When Samuel W. Bean, junior, graduated from Alameda High School in 1940, he was like many American high school students: unsure of what the future might hold for him. War was brewing in Europe—though that seemed so far removed from teenaged life in California—and Winston Churchill, who meant business, had just become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in the face of Germany’s westward advances.
It was nearly a year and a half before Sam’s country would become embroiled in the war, and even though his younger brother eventually enlisted in the Marine Corps, Sam didn’t head in that direction.
Sam found his own path, guided by a sense of what fit for him. He hardly chose what would be considered the entry level for a promising career. Explaining to Oakland Tribune reporter Wood Soanes how he arrived at his position at the Shipstads and Johnson’s Ice Follies productions, Sam made it all sound so simple—and so reasonable.
Cities have always bothered me—I feel kind of hemmed in, so when I got out of high school, I went on the horse trail. I worked as a handler and eventually became an assistant trainer on the harness horse circuit.
Since Sam’s family lived in Alameda, it seemed a reasonable route for him to seek employment at stables up in the Oakland Hills, east of the city. High above the bay with a vista that surely brought Sam that sense of not being “hemmed in,” the hills were nevertheless home to a number of places offering city dwellers a quick escape into the quiet serenity of nature.
One of those places was an equestrian center called Skyline Ranch. Built for retired food merchant Stanley Cosca in 1949, the business is still in operation at the same location on Redwood Road as it was when Sam worked there as a horse trainer.
It was at that point that serendipity intervened in Sam’s career path. Evidently, one of the Ice Follies namesake principals, Oscar Johnson, had been seeking a solution for one of the problems with that year’s scheduled acts. As Sam explained in the Tribune article,
they were having trouble with a pony that had been trained to draw a celluloid carriage containing the Scotvold Twins for some flash act in the show. The trouble was the Texas fellow who did the “training” didn’t do it. The pony, who looked like a shrunken Palomino, just wasn’t doing his job.
That’s when Sam’s reputation, combined with word of mouth action, connected Sam—then out at Skyline Ranch—with the Ice Follies’ Oscar Johnson. As Sam remembered it,
Somehow or other Oscar Johnson heard that I’d had some success with show horses so he gave me a ring. I went over to see the pony and we had some long talks. There wasn’t anything wrong with him except that he hadn’t got the original idea. We palled around together for a couple of days and presently he was performing his chores right pretty.
That “long talk”—Sam’s philosophy of animal training—must have been just the right fit for the challenge. As Sam explained it in the Tribune,
When you’re working with what people generally call a dumb animal, you first have to take into consideration that he isn’t as dumb as you think, because if he were left to his own devices he’d be able to live off the soil and there’s not many of us humans who could turn that trick.
With his unique, gentle approach, Sam Bean seemed to work miracles with the show animals. At least, as far as Oscar Johnson was concerned, Sam filled the bill for the Ice Follies. And yet, he seemed so humble about it all. About his big break into the “show biz” world, Sam put it this way:
I stayed on with the show as a sort of chambermaid to this pony and the first thing I knew I was listed on the payroll as an “animal specialist.” It seemed rather funny at the time but...I guess I really qualify for the title.
Sam saw his animal charges not so much as animals, but more like “so many individuals to be cherished and, if necessary, to be argued with.” To him, his work in animal training was “nothing more than a matter of understanding and patience.”