The riches of Rag Theater: Nacio Jan Brown’s Berkeley

Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

For decades, Telegraph Avenue has been the Boulevard of Unconventional Berkeley — a Bohemian enclave, then the Free Speech Movement, anti-Vietnam War, People’s Park, hippies, punks, street people. Before the Big Changes of the late 1960s, on Telegraph you could buy out-of-town and foreign-language newspapers, croissants, espresso drinks, Turkish cigarettes and Gauloises.

You could watch foreign-language films at the Cinema Guild and Cinema Studio, and read what Pauline Kael had to say about the movies, and play chess, and everywhere was Baroque music and folk music. There were boutiques and haberdasheries and art galleries and mom-and-pop grocery stores. And the used bookstores! What a world! We were Athens, this was our Bleecker Street, our Boulevard Saint Michel with a touch, perhaps, of Bourbon Street and Dylan’s Desolation Row.

Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

And then came the Big Changes. Telegraph became a battlefield in the late 1960s, literally and culturally. Telegraph Avenue between Haste Street and Dwight Way was the epicenter of countercultural change in Berkeley, and there exists a striking photographic documentation of that block at that time by Nacio Jan Brown.

A few things about Berkeley strike me to the core. Being in a Maybeck house is one. Marcia Donahue’s garden is another. Brown’s photographs are another. To the core….


Brown arrived in Berkeley as a freshman at Cal in the fall of 1960. He left after a year. He came back a few years later. He began learning photography at the student darkroom at Cal. Contemplative nature studies were the vogue. He tried, but lost interest.

In 1965, he started to photograph Berkeley in earnest, focusing on the social-justice movements that were erupting in Berkeley, hoping to make photographs with meaningful political content. He photographed for the San Francisco Express Times, an underground newspaper that for several years in the late 1960s had a strong presence in Berkeley.

Marvin Garson. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Marvin Garson at the Med. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

Marvin Garson and Bob Novick were the co-founders of the paper. Garson had taken part in the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley and in earlier journalistic efforts.

SFX-2

Also representing Berkeley at the Express Times were Todd Gitlin, Greil Marcus, David Lance Goines, and Alice Waters. It was a solid paper, maybe less edgy and less prone to shock-value gimmicks than the Barb, but dead-on serious about politics and cultural change. Brown’s photographs of Movement superstars remind us of their humanity.

Abbie Hoffman in Chicago, 1969. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Abbie Hoffman in Chicago, 1969. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

Abbie Hoffman was a graduate student in psychology at Cal in 1959 and 1960. He is not mentioned as an activist in any account of the times that I have read.

David Harris in San Francisco, 1967. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
David Harris in San Francisco, 1967. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

A product of Stanford, David Harris founded the Resistance in 1967, an organization advocating resisting the draft. In 1969 he was arrested and convicted of draft evasion.

Tom Hayden Berk 1969
Tom Hayden in Berkeley, 1969. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

Tom Hayden was a Movement rock star when he came to Berkeley and lived with the Red Family on Bateman Street for several years. Repeating what worked with the Port Huron Statement, Hayden was one of the authors of the Berkeley Liberation Program.

Berkeley-Liberation-Program

The platform was simple:

WE WILL MAKE TELEGRAPH AVENUE AND THE SOUTH CAMPUS A STRATEGIC FREE TERRITORY FOR REVOLUTION.

Historically this area is the home of political radicalism and cultural revolution.

We will resist plans to destroy the South Campus through University-business expansion and pig assaults. We will create malls, parks, cafes and places for music and wandering. Young people leaving their parents will be welcome with full status as members of our community. Businesses on the Avenue should serve the humanist revolution by contributing their profits to the community. We will establish cooperative stores of our own, and combine them within an Avenue cooperative.

Jerry Rubin, Berkeley 1970. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Jerry Rubin, Berkeley 1970. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

Jerry Rubin got his Movement start in Berkeley, specifically with the Vietnam Day Committee. He left for the national stage, where he belonged. He died a wealthy entrepreneur, jaywalking.

Brown also photographed the countercultural icons of Berkeley. It was a time, he says when “We all thought we were part of something new and special and were changing the world — and we were.”  With these photos — and all his photos — it was a question of craft in service of a cause.

Frank Bardacke, 1969. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Frank Bardacke, 1969. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

Frank Bardacke was an early leader of SLATE, a member of the Oakland Seven (anti-Vietnam War activists who were involved in the planning of the 1967 “Stop the Draft Week”), and an organizer of People’s Park.

Stew Albert in Berkeley, 1969. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Stew Albert in Berkeley, 1969. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

Stew Albert, our Native Son, was closely associated with the Red Mountain Tribe, the collective that published the Berkeley Tribe, and he embraced its militant position on armed self-defense. He was a Yippie and ran with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, and Super Joel. Albert was a central player in building People’s Park, and was a master of the-issue-is-not-the-issue politics. His 1970 campaign for Alameda County Sheriff was the typical Yippie blend — part prank, part oh-so serious politics.

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Mario Savio. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

Our most famous homegrown hero, Mario Savio: the center of the Free Speech Movement, he was a prominent critic of the war in Vietnam and a lifelong activist.

