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The Greenwich Village where Dylan set down in January 1961 had the magical aura of wonderful things stirring and of even more wonderful things – who knew? – about to stir. The traces of an older bohemia were still there, like the Minetta Tavern, where Joe Gould had held forth. (Gould had died only recently, in 1957).
A new bohemia was flourishing, anchored by the Beat Generation writers, their artist friends, the off-Broadway and experimental theaters, and the coffee houses and bars along MacDougal Street and Bleecker Street. The folksingers gathered on Sundays in Washington Square.
Stewart Wilensky (not even a distant relation, so far as I know) spent the summer of 1960 making a documentary of the place. There are some corny elements in the film, chiefly the boy-girl motif than runs throughout. But it’s great to hear the narration of Jean Shepherd, the legendary radio humorist and raconteur, who in those days held the late night slot on New York’s WOR. And Wilensky’s footage of the Village is marvelous.
I don’t recognize any of the musicians or onlookers in the Washington Square scenes, but would love to hear from anyone who does. It’s fun to see how still familiar sites – the Jefferson Market Courthouse, the Caffé Dante – looked half a century ago. And then there are the places and scenes that have vanished. There are no shots of my family’s 8th Street Bookshop, but at one point the film does pan the north side of the street, showing the Stag Shop and Sam Kramer’s jewelry workshop and store. Those sights must inhabit the dreams of many older Villagers.
Then there’s the priceless footage of the Afro-surrealist beat poet Ted Joans, a frequent drop-in at the bookshop who later relocated to Timbuktu, reading his poetry in one of the coffee houses. It looks today – and must have then – stereotypical, but Ted was a serious jazzman and artist as well as a poet – he once shared a cold-water flat with Charlie Parker — and he was a sweet, exciting soul.
Stewart Wilensky who taught at the School for Visual Arts in New York, made a number of documentaries, including one entitled “There Must Be a Catch,” which won first prize at the 11th annual American Film Festival. He spent the 1970s in Mexico City, producing and directing television commercials. He returned to the United States and died of cancer in 1984 in Santa Monica, aged 57.