Memories Like Make-Believe

Rita Abrams was a kindergarten teacher in Mill Valley, California, north of San Francisco. The year was 1969. Miss Abrams was 26, fired with the enthusiasm young teachers require to survive and succeed. And on Christmas Day of that year, she wrote a song for her students to sing. It’s what an idealistic young teacher would have done, there on the cusp of the 1970s—why give the kids something out of a book to sing when you can give them something that will be entirely their own? She made it catchy, and she made it relatable for her kids by writing it about their town.

Miss Abrams had a background in music. She had studied piano and music theory, and had played in a rock band. So when she met a producer named Erik Jacobson, she was savvy enough to play him the song she had written. Jacobson liked it enough to record it, although he chose to use third graders from Miss Abrams’ school instead of kindergartners. Jacobson played it for a meeting of sales executives at Warner Brothers Records, and the label was so impressed that it was rush-released just 10 days later, in early summer of 1970. “Mill Valley” by Miss Abrams and the Strawberry Point School 3rd Grade Class would rise to Number 90 on the Billboard chart, but it went Top 10 in northern California and as far away as Cincinnati. Miss Abrams and her students would eventually make an entire album, which would have to be credited to the Strawberry Point School 4th Grade Class, because time marches on. Their second single, which would not chart, was written by Norman Greenbaum, then fresh off the success of “Spirit in the Sky.”

On July 4, 1970, Miss Abrams and her third-grade singers were the toast of Mill Valley. Their performance of their song was to be a highlight of the town’s Independence Day celebration. Warner Brothers sent a film crew to capture it.

I love the faces of the kids, expressions of pure happiness as they concentrate on performing but at the same time know they’re onstage and on camera. I love the way one young spectator flashes a peace sign at the camera as sees it, the way we would have done ourselves in 1970. I love the clothes the people wear, the big eyeglasses, the long hairstyles. (I am, however, baffled by the child at the 1:24 mark who is clearly drinking from a Hamms beer can.) And there’s Miss Abrams herself. I like to think she possessed a forceful seriousness that commanded attention, but that she also radiated kindness at the same time, as the best teachers will do. And I have no doubt that even today, she remains a presence in the imaginations of those kids, all of whom would be about the same age I am now. How could she not?

Miss Abrams would give up teaching not long after the success of “Mill Valley,” but she stayed in the music industry, and is still involved in it today. The man in charge of the film crew had a few features to his credit in 1970, but was a couple of years away from his most famous work. His name was Francis Ford Coppola. Here’s how much I love his film: I want to go and live in it.

I know that there might come a time I’ll have to leave Mill Valley
And every memory will seem like make-believe
And all the good things that are mine right now
Will call to me and ask me how
I could have left them all behind

5 responses

  1. WestBerkeleyFlats | Reply

    Wait, so both you and Kinky Paprika have been fascinated by life in Marin County?

  2. Yeah, that’s fair to say.

    Mill Valley’s other rock’n’roll claim to fame is “Girl from Mill Valley,” the Nicky Hopkins-led piano instrumental that helps pad out the Jeff Beck Group’s hugely disappointing second album, “Beck-Ola.”

  3. WestBerkeleyFlats | Reply

    Here’s Joel Selvin (“the jive is still alive”) Selvin’s article in the Chronicle on the recent 40th anniversary reunion:

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/08/09/MNOV1EP0CK.DTL

  4. […] Valley” by Miss Abrams and the Strawberry Point Third Grade Class until I began exploring the fascinating story behind it. Other groups turned out to have interesting histories, too: the Poppy Family, the Starland Vocal […]

  5. I’m not absolutely certain that the blond headed kid isn’t me, even though AFAIK I’ve never been to Mill Valley.

    also, what is it with shirtless flautists (see: Mann, Herbie, on 100 album covers)?

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