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The Hippie Thing : Communes Have Come and Gone Since the '60s, but Ellis Island Is Still Home to Rush Riddle and His Ever-Changing Housemates

August 28, 1994|RUSH RIDDLE | Rush Riddle has lived in a commune called Ellis Island since 1968, when he entered USC. The group currently has 11 members in its old Victorian house near campus. A regular on the underground music scene, Riddle has a day job as an electric station operator for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Recently he has concentrated on producing and running Pronto Records and We Bad Studios out of the Victorian's large converted attic. He was interviewed by Mike Wyma

Ellis Island started in 1967 over on 35th Street. They did a year there. It was a hippie thing that started through SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, which was a radical student group on the campus of USC.

There weren't a whole lot of radicals at USC, so at a meeting they said, "Gee, we should live together. That's the thing now, communes. We'll have moral support because we're vastly outnumbered by the rest of the student population." One guy was living in a house that had some vacant rooms, so people started moving in. Eventually, they took that house over and expanded into the house next door.

The next year I arrived, in September of '68. The redevelopment agency said they'd help us find a house and in May of '69 we got this one. We paid $700 down and signed a lease with an option to buy. We ended up buying it in '76 for the '69 price of $28,000. There are four of us on the title but it's owned by the group. Everyone pays $150 a month, no matter what room you have.

It's kind of turned into an old folks home. The last five years it's settled down a lot. Most of the people are about my age, which is 44, although one of us is pushing 70. When we moved in here we had two people over the age of 21. I mean we were kids. It was a mess. We had cars parked in the front yard. We had four dogs for several years. There was a Frisbee game in the front yard every evening. If there was an event or a party going on, we'd show up en masse.

I'd say we'd kick out one person a month. The policy was pay the rent, keep it clean and make a contribution. In the old days, say the first three years, if you did one of those, that was enough. You could get by. Since then it's been two of the three, but I'm pushing for three out of the three.

We've had some people who really weren't doing that much. They're just marking time. I like it when we have more dynamic people who are pursuing their muses. One of our guys' band is signed to a major label. That's the sort of thing I like.

I've always been in on the music scene. My first night in L.A. in 1968, I was on the Sunset Strip. My parents were musicians, and I've played just about every instrument. I've been in a bunch of really obscure bands, but I was in a band called Green Jello that's fairly notorious. They had a big breakup, then signed to a major label. They've had some success as Green Jelly. I believe in doing the art and having total control over it. I don't want to do it just so it sells. That means keeping your day job. You can look back at your art later and still be proud of it, even if it makes your life harder. For me the dilemma is that I have so many ideas I can't realize them all.

If I had good cash flow, I'd like to produce a film. I also have amassed a large collection of material and I'd like to do a 25th anniversary yearbook of this house. Writings, videotapes, audiotapes, recordings of people's music. Lots of the people who have lived here, I've asked them: Tell me the story about your years in Ellis Island. I've got a file about three inches thick. Combine that with 10 scrapbooks of photos, and that's just the ones that are organized. Then other people have video and film clips and novels.

Sometime in the early to mid '70s I quit going to large venues. The Santa Monica Civic was the largest I'd go to. I didn't like the idea that rock stars were deities. They arrived in a limo and stayed backstage until it was time to come out and wiggle, then they left by a back door. They weren't real.

I was in on the punk rock scene from day one. Granted, a lot of the bands were terrible. But they talked to the people before a show. They were real. I'd sit through four acts to hear that one that was scintillating.

When I was in architecture school, I took art history and learned about the Dada movement. Marcel Duchamp and those people. They knew each other, they went places together, they were creative together.

So my dream isn't to be a movie star or be on the Letterman show. It's to bump shoulders with creative people. That's what I do when I produce records. And I find myself in the midst of a wildly vital scene. There's so much going on right now in the L.A. music scene, it's incredible.

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