Woodland Hills–1951 To 1956Woodland Hills, the town to which Julian and Hilde moved in February, 1951, is about 25 miles north of downtown Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. The population rush into the valley was just beginning at the time, and Woodland Hills was still basically a country town. Michael Ritter remembers sheep being herded through the center of town as late as 1954.
The house that the Ritters bought was a modern, architect-designed house rather than a tract home and was four or five times larger than their crowded space on Rinconia Drive.
Julian recalls the Woodland Hills houseIt had two bedrooms, a dining room, a kitchen, a bathroom and a living room, all large rooms. It was built around a courtyard, with a hallway that ran around it on all four sides, with the bedrooms and other function rooms opening of it.
For the better part of a year, I used a section of the hallway as a studio, but it was inadequate: I couldn't really have a model there, and the kids and the dogs were always running through. So I built a studio on top of the hill behind the house where I could work in peace.
The lot was an acre in size, fairly well-landscaped when we moved in, but I made a lot of changes. I built a retaining wall, a fish pool and a flight of steps up to my studio and I planted hundreds of trees and shrubs. The place was like a jungle by the time we moved.
Julian had had trouble enough trying to entice potential customers the mile or so from Hollywood to his Deep Dell house; in Woodland Hills, he was in the remote countryside, too far to entice any but the most determined buyers. Furthermore, since he had no proper studio, he had no place to show his work. He realized very quickly that he was going to have to sell more aggressively to Los Angeles dealers in order to keep his toehold in that market while broadening his contacts in other markets at the same time. Julian had modest success in Los Angeles: he established a relationship with Taylor Galleries that kept at least a few of his clowns before the public into the mid-fifties; he began selling clowns to Emil Hilb who bought over a thousand dollars worth of them by June 1952; and he began selling clowns to Irving Mills, who bought some fourteen hundred dollars worth of them by the end of 1956.
Julian on dealing with his first picture peddler, Emil HilbHilb was the first picture peddler I ever dealt with. He'd buy clowns from me then resell them to private parties or other dealers, working out of his Hollywood apartment. He got quite a few by trading, besides the ones he bought. One time I traded with him for an old black Cadillac sedan which Hilde could drive to work.
But then he began publishing prints of them without my permission as Clowns Inc. and opened a little store that featured them. I hired a lawyer to stop him, but he was one of Nixon's gang, a shyster who neglected my case. I never got any satisfaction.
Irving Mills was a music publisher of considerable repute and a good deal of acumen who, with his brothers and their children, founded an empire of music publishing companies. Irving, himself, was the primary promoter of Duke Ellington's work, founder of Mills-Ellington Publishing and, according to ex-Ellington vocalist, Herb Jeffries, was "one of the shrewdest men in the music business."
Julian on selling clowns to music publisher, Irving MillsMills contacted me in January, 1952. He'd seen some of my clowns downtown, so he called me up and came out to Woodland Hills to buy some. He bought small clowns mostly, five or ten of them at a time; only a few larger clown compositions. He'd give them away as presents to employees and business associates. He had to – he was a collector who'd filled his large house up with stuff, then opened a shop and filled that up. He was a nice man who took a personal interest in me. When I was going to Mexico, he asked me to leave a box of my news clippings with him. Somehow or other, I never got back to him after I returned, and I never got the clippings back.
Julian developed personal relationships with collectors in Los Angeles during the years he was living in Woodland Hills; through these, he met other collectors and, through them, still others. He made occasional sales through this network of patrons such as the three nudes he sold to Aldo's, a Sunset Boulevard key club, where Rudolph Axford first saw his work. But Julian didn't spend much effort in trying to create a livelier market for his work in Los Angeles until after he moved to Santa Barbara in 1957. For most of the early fifties, his greater successes were further afield: San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas and Palm Springs.
In large part, Julian was swept along by the forces of circumstance. For instance, his concentration on the San Francisco market through 1951 was largely due to the availability of a studio there and the quick development of a good market. The studio was on the fifth floor of a Sutter Street office building. It had a skylight, eighteen-foot ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows and no buildings around it, so it had clean light.
Lionel Talbot, who provided him with the studio, remembers how it came aboutJulian and Hilde had come up to San Francisco, and they looked up my parents in Berkeley. They mentioned that I had a studio in San Francisco, so they all came over to visit me. When Julian came into the studio, he looked around and said, 'This is too good for you.' He sent Hilde home and he moved in.
