SierraLand today. A photo of the property as it looked in Spring 2010. Today, a clinic is there. At least some good came of the land...
"I am the grass, let me work"... Carl Sandburg
If you want to experience nine performers having the time of their lives on stage, my friend Barry McGuire is selling a CD of the music we made at SierraLand in his music store.
You won't be disappointed. For my money, it's by far the best we've sounded since the old days and the most fun we've ever had. Get the CD at:
In 1994, nine former members of the 1962-64 New Christy Minstrels launched an ambitious enterprise in Oakhurst, California.
They were Barry McGuire, Dolan Ellis, Art Podell, Clarence Treat, Paul Potash, Jackie Davidson, Gayle Caldwell, Ann White, Larry Ramos. The support band included Larry's group, The Association with Russ Giguere, Del Ramos, Miles Unite, their drummer, Bruce Pictor, and keyboard player, Donnie Gougeon. The music that was made there was exceptional.
This is a brief history of the endeavor that was called SierraLand.
This is Chapter 4, the final Chapter of the story of SierraLand.
Chapters 1,2 3 can be read by clicking the links in the navigation bar to the right of this article. (SierraLand stage photos courtesy of Gordon Adams)
Chapter 4 - Epilogue - The Chinese Connection - A Glimmer of hope
We had been big news. When we folded, we even knocked O.J. off the front page of the Fresno Bee for a few days.
Our beautiful theme park was overgrown with weeds, our theater seats threadbare, bleached, and moldy from the mountain autumn, but we still had eighty bus tours booked for the following season. Not enough to sustain an operation like ours had been, but worth some effort, I figured.
Besides, I had nowhere else to go and very little money to get there if I did.
Two problems. No group. No theater.
What the heck?
I spoke with Clarence who was back in L.A. and I asked if he could handle another go-round. At that point, I don’t think many of the others would have been receptive to a call from me, but Clarence Treat is a special breed. I mentioned earlier that he had retired from the Los Angeles County Fire Department with the rank of Captain. If he was trained to run into burning buildings, here was a disaster that was ready-made for him. He was back up in Oakhurst within a week. Clarence Treat is a hero. If your cause is just, call him.
Since Clarence and I were the only Minstrels even willing to try again, we needed a plan and a group.
‘The Chinese Connection’
Along comes unassuming, chuckling, mop-headed, bespeckled Raymond Tsang, owner of The Jade Gazebo Restaurant and Lounge, the local Chinese restaurant and karaoke bar in Oakhurst. Raymond had been a big fan of ours and he had watched us soar to the heights of expectation and he’d watched us crash and burn with the wisdom that comes from having seen it before. Oh, did I mention that Raymond was also a senior auditor and CPA for the California State Board of Equalization headquartered in Fresno? Inscrutable, these… (you finish this sentence please).
Raymond and I had become friends while I had been nursing my wounds at his bar those past months since we folded, and had laid down the challenge:
“You come up with a group, and I’ll come up with a plan” (Chinese accent on the side please)
With Raymond’s help and some snooping around town, we put together a group of five performers. Raymond knew all the local musicians, mostly because he also is a damned fine mandolin and Irish penny whistle player, and of course, he owned and operated the only Karaoke Bar in Oakhurst.
The Group - Minstrels ‘95
l to r:
Art, Lisa, Matt (light and sound), Reno, Judy (seated), Clarence
Me and Clarence, of course. Then:
Reno McCormick – A local Oakhurst bluegrass virtuoso. Reno added a genuine country sound and his guitar, dobro and fiddle playing was exceptional. His voice had that signature twang that I’ve tried to copy all my life but always ended up sounding like I was imitating Peter Yarrow. You know, the sound Randy Travis has. Reno’s got it. Reno and his wife Sheila were and still are pretty well known in bluegrass circles and Reno was a no-nonsense quick learner. His chops were honed and tuned.
Lisa Morgan - Another local talent with a voice to rival Wynona Judd’s. Lisa was one of those gals who looked like she just stepped out of a Nashville recording studio, with shiny buckles and ‘big hair’ and a chesty country voice that blows everyone away at Karaoke bars.
