Unity Shoppe, Henry the VIII, and The Fine Art of Standing

State Street Scribe

by Jeff Wing

I take no pride in confessing that when I first heard of England’s King Henry VIII, I thought he was named after the Herman’s Hermits song. This is not a joke. I vividly recall a buddy and I tunelessly singing the chart-topping tune on the second floor of Clark Elementary School in Cheyenne, Wyoming, tossing our heads like British Invaders, inviting the angry stare of Mrs. Lufkin as she motioned us into the classroom with her jabbing mantis arms. But Mrs. Lufkin, it’s Herman’s Hermits!

Noone (center) and his not-terribly-reclusive Hermits, mid-60s

So it was with a familiar sense of dislocation I found myself shaking hands with Herman himself a couple Friday nights ago at the Lobero. Peter Noone had just come offstage with his band and was mingling with adoring fans and Montecito neighbors in the packed Lobero house. “You’re in terrific voice, sir!” I yelled over the hubbub when my friend and I were finally able to make our way over to him through the crowd.

Noone, a Manchester lad who was all of 15 when he joined the original Hermits in the ‘60s and looks about 14 today, aimed his alarmingly unchanged puppy face at me, his cheeks coloring from an hour of pop calisthenics that by all rights should have put this septuagenarian moptop face down in the Mersey.

“Not bad for a guy of 70, hey?” he yelled through his genuinely brilliant smile. I thought; Mrs. Brown, He Will Exhaust Your Daughter.

Beautiful Night in the Neighborhood

I’d been invited to the Lobero Theater that evening by a dear friend who volunteers for The Unity Shoppe — Santa Barbara’s evergreen Mission of Mercy whose defining gifts are a posture-straightening backbone and the practical magic of ordinary love. The night’s festivities were in celebration of Unity Shoppe’s 100 year anniversary, and the soiree was a cardiac house party; all pumping heart and an audience richly oxygenated with the life-giving stuff of community. The evening’s capper would be the quietly powerful remarks of the Unity Shoppe’s change agent, Barbara Tellefson.

Barbara Tellefson: Mother of Invention and President/Director of Operations for Unity Shoppe

SB is one of those odd burgs whose hometown charity turns 100 and is feted by landed aristocracy (Arthur von Wiesenberger), freaking Dennis Miller [the only Weekend Update guy that will ever matter], and the child of Sea Hunt star Lloyd Bridges, to name but a few.

The night’s riot of performance and commentary was a hometown blast — from the San Marcos High School Madrigals absolutely stilling the room with their gorgeous gossamer, to Art and Dennis’ endearingly pal-like (and lightly rehearsed) repartee, to Jeff Bridges’ video message – a full screen, swirling iSelfie wherein a Lebowski-like figure careers about a room somewhere and yells his congrats. “Unity Shoppe! Woo Hoooo!” “He wasn’t really spinning,” Miller had deadpanned about his chum afterward. “That’s just how Jeff Bridges sees the world.”

Finally the Unity Shoppe staff themselves shyly took the stage in their company shirts to thunderous applause, the well-off audience in their finery slamming hands together like stevedores giving it up for their own. The night was pure neighborhood magic. And what a neighborhood.

Unity and Individualism

The Unity Shoppe’s name and starburst symbol are overly familiar to SB residents, and from day to day their mission probably stirs only mild interest in most of our busy citizenry. But the model of “giving” the Unity Shoppe has pioneered is a Wow, and has changed the game at the level of the individual, where it counts. Despite its quaint spelling, The Unity Shoppe is not Ye Olde Donations Warehouse of Yore, gathering in and then projecting a thin layer of well-meaning, anonymized “charity” on embarrassed recipients and then moving along. The Unity Shoppe is a…shop.

People shop there. And as the Paseo Nuevo mobs who swirl in like pilgrims every weekend can attest—shopping is raw power; an exercise in initiative-seizing, among other things. Everyone should get a crack at it.

