California Memories,  Living Between the Lines

The Grand Ole Oprey House

More from my lone Californian trip of 1997


I cringe in my seat as Annie leaps to her feet (strangely agile now that ‘Timewalk’ is playing) and proceeds to stamp up and down with the best of them.

We are in the ‘The Old Oprey House’ in Los Gatos.

It was Annies aunt’s idea to come here. I haven’t mentioned Annie’s aunt before so here is as good a place as any. Annie’s aunt Rose lives in Santa Clara. She is a lovely lady and welcomes me into her house with open arms – literally. I receive the biggest bear hug imaginable as I walk through the door.

Keen to show me round, she leads me through the rooms, none of which are dark – sunlight streams in freely through the large open windows – and points out the many photographs that grace the walls and surfaces. On closer inspection I notice that many are family portraits and seeing me looking, Annie’s aunt Rose points to a small picture of the ocean where a group of children huddle together grinning.

“That’s my son James with a friend and my daughter Patricia and those are Annie’s brothers,” she explains, “We used to spend lots of family holidays together. That was taken down in Monterey of course.” I smile and make the appropriate sounds of appreciation. The little boys are cute and I cast my eyes around for a picture of Annie when small.

On the sideboard sit a clutch of photographs held in silver frames. I spot Annie’s mother with a man I don’t  recognise,  not her current husband so perhaps Annie’s father? It seems rude to ask too many questions and Rose is so excited to have me there that I feel like an honoured guest.  Here, another  group of smiling children gather round a paddling pool – caught by the camera lens in various poses as they prepare to jump in. I scan the image for any sign of a small girl. Strangely, there is no small girl, apart from Patricia, in the photograph. Perhaps that is not so strange. Perhaps she was too small to join in? My gaze takes in the other photos. Only one girl appears in any of the snaps and she is definitely not Annie.

Rose wafts back into the room in a blaze of chiffon to which she isn’t actually attached. The chiffon falls away to reveal a delicate, handmade fan.

“Here my dear, you must take this back with you. I make them to sell but I’d just love you to have one,” I take the fan and exclaim on the work that has gone into it. I am touched that Rose wants to give me his gift and know I will treasure it.  She is smiling and pulling me through to the next room where we gratefully down a cold drink and munch on some cookies that she has just made. Rose is full of talk about the family and her sister’s recent trip to Vegas. She chatters on and occasionally pulls Annie into the conversation to corroborate something.

“We went there didn’t we Annie?” she’ll say and then in an aside to me,

“He is probably sick of me going on…”

There it is again! ‘He’ I am seriously confused now. I listen and the conversation is peppered with references to Annie as ‘he’.

Annie pays them no heed. I begin to wonder if she has heard. Rose continues to chatter on.

“So, where are you going to tomorrow?” she asks as we prepare to take our leave. Annie shrugs and mentions the wheelchair…”

“You have what?” Rose asks, clearly astonished, “A wheelchair? My Lord, whatever for?”

Annie shrugs and explains that her hip is giving her trouble. Rose purses her lips and her eyebrows leap up to her hairline,

“You don’t need a wheelchair – if your grandmother can do without, so can you. Go to the Doctor and get it sorted.”

I am surprised to hear Rose speak so bluntly to my ‘still new’ friend. Annie looks suitably chastened and mumbles something to herself. Rose’s sharp ears pick it up,

“No use complainin’ if you don’t do anything about it – stop feeling so sorry for yourself!” she urges in some disgust and I am a little uncomfortable at this sudden confrontation.

“He needs to sort himself out,” Rose says to me and I couldn’t agree more.

“Now then, you should come with us to Los Gatos tomorrow night – the oldest Oprey House in California. They’re putting on ‘The Rocky Horror Show!  I’ll get us tickets shall I?” It is a question but neither Annie nor I feel we can refuse even if we wanted to. It is decided. Annie is positively animated at the thought while I wonder if I am not actually all ready starring in the production.  It is a  bit like ‘The Trueman Show’.  At any minute I expect someone to jump out with a camera and shriek,

“Gotcha! It’s all a set-up…”

They don’t of course so, on we go, my decidedly odd friend, her little dog and I, to ready ourselves for tomorrow night’s treat.

The drive here was not too bad. We have abandoned the VW in favour of Rose’s car which comfortably seats Annie, Annie’s Mum and stepdad. I have to squash in between ‘Mum and Dad’. Stepdad is pressed uncomfortably close to my thigh but I am pretty sure it is not intentional. Rose chats brightly all the way to Los Gatos.

Los Gatos sits in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains.  Spanish speakers will know that Los Gatos means literally, ‘the cats’ which I am reliably informed is a reference to the cougars who are native to these parts. I don’t see any cougars tonight.

There is a queue to get into the Grand Old Oprey House which I am told is one of the oldest Vaudeville Theatres around. I have ‘Music Hall’ in my head as we cross the threshold. I expect – well, what exactly do I expect? I suppose I expect there to be a stage from which stretch upwards, row upon row of plush seats upholstered in red velvet. The word ‘Grand’ seems to be in use here so it is not an unreasonable expectation I feel. We walk into the foyer.

This is neither “The Piccadilly” nor Her Majesty’s” – more in the way of ‘The Young Vic’ this is something completely different. For a start, the stage sits at one end of the small arena and rows of wooden benches sit on steps in a semi circle around it. Each bench has a rail in front of it on which there appear to be trays set. I am intrigued. We are ushered to our seats by a very efficient lady who knows Rose and is delighted to hear that I am from England.

