HISTORY IN
    
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Site  by Lynne Landwehr © 2004
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Features and Information:  Nitt Witt Ridge

 

[The following  article by Darren Westlund was written some five years before Art Beal’s death in 1992.  It appears in Westlund’s book Cambria Treasures (Cambria, CA: Small Town Surrealist Productions, 1988) and is re-printed here with the kind permission of the author.]

Profile of Art Beal
by Darren Westlund

It is a peculiar tendency of the Western world to label Great Souls mad, daft, or “eccentric, in the grand manner.”  It is a peculiar graciousness common to Great Souls that allows them to accept these labels without rancor.  To do otherwise would be to forfeit a certain superior idea of human honor, for they know their madness, if you wish to call it that, is actually a higher form of sanity.  The vision they have of the world is at once clearer and more profound than that of the snide busboys, polyester-clad realtors, and soap opera addicts who make up the common lot of humanity.  It is clearer because they refuse to be lulled to sleep by the static of modern living; it is more profound because they have asserted their rights to their own imagination.  No one does their thinking for them: not television newscasters, not radio evangelists, not high-priced psychiatrists (nor the trendier “spiritual healers”).  No one, not even a journalist, can tell them what they should or shouldn’t do.

One such Great Soul is Art Beal.  He is a man of many labels--he has been a dishwasher, a poet, a garbage collector, a champion long-distance swimmer, a vaudeville comedian, and a merchant marine.  He has worked for Hearst Castle and Dr. Linus Pauling, and now has his picture alongside both in glossy travel magazines.  Known variously as Captain Nitt-Witt, Dr. Tinkerpaw, or “that damned fool on the hill,” Beal, at 91, is without a doubt Cambria’s most famous resident. He got that way by building a house.

Nitt-Witt Ridge is Beal’s home.  It started out in 1928 as a one-room shack seated on two-and-a-half craggy acres of pine.  Over the next half-century, it grew into a rambling, whimsical architectural oddity that now spans nine levels up the side of a 250-foot cliff.  It is a castle of cast-offs, boasting archways of abalone shells and jagged rock walls fortified with hub-caps, beer cans, rusted truck axles, and an occasional toilet seat.  A concrete deer stands guard on the garden terrace and bizarre weathervanes point to which way the wind blows.  In the beginning, Beal says, “I had no more in mind of doing this than growing feathers.”  But now, he proudly claims, “It’s the finest monstrosity this side of hell.”

It’s also the antidote to Hearst Castle.  While William Randolph Hearst spent millions of dollars importing marble and art objects, Beal got by on the cost of cement and what he could scrounge from the sea.  Hearst employed hundreds of laborers; Beal did all the work himself, most of it with pick and shovel.  Both men were driven by a unique vision of the world and the way life should be lived in it, but Hearst inherited money and Beal didn’t.  In consequence, the former was called a genius, the latter, a lunatic.  However, either castle can grow an absolutely splendid rose.

By most accounts, Beal was born twenty miles up the coast from Cambria on June 26th, 1896.  He was orphaned at age ten when his mother, a Klamath Indian, lost her life in the San Francisco earthquake.  He never knew his father.  After a series of orphanages and odd-jobs, he landed in vaudeville, performing with a one-legged bicyclist and a fearless stunt dog at the World’s Fair in Toronto during the 1920s.  The climax of the act, as Beal explains it, occurred when he would feign heat prostration and fall spread-eagled on the ground, at which time the one-legged bicyclist, pedaling furiously, would aim his front tire directly between Beal’s twitching legs.  Just a split-second before certain disaster, the bicyclist would execute an amazing tumble maneuver, flip the bicycle completely over Beal, and land safely on the other side.  Beal says the trick never failed, although at the same time he admits he hasn’t fathered any children in his lifetime.

