FEATURE | By Mark Lewis
In small towns like Ojai, individuals loom large. Whether a person’s contributions to communal life are artistic or organizational or inspirational, other people take notice. In the case of Phil Harvey, all three categories apply, and when he died in January at 99, everyone in town took notice.
Back in 2015, I hosted “A Conversation With Phil Harvey” at the Ojai Valley Museum, in front of a large and appreciative audience. To prepare for that event, I visited Phil at his home on South Montgomery Street to interview him about his life. When he died, I dug out my notes from that interview and used them to write this profile.
PHILIP C. HARVEY grew up in the most famous small town in America, and no, it wasn’t Ojai. Phil was born on May 11, 1921, in Emporia, Kansas, the hometown of William Allen White, the nationally famous author and longtime editor of The Emporia Gazette. For many decades, White was the recognized voice of small-town America, even as small towns declined and surrendered their cultural pre-eminence to the fast-growing cities and suburbs. Phil Harvey grew up in a bucolic world that already was fading into irrelevance.
Phil’s father sold and repaired Singer sewing machines, a tough way to make a living during the Great Depression.
“The ‘30s were hard,” Phil recalled. When the soles of his shoes wore out, his parents plugged the holes with cardboard rather than buy him a new pair. But the family got by. His mother, a staunch Quaker, brought her son up in that pacifistic and meditative faith. The Harveys lived in a small house on the outskirts of town, near a lake where young Phil loved to go fishing. Emporia was not entirely off the beaten path — Route 66 ran right through the middle of town, as did the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. Once a year, the railroad would disembark the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus — “The Greatest Show on Earth” — and Phil and his friends would thrill to the sight of colorfully garbed elephants parading through town from the depot to the fairgrounds.
During his high school years, Phil fell in love with music and art. He drew and he sketched, and he sang in church chorales. The singing, especially, won him plaudits.
“I found that I had a voice,” he said.
After high school, he moved on to Wichita to study art and music at Friends University, a Quaker-affiliated school. He was inspired by the example of a former student who had gone on to perform at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
“I wanted to sing,” Phil said.
Then came Pearl Harbor, which plunged America into World War II, and plunged Phil into a quandary when he was drafted at the age of 21. Remaining true to his Quaker beliefs, he registered as a conscientious objector, and ended up moving to Southern California to fight fires in the Angeles National Forest, in lieu of fighting enemy soldiers overseas.
CATCHING POISON OAK is seldom anyone’s idea of good luck, but it worked out well for Phil Harvey. He caught his case circa 1944, while he was part of a crew fighting fires out of a camp near Glendora in the San Gabriel Valley. The painful rash ended Phil’s firefighting career and set off the unlikely chain of events that would bring him to Ojai.
The rash sent him to the infirmary, from where he later was transferred to the camp kitchen to be a cook. There, he befriended a fellow kitchen worker named Roy Patton. Roy, like Phil, was a Quaker and a conscientious objector. Unlike Phil, Roy was not a college student just starting out in life — he was a sculptor from New York in his early 30s. The two men bonded over their shared interest in spirituality and pacifism. As it happens, Roy knew a Monrovia man named Jack who regularly traveled to Ojai to attend talks given by Jiddu Krishnamurti, the noted philosopher from India. Krishnamurti also was a prominent pacifist, who attracted like-minded folks like Aldous Huxley to Ojai.
“Several times we hitched a ride with Jack to come to Ojai to hear Krishnamurti,” Phil said.
On one of these visits, Phil and Roy found themselves stuck in Ojai without a ride back to Glendora. Somehow, Roy wangled an invitation from Rosalind Rajagopal for him and Phil to spend the night at Krishnamurti’s home, Arya Vihara (now the Pepper Tree Retreat) on McAndrew Road. The invitation included dinner, so Phil and Roy found themselves joining Krishnamurti and his friends around a big table. The conversation was stimulating, the scenery inspiring, the vibe intoxicating.
