I joined The Bakersfield Californian photo staff in September, 1981, after spending nine months as a sports writer and layout editor. This was the job I wanted, it was my dream job. I got it, and it almost ended a month or two later. Let me tell you about the time my pal Felix Adamo almost got me fired. Back then, we didn’t have a photo assignment system. What we had was a big book with a column for each photographer’s name. When a reporter or editor needed a photographer, they simply blocked out a stretch of time and made a notation. The notation could be anything; one or two words, sometimes just the reporter’s name. Information about the assignment? Forget about it. Address or location? Maybe, if you were lucky. I was the scheduled Sunday photographer for the upcoming weekend, it was likely in November, when I looked at the book to see my schedule. The line blocking out an hour in the afternoon simply read “Leonard Rose concert, Civic Auditorium.” I had no idea what that meant, so I asked Californian photographer Felix Adamo if he’d ever heard of Leonard Rose. Sure, Adamo replied. They’re a punk rock band, and a pretty popular one. OK, that sounded good enough for me.
I came to work that Sunday dressed like any photographer whose day’s work included shooting a punk rock concert would; a pair of jeans, a t-shirt of some sort, an old ski jacket that was filthy and pretty much shredded and most likely my Los Angeles Raiders ball cap. To complete the package, I still had my pornstache. My starting salary was $250 per week, and I damn sure wasn’t going to waste any of it on clothes. I headed for the Civic Auditorium and parked in the back lot. How clueless was I? Let’s start with my arrival at the back door. It was open, there was nobody there, and I walked right in, never stopping to think that the back door at a big punk rock concert would have some kind of security there. Once inside, I heard classical music playing. OK, I figured, they’re one of those bands that does a classical music intro, then gets into the crazy rock stuff. It worked for Elvis, so the punk rock band Leonard Rose was probably doing the same. I had never entered the Civic Auditorium through the back door before, and had no idea where I was. I followed the sound of the music, weaving my way through a maze of hallways, then a whole bunch of curtains. The music was close now, I stepped through two large curtains and was suddenly on the stage. With the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra. There we were, tuxedos and evening gowns, beautiful classical music coming from their instruments and me and my shredded jacket and blue jeans and pornstache. Maybe nobody saw me, I thought. I ducked back behind the curtains and made my way to the seats in front of the stage.
Leonard Rose was not a punk band, but Felix Adamo punked my ass before there was such a thing as being punked. Leonard Rose was the world’s preeminent cellist, an American master who taught at Julliard and, oh nothing, was just the principal cellist for the New York Philharmonic by the time he was 26. His appearance with the Bakersfield Symphony was a big deal. A very big deal. I needed a spot in front of the stage to shoot. I picked the third or fourth row, and then began making my way to the middle of that row, climbing over the tuxedo-clad and evening-gown wearing patrons, saying “press, press, Bakersfield Californian, press, thank you” as I pawed my way to the middle of the row. I didn’t want to seem rude, you know. Rose came out, shook hands with symphony conductor John Farrer, and turned to the audience. His smile immediately faded when he saw me. “You’re not going to take pictures from there, are you,” he asked. “Oh, it’s OK, I’m with the newspaper,” I replied, thinking that would make everything alright. “But I don’t want you there, it’s disruptive,” he said, and everybody in the place is hearing this. And I said, I actually said to the greatest cellist in the world, “Just go ahead and play your fiddle. I’ll be out of here in no time.” Rose glared hard at me for a few seconds, shook his head, and started playing. I shot about 12 frames or so, then left as promised, repeating the process that got me to the middle of the row. “Press, press, Bakersfield Californian, press, thank you.”
I didn’t think anything of it through the rest of my shift. We were just two highly-trained professionals who had a brief discussion about how I would shoot his photo. Sure, he seemed a bit testy, but maybe he was just a little nervous. I decided he really didn’t do anything wrong.
The Bakersfield Californian editors at the time all sat in a row in the middle of the newsroom. We called it “Editors’ Row.” When I arrived at work the next day and headed toward “Editors’ Row,” something seemed amiss. The row of gruff, chain-smoking editors looked more like a firing squad. Wow, I though, looks like somebody screwed up. I wonder who it is. Then I realized they were staring at me. All of them. Our publisher, Ted Fritts, was in the audience at the concert, right there in front, and witnessed my first performance with the Bakersfield Symphony. Somebody had apparently got their ass chewed out about the brand new photographer in blue jeans and a shredded jacket and a pornstache who embarrassed him and the newspaper at the concert. I came very close to being fired, some editors wanted me gone, but Jim Varley, the night city editor, talked them out of it. But there was a price to pay: a dress code! The photographers were now required to wear slacks, a dress shirt and tie to work every day. Leverage had a lot to do with what you could get away with in the newsroom. If you were really good, you could get away with a lot of shit. I took inventory of my leverage to see just how far I could push this dress code thing. Let’s see. The editors were pissed off at me, and would have fired my ass if not for Varley’s intervention. I couldn’t downplay what happened at the concert, what with the publisher sitting right there. The photographers were pissed off at me, now that they had a dress code imposed on them. And the part about being able to get away with shit if you were pretty good? Well, I wasn’t pretty good. I was a kid who had already gotten arrested on the job and now showed up at a symphony concert in a pair of jeans, a, oh well, you know. My leverage inventory complete, I realized I had none, so I went to Mervyn’s and bought a couple of pairs of slacks, a few shirts and some ties.
The dress code would last about a month before the editors lost interest. Varley would remind me many times over the years about the time he kept me from being fired. Felix Adamo still calls me a dumbass for believing him about Leonard Rose being a punk rock band. Bakersfield Symphony conductor John Farrer and I would become good friends over the years. I would shoot the symphony many more times and he and I now laugh about that day. I would go on to learn that photojournalism is not just about getting a picture, but how you handle yourself and shoot an assignment. One thing I’ve never learned, however, is anything about musical instruments. When it comes to them, I’m just as clueless as I was on that autumn Sunday in 1981. A cello still looks like a big-ass fiddle to me. I wonder if the shit wouldn’t have hit the fan the way it did if I had said “Just go ahead and play your cello” instead. Probably not.