REVIEWS AND ESSAYS
Interview with Mary Kerr : Video documentarian.
Griffin is the co-editor of The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry
(Thunder's Mouth Press). His most recent book of poetry, Unborn
Again is available from Phony Lid Books. He has received
various awards for his work as an actor, poet, performer and
editor. He is a Viet Nam era vet and a crash vampire living
in Los Angeles
With S.A. Griffin in Los Angeles
I first met Mary a few years back via the Venice Beat scene
and my main man Venice Beat poet/artist Tony Scibella who,
bad for me, good for him, relocated a few years ago to mile
high Denver to be closer to his grandchildren and ultimately
set up a studio with prolific artist/poet Steve Wilson behind
the present residence of former Venice denizen and artist
Michelle White. Since moving back to Colorado, he has done
much to help help energize the poetry and art community in
the real west of Neal Cassady's Denver where you will find
to this day that the beat still goes on.
A few years back, Tony had shared with me some raw video footage
that Mary had shot at Venice Beach on the roof of the L.A.
Louver Gallery. Interviews with Venice Beats Tony Scibella,
Frank T. Rios, John Thomas, Philomene Long and Saul White
close by where the action was at The Venice West Caf» (now
The Sponto Gallery). That raw footage has evolved over the
past few years as Mary has put together the time and money
to not only shoot her film, but to do all the post on the
piece as well. It has come along very nicely. SWINGING IN
THE SHADOWS is a two-part documentary - "Venice West and the
L.A. Scene" and "San Francisco Groove" Ů each segment to be
approximately one hour long. Her first video feature-documentary,
THE BEACH, dealt primarily with the beat art world of the
San Francisco North Beach area, often touching upon the symbiosis
between the artists and the poets of the period. I very highly
recommend everyone get their hands on a copy of this and check
it out. Well worth your time.
I spoke with her on the telephone the day George Harrison
passed away here in Los Angeles at Cedar Sinai Hospital. During
the course of this interview, I talked with her for about
two hours. She is a very warm, open person, and a hard working
and dedicated filmmaker. Shortly after a "beat"epiphany one
day while driving to work in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Mary, a housewife
and young mother of two, split from her husband, got a quick
divorce and went to San Francisco where she felt her future
life was waiting for her. There she met her second husband,
artist Les Kerr at The Cellar in January of 1961. The rest,
as they say, is history. A wild history.
SA: Hey Mary!
Mary: Hi S.A.
SA: (still fumbling around with the recording device)
I think I finally got this damned thing figured out.
Mary: Oh really?
SA: I'm just a technological idiot, that's all there
is to it.
Mary: Well, it's very complicated - there's no doubt.
SA: Yeah. I went and bought the doohickey that I needed
to do this, but I think the problem was my son's boom box.
There was no way to record voice on it.
Mary: Oh, right -
SA: I mean it does everything but that. So I ended
up going to a friend of mine who's a sound engineer and getting
his little piece from him, and then sat around here and toyed
with it for the past few minutes and finally figured out that
the playback has to come thru the headphones. It's all good.
Anyway, we went looking for George Harrison's star on The
Hollywood Walk of Fame, which we couldn't find, Žcause he
passed away this morning.
Mary: I know, I heard that this morning. Yeah, he was
SA: Yeah, yeah - relatively young in these times. But
I guess he smoked up until a coupla years ago, quite heavily.
Mary: Yeah, it was lung cancer then it spread.
SA: Happens to the best and worst of us. You can count
Mary: Happens to us all.
SA: Something to look forward to. Well, it'll relieve
my depression anyway.
Mary: Hopefully later than sooner.
SA: Anyway, I guess we'll get to this thing here -
I guess where we should start is maybe talking about your
little epiphany where you kinda entered this whole game. I
guess you didn't start out life as a young, crazy, beatnik
chick or anything like that.
Mary: No way.
SA: You started out pretty straight.
