Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Bill Kimberlin

by Steve Sparks, December 8, 2010

I met with Bill last week at his home up on Peach­land Road on the outskirts of Boonville. We sat down in front of a nice fire and enjoyed a delicious sandwich and German lager beer as we began to chat.

Bill was born in San Francisco in 1947, the second of two sons, to Lester Kimberlin and Margaret Mason. The Kimberlin’s had originally settled in Virginia in about 1700 when immigrants received a land patent of several hundred acres. By the early 1800’s, Great Grandfather James Monroe Kimberlin, who was quite a character and world traveler, had a successful hemp farm, providing much sought after rope to the British navy. “I have researched this extensively and found that he had twelve slaves, registered as ‘property’ in the town hall. I looked up the manumission document and it says our slaves were freed in 1852. Lincoln freed all ‘non-Kimberlin’ slaves ten years later, in 1862! James Monroe not only set them free, he also paid for their passage back to Africa. That cost him $1000 and was a very rare occur­rence. He went to Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and graduated as a scholar of Latin and Greek before moving out west to Santa Clara. A few years later he was one of the founders of the University of the Pacific, which is now in Stockton, and was a teacher there. He became embittered that his fancy education could not support his family so he quit teaching and founded the Kimberlin Seed Company that was very successful and this resulted in him building a big mansion in Santa Clara and becoming known as the ‘Seed King.’ As a consequence of his experience though, he refused to educate his children at college but this skipped a genera­tion and my father, his grandson, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and Stanford Medical School in 1911, before becoming a doctor and surgeon.”

On his mother’s side, maternal great grandfather, John Mason, came to California in 1849 from Ireland, working initially as a carpenter, helping to build the San Francisco’s first synagogue. He moved on to opening his own brewery in 1851 – Mason’s Brewery – one of the City’s first, and many years before the now famous Anchor Steam Brewery began. He moved the facility to Sausalito in 1892 and eventually became the largest alcohol producer west of the Mississippi. His son Clint took over the business in 1906 and raised his family in Sausalito where Bill’s mother was born in 1909.

“The Mason side provided me with the link to Ander­son Valley. My mother’s sister Leonore married Avon Ray and they owned Ray’s Resort, now known as Wellspring, here in the Valley. In the fifties, I visited the Valley every summer as a child – the 60-acre resort with a mile of riverfront was a wonderland to me. Avon’s mother was a Prather, one of the oldest families in the Valley. She was the daughter of Cornelius Prather and Avon’s sister was Pearl and she was married to ‘Kid’ Dutro who was the Valley’s blacksmith and they lived in what is now the Mathias’s Rancheria Realty office. Coincidentally, I was at the high school here with Sheri Mathias, now Hansen, who works at the Realty office. Pearl later married Frank Falleri who owned the Philo Market which is where Starr Auto is now. He also bought the Anderson Valley Market in Boonville so he had both of the main general stores in the Valley for a time.”

In the days before the Bay’s bridges were built, peo­ple would leave their cars in Sausalito at a parking garage before crossing to the City on the ferry. This garage was a huge concrete structure built by Bill’s grandfather Mason that is now a hotel in Sausalito. It was called Mason’s Garage and Bill’s mother Margaret and her family grew up above it. During prohibition they were bootleggers. “My grandfather Clint and his buddies knew what they were doing, after all they had owned a brewery. They set up a brewing facility in Tomales and did a great business, and he also owned a soda works, although turning down the Coca Cola distributorship for Whistle Soda was not his best business decision!”

Lester Kimberlin was a successful doctor and mar­ried Margaret Mason, who managed his office practice, and they started their family. Bill grew up in the Forrest Hills neighborhood of San Francisco in a big house that was full of servants. “Having a servant was much more common in the 1930s and 40s. If you look at the old cen­sus records, up until after WWII there was often the case in many homes. It was invariably a young female rela­tive from the ‘old country’ given room and board to help with the children. My father just took it a few steps fur­ther with a houseboy, cook, maid, and lots of gardeners and handy men. Both of my parents were brought up to be very independent. My grandfather Kimberlin said, ‘Don’t work for anybody — that’s a bad idea.’ My father died from a stroke at the age of 65 when I was just three years old and my mother became ill so we moved to Kentfield in Marin County, north of the City. There we only needed one maid. Then, when I was twelve, my mother passed away with hepatitis so shortly after I came to live in Anderson Valley to stay with my Aunt Leonore at Ray’s Resort and I went to the high school here from 1961 to 1965.”