“I fell in love with Ojai,” Phil told me. “I said, ‘When I get out of the camp, I’m going to go to Ojai.’ ”
And so he did, in the fall of 1946, with Roy Patton in tow. (Roy would remain in Ojai until his death in 1998, carving wooden marionettes and crafting artistic redwood signs for local businesses.) Phil still wanted to sing, so he looked around for opportunities to showcase his mellifluous baritone voice. He found one at the Art Center, where the Ojai Chorale made its home. They made Phil a soloist.
It was there at the Art Center that Phil first crossed paths with Margaret Smith, a registered nurse and a very talented musician, who accompanied the chorale on piano. Phil and Margaret began making beautiful music together, in more ways than one.
Moving to a small town in the middle of nowhere is not necessarily a shrewd career move for an aspiring singer. But as it turned out, Phil had arrived in Ojai at precisely the right time. The music impresario John Bauer and the English actress Iris Tree were organizing the first Ojai Music Festival, which premiered in the spring of 1947. Both Bauer and Tree took notice of the Art Center newcomer with the big voice.
At that time, the festival was supposed to be as much about drama as music, and Tree was in charge of the drama. At the Art Center, she saw Phil take on dramatic roles such as the title character in Richard Wagner’s opera “The Flying Dutchman.” Impressed with his acting as well as with his singing, she approached Phil about joining her Ojai Festival Players troupe.
“She said, ‘Philip, would you like to become an actor,’ ” Phil said, imitating Tree’s upper-crust English accent. “And I said, ‘I guess so.’ ”
Phil pitched in to help Tree & Co. convert a house in Upper Ojai into the High Valley Theatre, and he appeared alongside Woody Chambliss, Ford Rainey and Tree herself in their 1947 production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” a highlight of the first Ojai Music Festival. (Phil played Malcolm, son and heir of the murdered King Duncan. Roy Patton was in charge of props.)
Meanwhile, Bauer was urging Phil to focus on singing.
“He said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a great voice,’ ” Phil said. “I kind of looked at him askance. He said, ‘You know, you have talent.’ ”
Bauer helped arrange a scholarship for Phil at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and Arts (now part of CalArts). And so, after a relatively short time in Ojai, Phil headed off to the big city to become an opera star.
MARGARET SMITH had no intention of being left behind. She regularly drove to L.A. to visit Phil. He could not return the favor, having no car of his own, but he could rent a little boat and take her for a cruise on Echo Park Lake, during which he popped the question. They were married in the Ojai Presbyterian Church early in 1949. The baby boom was in full swing, and Phil and Margaret did their part: Jim was born in 1951, followed by Jeannie in 1952 and Babette in ’53. Meanwhile, Phil was gracing various Southern California theaters and concert halls, singing such roles as Marcello in Puccini’s “La Boheme.”
Phil had more than a voice to offer audiences; he also had stage presence. That’s what had inspired Iris Tree to recruit him for her Ojai theater troupe back in 1946 — and a decade later, that’s what brought him to the attention of Hollywood.
The inspiration this time came from a friend named Barbara Muhl, who admired Phil’s performances. She introduced him to her husband, Edward Muhl, the head of production at Universal-International Pictures. He gave Phil a screen test, then offered him a three-year contract.
“Light Opera Singer Gets a Picture Pact,” the Los Angeles Times reported in August 1955. “Phil Harvey, who has sung with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, and who was in ‘Bittersweet’ and ‘Bloomer Girl’ at the Greek Theater, besides the Opera Foundation’s production of ‘La Boheme,’ has signed a contract with U-I.”
Contract players like Phil comprised the studio’s farm team. They attended acting workshops, filled small roles in films and auditioned for bigger roles, hoping to move up in the ranks toward stardom. Other Universal contract players at the time included Troy Donohue and Clint Eastwood.
“We would meet in the gym,” Phil said of Eastwood. “He was really cool. A down-to-earth guy.”
Phil continued to sing professionally, but Universal was not especially known for its musicals. In the movies, Phil was strictly an actor. He worked for some legendary directors, albeit mostly in small parts. In Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil,” Phil shared a scene with Charlton Heston. He also appeared in two classic melodramas directed by Douglas Sirk, “Written on the Wind” and “The Tarnished Angels.”
