Poems and Prose by Philomene and John
Last Days of John Thomas
The Beats: An Existential Comedy
Eavesdropping on the Boardwalk
Life Magazine Sept. 21, 1959
November 1959 event
A Conformist Party for Squares - A Square Invitation For A Square Party. Come and join Lawrence Lipton in a program of rigged poetry, modern painting and the mating dance of the African Crane. Special rites for teenage Werewolves. The Gas House, 1501 Ocean Front Walk, Venice West.
I don't think I actually went to an event there, but
in the daytime you could go in and wander around and sit in the bathtub
and partake in the flavor of the whole thing. I liked to watch women who
When I worked at the Outlook
the Gas House debacle was part of Funk/McClure history. They were proud
of destroying it.Much earlier, circa 1961, or so, I was at the Unicorn
in Hollywood and someone sang this long, long, ballad, titled - I think
- "The Last Night At The Gas House." It was the story, in song,
about the final night when the cops raided the place and hauled everyone
away. Lots of great verses, both funny and poignant. I don't remember
who the singer was, however, I dimly recall that he was the warm up act
for either Hoyt Axton or Judy Henski. Wish I could find the lyrics to
that song. I'd love to make a movie around it.
The Gas House
The famous Beat hangout came into being in 1959, housed in a building at 1501 Ocean Front Walk just south of Market Street, that had been Harrah's bingo parlor and even earlier, the Mecca Buffet. The Gas House existed only for about three years, but a lot happened in that time and the legend of it grows.
Financed by civil-liberties lawyer Al Matthews, it was conceived as an artists' showcase, and fitted out with chessboards, a jukebox full of jazz, and of course plenty of art works, both two- and three-dimensional. Lawrence Lipton was named entertainment director. The "official greeter" was Eric "Big Daddy" Nord (Harry Hilmuth Pastor). Bob Farrington wrote of him, "Some say Eric had to leave San Francisco in a hurry when someone fell out a window at one of his parties."
As the center of the Beat movement, the Gas House seems to have been a hotbed of activity pretty much from day one. Someone put on a light show there, long before hippies were ever heard of. In 1959 Roger Corman, whose studio was in Venice, filmed parts of the beatnik horror spoof Bucket of Blood on the premises. In 1960, one of director George Blairs first movies included Nord (as a bongo drummer) and Lipton (as King of the Beatniks) in the cast. Supposedly the actors in The Hypnotic Eye were actually hypnotized during the filming. Although it didnt use the Gas House as a location, the movie seems to express the same spirit. It was banned in Finland.
Other Gas House familiars were actor John Gifford, artist Charlie Newman, and innumerable poets including Philomene Long, Clair Horner, Shanna Moore, Tony Scibella, Frank Rios and Stuart Z. Perkoff. A writer named William Garrett actually lived there for a while. Poet John Thomas was for a long time the manager and cook. He and Lawrence Lipton both held poetry classes. Janice Joplin visited, and so did Peter, Paul and Mary. Even Jack Kerouac showed up. An interview exists in which Ken Kesey tells Lance Diskan about the glory days of the Gas House. Theres a photo of Sonia Israel that identifies her as "Queen Bee" but I can't find any other reference. Clifford Irving, of Howard Hughes hoax fame, was a regular. John Haag of the Peace and Freedom Party was a strong influence on the atmosphere.
John Altoon, Nico van den Heuval, and other visual artists were on the scene of course, and Bob Farrington was a central figure. Farringtons book Venice of the Universe Boomtown by the Sea includes three pages on the Gas House Gang. The coffee house was one of the first places where Farrington showed his work, the others being Liptons home and the Venice West Café. In the USC Rare Books and Manuscripts archive, the Lawrence Lipton Papers are known as Collection 159. One item therein is "Gas House typed manuscript 10/30/70." Speculative fiction writer Fritz Leiber identified La Gondola Negra, a café in one of his stories, as the successor to the Gas House.
Tourists were encouraged to contribute to a tip jar, and John Thomas was in charge of spending the money in whatever way would provide the best nutrition, which, says Philomene Long Thomas, "would include (when funds were sparse that day) horse meat - a fact he would have to conceal from famished artists."
The institution fed a number of creative types who lived down the street in a sort of artists colony on the top floor of the Grand Hotel, subsidized by attorney Matthews and the tenants of the hotels lower floors. Unlike many devotees of alternative lifestyles, Perkoff and Scibella enjoyed early mornings, and spent many of them on the hotel roof sipping morphine derivative cough syrup and writing poetry. Because fellow poet Frank Rios wasnt officially a member of the Grand colony, the Gas House wouldnt feed him. A hassle resulted, and some of the other regulars protested by boycotting the cafés handouts.
