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SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Quitting Reading Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Time Management. This Article Has Been Deemed to be Long by a Panel of Experts.

(I started this piece 2 weeks ago, just after the 2009 Sonora Christmas Festival. Finally it’s done enough. But it’s a story that needs to be told..THIS is TuolCo Art History!)

Always working.

Who is that guy limping down the street? Funny crumpled velvet hat.  All adorned with Mardi Gras beads. Bundled up for cold in denim on denim with a plaid flannel shirt for accent. Heavy framed, thick glasses. A bit disheveled and scruffy, but wait!  Did you see that glowing smile, those laughing eyes?  Didn’t you just spot that guy at a crafts fair?  Or at a music festival?  He looks familiar. And look!  He’s putting up a poster.

Well, you found him…Richard Burleigh, one of  TuolCo’s true ART HEROES! (By the way, a crew of us are working on that list. Leave your own ideas about who our Sierra Foothill, CA, Movers and Shakers have been in the arts. Pick  folks with a long track record.)  After 35 years Richard Burleigh has brought more high quality art to Tuolumne County than anyone else. And I’ve got proof.

But you want the story first, right?  No?  You need your evidence? O.K. Here’s a SHORT list of performers that have graced our local stages because of Burleigh and his merry gang:

The R. Crumb & The Cheap Suit Serenaders, Peter Rowan, Bob Brozman, Kate Wolf, Nina Gerber, Laurie Lewis, Norton Buffalo, Way Out West, Joe Craven, Sourdough Slim & The Saddle Pals, Sarah Elizabeth Campbell, Tom Ball & Kenny Sultan, Golden Bough, Mumbo Gumbo, 8th Avenue String Band, Commander Cody, Summerdog Bluegrass Band, Puppeteer Bob Hartman, Izzi Tooinski, Grinn & Barrett, Stone’s Throw, Queen Ida & The Bontemps Zydeco Band, Tom Rigney & The Sundogs, Juggler Randy Dunnigan, Hawks & Eagles, Little Feat, Lydia Pense, Joe Bonamassa, Robben Ford, Tommy Castro, Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite. And great regional acts, like Faux RenwahCoyote Hill, The Original Fiddlestix, Steve LaVine, The Story Tailors, The Blue Shoes Band, Bill Roberson, John Celluci, The Black Irish Band, The Story Quilters, Mountain Mischief, Mirth & Glee, Chains Required…I’ve barely begun.

Since 1975 Richard Burleigh’s Fire On The Mountain Productions has hosted a minimum of three major arts events in Tuolumne County, CA, each year.  They’ve easily broken a record with over 125 locally produced shows.  Each show has featured up to 15 different performance groups. Plus, Richard often consulted with local groups instrumental in giving birth to Tuolumne County’s Summer Concerts in the Park series.

You want to talk about the arts and its impact on the local economy?  Take it up with Burleigh!  Every year nearly 20,000 people attend his events.That’s more than 1/2 million in his career. Hotels and restaurants fill up. Sales and lodging taxes go “Cha-Ching.”  The Sonora Christmas Parade, a 26-year time-honored tradition, was intentionally planned to coincide with Burleigh’s Sonora Christmas Festival, now readying for year #36. For several years, Santa (dear old Fritz, our old local St. Nick–R.I.P.) spent his day at the fair, and then flew off to the parade. And that fun summer event, “Magic of the Night,”( now in about Year #10)  is oddly held on the Friday night before Fire On The Mountain’s annual Blues Music Festival ( now in Year #16).

It only makes sense.  Ten thousand folks hanging out in Sonora for the Christmas Festival? Let’s put on a parade!  Three thousand in town for the Blues Fest, filling up hotels?  They need something to do the night before the big jam begins…”Magic of the Night!”  And all the rest of us benefit.  Both of those City of Sonora events have taken on incredible lives of their own, in no small part due to the hard work of City Events Coordinator Sheala Wilkinson and all the dowtown merchants, who join in.  But, let’s also give Richard Burleigh a nod of thanks for giving the city a nudge.

