The story of Sam Rodia and the building of the Watts Towers: a review of films about the Watts Towers

Driven By Daemons

Sam Rodia worked alone for over 30 years, without cease, without apparent rhyme or reason, building fantastical towers in his backyard in Watts, Los Angeles. Why?

Sam Rodia’s signature cartouche: his initials and the imprint of the simple tools he used to build his towers.

A railway cuts through it. Back then, two railways cut through it. Today, in this neighbourhood, you can still hear the rattle of passenger trains approaching nearby 103rd Street station . Back then, in the middle of the twentieth century, another line branched off this line, and curved south-eastwards. Long, heavy freight trains clanked down it, slowly, seemingly taking forever to pass. Now it’s gone.

The surviving railway cuts across the great, sprawling plain, sun-baked in high summer, that stretches southwards from old Los Angeles. This is not the LA of the hills, which stretch from the bluffs of misty Malibu, through hyper Hollywood, to patrician Pasadena. This is not the LA of Downtown, a cluster of skyscrapers rising like a smoky citadel, hunkering in the heart of a vast megalopolis. The moneyed romance of Los Angeles stops far north of here.

This is Watts, famous for being forsaken. Watts is still best known, even after the passing of nearly half a century, for the week-long riots (also known as the “uprising” or “rebellion”) that set it aflame during the stifling dog days of August 1965. It’s a place of sky and heat, of mile after mile of one-storey homes, of low-rise businesses. It’s the wrong side of the tracks.

Simon Rodia’s Towers viewed from the old sidewalk. The pink concrete of the facade of the doorway bears his initials and the legend “Nuestro Pueblo”.

The Watts Towers

The towers are a collection of several sculptures of varying heights, the tallest being just shy of 100 feet tall. Made from structural steel and wire mesh coated in cement, almost every surface is embedded with brightly coloured bric-a-brac: crockery, bottles, tiles, most of it broken. There are also shells and numerous other things scavenged from the railway tracks or sea-shore, along with imprints and mouldings made in the wet cement.

In the 1920s, Sabato (“Simon” or “Sam”) Rodia made his home here, in this neighbourhood wedged between two railways, in a street that ended at the tracks, in a shotgun shack with a tiny yard in the shape of a wedge, wedged between roadway and railway.

We’re standing in what’s left of that home. It looks for all the world like a Rachel Whiteread sculpture, a moulding of a house departed. The rest of it burned down not long after Rodia left, leaving its ghostly imprint in the decorative concrete carapace that Rodia had plastered round the fireplace, and over the front facade. Our guide, from The Watts Towers Arts Center next door, is Maqueeta (“it means beautiful”, she explains).

Vacated bungalow near Watts Towers .

Of Rodia’s tiny sometime home she says: “It’s called a shotgun house, because you can shoot a shotgun standing at the door and hit everything in it.” There are still small bungalows in the neighbourhood. The nearby sounds of a large motorbike being revved and a large dog barking momentarily drown Maqueeta’s story. That’s a big bike and a big dog. These are big towers for a man who once lived in the tiny shell we’re standing in. The story of the towers is an extraordinary story, even without the aura of mystery that surrounds them.

For a myth has grown up around Rodia, that he came like a stranger out of nowhere, worked alone, like a man possessed, to build these fantastical towers, and then, when his work was done, knowing it was time, downed his tools, gave this house to a neighbour, and vanished. It’s the stuff of a Hollywood movie, an allegorical Clint Eastwood Western perhaps. It’s the stuff of fiction, a Borges short story perhaps. It’s so compelling, in fact, that it would almost be a shame to find out that he had a family, that he came from somewhere, that he went somewhere, that he had a reason. The myth, compact and glinting like a cut gem, is too perfect.

Sabato (Simon, Sam) Rodia

Footage and photographs of Rodia shot in the early 1950s show a short (less than 5 foot), tanned, wiry, animated man wearing dirty dungarees and a dusty fedora. He’s over 70 years old, but climbs his towers with the agility and sprightliness of an acrobatic youngster. He was born in Italy in 1879, the son of poor Campanian farmers, but emigrated to America as a teenager. A skilled construction worker by trade, he was proud to call himself working class. He died, aged 86, near San Francisco.

A wonderful, short, 12 minute documentary, “The Towers” made in the early 1950s and released in 1957, helps conjure that myth. Visitors now get to watch it in the Arts Center. I feel certain that I first saw it as a child, when it was still new, on an American “amazing facts” magazine-format TV series. I certainly remember being amazed, and in among the bric-a-brac of haunting images that we all carry about with us, I have been haunted by the images of these bric-a-brac towers, and their bricoleur maker, ever since.

