Most Santa Barbarans knew Rex Marchbanks from his presence at the Santa Barbara Bowl. He was the burly guy with the bushy hair who always stood just behind the wooden crowd barriers in the plaza. He would be there in his Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and flip-flops after a full day of overseeing all of the things that went into putting on a show: getting the buses up the hill and unloaded, hauling the equipment onto the stage, and so on. But after it was all set up, when Rex was done making everyone in the band feel comfortable, and before the show started, he went out and made everyone in Santa Barbara feel welcome with bear hugs and a big smile.
Since he had taken the job of operations manager of the Bowl in 1991-when the facility had been taken back by the public-this was the place Rex held court. But Rex had held court in many places throughout his life in Santa Barbara, mainly deep in all of our hearts.
Rex was born in Cottage Hospital on June 4, 1949 and passed away April 15 after an 18-month battle with cancer. Fittingly, he was at his home on the Bowl property, surrounded by family and the friends who had cared for him during his illness. His bushy hair and most of his weight was now gone, but the illness could not take away Rex’s good humor and ability to make those around him feel valued. Right up to the end, Rex’s greatest victory was one that somehow eludes almost all of the rest of us: He was happy just being himself.
It became an urban legend in Santa Barbara that Rex Marchbanks provided the inspiration for Jeff Bridges’s “The Dude” character in The Big Lebowski, precisely because he so perfectly embodied the looser, freer, more innocent Santa Barbara that he grew up in. But for Rex, it was not an act. Those who knew him in school at Jefferson Elementary, Santa Barbara Junior High, and then Santa Barbara High School remember him as being his laid-back, friendly, inimitable self from the very beginning-even while tooting the trombone in the school band. In those days, his family lived on the Riviera, and Rex would often play on the grounds of what was then a largely abandoned County Bowl facility. A seed had been planted.
Rex left Santa Barbara briefly to attend classes at San Diego State University, where-while earning a B.A. in art-he racked up a perfect 4.0 G.P.A. Upon returning, he began his magnificent run of holding court. Part of Rex’s fortune was his ability to fit into any situation, and in the early 1970s that was behind the counter of The Settlement, a legendary health food store in Montecito. He moved into the building trades, lending his talent for being able to make or fix anything, combined with his naturally artistic eye, to construction projects for such clients as Jimmy Connors and Robert Zemeckis and for hot tub manufacturers Gordon & Grant. He charmed kids at Camp Jolly Roger, kept Kinko’s employees entertained while installing security systems during the ’90s, helped keep things lively behind the counter as a clerk and manager at Video Shmideo, toured as a lighting director with Christopher Cross, and played drums in a variety of local bands.
Along the way, Rex learned to juggle, and play the harmonica, and paint in oils. He mastered electrical, plumbing, framing, and finish carpentry. He could install phone systems, he could weld, and he knew drafting and architectural design. He embraced these activities like he embraced all of life, with a child’s curiosity and an adult’s insistence on excellence.
When Rex became operations manager of the Bowl in 1991, his childhood playground became his adult proving ground. He found a perfect place to focus and direct his many talents, including his vast knowledge of construction, his lifelong interest in music, and his boundless personal warmth. He lived in a house not 200 yards from the stage, and on show day would host gatherings on his balcony, which he nicknamed “El Balcon.” In those days, to have a laminated “El Balcon” pass was to be among the chosen few-not because you had money, but because you were lucky enough to know the real mayor of Santa Barbara.
As he settled into the security of his Bowl gig, Rex began painting daily during the off-season, keeping a studio in the Funk Zone and holding annual exhibitions at Roy restaurant. His art was unruly, vibrant, beautiful, and impossible to categorize; just like Rex himself.
Rex’s passing leaves a giant hole in the fabric of Santa Barbara culture and in the hearts of so many people in town who were touched by his big spirit. Many have said the Bowl is a sacred space, and has been since the Chumash lived there centuries ago. Last week, that notion took on new meaning. In what seems now like perfect symmetry, that hallowed ground of music and gathering, of sunshine and celebration, will forever be remembered as the place Rex Marchbanks found his calling, lived his life of grace, left behind a legacy of passion and generosity, and spent his last moments in peace.
Almost 40 years ago, my life with Rex began and continued through the years rather untraditionally. We married (literally) “outside” the box. We had no desire for fashion or flowers. We were happy with a ceremony next to a mountain stream in the fresh air surrounded by tall pines. We requested no presents, just the presence of our friends-lots of friends-and family.
We requested our vows not include “’til death do us part.” Death actually brought us back together after many years apart. Rex lived life like he painted; with pure enjoyment and lots of color. In the end, he taught us how to face adversity with his positive attitude and his never-ending sense of humor. His gifts to us were many renewed friendships. His love of laughter and bigger-than-life smile filled our community for years and will never be forgotten!
