Lunch With Dugald
by Newell Alexander
Rosemary and I had flown to San Francisco from L.A. to act in a series of commercials for a now defunct Bay Area amusement park. In the first shot of the day, Rosemary, two little kids and I were riding in a basket on the back of a huge elephant. We were stuck as the animal proceeded to go rogue, he ran through a large part of the park before he could be stopped with us unable to get off. Later, in another shot I was supposed to stand next to a Tiger who decided to lie on top of me, I was trying not to panic. The trainer kept screaming at the cat and jerking on a long chain. I was begging him, “Don’t make him mad.” The Tiger finally lost interest, stood up and sauntered away. The production was a disaster, the director quit in the middle of the day, the whole thing was a wash, I don’t think the spot ever aired. But all was not lost, we both had a good payday and we were going to get to see my old pal, famed San Francisco artist Dugald Stermer, so the trip was not a total failure.
It had been several years since I had seen Dugald, so Rosemary and I rented a car and added an extra day to our trip so we could have nice long catch-up lunch. Dugald called in his no nonsense manner, “Meet me at Delancy’s, it’s near my studio in the Embarcadero.” The meal was delightful, Dugald’s presence gave us lots of attention, the staff approached our table as if he were a Francis Ford Coppola Godfather, we later found out he was a long standing member of the board of the Delancy Street Foundation that managed the restaurant. I did give him some grief over him having a sandwich named after him on the menu. Dugald wasn’t a big fan of show business ; his ex-father-in-law was James Bacon, a long time prominent entertainment columnist for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. Dugald’s former wife Carol was raised in Hollywood amid all the glitz and glamour, neither she nor Dugald were attracted to celebrity.
After lunch we walked around to Dugald’s studio, which was in the complex, it’s hard to describe how he had designed his workspace, it was reminiscent of what Tom Mix or Ken Maynard’s den would look like, Indian pottery, rugs, Western memorabilia, a real Western ambiance. Several left-handed guitars adorned the walls. After his passing it was duplicated in a display at the California College of the Arts.
When he first came to Houston, I watched Dugald transition from a West Coast casual look, to boots, vest, Levis, and western shirts, a signature look he retained to the end. In his studio we looked at some of his work, we reminisced, Rosemary and I sang, and we drank some rare Irish Whiskey, of which he was very fond. It was the last time we were face-to-face.
The next week after our lunch, I wrote Dugald the following letter using the Delancy Restaurant address.
Dear Mr. Stermer,
We had lunch in San Francisco last week at Delancy’s, we saw you
having lunch with one of our favorite actors, Newell Alexander, we were going to ask him for an autograph but we somehow missed him when you guys left. My wife asked the staff who you were and the waiter said you just ate his sandwich. Ha ! Since you know him could you send this enclosed package to him ? It has return postage.
Thanking you in advance, this means a lot to us.
Babs and Sven Yevhoods
P.S. We met Newell at the Cow Palace when he was touring with Neil Young.
I got an answer to my letter a few days later, it was on his letterhead, in the middle of the page were two words hand lettered in his trademark calligraphy, “Nice Try.”
I first met Dugald when I was working as a designer/paste up artist in a small six-man studio in booming Houston, Texas. He had been working for a short while for the Dick Kuhn Studio in Los Angeles, he was recruited by our studio owner, Bill Middaugh. I was a little disappointed when my boss Bill, came back from a California trip all-aglow over Dugald’s work. I saw the attraction when I leafed through Dugald’s portfolio, his work was so good I couldn’t be jealous. I had one year of art at the University of Houston, he was a graduate of the UCLA School of Fine Art. He and Olympic Champion Rafer Johnson were classmates and they were exchange students together in India during Dugald’s Junior year.
I was assigned to pick Dugald up at Hobby Airport in South Houston, I was curious, I knew he and I were about the same age. We both were family men, I had three children, he had four. The years he had spent in art school, I had spent in the U.S. Navy as an aviator.
We were doing very well at the studio, the addition of Dugald was amazing, he and I worked well together, word was out that we were a “hot shop,” doing good, creative work. Our boss Bill came in with the news that we were getting a chance to land an ad campaign for the largest bank in Houston, no pitch, just design an ad, if they liked it we could have the account. It was to be a full-page four-color ad on the back of Houstonian Magazine. We briefly brainstormed and Dugald did a rough sketch, it said in small type, “member of,” and then “FDIC” in a huge bold font. He added a small photo of the bank building about the size of a postage stamp on the bottom margin. Sizing up the work, Boss Bill said, “I don’t think they’ll get it.” There was a long silence, “How about doing an alternate ? Just make the building big and FDIC small.” Dugald refused to change it. I wouldn’t change it either and we didn’t get the account. Dugald’s reaction ? Fuck ‘em.” The story got around the ad community in Houston and our business skyrocketed. It was a lesson well learned. I used the same technique later when I was working as an art director on major accounts at a large agency in Dallas. I won some battles and lost some.
I never knew Dugald as an illustrator, he did however do the linocuts and hand set all the type in the work he did on his small letterpress he called “The Impress.” The small 4 x 5 inch books were gems that he printed on handmade paper, the text was simple and clever, the art was very tasty. His press was set up in his house and he spent many late nights drinking Irish whiskey and making small delightful pieces of art. His mastery of typography was amazing and he won numerous awards in the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth Art Director’s competitions.
Howard Gossage was flown in to judge the Houston Art Director’s show. He was an icon in the advertising San Francisco advertising community, Howard was blown away by Dugald’s work. Dugald won several awards and with Howard’s help he landed the Art Director’s job at Ramparts Magazine in the Bay Area. Dugald assisted me in getting a job at CA magazine in Palo Alto. I free-lanced some for Dugald at Ramparts but only for a few months. The mail boy at the magazine, and our weed connection, was a young eager kid named Jann Wenner. Jann went on to transform the anti-war magazine Ramparts into today’s Rolling Stone Magazine.
My tenure at CA was brief, I moved back to Texas and didn’t see Dugald for many years. I watched his ascent into art fame as I labored in Southern California building an acting career.
Dugald and I only had one moment of discord, I made an off-hand remark in a post, “Keep the lenses of your Art-O-Graph clean.” (An Art-O-Graph is a tool to aid drawing). I knew he was pissed because of several one-word responses to my e-mails.
Every once in a while when I have a moment I will log on to Dugald’s website and just browse through some of his work. His design sense helped him place his art on the page in very tasty ways. He would scoff at the notion, but I consider him a master.
Dugald Stermer mastered the application of art and ideas.
The Ramparts covers, above show one example from each of the years when Dugald was the art director at the magazine. The two examples— Ben Franklin and Woody Guthrie — show styles far different than illustrations that he produced later. The editorial page, in 1969 explained that Ramparts had been loosing revenue and had to go into bankruptcy, Chapter 11. Dugald left his position as art director in 1970. The magazine needed to raise its subscription price and had legal problems. It lasted until 1975. Then it was taken over and became the Rolling Stone Magazine. Another offshoot was Mother Jones Magazine.
At the left of this story, under Artist’s Sites, you will see Dugald Stermer’s website showing his deft illustration and lettering styles known to his many admirers.
More on Newell Alexander can be found on IMDb.