The film’s sound-track is what really grips you. It opens with the opening chords of “The Twilight Zone” 1960s/70s TV series, which, for those who do not know it, was a weekly series of one-hour fictions about the strange, uncanny, weird, coincidental, supernatural, eldritch and downright bizarre. The music’s appearance on “The Towers” came first, but even then it conveyed similar themes.

However it’s the narration, coupled with slow, atmospheric editing, that carries the day, marrying together purple prose, poetic phrasing and occasionally outright bathos. It’s an extraordinary example of the post-WW2 heritage of writers like Chandler, Hemingway and Steinbeck – hard-boiled poetry, laconic lyricism. Think “Dragnet” meets T S Eliot. For all its strangeness, however, it’s surprisingly effective at summoning up an almost mystical atmosphere.

It opens (after the spooky music) thus: “The little community of Watts clings to the outer edge of the city of Los Angeles … Flat and impoverished, it is the last place on earth to look for the extraordinary, or for the shadow of greatness.” Wow!

It continues with a recording of Rodia himself: “I build the tower meself, and I have a burden on my mind, I know I want to do somethink. I say, I know I gonna do somethink, I’m-a gonna do somethink, I’m-a gonna do somethink.” Rodia was born in the mountains near Naples, in Italy, and even after more than half a century in America his English was still thick with sing-song Italianisms, his accent a caricature.

The Romantic notion of artistic compulsion is being laid out clearly for our consumption. The sonorous, lyrical narration continues: “For 30 years a man lives alone in a house with a bed, a chair, a table, with the music and the faded symbols of a time when he was young. There was something else in the house: a dream of vast structures.” Wow thricefold, this gives me chills.

Fans of the TV series “Dexter”, with its story of a good-guy policeman who also happens to be a serial killer, albeit a vigilante one, may recognize his “Dark Passenger” in this “something else”, the idea of a self that is not the self, a presence in the shadows that nevertheless drives the self obsessively, a daemon whose great thirst needs constant slaking. Oddly, and presumably unconnectedly, Dexter’s dry narration over the scenes of his series is almost as laconic, sonorous and strangely lyrical as this one.

But Dexter’s spiel is much funnier, much more ironic. Something about the story of Sam Rodia tends to disable irony. We’re headed towards hagiography, it seems. The narration’s bathetic moments come when the lyricism cracks as it strains to describe the artistic impulse. Rodia “had an urgent need for expression”. The towers “arose out of his inner necessity”.

And so the narration goes on, marvellously mixing sententious poetry and direct quotation into a heady brew. Let’s leave the last word to Rodia: “A million time, I don’t know what to do meself. I was wake up all night. Because this was all my own idea”. Or rather, it was the Dark Passenger’s idea, the daemon’s idea, with poor Rodia’s sleepless head spinning , reviewing and re-reviewing the day’s work, planning the next day’s, and the next, only to rise in the morning and start again, with the ideas and the work seeming to pour from him almost without his conscious intervention.

Or so one obvious theory goes. And it’s a powerful one, as it fits exactly with the direct personal experience of many artists, writers and musicians. The Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, who died recently, apparently used to tell his students, when they asked him what music to write, and how to write it: “If you can live without music for two or three days, then don’t write … it might be better to spend time with a girl or with a beer … if you cannot live without music, then write”.

The implications of this statement are clear: “if you cannot live without” suggests a compulsion, like breathing, sleeping, eating. His comments also seem to say that indulging your creative daemons is more fun than sex and alcohol, which is quite some claim. Meanwhile, mention here of beer helps us segue seamlessly (I hope) into another hypothesis.

It’s one of several that make an appearance in a fascinating film about Rodia, “I Build the Tower” (2006). There’s a shot of a book about the towers titled “Nuestro Pueblo”. A page heading reads: “GLASS TOWERS AND DEMON RUM”. It seems that Rodia was an alcoholic: “I was one of the bad men in the United States” he says in the film, describing how he was drunk all the time. Long before he arrived in LA he had lived with his wife and children near San Francisco. He lost a lot of money, not to mention his wife and kids, to the demon drink – she was granted a divorce on the grounds of wilful desertion.

For it seems that leaving Watts around 1954 without a forwarding address, leaving his old life behind in its entirety (giving away his house and his life’s work, the towers, and with his car buried, yes buried, beside the tracks), was not the first vanishing act of his life – he’d left his first family and disappeared without trace way back in 1912. Perhaps his emigration from Italy in about 1894 was but the first of many migrations. For a while, he claimed, he even rode the rails as a hobo, traversing the Americas, both North and South.

