Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Steve Sparks, Interviewer, Part 2

by Steve Sparks, May 5, 2011

Following the success of their women's clothes business in Birmingham, England, Stephen and his girlfriend, Marie Morrissey, took their savings and left the UK in August 1983 and headed for an open-ended visit to the States. After staying with Marie’s relatives in New Jersey for a time, they bought a 1971 Chevy Nova for $300 and headed down to Austin, Texas. After a brief stay there, they went on to Mexico and Nicaragua for a couple of months before settling down back in Austin, living in a small apartment and both finding work in the restaurant business — Marie as a waitress in a TexMex restaurant, Stephen in a submarine sandwich shop — Thundercloud Subs. With two or three of his Brummie (from home town Birmingham) friends also in Austin working at various jobs at that time, things went well as the group of friends thoroughly enjoyed Austin’s thriving social scene. However, by mid-1984, Marie and Stephen were not working out as a couple and Stephen was a little down in the dumps. He was unsure what to do next. Then one day, as he sat miserably at the serving counter in the sandwich shop, he claims that “a breath of fresh air came into my life” — well, that was me, Patty, because I had walked into the shop and said ‘Hi! Can I get a job application form, please, I’d like to work here.’

Steve and Patty became good friends but nothing more than that for a time before Stephen and Marie split up in the late fall of 1984. “It was a mutual decision, but not an easy one to deal with as our social lives continued to be so entwined. I lived in a trailer with a friend for a time, then a filthy house with a dying dog for several weeks. I eventually got an apartment with a couple of friends next to the University of Texas campus and on December 10th that year I asked Patty out — we went to see the classic movie 'It's a Wonderful Life.' Patty had become tired of Austin by the next summer and decided she was moving to stay with friends in San Francisco. I was welcome to go too but she was going regardless of what I wanted to do. I decided to 'take the plunge,' leave my friends and the very comfortable Austin scene, and in June 1985 we set off in the Chevy Nova and drove to SF where I didn't know a single person.”

Patty moved in with friends on Fillmore Street in the heart of the City and Stephen found a place nearby with a Russian student for a couple of months before a friend from college, Willie McGee, came over and the Russian moved out. “I found a job as the only straight man on a five-man house painting crew — an eye-opening experience indeed. We would meet in the Castro (predominantly gay) district before work every day, return there for lunch, and finish up there after work for beers. They were a great bunch of guys — four have since died from AIDS and at that time in The City the epidemic was a major topic of discussion every single day.”

In September of 1985 Stephen's Grandpa passed and Stephen joined the San Francisco branch of the World War 1 Society as a way of remembering his grandfather. His leisure time was spent with Patty and her girlfriends plus, as a big fan of American sports, his new found teams — the Giants, Warriors, 49ers — San Francisco's professional sports teams from baseball, basketball, and American football respectively. In the summer of 1987 Stephen and Patty were married with about twenty guests coming over from the UK joining many friends, new and old, who lived in different places in the States, for a very special week-long celebration that included the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge...The couple moved into a place at 720 Fillmore Street (at Hayes) and not long after Stephen set up a solo house-painting business...

In October 1989, following several months of hard work, Stephen and another friend from college, Roger Howell, opened an English-style pub in the Lower Haight district at Fillmore and Haight — The Mad Dog in the Fog — “another way of saying 'an Englishman in San Francisco.' Just six days later, with Stephen in attendance at Game 3 of the World Series (Giants/Oakland A's), the Loma Prieta earthquake struck. “I was still in the parking lot at Candlestick Park — the tarmac appeared to be rolling like a slow moving river. I got back to the bar where a crazy scene greeted me because unlike most bars around we still had power and were able to remain open that night — it was an incredibly busy night and some great advertising for the bar — everyone desperately needed a drink and we were the only place able to give them one for a couple of miles around!”