“Oh, we sure have to mention that!” she trills in excitement. I smile, not sure what she means by ‘mention that.”

The room fills up and there is much excitement as the music begins and those young people I had thought to be usherettes start rushing around, up and down the steps with trays of popcorn from which they fill the smaller trays on the rails.

Oooh goody, I love popcorn!

No one is eating it so I don’t either. Perhaps there is an established etiquette here somewhere.

Annie is quivering in her seat with excitement like a child at the panto. I say something and someone next to me remarks on my accent and I smile and explain that no, I am from England, not Australia. What she says next is drowned out by the music which strikes up. The stage appears to be empty and there are no curtains that I can see.

Someone leaps up onto the stage from the audience and by their garb I guess they are part of the cast. They are soon joined by others.

What happens next is most unexpected. The audience begins grabbing handfuls of popcorn and throwing it at the stage. Annie is at the forefront of this strange ceremony and giggles in glee as she chucks the popcorn with all the skill of a seasoned bowler. The players hurl handfuls back at us and the usherettes rush around filling the trays again.

All I can think of is, ‘what a waste!’ but in the spirit of the occasion I copy Rose and throw a few handfuls into the melee. At least I have not got to sit here and listen to Annie suck the popcorn I reason.

The show is colourful and well, it is The Rocky Horror Show, need I say more? Oh, but yes, I do need to say more. I need to say that Annie is now more animated than I have seen her since she made a dash for the wheelchairs outside the Computer store.

“..LET’S DO THE TIMEWALK NOW!…” belts out the choir on the stage and Annie begins stomping and shouting and staring quite manically at the stage. I feel as though I have been dropped into a time warp myself.

Popcorn continues to be thrown and Annie continues to sing and shout. I am torn between admiring her ability to revert to childlike behaviours at the drop of a hat and feelings of horror that I am having to sing along or appear churlish.

Oh but I have forgotten the interval. Yes, here we are at the interval and Annie and her mum and step dad are laughing and joking and Rose is cheering as someone steps out onto the stage to make some announcements.

“We want to wish Amy S** a very happy 90th birthday!…” trills the lady with a broad smile. We all clap enthusiastically and look around for Amy S**.

“…who, sadly, cannot be here tonight,” ends the lady. The crowd have begun to sing ‘happy birthday’ so they finish the song but the final line is a bit lame. The lady on the stage is unperturbed. She thanks everyone for coming and makes some remarks about the wonderful performances we are seeing before she drops the bombshell,

“We are also delighted to have a very special person in the audience tonight,” she grins. I look around. The spotlight is travelling across the auditorium.

“Debbie joins us tonight all the way from England!” she chirps and the spotlight lands firmly on my small frame.

All eyes turn to me and there is a raucous round of applause, led ably by my companions. I blink in the sudden bright light and smile nervously. I raise a feeble hand in the direction of the lady on the stage. She waves back. I hope I don’t have to make a speech.

There, it is done, my moment of fame has been handled pretty well and I am returned to relative anonymity or so I think.

I sit through the remainder of the show and another burst of ‘Timewalk’ in which people actually leave their seats and jump onto the stage. I stay with Rose.  Annie skips down the steps and leaps up onto the stage. Popcorn is being chucked around at an alarming rate and I am quite hungry. I wonder if anyone would notice if I ate some?

Too late, we are outside and the evening is all but over. I have to admit I have enjoyed it despite my sudden unwelcomed notoriety. We are drinking glasses of champagne which seem to be rounding off the evening’s entertainment nicely, when a lady I have not seen before, fights her way through the crowds and grabs my arm. Is this what it is like to be famous?

“My dear,” she gasps, her face inches from my own, “I have lived in Saratoga for thirty years and never even heard of this place until this week. Tell me, how on earth did you hear about it in England?”

I frown, have I misunderstood her? Apparently not.

“I didn’t,” I say slowly, “I am visiting friends, they brought me here…”

She doesn’t seem to register this fact, so blown away is she by the notion that I could be at home in England, hear about this quaint little place in Los Gatos, which is not quite on the map, and catch the next flight out just for this performance. She shakes her head in wonder and without releasing me continues,

“ England… say, you get a lot of fog over there don’t you?”

I am running out of answers…

I am an Author, wife to one, mother to five and grandmother to six. I live in the English countryside in Hampshire, UK, with my husband and two dogs and am a non exec Director for Glow


  • Patricia

    Fabulous story and story telling – I was right there with the popcorn and the he…Thank you Thank you for more of this delightful tale – and all the American confusion about England!

    Love to laugh – and did you keep the fan?

  • Deb

    I was so excited to see the next installment of your story here this morning, and was not let down in any way. I can hardly wait for the reveal about Annie. I’m still in awe of what a trouper you’ve been through all of this, and wondering about your communications home during your trip. 🙂

  • Andrea Carlisle

    Annie seems to belong to a loving family, even though they are a bit odd with their fan-making and doll keeping and other peculiar ways. It’s good they love her, because she is a handful, and then some.

    You’re very patient with them all, and an absolute saint about the fog questions, Deborah.

    It was awfully nice of you to drop by for a performance of Rocky Horror so far from home.

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