In Memory of an Oakland Star 7

In Memory of an Oakland Star
By Kevin Heffernan


Sidney Kingsley

March 20, 2014 marks the 19th anniversary of the passing of Sidney Kingsley, a Broadway luminary who lived in Oakland from 1935 until his passing 60 years later in 1995.

Mr. Kingsley was a writer, producer and director of nine Broadway plays including The Patriot and Men in White for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1934. He married  Madge Evans, a star of stage and screen, in 1939. Together they eschewed the lights and glamour both Hollywood and New York preferring instead the quite, pastoral life they found in the fields and mountains of Oakland with their 250 acre estate. That estate ultimately became the Ramapo Reserve.

He came to Oakland almost by accident. Because Mr. Kingsley had no taste for the crowds and sophistication of New York, he yearned for a place of peace, rest and semi-solitude where he could write, sculpt and enjoy the simpler pleasures of life. In 1934 while having lunch at the 21 Club in New York, he had a chance meeting with an individual. After sharing his soft ambitions, that person was aware of a farmhouse and 250 acres for sale in the tiny village of Oakland. Mr. Kingsley came, saw, fell in love  and bought it. As history would have it, the farmhouse was ancient and built before the American Revolution by Mr. Samuel Bush.

Madge Evans

Madge Evans

The strength of Mr. Kingsley’s writing style focused mostly upon the travails, conflicts and triumphs of the common man with whom he fully identified. Perhaps this aspect of the man may be found in his first play, Men in White, where he explored the conflicts of a physician between his family and his profession. Or, it may be found in Dead End, a play that focused upon the gritty aspects of the East Side in New York. And The Patriots in 1943 centered upon the Jeffersonian belief of the triumph of the common man over the privileged few.

It would be all too easy to think that the Sidney Kingsley and Madge Evans would be aloof from the folks in Oakland given their star status. However, just the opposite is true. He was a regular guy and they were regular folks who lived and behaved just like any other Oaklander, indistinguishable from anyone on the street. Bob Spear lived on one of the houses on the property, the Old River House, and even worked for Mr. Kingsley as a landscaper. And Richard Walker recalls as

The Kingsley Home

The Kingsley Home

a kid that Mr. Kingsley would hire a small army of Oakland kids to rake leaves in the Fall. Maybe a prime example if Mr. Kingsley’s common man touch was that he’d take the bus into New York for his business, just like you and I. He and Madge Evans were very regular patrons of Seel’s Bar in town and often brought nationally recognized guests like Roger Baldwin, the founder of the ACLU.

While few among us can claim to have ever read the works of Mr. Kingsley, we nonetheless know and fondly appreciate the germination of one of his best works, Dead End. That work grew from a play on Broadway in 1935 to a series of fabulous movies until 1958 that included The Dead End Kids, Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids and the Bowery Boys. Who can forget them?

And so it is today that we honor and remember Mr. Kingsley, an extraordinarily talented and nationally recognized man with a wonderfully common touch. The kind of guy that you’d love to have a beer with.

Kevin Heffernan –

7 thoughts on “In Memory of an Oakland Star

  • Maggie

    I was thinking exactly that as I read this. I feel very sad about that. His home sat at the foot of my street. I passed this beautiful property several times a day. :(( Although so many amazing people have joined our community as a result, i’m sorry that we lost his home and the breathtaking property in the process. Give something to gain something, I guess.

  • Dawn Goodwin O'Keefe

    I lived juxtaposed to Mr Kingsley growing up (bottom right on Brandywine Place). As a kid we would sneak across his bridge and hike up into the mountain. It was beautiful. We loved to drink from the cool clear crisp springs and ride down the rocks into a pool of water with waterfalls. Often times Mr. Kingsley would be out in his yard working or cutting the lawn when we came down from the mountain and he would wave his arms for us to get off his property. It made our days outside even more exciting…. I miss those simpler times ….and the beautiful landscape of that mountain. I often wish my kids had the same opportunities…..Thanks for the memories.

  • Sam

    It was in the late seventies when I had the honor of meeting Sidney Kingsley. I was driving for Oakland’s Smiley’s Taxi when I got a call to go to his home. I was to drive a guest of his back to the airport. I entered his home to help with the luggage which gave me a glimpse of the interior. WOW It was like entering another era. That image is still implanted to this day in my memory for which I am so thankful for. R.I.P. Mr. Kingsley.

  • Charlie McCormick

    A big thank you to Mr. Heffernan – I will be forwarding this link to local Board of Eds because Kingsley should be taught in our middle and high schools. While I grew up watching the Bowery Boys on Sunday mornings, I never knew the true impact of Sidney Kingsley until researching some of the plays noted in this article….Not only was he a famous author, but he really was a good man whose plays- especially- Dead End – had a real impact on the nation(FDR & the Senate both said the play inspired their legislation concerning slums in America)….And what I like most about this article, is that it makes Kingsley a real person, makes him accessible – and that’s an inspiration for young and old alike.

  • Anonymous

    Kevin wrote a great article but missed a very important aspect of Sidney’s life. His ultimate goal was to build a performing arts center on his property as his legacy. He was blocked every which way he turned from accomplishing that goal. If it wasn’t the bridge then it was the flood zone or the traffic it would generate. It would have brought Oakland in to the limelight like the PAC has done for Newark. The best part was Sidney was going to pay for it all personally or through donations. No cost to the Oakland taxpayer. Were the politicians to blame for it’s demise? Probably.

  • Kevin Heffernan

    Dear Anonymous,

    You are absolutely correct in that I omitted that Mr. Kingsley tried to develop his property as a performing arts center but was not successful. The article was intended to celebrate his life and his years in Oakland as a regular guy particularly in keeping with the thrust of his work, not relive some aspects that are still controversial to this day.

    With that said, trust me when I say that I do not shy from historical controversy as will be revealed in future articles in The Oakland Journal starting on or about April 3, 2014. Thanks for your comment and stay tuned!

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