He tended to crowd me out of my own studio. He'd have me pushed over in a corner while he had several easels going.
As a young painter, Talbot thought this a small price to pay for having Julian as a mentor and companion.
Lionel Talbot on learning from a masterHe was a master figure painter and a master colorist, and I was a figure painter myself. I watched him work – he instructed me and criticized my work. I learned a little discipline from him, and the technique of putting wet on wet. The glazes. Many, many things that helped me in my painting.
Talbot admits that Julian livened up his social life and that he had consumed considerably more alcohol than he ever had, perhaps enough to be considered an alcoholic. But he denies any degenerative effect from alcohol on Julian's work.
Lionel Talbot on Julian's drinking and the quality of his workIt's just that a few of us have been born a few drinks under par. It takes time to get up to where you can go. But his technique didn't deteriorate as he drank. He's too disciplined. Even when he could hardly walk, he could still paint.
An additional advantage of Talbot's studio was that it was only a few doors from Charles Maxwell Sutter Street gallery, where Julian soon began to sell his work.
Julian recalls the Maxwell GalleriesHe gave me a one-man show within a month or so after I moved up there, featuring a lot of little clowns, some clown compositions and some nudes. The show wasn't a big hit, but it got my name before the public as a painter of nudes, and I sold a few to private parties. Maxwell wasn't discouraged either. He continued to show my work on consignment, occasionally buying a piece he really liked. In October, he bought a 40x30 portrait I'd done in Los Angeles of a model named Lynn Lee. It was a very nice painting of a beautiful young woman, dressed in black with a big black hat, against a gray background. I bargained hard for it: he eventually paid me $570. But he sold it for $1000 a few weeks later, to a rich Italian woman who saw a resemblance to her own dead daughter, and had to have it.
Besides buying Julian's work continuously through 1956 and showing it until 1969, Maxwell was helpful to Julian in 1951 and '52 in securing him some valuable commissions: a $350 mural for a Basque restaurant in August; a $400 series of four candy box clowns in September; then a $350 series of marines for the Oyster Loaf, a San Francisco seafood restaurant the following June and the $1800 Bimbo's murals in July.
Julian recalls the Bimbo's muralsBimbo's was a famous San Francisco night club, which they wanted to redecorate in a nautical theme. I did a series of paintings – in various sizes – of fish, mermaids, King Neptune and so forth. The largest one glued right on the wall. The others were framed in unusual ways, to accommodate particular places – with a corner cut off, for instance, to accommodate a pedestal of a post.
Julian spent most of six months, from April to October, 1951, working in Talbot's studio, driving back to Woodland Hills most weekends, sometimes for as long as a week. During this period, he paid an occasional visit and made a couple of sales to O'Shea, keeping alive his Palm Springs connection. After his sale of the Lynn Lee portrait in October, he had enough for a down payment on the studio in Woodland Hills, and was no longer so dependent on Talbot's studio. As a consequence, he spent more time during the next six or seven months in Palm Springs than he did in San Francisco, selling and trading with O'Shea to the tune of a thousand dollars or so, and painting a mural for Howard's Inn in Palm Springs which netted him another thousand dollars.
Julian on the Howard's Inn muralHoward was a friend of O'Shea who wanted a mural for his nightclub. I think I sold him a bunch of small clowns, too, for his guest rooms.
He had a young daughter, nine or ten years old at the time, who looked me up in the sixties and modeled for several pictures.
Perhaps his most significant sale of 1952 was one of those isolated Los Angeles sales of a gentleman clown, "Clown in Blue," to a Beverly Hills builder named Hommes. It's instructive because it shows how ingrained peddling, finagling and bargaining were in Julian's nature.
Julian talks about his 'sales technique'I was asking $350 for it, which was more than I'd ever gotten for a clown. But it was one of the best I'd ever done. I knew he had the money, and that he wanted it. His problem was that it was a lot for a single clown portrait. So I tossed a couple of small clowns in to sweeten it, and he went for it. I'd usually do this when I had a customer in my studio – I'd find out how much he had to spend, then find some way of getting it from him. I'd much rather give him a second or third painting than see him walk away with any money.
Julian's exploration of the Chicago market started right after he completed his Bimbo's mural in July, 1952, when he sold another large clown plus a smaller one to a Chicago hotelier named Otto Eitel.