Bill describes that period of his life as his ‘American Graffiti’ years. “It was like the movie ‘American Graf­fiti’ and later I would work for the man who made that film, George Lucas. This was very different to my expe­riences at private school in San Francisco and Marin. I had a great time. The Resort gave summer jobs to the high school girls so we got to chase after them and that was wonderful. I had a ’56 Chevy hot rod and we drag raced from the gravel pits near to the forestry station to almost the Ukiah Road intersection with Hwy 128. That is when we weren’t drinking beer and roaring up and down the Valley knocking over mail boxes or fistfight­ing out in Comptche. The real tough guys were the Bloyd’s — Skippy, Dee De, and Mickey. I’ll save those stories for when the statute of limitations finally runs out. I waited for many school buses on the porch of what is now Lemons’ Market and I enjoyed school. I was actually an academic type but I could also get along with the kids from the old Valley families most of whom wanted to get out of school and into the woods to work. I worked in the summers at various jobs including Edme­ades winery that had just planted some grapes and also at the gas station, the Fairgrounds, and at the Last Resort bar in Philo as a cleaner.”

In 1965, upon graduation from AV High School, Bill attended Sonoma State initially before transferring to San Francisco State’s film school. “I had become fasci­nated with the making of movies, probably from attend­ing the Boonville Movies that were shown in the build­ing alongside what is now Lauren’s Restaurant. In my senior year at college, for my thesis I made a documen­tary on the great black boxing champion, Jack Johnson. This was many years before Ken Burns’ PBS documen­tary on the man. Anyway, I sent my movie to Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studio on Folsom Street in SF. George Lucas was working there, running the elevator, I think. This was when ‘The Godfather’ was in the plan­ning stage and Coppola was trying to raise money. He helped me finish my film and it was purchased for distri­bution by McGraw-Hill and went out to schools, etc. It won some awards and got some good reviews.”

Bill graduated in 1970 and found a job with a post-production company working on the sound stage, the art department, in the editing room, and in the film lab. “I learned how to make a movie and set out with my brother and a partner to make a bigger documentary on something more colorful, exciting, and loud – this is when I discovered the subculture of drag racing. The crazy antics of “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday” radio ads and the 2000 horsepower funny cars. We traveled around and turned on the cameras, cinema verité style, and filmed the wildest damn circus you ever saw, concentrating on every aspect of this sport. The movie is called ‘American Nitro’ and was distributed all over the country in 1979, mostly at drive-ins, and it made about $1.5million — not bad. I later took it to a buddy who was working at Lucas film where they had already made the first ‘Star Wars’ movie. He watched it and said ‘Has George seen this?’ Two months later, in 1982, I was working there too and was on the crew, as the special visual effects editor on the space battle scene, for the third Star Wars movie – ‘Return of the Jedi’, released in 1983. I went on to work on may big budget films for the next twenty years, including ‘Cocoon’, ‘Jurassic Park’, and ‘The Mask,’ which basically kick-started the careers of Jim Carrey and Cameron Diaz. Our crew mainly worked for George Lucas but to keep us together we’d work together as a unit for other people also.”

“The most fun I ever had on a movie was ‘Roger Rab­bit.’ That was a huge success and made history at the box office. They never did make a sequel because the director Bob Zemeckis wouldn’t let them. I was fortu­nate to not have to go to LA very often over the years. That was a bit of a fluke, I guess. I had a wonderful time in the movie-making world, although over the last five years with Lucas it was less enjoyable as the digital age had arrived. I retired in 2002 after working on ‘Gangs of New York’ directed by Martin Scorsese and then finish­ing with a Clint Eastwood picture called ‘Blood Work’ – Clint is a great guy; loyal to his crew like nobody else I ever met in Hollywood. It was a very exciting time working for George Lucas, making and watching inno­vative films that the whole world was going to see. I felt I was at the center of the movie-making world when I was there. However, we had to work very hard and all hours and every day if necessary. We had to make dead­lines. George is very smart and knows how to make movies and what works and what needs to be done. Our job was to make sure everything was done on time for him. I remember someone saying to me, ‘If you think George Lucas is going to let that opening night premier pass you are very much mistaken.’ I am not a fan of ‘Hollywood’ at all. The motion picture business is that — a business, then a craft and an art, in that order. It depends on technology and that changes so the art has to change with it. When it works it is the fastest return on investment on earth. If it fails miserably, you’re done.”

