Jonas Mekas: The SoHo Connection

(1922–2019)

Jonas Mekas at 80 Wooster Street, site of his Cinematheque. (2010) Photo: Glenda Hydler.

I just finished reading Bruce Weber’s lengthy New York Times obituary for Jonas Mekas, who died on January 23rd at the age of 96. Although the obituary describes Mekas’s rich and productive life, it does not describe how important SoHo was to Mekas and Mekas was to SoHo.

That is a story that I know well since Mekas was the subject of Chapter Four of Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo, a book that I co-authored with SoHo architect Shael Shapiro and one that was published by the Jonas Mekas Foundation.

Shael Shapiro’s friendship with Jonas Mekas dates back to the year 1967 when they both bought rough loft spaces in 80 Wooster Street, the second live/work cooperative building developed by Fluxus Art movement founder George Maciunas. Ultimately, Maciunas developed sixteen of these buildings, forming the critical mass for SoHo. Mekas and Maciunas were good friends, Lithuanian Americans, both of whom had a passion for the arts and for the avant-garde. Without Mekas’s support, it is unlikely that Maciunas would have been able to realize his plan to create SoHo as an artist community.

Dubbed Fluxhouse II, 80 Wooster was home to dancer Trisha Brown and artist Charles Ross, among others. Shael Shapiro had a dark loft facing back on the third floor. Maciunas had his office in the basement. And Mekas had his theater on the street level. The year was 1968 and Mekas cobbled together the money for the space, with help from Jerome Hill, a wealthy supporter of avant-garde film. He agreed to pay $8,000 for the ground floor, hoping to establish there, Cinematheque I, a showcase where the public “will have to take chances with new artists and with new works of established artists.”

In ads in The Village Voice, Mekas warned readers that “this will be our workshop, our testing ground where anything goes.” He asked for contributions to renovate the space, estimating that he would need close to $30,000 and signed his November, 1967 plea for funds with the words: “Support the avant-garde film-maker in his quite lonely work.”

For months, Mekas made phone calls and wrote letters pleading for $50, $100, even single dollars, to renovate his Wooster Street theater. Alas, the response was often the same: Why do you want us to help something that doesn’t make money?

In mid-December, Mekas ran an ad for the first downtown Avant-garde Film Festival at 80 Wooster which included screenings of films by Kenneth Anger, Paul Sharits, and Tony Conrad. The entrance fee was $1.50 with the parenthetical that the cashier would admit patrons for $1.00 if they could not afford the regular fee.

On December 31st, Mekas celebrated his first New Year’s Eve in Wooster Street with two sets by the Archie Shepp Quintet. Downtown was clearly the promised land to Mekas whose Village Voice ad now read, “Come, come to our new Home….Thru the debris of the City South, South we move –where the Sun is.”

Spring programming at Cinematheque was equally exciting: In March, 1968 Mekas announced the premiere of Stan Brakhage’s Scenes from Under Childhood. In April, the premiere of Gregory Markopoulos’s The Illiac Passion.

By July of 1968, the Building Department and the City’s Cultural Affairs offices granted Cinematheque a temporary license to operate the theater on condition that certain work be completed. Within a few days, the theater was closed down and Mekas fired off a political response in a Voice ad: “We have been told to close and legalize ourselves. We’ll keep you informed about our Progress to Becoming Legal.”

Despite Mekas’s efforts, Cinematheque remained “closed temporarily.” Although he advertised films at three other venues, the ad-copy often read, “Film-Makers’ Cinematheque in Exile,” in capital letters.

Mekas struggled with money troubles in these years. His Film-Makers’ Distribution Center was in debt and he feared that the debts would sink his Film-makers’ Cooperative as well. Threatened with a potential auction by the city marshal of the Center’s and the Coop’s property, Mekas closed the Center down to save the Cooperative. Cinematheque at 80 Wooster Street was fading out but Mekas’s dream of an academy devoted to avant-garde film was saved when funding from Jerome Hill and Allan Masur enabled Mekas to create The Anthology Film Archives, which was to operate independently within Joseph Papp’s Public Theater.

Anthology Film Archives opened on November 30, 1970 at the Public Theater. Within four years, Mekas moved it to 80 Wooster Street, where he added in experimental video as well as film. Mekas welcomed Fluxus events to Wooster Street: Fluxus feasts, Fluxus doctor clinics, concerts by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and even a harpsichord recital where ping pong balls were served into the harpsichord strings,

Eleven years after the building inspectors closed down Cinematheque, Anthology Film Archives faced a similar fate. Closed officially in 1978, Mekas ultimately purchased the Second Avenue Courthouse building for $50,000 from the City of New York and, after extensive renovations, opened the space to the public in 1988.

But Mekas’s SoHo legacy lingers on. He was a founding father whose spirit and energy shaped the artistic community.

At the book party for Illegal Living in 2010, held in Christopher Fischer, a cashmere sweater store on the site of Mekas’s Cinematheque and of Anthology Film Archives, playwright Richard Foreman asked Mekas a question:

“How do you feel about what’s happened to SoHo?” Foreman asked, a sad note in his voice.

Mekas smiled and, without a moment’s hesitation, he answered: “Things change.”

Always celebrating life: Jonas at Illegal Living book party. (2010) Photo: Glenda Hydler

An arts and culture journalist for Guernica, Huff Post, Tablet, etc, Roslyn Bernstein’s books include Engaging Art, Illegal Living, and Boardwalk Stories.