So, how did it all begin? Imagine Richard in a business suit, standing in a Century City bank in L.A.  No way!  Yep.  And he was trying to stay sane.  It was the early 1970’s. Everyone was wearing his or her hippie costume, even that young banker with the nice long ponytail.  Richard Burleigh, a smart, savvy Beverly Hills boy, needed a creative outlet to wash off the stuffy bank.  Macramé?  Throwing pots?  How about weaving?  All the hippies were out exploring the arts and crafts. It was an era of skill-building, of living with what we made ourselves, of finding satisfaction in the work of our hands…and coming together to celebrate and lend a hand.

And there it was: Augustine Glassworks in Santa Monica, CA, a high-end stained glass and art glass restoration studio in West L.A. Richard soon found that working in glass relaxed him, helped him unwind from the hectic pace of Century City and banking.  It wasn’t long before this kid was doing lovely, classic Tiffany-style stained glass.  And the hip, chic L.A. crowd was buying up his work.

But L.A. was no place for the whims and fancies of a hippie.  Like so many, Richard packed up to look for a new home, a refuge from urban paces.  He and his girlfriend, another banker, made their way north to a little town–MiWuk Village.  Soon he was making windows for new homes, remodels.  Fire On the Mountain Stained Glass Studio opened in Twain Harte in a little shack right near the Eproson House.

Pretty soon 26 year-old Richard, a closet entrepreneur, wanted to find more places to sell his work.  One day a Tuolumne County art legend, Expressionist watercolor artist (and crusty old gal) Esther Allison, said to Richard, “You want more places to sell your stuff?  Well, create it yourself!”

At the time, arts and crafts festivals were springing up all around, like leaks in an old garden hose (a lovely hand-crafted garden hose?).  From LaJolla to Laguna, from Santa Cruz to Sonoma, young artists and artisans came out to the streets.  Reminiscent of medieval street fairs, these colorful, wildly creative folks came adorned in tie-dye and velvet. Pottery, jewelry, weavings, metalwork, windchimes, woven shawls–each one lovingly made by hand and heart. A Renaissance of the Artisan Class welcomed patrons, admirers alike.  Make a “sell” and ring the bell!

With Esther Allison’s scolding and visions of CRAFT FAIRS floating about, Richard gathered a collection of young, vibrant Tuolumne County artists. They were pretty easy to find. Oh, you should have been here then!  That brand new place–Columbia College–was a beacon to the young and creative.  They came to study and work with potter Dale Bunse, artist Joel Barber, dramatists Dave Purdy and Ellen Stewart, and they danced with Terry Hoff!  What a time it was!  A time of creative passion, a flurry of great vision, and a hope of working together.  Plus, young muscles to make it real, to build it.

In December 1975 Richard and friend Lise pulled together 25 local artists to sell their wares. Among them were potters Bill and June Vaughn, Chuck Baum’s soapstone carvings, Dale Bunse’s whimsical pots.  They invited The Original Fiddlestix Band to provide entertainment: Bobby Cole, Chris Kennedy (Stevenson), Julio and Becky Guerra. Everybody crammed into the Sierra Building (at Mother Lode Fairgrounds)and put on quite a show!  “We were raw at it,” Richard confesses today. “We just kept figuring out how to do it, and how to make it better.”

Richard wants you all to know that BEFORE he did his first fair, there was a burgeoning group who attempted to do this.  Among them were Reb and Susan Silay, a pair of 1970’s TuolCo Hippies, trying to make a difference in our little mountain town. Quickly the group found out it was hard work!  Of course, Reb and Susan are still doing a darn good job with love and dedication for Sonora’s Stage 3 Theatre.

And things flew from there.  A year later, the ladies of the Eproson House, Martha Scott and Sally Wheaton, convinced Richard and Lise to pull together a summer fair in Twain Harte.  Today Twain Harte’s Summer Arts and Wine Festival is the mountain hamlet’s largest event of the year, pulling in up to 5,000 folks each summer.  Over 100 artists’ booths fill the streets and alleys, and a full stage line-up of fantastic entertainment springs up right under The Arch.

