“I never part with things, for everything has a story,” Neal Graffy tells me as we walk around his Foothill Road home, where he’s been uncovering many layers of paint from the walls, which were built in the early 20th century. His living room is filled with ashtrays from all sort of Santa Barbara restaurants, including Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens, and in the corner, there’s a box full of old cell phones beneath an original poster from the Flying A Studios.
Neal started collecting things at an early age, namely comic books and copies of Mad Magazine, which provided an appreciation for the absurdity of life. At age 13, he started gardening for Leontine Phelan, a descendent of Santa Barbara’s earliest settlers. She’d recount personal anecdotes about the Flying A Studios and share her various posters and artifacts, instilling in him that notion that every little thing does indeed have a tale to tell.
Neal’s love for Santa Barbara history is uncanny. “I love people’s stories, the entrepreneurial spirit of Santa Barbara,” he says, referring to the long-gone Foster’s Freeze on De La Vina and the 25-cent pony rides once offered on East Cabrillo Boulevard.
He started giving lectures on Santa Barbara history in 1991, covering topics from the Arlington Theater to the Potter Hotel, and that evolved into a series of sold-out events at the Victoria Theater in 2004 and 2005. He’s a founding member of the De la Guerra y Pacheco Chapter 1.5 of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, for which he serves as exNoble Grand Humbug. That’s allowed him to include the initials EXNGH on his business card, which has opened to the doors to lecture in academia where advanced degrees are required. He cherishes that last bit of information.
Neal is the author of several popular books on Santa Barbara history, and is currently planning a book of the city’s past as told through ashtrays and restaurant menus. His sense of humor is priceless. His attention to detail is unprecedented.
Besides being an accomplished historian, Neal also owns a successful business called Graffy Software Design.
Here, Neal puts down his ashtrays to answer the Proust Questionnaire.
What is your greatest fear?
The death of Santa Barbara from continued building, increased density, and ignorance.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
The rescue and renovation of the Cieneguitas Cemetery, a forgotten Catholic Cemetery. A close second is the monthly Santa Barbara history shows I did at the Victoria Street Theater in 2004 and 2005. The evening shows usually sold out and we even added a matinee. Who knew local history could attract such a huge audience?
What do you like most about your job?
Bringing history to life and making it fun.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
That covers a wide palette. There are so many things that just light me up. But I’ll go with what I’m doing now: sitting at my desk deep in research and writing.
Who do you most admire?
My parents and the “Greatest Generation.” They really knew how to sacrifice. They did so much with so little and were still happy. Nearly every interview with someone from that generation leaves me in awe of the “can do” spirit and resourcefulness that has marked their life.
What is your greatest extravagance?
My collections: Santa Barbara memorabilia and old cars (someday they will run!).
What is your current state of mind?
Happy and content.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Their passion. Whether they’re an 8-year-old or an 80-year-old, there is something that lights them up and I love to hear what it is and learn about it.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
What do you most value in friends?
They make me laugh and they are all exceptional characters.
What is your most marked characteristic?
My sense of humor.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“When I’m mayor…”
Which talent would you most like to have?
Art. I would love to be able to draw and paint the things I see in my imagination.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Nothing. Since I’ve gotten this far in life with whatever bad habits and imperfections I possess, why change? I’m happy as I am.
Where would you most like to live?
Well, I’m already in Santa Barbara, but I dream of having a ranch where the only sounds I hear are pure nature.
What is your most treasured possession?
What makes you laugh the most?
Life. I just look around and see the absurdity of it all. Sometimes it hits you square in the face and sometimes you have to dig for it, but it’s funny out there!
What is your motto?
Presentation is everything.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
A close tie between George “Squibob” Derby, Mark Twain, and Emperor Norton.
On what occasion do you lie?
I don’t necessarily lie. I make the truth more interesting than it would have been.