James Rector, Berkeley, 1969. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
James Rector, Berkeley, 1969. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

James Rector, about whom very little is known, was fatally shot by an Alameda County Deputy Sheriff while Rector was on a Telegraph rooftop south of Dwight watching the police attack Peoples Park supporters in May, 1969.

Max Scherr of the Berkeley Barb, c. 1970. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Max Scherr, c. 1970. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

Scherr founded and published the Berkeley Barb. Controversy and hustle and joy swirled around him.

Super Joel Tornabene. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

Super Joel bridged the worlds of the Red Rockets (see below) and the Big National Stage of counterculture politics. Those who remember him speak of him fondly. Actually, that’s an understatement. He was a legend. In a Really Good way.

Liane Chu, Little Red Dress Shop. Super Joel Tornabene. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Liane Chu, Red Square. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

Liane Chu, the 1965 Miss SF Chinatown who lost her sponsor when she was arrested sitting in at Sproul Hall during the Free Speech Movement, ran the Red Square dress shop on Dwight just above Telegraph. Her partner in the shop was, for a time, Michael Delacour.

California Living, Week of October 8, 1967 (Chu in blue dress in front tow)
California Living, Week of Oct. 8, 1967 (Chu in blue dress in front tow)

The store sold only handmade clothing, made by Chu and other local seamstresses.

In 1969, Brown started a “four-years-on-one-block” project photographing from in front of the Caffe Mediterraneum.

Photo courtesy of Jan Nacio Brown
Photo: courtesy Jan Nacio Brown

Many of the photographs from this project were taken from the Med shooting across to the Rag Theatre clothing store, street-level of an apartment house known not just a little facetiously as the Telegraph Hilton. His modus operandi was to arrive on the Avenue before the young people. He became part of the scene, not an outsider photographing it.

Red Rockets Mini Mob
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

Many of the photographs were of young teens who called themselves the Red Rockets and their youth auxiliary, the Mini Mob. Their classroom was Telegraph Avenue. Their family was each other.

Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

Brown worked the whole block, from Dwight in the south to Haste in the north.

Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Hassan Erfani. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Hassan Erfani. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

There he captured the early days of street vendors, here set up on the sidewalk in front of Cody’s, and Hassan Erfani, beloved and revered flower man.

Brown stopped shooting on Telegraph in 1973. He was exhausted. “There came a time when I just couldn’t shoot anymore.” Things were getting ugly. He continued having coffee at the Med regularly until the early 1980s, and then stopped going to Telegraph at all. Too ugly, too sad. Hard drugs and exploitation had slowly supplanted marijuana and hope/joy, even as he was shooting the block. The kids of Telegraph moved on. Many died young, way too many, casually disappearing. Some thrived in life, and look back on the years on Telegraph with appreciation and fondness. Some struggle still.

Brown collected photos from the four-year project in a book. It took two years to make the book. Brown’s attention to detail and insistence on perfection may account for the book’s survival 40-plus years into its life. The hardbound edition was selected by the American Institute of Graphic Arts for inclusion in its “Fifty Books” exhibition of 1976.

Rag Theater Book

He asked a young writer who had no first-hand experience with Telegraph to look at the photos and give his impressions.

Tom Farber, 1971. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown
Thomas Farber, 1971. Photo: Nacio Jan Brown

Thomas Farber hit the nail on the head, intuitively understanding what it was that Brown was photographing. A prolific writer, Farber today is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Cal.

Rag Theater is available new and used, softcover and hardcover, on Amazon

Brown’s photographs are also available online. In 2011, Brown launched Ragtheater.com. Several hundred photos are available, as well as links to articles and interview about and with Brown and a comments section where those who were there have added their words to Brown’s photographs. The comments remind me of the things left behind at Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington — moving reminisces, updates and obituaries.

Brown’s Facebook page and the RagTheater Facebook page have many photographs as well, some from the Rag Theater project, some from his coverage of the Movement, some from the arts, and some from his personal life. Archivally processed vintage silver-gelatin prints are available from Joseph Bellows Gallery.

 Nacio Jan Brown Photo: Robert N. Zagone
Nacio Jan Brown. Photo: Robert N. Zagone

Brown put down his camera in the mid 1970s, first to make hot tubs and then to sell real estate. When he leafs through his photos and tells me about the boys and girls and men and women in the photos, he maintains a professional objectivity, but there is a touch of wistfulness.

“Actually, the photographs don’t capture the full tragedy that took place,” he says. He becomes most obviously emotionally engaged when he comes to photographs of the adults who preyed on the young teens. These kids were his family, but he still lets the photographs do most of the talking. “The scene reminds me of the first lines of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’,” he says.

Why are these photographs important? Berkeley has a knack for reinventing itself, and this process is in full bore on Telegraph. Two of the three blighted corners at Telegraph and Haste are on the mend. Several higher-rise projects are planned just south of Dwight and the former home of Shakespeare’s Books is getting tarted up. The ugly descent that began in the 1970s is fading, but, as the funk is dressed up and the changing demographics of Berkeley sweep the young and struggling from our midst, we risk forgetting our past, who we were. Brown’s photographs remind us of another time, almost another place.

In his preface to Cannery Row, John Steinbeck wrote: “Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peep-hole he might have said: ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men’ and he would have meant the same thing.” Here they are in Nacio Brown’s photos — Berkeley’s young saints and angels and martyrs and holy people.

Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,000 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means.

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