Friday, October 4, 2013

Abbie on a Summer's Day

By Chet Williamson
Young Abbott Hoffman

In 1961, Worcester-born Abbie Hoffman, the man who gave us a “revolution for the hell of it,” opened an art house movie theater in town.

One of the first films on the schedule was Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day, an improvisational masterpiece that features Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Anita O’Day, Chico Hamilton (with Eric Dolphy), Sonny Stitt, Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson, and Chuck Berry, among others.

At the time, the future famous revolutionary was still known by the more formal name of Abbott Hoffman. He was married, with a son, and working by day as clinical psychologist at the Worcester State Hospital.


Biographers note that Hoffman had a life-long love affair of film. He was an unabashed fan of Charlie Chaplin in particular. Film critic Pauline Kael and her Cinema Guild was a model for his venture. He was also inspired by fellow Worcester State Hospital staff psychologist, Eli Strum, who according to Jack Hoffman (brother), “introduced the art film of European directors to Abbie.”

“In September 1961, Abbie talked a Lebanese friend of our father’s, a used car salesman named Duddie Massad, into letting Abbie open an art cinema house in an empty movie theater building he owned. Abbie convinced him that art films were going to be the wave of the future. And Duddie, who probably hadn’t ever seen an art film, went along.”


On October 3, 1961 Hoffman officially opened Park Arts in the old Park Art Theater, most recently known as the Webster Square Cinema building, at 24 Mill Street. It was basically a one-person operation and a first of its kind in Worcester. Like the Bijou, Cinema 320, and other recent art house movie theaters, Park Arts was ahead of its time.

Abbott Hoffman in front of Park Arts
According to biographer Marty Jezer, Hoffman “selected films, chose the music to play before and after each screening ('to create an atmosphere suitable for the film,' he told a local reporter), wrote and mailed a monthly schedule describing the forthcoming films, selected and sold art posters and books about movies in the lobby, and encouraged local artists to hang their works there. Much of his time was tracking down films he wanted to see.”

Hoffman’s brother Jack added, “For music, Abbie brought over his own phonograph and record collection. He used to work at the theater from 5:30 p.m. until midnight, going there directly from Worcester State. The wife of the projectionist used to bring him meatball and sausage sandwiches out of pity.”
Hoffman inside theater

In his book, For the Hell of It, writer Jonah Raskin said that Park Arts opened with two Ingmar Bergman classics: Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), a romantic comedy, and The Seventh Seal (1956), a dark and apocalyptic parable of modern life. Later, that same month he showed Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959), Akira Kurosawa’s The Seventh Samuri (1954), and The Crucible (1957), a French cinematic adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play about the seventeenth century Salem witch trials, which offered insights on contemporary victims of persecution. Abbie’s film selections certainly showed good taste.”





Jazz on a Summer’s Day had never been shown in Worcester and Hoffman deserves the credit of being the first to bring it to town. Internationally viewed as a classic, and an early “festival film,” it celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2008.


Marking the milestone, Alan Kurtz wrote this of its filmmaker: “Fielding five cameras simultaneously, some handheld and with telephoto lenses, and using the finest 35-mm Kodak fast positive-reversal color film, Stern captured brilliant images that, as he said, ‘just jumped off the screen.’”

Young Bert Stern with camera
“Usually jazz films are all black and white,” Stern himself later remarked, “kind of depressing and in little downstairs nightclubs. This brought jazz out into the sun. It was different.”

Kurtz also noted that the film employed high-fidelity audio, recorded on monaural analog tape by Columbia Records and synchronized with the film during post-production. “This roundabout and complicated process actually represented a huge advance over such prototypes as Jammin’ the Blues (1944), a smoky, 10-minute simulation of informal small group jazz.”


“My favorite memory of the Park Arts Theater was that about a month after it opened Abbie was playing a documentary about the Newport Jazz Festival, and from the projection room he noticed me dancing in the aisles to the blues singer Big Maybelle,” said younger brother Jack. Seeing how much I enjoyed the show, Abbie scheduled a repeat performance for the following Saturday night, and let me invite all my friends to come free.”

