It would be impossible to speak of the brief but prolific life of our friend and brother Michael without some background about the environment from which he came, namely Van Nuys and the San Fernando Valley.

California Dreamin' existed long before the popular song of the 60’s. For many Americans in the east, California Dreamin' began in the post World War II 40’s and 50’s, when they saw movie clips of the orange groves, the wide open space and the sunny skies of California, America’s new Promised Land. The growing postwar economy caused thousands of Easterners to relocate to Los Angeles, where the aerospace and movie industries would provide jobs and homes for anyone willing to work. Concerned about raising their five children in the cold crowded streets of Boston, Tom and Rita Atkinson made probably the biggest gamble of their lives, to relocate to California. I have little doubt that the Atkinson family members here will be forever indebted to their parents for taking that gamble.

         Tom, Rita, and their children Jeanne, Tommy, Paul, Michael, and Johnny settled in Van Nuys, on Gilmore Street. Shortly after, Patti, the only native Californian, was born, bringing this Boston Irish Catholic family headcount to eight. 

While some of our contemporaries were actually born in Southern California, part of the uniqueness of the postwar migration from other states was the proliferation of friends as family. In Boston or Chicago, social gatherings included mostly blood relatives, but in California, you generally had no grandparents or cousins. They were  “Back East.” So Michael’s first experience in dealing with non relatives in the Valley involved another transplanted large family, the Brewster's, who were his next door neighbors for the next 15 years. While time does not permit me to go into too much detail, the coming together of the Atkinson and Brewster children created such havoc in the neighborhood that no one’s lives were ever the same again.

I met the Atkinson's at St Elisabeth School, where the only thing more embarrassing than our pasty Irish skin was the incredibly ugly uniforms we were forced to wear. It didn’t help that St Elisabeth’s was across the street from Van Nuys High School, where large, menacing teenagers dressed in Levi’s and Pendleton shirts and derided us and our uniforms for eight long years. Michael, believe it or not, was an angelic child, especially compared to his older brothers Tommy and Paul. Did you also know that Michael was an altar boy? (Dominos vo biscum; et cum spiritutuo). But Michael always had one person he could lord over, Johnny, the youngest Atkinson brother. This would no doubt motivate Johnny to become a black belt and a professional karate instructor. Michael, by the way, held the singular honor in the family of being the only Atkinson of the four brothers not to be kicked out of Notre Dame High School. 

`        While kids throughout the US were listening to songs about surfing and cruising in cars with 409 horsepower and four on the floor, Michael and his brothers and sisters were out doing the things the songs were written about. It was difficult then to picture the San Fernando Valley as the cutting edge of social culture, but the Valley was the first true suburb in the West. Surfing was popularized only a few miles away. Having your own car was a luxury in other parts of the country, but in the Valley it evolved into a necessity. And of course, who can forget that most famous and enduring product of the San Fernando Valley, the Mall. This was everyday stuff to the Atkinson's, and when he was growing up, Michael assumed that people everywhere had surfboards and Chevys.

         But it wasn’t only the San Fernando Valley or Malibu that provided Michael with his rich experiences. On any given night, you could find him in Hollywood, where the lure of music and show business lit up the sky. Whereas aspiring show biz wannabes from other parts of the country had to hitchhike or take a bus for thousands of miles to shoot for the stars in Tinsletown, all Michael had to do was get in his car, drive over a hill, and take the Highland Exit. Michael always felt at home in Hollywood because he had acquired his experience of Hollywood and its hype as a teenager.

Does anybody remember The Rainbow Roller Rink? Sam’s U Drive?  The Rivoli Theater? The Delimart?  Anybody remember The House of Sight & Sound? Where was it located? Corner of Victory & Van Nuys Blvd. Well, Sight & Sound was the first place that Michael Atkinson worked selling records. From Sight & Sound, he was hired by MGM, and thus he began a career in a much larger professional community, which culminated in the production, promotion, and sale of millions of recordings during his abbreviated life.

I would also like to mention that if the CBS accounting office ever discovered how much company expense account money was spent by Michael and his brothers and friends at Martoni’s on Cahuenga or Chez Nieu, we’d all be in big trouble.

Michael did make mistakes once in a while, believe it or not. For example, after his 30th birthday, he thought that “Doctor A” would be a good name for himself, given the success at that time of basketball’s Julius Erving  (Dr J). Well, Michael had the license plates on his BMW personalized to read “Dr. A.” Within two weeks, his car was broken into three times, undoubtedly by thieves looking for some of the drugs “Dr. A” had in his non-existent medical bag in the trunk. So much for personalized license plates.

         And even though Michael had a nice house with a big kitchen, he seldom cooked or prepared meals at home. Now I’m not saying he dined out every meal, the true bachelor that he was, but if anybody in attendance here owns stock in Hamburger Hamlet or Chez Niu, I’d get rid of it first thing tomorrow.

Suffice it to say that Michael had a very successful career in the record business. This success allowed him to be involved in his true passion: sports. Whether watching or participating, Michael was as intense as they come.

         The Atkinson’s were part of an extended social family, and could boast having ties with fifty to one hundred close friends from childhood. How many childhood friends can you find, let alone stay regularly in touch with? In the early 70's, several of Michael’s friends took up residence in the more serene climes of the Sacramento, Auburn, and Grass Valley areas. Soon after this migration, a boastful challenge by some of these expatriot Northerners produced a grudge match softball game, pitting North against South. During the next decade, ten annual softball games were held at alternating locations, and in the past six years, two more senior competitions, called Legends of the North South, were held, with yet another game scheduled for this summer.

In the history of these softball games, quality of play was mediocre at best, but the competition was intense, the reunion parties were nostalgic, and the trophies were gaudy and ugly. As a matter of fact, the only serious trophy currently awarded at this celebration is the Rita Atkinson Perpetual Fan Appreciation Trophy. The annual competition and reunion with lifetime friends generated its own success, and Michael embraced it. The games gave him a chance to travel to the North and to host parties at his house whenever the South came to town. There have been many humorous and serious moments in the history of this offbeat reunion, but everybody associated with the North South will miss Michael as an organizer and supporter.  

Tommy Lasorda, former Dodger manager, once said, There are three kinds of people in the world; Those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder, “What happened?” Michael didn’t just sit on the sidelines and watch. He drove racecars at Sears Point Raceway. He was a season ticket holder for many years for the Dodgers, and later for the LA Raiders Football team, and most recently for UCLA Basketball. I think that his happiest moments were at Dodger Stadium in the 70’s and early 80’s. He often commented at the beginning of a baseball game that there was no more picturesque sight than the neatly cut grass and manicured infield at dusk, and that he wished he could freeze-frame the image and carry it with him always.

         I’m not sure if he continued to carry that colorful image with him through the remainder of his life, but I do. Michael included his friends and family in the things he loved to do. Jeanne, Tommy, Paul, Johnny, and Patty, you gave Michael unconditional love. This unconditional love is what we as your friends give you today and forever. We all wish we could have done more to help him. But I have little doubt that he is in a better place today, even if it’s not the San Fernando Valley.



'84 Olympics

So long, Michael. Thanks for the ride.