Meanwhile, Patty remained at her administrative job at UCSF hospital because it offered both of them health benefits and they had no idea how the pub business would do. As it was, Stephen threw himself into the new venture and it proved to be the right place in the right location and at the right time. It was very successful and there would even be lines out the door even on a Tuesday evening — the slowest night of the week. The bar continued to grow and in time there were thirty staff on the payroll. Patty was getting increasingly stressed out at the hospital dealing with hemophiliac children with AIDS and, with the Mad Dog bartenders making very good money, she left the hospital and became a manager/bartender at The Mad Dog, working the very busy Friday and Saturday night shifts, doing supply runs, and booking the Saturday night bands that included acts such as Train, Third Eye Blind, and Alvin Lee — who all went on to much, much bigger things. Other ‘celebrity’ visitors over the years, as the bar became quite famous, included musicians Elvis Costello, Ray Davies of The Kinks, and world-renowned classical violinist, Nigel Kennedy, although in each of these cases it was to watch soccer, the pub being known as the place to see soccer in San Francisco. “We had some great employees, a real strength of what was achieved, many of whom became our friends, and to this day we have a reunion almost every year up here at our land in the Valley where they camp and get very rowdy for a weekend. Patty would go out with the girls for karaoke and I would often go with the guys to the Giants, where I had a season ticket from 1986 to 2001. The pub had a great atmosphere on both sides of the bar. Many customers met their future spouses at our place and apart from the live music on Saturdays, we’d also have DJs, pub quizzes, live soccer from the UK on the televisions, and we sponsored several sports’ teams — men and women’s soccer, softball, and darts. For the bigger soccer matches beamed in live from Europe it was not unusual to have 300 people packed in at 7am in the morning as we served beer and a full English breakfast. The pub became very well-known, eventually even becoming the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question!”

In the summer of 1991, through two sisters who had a vintage clothes shop in the Lower Haight near to The Mad Dog, and whose father lived in Yorkville (Gareth Birch), Patty and Stephen heard about a classic old-time County Fair in Mendocino in the town of Boonville. They visited that Fair in September 1991 with their new Border Collie puppies, Frank and Bing, and met local shepherd Kevin Owens who was competing in the sheepdog trials. “We had been looking to buy something out of the City but not this far away. However, we checked out the realty notices in the window of North Country Real Estate and met realtor Don Hahn. One thing led to another and in July 1992 we bought ten acres on Gschwend Road between Philo and Navarro, with Don phoning to give us the great news with those never-to-be-forgotten words — ‘Congratulations, Stephen, you and Patty now own property in Anderson Valley.’ We spent the next ten years visiting the Valley for three days at a time and working at the pub for the remaining twenty-seven or so days each month — it was tough, seventy hours a week at times, but the business was a great success and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.”

“We loved San Francisco and for a long time our needs and interests suited our lifestyle there. We just never found time for kids. I suppose if we’d both really wanted to have them we would have. In 1996 we bought out our partner Roger and ran the business with the help of the wonderful staff. We would take a brief break every week with our 'Thursday night dates' at the wonderful restaurants the City has to offer; we would do the club scene; watch live music; frequently go to the cinema; go to as many of the street fairs and S.F. events that we could; and after playing on the pub's soccer team with many friends, by the later years I was coaching the team as it evolved into one of the City's best. We’d host big Thanksgiving Day events at our home on Potrero Hill — the only day of the year when the pub was closed as we even opened and served a big dinner for over one hundred customers every Xmas Day. Patty was in a Book Club; wrote an advice column called ‘Agony Aunt’ for an SF magazine, did tarot readings at a place called the Psychic Five and Dime, and once a year we’d either go on a road trip to Michigan or fly to England (and on to France, Spain, Holland, Ireland) and also try to get to Mexico for a short break to ‘decompress’ for a week once a year.’

“In 1997 we bought a large house on Potrero Hill in the City and then in 2000, in an attempt to get a little distance from the pub for our leisure time, we bought and moved to another property in Point Richmond, a lovely little town in the East Bay. However, this plan did not really work out and after thirteen years in the bar business it really became apparent that it had become too much. Despite our wonderful new home, the financial success, and the highly regarded establishment we had created, the stress was too much as our whole life revolved around The Mad Dog. It was time for a change. In May 2002 we sold both our house in the East Bay and the pub on the same day (keeping the Potrero Hill property as a rental until selling it 2005) and headed to Anderson Valley with Frank, Bing, and our new pup, Grace, for what was supposed to be about six months. That was nine years ago.”