Mary: Yes. I grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Led a very
straight life. Then I heard rhythm and blues, and that changed
my life. That was the real epiphany. I had been listening
to the radio and they had like, Bill Haley and The Comets
doing "Shake, Rattle & RollÓ. That was it, quite familiar
to us. For some reason, I really don't know how it got on
the radio, or how I heard it, but I heard Joe Turner sing,
"Shake, Rattle & RollÓ. It may have been that I heard it from
- I remember that these guys were Airmen, young guys in the
Air Force stationed outside of Cheyenne, and they came over
to a friend of mine's house, and they brought some of their
SA: So when was this? About '55?
Mary: Yeah. '54, '55 - I'd say '54. They brought records
from maybe even '53. And they would have what they called
their "race recordsÓ.
SA: Do you remember the label?
Mary: I have some of them! They left them with me because
I loved them so much - and we would dance and everything.
I just loved it! There were a few blacks in Cheyenne, I found
a record store and you could listen to the records and they
sold these. Atlantic records, most were Atlantic.
SA: That's when you got the bug, huh?
Mary: That's right. And then I'd take them, and I would
play them on my record player, close the door and play Žem
in my room.
SA: So you literally go the beat and heard the music.
SA: Wow. Now didn't you tell me you read On The Road
before your big epiphany?
Mary: To tell you the truth, I don't really remember.
But I knew about the beat scene in San Francisco. It was in
the newspapers and the magazines. So I knew a bit. Altho I'm
sure it was hyped up and everything. I got married in '55.
A year later my daughter was born.
SA: You were pretty young, weren't you?
Mary: I was very young. Just 18.
SA: A sweet young thing.
Mary: We'd only known each other six weeks. It was
bizarre. Impulsive. Then we moved to Brooklyn where he was
SA: Well, my Mom and Dad knew each other only three
weeks. I was born almost exactly nine months to the day after
they were married.
Mary: No kidding!
SA: Yeah. Sounds like true love, huh? So anyway, your
story here -
Mary: So anyway, I ended up in Brooklyn for awhile
and then we decided to come back to Cheyenne.
SA: So did you hook up with any of the beat thing in
The Village there?
Mary: No. Didn't know anything about it. I kind of
liked culture tho. I dragged my husband to the museums and
stuff like that. It diverged a little from the interests he
had. He liked to gamble. But, we came back to Cheyenne and
of course there still wasn't much going on. My second child
was born. Then, we decided to go our separate ways. I couldn't
take the gambling thing anymore, frankly.
SA: You were into other gambles.
Mary: So I got divorced and started hanging out in
some of the little clubs just to have some fun and one guy
I met was a drummer. He was in a sort of little jazz, fun,
dancing group. Somehow I decided at that point when that sort
of broke up that I was going to go to San Francisco.
SA: But, you were going to San Francisco with a purpose,
Mary: My husband's step-brother was there.
SA: Didn't you tell me you were going to San Francisco
because you believed you were going to meet an artist?
Mary: Well, that was the other thing. I had a job.
I was supporting the kids. My mother took care of the kids
(while I worked). Driving to work at 7:30 every morning -
and the winter was very tough. It was at the Air Force base
again. And one morning it just hit me that I was gonna go
to San Francisco. And then it just flashed in my mind, "I'm
gonna meet an artist."Which as I said, it truly did hit me.
It seemed a very strange thing to come up with, because I
knew very little about artists. Knew very little about art,
and no interest in doing it myself. I wanted to be a writer.
SA: So you didn't even have any interest in filmmaking
at that point.
Mary: No. I didn't even consider that. That was sort
of out of the question. I did like music. And I very quickly
fell into the jazz scene when I got to San Francisco in North
Beach. ŽCause that was where it seemed interesting to me.
SA: Now, did you bring the kids with you when you moved
to San Francisco?
Mary: Oh yeah.
SA: So now here you are, a young woman with two children
in tow. Just all of a sudden this revelation hits you, you're
going to San Francisco and you're gonna hook up with an artist.
Mary: I never really thought about it afterwards, all
the moving. With trying to get a job, just didn't hit me till
later when Les and I got married. Then it hit me, "My God,
it came true!"
SA: So when you hit the North Beach scene, what year
Mary: That was 1960. I came with a hundred dollars.
The Coffee Gallery was opened. Good jazz was happening. And
of course, The Cellar was opened. That was where I met Les
SA: Well, The Batman Gallery was open then, right?