Unless blessed by the State, it was unacceptable for one lone person, even without any musical accompaniment, to stand up and read a poem aloud in a coffeehouse. The police sent in undercover agents to witness how the shaggy beatniks flouted the law. The Gas House management tried to stay law-abiding, and in the summer of 59 applied to the city for an entertainment permit. This attracted unfavorable attention and stimulated some high-minded neighborhood group called the Venice Civic Union to urge its fellow citizens to throw the "trash" out of there. When a celebrity lawyer named Abraham Lincoln Wirin was brought into the fray, national news media became interested
Many celebrities, including Mort Sahl, Christopher Isherwood, Stan Laurel, Margaret Whiting, Igor Stravinsky, and Groucho Marx went on record in favor of the Gas House. Stuart Perkoff had been a contestant on Marxs "You Bet Your Life" TV show, where the poet defined the essence of the beat culture as "getting along on a minimum of money, and a belief in their ability to work out their own problems without external coercion, so long as they don't harm anyone."
Petitions were signed and the ACLU got involved. A hearing brought out 500 spectators. Lawrence Lipton showed up with a robot called Duhab, short for "Detector of Undesirable Habitues," which he claimed kept riff-raff out of the coffeehouse, to accommodate the concerns of the neighbors. There were five months of hearings, presided over by the police commissioner, but it was a doomed cause. The permit was denied and the place was condemned as a public nuisance.
The coffeehouse closed and the Gas House reopened as an art school, gallery and book store. But in 1960 an undercover cop claimed that a collage on the wall was obscene, and the fire department got into the act with a complaint of overcrowding. That seems unreasonable. Could there possibly have been more people in an art gallery than there had once been when the same building was a bingo hall? Maybe it was based on one incident. J. A. Maynard says that when the Gas House tried to have on open house, 2000 people showed up. So did the police. Also a nude model was sighted, and of course the cops said drugs were present.
Somehow the gallery managed to survive a while longer, but in 1962 the inventory was auctioned. Nord's remarks to the press deplored the "hard-core ignorance" of his detractors. (This is confusing, because one website carries a copy of a 1960 news article from Tacoma, in which Eric Nord repudiates his former ways and associates. Former Big Daddy "decides to go straight and worship dead presidents," the commentator says.)
On September 3, 1962 the Santa Monica Evening Outlook reported on the moving-out process, complete with pictures. Later that month the building was demolished. The demise of this institution changed a lot of peoples lives, because even Beats who had been in Venice for years could no longer bear to stay. San Francisco and Mexico were the favored destinations for the refugees.
What later became the world-renowned Venice Drum Circle started with conga players at the Gas House in the 1950s. By the end of the decade the percussionists moved their operations to the boardwalk, playing on weekends.
The history and personnel of the Gas House were documented by Lawrence Lipton in The Holy Barbarians and by John Arthur Maynard in Venice West: The Beat Generation in Southern California.
The Gas House Pillar
When I lived in Venice (1978-84) the pillar located on Ocean Front Walk near Market Street was pointed out to me by several people as the only remnant of the Gas House, the skeleton of one of the four columns that had held up the front.
People certainly venerated it as if it were the real thing - and why not? Ive seen it with a Christmas wreath hanging from the top. One summer I noted that it had been painted with primitive designs in blue, white, yellow, pink, red, pale green. An oval piece of metal at the top said VENICE OF THE UNIVERSE. At the base a piece of letterhead stationary was glued on and shellacked over. Dated July 1, 1980. it said,
Beyond Omega Inc.
- a non-profit association of Creative Spirits.
To everyone who cares.
This project was done by the Children's Art Group of Beyond Omega and
the Front Porch Gallery in celebration of the free spirit of Venice...for
fun. Paint and labor all donated.....Thanks to all who were involved in
the enlightening ceremony and dedication of the S* pole, last of a breed,
first of a notion, now of reality.
Filmmaker Bob Chatterton used to tell people that the contractor hired to demolish the Gas House had underestimated the job, and quit early, leaving one pillar, but the theory has a mythical ring to it. Was this object ever a part of the Mecca Buffet/Gas House structure? The more I looked at old pictures, the more I doubted.
In the postcard above, circa 1920, St. Mark's hotel is on the right in the foreground; next to it are five columns not supporting anything; then the Mecca building, which later became the Gas House. It looks like all the columns were erected first, at the same time - as postcards of Windward Avenue also show - and then a building may or may not have been built on any given lot.
If the northernmost of those five empty columns happened to be still standing when the Gas House was torn down, it would kind of make sense that it was the remaining vertical structure. Because the wrecking crew hired by a vengeful city government to knock down the notorious beatnik hangout - they wouldnt leave one pillar standing, would they? At the same time, city crews being what they are, they wouldnt necessarily go out of their way to remove a stray pillar that happened to be next door.
Which is exactly what this picture shows- a stray pillar right next to the Gas House, on the property next door.
Vaughn Marlowe, who was around then, says
The pillar has since been removed from the landscape.It was just gone one day. It must have been either the vendors or the owner of the lot that took it down. Jim Smith
Last Jazz: 1954 enhanced photo by Shanna Baldwin-Moore. The building with the peace symbol was the studio and gallery of Earl Newman.
Check out Shanna Baldwin-Moore's great photo album of people and art from the Beat days
My first day in Venice, March, 1960,
concluded at the Gas House with a reading by the homeless poet Clair Horner
(he slept in abandoned cars), where he read his absurd manuscript, "Don't
Step On The Bacon, Man!"
© 2004 - 2012 Pat Hartman