Sunday
Feb102019

Brad Keeler on Brad Keeler: A Conversation with Brad Keeler's son

Transcribed from a conversation with the younger Brad Keeler on September 3, 2018, the oldest child of Brad Keeler and my mother's big brother. My uncle Brad and my mom are in regular communication, and as he is that last remaining repository of direct information about my grandfather, I’d been wanting to ask some questions to further my own understanding of my grandfather and his work. I should add that my own very indirect information has sometimes been riddled with factual errors — which my uncle has been very kind to point out! The following are the notes I took during the phone call, lightly edited, in an effort to get things straight, like the fact that I said he must not have been athletic, based solely on his high school yearbooks.

 

Grandpa Brad Keeler with son Brad Keeler, on the beach

Cati Porter: What can you tell me about the family ceramics business? What have I gotten wrong on my website or in my writing?

Brad Keeler: Well, my dad was very athletic. I have his High school letterman sweater in my closet. He was a real athlete. He was a pole vaulter in high school. One of the better pole vaulters in all of southern California. And he was a gymnast, real good at gymnastics. And track and field.

CP: How did he get started in the ceramics business?

BK: He was a very good artist. He became a modeler. He modeled statues and stuff like that. He had experience in modeling, being that his dad was in ceramics. He just started with modeling flamingos. And as it turned out he was real good at formulating glazes. All these oxides and different chemicals go into that.

CP: Family legend has it that he was involved with the making of the first Oscars. What do you know about the Oscar statuette?

BK: He worked where they made the Academy Awards. I’m not saying he made the Academy Award, but he worked there, at the company where they made modeled them.

[Cati’s notes: Brad was born in 1913, and the first Academy Award (aka Oscar) was created in 1928. Brad would have only been 15 years old. The internet tells me that George Stanley sculpted the first Oscar based on a sketch by Cedric Gibbons. During WWI and WWII, the statuettes were made of plaster. That timing makes more sense for my grandfather’s involvement. My suspicion is supported by all the photos of Oscars in the family photo album that date to that period. Will do further research.)

CP: What was Brad Keeler like? Was he funny? Serious? Was he good with his money or did he spend too much? What was he like as a dad?

BK: He was a real good guy. Committed to his work. Not a lot of time to spend with the family. My dad was the kind of guy … he was just a regular good person.. he didn’t go to work in a suit and tie and sit in a fancy office. He didn’t do that. He went there and he worked. I can remember many times being in the pottery and some salesman would walk in and want to talk to the owner and I would point to him and say there he is sweeping the floor and the guy would say No, not an employee, I want to see the owner. He was a down to earth good guy.

CP: Were you close?

BK: Not as close as I wanted to be. Right before he died we got really close. He loved the ocean. We’d go spear fishing and surfing. Not surfing like you think of with surf board. We had paddle boards.

CP: Did he get his love of the ocean from his dad [Rufus Keeler of Malibu Potteries]?

BK: Yes, I believe he did. At the factory in Malibu they would all go swimming in the ocean at lunch and then go back to work.

CP: Did you help with the pottery?

BK: He showed me everything. I made molds, glazes, swept the floor.  I was eleven or twelve or thirteen years old. [Cati's notes: Probably not unlike the way Rufus would bring his own sons to the Malibu Potteries factory.] Every weekend during the school year. The shop was on Delay Drive. He and my mom were living in a little house owned by Grandmother Keeler and then he started making the flamingos in the garage. He took them to Bullocks to see if they’d sell them and they did. The business started real fast.

Then we moved to Catalina Island. Mom, Dad, and my brother Pat. We lived there while he tore down the house on Delay Drive and built the pottery on that property. Then we lived in Laguna for a while. Finally they built the house in Glendale. This was 1947-48 to around 1952.

[Cati's notes: To see pictures of this house, you may view my album on Facebook which also contains photos from the cemetery where he is interred.]

When he was building the pottery in Capistrano we rented a house in Laguna. I was 16 years old. Then he had a heart attack and died and all hell broke loose. Mother relied on him for just about everything. She didn’t know what to do. Lived in her mother’s house for a little while.

Did you know he was connected with Walt Disney?

CP: No! What was the connection?

BK: Walt Disney wanted his characters made in ceramics. He and Walt Disney became real good friends. Came out to the house in Glendale all the time.

CP: What was your grandpa Rufus like? What can you tell me about him?

BK: Never met him. Grandma Mary was 99 and lived in the house until she died. Google “The House that Rufus Built”. Rufus was a real genius at glaze work and those tiles were some of the best tiles. Best looking tiles. All over Los Angeles homes. They were real popular. Beautiful tile work in Los Angeles City Hall.

CP: What else don’t I know about him?

BK: He was on a rice diet. Months before he died, that was all ever ate. That’s what the doctor wanted him to eat. My mom and dad were up in a hotel. I’m not sure the name of the hotel or where they were. Then he had the heart attack and they went to a hospital in Glendale, where he died.

CP: How did he lose his eye?

BK: His mom and dad owned a gas station. He worked in the gas station for his dad and he was lifting a battery. In the old days the way you lifted a battery with a leather handle and it slipped and a piece of the battery flew up and blinded him. Never wanted to have a glass eye. His eye was real cloudy. They even told hm they could take his eye and tattoo an eyeball but he didn’t want any part of it.

CP: Can you tell me a little about yourself? You made a career in ceramics too?

BK: I even worked at Twin Winton in Capistrano.

[Cati’s notes: Twin Winton was the manufacturer who took over the factory that my grandfather had built in Capistrano just before he died. The factory is gone, but the mural he had commissioned for the lobby still stands as a city landmark. To view an old post on an ancient website, click here.]

Sharon’s mother did not like me. She convinced Sharon to go school at Graceland College in Iowa. We weren’t engaged, we were just going steady. She sent me a letter and said I met this guy and I’m going to have to break up with you. I just jumped on the Greyhound Bus that very day and went back to Iowa and convince her to drop that guy.

One day I showed Sharon the ad for a ceramics engineer. I told her they wouldn’t want me. Sharon wrote them a letter. Then one day I got a letter from that pottery, from the midwest. They flew this guy out to Los Angeles to talk to me, and they hired me. So, we moved to Missouri. It was about a mile from Independence. The right thing at the right time for us. 1963. I designed ceramic lamps and formulated all the glazes.

Sharon was born with a hole in her heart, a congenital defect. Doctors told her she should never have survived childhood. Before the surgery, she even won Queen for the Day.

In 1962, she had open heart surgery in Los Angeles. She was in the hospital for about two weeks. We had no money and no idea how we were going to pay for all of this. She was 26. All of a sudden we found out from the hospital that she was the “hospital case of the year” — every single thing was paid for. It was an experimental operation. If you don’t have the operation you won’t live another six months.

[Sharon passed away January 4, 2016, in Independence, Missouri, at the age of 79.]


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