With Bill being orphaned so young he didn’t really know much about the Kimberlin side of his family so he spent some time over the years trying to piece their his­tory together. “In the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley I discovered a twelve-page interview with James Monroe Kimberlin that gave me a real window into my history. Following the passing of my Aunt Leonore I had stopped visiting the Valley, hardly at all since high school in the mid-sixties, but by the late 80s I began to look for a place in the country. For a time I did not even think about Anderson Valley and was looking all over north­ern California. One day I did drive along Hwy 128 and stopped at the Anderson Valley Creek where a guy was talking about the Valley being a great place. It just hit me, ‘Of course, why not here?’ I bought a sea ranch style, redwood and glass house on ten acres in the sum­mer of 1990. It is secluded but not remote and I can be in Boonville in under ten minutes.”

For the next ten years or so Bill would come up here about three weekends a month, mainly in the summer. It is about two hours and fifteen minutes from the Bay Area and he would eat almost every Friday night at The Hotel in Boonville. “The land feels much larger than it is because the adjoining property is in a conservation easement and most of the rest of the hill is made up of very large parcels. I found country life very refreshing and realized the need to get back in touch with the ‘proper’ rate of life. We need to hear birds singing and to spend time with nature. That is a deep part of the human experience and doing so helps us to ‘settle out.’ Having said that I do enjoy the cafes and bookstores in Berkeley and spend almost half of my time down there still. I enjoy the contrast. To me, life is all about going away and coming home again — and it feels like I can do that whichever place I live in.”

Bill has a house in the Berkeley Hills overlooking the Bay and its bridges. Currently he is distributing his old hot rod movie, ‘American Nitro’. “It has been digitally re-mastered and has become a cult film with currently about 44,000 fans on the Facebook business page and on the movie’s website. I think it is the best example of that kind of racing on film. I still make my own movies and I’m working on a screenplay about a bank robber whose story I bought.”

Bill’s other big interest these days is in paleoanthro­pology, the study of ancient humans. “I am on the board of Directors of the Stone Age Institute which is in Bloomington, Indiana. This is funded by Gordon Getty amongst others and a couple of summers ago the Chair­man called and asked that I attend a meeting. He told me that Getty was coming and suggested that I come with him on his private jet airliner. I did. That plane was worth millions of dollars with living rooms, bedrooms, dining rooms, everything. Five of us were on board and apart from the meeting we went around the country, all run by Gordon on his cell phone. He just makes a call, says ‘fuel her up’, and off he goes. He received ten bil­lion in 1983 and is very dedicated to the Institute. I am dedicated to it too. You know what, folks, that is where we come from and it has become a passion of mine to learn about this. With modern technology we can find out the answers to the big three questions: ‘Who are we?’ ‘Where did we come from?’ and ‘Why are we here?’ There are unsung heroes studying this, ‘famous’ people that nobody has ever heard of. Meanwhile, it is perfect for me being able to come up here. I was looking for a place to escape from the movie business, to enjoy music and my large library of books. I collect modern first editions, art, and antique toys — mostly electric trains from the 1920’s and 1930’s. I am fortunate to have had the time in recent years to pursue these kind of inter­ests — non-productive for a change — except for the mind.”

Bill met his future wife Beverley in 1969 while he was at film school and they are still together, with no children. In 1990, he started www.andersonvalley.net, a website devoted to the Valley. “I really thought people would use it but it has not worked out that way so far. When I am here full-time, or close to it, I’ll spend some time with the site and hopefully people around here will benefit from it and the bulletin board on there that I thought would be very useful.”

I asked Bill for his brief responses to some of the Val­ley’s more common talking points.