Mary: I saw The Batman after Les and I got married
and I moved up to Fillmore St. You know, in that artist's
building. It was just a block up from The Batman. And I saw
Bruce Conner's show with Black Dahlia. The best place to have
seen his work. The Batman didn't stay open too long. We left
in '64. We were in New York from '64-'69, and came back in
'69. The whole scene had changed. The artists were all kicked
out while we were gone.
SA: And all the beats had grown their hair and become
SA: So what led you to actually start making movies?
Mary: Well, that's a kinda strange story too.
SA: Oh good. We love strange stories.
Mary: I guess everybody has a strange story.
SA: Yeah, really. I'm alive. Doesn't get much stranger
Mary: We're all strange stories. Just looking back,
I guess it hits me that way. So anyway, I was always interested
in photography. While I was in New York, I took lessons from
a really good photographer and learned how to use a 35mm.
Did my own printing, black and white. That interest in taking
pictures kind of transformed into the video thing. Mainly
because after I came back here, black and white didn't satisfy
me anymore and I didn't wanna print, because printing was
too expensive; not only that, but I liked taking color photos
better after coming back to California from New York City.
Later, when I picked up a video camera and found out what
could done with that format Ů loved using it even more.
SA: So jumping ahead, what inspired you to go into
The Beach? Which is your first major project, right?
Mary: Yes. It was the first one I ever did with any
SA: So this is your first project that dealt with anything
Mary: Yes, exactly. I started it in '93, and finished
it actually by the end of '95.
SA: It's a great piece too. A very fine piece. As I
had discussed with you earlier, one of the things that really
impressed me about it so much was that it was primarily about
the art scene in North Beach, and it's very rare that you
see anything beat that deals with anything more than just
that there were poets and musicians and a few artists almost
on the periphery. So I thought it was really cool to see this
wonderful documentary that dealt primarily with the art scene.
Mary: A lot of people had made that comment too. Of
course, that was the reason I did it, because I knew the story
about the poets and all that, over and over. Why would wanna
do that? I thought, well, why don't I do a story about something
I know. I had actually thought of doing a video in a much
simpler way. What I was gonna do was get some old photographs,
go and videotape the places there - I didn't have any idea
more than the ghosts of North Beach. So I had been there videotaping.
Then Les died and it hit me that a person doesn't have all
the time in the world to do what they want to do and if you
have a desire to do something, you'd better get on the ball
and do it now. It happened so quickly, and it hit me awfully
hard. I thought, ya know, I'm gonna expand this. I'm gonna
do what I really wanna do. Tell a little bit about what I
had experienced and the feeling that was there in North Beach
and a little bit about whatever happened in the art scene
in North Beach. It was never done before. I wanted to tell
that story. I knew Jim Newman, he had the gallery there, I
knew Bob Alexander had come up and help put that together.
So I knew there was a story there. Writers write what they
have seen written before, and often write it over and over
and get it regurgitated, but you often don't get into anything
SA: Well writers tend to give people what they want.
They write what's popular.
Mary: Well, that's true. That how they often get published.
SA: Now when you started making the film, and you started
getting into it, did the gallery owners and the people and
the artists, did they all take you seriously?
Mary: Yes they did. And that was what in some ways,
was amazing. When I first started, a good analogy was that
the emperor had no clothes, because I didn't really, know
how to do it. I had never put together a documentary, almost
grandiose in a way. I didn't have that background. Pretty
cheeky of me to decide to do this, interviewing people like
Jim Newman. He did it mostly as a favor, a favor to Les. I
wasn't "professional." And I screwed the sound a little bit,
and then I learned. I learned everything sort of by doing.
It all worked out. I had to spend a lot of money to fix the
sound. So it all worked out. I began to really love the whole
process of putting this together. Ya know, it's funny, when
do decide to commit to something, new connections come. It
just happens. Because you're thinking about it, you're constantly
concentrating and focusing. And somehow, other things that
you wouldn't have dreamed, develop.
SA: It's very mythical, it's very classic, that once
you set off on the adventure for the fleece, then you encounter
everything else along the way.
Mary: That's right.
SA: And the story unfolds.