Julian on Otto EitelHe owned a whole block there [Chicago] – the Hotel Bismarck, a movie palace, a dining room and a variety of other shops. One was a gallery, where he invited me to show my work. I drove home, told Hilde the news, then flew to Chicago.
Once there, Julian enjoyed a certain amount of patronage from Eitel: a free hotel room, free meals and a dusty attic to work in. He was given two major commissions: a portrait of the actor, Jimmy Stewart, and a mural for Eitel's hoffbrau.
Julian on the 'Bubbles, the Clown' paintingEitel was showing Jimmy Stewart in "The Greatest Show on Earth", so he wanted a portrait of him in his clown costume to show in the theater lobby. I painted it from photos,which I usually tried to avoid. But he offered me six hundred dollars for it, which made it easy to overcome my scruples. As I understand it, Eitel later gave this painting to the president of Embassy Oil in Dallas. The one that people have seen in California was a copy I did afterward, back in Woodland Hills – somewhat smaller, 40x30. The original was full-size, eight by four feet.
October, 1952 was a banner month for Julian. For one thing, there was $1500 for the hoffbrau mural at the Bismarck inn. For another, there were $450 in sales to a Chicago gallery operator named Oehschlaeger, part of the $1500 he got in the next year from that source. Best of all, there was a $1000 sale of a clown painting, "Mr Whimsey", to an Illinois calendar publisher, U. O. Colson Company, plus a contract for five more in 1953.
Julian on his Chicago salesOehschlaeger ran one of the best galleries in Chicago, which I approached a few weeks after arriving there in August. I sold him a couple of clowns and a couple of nudes for two or three hundred apiece while I was in Chicago, then sent him a couple more each year from California, right through the end of the fifties. He was a steady, reliable customer for nearly ten years, until he moved to Florida and we lost touch.
The model for "Mr Whimsey" was an elevator operator in Eitel's hotel, a bum who'd ridden the rails most of his life and who had great stories to tell. I took a great liking to him; he would come to my studio in his off-hours and drink with me while I painted him. I painted him full-size, as a happy-go-lucky bum with his little dog. Colson saw it and liked it; he'd give me a thousand dollars apiece for it and five others if I'd let him publish them. I did a bunch of sketches, then took a train to Paris, Illinois where I signed a contract. I sold them the originals of the first couple; after that, I just sent photos and sold the originals elsewhere. They published a very nice calendar in 1954, but it's been twenty years since I saw a copy.
Also in October, Julian's family rode the Super Chief up from Woodland Hills and spent a couple of weeks in Chicago. Christine remembers that they celebrated both Julian's and Hilde's birthdays there in Eitel's hoffbrau: "They put sparklers on the birthday cake for candles, which I'd never seen before. I was fascinated." But she didn't think much of his studio space, which seemed dark and small and hidden away. Michael, four years old, was naturally most impressed with the train trip, although he recalls the zoo and the Lake Michigan beaches with some enthusiasm. Hilde enjoyed the vacation, and Julian enjoyed showing her his old home town. Julian enjoyed being in Chicago: visiting the museums there, seeing the pictures he'd known over twenty years ago was "like seeing old friends." He visited his old North Avenue studio and found it being used in the same way – shared by several artists – but he was not warmly received there. "They were a bunch of beatniks." Best of all, he made money in Chicago: four thousand dollars was more money than he'd ever made in three months, not to mention the $500 more in commissions he'd contracted for with the Colson Company. But Julian insists that he never considered moving his family there. "I never liked the cold weather. Once I got away from it, I wasn't going back."
Chicago wan't the first place Julian's family visited him while he was out of town working: they had visited him in Las Vegas in 1950, in San Francisco the previous December, in Palm Springs while he was painting there, staying at Leo Post's Palm Canyon ranch. In addition, he'd spent nearly every weekend of those three years back home with his family, trying to maintain a close relationship with them. That suddenly became a lot easier for him in 1953: with five more Whimseys commissioned, he spent full time in his Woodland Hills studio, ten virtually uninterrupted months at home.
It happened at a fortunate time in their lives, helping to ease other transitions. Hilde went back to work that January, as a secretary for Northrup Aviation, and Christine started kindergarten. So Julian was there to keep an eye on Michael all day and to welcome Christine home from school, and to start dinner before Hilde came home. While enjoying a richer family life than he had ever enjoyed before, he was still able to spend every good painting hour of every day in his studio.