For the first year up in the Valley Stephen took a complete break, apart from work around their land. Patty had a couple of months off before getting two jobs — at Roederer and Esterlina Vineyards at the top of Holmes Ranch. Then Stephen took a few shifts at Esterlina and also made deliveries for them to the coast... Another Border collie was added to the 'gang' — Rose, and ten sheep were bought from Sam Johnson in 2003 as Stephen began to realise a lifelong dream of being a 'shepherd'. A rescue Border Collie, Fred, joined the family in 2005 by which time Stephen and Grace had won a couple of sheepdog trials. Bing (in 2005) and Frank (2006) sadly passed away but brothers Alan and John were added in December 2006 with Winston and Beth being born to Rose and Alan in June 2008. “The dogs have given Patty and me so much joy. Not a day goes by when one of us doesn't say 'what would we do without them?' Sadly, the wonderful Grace passed in December 2009 — she was my closest companion, a great herding dog — a 'natural', and I continue to miss her.”

In 2003, the Anderson Valley High School soccer coach, Tom Smith, asked Stephen, a near neighbor on Gschwend Road, to help coach the school team. Stephen, who was missing the coaching he had done in San Francisco by this time, jumped at the opportunity, and over the next seven seasons the team had unprecedented success, winning the league title on five occasions and reaching the semi-finals of the postseason regional championships on three occasions. Following Tom's tragic death in the spring of 2010, Stephen took over the team and, with the help of assistant coaches Eddie Ferreyra and Nikola Milojevich, the high school won its first ever post-season championship in 2010.

Apart from coaching, Stephen wrote reports on the games for the local newspaper — the Anderson Valley Advertiser, and for the past couple of years or so he has been interviewing various Valley folks from all walks of Valley life for his other newspaper column 'Lives and Times of Valley Folks.' Having left Esterlina Winery in 2006, he has been kept busy with management positions at both the Highpockety Ox Pub and a bookkeeping job at The Boonville Lodge when it was owned by Tom Towey, who is now the owner of the new Buckhorn pub in town where Patty bartends.

“I have been very fortunate to find myself here in Anderson Valley where I am able to keep myself busy doing things that I regard as hobbies — the soccer coaching — a wonderful experience; conducting and writing the interviews for the newspaper; producing and presenting the weekly 'General Knowledge and Trivia Quiz', initially at The Ox, then The Lodge, and now at Lauren's Restaurant; and my activities at the Senior Center where I am Vice Chair on the Board and also perform the Bingo calling duties once a month. Along with others I also organized the recent very successful fund-raiser at the Brewery for the Anderson Valley Animal Rescue and for the past five years I have been the Director of the AV Film Festival from which the proceeds have benefited several local organizations and charities. I love helping the seniors and animals — given my upbringing and the influences on my life I suppose it is perhaps an inevitable way of giving something back.”

Socially, Stephen’s favorite thing to do is spend time at the local pubs/bars/restaurant hanging out with friends. He runs a NFL pool during the football season, is a founder member of the Valley's Gentlemen's Military History Book Club, and looks forward to working more with the Veterans and Historical Society in the future. “I am very busy but enjoy everything I do so it's rarely a problem. Compared with the craziness of running the pub in San Francisco this way of life is like a stroll in the park on a sunny afternoon. Through this wide range of activities I am very lucky to be able to meet and spend time with so many of the various groups of people here in the Valley — from the winery people to the descendents of early settlers; from the Okie/Arkie families to the back-to-the-land'ers, and from the newly settled brightlighters (city folk) to the Mexican community, who have been a wonderful source of pleasure through my coaching and work with their kids at the school.”

At this point Stephen would normally ask the guest for their brief responses to various issues that are frequently discussed in the Valley but he felt that by doing this himself, it might compromise his future questioning on these topics so decided to pass, suffice it to say, “It seems like every one of these issues/topics receives positive and negative responses in almost equal amounts. No matter what you say, about half the Valley will agree and the other half disagree, although I must say that the wineries are gradually winning people over and the school system has recently received a little constructive criticism — there is nothing wrong with that, I would suggest.”

To end the interview, I posed a few questions

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Winning a high school football (soccer) match; the dogs working sheep; the company of friends; the thought of a good meal with a pint of Guinness or bottle of Zinfandel.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “So many people trying so desperately to grab their ‘15 minutes’ of fame; people who talk but can’t listen, coupled with those who talk a lot without actually saying anything; sexism is a real pet-peeve of mine; homophobia too; and people who ill-treat animals are scum. What else would you call them? I could go on and on as I do seem to think about this topic quite often!”

Sound or noise you love? “Patty's laugh.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Animals in pain.”

