The year was 1968, and a musically minded 24-year-old special education teacher named Rita Abrams was headed from Boston to California in her Volkswagen bus. She’d applied for teaching jobs in towns she picked out on a map, and just as she was about to accept an offer in Fremont, Strawberry Point School kindergarten teacher Barbara Phelps decided to stay in Mexico — opening up the job for Abrams. Fast-forward two years: Abrams had a job and an apartment on Miller Avenue, and Mill Valley had its very own song penned by the teacher. Mill Valley and 1970s Marin gave Abrams volumes of material to mine for her creative career writing kids’ songs, humor books, greeting cards and stage musical collaborations, including Pride and Prejudice; New Wrinkles and Just My Type. And on September 17, Abrams and most of the original cast will celebrate the 20-year anniversary of For Whom the Bridge Tolls at 142 Throckmorton. The satirical musical revue about Marin County life, co-written with Stan Sinberg, played to rave reviews for more than 10 years, often being called the “thinking person’s Beach Blanket Babylon.”
1. How did a kindergarten teacher get a record deal? When I lived in Boston I met Judy Collins, who thought producer Erik Jacobsen would like my songs. Later on, out here, I met Erik at a party, and then when 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” with teacher’s aide Tommy Heath (later leader of the band Tommy Tutone). He liked it and took it with him to Los Angeles. I 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.