The studio was an 18x24 foot frame structure, resting on posts, which Julian designed himself.
Julian describes his Woodland Hllls studioThe roof had only one pitch, and there was only one big window facing north. Hilde and I laid asphalt tiles on the floor. It had a little metal stove, a couch naturally, and a couple of chairs. It wasn't fancy, but it had excellent light. I did a lot of good work there.
My kids would hang around in my studio while I painted. I liked having them there, and I encouraged them with crayons, finger paints and water colors from the earliest age. Christine took to it very well. She has a natural talent, which she pursued by getting an art education and working as an art teacher. I'm very flattered that she took up my line of work.
Christine Ritter remembersMy father was usually in the studio working when I came home from school. There was a stool I always sat on, right by his easel, to watch him work. I don't know when I started. It seems like I always did it.
Papa would take time out to frolic with us and our friends, tickling us and pinching us. He'd make this noise, a kind of duck quack, then start chasing someone. All he'd have to do is make that noise, and we'd all run away screaming. Sometimes he'd round up all the kids in the neighborhood and give them little jobs to do. They'd all hang around the patio, waiting to see what their job was going to be. He'd paint a spot on each kid's nose, and then assign him to some job.
We'd take long walks on Saturday or Sunday mornings, Julian, Michael and I, sometimes with my mother or someone else, up the hill to Mulholland Drive, then back down again. It was four or five miles and would take us all morning. I remember we'd have to put our feet sideways climbing up and down so we wouldn't slip, and always had to pick up a walking stick, in case we came across a snake or something. To this day, I always pick up a stick when I go for a walk.
Michael Ritter remembers childhoodMy father would often squat on the floor, down to a child's level, and just goof off, performing comical antics that would make us roll over in stitches. He'd gather up a gang of kids and take us for a drive around town, or line us up for a parade around the house, with him leading, singing some silly song.
John and Doris Coleman had moved to Woodland Hills shortly before the Ritters, so Doris and Hilde became great pals in the early fifties and, as a consequence, their daughter, Morgan, was drawn closely into the family circle.
Morgan Coleman remembersOur moms would go out a lot together; all of us kids would pile in back and we'd go to a drive-in or something. We spent a lot of time at Julian's house. He clowned around a lot to amuse us kids: sing silly little songs or ditties and tickle us a lot. He was always a very loving person, and very honest. Never phony for a minute. It's what set him apart, and what I still value most in him. Julian was always just like a father to me, and he still is. Since my own father died, i've called him up several times and asked him for fatherly advice. He's always been like a second father to me.
Other old friends remained close too. Chick and Kay Rosenthal would drive up frequently from Burbank on the weekend. Margaret Lefler would take the train up from Hollywood for a visit; later on, she would come down from Fresno for a few days. Angela Ritter would come and stay overnight when she had a weekend free. Bill Post and George Morgan would come up once in a while. Eileen [Coghlan] remembers attending a barbecue there, which impressed her as "very suburban." Their closest friends, though, during the early fifties continued to be their in-laws, Lizzie and Stewart Potter, and their three sons, who were frequent companions on their beach excursions to Santa Monica or Redondo Beach. Julian and Stewart were always looking for ideas to make money and landed on one they called "Foldboat."
Christine Ritter remembers the 'Foldboat'It was a patented device, made of metal tubing and canvas, that would unfold as a little sailboat. It might've been okay for placid water but it didn't do well in the surf. Getting it past the surf was a challenge: I rolled over in it one time and that was enough. I was scared of it. But Julian and Stewart were probably drunk when it went over, watching their lunch and beers sink to the bottom.
In September, 1953, Christine started the first grade and Michael was enrolled in kindergarten. With Hilde working full-time, she hired a housekeeper/babysitter for a few hours each afternoon because Julian was no longer a reliable babysitter. Having finished the series of Whimsey clowns, Julian was back on the road again, peddling his paintings. Although he did most of his work in Woodland Hills for the next few years, and managed to spend a good deal more time with his family than he had in the early fifties, he was off peddling at least a couple of days every month and was sometimes out of town for weeks on end. For the next couple of years, Julian's major customers were in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas was booming in 1953 and '54: hotels, casinos and showrooms were being built up and down the Strip. Bob Loden's decorating business was thriving, and he was able to give Julian as much work as he wanted that winter. Julian spent considerable time in Las Vegas: a few weeks in November to re-establish old contacts there; a few more weeks in January and February that gave hime a chance to peddle his original "Photographer" Whimsey to the Last Frontier; then two more weeks in April that gained him the commissions for twelve more paintings more paintings for the Silver Slipper collection.
