If you hung out in Ocean Beach in the '80s or early '90s, you surely knew Spaceman. Every day, the old, blind and usually drunk man sat in his wheelchair on Newport Street wearing a self-promoting "Spaceman" t-shirt and giving out "space numbers" to passersby.
If you wanted to be on-board the Rillosporian spacecraft when it rescued humankind in 2005, these space numbers were essential digits. It's a long story-one that Clint Cary, aka Spaceman, had been telling anyone willing to listen since the late 1950s. Known for their esoteric spirits as they are, OBecians were generally receptive to his strange tale.
A few months before Spaceman died in 1993, friends helped him set up an exhibit for the annual O.B. Street Fair. In a tent illuminated by black light, fairgoers viewed the Spaceman's paintings. The recent works were familiar-good for a blind bum, anyhow.
But the earlier works from the '50s, '60s and '70s-before Spaceman lost his vision-were stunning. In florescent paint, exotic landscapes and metaphysical visions evoked Marc Chagall, Picasso, and other top-notch modern artists. People left the tent thinking there was a lot about the Spaceman they didn't know.
"I would say the majority of the people who knew him remember him from the '80s," says Rick Bollinger, writer and director of the new play, The Glorious Perception: Conversations with the Spaceman of Ocean Beach. "What we're doing in the play takes you back."
Back to 1963, when the 54-year-old Cary arrived in San Diego, possibly fleeing from the law in Pasadena. The friend who was supposed to meet him at the airport was busy, so he asked his neighbor, Bob Oaks, to do it. On the ride home, Oaks and Cary began a friendship that would last 30 years.
"My play is... really about Spaceman as seen through Bob Oaks' eyes," Bollinger says.
Oaks, who died in 1997, was a coffin and plot salesman by day, a professional jazz musician by night. He lived in a small cottage at the bottom of the O.B. fishing pier for more than 50 years. Divorced and never remarried, his teeny living room was a 24-hour, jazz-fueled bachelor pad, packed every night with musicians who would drop by unannounced to jam.
"Oaks embodied the creative spirit-that idea of living art, living your dream. That little home of his became transcendental to people who came there," Bollinger recalls.
"So Oaks and Spaceman were a match made in heaven. Oaks believed Cary was a great artist and a great storyteller, and if it hadn't been for Oaks, Cary definitely wouldn't have stuck around O.B. as long as he did."
It's not quite accurate to say that Spaceman lived in O.B. continuously for 30 years. He was frequently in jail for petty crimes and spent two years in a state mental hospital. But when he was free, the funky crowd in Oaks' living room lapped him up. A cat who'd been abducted by aliens, escaped from a drunk tank through an air vent, thrown a pie in the face of a policeman and painted mad, visionary canvases was someone worth knowing.
Still, Spaceman could be a crashing bore when he was drunk, Bollinger says. He speculates that Oaks helped shape Spaceman's reputation for being fascinating, whereas without Oaks, people might have seen him as merely obnoxious.
Oaks was able to present a filtered version of Spaceman because he captured the best of him on audio tape. Filling more than 500 reels, Oaks obsessively taped decades of music and action in his living room. These archives contain his own audio diaries (many documenting Spaceman's antics), as well as hundreds of hours of the Spaceman himself wending raffish tales.
"Oaks would make these tapes, and then play the tapes for other people to hear," Bollinger says. "Spaceman would be gone, off running crazy and drunk in the streets, and Bob would be in the pad, telling people, "You've got to hear this!'
"That's why Spaceman became a legend."
Before his death, Oaks gave all his tapes to Bollinger, who has been transcribing, cataloging and obsessing over the material for the last 10 years. Using direct transcriptions as dialogue, Bollinger's play attempts to recreate the lively scenes from Oaks' living room. The main characters, Oaks and Spaceman, take turns telling stories. Between anecdotes, jazz musicians jam. Each of the show's four nights features one of four local jazz figures: Daniel Jackson, Lori Bell, Joe Marillo and Gilbert Castellanos.
For a first time director, Bollinger has assembled a remarkable list of musical talent. But he says it was no trouble recruiting.
"Every single one of these musicians actually played at Bob Oaks' house," he explains. "So they're not doing this thing for me, or even for the Spaceman. They're doing it because they were there, because that was an important scene for them."
Bollinger also expects that more than half the audience will have known either Oaks or Spaceman, or both.
"After they see this, people are going to be coming up to me with stories I haven't heard. As much of an expert as I've become over the last 10 years, I bet I'll know a whole new side of the Spaceman when all this is through." ©
The Glorious Perception: Conversations with the Spaceman of Ocean Beach runs four consecutive Sundays, October 5-26, at Dizzy's.