He is no longer my husband but will always be my friend and live on as a most cherished painting in my heart’s collection.-Peggy “Marchbanks” Buchanan
To put it simply, when he entered the room people migrated quickly to him for a hug or a hello. He was a great artist, friend, and-for me-a salon client. I have heard a lot of special requests when it comes to hairstyles. Some people want to look younger, some older, and some want to look like movie stars. Rex, however, sat in my chair for the first time about three years ago and told me to cut his hair so that it looked like he was “going fast.” Never before or since then have I had someone ask to look like an action figure. -Shannon Coburn
I was diagnosed and treated for cancer in the summer of 2005. After I had finished my radiation treatment was when I think I heard about Rex being diagnosed. One night on the newly-christened Terrace I had a moment with Rex after a few drinks and got a little mushy. He just smiled, chuckled, and agreed that we were gonna beat this thing.
A year later-during which time I was working in the Bowl Box Office-I ran into Rex at Sansum Clinic. We had both been scheduled for check-ups on the same day. This was after he’d had multiple surgeries and chemo treatments. His speech was impaired and he’d lost a lot of weight. I was doing really well and just going in for a routine appointment. I already knew how special Rex was, but his first remark to me blew me away. He asked how I was doing. Was I OK? I nearly cried then and am crying as I write this. He was the guy to ask how you were doing regardless of how he was doing. He kept making jokes, making everyone feel special and good about themselves despite how he was feeling.-Alastair Greene
There isn’t a face at the Santa Barbara Bowl that doesn’t light up at the mention or presence of Rex. Everything was funnier and more fun with Rex and he always made sure you felt a part of it. His approach to life was remarkable. I will always be in awe of how he carried his humor and kindness equally through the best and the most difficult of times. Thanks Rex for making us all laugh, for the hugs, and for the really cool nickname.-Beth Dolinsek
Getting a pass to El Balcon was every girl’s-and probably every guy’s-dream. I’d never met a sweeter person, or one that had a more positive attitude toward life, than Rex. It’s no wonder he was so well loved. -Jan Cross
Rex and I became friends when I was a sophomore and he was a senior at Santa Barbara High. Rex’s special gift to me was in the fall of 1969 when he saved me from being homesick, alone, sad, and sobbing at San Diego State University. He was my knight in shining armor. I was so proud when this handsome, tall, more-than-cool guy sauntered into the dorm and whisked me out into his remarkable world of art and hip rebellion in front of all the “losers” at the dorm. I was on cloud nine! Rex would often take me to his apartment, where we listened to Badfinger’s “Day After Day,” sitting on the floor, eating peanut butter and honey on whole wheat toast, and laughing about nothing until we almost wet our pants. Rex taught us all to play the songs that make our hearts soar.-Janet (Eckert) Gordon
When the cab driver asked me, “where to” I told him the house at the top of The Bowl. He flipped out and asked, “You know the guy that runs The Bowl?” He was so excited! He begged me to let him stop at his apartment on the way, saying he wouldn’t charge me for the ride. I said O.K. He went running up and then came running back with his Casio keyboard.
When Rex got in, the poor guy thought that this was his big break in show business. He asked Rex to just hear him out. So he played a full song for him on his keyboard. Rex just gave me that sideways look with his one eyebrow up. We were so torn between pity and complete hysteria. The guy continued to play one-handed during the entire ride Downtown. This was just the first of many surreal and completely awesome experiences that always seemed to find us.-Heather Augello
Rex once reached over to me and grabbed my entire face-mouth, lips, and chin-and squeezed them together, then just cracked up at the look in my eyes. I asked him what was he thinking and his reply was not verbal. Instead I got the Rex-head-shake-eye-rolling-thing that he does; like his submerged twin was escaping back into its rabbit hole.-Anthony Kar
From the first day that I met Rex, I could tell that he was a special person. He was always the center of attention. He could start to tell a story to two or three people, and by the time he was done there would be a crowd around him, all laughing and smiling. The sound of Rex’s laughter was so infectious that to hear it would bring a smile to your face, and he was always laughing. According to my wife, Gladys, Rex was a great hugger. He would always give her a hug and a kiss whenever they saw each other. I’m sure there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of women-and a few men-who would agree because on show days at the Bowl he was always greeting someone that way. Even though there will be no more “hellos” from him, we can rest assured that there will be no “goodbyes” because Rex’s presence will always be felt and his laughter will always be heard. We love you, Rex. -Joe “Joliolio” Palato
There is an old joke about a widely-loved guy named Murphy appearing on the Vatican balcony to the right of His Holiness. As a crowd assembles one guy yells, “Who’s that guy to the left?” indicating the pontiff. “I don’t know who he is, but the guy next to him is Murphy,” says one of the assembled. “Murphy!” cheers break out.
