BOOM & BUST: Barnaby Conrad arrived in Santa Barbara in the early 1970s having written a blockbuster (Matador, three million copies sold so far), and decided to start a writers conference.
Artist, raconteur, ex-bullfighter, and famous in San Francisco for presiding over a celeb hangout named for his best-seller, El Matador, Conrad was a master at running a salon-saloon but had no idea how to operate a writers conference.
But from the first year, 1973, at Cate School, “We never lost money,” Conrad told me. “We (his wife Mary was cofounder and took care of the business side while Conrad dealt with the writers) made enough each year to go around the world.”
The Conrads sold the Santa Barbara Writers Conference to ex-News-Presser Marcia Meier in 2004 and now it’s fallen on hard times and into bankruptcy. There’s speculation that it will be bought by author Monte Schulz, son of the late Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz, an annual speaker at the confab.
Meier announced financial problems early this year, at least in part due to the recession, and the annual June conference was called off. Conrad believes it will take quick action by someone to stage it in 2010.
Conrad had to scramble to get the conference started from scratch. “The first year I called Ray Bradbury. ‘Mr. Bradbury, I’d love to have you as a speaker.’
“He said, ‘I don’t know. Who else have you got?’”
Conrad paused. “I’ve got Charles Schulz, Budd Schulberg, Alex Haley,” and other big names.
“Okay,” Bradbury replied. Then Conrad called Schulberg and told him he had Schulz, Bradbury, Haley and others. Schulberg agreed. Conrad next called Haley, famed for Roots, and pulled the same maneuver.
He wrote to Charles Michener, author of a series of books, including Hawaii. “I didn’t hear. Finally, two weeks before the conference, I got a call from Germany. ‘Is it too late to come?’ Michener asked. ‘But it’ll cost you $50 to change my plane ticket.’” Replied a delighted Conrad, “I think we can come up with that.”
When the conference opened, “They all came,” he said, still in wonderment. “Michener said he could only stay for two hours. He stayed four days, read everyone’s manuscripts and talked to all the students. Charles Schulz came 30 times. He brought original drawings of Snoopy and gave them away as prizes.”
Over the years, many fledgling authors got their start at the conference, including Santa Barbara’s Fannie Flagg, author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
Conrad found that best-selling authors were happy to journey to Santa Barbara to speak free of charge or for peanuts. Four-hundred aspiring authors and locals like me interested in listening to the literary stars would flock to the Miramar Hotel, where the conference was staged for years until the place closed for redevelopment.
The bar buzzed with book talk and literary gossip, deals were made, romances of the week blossomed, or faded like a dust cover left too long in the Southern California sun. At late night “pirate workshops,” students’ work was critiqued by the pros, praised or torn apart as part of the learning experience.
“It’s sad,” Conrad said of the current state of affairs. “It’s a shame but it was fun while it lasted.”
He said he and Mary sold the conference for a bargain $75,000 and are still owed $20,000. He hopes that if Schulz buys it they will be repaid and certain other debts will be covered. Still in question, however, are advance reservation fees conference-goers paid Meier for the 2009 conclave, the one that never happened. They were not given back their money but were offered free attendance at the next one and could bring a friend. The 2008 conference was held at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree, which is owed a reported $52,800.
Meier did bring in name speakers, including cop novelist Joe Wambaugh (with an assist from Conrad). But when she moved the conference to Westmont College after the Miramar was out of the picture, participants found it difficult to find their way there and complained that no booze was available.
Last year Monte Schulz offered Meier $150,000 for the conference but when Meier made it a condition that she remain and preside, the deal fell through, Conrad told me.
In a statement this week, Meier said: “In October, the trustee in my bankruptcy case told my attorney he intended to sell the assets of the conference to the highest bidder : I had hoped he would have acted by now so that a new owner could be announced and there would be no interruption in the conference for next year.
“As for me, every decision I have made over the past five years has been rooted in a deep desire to honor the legacy of the Conrads and to provide an exceptional experience for the hundreds of writers who attend the conference each year. My only regret is that I have put my family’s welfare at serious risk in the process.”