Rodia eventually gave up the booze. The book explicitly connects the beginning of the towers with Rodia’s becoming sober. It quotes him saying of the creative work “It is plenty fun!” So much so, he says, that “I am forget to drink!” The book may be right – I believe it’s a truism of addictive behaviours that they’re incredibly hard to give up without something at least equally satisfying replacing them.

All this threatens to reduce Rodia’s work to a simple displacement activity, the frenetic keep-me-busy-at-all-costs project of a workaholic, a desperate distraction from something terrible waiting in the wings. But we can’t overlook that it was “plenty fun”. It is indeed fun disconnecting your conscious ego, and doing the bidding of the unconscious, the Dark Passenger. Or the Bright Passenger if you prefer, as Dark implies not just in the shadows , but also bad, evil. Another way of looking at it is that alcohol was what Rodia took to quash the pain of not yet having found, or not being able to answer, his calling.

Case closed? Far from it. Rodia gave many reasons, not just staying off drink, as to why he built the towers. Apparently he once cheekily told a government inspector the towers were in honour of the state’s highways, their heights (101 feet, 66 feet etc.) matching the names of the freeways in California, such as the famous Route 66. Meanwhile, without apparently any tongue in cheek, the phrase ”Nuestro Pueblo” is repeatedly graved and moulded on the surfaces of the towers.

There is no exact equivalent in English for the deeply-felt Spanish word ‘pueblo’ (Rodia’s neighbours were apparently mainly Hispanic). It means village, town, community, people or some melding of all these and more. To an Italian like Rodia, the proud and familiar Italian word ‘paese’ almost carries the same weight. “Nuestro Pueblo” (‘nuestro’ means ‘our’) advertises that the towers were being made for our ‘hood, and us, the people in it. Great American phrases echo inside these Watts words: “We, the people …” (the US Constitution), and “E Pluribus Unum” (‘out of many, one’, found on coins and the Seal of the United States, a motto describing myriad immigrants creating one people).

Maqueeta tells us (if I hear her right), as she shows us gaudily tessellated seating areas and basins, and a fountain-like structure tiered like a wedding cake, that Rodia fancied himself as a bit of a lay preacher for nuestro pueblo, and that services like weddings or christenings may have been held here for local people. Add religion to the list of candidate reasons.

The film “I Build the Tower” includes recordings of Rodia giving other reasons. For example, he wanted, he said, to build a tower “different than” Galileo’s, apparently mistakenly thinking that Galileo was the architect of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, rather than simply having dropped cannonballs off of it (as one does). Well, he got part of that right – his towers are better than Pisa’s in the not-leaning stakes, a fact proved when a stress-test using the winch on a heavy crane failed to make Rodia’s towers lean, but up-ended the crane instead.

Apparently Rodia had an encyclopaedia in his bare room, and he used it to read about the great men in history whom he said he was emulating (well, perhaps indeed he was) – the 1957 film lists Michelangelo, Marco Polo and Columbus as well as Galileo. Perhaps thinking of them, he said: “You gotta do something they’ve never got ‘em in the world”.

He hadn’t heard of Gaudi, however, whose colourful, embedded tile-work was very similar to Rodia’s. When later shown a photo of Gaudi’s uncannily similarly-shaped spires on the massive cathedral of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, he looked for a moment, and asked (ever to the point) “Did this man have helpers?” Rodia was unfazed by competition from a genius with an army of workers at his disposal – his towers he had built all by himself.

“I Build the Tower” takes its title from a recording of Rodia saying “I build the tower people like, everybody come” (and no, I don’t think that the movies “Field of Dreams” and “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Adventure”, with their catchphrase of “if you build it, he / they will come”, had anything to do with Rodia). The idea of building the towers for other people connects with the themes of “Nuestro Pueblo”, but could also be interpreted as art being used as a route to celebrity and /or people’s affections, a means of getting attention for a rather geeky, obsessive, perfectionist, slightly crazy, lonely, technical kind of guy, who plainly wasn’t, by any stretch of the word, normal (have you built tall towers in your back garden?). But perhaps that’s a crazy thought, as it flies in the face of a non-stop 33 year project that ignored all obstacles and everything anybody said. He knew some people thought he was crazy, but he was gonna do something anyway.

Movingly, “I Build the Tower” ends with a story from the very end of Rodia’s life. By now his fame had attracted fans of every description, critics, journalists, campaigners, art-lovers and who knows who else. Usually courtly and courteous, he was nevertheless often driven to the point of distraction by their attentions. Petulant, exasperated, he would tell them emphatically that he had absolutely no idea why he built the towers, that they meant nothing, that they were behind him now, done, dusted, gone. He once replied: “Why I build it? I can’t tell you why. Why a man make the pants?”