In discussing his out-of-town peddling and painting trips – to San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas and, later on, San Diego – Julian invariably asserted that "my job was to send money home to Hilde." While Julian did send the most of his income home, he probably sold a "martini money" clown nearly every day he was out of town that was never recorded in Hilde's ledgers. He also traded paintings for housing, food, drink and entertainment. Julian remembered some of these trades: the mural he painted in the beer garden of the Villa Chartier in San Mateo in exchange for a few months rent of a studio apartment there in 1955 and the portrait of a prostitute's son he painted in Las Vegas in exchange for his mother's services. But most of these trades were unrecorded and unremembered: dozens of nudes he traded to models in the early and mid fifties, scores of clowns that he traded for bar bills, for clothing or for overdue debts.
While Hilde kept a ledger of Julian's sales through 1955, the steadily declining reported income hints to the amount that went unrecorded. For instance, the sale of the three nudes to Aldo's West Hollywood key club were never recorded in Hilde's ledgers though they likely fetched a good price. But Hilde's ledger for 1953, '54 and '55 do record much more income than in the previous lean years: $1400 in sales to the Last Frontier and $1750, in addition, to people associated with the hotel – $150 from the chef, $800 from the executive secretary, $300 for a portrait of one of the hotel's owners and so on.
Julian recalls some of his Las Vegas salesIn November, 1953, when I first went up there, working for Loden, I got in touch with the manager who told me to come back after the first of the year. In February, I went to see him with my Photographer Whimsey, which he liked but didn't want to pay $200 for. I threw in a small clown and he took them. At the same time, the chef in the hotel restaurant fell in love with one of my nudes and bought it for $150. That June, the manager bought a large nude and told me to come back in the fall with a flock of nudes. When I did, he bought them all and complained that I didn't have any clowns for him to buy. I said I did, though I didn't, and promised to be back in a few days. Next morning, I bought a sheet of masonite, cut it into pieces and took them out to the desert, maybe fifteen or twenty miles out of town, and proceeded to paint some clowns. I chose a lonely road but there was still some traffic. Cars would pass by, see me painting, stop, and back up to see what I was painting. They expected to see me painting the scenery, I guess. I'd see them staring at me as they drove away: "This fell's nuts."
About a month later, one of the owners of the Desert Inn, Moe Dalitz, asked me to paint him on horseback in a cowboy suit. Moe was a little out of place – he was reputed to be the head of the Detroit mob in Las Vegas. But he was willing to pay me $300; I would have painted him in a tutu if that was what he wanted. A couple of months after that, I showed a bunch of my clowns in the hotel and Miss Moore, the executive secretary fell in love with them. What she wanted was one of them, but she couldn't make up her mind between two, and didn't want to pay my price. But we got to negotiating and I eventually sold her both plus four or five others, allowing her a year to pay it off on installment. She may have gotten some of the clown compositions I did in Hollywood or Woodland Hills which I'd kept for a few years. I know she got some nice ones.
Besides these Last Frontier and Moe Dalitz sales, Hilde's ledgers contain little more information. Besides the periodic $100 a week from Bob Loden, there are cryptic listings that list only the price and "Las Vegas" as the buyer. Beyond that, there is anecdotal information about a couple of paintings: one that Julian gave to a hardware dealer named Dick Ronzoni and one that he gave to the public library for auction at the behest of Loden and which was bought by Clara Bow's husband.
Julian's Silver Slipper nudes were well-known and greatly admired in Las Vegas by this time. Through 1954 and '55, Las Vegas magazine ran prints of them monthly in its "Girl of the Month" series; magazines and newspapers ran stories about him and he was interviewed several times on radio and television. Julian was a man-about-town when he was hanging around in Las Vegas – so widely known as a character that several places gave him carte blanche. And his reputation allowed him to make sales in social settings.