The Wineries and their impact? “I was one of the first employees of Dr. Edmeades Winery. He was the first to plant grapes in the modern era and everyone thought he was crazy. When I was young it was a monoculture of apples here so now it’s grapes. We are lucky to have them. The wineries help the Valley stay solvent, keep it viable economically, and maintain it as an agricultural zone. We don’t want a Sonoma Mission Inn here; it is the last unspoiled and beautiful place in America.”

The AVA? “I find it amusing but behind the times in some ways, although Bruce Anderson is clearly a tal­ented writer.”

The changes in the Valley? “It certainly makes my life easier to have places that open at the times they say they will; to have a good coffee shop like Mosswood Market. The Valley has developed away from the Napa style of things and it looks like we can maintain that for some time. We are still a small town really.”

I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious ques­tions to Bill.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Working on movies; still photography; oh, and redheads.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Republicans.”

Sound or noise you love? “Blues, some jazz – Miles Davis, Muddy Waters; wildlife sounds in the Valley.”

Sound or noise you hate? – “I really dislike badly ‘tuned’ restaurants – some are just too loud and you can do something about that.”

Favorite food or meal? “Grilled salmon with Vicky Brock’s ‘Early Girl’ tomatoes from the farm just down the road here.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Besides my father, that would be Ulysses S. Grant, US General and later President. He was a favorite of Mark Twain’s who used the profits from ‘Huckleberry Finn’ to publish Grant’s autobiography. It sold more copies in the States than anything other book apart from the Bible and it was the model Hemmingway later used to learn brevity in writing.”

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? “My laptops; mementos from my movie studio days. They are irreplaceable and mean a lot to me; and some antique toys.”

Favorite film /book or one that has influenced you? “Well, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ was a movie that had a big influence on me, as was ‘Chinatown’ which had the almost perfect script. As for a book, perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender is the Night.’ I love my books and have a particular interest in those about the Civil War, slavery, Grant, and bank robbers of the thirties. Mark Twain too. I have just started his autobiography, with­held at his request until 100 years after his death. He died in 1910 and so we can all read it now.”

A smell you really like? “The grass on a warm sum­mer day here in the Valley.”

Favorite curse word or phrase? “Probably ‘God­damn’ – a very interesting word, people use it without thinking what it means.”

Favorite hobby? “Collecting modern first edition books and antique toys.”

Profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? “Film directing. I’ve done some and want to do more.”

What profession would you not like to do? “Any non-creative occupation. I have been very fortunate to have always worked in a creative field.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “When ‘Ameri­can Nitro’ was released and I was walking down the street in New York City reading the good review it got in Variety magazine. That was pretty cool.”

Saddest day or period of your life? “When my mother died. That was a very tough time. Years later, a girlfriend of mine said that I was remarkably un-screwed up considering I was an orphan at twelve. I had never thought about it. I know it makes you very self-reliant, I can tell you that.”

Favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “That I am relentless; that I will get it done. That comes from my training in the movie business. I am no big fan of Yoda from Star Wars, I assure you, but he did say ‘Try? There is no ‘try’. There is do or not do’ and that fits me well.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “I am a Darwinist so I’m sorry, but that question is from the wrong century”. I explained to Bill that it did not neces­sarily have to be answered in a literal sense. It is meant as a way of finding out how you would be satisfied in summing up your life at that point. He now answered, “Oh, in that case, perhaps ‘You have done movies or writings that have been of some value to others’ would be good. Actually my favorite epitaph is the one on Marlon Brando’s grave that says ‘What was that all about?’.” ¥¥

(To read the stories of other Valley Folk visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Maria Goodwin.)

One Response to Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Bill Kimberlin

  1. Mary kimberlin Reply

    August 3, 2016 at 11:53 pm

    Hi my name is Mary Kimberlin I’m from Tappahannock Virginia my father Rick Kimberlin is a relative of Bill kimberlins and my father is the son of Dick kimberlin who had passed away recently leaving my dad richatd warren kimberlin behind, my father had given Bill the kimberlin Family Bible a while back and I was wondering if Bill still had our Family Bible and if so was it possible for Bill to make a copy / replica of the kimberlinFamily Bible for my children so history

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