Presumably noticing all the attention that her dying patient was getting, having never heard of him before, one of his hospital nurses visited the towers. When she returned she told the whole hospital that “he’s an artist, a great artist”. Apparently Rodia “just beamed … he just relaxed, and … within 48 hours, he was gone”. His people, the simple, working class people, had recognized him – a recognition worth more than the opinions of all the world’s academics, critics and intellectuals. He built the towers, the people came.

Given all the reasons given, and the constant assertion that he did not know what drove him, it seems clear that he had spun many of his reason-why, just-so stories just to make his perceived inquisitors shut up and leave him alone. Selling a dummy is so much more effective a tactic than stonewalling and repeating that you have no idea. “Oh, come on, but you must have, you must know, you can tell me,” is all that denial gets you.

Why do we care so much why? It seems that in order to label something an “art object” (as it was, as a defence against a city order to have the towers torn down), yer just gots to know why. Imagine Modern Art without reams of spiels of often unintelligible intellectual justification. It sometimes seems that the blurb, not the thin offering it’s about, is the art. In any case, we instinctively feel we need to know what an image (a ‘representation’) represents, what it is ‘about’, what its ‘says’, what it’s ‘for’, before we can judge or accept it.

People have argued about whether the towers are folk art, outsider art, popular art, vernacular art, naïf art, fine art or any kind of art at all. They’ve debated whether they’re sculpture or architecture, or just a heap of junk. The towers are certainly the work of an amateur, and one without any artistic training. Nevertheless you could see them as masterpieces of “found object” art, maybe even of “bought consumer object” art, long before these became, as they are today, so highly fashionable. But not, it seems, without the stated intent to go with it.

Now, however, all this hardly matters. Something marvellous has happened to Rodia’s towers in the years since he left them , something that every builder of monuments hopes will happen to his: they have been taken to heart by the locals as a monument to their community, as a symbol of their abilities and aspirations, and, above all, as an icon of hope – their Statue of Liberty. These days the towers loudly state: don’t give up on the people of Watts, ‘cos we ain’t giving up. Look what we can do.

After Maqueeta finishes her tour, and after watching “The Towers” in the Arts Center, I wandered the surrounding area for a while. Where the railway once ran by Rodia’s wall there’s a small, semi-circular, open-air auditorium, which is Watts pride made incarnate in concrete. It’s covered in plaques listing Watts’ worthies and her favourite sons (and daughters), with blanks waiting for future generations to join them. Well, they could hardly plaque up the conservation-order towers themselves, or Rodia’s walls. This auditorium, and the adjacent shady park where today children play and old men sit, form the focus of annual festivals held here.

Beyond it, facing north-west towards the ocean, the old track of the railway has been landscaped with rills of grassy, meandering micro-hills, and planted with trees. In the other direction, the direction faced by the pointed bow of Rodia’s ship of towers, the trackway lies barren and empty behind tall chain-link fencing. At the far end of this stony, dusty tract, shimmering in the heat, back-lit by the burning morning sun, there rises a monumental obelisk, an incongruous neo-classical vista that, it turns out, just as incongruously, has nothing to do with the towers.

What does have to do with the towers, it seems to me, is the sound carried from the open windows of a nearby house, wafting across this dusty ghost of a railroad track now gone. It’s Hispanic music, now hauntingly plangent, now jauntily jubilant, all heart-stirring. In a place often written off as without hope, it seems for a moment to be, like the towers, a community’s hopes writ large.

A note on “daemon”: this word refers (metaphorically here) to a person’s guardian, guiding, driving spirit(s), sometimes called his “genius”. This sense of the word comes from ancient Greek. Trivia point: the word has since also been adopted by computer jargon to denote a device driver. Apart from an ancient etymological root in common, “daemon” has nothing to do with the modern word “demon”, with its sense of hell and evil.
Links and Sources:
The film “I Build the Tower”. (2006) can be bought at the Watts Towers Arts Center when you visit, or online directly from the film’s makers, Brad Byer and Edward Landler, using this link. Quotations from the film are made with their kind permission.
The film “The Towers” (1957) has been placed into the public domain on the Internet Archive as part of the Prelinger Archives, and it can be seen in its entirety on the IA site, using this link.
“The Los Angeles Watts Towers”, 1997, is an authoritative book about Rodia and the towers by Bud Goldstone and Arloa Paquin Goldstone. Starting on page 36 they list some of Rodia’s many stated reasons for building the towers. The Route 66 story in particular can be found here.
Friends of Watts Towers Arts Center.
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