In the late 1950s Mill Valley was a model small, suburban town. Its downtown was made up primarily of resident-serving businesses, from Mayer’s Men’s and Women’s Department Store to Varney’s Hardware. As a boy, I found Bennett’s Variety Store especially exciting. The glass candy counters just in the front door offered sparkling bins of candy corn and lemon drops that sold for 25 cents a pound. Heading off to a Saturday matinée double feature next door at the Sequoia Theater, with a small white bag holding 10 cents’ worth, was as close as a kid can get to heaven on earth.
Mill Valley was a uniquely creative place. Homes were highly affordable, drawing many artists and bohemians. Folks moved here for the sense of community, the spiritual beauty of Mt. Tam, and the wealth of nature. The creative arts, visual and performing, flourished, capturing the joy and beauty of the surroundings.
Festivities featured a fashion show, with styles primarily offered by Mayer’s, a costume parade, and elaborate sidewalk and window box displays of fall flowers and foliage, including cornstalks, pumpkins and scarecrows. Food and other concession booths filled the square in front of the Greyhound Bus Depot. Live entertainment was a combination of contemporary Americana with the area’s Mexican heritage. There were traditional Hispanic dances and Mexican music, square dancing, street dancing, strolling minstrels, clowns, and a ventriloquist. As a special presentation, more than 60 Marin artists organized an exhibit of their paintings in 80 storefront displays. These artworks were designed to bring additional color to the festive decorations. Prizes of $25, $15, and $10 were awarded to the most popular works, as voted by festival attendees.
The next year, 1958, the event was shortened to four days. Still an ambitious undertaking, it took place Oct. 30-Nov. 2, and was again held in Lytton Square. Sponsored by the Junior Chamber of Commerce and Mill Valley merchants, the entertainment level was expanded. The Fall Fashion Show returned and Hawaiian, Scandinavian, and Israeli folk dancers were added. Activities also included a Halloween parade, puppet show, ju-jitsu demonstrations, free kiddies’ show at the Sequoia Theatre, tricycle races and a hula hoop contest, as well as sidewalk food and game booths. A beauty pageant was added, complete with the crowning of Queen of the Festival at the Queen’s Ball in the American Legion Hall.
Mill Valley auto dealers and merchants made a last-minute request to close off Lytton Square for an auto show. This prompted an argument in the City Council, fraying tempers over downtown parking and shopping issues. Happily, a compromise was found, and eventually the town’s 12 dealerships exhibited 36 new models. Most notable were Larry Brink’s new Lincolns and Mercurys from his showroom on East Blithedale. Larry had a great reputation in town, due to his fame as a past Chicago Bears football player.
With all this going on, art may have taken a back seat. Still, local artists exhibited over 100 paintings in stores, and the popularity poll and prizes were continued.
The festival returned in 1959 with a new name, “The Third Annual Fall Festival,” a three-day community event September 25-27. Again sponsored by the Junior Chamber of Commerce, it enjoyed a profound change in focus. Gone were the fashion and auto shows, and there was consciously more emphasis on art. The business window displays continued, with the addition of a gallery exhibit at the R&R Garage on Corte Madera Ave., and a special presentation of art and music in El Paseo.
Pottery and other art process demonstrations were staged in Lytton Square, along with game booths sponsored by civic groups. There was an emphasis on elaborate sidewalk floral displays. The entertainment included a Dixieland band, banjo and guitar folk music, classical accordion, cello and piano, Elizabethan music, street dancing, and square dancing. Free kiddie movies at the Sequoia, marionettes, and children’s games and contests were presented, as well as the coronation ball for the Festival Queen and the selection of “Miss Artists Model.” An editorial headline of the day stated: “Festival has the right to develop into a community arts demonstration of rising importance on the Pacific Coast.”
The festival maintained something of a carnival atmosphere, with cable car transportation and concession booths run by civic and nonprofit groups. Music, puppets, teen dances, a coronation ball and anniversary ceremonies capped the celebration. The next year, the event faced its biggest challenge. In the eleventh hour of August, 1961, the Mill Valley Junior Chamber announced they weren’t up to sponsoring and coordinating another festival. The Mill Valley Record editorial called for “some group to carry on and not let the burgeoning art event fall by the wayside.” By the end of that month, a new community committee of artists’ groups, including the Outdoor Art Club and the Marin Society of Artists, joined forces with the Jaycees and the American Association of University Women to meet the challenge.
The city donated $400 towards the festival, which took place under its current name, “The Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival,” on October 14 and 15. Artists and their art were truly established as the main focus—not dart throwing and hot dog stands—during this renaissance year. The festival’s goal of “cultural rather than carnival” redefined the event as a town-wide gallery for professional and amateur artists and craftsmen. Three hundred artists were personally invited, and an open invitation was extended to all Bay Area artists.
The end result was 61 artists displaying 100 paintings in store windows, and another 64 artists exhibiting 192 paintings on pegboards in the parking lot behind the Depot. El Paseo showcased an additional group of Mill Valley artists and craftsmen, and the Outdoor Art Club hosted artists’ demos in the patio, while local musicians of professional caliber performed. This “adult” entertainment included ballet, classical guitar, and recorder, folk singers, and dance exhibitions.
The official founding of the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival took place in the following year, 1962, when it was incorporated under its current name as a nonprofit service organization. The new organization’s goal was to provide a venue that would support art in the Mill Valley community. The festival was moved to its current location in Old Mill Park and followed the presentation guidelines as established the year before. The format—individual artists showing multiple pieces of their work in a collective show—became the defining structure. Music by local performers enhanced and gave balance to the event and complemented the art.
From this point the festival’s future was reasonably secure. It would grow and prosper over the next decades. Today, it continues to be a source of pride and inspiration for the Mill Valley community even though the small town that was a haven for artists and the celebration of a bohemian lifestyle is a thing of the past. A new Mill Valley populace, with great wealth, has emerged. Older artists have been forced out by the high cost of living, and a younger generation of artists cannot afford to live here.
Yet Mill Valley remains a community that honors the arts, in part because of the Fall Arts Festival and the spirit it engenders. The festival continues to evolve and flourish. During recent years, it has replaced local artists with others from all over the country (although 50 percent hail from the Bay Area). This new demographic provides the opportunity to represent a broader geographic base. Although the event today may not realize the founders’ original goal of promoting and supporting local arts, it is still an important vehicle for showcasing exceptional creative arts in all media. It is a treasured local event, and Mill Valleyans old and new turn out in droves to enjoy two days of art, music, children’s activities, the chance to connect with old friends and make new ones.
The festival is designed, planned, and produced by a volunteer committee composed of local artists and involved residents. They work alongside a dedicated Board of Directors who maintain the financial stability of the organization. As it was 60 years ago, the festival is the direct result of the time, energy, and commitment of dedicated volunteers. It continues to be a great source of pride for all who continue its legacy.
Thanks to Susan Gilmour, whose notes provided much of the historic detail for this piece. Steve Bajor is a Native Mill Valleyan. He has made a career of creating and producing community cultural events. Executive Director of the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival for nine years, Steve received Mill Valley’s Milley Award for Contributions to the Arts Community in 2009.