In his early thirties, Beal was famed as a long-distance swimmer.  Yellowed newspaper clippings show him crossing a twenty-two mile stretch of the Hudson River between Yonkers and New York City.  He also swam behind a boat from San Francisco to Oakland.  Somewhere in there, he teamed up with Olympic champion Johnny Weissmuller, who went on to play Tarzan after swimming with Beal.  How much Captain Nitt-Witt had to do with this career decision is unknown.

There have been many more brushes with fame since then.  Will Rogers, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Willie Nelson, and a number of other American entertainers have taken an interest in Beal at some point or another.  He has been on NBC’s “Today” show, “Real People,” and “P.M. Magazine.”  The “Tonight Show” wanted him, but Beal becomes vague when asked what happened during his trip down to Los Angeles for the interview with Johnny Carson.  He would much rather demonstrate the animal mimicry he dazzled audiences with when he was on the circuit with Willie Nelson.  Nelson liked “Old-What’s-His-Name” so much that he gave Beal a hat and asked him to help dedicate a concert hall back east.

 “If I could remember everything, I’d be a walking encyclopedia,” Beal says, whenever you broach a subject he doesn’t feel particularly interested in.  Then he’ll wink one of his periwinkle blue eyes at you and say, “If only this old boar’s nest could talk….”, waving a gnarled hand about the dark and musty bedroom, “There’s so much history here.”

“Seeing is knowing,” is another phrase you’ll hear over and over again if you spend any time at all with Beal.  “People see things the way they want to see them,” he bellows, shaking his crooked cane like Ahab going down with his whale, “They don’t see things in re-Al-ity.” 

Not long into my interview with Captain Nitt-Witt, a phrase of Blake’s occurred to me, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”  Aldous Huxley used that line as an excuse to take mescaline and converse with a lawn chair.  Captain Nitt-Witt—far beyond the need for mind-altering chemicals—would probably take it to mean that the spiritual can be found in the sensual, the transcendent in the tawdry; in short, here is a man who would be just as likely to discover the divine in a banana daiquiri and a back-alley flamenco dance as he would in the Chartres cathedral.  It’s just a matter of opening the right doors.

***

It takes a bit of imagination to see how beautiful Nitt-Witt Ridge must have been at one time.  The gardens that once grew neat rows of string beans, spinach, and green onions are now overgrown with weeds.  Poison oak weaves its tangled way through the outer railings of the Captain’s crow’s nest.  Years ago, a huge pine fell across what was then the kitchen and living room, leaving them exposed to the wind and rain.  Time has rotted the floorboards and peeled away the wallpaper in places.  “Beauty is a fairer shore; beauty shines forever more,” Beal penned once.  And beauty, he’ll tell you, once reigned at the Ridge, “not all this fire-hazard.”

Vandals are also contributing to the decline of the Ridge.  They’re forever taking pieces of the castle as souvenirs—a shell here, an iron ornament there, signed letters to Beal from the rich and famous—even pictures from his scrapbooks.  “Sticky-fingers,” he curses.  “They don’t want to create anything, all they want to do is destroy.”  One of his most recent additions to the Ridge, a television cemented into the wall at street level, was smashed to pieces within a week.

As Nitt-Witt Ridge declines, so does Beal.  In the last decade, ill-health has prevented him from maintaining the grounds as he’d like.  He suffered a stroke a few years back, and not too long ago, he temporarily lost the use of his legs.  He’s up and about again, but walking is a very slow and shaky effort.  Most of his time is spent in bed, asleep.

In 1975, the Art Beal Foundation was established after Beal was coerced into transferring the deed to Nitt-Witt Ridge over to a man who had given him a small loan.  The man threatened to raze the house and develop the property when Beal couldn’t pay the loan back.  The foundation raised the money to purchase the deed, and helped to get Nitt-Witt Ridge designated a California Historical Landmark in 1981….