SA: The story would be pretty boring if all you did
was you went and got a fleece.
Mary: Right - I learned so much. I could go on and
on - how much I learned. I love hearing about Ginsberg. I
love reading about Kerouac. But that wasn't what I wanted
to do. It didn't seem necessary. The other story, to me, was
SA: Did the work of Conner or Brackhage have any impact
on you? Did you see yourself as a beat filmmaker?
Mary: I saw the underground films, and I enjoyed them
a lot. The only one that really influenced me was Kenneth
Anger's Scorpio Rising. The reason it hit me was that I felt
that he really caught an essence there of how it was to be
a gay guy in this motorcycle, strange, sadist, masochistic
world. I could feel it almost. I thought, that's really a
powerful thing to be able to do. That's what film can do.
It's almost the first music video in a way. Beautiful, beautiful
shots. Absolutely wonderful. That, I was quite inspired by.
SA: Do you see yourself then as fundamentally a beat
Mary: No. I didn't really start doing this until the
SA: But you were a part of it all over the years. Certainly
you've been impacted by your own experience.
Mary: Well, I was. Also, I knew the aesthetics. I knew
most who had talked about the beat era, and they didn't always
get the aesthetics right. I had gotten it first from Les and
being around it. It's not so strong in The Beach, but in Swinging
In The Shadows, that's the whole thing.
SA: It's very evident. One of the things I really like
about Swinging In The Shadows which is a radically great departure
from The Beach - actually, it's quite an ambitious project,
because you're putting together a complete overview of what
the hell was going on down here. What's wonderful about it
is that as a filmmaker, and as a storyteller, you're reflecting
the real symbiosis. Because for most of us that weren't there;
that's what we feel might have happened. There were all these
creative people that came together and did something. You
prove that with Swinging In The Shadows.
Mary: What I've mainly concentrated on, and you'll
see this as you see more of it, the Southern California Venice
thing, has more from the poet's view. That conversation between
the five guys, I mean, I just couldn't believe it that day.
SA: See, that was my first experience. I went over
to Tony's (Scibella) one day and he goes, "Heeeyyy - this
woman" and he kinda almost talked about you like you were
19. (Mary laughs very pleasantly as if she were 19) I'm not
lying either. He goes, "Oh well, this woman came by and she
shot some video of us. She wants to do a documentary." And
so he gave it to me to take home. It was literally the first
raw footage that you shot of all of them sitting around on
Venice Beach talking to each other. And I looked at it and
I go, "This isn't a damned documentary, what the hell is this?
This is an interview." So I go, well thats cool. That's really
nice. Tony's feeling good 'cause somebody's paying attention
and that's fuckin' great. Then I met you and I figured out
what the hell was going on. Again, the process, being what
it is, it started taking form. It's been wonderful for me
as kind of a, how would you say, not just an observer, but
as a student of what you're doing, to see you put this together.
And it's been really great because every time you'll give
us something, you'll say, "Well, here's the latest version."
And you almost talk about it with contempt. Like, "It's really
not worth a shit, but here, just look at it." And it's been
really wonderful! It started out with poets talking on the
beach, and now it's Wallace Berman, it's Wally Berman going
to jail, and Dean Stockwell bailing him out, the cops coming
in and busting 'em. And the music - the piece opens up with
Ben Perkoff's band King backing Saul White's poetry. I love
that piece Saul does too. He's reading with the band and everything
and it breaks off and Tony's reading over the beach thing
and you've just done a wonderful job of pulling this all together.
Showing how these people were all in the same place at the
same time. What's really cool about your doing something about
The Venice Beach scene, in terms of beat culture and folklore,
it's almost like the lost ark. Something nobody ever thought
even existed. You're opening up this kind of Pandora's Box
of information and characters and beauty that now people can
really share and understand.
Mary: I thought too as I was doing this initial interview,
I didn't know any of these people. Susan Landauer gave me
their names. I started contacting them, and luckily they were
willing. I couldn't believe how lucky I was. I called up Charles
Brittin, because I knew he had the photographs and he was
just absolutely wonderful. He said come on over.
SA: Were you familiar with Charles Brittin's work back
in the day?