“Giving is complicated. Much more than I ever realized. What we’re doing here hasn’t really been done anywhere in the world. That is astounding to me.” I’m talking to Unity Shoppe President and Director of Operations Barbara Tellefson in the lobby of the Unity Shoppe’s nerve center on Chapala—a nondescript beige edifice whose innards hide more blinking magic than the Batcave. On my arrival she’d directed me to sit on a bench in the lobby and is now standing while we speak. When I ask her if she wouldn’t like to sit too, she offers a wry smile. “I like the eye contact,” she says levelly, and the diminutive dynamo’s point is well taken. She continues, earnestly.

Angel of Mercy in leathers: Barbara at an early Bikers Toy Drive for the Unity Shoppe.

“My father was a brilliant man, and he gave me a vivid imagination. He taught me that imagination can take you through the world and you can do anything! All the things I ever imagined have happened to me, so I know it’s true. But Kenny was the first person to see it.” 

She is referring to singer/songwriter Kenny Loggins, a famed composer and Santa Barbara local luminary whose early interest in Barbara’s vision she credits with Unity Shoppe’s taking off like a rocket once he got involved and marshaled his forces.  “He listened. Most people don’t listen. He really listened, and he saw what I saw.” 

The Fine Art of Standing Up

Like much of Santa Barbara’s unsung human back story, The Unity Shoppe narrative is a many-chambered nautilus with a pearl at its center. And as is often the case here in stories of an evolving St. Babs, the Pearl in question has the last name of Chase.

“Pearl Chase was one of the first people to really take notice of disadvantaged people here,” Barbara says. “By the time I came along, she was elderly. My father had always said ‘seriously study whatever it is you want to do’, and I’d been studying non-profits for some time here, after selling my business.”

Records show that SB community volunteers began taking it on themselves to help underprivileged kids and seniors during the Christmas holidays around 1917. Pearl Chase, in her inimitable fashion, had seen a wonderful thing and wholly threw herself at helping to make it really fly.

By the 1930s the effort had grown enough that its committees and entities needed to be organized in a way to reduce double-work and redundancies, and a marvy enterprise called The Council of Christmas Cheer (CCC) was born. Budgets and office space were always issues, but the robust volunteerism of activist Santa Barbarans across all tax brackets kept things viable, and the number of families being swept into the CCC embrace grew year by year.

In 1973 local business owner and Dinwiddie, VA transplant Barbara Tellefson was doing her own research into how she could be a part of her adoptive community’s efforts to help the disenfranchised in the area, most of whom were working parents having to regularly struggle with the “rent vs food” puzzle. She’d received an early eye-opener on the subject of what true Mercy is and is not, taking groceries to a family whose name she’d plucked from a church’s list of “needy” people in the region.

To Barbara’s surprise she found herself being berated by the college-educated single mom who appreciated neither the “one bag fits all” grocery condescension, nor unsolicited gifts from an empowered stranger who would, in the eyes of the kids, inadvertently strip this mother of her parent/provider mojo. Barbara’s early schooling in this reinforced her determination to make the Unity Shoppe model one of ordinary dignity and respect, a retail-like setting where qualified locals could make their own choices, select items from a store full of shelves, and retake an energetic autonomy that rejoins momentarily struggling Santa Barbarans to an authentic, earned sense of community. 

Barbara credits her husband, engineer Clair Tellefson, a “silent partner” in the founding of the Santa Barbara Council of Christmas Cheer, with encouraging her to sell her business [Your Travel Center] and work for 20 years without a salary in the interest of the less advantaged. Mr. Tellefson also quietly funded the Council before it had wings—when it was an untried and unsung local charity. Mr. Tellefson passed away in 1994. Barbara has said, “He was a real humanitarian, working in the background.” The Tellefson’s desire to get people back on a solid footing, with dignity and momentum, has been largely realized.

At this writing, 73% of Unity Shoppe’s patrons are in the workforce, contrary to clueless public shorthand about the underprivileged. “Welfare” is a third-rail concept politically, and divides the United States’ increasingly meager two-party system along a philosophical fault-line. This writer, though, doesn’t know who would argue that a person who is momentarily on his back is bettered by being served lunch on his chest, and not given the means to walk into the dining room and pull up a chair. The Unity Shoppe’s whole m.o. is simply about providing the necessary headroom to allow one to stand up. 

“Oh, this place is magic!” Barbara exults. No argument here.