His bigger roles tended to come in TV Westerns like “Gunsmoke” and “Death Valley Days,” and in B-movies that fused the horror and science-fiction genres. These low-budget “creature features” were a Universal specialty in the 1950s. Phil’s film credits include at least five of them: “The Deadly Mantis” (in which Phil is menaced by a giant praying mantis); “Monster on the Campus” (gamma rays are involved); “The Thing That Couldn’t Die” (it’s a severed head with an attitude); “The Monolith Monsters” (one of the monsters turns Phil to stone); and “The Land Unknown,” in which Phil is menaced by a tyrannosaurus played by a man in a rubber T-Rex costume.
All told, Phil appeared in about 20 feature films from 1957 to 1960. He acquitted himself well as an actor, but he never did become a movie star. One reason is that studio lost interest in promoting him when he declined to play the Tinsel Town publicity game. The studio P.R. people wanted Phil to be seen regularly in Sunset Strip nightclubs with glamor-girl starlets like Jill St. John. He said no thanks: “I’m married, I have three children, I’m not your man for that.”
“Things cooled off after that,” he said. But his singing career was going well, so after 1960 he turned his back on Hollywood to focus on concerts and stage productions. He performed in venues all across Los Angeles and up and down the West Coast, often paired with the soprano Dana Winslow. His repertoire ranged from sacred music performed in churches (Handel’s “Messiah”), to opera (“The Marriage of Figaro”), to operetta (“The Merry Widow”), to Broadway musicals (his favorite parts included Curly in “Oklahoma!” and Gaylord Ravenal in “Show Boat”).
“I also did a lot of music teaching,” he said.
IN 1980, with their kids now grown up, Phil and Margaret returned to Ojai, and to the house on South Montgomery Street that had belonged to Margaret’s mother. It would be Phil’s home for the next 40 years.
He got a job at Dexter’s Camera Shop. His interest in photography arose from his approach to painting watercolors.
“I wanted to get the colors right,” he said, “so I started taking photos of the things I was painting.”
Eventually, photography displaced painting as his preferred visual art. Phil being Phil, he wanted to share his knowledge and enthusiasm with a large group of people, so in 1984 he founded the Ojai Camera Club. (Now known as the Ojai Photography Community, it still existed at the time of Phil’s death, although its current leaders have announced their retirement, and it’s not yet clear whether anyone else will step up to take their place.)
Over the years, Phil mentored and inspired many an aspiring local photographer, and he has exhibited his own beautiful photographs in the City Hall Gallery and at the Ojai Valley Museum, among other places. He also collected many of his most striking images in a popular postcard book titled “Mystique of Ojai.” The museum is honoring Phil during its current photography exhibit (“Ojai Eye: Master Photographers”) by dedicating the show to his memory.
Despite his focus on photography, Phil never gave up singing. After returning to Ojai in 1980, he joined the Ojai Presbyterian Church choir. When the church’s music director left, Phil took over.
“I said I’d help them out for a few months,” he said. “It ended up being 15 years!”
Nor did his confine his musical activities to the church choir. In 1987, Phil founded the Ojai Community Chorus, which he led for many years as director and conductor. (It’s still going strong today.) Phil also was known for opening each weekly meeting of the Ojai Valley Retired Men’s Club with a song, and for opening each Wednesday Summer Band Concert at the Libbey Park gazebo with his immortal rendition of “The Ojai Song:”
“Ojai, oh Ojai, where the stars they shine so bright …”
For his many contributions to Ojai’s civic and artistic fabric, Phil Harvey was awarded the Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award by the City of Ojai in 2003; chosen as grand marshal of the Fourth of July Parade in 2004; and named a Living Treasure by the local Rotary clubs in 2010.
2010 also was the year Margaret died. Phil soldiered on as a very active widower for another decade before dying peacefully on January 5 “of non-Covid natural causes,” according to his newspaper obituary. He was four months shy of his 100th birthday. Left to mourn him are his son, two daughters, two grandchildren, and the many Ojai Valley residents whose lives he touched in one way or another.