Julian Ritter recalls sales made socially in Las VegasI'd often meet people at parties who'd buy a drawing or two from me. Sometimes I'd sell a painting, sometimes a couple of paintings. These in turn would lead to other sales. I built up quite a network of friends in Las Vegas, and a good reputation. In later years, most of my sales in Las Vegas were to private customers. I'd get people coming from there to Santa Barbara to buy paintings.
At this point in his career, Julian should have been enjoying much more recognition within the art establishment. But this failed to develop because Julian seldom sold directly to galleries or dealers in Las Vegas and, so, he did not have dealers who would have taken an interest in promoting his work, encouraging collectors, and establishing a second-hand market.
Julian Ritter on his direct sales in Las VegasI sold many paintings and drawing to private parties in Las Vegas from 1950 through the present. Most of those were small clowns, but I sold some nice ones too – clown compositions and nudes. I sold more nudes in Las Vegas than in most other places, so there are a lot of them there to be found.
Julian spent most of the spring and summer of 1954 in Woodland Hills, painting the nudes he delivered to the Silver Slipper in September. But he found time for some peddling trips in June to markets he'd been neglecting, in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In July, he found time to take Hilde on a second honeymoon in Las Vegas as guests of Moe Dalitz who was now an owner at the Stardust Hotel.
In June, 1954, Julian had a couple of promising new customers, one that soon fizzled out, the other that would develop into a long-term relationship. The former was a San Francisco picture peddler named Joy, whom he had met through Maxwell. Joy bought twenty or more small clowns from Julian when he was trying to reduce his inventory and then resold them to galleries in the San Francisco Bay area, Sacramento and Oregon. But he was a bargain-hunter who was unwilling to pay decent prices for Julian's work. Julian didn't care for him anyway and admits to being rude, so they did not do more business until 1956 when Julian was trying to reduce his inventory before going to Mexico. The latter was Ruth Lane, whom Julian had met long ago through her employment at the Maxwell Galleries.
Julian Ritter on selling to Ruth LaneWhen she got married, she opened her own gallery in Beverly Hills and I went down to see her. She was pretty poor, but she was willing to pay cash, so I gave her a good deal on some clowns. Later on, she bought some nudes and became a steady customer, buying every six months or so. I continued to sell to her into the early sixties, until my prices got too high for her.
For the next year, through the spring of 1955, he made periodic peddling trips to Los Angeles, selling occasional pieces to old customers – Irving Mills, Stanley Adams and Dr. Bob Sullivan. He sent a batch of paintings to Oehschlaeger in Chicago and sold a couple of pieces in Palm Springs. Keeping up with the Las Vegas trade, though, occupied him so thoroughly that he could not manage a trip to San Francisco that year. His only sales to that market that year were when the market came to him.
Julian Ritter's new San francisco connectionThis picture peddler came to see me in Woodland Hills – an old friend of mine I'd met in 1939 whose name I've forgotten. He'd seen my pictures in Maxwell's, somehow gotten my address, and looked me up wanting to buy some. I didn't have enough on hand, but he made me an offer I couldn't refuse: a hundred dollars a week to paint as many nudes and clowns as I could for him. That was what Loden was paying me and I was working at home. So I did it for about two months, until he told me to stop. It was good timing because Hilde wan't working; she was at home nursing a pregnancy that ultimately failed, and I was able to be with her. I did a number of nudes of her while her breasts were swollen, including the one I have in my studio.
He got more than he bargained for. I remember him being kind of stunned when he came to pick them up. There were four or five nudes and several dozen clowns.
Julian would pay closer attention to the San Francisco market when he returned to picture peddling in October. But, at the end of May, he took off on an adventure with Stewart Potter, hunting for uranium in Mexico. The scheme was not as hare-brained as it sounds. Stewart had been working on it for months, organizing a corporation called Aztec Mining, with a Mexican geologist as its figurehead, and Dallas bankers as its backers. The geologist and Stewart identified a site to explore in the mountains of Chihuahua. Trading on the geologist's reputation, they had made an agreement with the Mexican government and secured the necessary cooperation.
Julian Ritter on the Aztec Mining company and hunting for uranium in MexicoWe got a letter from the governor of Durango to the governor of Chihuahua, then a letter from him to the mayor of the closest town; the Mexican government lent us a jeep to get there. When we drove into town in the jeep, practically the whole town turned out. There was no road to it, properly speaking, and no cars or trucks there; everything came in by horseback. The mayor came out to meet us with his bodyguard, who was carrying a rifle that dated from the French revolution. "What do you want?" We showed him our documents, which were all fastened together and, by this time, made a document about six feet long. He was relieved. They'd recently killed a priest up there and he was afraid we were the government, going to insist he do something about it. When he realized we were miners, he invited us to stay at his house.
