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THE FOUNTAIN : In Santa Barbara by the Sea, Even Symbolic Dolphins Can Cause a Lot of Trouble

March 16, 1986|MICHAEL FESSIER JR. | Michael Fessier Jr.'s "In Search of the Chicken Cackler and Other Unlikely Missions" (Capra Press) is due out this fall.

But the young, thinly clad woman would remain only an idea, since soon after receiving the commission, the sculptor hired to create her was murdered. Giovanni Schoeman, a South African, had done well in Santa Barbara selling fanciful gold statues of naked women ("Snow Fairy" and "Dreamer") at the Sunday art show. Schoeman, 40, was a man of many layers, some of which he had successfully concealed--the conviction for armed robbery back home was one, and whatever got him killed another (diamond smuggling was rumored, but never proved). He was a dabbler in alchemy, in magic, and saw in the fountain a chance for legitimacy, which had previously eluded him. But his past got to him first, and in the blink of an eye, he was gone, taking the lady with a palm frond with him.

In terms of the dolphin saga, Schoeman's death registered largely as an unsettling aberration, an ominous portent of the fountain's essential perverseness, its instability. It suggested to city officials the need to get the fountain project under control .

"Friendship" wasn't making it either. Insufficient money had been raised under that name, and since 1982 was the 200th anniversary of the Presidio, the military outpost Spain had set up among the heathen on the scrubby coast of 18th-Century California, the fountain was transmuted into a "Bicentennial Fountain."

Until now city officials had not realized that the proposed fountain site was so crucial to the city's sense of itself. "We must be very careful when we put a piece of jewelry on the very foot of our city," a member of the Landmarks Committee cautioned.

So the city set up a competition, sent out a call. Who in all the land could come up with a little something that would say what everyone would agree it should say, if only they could agree on what that was?

This is where Bud (nobody calls him James) Bottoms came in.

Bottoms was himself in a terrible muddle. "I was a little suicidal," he says.

His depression wasn't that much different from that of a lot of people his age and circumstances: 54, just divorced, not working, kids all well launched from the nest. He was an artist of all arts, teacher, environmentalist-activist with a minor in oddball inventions. (Acti-Mates, plastic creatures that perch on the edge of drinking glasses, were one of his.) But now inspiration ran low. He was an idealist with a theatrical flair. He needed a cause to believe in.

His just-concluded 26-year marriage had ended in one of those brave last-gasp group efforts meant to glue the disintegrating family together. He, his wife, Betty, and their four grown sons had built a house up in the hills, in Rattlesnake Canyon. But as that project ended so had their marriage, and now Bottoms had gone to live on his 24-foot boat in the harbor, trying to dream up that most difficult-to-find part--the one that has meaning for you and that someone will pay you to play.

He'd spent a lot of his breadwinning time as art director for Tempo, GE's Santa Barbara research facility. It had the serene, smokeless surface the city generally insists on in its industries. But under that, hidden from view, Tempo was increasingly involved in military research, including such lethal matters as underwater warfare and the testing of nuclear devices. Bottoms had been into solar power and recycling and everything environmentally benign before almost anyone, so as an idealist, he was happy enough to be gone from Tempo, but he hadn't really come up with anything better. He'd been set free, but to do what? "I had no idea."

His sons, the successful film-acting quartet of Timothy ("Paper Chase") and Joseph (star of the "Santa Barbara" soap), Samuel ("Apocalypse Now") and Ben ("Stalk the Wild Child"), all had good parts. "I didn't know who I was," Bottoms says.

Besides being a real Southern Californian, Westwood born, he was a real Santa Barbaran since migrating north years ago to attend the University of California at Santa Barbara. A real Santa Barbaran gets intimately and protectively involved with his environment (Bottoms organized GOO--Get Oil Out--after the 1969 Platform A oil spill). A real Santa Barbaran also says the kind of things Bottoms does about all the money he could have made in New York or Los Angeles if he'd let himself be tempted away. This comes with the suggestion that leaving Santa Barbara, last remnant of the lost paradise of California, is selling out.

The thing was, he loved the place. "People care here. There's a real jealous possessiveness. It is an environment that is actually unique. People know they have a jewel here, a last stand. A core of people believe that."

But it had all seeped away. Sometimes it didn't help that his sons made so much more money than he. That could be depressing. Timothy owned a ranch up in Monterey where Dad had been hanging out trying to write film scripts. They hadn't worked out.

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