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Jack Smith

Fresno's raisin' Cain, and a commiserating columnist accepts a citizen's cultural come-on

November 25, 1986|Jack Smith

By now the miniseries "Fresno" will be history.

I'm sure it will have made hardly a ripple on the national culture.

The question is--what will it have done to Fresno?

As Times staff writer Steve Harvey reported from that city after a special theater showing of the first episode, there wasn't any cheering in the streets.

The only thing the glitzy (for Fresno) audience had to applaud was a shot of the city's historic water tower in the opening scene. (In all, only five minutes of the film was shot in Fresno.)

From the episodes I saw, it seems to me that the television industry is likely to suffer more damage than Fresno.

Obviously the whole point of "Fresno" was to parody "Dallas." But it isn't easy to parody a series which itself is a parody. Every now and then "Fresno" unconsciously began to take itself seriously, just as "Dallas" does--and in those sequences it became a parody of itself, which is a neat trick.

The idea in choosing Fresno as the locale was that Fresno is a notoriously unglamorous town, and its raisin growers a bush-league imitation of the powerful oil barons of Dallas.

After the first two episodes I telephoned Eli Setencich, the Fresno Bee columnist who sees Fresno with a clear if slightly chauvinistic eye.

"We're thinking of changing our name to Ash Tree," he said, noting that Fresno is the Indian word for ash tree.

He pointed out that figs, prunes and raisins are essentially funny, which oil is not.

"But I haven't seen anybody jumping off bridges or high buildings around here. Of course we don't have a lot of that sort of thing."

So Fresno will survive. Especially since it has its own humorists. It was a former mayor of Fresno, Daniel K. Whitehurst, who observed that Fresno was "the gateway to Bakersfield."

I wish I'd said that.

Fresno's real antagonist is Los Angeles. Every city is ridiculed by some larger or supposedly superior city (as Los Angeles is by New York and San Francisco), and that city in turn has to have a smaller or less glamorous city to take it out on.

Los Angeles has always had Bakersfield as its whipping boy. It's close, small, rural and ambitious. Its main products are cotton, country music and high school football teams. Lots of material there for jokes. (It also has oil, which is not funny.)

Even though I can claim to be a Bakersfield product, I have taken part in its humiliation, noting here that its main cultural contribution was that its motel TV sets can get Ram and Raider football games when they're blacked out here.

(And that reminds me of Woody Allen's rejection of Los Angeles: "I wouldn't want to live in a city where the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light.")

But in recent years Fresno has become an even funnier target--especially since some wag pointed out that Fresnans could be called Fresnerds and Fresnoids, as well. It was a natural.

Fresno is hot. It is isolated, being halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. And its most famous product is raisins. That Fresno has a state college and a number of excellent Armenian restaurants does not help its image.

But they should forgive us. Any psychiatrist will tell you that anyone who has been anathematized by a competitor is likely to vent his frustration on someone else. Los Angeles has probably inspired more epithets than any other city: Smogville, Forty Suburbs in Search of a City, the Nowhere City, Moronia, the Fake Tomato Factory, Double Dubuque, a Slobbering Civic Idiot and Paradise With a Lobotomy, to name only a few.

Few California cities have escaped the sharp pens of waggish critics:

One of John Gregory Dunne's characters observes that a chic place in Long Beach is one where the bartender doesn't have a tattoo.

Raymond Chandler wrote that La Jolla was a town of arthritic billionaires and barren old women.

Herb Caen said Chico is a place where Velveeta is found in the gourmet section of the supermarket.

Tommy Smothers said, "People ask if I went to college, and I say no, I went to San Jose State."

Ishmael Reed called Berkeley a decadent sweetshop with $30 baby shrimp for dinner and cocaine for dessert.

Laurence J. Peter called Pasadena a cemetery with lights.

And Gertrude Stein said of Oakland: "There is no there there." (A phrase that is often misquoted--sometimes with a comma between the theres --and sometimes misapplied to Los Angeles.)

James Cain, in "Mildred Pierce," called Glendale "Forty square miles of nothing whatsoever."

Carey McWilliams, in "Southern California," said of Pasadena and Santa Barbara, in one stroke: "The rich and retired live in a seclusion so complete and so silent that in some of the residential hotels, it is said, one scarcely hears anything but the ticking of the clock or the hardening of one's arteries."

That should be enough to suggest that the game is open to all.

If Fresno feels it has been unfairly treated, it can knock Tulare, Turlock, Hanford, Merced, Madera and Modesto--all nearby wide places in the road with very bad wine.

Meanwhile, Setencich has invited me to Fresno to have a beer with him in the Hacienda Hotel bar, where you can look into the swimming pool from underwater and watch the women guests adjusting their bikinis.

And I'm going to accept.

That's culture.

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