An excerpt from the upcoming book by Armando Nieto, Mary Conrad, and Matt Pallamary: The Santa Barbara Writers Conference Scrapbook — Words of Wisdom from Thirty Years of Literary Excellence 1973 – 2003
Thursday night was Jonathan Winters night, a Santa Barbara resident frequently seen around town, table hopping when out to dinner or entertaining other shoppers in the local grocery stores. Before moving to Santa Barbara in the ‘70s and his first appearance at the SBWC, Jonathan had a lengthy career as a comedian and comic actor in many films, including the 1963 “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” and a brilliant recurring role on the “Mork & Mindy” show. By the time he moved to Santa Barbara, he was also a successful writer and painter.
As the closing night speaker, Jonathan was introduced by Barnaby Conrad who said they’d created a special Jonathan Winters Humanitarian Award for his long friendship and volunteer work in the community. Jonathan said he preferred something else, preferably in an envelope!
Jonathan began his remarks noting “the remarkable, young and healthy audience ready to face rejection.”
“I have made some notes. People think I don’t,” he added, “but I am under heavy sedation. I know I don’t look it.” He had the audience laughing at the end of almost every sentence.
What followed was a series of comedic sketches as he introduced his audience to some of the readers from around the country who would be reading the output of their labors. It is impossible to do justice to Jonathan’s renditions, but Maude Fricker is familiar to audiences around the world.
“I’m 96 years old!” she said, “and much of this body has been used by my husbands, all of them, and I have 300 children. So you see I have lived!”
He talked about his latest book, and the rejection he faced until he finally was able to get it published. Taking it up, Short Stories and Observations for the Unusual, he read, “This is a little thing called my hobby. ‘I collect rainbows…I collect winks from beautiful women…” and the audience hushed.
To listen to Jonathan Winters read from his writing is an eerie and emotional experience. He reads and writes from the fragile place in his heart, his observations of things going out of existence, or what used to be is as moving emotionally as his comedy is belly slapping.
“I am serious about my writing,” he said, “as I am sure you are about yours — or you wouldn’t be here.”
Jonathan talked about how he was always talking about writing and painting, until he finally heeded the advice that you better put it down before time runs out.
“Most of us are out of school,” he said. “So you better know that time is of the essence, and put it down.”
For those in attendance, Jonathan showed a side that most people never saw. It was impossible not to realize that within this man was a darkness and pain for the vagaries of life, and the memories of a childhood that fueled his comedic genius. It was unarguably a most special occasion, and virtually everyone in the audience was moved and grateful to be in the auditorium on the night of June 26, 1986.