What to write about, let’s see. Well, there’s always more about . . . myself!
I had some nicknames in my teen years. There were a few that were intended as mockery, but always very gentle, of course. I might have been a bit odd, but I got along with most people. A couple of other names were quite descriptive. I had a tendency to never shut up, for instance. One of the nicknames referred to that. The only nickname that I was proud to own was “the Planner.”
We had a lot of energy, but very little money. We did a certain amount of sitting around, but we were also restless to do things. Listening to records and enjoying, well, other things, could only be considered part of a full life. New York was a great place to be young at the time. I’m pretty sure that it still is, but in the Sixties, New York was full of things to do that were totally free, or so cheap that they were almost free. I’ll bet that that has changed. In fact, I know that it has.
The problem for many people was discovering the what, where and when of these great, cheap events. It wasn’t a problem for me, though, so I naturally fell into the role of “the Planner” for my group of friends. Around Thursday, one or more of them would ask me, “so Fred, what are we doing this weekend?”
It helped to read widely of the city’s countless periodicals. There were clues scattered in multiple newspapers, often only on certain days, and there where extensive listings in the New Yorker Magazine and the Village Voice. I read all of those, and I combed through them eagerly for freebies. You had to scan, but you also had to know what you were scanning for. Many would have skimmed over the 92nd Street YMCA, for instance, but then they would miss the fabulous free movies, concerts, plays and readings that the place offered at no charge.
Yes, back then one could stay very busy attending high quality artistic events at little or no charge. It should be remembered as a magical window of cultural history when the full range of American cultural resources was available to low income people.
The Museum of Modern Art was a great place to see movies. I always had a student membership myself, which cost about $12.00 for a year with unlimited free admission. They showed movies every day, one at about five thirty and another at about seven thirty or eight. Maybe one in the afternoon on weekend days. Upon entry, you just asked for a ticket for the movie, there was no extra charge. Single admissions were cheap enough for most people to absorb. It was all really high-tone stuff at MOMA.
All of my friends more or less enjoyed the serious Hollywood movies, but foreign cinema was a tough sell for most of them. For things like Ingmar Bergman, French New Wave, or Italian Neo Realists, it could just be me and one or two friends that were also hard core fans. It did often happen that reluctant viewing turned to great enthusiasm afterwards.
I introduced my friends to the comedies of the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, and Buster Keaton. (Keaton was silent, those were the toughest sells of all, unless it was a Lon Chaney horror movie, or maybe Nosferatu, or Caligari.) We also enjoyed the old Warner Brothers gangster movies, screwball comedies, and some of the great westerns like Red River. New York was full of re-run houses at the time. Those were regular movie theaters that were past their prime and a bit down-in-heel. They showed double features of old Hollywood movies or foreign movies. Very cheap, like a dollar and a quarter or something. The Bleeker Street Cinema; the New Yorker; the one around Eleventh Street on Eighth Avenue, what was that one called? There were specialized theaters, too.
Just walking around one day I discovered a tiny theater in the high forties just west of Times Square, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. No marquee, nothing but a small entry way and a ticket window tucked away on one side and a couple of movie posters on the wall across from it. That place was all Japanese, all the time. I gave it a try and got hooked immediately. I went there over a hundred times over the next six years or so, and I dragged as many of my friends as possible. Another real bargain, the same $1.25 for a double or triple feature. What an amazing education in Japanese cinema! They showed everything, although I never saw a Kaiju movie there, no Godzilla, etc. But they did show all kinds of period pieces, all of Kurosawa, including the first police procedurals, samurai movies from the very classy Samurai Trilogy and Sword of Doom all the way down to Samurai Sheriff (which is a long way down, I can tell you). Family dramas like Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Roshamon. The Forty Seven Ronin. Ghost movies like the distinctly low brow Tattooed Swordswoman, or very serious ghost movies like Kwaidan. Weird, violent Yakuza movies. Superhero stuff like Starman. Many of these movies are the finest expression of cinematic art, and many others were just jaw-droppingly outré.
Many very good bands were anxious to promote themselves, so they looked for opportunities to set up and play, either free or for a dollar or something. There was an eighteen month period in '67, '68 when the Who seemed to be playing somewhere all the time, it could be at a university or maybe at the band shell in Central Park.
Central Park! Every summer there was something called the Schaeffer Festival, fifty or sixty outdoor concerts and all for one dollar admission. Saw the Who there, too, of course. (Sponsored by Schaeffer Beer.)
The Filmore East qualified as cheap. Tickets in the Sixties were $2.95, $3.95 or $4.95. Of all things, the $2.95 seats had the best sound. Those were in the balcony, and the mix was much better up there. Downstairs, unless you were right in the middle you probably got too much of one side or the other. Nobody needed me to tell anybody what was at the Filmore, though. That was common knowledge.
There were also cheaper double or triple bills featuring second-tier bands in venues that were seldom used anymore, former movie theaters and the like.
Free was ideal, and there were free concerts of rock, jazz and classical. Jazz was a tough sell, and I didn't care much for it at the time myself. There might have been a racist component to that, but we did love R & B. I did get guys to go to some classical concerts. Again, reluctance changing to grudging admiration. Many of my friends were musicians, mostly ear players in rock bands. They could see all the work that went into classical music, though, and how great the players were.
These were the toughest sell of all. Everybody knows the Royal Shakespeare Company, but there are other companies in England, Canada and America devoted to that stuff, too. Lesser known, and often they got the idea to go on tour and they were willing to put on free shows. Perhaps a mix of paid and free shows. The Brooklyn Academy of Music was a good place to see them do their stuff. Not just Shakespeare, but also Restoration Drama. Those came a little bit after Shakespeare, and I developed quite a taste for that period. More boffo, as they say, played more for laughs than Mr. Shakespeare. We went, we watched, and we learned something. Free.
New York is one of the best museum towns in the world. All of the museums were cheap in those days, but I only remember one that was actually free: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of the best museums in the world, and the price of admission was “discretionary.” There were suggested “donations,” but you could just throw a dime in the box and smile. They must have a colossal endowment. Something on display for everybody, too. A huge collection of medieval armor; whole Egyptian tombs; religious paintings as big as billboards; they could entertain anybody.
All of this tour-guiding was a very positive experience for me. For one thing, my friends were looking to me for ways to keep life interesting. That was a good feeling. For another, it was great to be able to broaden their experience of life. I didn’t have a great education myself, but I had always taken considerable efforts to educate myself. In the process, I had learned a little bit about many things. It was knowledge that I was only too happy to share. Many of my friends had very little education, but, as often happens, they were rather intelligent people who just had never been exposed to a lot of learning. They could be blasé on occasion, but often there were surprised and delighted with the new experiences.
Well, enough about me. Time for more politics! (Only kidding.)