In 1978, at the 3rd TH Fair, Richard took a gamble with a couple of library “girls,” who called themselves The Moonbeams.  They wanted to tell stories?  “What’s that about?” Richard wondered, but he took a chance.  Wendy Griffiths (now Bender) and I got up in front of a huge crowd and won their hearts with The Judge, by Harve and Margot Zemach--a lively, funny story.  Wendy went on to earn her Master’s Degree in Library Science and is a college academic librarian.  I still work for Richard telling stories.

Fire on the Mountain’s successes began to swell.  “We were a bunch of artists getting together.  We were all committed to the task of making beautiful, good quality stuff,” Richard recalls.

Artists and artisans rushed to be involved in Richard’s fairs. The L.A. Times carried stories about Fire On The Mountain and their brand of arts entertainment. People flocked to see his artists, his performances–something for everyone to enjoy!  From Tuolumne County, Richard moved on to create the Auburn Crafts Fair, the Modesto Crafts Fair and the Sacramento Crafts Fair. He met lots of new artists and crafters along the way, amassing the best for his shows. This creative motley crew had grown into its own underground community.  The crafts fair people loved to come together, set up “instant art villages,” display their wares and hope for buyers…20th century American Gypsies.  And Burleigh has served them well. Always positive and personal, Richard has done the utmost to convey his mission:  To bring high quality hand-made art and crafts directly to the good people who love to attend and to provide outstanding, award-winning entertainment for fair-goers’ pleasure.

Along the way, Richard pulled many new people onto the Crafts Fair Gypsy Wagon.  Among his early protegées was a beautiful young actress, Melissa O’Brien (later became Stevenson), best known as MO, The Face Painter.  Her lovely painted faces became the signature of FOTM festivals.  And Richard let MO paint HIS face for each and every event.  There he’d go, walkie-talkie, tape measurer, hammer, scruffy hat, clipboard, keys dangling, painted up like a fairy.

Some creative folks even moved to Tuolumne County after hooking up with Fire on the Mountain.  Sonora’s Gini Seibert of Out of Hand Pottery was one of Richard’s early crafters.  Eventually she moved to Sonora, and has made a lasting contribution on community arts participation.  Bill and June Vaughn went on to win major awards for their work.  Photographer Thad Waterbury had many years with a highly successful photo booth at the Sonora Christmas Fair. Shirley Wilson Rose’s etched glass got its start from FOTM.  Award-winning watercolorist Doris Olsen has graced FOTM shows. After Dale Bunce retired from the shows, his former student Laurie Sylwester stepped in.  She, too, has garnered many honors for her ceramics. All of these folks got an early leg-up from Burly Burleigh.

And Richard knows how to be generous with his performers.  On stage, they rule!  Thanks to the dedicated talent of FOTM’s True Master of Ceremonies, Steve LaVine, it is always perfect (at least it seems so). The best jams, improvisations, collaborations show up on FOTM stages, carefully guided by LaVine.  Fortunately, Burleigh knew that he HAD to make sure his musicians had good sound men. (I’ve always liked a Sound Man.) In the early days Sonora’s Cole Music did the sound. Today it’s Richard Sholer’s guys…ShoSounds.  Richard learned his trade from Rick Thorpe, a Sound Man who knew electronics and mixing sound like no one ever since. When Rick had to give up designing the systems and sitting at the mixing board after a severe stroke, ShoSounds was right there to pick up and carry on.

“And we learned how to throw together some great parties!” Richard remembers.  For a long while, the Twain Harte Fair ended each year with a BBQ and potluck at the Burleigh home.  And FOTM always hosted a dance at Sonora’s Fair after “quitting time”–just for the artisans and their guests.  At these gatherings, the musicians often cooked up wonderful surprises of amazing talent with spontaneous jams and improvisational jazz. I remember dancing with my husband, Rick (Yes, Thorpe) on one such night.  We didn’t do that very often, so that little gem remains.

