There was a lot more we wanted to include in print, but had to cut out. Here you will find the full interview with Rita Abrams with extended and elaborated upon answers. – Mimi
How did a kindergarten teacher get a record deal? When I lived in Boston I met Judy Collins, who thought producer Erik Jacobsen (Lovin’ Spoonful, Norman Greenbaum, Chris Isaak) would like my songs. Later on, out here, I met Erik at a party, and then kept running into him. The night I saw him at La Ginestra, I nervily asked him to come to my apartment to listen to the tape I’d made of “Mill Valley” in my kindergarten, with teacher’s aide Tommy Heath (later of Tommy Tutone) on guitar. Reluctantly, Erik did (“I never listen in person,” he said), and after making me play it an agonizing four times, he quietly spoke the six words that would change my life: “I like it. Let’s do it.” Eventually we had to sub the third graders for the kindergartners, and I only recently learned that when Erik took both “Mill Valley” and “Spirit in the Sky” to the Warner Bros. sales meeting, our little song was the one that got the standing ovation.
Then what? They put a rush release on it, and it was playing worldwide in 10 days. DJs from all over were calling the school and asking, “Is there really a Miss Abrams and a Strawberry Point School?” When a reporter asked one of the third graders how she liked Mill Valley, she said, “It’s OK, but I hardly ever go there.” She didn’t realize Strawberry was Mill Valley. I was embarrassed.
Francis Ford Coppola directed the song video. How was he to work with? We were just singing it at the Mill Valley Fourth of July party. I had no idea who directed it until a few years ago. He was just somebody Warner Bros. hired, and I was too blissed out to notice.
You won an Emmy for scoring the NBC Documentary about Marin called I Want It All Now. Did you come up with the title? Back in 1979 a slick NBC producer came to Marin to “document” its decadent lifestyle, seducing some earnest and unsuspecting women to express desires like, “I want to be a wife, I want to be mother, I want to be a singer … I want it all now!” Who doesn’t? So no, I can’t claim that dubious distinction, and had no idea what the slant of the show would be when I composed for it. It was like designing the deck chairs on the Titanic.
You seem to enjoy satire. Is Marin still a viable subject? Absolutely. And Marinites love to laugh at themselves. While the current targets are not so obvious as the old hot tubs and peacock feathers, the sense of abundance and entitlement is alive and well.
Highlights of Mill Valley in the ’70s? It was a Cleveland girl’s fantasy. I found myself at a party with Rip Torn, stirring spaghetti with Ferlinghetti. Mill Valley was full of gems like the original Sweetwater, Golden Valley Market, and Pat and Joe’s, a coffeehouse brimming with live folk music. But my favorites were the Mill Valley talent shows my friends the Fromers and I put on, first at the old Oddfellows Hall (now 142 Throckmorton) and later in Mount Carmel Auditorium. They were a magic mix of local color and celebrity sparkle. And the mood was heartwarmingly joyous. I wish we could do it all again.
Did these places and events define Mill Valley? Yes, as did the true heroes —people like Gary Giacomini, Ellen Straus, Martin Griffin, and so many others who fought and still fight to keep Mill Valley and all of Marin beautiful, and to control over-development and preserve our open space. Most of us tend to take it for granted.
Is your daughter Mia in the business? Her dad, filmmaker John Antonelli, and I both decided to raise Mia here, instead of following our careers to Los Angeles, but now she is living there, working in the music industry, and we’re both still here.
Secret to a good school talent show? Go light on the lip-synching.
Hobbies? I can’t be in a room with a piano and not want to play it. And I guess songwriting is my hobby as well as my profession. As a sensitive girl, I learned to express and comfort myself through diaries, poems and lyrics. If I had had better communication with my parents, I wouldn’t have needed to be as creative.
Favorite drink and where? I’m not a big drinker, but I do like the strawberry margaritas at the Cantina.
Aging seems to be one of your favorite topics to satirize. How is 70? Hard to hide, thanks to Wikipedia. But though I’m trying to be a good role model for my daughter by not being ashamed of my age, I don’t have one friend who isn’t shocked at turning 70. We are all perpetual teenagers. When people say I look young, I tell them stress agrees with me. But really it’s a lot of work staying — or rather trying to stay — fit. On the other hand, aging is so much easier when you happen to stumble into a great relationship — with someone who’s even older than you are.
You’ve been in the news for having to sell your house in Mill Valley — is it time to leave? It’s been an odd experience having to sell after all these years of being a Mill Valley homeowner. As one long-ago Canadian disc jockey said, “Everyone has a Mill Valley in his heart.” (Just not in his or her wallet.) But seriously — I have such dear friends here and I know I’ll always keep coming back. Mill Valley has given me a basically enchanted life.
Mimi Towle has been the editor of Marin Magazine for over a decade. She lived with her family in Sycamore Park and Strawberry and thoroughly enjoyed raising two daughters in the mayhem of Marin’s youth sports; soccer, swim, volleyball, ballet, hip hop, gymnastics and many many hours spent at Miwok Stables. Her community involvements include volunteering at her daughter’s schools, coaching soccer and volleyball (glorified snack mom), being on the board of both Richardson Bay Audubon Center. Currently residing on a floating home in Sausalito, she enjoys all water activity, including learning how to steer a 6-person canoe for the Tamalpais Outrigger Canoe Club. Born and raised in Hawaii, her fondness for the islands has on occasion made its way into the pages of the magazine.