In recent years, the foundation has been foundering.  The bronze plaque that commemorates the Ridge’s designation as an historical landmark has yet to go up on the property, for lack of funds.  “We’re hoping to get it up before Art’s birthday this June,” says Jim Fajardo, vice-president of the foundation.  [Note: Indeed, the plaque was installed on Beal’s 93rd birthday, June 26, 1989.]  They’re also trying to get one of the grants which are supposed to be available to all designated historical landmarks in California, but they’ve been told that no restoration work can begin on the property with state funds while Beal still lives there.  It’s ironic:  Beal is so much a part of the goofy magic of Nitt-Witt Ridge that it will hardly seem the same place without him, yet, as Fajardo says with a sad shake of his head, “Nothing’s going to happen until after Art’s gone.”  Someone in our state government apparently has the conscience of a neutron bomb:  kill everything living, but leave the buildings standing.

Of course, Beal isn’t surprised by any of this.  His whole life has been a struggle against the “old coots” (developers) who consider the Ridge an eyesore.  They would just as soon bulldoze it and every other thing of beauty right into the sea to make way for condos, shopping malls, and hair salons.  Beal has fought for the rights of the deer, raccoon, mountain lion, and the Monterey pine while the “Madame Rich Bitches” and “Doctors Stoopntakit” blithely go about building four-car garages and superfluous little stores upon which they insist on bestowing cutesy names like Sewtique or The Quiche Wagon.  It’s an almost hopeless battle.  Environmentalists are the Don Quixotes of our time: the giant windmill of humanity pays no attention to their feeble jousts.  It merely goes on grinding everything to dust.

Once a prominent figure about town, Beal can rarely muster the strength to leave the Ridge these days.  People once visited him quite frequently—old friends, students from Cal Poly, curiosity-seekers of all sorts—but those visits have dwindled in recent years.  A sign in his kitchen reads, “Every man deserves at least one good woman and one good dog in his life,” but Beal never married (“I’m a member of the Detergent Club: work fast and never leave a ring.”) and there are no dogs hanging about—although at one time over 50 pet turkeys called Nitt-Witt Ridge home.  There are still a few caring souls who see to him (Elizabeth and Victoria deserve special mention), but they can only do so much.  What is really needed is a group of volunteers to help clean up the Ridge and make sure Beal gets regular attention.  In the past, however, Beal has been known to kick volunteer workers off the Ridge because they were “screwing things up.”  Would he allow such a group on his property now?  “They’d have to be the right people,” he blustered, sitting up in his bed.  “Seeing is knowing, and they’d have to see in re-AL-ity.”

 “I’m a big rebel,” Art Beal has said. “I’m the biggest revolutionist that ever put on a pair of shoes.  I revolt against anything, everything, and even that.  Whatever it is, I revolt against it….”

  Certain human beings are chosen to represent extremes in behavior.  The two mistresses of Nitt-Witt Ridge, “Mother Earth and Dame Nature,” like to experiment.  Art Beal is an experiment in anti-authoritarianism.  He won’t put up with our natural tendency to try to dominate each other.  He refuses to play by anyone’s rules but his own.  Such a person can only live among people who are relatively free of hypocrisy and who value the potential nobility of the human soul.  A sense of humor is also mandatory.  That Art Beal has lived so long in Cambria Pines West speaks well of our community. 

Approaching 92 now, Art remains as opinionated and rebellious as ever.  As our interview was ending, I spoke to him about the problems of bureaucracy and the generalized idiocy that has caused architect Warren Leopold to give up building houses.  I noted that it would be impossible today to get away with building a structure like Nitt-Witt Ridge, even though professors of architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have studied it with awe.  Art agreed, saying, “You can’t do this anymore.  You got to get a license, a permit, and be a damned engineer.  A licensed engineer.  It’s getting so you got to have a license to fart….” 

Shortly thereafter, as Art posed in his devastated living room for a few final photos, he loosed an exquisite burst of flatulence.  It seemed to go on forever, a low, sweet trumpet blast from the seat of his pants that echoed amid the beer cans and abalone shells, then ghosted off into the wild, unlimited universe of man, teaching that all was not—and will never be—lost.  There won’t ever be a foolproof licensing process for the human soul.

  © 1988 by Darren Westlund.  Reprinted with the kind permission of the author.


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