Bruce Bramson of Tomales, known for his love of community, friendly demeanor and expansive intellect, died on Sept. 13 of a recurrence of cancer. He passed one week before his 70th birthday.
Bruce, who spent decades working at Renaissance faires in California, loved to tell stories, listen to music, read widely and meet and talk to people, according to his friends and family.
“He knew everyone and everyone knew him,” said his friend Alvin Duskin of Tomales. “The great thing about Bruce was that he was open to any conversation. There was nothing I ever talked to him about that he wasn’t familiar with.”
Born in 1945, Bruce grew up in Manhattan. His father was the art director for Look magazine and his mother was a former showgirl. He attended a prestigious high school, Collegiate School, before spending nine years earning a degree in conceptual art from Putney College, in Vermont. “He liked it; he kept taking classes,” his long-time partner Venta Leon said. “Right before he finally graduated, the registrar said ‘Bruce, if you take these classes you’ve signed up for and pass, you’re going to graduate!’”
During the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the ‘60s, he took a break from school to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the South. After one of a few arrests during his activism he fasted in jail for eight days, he told the Village Voice in 1965.
“He felt strongly about that movement, and he found a place for himself in community organizing,” said his son, Ray. “In some way or another, he was about community organizing his entire life.”
After graduating from Putney, Bruce worked as a music promoter in Vermont for five years before moving to California, in 1978. He met and married his former wife, Amira, in Berkeley. The couple then moved to Santa Cruz where Bruce was as a freelance photographer. He focused on portraiture—not surprising given his love of people. “He liked telling people’s stories through their pictures,” Ray said
In addition to photography, Bruce began doing community outreach and marketing for the Renaissance Pleasure Faires after answering a newspaper advertisement. Run by the nonprofit the Living History Center, the faires—mainly in San Bernadino and Novato—drew droves of creative souls who constructed a 16th century English village with performances, booths, crafts, food and more. Bruce was well suited to his job, said coworker Kevin Patterson, whose mother founded the faire.
“Bruce was all about deep communication and immersion into an artistic environment,” Kevin said. “He was just wonderfully creative and had an innate sense of what people needed and wanted, in terms of experience.”
Bruce also met Venta through the faire, though they were friends for the first eight years of their relationship. By coincidence, Venta wrote the newspaper advertisement that first brought Bruce to the faire—something they didn’t realize until reading one of Bruce’s journals a few decades later.
In 1980 Amira gave birth to their son, Ray. When he was four, the family moved to Maui for two years, where Bruce worked as a photographer. After returning to California in 1986, the couple split and Bruce and Venta became romantic partners. That year also marked the end of his photography career; he resumed working for the faire and from then on he would barely take a picture. He told Venta that he had grown tired of “looking at life through a lens,” though Ray said it was also a hard way to earn a living.
The couple moved to Tomales in 1994 after living in Petaluma and Novato. There they bought the first and only home Bruce ever owned, Ray said.
In 1993, the faire was sold to a for-profit company. This radical change included, among other overhauls, eliminating Bruce’s position. He assumed a new role as a craftsperson, operating the coin strike—a machine that looks a bit like a guillotine. He would crank a 150-pound hammer to the top of a tall wooden frame, then let its fall stamp one of many designs into the coins.
The new job also meant that rather than working in the same room as Venta, Bruce traveled between California, Colorado and Arizona with the faire. It was hard, Venta said, but Bruce, ever the communicator, called two or three times a day while he was gone.
He would also generally talk to Ray four or five times a week—catching his son during his commute from Santa Cruz to San Jose for his job as the homeless response manager for the city.
And around Tomales, Bruce often sat outside the bakery and struck up conversations. “He really liked hearing other people’s stories,” Ray said.
Despite a job that kept him traveling, he was passionately civic minded about his home town. He handed out bread at the weekly free food service on Thursdays, organized a few town Halloween parties, and joined and then chaired Tomales’ Design Review Committee for well over a decade. He would even fly home to attend important meetings. “He saw the importance of design review because we loved this community from day one,” Venta said. “We found where we wanted to stay.”