Judy Montgomery – Judy could read music backwards and forward and could sing anything handed to her without blinking. Clarence had sung with Judy in a pretty serious choir in Pasadena. Judy had been a pro lead soprano and could fill in any range, play the guitar, and later (after a few lessons) she picked up playing the bass in record time. Besides, there was something about her… later for that.
We sounded good, we were entertaining as hell, and our enthusiasm was all there.
Raymond came up with a plan.
Within a week, Clarence and I were sitting around a table with a group of local businessmen and women. With Raymond’s coaching, we came up with a working budget for the ’95 summer season. Salaries, lights, sound, expenses - all of it carefully manicured by our new saviors. Raymond convinced Rusty Murphy, the local movie theater owner, to donate his Bass Lake Theater for our shows. He introduced us to Gilbert and Dolores Ghyselinck owners of the Best Western Hotel in Oakhurst, who donated living quarters, and served lunch to our tour guests before the shows. When the theater was not available, we did our shows in the banquet room at the Best Western Hotel.
We were ready to rock! (or strum…whatever the folk-music term is)
Two weeks of rehearsals and the first busses rolled up the mountain in late June of 95. We were ready for them. We had already informed them that it wasn’t going to be the big show they had contracted, nor a theme park, but they’d be fed, and they’d get a great show. To a person, they were eager to come anyway. The season had started.
We had fun, actually sounded great.
We did the usuals: City Of New Orleans, Wayfaring Stranger, Freedom, and Today.
I hosted the show. My usual emcee persona, somewhere between Barry McGuire and Woody Allen.
Clarence was, of course, Clarence.
Reno was a tour de force. Backing up on dobro, Orange Blossom Special-ing on fiddle and bringing tears with ‘Night Rider’s Lament’
Judy sang ‘The Rose’ with Clarence and Lisa providing angelic harmony.
Lisa and Judy wailed on ‘Love Can Build A Bridge’
And we closed with ‘This Land Is Your Land’. What else?
Everyone did their job superbly and for a while things looked promising, but alas, the spark of resurrection never grew into a flame. Most of the town had been burned pretty badly from non-payment the season before, and they were disappointed and soured. I can’t say that I blame them. There were allegations of this and that, questions about the closure of the park, more questions, secret meetings and vague accusations and suspicions. The more fun we seemed to be having, the more suspicious many of them became. Had we taken the SierraLand ‘fortune’ and secretly stashed it in the Cayman Islands? After all, we had come to a small town from L.A., sin capital of California, and you never know, do you? Some of the looks I would get at the market made me feel that I was the villain in a cheap spy movie.
Our season started in June and by mid-summer, the eighty busses had been and gone. We had met our budget, paid our bills, but the fire and enthusiasm for SierraLand as an ongoing venture had fizzled and everyone headed home. Clarence shook my hand as he climbed aboard his blue GMC van for the trip back to his home in Glendale, California and with a big Arkansas smile, and a hand on my shoulder,
“Well, we sure tried”… Well, we sure had.
Me? I stayed around long enough to file the final papers for SierraLand (stock symbol SRLD), sell off what few corporate assets were left, and try and figure out how I was going to spend the rest of my life. I took a job at a local auto mall near Fresno as a Finance Manager, something I knew how to do well, and I haunted the mountain hangouts wondering if there might still be a chance.
A year later, I packed up, said good-bye to my friends in Oakhurst and came home to Southern California and moved in with my sister.
That’s the story. There ain’t no more. I suppose there are other versions of what happened.
I don’t think any of us thought we’d ever see one another again.
One exception though. Remember when I told you that when I first met Judy Montgomery, Clarence’s friend from Pasadena, that there was something about her? Well, when I got back to L.A. I looked her up and…right now, she’s standing behind me with her hand on my shoulder watching me type. Her hand is warm and reassuring. So, maybe SierraLand had a grand purpose for me after all, and maybe it did for some of the others. Maybe some of them have forgotten it. It doesn’t matter.
Anyway, that’s how it ended.
But you should have been there and seen it. You wouldn’t have believed it.
some pictures below......
Me and Judy recently
Reno jams with Raymond in the parking lot.