Favorite food or meal? “BBQ baby back pork ribs with Patty’s potato salad and real guacamole and chips. Or a bowl of crispy cornflakes with very cold milk. Or maybe just a classic English bacon sandwich, or sarnie as we call them.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation over dinner, who would that person be? “Winston Churchill certainly, and if Hitler could come along too then that would ensure a very lively evening I'm sure.”

If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the building, what three things would you make sure you took with you? “Assuming Patty can get out herself — The dogs and cats; my passport and ‘Registered Alien’ card; and my collection of the original letters my Grandfather sent to his parents from the trenches of World War I.”

What scares you? “That so many people get their news from the Fox channel and similar such sources; the thought of being at the top of a skyscraper in an earthquake.”

Is there anywhere in the world where you'd particularly like to visit? “Mount Everest, but that's not going to happen so I'll settle for Burger Rock on the Johnson Ranch with its undoubtedly spectacular views overlooking the Valley. When do I get the invite, Gary?”

Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “Martin Scorsese’s film 'Taxi Driver,' a film that really drove my desire to visit New York, which in turn led me to want to experience so much more in this wonderful country; 'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens, a book that scared me as a young teen, educated me as an older teenager, and ultimately entertained me no end as an adult and admirer of one of the greatest novelists of all time; perhaps an influential song would be 'Born to Run,' by Springsteen from 1978. It appealed to my adventurous side and stirred my desire to move to the States. Many soul/R&B songs from the late 60a and early 70s could also be chosen. That was a wonderful period for the black music scene.”

Do you subscribe to any publications or newspapers? “I get 'The Economist' — a good read covering US and world affairs in an intelligent, succinct, and non-partisan way; also 'Sports Illustrated' and 'Playboy' — for the pictures not the articles, or is it the other way round?!”

Favorite word or phrase? “A couple of English derogatory terms — 'stupid prat' and 'what a load of old bollocks.' I also find myself saying 'unbelieeevable' quite often at some of the stuff that happens around here — both good and bad!”

Least favorite word or phrase? “When people say ‘You should…', and also the word 'bitch' when used as a derogative term aimed at another person.”

Favorite hobby? “The study of certain periods of history — Medieval England; World War I, and the US in the 60s and 70s.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? — “Professional footballer (soccer player) or perhaps a writer of History books. When I was about 13 I wanted to be a ventriloquist but that sounds ridiculous now.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “Flight attendant, toll booth worker, or telephone sales.”

How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? “I suppose technically it was when I was 11 and I took Ann Smith to the Saturday morning matinee. She kissed me on the cheek afterwards and broke up with me a week later to go out with my ‘arch rival’ at school, Andrew Cunningham.”

Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “I never planned to live here in the US permanently. My life just evolved that way, so somehow I wish I could have worked out how I could have spent more time with my parents. I have been here over half of my life and although I get to see them for a few weeks every year, it is not enough — a continuing cloud over my otherwise very fortunate life.”

Tell me about a memorable moment or a time you will never forget. “Winning a sheep dog trial with Grace; traveling around this country for the first time in 1978.”

What is something you are really proud of and why? “Opening and running ‘The Mad Dog in the Fog’ — one of the City's most popular bars throughout the 90s; a place that brought so many people together and where a lot of happiness and good times were shared.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “Our wedding day — my face ached for days after smiling so much; or perhaps when I was told we owned property in the Valley.”

Saddest? “The passing of my maternal grandparents; Grace dying.”

Favorite thing about yourself? “That I am a loyal and giving friend; that I have what I believe to be a good sense of right and wrong — of course I could be wrong, or right.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Well, I like to keep busy so if he said, 'Welcome Steve, I need a break so how about taking over here for a time?' — that would likely keep me occupied and satisfy my meglomaniac tendencies at the same time!” ¥¥

(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week, for the first time in well over two years, there will be no interview. Due to his father's stroke, Stephen's return from his visit to the UK to the Valley has been delayed. The next interview will hopefully appear in a couple of weeks, on May 25th.)

One Response to Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Steve Sparks, Interviewer, Part 2

  1. Graham Williams Reply

    May 24, 2015 at 2:24 pm

    Steve,
    I’m a huge villa fan and just moved into San Francisco. Please could you send me your email so that I can contact you. Your story has a lot of similarities to mine.
    Cheers
    Graham

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