Stiff Manhattans and Pink Camellias

For fifty-two years, the Oakland Museum's Women's Board has worked year-round assembling a colossal annual rummage sale in a Fruitvale warehouse, raising millions of dollars for the museum.

Courtney Stephens was hired by the Oakland Standard to make a film about the sale. She's a young filmmaker whose work has received numerous awards and grants. Les Blank is an associate producer on this (still untitled) film about the sale.

Courtney picked me up from the Oakland Museum last week on a day of torrential rain. We made our way to Niles—a tiny railroad town on the edge of Fremont—for lunch and thrift-store shopping and the following conversation about her work.


THE OAKLAND STANDARD: You seem to really love old things. What’s the draw?


COURTNEY STEPHENS: Old things let you daydream. There was a man at the sale who bought a grouse-hunting jacket, because he claimed that wearing it would compel him to walk in the woods more, while imagining he’s a member of the English gentry and drinking tea. So old things are powerful—they make us feel different in our own lives. At worst, this can become a thing about status and accumulation. But it’s also about compassion and fantasy worlds. That man also bought a hundred ties.


The idea of other lives interests me. When I was doing research for the film, I came across a great article by Mark Rappaport about movie-studio prop houses. The same object—say, a bust of a woman—would appear in multiple films but totally reinvented. In one movie it’s on a table in a cluttered living room. In another it’s a centerpiece at a grand museum. In a third it’s a cipher on a rooftop. It’s a lot like life.


Welcome to downtown Niles.


OS: Why are we here?


CS: Niles has a neat history. They used to shoot Westerns here—there was a silent-film studio here in the teens called Essanay. Chaplin shot The Tramp here. The movie industry could have grown up here, but it didn’t happen—something that could have been but wasn’t because there wasn’t enough sun. Movie topography would have been so different.


OS: What was it like shooting the actual sale? 


CS: The sale itself is this Bay Area tradition so the freaks come out. It was chaotic, fun. As Les said, shooting the people at the sale was like shooting fish in a barrel. You just point the camera and something’s happening—a man is trying on a wedding dress or whatever. The more difficult part was getting to the heart of the whole enterprise, which has a lot to do with women’s history, and these particular women’s histories.


OS: Otherwise it just becomes a TV ad spot for the sale.


CS: Right. 

OS: How do you find the emotional core of the sale?


CS: After the sale of the wedding dress, one of the women—she’s eighty-five—said she used to attend cross-dressing variety shows with her sorority sisters in the 1940s, for tips on sex appeal. My producer, Eleonore Meier, said, “Think about it: each of these things were once chosen.” So the emotion of it had a lot to do with time, memory. The women and the objects are giving something to each other. What is it? I tried to trust my own curiosity and just listen.


OS: Were the women willing to open up? 


CS: Yeah, though that generation doesn’t do therapeutic talk like we tend to. So you have to listen differently.


I would ask a lot about their personal histories, which surprised them. There was a rumor that I was making a separate movie on the side. I’d ask a question and they'd say, "Is this for the White Elephant movie? Or is it for the other one?"


OS: So what is this rumored other film? 


CS: Probably the one I’m making.

OS: Were there any surprises in terms of themes?


CS: Success was an interesting one. It may not sound surprising since this whole enterprise is so remarkable. Many of these women were women who “didn’t have to work,” as people say, but chose to volunteer at the sale for forty-plus years, sorting and mending year-round in this cold warehouse. Because they didn’t have solo careers, we get away from the old male model of success—institutions and numbers. Then again, this sale is a massive monetary success—1.6 million dollars a year out of donated things—some of them costing a quarter. And all to support this big landmark institution. So it’s complicated. Maybe it’s success without glory? Maybe success is the wrong word altogether. There’s something having to do with feminine achievement. The women over seventy-five especially felt that the major choices in their lives had preceded women’s lib entirely.  Some felt they had been cheated; others spoke about freedom from models of male success, and the enormous value of that—something I think the women of my generation are presently examining.


Other surprise themes were stiff Manhattans and pink camellias.

OS: What's Les Blank's role on the film?


CS: Les shot second camera during the sale and mentored me throughout—and also made some great dinners throughout the months I was working. Something I love about Les’s films is that they teach you to enjoy the process of life, to pay attention to how people live in the world, to the person-ness of people, I guess you’d say. And that person-ness is in the sale for sure: pickiness, domestic expertise, feeling at home in the world. So Les is an advisor but his films are also a huge influence on me. I’m really honored to know him.


OS: The rummage sale and the museum both divide and categorize the messy material culture of the world. Do you see a connection?


CS: Definitely, except at a rummage sale you’re more likely to come across your own history. Or the one you’re about to have.