordfish.

The dolphins themselves had evolved over the years. Bottoms had worked for four unpaid years, but he would do very well for himself selling miniatures of the larger version. He had listened to "the people" as well as "the experts" as much as he could. And the dolphin nuclear family, a bouquet of dolphins connected by the same internal steel peg, had become very much a community creation, an authentic group statement of shared beliefs: a totem.

We wish to be free, announced the ocean-roving dolphins. But, insisted those in charge, not too free.

Originally there had been plans for the water to spew out from under the dolphins' dorsal fins and through their blowholes in a fan-like effect, but the Architectural Review Board had said no to this.

It said passers-by might get wet.

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