Mary: No, not back in the day. It was later that I
saw his work. I did see his work, but I didn't pay attention
to who he was and the work then. Charles is a great photographer.
He just got all those people at that time. He knew the artist's
story. Charles Brittin knew the artists in the L.A. scene
around the early Ferus Gallery and before that Ů Syndell Studio.
He lived in Venice on Speedway during the time he took most
of the photographs that I'm using (late 50s). Bob Alexander
stayed with him there for a short period of time. Brittin
didn't have the opportunity to meet many of the artists in
San Francisco altho some did show at Syndell Studio and the
early Ferus so he may have had a casual meeting with a couple
of them. You see, I'm not covering anything later. After '66,
The Ferus closed and it changed quite a bit. Became a different
kind of a scene altogether. So I decided to focus on the early
period when the aesthetic was really strong and they have
that feeling of doing it just for the fun of doing it. Not
to make money. When the money got involved, things start to
change. After the publication of The Holy Barbarians by Lawrence
Lipton, the tourists came and that changed the whole scene.
SA: Are you gonna touch on that at all in your film?
Mary: Yeah. In fact, Tony and Frankie mention that
a coupla times.
SA: Are you gonna contact James Lipton and talk to
Mary: People have told me that I should.
SA: You should!
Mary: I use a lot of marvelous photographs from the
Lawrence Lipton collection at USC. That's where I got photos
of The Venice West Caf», The Gashouse.
SA: A lot of the people from L.A. migrated back and
forth from San Francisco, right? Like Wally Berman, Stuart
Perkoff and David Meltzer - a whole bunch of Žem.
Mary: Exactly, and I have brought that out several
times because that was an important aspect.
SA: What do you think then, would be the defining characteristics
between Venice and San Francisco? The major differences?
Mary: Well, to me, I look at it a little bit differently.
I know Venice had a lot of things happening later, but there
was something as far as the art world was concerned. It happened
earlier in Southern California in a strange sort of way. There
was stuff going on at the Art Institute, that sort of influence
with the poets. That influence from Wally Berman and Stuart
Perkoff. It really influenced a lot of young artists, even
at UCLA where my husband was. Craig Kaufman and Ed Moses,
so many guys. George Hermes. They got together in that little
gallery at The Syndell Studio. Artie Richer was there. There
was a connection between these guys that were going to UCLA,
taking art in that kind of a context, and these guys like
Wally. Which was another world. They intersected and they
influenced one another. Up here (San Francisco), of course
The Art Institute, they have these great teachers that came
from back east. Abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko and
Clyfford Still that was happening early on in the '50's. Then
the artists started hanging out in North Beach. I think the
difference might have been that North Beach was more impacted
by eastern culture whereas Venice was more of a "homegrown"
sort of a scene. And another thing that happened, and this
is an interesting thing, Wally Hendrick or Hedrick, as I should
say, (We always pronounced it Hendrick, I don't know why,
it's spelled Hedrick), he is not by any means, much influenced
by poetry. He was influenced by the car culture down in Southern
California because that's where he grew up. He was also an
artist influenced by a variety of sources - from individuals
schooled in the best traditions and techniques to those who
were entirely self-taught but had the talent to produce unique,
innovative work. So he comes up to San Francisco, goes to
The Art Institute, immediately starts hanging out in North
Beach and sort of gets in the beat scene and he becomes a
real focal point. He marries Jay de Feo. Can you imagine such
an odd couple? She was going to UC Berkeley, and had this
incredible art education, and all this talent. She meets Wally,
who is really raw. But they meshed. And the reason was, Wally
had this other quality, that influence of Von Dutch Holland
and these guys who just went out there and did what they wanted
to do and to hell with everybody else. And they did it in
such a strange sort of way with no academic background. The
creative process was so important to them that it 'took over.
They didn't care about money; they didn;t care about anything.
SA: But that's indicative of the whole beat thing.
Mary: Exactly. I found that was a real fascinating
part of that whole thing. A whole lot of guys were like Wally,
but he was the strongest of them up here, and he came from
SA: Why do you think nobody seems to know that there
was a whole separate beat movement that happened here in Southern
Mary: Because people didn't write about it.
