The city of Berkeley proclaimed March 18, 2016, “Allen Ginsberg’s ‘HOWL’ Day,” in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the first complete reading of Ginsberg’s groundbreaking poem at Berkeley’s Town Hall Theater on that date in 1956. The Town Hall Theater occupied the south wing of the old Berkeley Bowl, at the intersection of Stuart & Shattuck, in the space currently held by Sconehenge Bakery & Cafe.
Sconehenge hosted a celebration Friday organized by neighbors at the site of the original Allen Ginsberg reading.
It succeeded beyond the organizers’ expectations, filling Sconehenge to capacity, and turning people away at the door. Some who were refused entry lingered on the sidewalk, and were supplied with tables, chairs, and refreshments from inside the house.
George Killingsworth emceed Friday’s evening event. Councilperson Kriss Worthington and Arts Ambassador Susan Felix presented the city proclamation. (Worthington read an original poem riffing on “Howl,” & larded with local political references.) Music was supplied by roots trio Smooth Toad; Jennifer Stone read her poetry & made some remarks about the old Town Hall Theater, where she had performed as a young actress.
The main event was a group reading of “HOWL”, which had been divided into 23 passages by poet & musician G.P. Skratz.
Audience members took the mike to read sections for which they had signed up beforehand. During the climactic Part III, and the celebratory “Footnote to Howl” (sometimes considered Part 4), the audience supported the individual readers with refrains of “Moloch!” (Part III), and “Holy! Holy! Holy!” (“Footnote to Howl”). These call-&-response sections were conducted by Skratz and by actor & playwright Bob Ernst.
Ginsberg’s 1956 Berkeley reading occurred 5 months after the famous reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco—the one where Jack Kerouac shouted “GO!” from the audience.
But Ginsberg had read only Part I of the 3-part poem at the Six Gallery (4-parts if “Footnote to Howl” is included). The poem was still a work in progress. Ginsberg continued composing the poem at the Café Med, at his cottage on Milvia Street, and during his travels through the Northwest with Gary Snyder. He gave a few readings during those months—one time at Reed College he read 3 or 4 lines from Part II—but at none of them did he unveil the finished poem.
Meanwhile, the work-in-progress had achieved a measure of fame in local art and poetry circles, so that excitement was high when San Francisco’s Six Gallery reading was recreated at Berkeley’s Town Hall Theater. The event was organized by UC professor Tom Parkinson, an early critic and authority on the Beats, emceed by anarchist poet & scholar Kenneth Rexroth, and included readings by young poets Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder, in addition to Ginsberg. (Philip Lamantia was the only Six Gallery poet not present at the Berkeley reading.) Ginsberg’s Town Hall reading is found on the recording anthology “Holy Soul Jelly Roll.”
Ginsberg’s notes to the recording claim that about 200 people attended the 1956 event, and that the stage was “festooned with Chinese ink brush orgy paintings” by Robert LaVigne.
The Berkeley Town Hall reading is less widely known than the earlier San Francisco reading, but has a comparable claim to historic significance, as the city of Berkeley has recognized.
The Town Hall Theater was the home during the 1950s of the Berkeley Drama Guild, an ambitious theater about which little is known except for an impressive program of contemporary plays, apparently running for about a month. A young David Carradine performed there, and Barbara Dane provided music for a stage production of “Under Milk Wood” by Dylan Thomas.