We stayed only one night at his house. As we were sitting around that night, we noticed bullet holes in the walls and asked about them. He said that bandidos had come to town a few weeks ago and shot the place up. The next day, he said we shouldn't sleep there because he heard that the bandidos were coming, so he moved us to the schoolhouse which they wouldn't shoot up. That afternoon, I walked a little way out of town, to where I could see a far distance down this long valley, and saw a file of a dozen and a half or two dozen horsemen riding towards us, just like in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." That night, we heard a lot of gunfire, but we stayed in the schoolhouse and didn't get bothered. They didn't shoot anybody, as it turned out; they were just drinking tequila and shooting their pistols in the air.
It was a wild place, and Stewart and I got into trouble every time we turned around. You can't laugh at a Mexican, you know, but it was hard not to laugh around Stewart. There were a couple of times there that Mexicans came after us with knives. We'd just buy him a drink, then get out of there as fast as we could.
We hired this crew, about 50 in all, to help us with the prospecting, manage the horses and so forth. The valley where we went to prospect was very well-known to the locals. There was a seasonal stream there which brought a lot of soil and rock down from the mountains during the rainy season. After the rains, the natives would go out and pick up gold nuggets; that was the medium of exchange in their little town. The locals knew that we were forbidden to take any gold nuggets, so they watched us very closely to make sure we didn't.
This valley had deposits of silver, copper and iron as well as uranium; our mining engineer said he'd never heard of a place that had so many rich deposits of so many different minerals. We found some rich deposits of uranium, which we mapped very carefully: that was my job – I drew contour maps and sketches, mapping the exact location where we found each sample. I was also the organizer too, making sure that there was enough food and that the animals were being fed. Stewart wasn't much of an organizer.
We came back with sacks of samples, some of which were very rich. We went back to Texas, where we were wined and dined and introduced to potential investors. Everybody was very excited because they thought they were going to make a lot of money. But there was a problem in mining the deposits we'd found because there was no water available in this valley or anywhere close to it. We might have been able to pull it off, but Stewart wasn't able to raise the capital and keep it together. He was always very good at starting things, but he couldn't keep them together.
Aztec Mining, along with the money and time Julian invested in it, was a total economic loss. As an adventure though, it was more exciting than anything Julian had done since the war. He had discovered a foreign country at his doorstep and, despite the danger and anarchy (or because of them), he had fallen in love with it. Whether it was the Mexican culture that fascinated him, or the fact that he was a rich man there with American dollars in his pocket, he got a taste of Mexico in Chihuahua that he couldn't forget – a taste that would lead him back there scarcely a year later. Meanwhile, he returned to painting and peddling with a new vigor, and with a newly awakened interest in Spanish culture that was just right for his next project: eight paintings of California missions for San Francisco's Tortola Restaurant.
Julian Ritter credits Gus Drautz for the Mission paintings projectI'd been working for a month or so, doing the research, but I was broke after my trip to Mexico and I needed an advance. Instead of going to Scarpulla [the owner of the Tortola Restaurant], Gus dug into his own pocket and advanced me $600, telling me not to bother with sketches, to just paint the paintings.
With the successful conclusion of his mission series, and several additional sales through Kotzbeck, Julian decided to concentrate on the San Francisco market for a while, and so made a deal with a new friend of his, Emmett Murphy, a mutual friend of Maxwell and Lionel Talbot.
Julian Ritter on his deal with Emmett MurphyMurphy was a guy I'd met sometime back who operated a motel in San Mateo, the Villa Chartier. I made a deal with him to paint a mural for his restaurant – a large gay nineties theme for the wall behind the bar – in exchange for a couple of months rent on a studio apartment that he had out back.
Julian recalls that he showed his paintings on the wall of the restaurant, to little profit: "Everybody loved them, but nobody bought. The only good thing that came of it was that I met Berger through them, who later became a major collector of my nudes." He did sell a few pieces while he was there in San Mateo – the most notable being a portrait he did of Murphy's brother's wife, June. His major financial triumph, though, was in the last couple of weeks of his stay there, around the middle of February, and was the grossest example of schlock he had ever done, surpassing even the lampshade paintings of his teens. It was a commission Gus Drautz came up with.
