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Whimsey Wizard bows out

Caspar News and Press Releases

Slice of Life By Kathe Tanner
Whimsey wizard bows out

Our Peter Pan is gone.

It always hurts when an adored friend dies suddenly. But Cambria has lost a never-grow-up, 67-year-old comic genius -- Jerry Juhl, who created whimsical marionette-puppet characters and then put amazing words in their mouths through such award-winning shows as "Sesame Street," "The Muppet Show" and "Fraggle Rock."

The North Coast has lost a beloved champion, a gentle man with twinkling eyes, a gloriously wide smile, oversized glasses, fly-away hair and an unquenchable appetite for life.

He and wife Susan moved to Cambria in 1967, weeks before he began to write for "Sesame Street." He said later, "I had about $2,000 in my pocket, and Susan had those skirts with mirrors on them."

They redid a house on the low side of the Ardath Drive/Madison Street "Y," an area paved with beach rock so slippery, cars would hydroplane in the rain like ice skaters.

To the house, the Juhls added many decorative sheep, a drastically remodeled kitchen and an entryway that required guests to walk across the roof to get to the "front door."

Jerry loved poking pins in stuffed shirts and over-inflated egos. There were no sacred cows; everything was grist for his comic mill. His much-lauded career often took the Juhls around the world. But until 1987, when they moved to Caspar in Mendocino County, Cambria was their hometown.

Apolitical Jerry and passionate Susan teamed up with fellow environmentalists Walter and Katie Sterling, Helen May, Andy Herrington, Walt and Mary Cole, Ken and Margaret Schussman, Jane Smithers and others to found the North Coast Property Owners Association.

The group helped to gather Cambria's various agencies into the Cambria Community Services District.

NCPOA members lobbied hard against development on area ranchland owned by the Phelan family (now Ralph and Tracey Covell's ranch), the Fiscalinis (East West Ranch, now owned by the community) and Hearst Corp. It was an unpopular cause then.

Now, those properties are protected by permanent conservation easements which forbid the kinds of development fought by the Juhls and their compatriots.

NCPOA also took on smaller challenges, bringing back the town's Independence Day fireworks display and setting up massive carved-log benches along oceanfront bluffs so seniors taking their daily constitutionals would have a place to rest and enjoy the view.

The Juhls also were among Cambria's most inventive party-givers, entertaining friends, neighbors and strangers.

Former Cambria resident Roger May of Colville, Wash., recalled a bash after Jerry got an Emmy award for "Sesame Street."

"We spent the entire evening trying to hang as many pretzels off the Emmy as we could," Roger said of the unconventional celebration.

Jerry loved baking bread and for years tried to create the perfect bagel. He and Susan were foodies at a time when "high profile chef" meant Julia Child or James Beard, period, and the "food channel" was just a groove between the stove and the kitchen counter.

The Juhls also were among the Tanners' most cherished bakery taste-testers. Their worldwide travels, sophisticated palates and culinary talents made them ideal guinea pigs when we were seeking the holy grail of a perfect pumpernickel or the best brioche.

For instance, Jerry taste-tested samples from dozens of our different cheesecake recipes, but none were just right.

Then we delivered slices of a high, lightly sweetened cake. Jerry took a bite, and with eyes wide and sparkling, he nodded until his silvery hair flew.

This articulate man muttered through the sweetened cheese, "Uh-huh. UH HUH!" Husband Richard laughed and said, "Jerry, for a man of many words, you don't have a lot today."

Jerry nodded again, but finished every scrap of what would become "Jerry's Cheesecake," one of our best sellers.

He was also a passionate computer enthusiast determined to convince my writer mother -- whose ailments made it impossible for her to sit at a desk -- she should immediately shift from typewriter to computer. He coerced, she resisted.

Then, in the early 1980s, he invited us to see his latest computer "toy." Mom politely watched him demonstrate all the cyber bells and whistles, including the maniac, text-based "Zork" game. Jerry even showed Mom how she could sit with her feet on a footstool and work with the lightweight keyboard on her lap.

She resisted -- until he brought out his secret weapon -- an early version of "search and replace."

"See, Andy?" he said. "I can change 'Sam' to 'Fred,' just like that, throughout the whole manuscript."

A couple of weeks later, my bullheaded Mom bought her first computer. We have so many memories of our wonderful friend. We'll share them at a memorial service Nov. 12 at the Caspar Community Center, where funny nose glasses will be provided.

Goodbye, our sweet Peter Pan. Fly high.

Remembering Jerry Juhl

There will be a celebration of Jerry Julh's life at noon Nov. 12 at the Caspar Community Center, 15051 Caspar Road, Caspar. Instead of flowers, Susan Juhl has asked that donations be made to the Caspar Community Center, P.O. Box 84, Caspar CA 95420. (Caspar is 160 miles north of San Francisco on the Mendocino Coast, halfway between Fort Bragg and Mendocino. For more information, go to ).

written by Kathe Tanner for the The Cambrian, for publication in October 2005 -- reprinted by permission.

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