One day four years ago, I was at a Crosby, Stills & Nash show at the Bowl, waiting for a coffee next to the chain-link fence that separates the talent from the audience. Suddenly a murmur ran through the line as two guys emerged from the stage door. “Hey, is that Graham Nash?” asked the guy next to me. “I don’t know,” said his friend, “but that’s Rex Marchbanks standing next to him.” “Hey, yeah,” said everybody there, cheering. Good old Rex; the man everybody knew.
Maybe Marchbanks was best known as the guy who lived at the Bowl. Marchbanks’s home through the 1990s was above the concession stand there and his patio-where lucky invited friends got to roost-was a vantage that made his “position” as Bowl caretaker chief seem enviable. What was less known was how hard Rex worked to ensure the logistics of each Bowl show-he usually wasn’t on his own porch during concerts. His reputation with performers was the gold standard that helped keep the place popular with big-name entertainers, even though the facilities back then weren’t as modern as some other venues.
But Rex’s importance to this town is a lot wider, I think. He was a person you loved running into. The former owner of The Settlement, he inhabited a social network that followed him through the years, cementing his role as host extraordinaire at his Roy art shows, which became his true passion in the last decades of his life.
I’ll miss Rex at the Bowl every time I go. But I’ll also miss him riding his big cruiser bike down State Street. I’ll think about him while watching the face of Santa Barbara keep changing-the old casual grace swapped out for the more glamorous and rich. The parvenus standing up on Rex’s old balcony I don’t recognize now. But behind them will stand the legacy of the big, long-haired, widely-loved friend, good old Rex.-D.J. Palladino
On a beautiful Santa Barbara day, taken just a bit for granted, we opted for a weekend dog-walk to the beach. In the midst of this pleasant tradition, the uncomfortable topic of illness and treatment entered our conversation en route to Mesa Park. Rex’s condition was quite serious. He’d undergone a full regimen of surgery and chemotherapy, and was battling his way out of the grip of the disease. Our full attention turned to the world of mortality and dark predictions. Would he recover? What’s the prognosis? How would I respond to being in his place?
We parked the car and prepared for the walk: grabbing the leash, letting the dog out of the back, and gathering the doggy treats. A somber mood took hold on the ritual. At that moment, we both looked up toward the street to an unexpected sight: Rex on his bicycle, zipping down Shoreline Drive in Hawaiian shirt, shorts and flip-flops, hair flying, with a giant grin plastered across his face. So much for serious demeanors and dire predictions. It’s a beautiful day. Thank you, Rex for your reminder.-Lori Kari
It was November 10, 2003; an unforgettable evening. My husband Eric was turning 33 and we were having a party. I really cannot remember whose idea it was to have a 50s party, but that was the theme. The invites went out: Please join us for Eric’s Swanky 50s Birthday Soiree.
We all went hunting for dresses, suits, lipstick, pomade, gloves, and jewelry. Around 7:30 the guests started to arrive. Each time the door opened it was like taking a step back in time. The slicked back hair and the perfectly fitting cocktail dresses. And then around 8:30, after most of the guests had arrived, there was a knock at the door. I opened it and there was Rex. He was standing there at the door in a weird robe/sweater, some shabby shorts, a white-ish T-shirt, thongs, and sun glasses. He looked in the door, and looked back at me, and said: “Ohhh, I thought you said you were having a ‘Skanky Guy in his 50s Party.'”-Lisa Horner
Rex used to baby-sit our 3-year old daughter, Tricia. This little girl went crazy for Rex. He was her big teddy bear and she never complained about us leaving when she had Rex to entertain her. Rex thought it was hilarious to purposely wind her up to the level of a crazy banshee just as we got home and then to immediately head toward the door. One night we returned home to find that he had taught her to scream at the highest decibel possible for such a small child. Each time she did it they were both rolling over with laughter. As he immediately got up to leave, he looked back at our screaming laughing child and said “See-ya.” He smiled at us as only Rex could, then quickly shut the door behind him. We were left enjoying blood curdling screams and laughter for hours.-Richard Grant
Rex had a bunch of art shows at the restaurant over the years. Every show let us in on a different part of who he was. I’ll never forget the show where he made an Adirondack chair and hung it from the ceiling. It spun around powered by a mirror ball motor. A spotlight was aimed at the chair, and as it turned around, the word Adirondack would appear for a few seconds on the back of the chair, pure genius. A lot of people didn’t know what to make of it. I did. Knowing Rex made me a stronger person, and it just ain’t going to be the same without him. -Roy Gandy
He embraced life the same way he hugged people; with his whole being.-Julie