These days, Salli Sachse is an unassuming 75-year-old painter. For income to supplement her Screen Actor’s Guild pension and Social Security, she sells her seascapes and animal portraits — some via her website, some to beach-goers who notice them hanging on the picket fence outside her La Jolla house.
Half a century ago, however, the onetime Miss La Jolla had a ground-zero view of not one but three seismic California pop-cultural shifts. She was Jackson Browne’s muse during the recording of his eponymously titled 1972 debut album. (He wrote “Something Fine” about her.) In the late ’60s, she lived in Hollywood’s storied rock ‘n’ roll commune and toured with Crosby, Stills & Nash as the group’s official photographer. And in the early ’60s, she was an actress in six Frankie Avalon and/or Annette Funicello movies, including the biggie: 1964’s “Beach Blanket Bingo.”
Not all the history Sachse got to witness “Zelig”-style was fun, however. Her employ with Crosby, Stills & Nash included their set at Altamont Speedway on Dec. 6, 1969, when a member of the Hell’s Angels — who were hired as security guards by headliner the Rolling Stones — stabbed 18-year-old Meredith Hunter to death in the moment frequently cited as the spiritual end of the 1960s.
And many longtime La Jollans recall Sachse’s connection to the horrific history of July 12, 1966, when actor Phillip “Pege” Bent died in a plane crash over Windansea when he lost control of the AT-6 he was piloting. Also killed was his passenger, Peter Sachse, who happened to be Salli’s husband of three years at the time. (They were living in L.A., where Salli acted and Peter sang with a folk group and worked with teenage inmates.)
Sachse left for Hollywood and Europe in 1964, but returned to La Jolla in 1994. For the past 18 years, she’s rented the same rose petunia-festooned seaside cottage in whose front garden she recently spoke to the Light about her wild ride of a life.
What was filming those beach films like?
“It was so much fun. Don Rickles was in a couple of the films, so he would come when they were changing the lights and the cameras and just start making fun of Annette and Frankie and he got everybody rolling on the floor. It was especially funny because Annette didn’t have a mean bone in her body. She didn’t swear, she came prepared. She was a real professional, and very sweet — almost naive. She and Frankie were so much alike — both Italian, both dark hair, both white as ever, and when we were on the set, we would just laugh at them because Frankie and his cohorts wore bun-huggers, these tight little bathing suits. And the real surfers were like, ‘What? What is that?’ ”
How did you get discovered?
“Mike Dormer and Lee Teacher had some meeting with a studio in Hollywood about putting Hot Curl, the statue they designed, in a movie. And they just walked up to me and my friend Linda Bent at The Shack at Windansea and asked if we wanted to ride up with them and audition for ‘Muscle Beach Party.’ And we both got the parts. I remember I was going to court-reporting school, so I was practicing my stenography skills on the set. But I gave that up after that.”
How did you go from that world to living in the rock ‘n’ roll commune? (Owned by Peter Tork of The Monkees, who sold it to his friend Stephen Stills, 3615 Shady Oak Road in Studio City was where Crosby, Stills & Nash rehearsed for Woodstock. It also hosted jam sessions featuring Joni Mitchell and Beatles George Harrison and Ringo Starr.)
“A friend of mine named Bobby Hammer lived there with 12 other people and invited me to stay. We shared the apartment above the pool house. Peter Tork had left The Monkees. He didn’t want to do the TV show anymore and he had lots of musicians coming in and out. There was a music room with Indian rugs on the wall for sound barriers. There was just creativity all over the place. Crosby, Stills & Nash were just getting together in the studio at night and would come over early in the morning, take a sauna upstairs and then go down to the pool. Crosby and Stephen were always arguing, and Bobby would film them arguing out by the pool.”
There’s a new documentary about that scene, “Echo in the Canyon,” that this footage could have been used in.