It is not known whether or not Hoffman attended the 1959 edition of the Newport Jazz Festival, at which Jazz on a Summer’s Day was filmed. However, it is documented that he was in attendance at the Newport Folk Festival during his time as a student at Brandeis University. It was also common knowledge that Hoffman was a huge fan of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and other “left-wing” folksingers of the day.




It should be noted here that a couple years after the Park Arts venture Hoffman founded the Prospect House, an inner-city social service agency that focused on advocacy for the poor. One of his associates was Betty Price, who would later become one of Worcester’s first black school committee member. Price was married to bassist Bunny Price, the son of noted trumpeter Barney Price. Together their group, the Soul Jazz Quartet, played many a benefit for the Prospect House.

Barney Price
Other than being a clinical psychologist at the Worcester State Hospital, the movie house gave Hoffman a kind of new identity -- something alternative to the “square-world,” to use the parlance of the day. “Abbie was searching for a new way to be himself,” brother Jack said, “testing a new persona as if he didn’t have moment to lose. Listen to him being interviewed by the Worcester Telegram in an article that appeared in October 1961, soon after the Park Arts opened, sounding off with all the unblemished intellectual enthusiasm of a young Truffaut: ‘In a way I may be idealistic, but I believe there’s entertainment in a thought-provoking adult theme … . To me, a Hollywood production which is geared to the emotions of a mass audience, and which inevitably ends happily, is obscene. Such a production is obscene because it isn’t real.”


Hoffman was interviewed a few times during his ownership of Park Arts. Marty Jezer notes that as much as he would later profess to be a “man of the people,” Hoffman had a kind of “elitist, college-boy’s sense of bringing culture to the locals in this endeavor.” Others say it more bluntly. In 1961, when it came to art films, Abbott Hoffman, was in fact too much of a snob to sell popcorn. He was determined to attract a serious clientele to his theater.

“The crackling of the popcorn makes concentration difficult,’ Hoffman once told a Telegram reporter. “I may be idealistic,” the future revolutionary said, “but I believe there’s entertainment in a thought provoking adult theme.”

Brother Jack says that “within weeks it became clear that the Park Arts wasn’t going to be a profitable venture. And I remember Duddie trying to pressure Abbie into having a popcorn stand on the premises so that he might at least have a chance to recoup some of his lost investment. And Abbie refused, saying that people had to be able to think while they watched these films and that people eating popcorn in theater would make too much noise.”

Boyhood friend Ron Siff, who would later promote major concerts, usually of the bluegrass persuasion at venues such as Mechanics Hall recalled, “Abbie had two people sometimes in his theater and I was both of them.


Ron Siff

"I’ll never forget one night I was alone in the theater, watching The Magnificent Seven. And it was snowing outside and at the time there was a trampoline place next door to the theater. I wasn’t aware of this. And Abbie said, ‘Watch this,’ and he opened up the side door of the theater, walked down to the end of the aisle that was facing the side door, and he started to run like crazy out the door, jumps into the air and into a snowdrift about ten feet, and I’m sitting inside with my eyes wide open…. But he was very discouraged with the theater, the fact that nobody turned out for it.”

Unfortunately, Hoffman’s enthusiasm for art films was not shared in the more “working class” tastes of Worcester. After seven months of struggle, Park Arts closed its doors. Hoffman would later claim it was at a loss of ten thousand dollars to Duddie Massad.


A year later, now separated from his wife and child, Abbie continued to pursue a career in the world of film. He moved to New York City and secured work managing the newly opened Baronet-Coronet Theater on Third Avenue.

Hoffman didn’t stay long in the Big Apple. Homesick, he reconciled with his wife and returned to Worcester. The rest, as they say, is his story. 

Yippie, Abbie Hoffman

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: walnutharmonicas@gmail.com.  Also see: www.worcestersongs.blogspot.com  Thank you.


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2 comments:

  1. Great work as always on piecing together the story, Chet. I never knew that Hoffman was so interested in film, or that he opened a theater.

    One postscript on Jazz on a Summer's Day--the film had its world premiere in Boston: http://troystreet.com/tspots/tag/jazz-on-a-summers-day/

    Dick Vacca

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    1. Dick, Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate it. Another postscript is that Leo Curan's brother Paul worked for Stern when he first arrived in NYC. Keep on keeping on. Best, Chet

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