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Documentarian Mary Kerr on SWINGING IN THE SHADOWS

Mary Kerr writes about Swinging in the Shadows, her documentary about the 1950s California Beat Era poets and artists.

by Mary Kerr

 Allen Ginsberg in San Francisco (Photo by Gui Mayo (de Angulo))

Allen Ginsberg in San Francisco (Photo by Gui Mayo (de Angulo))

I began my long odyssey in making documentaries about the artists and poets of the California Beat Era, shortly after the death of my artist husband, Les Kerr, in 1993. I had met Les in the Cellar, one of the main hang-outs of the Beats in North Beach, San Francisco, in 1960. It was through him that I met many of his peers - other artists and poets from the California avant-garde. These were extraordinary people, living lives dedicated to ‘art for art’s sake.’ They were all part of a scene that existed years before Kerouac, Ginsberg, et al, arrived. Many of their stories had never been told on camera.

I had a strong interest in still photography so it was natural for me to pick up a video camera. At the beginning I used it to produce a variety of shots, mostly for the fun of it. But when Les died, my original idea of doing “Ghosts of North Beach” became a bigger project.

Originally, I thought of using stills from the SF Library of North Beach haunts from the past and juxtaposing them from shots of what replaced them at the time. I had great, personal memories of many of the places like the Coffee Gallery, Jazz Workshop, Co-Existence Bagel Shop and the Cellar, which were places that I hung out in 1960 when I came to San Francisco from Cheyenne, Wyoming.

I then began production on a documentary titled The Beach that focused on the art scene that developed in North Beach in the 50s. There was a lot out there about the North Beach poets during the Beat Era but very little about the artists that were a vital part of the scene. Even though I was a novice, I was determined to pull it off as I felt it was a story that needed to be told. I persevered and learned on the job. Several individuals that were part of it all were still around and through lucky connections I was able to get their participation. Eventually, the documentary was shown on local PBS stations and distributed to colleges, universities and libraries throughout the country by the University of California at Berkeley Extension.

After the completion of The Beach in 1995 it was clear to me that there was much more of about the California Beat Era was obscure and mostly insider knowledge. In the '50s there was an underground group of artists and poets in Venice and West L.A. that flourished and provided the roots that put L.A. on the map for innovative art. Like in L.A., the mix of artists and poets in San Francisco contributed to a renaissance in that city too. It was happening in North Beach but also in and around Fillmore Street where an incredible amount of new art was exhibited and poetry read in artists’ run storefront galleries. The Southern California experience became Venice West and the L.A. Scene. What took place in San Francisco became San Francisco’s Wild History Groove. These documentaries are the two parts of Swinging in the Shadows, the overall title of this series.

 Boardwalk on Venice Beach - 1950s

Boardwalk on Venice Beach - 1950s

Both documentaries have taken many years to complete, mainly because of the constant struggle of raising money. One of the good things that happened because of this long 15-year road was that I was able to find and shoot video interviews with more participants, more photographs and more material that had not been available before.

It’s amazing to realize what a journey it’s been. There were times when any practical individual would have stopped doing the project. But it was never an option for me as I felt this group and their contributions are an important legacy that should be recognized. Their atheistic beliefs are even more valid today in our increasingly commercial world. The humanity they expressed is their profound message conveyed to future generations.

A Chinese proverb that I can only paraphrase states that when you stop hesitating but become fully committed to an idea, it leads to results beyond your wildest dreams. Certainly that’s been true for me. I would never have believed when I first came to San Francisco in 1960 that so many years later I would make these documentaries about that world I knew, experienced and loved.

IndieGoGo project site

Mary Kerr's website -

Twitter - @CABeatEra