“Oh, absolutely, if it still exists. David would be in a hammock and Stephen would be yelling at him. And Graham was there and didn’t say much. Sometimes, Joni would be there because they had just gotten together. And I became like the house mom. I moved in with all my dishes and pots and pans, because I’d been married and had a household. So I cooked and we were macro — brown rice and vegetables. Once, (LSD manufacturer) Owsley Stanley came down with a trunk full of steaks and he said, ‘You guys look like you need some meat.’ ”
Had you worked as a professional photographer before Crosby, Stills & Nash hired you to be theirs?
“No. I had just gotten my first camera, a Nikon, and shot black and white. And my first rolls of film were shot of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s rehearsals. So I’ve got a lot of photographs that are going to be in my memoirs, which I’m in the middle of writing now.”
After you photographed the group at Altamont, did you stay for the Stones’ set?
“We left because they had to play, I think, UCLA. But I could tell it didn’t feel real safe. I have photographs of cars turned over on their side. There was a lot of rowdiness going on.”
Crosby and Nash played on Jackson Browne’s debut album. Is that how you met him?
“I had met Jackson at David Crosby’s house. Then I went to London, and Stephen Stills’ manager invited me to stay at Stephen’s flat. So I called the flat and who answers but Jackson. He asked me to come and stay. I stayed there maybe 10 days and then I went to Holland. He wrote ‘Something Fine’ for me and sent me the lyrics. The song was originally titled ‘Salli (Something Fine).’ I was always saying I was going to go to Morocco, so he put that in there.”
Kate Hudson's character in ‘Almost Famous’ always says she wants to go to Morocco. In one of the movie’s final scenes, she summons the self-confidence to buy herself a plane ticket there. It sounds like this song could have influenced Cameron Crowe to write that scene.
“Yeah, yeah, totally possible. I’ve never seen that movie, so I’ll have to look it up.”
Do you still keep in touch with any of those guys?
“The last time I saw Jackson was at a concert he played on the Santa Monica Pier maybe 12 years ago. When Crosby, Stills & Nash come to town, I get backstage passes. But I pretty much threw myself into art after Jackson. I met and fell in love with an artist named Peter Underleider, and I moved into his four-story canal house in Holland. I had the top floor for my art studio. It just goes on and on from there.”
Do you feel fortunate to have lived such an unconventional life?
“I feel fortunate that I survived, because a lot of people didn’t. Riley Wildflower, a musician who lived at Peter Tork’s place with his girlfriend and their baby, had an early death that hit me especially hard.”
Tell us about the events of July 12, 1966.
“Peter and Pege were showing off for the surfers at Windansea. Pege went to do a loop and the plane stalled out and went down just south of The Shack. Pete had more flying skills than Pege. He should have been flying, but it wasn’t his plane. It belonged to his brother, Buzzy, who was a famous surfer. Pege was knocked unconscious and my husband’s feet got tied up in some rope. He was trying to get out.”
How horrible! Where were you at the time?
“In Hong Kong making a film, ‘The Million Eyes of Sumuru.’ Frankie was in it. I’m on the set and we just had lunch and somebody comes in and says, ‘You need to go back to the hotel, we’ll drive you, there’s a telegram.’ It said that Peter and Pege had died. I said, ‘Are you sure?’ This fellow, who was the liaison with the studio, had packed my clothes. I went up to my room and then Frankie came in and said he was really sorry. I was in a trance, sort of. So I got on a plane, and by that time, the doctor gave me a sedative and I was sobbing. I just thought, ‘How could this be?’ When I got to LAX, Peter’s parents and my parents came to pick me up and drive me back to La Jolla and we planned two funerals.”
How did it feel to move back to La Jolla in 1994 and live three blocks from where the worst thing in your life happened?
“It was very painful at first. But now I walk along there every day, smelling the ocean and looking at people, and I realize that Pete and me are part of the folklore of La Jolla. And I survived it.”
Editor’s Note: La Jolla Light’s “People in Your Neighborhood” series shines a spotlight on notable locals we all wish we knew more about! Light staff is out on the town talking to familiar, friendly faces to bring you their stories. If you know someone you’d like us to profile, send the lead via e-mail to email@example.com or call us at (858) 875-5950.