This is It

By the mid ‘80s, Barbara Tellefson was reduced to accosting the composer of House on Pooh Corner in a parking lot. President of the CCC since 1977, she’d been tested by the perennial (and complicated) struggle for permanent office space, and funding enough to provide for all the area’s underserved Santa Barbarans. Now she wanted toys. She knew who could help her if she could just have his ear, and she had been trying to reach him by phone forever. “I wasn’t familiar with his music, “ she says of Kenny Loggins. “I am not a groupie type. I just needed his help collecting toys, and I knew he was doing terrific work.”

Songwriter summit- Kenny Loggins, Barry de Vorzon, and Jeff Barry

When the Grammy© winning composer and Toys for Tots spokesman made the tactical mistake of wandering around in broad daylight one afternoon, Barbara pounced. She explained the problem she was having procuring enough toys for the holidays and asked Loggins to come around to the Unity Shoppe and look at the empowering model of “giving” Barbara and her team were perfecting there. In short order, Loggins saw her vision. The rest is you-know-what. By 1987 Loggins was gathering showbiz super-heroes to appear in a fundraising “Christmas Unity” telethon on KEYT, the miracle that became a tradition.

Michael McDonald, Joe Cocker, Michael Bolton, Anne Francis, John Cleese, Steve Martin…over the years the telethon has attracted local and visiting celebs of all stripes. Their star power and fundraising chops have helped make the Unity Shoppe come even closer to what Barbara had dreamed. 

In the extensive Unity Shoppe literature, Barbara Tellefson is seen through all the stages of her, and our city’s, journey. Once a dimpled fresh-faced gal with a Santa Hat, photographed wrapping a gift or posing between city luminaries and celebrity volunteers, she is today a slower-moving powerhouse, walking with a cane and as radiant as ever. She has been at this for 45 years, working her tail off for all of us, and for our city. To see her then and now is stirring. She’s given everything.

Neighborhood Power and the Two Thousand Thousand

The Lobero celebration is wrapping. Barbara has stood center stage and glowingly thanked everybody for what has been achieved through the years, and she means it. The love coming to her from the audience is enough to make one blush. There is, though, just the one final millstone whose removal would free the Unity Shoppe genie from the bottle once and for all, and truly maximize the mission. Barbara mentions it fleetingly in her comments tonight, and had mentioned it in this way during my tour of the mortgaged Chapala Client Services building.

“I’m 82. I had hoped by the time I was 75 I would have all this paid off,” she says, gesturing at the surroundings. “If I can somehow get the $2M to buy this building, I’ll take care of the rest.”

The SB Rescue Mission, another critically worthy institution, is reportedly well on the way to raising its needed $17M for a major structural renovation that is now proceeding apace. Their desperately necessary 100 beds compare interestingly to Unity Shoppe’s 18,000 assisted families. In a town with our notably liquid demographic, can we not find $2M worth of change in the community sofa? That is the question. $2M is only two thousand-thousand, after all. Anyone? Anyone?

Any taker, or group, who considers pulling that off will have placed a capstone on a Santa Barbara monument for the ages, one that will get the willing on their feet in perpetuity. There’s a legacy for you, and for our community. Dear Benefactor – Sleep on it?

Bless the Children

Songwriter Barry de Vorzon (Bless the Beasts and the Children, the once ubiquitous Nadia’s Theme) has taken the stage and led the packed house through a warm rendition of his “Christmas Once Again in Santa Barbara”, the evening’s other guests walking on to join in, telethon-style. The Lobero is booming with the raised voices of Santa Barbarans, our odd little community momentarily joined at the heart. So to speak. 

Yeah, Community. It’s a noun that can bore the pants off you until you feel its actual weight in a room full of neighborly lovebirds. Hey, it’s a world of communities, a world of neighborhoods. What an idea.

Tonight at show’s end, my friend and I swim through the swarming congregants and pull up next to Mr. Noone, who is receiving the audience’s happy praise with smiling humility and genuine thanks. My British friend has done a little research and mentions to Peter Noone the town she’s from, the neighborhood, and the street where her parents live. Must be a Manchester thing? Noone lights up like a kid.

“Really! My family is from right around the corner! “