Julian Ritter on the San Francisco Airport 'schlock'They were just about to open the San Francisco airport and they wanted some cheap souvenirs. So I painted some oil sketches of the terminal building – a thousand of them for two dollars a piece. Two dollars wasn't much, but they were only 3x5 and I could do four or five an hour of them. I worked ten or twelve hours a day, making a hundred dollars or more a day. Two weeks later, I went home with $2000 for Hilde.
Michael Ritter, seven years old during Julian's period in San Mateo, recalls that he, his mother and his sister paid a visit to Julian there in December, 1955, and he recalls an incident during that visit that typified Julian as a father who wanted well-behaved children, but not too well-behaved.
Michael Ritter on his San Mateo excursionWe were visiting the Murphys at their home, and I was just fascinated by their swimming pool. I don't know why; it was wintertime and too cold for swimming. But I was walking around it, staring into it. Julian said, "Michael, I'll give you a dollar if you jump in the pool with all your clothes on." It's not a thing a mother wants to hear. But I jumped in and got a dollar, a lot of money for a kid in those days.
As Christine remembers, she was less easily encouraged to mischief than Michael. "I was completely obliging to every rule until I got a little older." But she was her father's daughter nevertheless, taking care of his pipes.
Christine Ritter recalls caring for Julian's pipesI'd clean them, fill them and light them up for him. That was my job, especially when we were driving somewhere. I knew little girls didn't smoke pipes; that's why I took such great pride in being able to do it.
Julian was back in his Woodland Hills studio that spring and summer of 1956, doing his best to stay close to home. During this period, he undertook his first attempt at teaching – a weekly painting class that he conducted for four or five months at the Hobby Center in Sherman Oaks.
Julian Ritter on his first teaching attemptI'd have a half-dozen or a dozen students, all of them housewives. None of them had any talent to speak of, but I would try to show them some tricks of the trade, to make their bad pictures less awful.
During this period too, he got an object lesson, if he needed one, in the value of dealers. While he still got occasional checks from Oehschlaeger, Maxwell and Kotzbeck, he sold nothing at all in Las Vegas or Palm Springs, where he had no dealers. By this time, though, Julian had already grudgingly accepted the need for dealers and it was in this period that his several years of effort to develop a Los Angeles gallery market began to pay off. In March and April, he sold five hundred dollars worth of nudes to Ruth Lane and between April and June, he sold eleven hundred dollars worth to Taylor Galleries. He also established a new connection with a Hollywood frame shop, Currie and Rao, where he was able to both trade his work for frames, and sell it for cash.
Unlimited time in his studio was the ideal that Julian had been seeking since the beginning of his painting career. But now, having virtually achieved it, he was restless. Perhaps it was an overdose of Woodland Hills that got to him. The town had built up tremendously in the five years they had been there, and wisps of smog could already be seen leaking through the Hollywood Hills into the Valley. Perhaps he was sick of the treadmill he seemed to be on, always at the doorstep of success, but never crossing the threshold. Julian was enjoying success with his clown and nude paintings but, at the same time, he felt trapped by this success. He was not painting the great works he imagined, instead hemmed in by the call for his clowns, nudes and portraits. But there was at least some positive element behind his restlessness, which he was hinting at as early as June, when he took Hilde and the kids down to Ensenada, Mexico for a few days.
"Ensenada really isn't Mexico," as Michael points out. "It's basically a resort for Americans." But he recalls the family spending a night or two there, having a good time together; he remembers winning a bottle of wine there as a first prize in a nightclub dancing competition. Although he didn't realize it at the time, he now sees that Ensenada was Julian's way of introducing the family to Mexico, and guesses that he was already thinking about going there to paint for a while.
If Julian had not already spoken of his restlessness to Hilde before the trip to Ensenada, he surely discussed it with her in the weeks that followed. By July, he was already making the first move toward selling the house, painting its exterior. By August, he had finished painting and devoted his energies to cleaning the place up and unloading his junk. Julian worked to reduce his inventory, even selling more paintings the the San Francisco picture peddler, Joy, whom he disliked. In September, the Ritters sold the Woodland Hills home, packed up a 1956 green and white Pontiac station wagon and moved to Mexico.