In the early 1980’s, The Story Tailors (Claudia Tonge, Steve LaVine and moi) performed at the Sacramento Crafts Fair at the downtown Convention Center. The place was brimming with incredible art and crafts, all gaily decorated with twinkling lights and colorful banners.  And the stage was hopping!  Every act was on fire!  But the final act of the day played like they were taking us all to Heaven: Queen Ida and The Bontemps Zydeco Band! I swept up my little 3-year old daughter.  We twirled and dipped, danced and frolicked to the steady rhythm of Queen Ida, playing her accordion. Ida’s husband rocking out on the washboard.  Her fiddler’s bow burning! While my Wrenbird and I danced away, I looked up.  Every crafter had left his booth and grabbed a partner!  Fair-goers set down their bags to swing. What a wild and wonderful time–pure musical joy!  And Queen Ida?  Ah, her feet tapped; she tipped her head back and her beaming smile rolled out across us, filling our hearts.  Bliss.

Now THAT is ART…holding us, letting us be a part of the moment.  Yes, we felt it and held it…for years after.

Last year’s Christmas show ended with a jam featuring Norton Buffalo on mouth-harp, the eminently talented Joe Craven on fiddle, ripping up one of the best sets I’ve ever heard!   This time I danced with my “new love” (Thank you, Baby Jesus!) And I’ll always remember the 1982 Sonora Christmas Festival.  Folksinger and songwriter Kate Wolf was performing.  I had written a story, based on her song “A Lilac and An Apple Tree.” When I told her about it and asked permission to tell it, she said, “Let’s do it together!”  What a joy, a cherished memory.  Her immense talent was gone too soon. And this year FOTM’s beloved friend Norton Buffalo died just days before the Christmas Festival. Both lost to cancer.

Many of the crafts are aging, and where are the young people who have that kind of passion?  Will they address this kind of event in the same way? The FOTM folks go to lots of arts, crafts and music festivals, searching out new talent.  That level of commitment takes a lot of work.  Lately the economic downturn has really hit crafters.  Some are reluctant to commit to shows. Buying a wind chime takes a backseat to buying groceries in such times.

Yep, life takes its toll, even on heroes. For Richard, his love life has had its share of twists and turns.  But recently a friend and I quipped that the guy always managed to meet wonderful, hard-working women who put their shoulders to the wheel to help the cause of FOTM.  Lise helped get things started.  Shirley helped everything build and grow. There was one who I don’t remember…SORRY.

But, today Richard knows how lucky he is. His wife of 23 years, Corinne Grandstaff, and his step-daughter, Sarah Grandstaff-Loughmiller, help out immensely, keeping things on task and on deadline.  His daughter, Kailee runs the box office.  And step-son Christopher Grandstaff leads on logistics.  Plus, he has a dynamite logistics team–from building stages to parking cars, and everything else. The team, affectionately known as “The All Things to Everyone Team,” could run the show without him, but…

Burly’s beaming smile and warm heart, his hugs–He is still the heart and soul of Fire on the Mountain.

In its heyday, Fire on the Mountain Productions was the leader of northern California fairs. “When we started, there weren’t very  many fairs. Nowadays there’s a fair on every corner,” Richard laments. “And quite honestly, some just aren’t very good.”

He’s older now…61.  He does limp!  A bunch of accidents have beat him up a bit. At times he appears to be a space-case.  But is he?  That mind has held all of this tightly for 35+ years, a vision of artistic excellent, quality.  Ask Richard a phone number that he learned eons ago.  He’ll know it.  Ask Richard how to mix a tight, well-designed concert composition, to make a perfectly balanced show.  He’ll know it.

Richard Burleigh just keeps going.  At first you’re probably curious, charmed by his efforts. Maybe you’re even surprised to find out that some musical legend has just shown up in your backyard.  How did that happen? Then you ignore all of FOTM’s work and stay home, do other things.  But then one day, you realize that FOTM team? They’re still at it, guided by Burly.  He’s the Court Jester, the King’s Fool, hiding deep wisdom and experience.    You see, he’s done it all for art, for love, for beauty, for giving a gift to his community.  What is he?  An art hero, that Burleigh!

I’m B.Z. Smith.  I Tell Stories.  Here’s one…


Mining on the Mother Lode

June 2018
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