SA: You think it's that simple? Because even here in
L.A., people don't know about it. That's what's really fascinating.
Mary: The average, person I guess, wasn't really all
SA: I mean well, Herb Caen didn't live in L.A.
Mary: That's right. (she laughs)
SA: A much smaller movement down here, that's for sure.
Mary: And there was hardly any interest at all. Up
here there was more. I think mainly, the media that they had
during the period, the newspapers and those kinda things,
were mostly eastern.
SA: You mentioned earlier that you thought the poets
down here probably were more critical to what happened, respectively.
Especially Stuart Perkoff. How do you think he really fits
into all of this? He and Wally Berman were kinda the cornerstone
of everything that took place.
Mary: They were very strong influences. They inspired
many of the people who decided to follow the path. I think
that they still have that influence.
SA: I know when I talk to Tony and Frankie and John
and Philomene; and even Marsha Getzler: and I know she's been
a great help to you!
Mary: Oh yes, she has.
SA: They defer to Stuart quite often. It's almost like
he's still alive.
Mary: Yeah, it is. It is another thing that's in the
background of Swinging In The Shadows, is the influence of
those that are gone. It has been very strong with me, so I
understand that kind of thing with Philomene and John and
Frankie and Tony. It's hard for me to verbalize, hard for
me to put into proper words! that feeling, that inspiration,
the strength you get from such an incredible mind and ability
to perceive becomes so strong in you, that it just lives on
in you. I guess it's that connection from one generation to
the next, which you hope you can keep and carry on. That to
me is not just the aesthetic, but the underlying impetus to
SA: Just to kind of embody that spirit somewhat?
Mary: Somehow, ya know? And I'm not expressing it very
SA: It's all right. I mean, the gig is your film, not
talkin' to me.
(We both laugh loud and hearty)
Mary: It's certainly there!
SA: Oh it's definitely there. Especially the two people
that really come out the strongest: Wallace Berman and Stuart
Z. Perkoff. Not just as creative entities, but truly, as spiritual
Mary: It helps them (the surviving Venice Beats) define
what they believe in.
SA: Interestingly what's starting to happen is, especially
with John and Philomene, they are getting a lot of attention.
A part of it probably because they are still living "the life"
out there at the beach. They're vital writers, they're very
talented people. Why do you think it is that so far up the
road, they are finally getting some attention?
Mary: I think as time goes by, people start looking
to the past. They're being discovered by people, like me and
you, and even the younger people. I've been surprised by a
lot of the younger people who find out about the name Jack
Kerouac and want to know more. It has made a lot of the younger
people feel that there was something there that happened,
something important. That they've gotten so far away from
whatever it was because of commercialization and such. I guess
in some circles, some people have been able to rediscover
it. In ancient China, they had two different names for history:
One was a name that described the official history, that that
was actually written up in books. Usually written after the
fact by the winners. The other was called a "wild history."
Those were the first hand accounts and anecdotes from the
people that had actually lived it and had been a part of the
history. And they were usually, quite different. Swinging
In The Shadows is a wild history, a history from the horse's
mouth. That's why I am doing it the way that I am. I don't
want any narration; I don't want a voice coming on explaining,
which most documentaries have. I feel that when you have that,
you lose the "feeling," the atmosphere. You lose a sense of
what it was really like.
SA: You lose the energy.
Mary: You lose the energy. You only can get that from
these personalities. All that adds such a great deal. You
get more of an understanding.
SA: You get the flavor of everything, as you said,
the aesthetic. The single reason why I don't think there's
ever been a fictional account of what happened that has been
successful as a commercial film, and why On The Road will
never, ever be a successful film. Ever. You can't possibly
take that spirit and translate it into cinema.
Mary: There's too many different layers that come in
SA: That really is spirit.
SA: Being liberated to feel, as opposed to think.
Mary: Yeah. Somehow, that's what got me into this.
Fun. It was like you say, the energy. That's important to
SA: Well hell yeah! Why shouldn't you have fun being
Mary: Exactly. It was freedom.
SA: Yes! Thanks for talking to me Mary. I really look
forward to viewing the finished product.
Mary: Hopefully, next year.