Sandy Jacobs, regarded for sound work and more, dies at 90

Richard Olsen
Remembering: Sandy Jacobs, an innovator in surround sound who moved to the Inverness Ridge from Mill Valley in 1978, spearheaded a left-handed ping-pong group at the Dance Palace Community Center and a monthly steam lodge gathering at Limantour Beach.  

Henry Sandy Jacobs, Inverness resident and pioneer of surround sound technology who was well known for his work with philosopher Alan Watts, passed away on Sept. 25. He was 90 years old.

Sandy, who went by his middle name, experimented with sound and comedy in his earlier years and embraced a life among nature in his later decades. He was often seen wearing a striped Moroccan-style djellaba around West Marin and was eager to share—whether a cup of tea at his house, an idea he had come up with or a beloved musician he had discovered—and always welcoming. 

“He made anyone whose path he crossed feel wonderful and important,” said Susan Hyde, his partner of 20 years.

His friend Steve Brock of Inverness said that Sandy showed him how to relax and focus less on worldly success—an “alternative way of being in the world,” as Steve put it. “I don’t know if Sandy would say this,” he said, “but what I saw was [him] achieving a relaxed state of being. He was, to me, the master of mellowness.”

Sandy was a consequential figure of the counterculture of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ’70s, more so than has been previously acknowleged, according to Richard Olsen, an author and friend who has interviewed Sandy extensively for the past five years and will feature him in a chapter of a forthcoming book, California Green: Houses of the Eco Movement. “In the 1950s, as both an on-air talent and a public relations staffer of upstart Pacifica Radio KPFA, [Sandy] had at least a moment with practically every painter, sculptor, poet, novelist, musician, dancer, philosopher, and guru who sat before KPFA’s microphones. Which is to say a vast majority of the scene-definers of the then-emerging counterculture,” Olsen wrote in an email.

Sandy was born in Chicago in 1924, the youngest of three brothers and the eccentric outlier in his more straitlaced family. Though he spoke little about his childhood, his daughter Aia Bower said that he was well loved and had a comfortable upbringing. But once he left Illinois, she added, “He made it clear that he never looked back.”

After attending the University of Chicago Sandy served in the Air Corps during the 1940s, in a clerical position, Aia said. In 1950 he moved to Mexico, where he worked at a TV station for about two years. Eventually returning to Chicago with his interest in audio piqued, he experimented with reel-to-reel tapes and also started a music radio show. It was after he moved to the Bay Area in 1954, according to Mr. Olsen, that he started a similar show, “Music and Folklore.” The show featured experts—but Sandy was also happy to invent characters. One of his most famous segments was an interview with Sholem Stein, a fictitious rabbi who ostensibly traced the origins of calypso music to ancient Hebraic texts in a book called “Bahama Mama.”

Sandy released LPs of his audio experiments and comedy during the ‘50s and ‘60s. His 1957 album, The Weird Wide World of Shorty Petterstein, featured improvised pieces with conservative interviewers asking questions of hippies and musicians, neither quite understanding the other. One of the tracks on that album, “Breaking the Habit,” about smoking, was animated by Point Reyes Station resident John Korty and nominated for an Oscar in 1964.

In the ‘50s Sandy worked with filmmaker Jordan Belson for about two years on an audio-visual show, called “Vortex,” at the Morrison Planetarium. Sandy—inspired by a John Cage performance he had installed for the famous composer, in which he played 12 radio stations simultaneously through multiple speakers—set up 24 speakers at the planetarium, thereby pioneering the idea of surround sound. 

“He kind of invented moving sound around in space,” said Walter Murch, of Bolinas, a sound and film editor who has won three Academy Awards. 

“When I started mixing sound for Apocalypse Now, I took what Sandy did as inspiration,” Walter said. “What Sandy Jacobs was doing at the Morrison Planetarium [led] to my work, and now to the sound we not only have in every theater but in every home cinema.” 

Additional work in the ‘70s included co-producing a three-part animated series on the TV station KQED, called “The Fine Art of Goofing Off.” He also “sold out,” as he put it, for a time, making radio ads for Japan Airlines and undertaking other commercial endeavors.

Sandy’s friendship with Alan Watts, a philosopher known for popularizing Eastern traditions in the West, began in the 1950s and lasted until Watts died in 1973. The two met through KPFA, where Alan also had a radio show. Their professional involvement soon extended beyond the station: Sandy recorded Mr. Watts’ lectures on the West Coast, and also taught him to record his own talks. In later years, Sandy co-produced a documentary about Alan and curated an extensive website of the philosopher’s audio recordings. “Watts made magic when he spoke: he knew how to communicate and entertain at the same time,” Sandy wrote on the website,

Mr. Watts also was responsible for introducing Sandy to his wife, Sumire Hasegawa, at a KPFA party. Sumire and Sandy married in the 1950s, moved to Mill Valley and had three children: Tia, Tad and Aia. Tia went on to marry Alan’s son, Mark, in 1983.

Sandy’s children describe him as a loving father who took them camping and on trips to hot springs. One time they traveled by bus to Baja California, but couldn’t figure out a way back, said his son, Tad. 

“He negotiated a ride with a guy who had a station wagon; it turned out to be Rudy Giuliani,” Tad said. “We rode back from Mexico with Rudy Giuliani.”

Aia fondly recalled her childhood and her bond with her father. “He liked to sleep outside with fresh air on his face. I’d sleep on deck next to him. If I couldn’t sleep he’d walk me through a guided meditation,” telling her to tighten her eyelids or her toes and release until she fell asleep. 

Sandy and Sumire divorced after 17 years of marriage, but lived close to each other in Mill Valley. Sandy moved to the Inverness Ridge in 1978, drawn to the forest while remaining close to cosmopolitan life. 

“He really connected to the ocean and open space,” said Steve. “He could have both worlds: nature and the ridge and openness and freedom and a connection to elements. But at the same time he could go into city and see world’s greatest artists.”

The elements can be both beautiful and dangerous, as Sandy learned; his was one of 45 homes that burned down in the 1995 Mount Vision Fire. His close friend John Robbins, who helped him rebuild—and who also lost his own home, to flooding, in 1982—said he handled it with equanimity.

Sandy also never lost his sharp comedic streak. In particular, when he told stories, it was sometimes difficult to tell whether it was true or invented. “He’d start talking to you about something and you thought it was serious, but after a while you realized, ‘Oh, this isn’t for real,’” John said. “He did that all the time.”

Sandy was drawn to bodily experiences—both within his mind and with the outdoors. He took Qigong classes at Whitehouse Pool to “absorb the energy” of the outdoors, Steve said. Left-handed ping-pong nights he started at the Dance Palace over a decade ago helped him and others access a different part of the brain. 

Beginning in the 1990s he spearheaded monthly sweat lodges on Limantour Beach during the full moon, though Sandy made clear that it was not a ceremonial Native American lodge. He and Steve built the lodge of alder or willow branches, winding them in twos—strands of DNA, Sandy called them—into a dome-like structure. They built a new one roughly every six months. 

On the night of the sweats, for Sandy the defining moment was the emergence from the ocean.  “For him, that was the crowning moment,” Steve said. “When you come out, and you’re in the space between when you emerge from the wave and return to the fire…you’re a clean slate. You’re sort of in a state of wonder. It’s hard to put into words.”