The Sixties in Folk Music / 3. Bill Berner

Bill Berner

by Marilyn Berner

Bill Berner was born in Buffalo, New York, to immigrant parents William and Apolonia, in March 1934. His father was from Stuttgart, Germany, and his mother was a native of Poland. This is an unverified story that Bill told me. Whether it’s factual or a romantic idea of his, I have chosen to believe it.
The story according to Bill: His maternal grandfather was the mill owner in a small town in Poland, played the violin, and apparently had a little gambling problem. The mill owners in small towns did very well, and the family lived a comfortable life. His prized possession was his violin, which he displayed on the wall. One day he got into some sort of game of chance with Gypsies passing through town and lost everything, including the mill, to them. The crushing blow to him, however, was that on their way out the door, one of the Gypsies took his violin off the wall and walked away with it. This lapse in judgment sent the family into poverty, and young Apolonia was sent to Germany to work as a nanny.

I mention this event because (if true), it indicates to me from whence came some of Bill’s traits. If it isn’t true…well, it makes a good story. His nieces, Pam and Gayle, told me that they had never heard this story in the family, but were told that their grandmother had been a goose girl in Poland before going to Germany.
Apolonia was working as a barmaid in Stuttgart in the mid-twenties when she met William. Seeking a better life, he saved his money, sailed to New York, and got a job working for the railroad in Buffalo. He returned to Germany, married Apolonia, and took her to Buffalo. However, while in Germany, he had thrown his money around to show off for his family and friends, so he and his new bride started their married life in poverty. Life was not easy in America, but Bill’s mother was bright, enterprising, and spoke five languages. At one time she owned a boarding house and at another time had a grocery store…but she also suffered from mental illness.

At one point, Bill and the younger of his two sisters, Lorraine, were sent to an orphanage while their mother was confined to a mental hospital, and nine-year-old Norma stayed at home to cook and take care of the house. Since I never heard stories of a lot of fun times in the family and Bill loved to laugh, dance, drink, and have fun, I think he must have taken after the grandfather who played the violin and lost everything to the Gypsies. Bill didn’t gamble, but he could have done something that unpredictable.

Bill was an artistic, creative boy. He won a national poster contest in the 1940s, and he remained proud of that. He served in the Navy as an aerial photographer in the early fifties. He and his best friend moved to Santa Barbara in the late fifties to attend Brooks Institute, but I believe Bill attended for only one semester.

The Iopan coffee house would never have existed without Bill Berner. He never ran out of ideas, and he had a way of making things happen around him and recruiting people to help him. The Iopan was all his idea. We found the location together, his friend Don Dosier helped him with the table construction and other things, my friend Dan Barrows became a partner and saved the day, and I worked hard. But it was Bill who made it all happen. He envisioned it, named it, managed it with help from Dan and me, designed the menu, created all the ads, got acquainted with people at the newspapers, and saw that we got pretty good coverage.
We rolled our eyes when he scooped up money from the till on weekend nights and went out to the bars (which he called PR’ing) to drum up business for the after-hours jazz at the Iopan. We thought it was mainly an excuse for him to go bar-hopping, but people showed up and after-hours jazz happened. Musicians from the clubs came in after their gigs and jammed after the coffee house crowd had left, and there was a lot of good music.

The marriage didn’t work out and we were divorced in the late sixties; but from that marriage came our two wonderful sons, David and Michael. So I hope to honor their father as we compile these memories and write the book. He would have just loved this and should have been one of the contributors. I wish I could know what he would like to say about this part of his life and the Iopan.

Bill had a catastrophic stroke in the seventies that left him seriously disabled. He had always loved being near the ocean. One beautiful day, his boys—Billy, David, and Michael—drove him to Carmel, picked him up in his wheelchair, and ran down the deep, sloping sand and along the beach so that he could experience the excitement of being at the ocean, moving fast again, and feeling the breeze on his face. He laughed the entire time. I was proud of the boys for thinking of doing that and happy for Bill that he was able to enjoy that exhilarating experience, particularly with his sons.

The Iopan days were interesting, eventful, music-filled, generally fun days that I am privileged to re-visit now through this book experience.

So, from my heart, I sincerely thank—and raise a glass to—Bill Berner (he would appreciate that!) for envisioning the Iopan and making it happen, and for all of his ideas—the good ones and the impractical ones as well—and remember the laughter, the fun, and the excitement he generated. There are many good times with Bill to remember.
(See also the Marilyn Berner chapter.)

About Peter Feldmann

Peter Feldmann has long been a musical mainstay in Santa Barbara and Southern California. Besides actively performing bluegrass and old time music with a variety of groups, Peter is also known as a bluegrass historian, collector, music consultant, teacher, and producer, both of live concerts and radio/tv programs throughout the area. His music has been heard in clubs, concerts, saloons, universities, pre-schools, at weddings, wakes, parties, barn-raisings, calf-ropings, rodeos, auctions, fund raisers, wine tastings and chili cook offs. Peter founded Santa Barbara's Old Time Fiddler's Convention (1972), UCSB's Old Time Music Front (1964), and The Bluebird Cafe (1971). Through these and other outlets, he was the first to bring many prominent folk, blues, and bluegrass artists, including Bill Monroe, Mance Lipscomb, The Stanley Brothers, The New Lost City Ramblers, Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis, Rose Maddox, the Balfa Brothers, and many others to the Santa Barbara area. Peter also helped others access the music by teaching privately, and in group classes for Santa Barbara Continuing Education, UCSB Extension, and McCabes Guitars. He was the first on the West Coast to produce and market instruction Lps - three on How To Play Country Fiddle, and one each on Clawhammer Banjo, and Maybelle Carter Style Guitar. He still presents lectures on country music history at UCSB, Santa Barbara area libraries, and for various interest groups, festival workshops, etc. In 2006, he presented his monograph titled "The Big bang Of Bluegrass Music" (describing the origins of bluegrass 1938 - 1946) to the worlds first International Music Symposium at the University of Kentucky at Bowling Green. He has also been very active in radio, television, and film work, producing weekly shows on country and bluegrass music over a 21 year period on various commercial and public stations. Peter currently maintains three music-related websites, a music blog, and an entertainment service company, "BlueGrass West!", based in the Santa Ynez Valley in Southern California. Peter performs tunes and songs from the heart of America's musical treasure chest. His shows can include fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Well-known as a historian and teacher, Peter is first and foremost an entertainer, sharing his respect, energy and love for the music with his fellow musicians, friends, and audiences.
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