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ONCE. MORE. Tour: 1960s Ann Arbor in Memory and Imagination

This past August, UMS Interim Director of Education Claire Rice made an interesting proposition: research and design a tour of the most important ONCE Festival-related sites in Ann Arbor.  Of course, many of the original venues that housed ONCE performances or served as hangouts for the city’s artistic and political revolutionaries have been replaced or, even worse, erased. Thus the project became an exercise in excavation and imagination, as I set off to recreate, revisit, and remember some of the local sites that helped shape—and were shaped by—the artistic and political upheaval so prevalent at that time.

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After discussing the project with Claire and UMS Programming Manager Mark Jacobson, I headed off to do some preliminary sleuth work at the University’s Bentley Historical Library, which holds a small but rich collection of ONCE-related memorabilia. But we needed more: more detail, more history, and more stories regarding the ONCE Festivals and their impact on 1960s Ann Arbor. Since the official ONCE archives are located at Northwestern University, we went straight to the source, searching for local experts willing to share their time and experiences with us.  Thanks to the help of Karen Jania, Susan Wineberg, Alan Glen and others, we began to put together a tour that is, we hope, as diverse as it is rich.  We had especially memorable conversations with Kathleen Timberlake (on-and-off-again Ann Arbor resident and ONCE attendee) and Harold Borkin (Professor Emeritus of Architecture and ONCE Group member), whose extraordinary stories provided a “behind the scenes” look at the complex web of art, politics, and experimentation that immersed 1960s Ann Arbor.

Although our original intention was to organize a bus and/or bike tour of our favorite ONCE-related sites, we realized that, because many of these locations no longer exist in their original form, such a tour would simply inhibit your ability to effectively remember and imagine some of the city’s historic venues. The self-guided tour found here is thus just one result of the journey described above, and the ten locations we chose to incorporate—including performance venues, food joints, and university spaces filled with symbolic meaning—represent only a sampling of Ann Arbor’s rich historical narrative.

Here are some thoughts from those who experienced the original ONCE events in the 1960s:

Kathleen Timberlake:

Centicore was originally on Maynard. It was there that I recall seeing Andy Warhol move through a crowd waiting for him outside the store.  He was a paste white zombie figure in a sea of dark grubby students.  I don’t know exactly when it moved to South U, maybe the early ’70s.  I left A2 in late 1969 and returned in 1976.  It was still on South U at that time.

I remember the Unitarian Church on Washtenaw fondly; its current incarnation sports a rather over decorated scary interior that obscures much of the original church addition’s clean design. Early photographs of the church’s interior might convey a better sense of its space and how it was capable of being used for a variety of venues.

Wystan Stevens:

I was a student in a couple of Milton Cohen’s drawing classes at the U-M, when I was in the U-M Art school (A&D) in the early 1960s. I never actually saw the Space Theater except for the time one summer evening a few years later when I was walking on Liberty Street, across from the Michigan Theater, and looked up at the open second-floor windows of the next-door building. The rooms were very brightly illuminated, and the Space Theater dome was visible inside. Memory suggests that I saw Cohen there in the window, but it may have been Joseph Wehrer — or maybe I didn’t see anybody at all. Wehrer and Cohen were both active in the Cinema Guild, along with Ed Weber (curator of the U-M library’s Labadie Collection of radical literature) and others. Cinema Guild showed movies on weekend nights in the A&D auditorium, where George Manupelli’s AA Film Festival also got its start. (I saw Andy Warhol and his troupe there for one of the early festivals). I was in Manupelli’s A&D classes also, and he assigned me a chore for the first festival, of placing festival posters in every store window on Liberty Street, from State to Main. Cohen was a film buff, and encouraged his students to watch films.

The first Centicore location on South U was a tiny, crowded store east of Forest Avenue, and probably didn’t get a good attendance. I was in there a few times, to browse the paperbacks. This was many years before Community News Center moved into the corner building. In fact, I don’t think the corner building was there yet in 1965 — only a gas station on the corner.

Centicore’s owners were big kite flying enthusiasts, and used to test various shapes and designs (for sale at the Maynard Street store) by flying them in Burns Park. That Centicore location also cashed in on the streaking fad, by offering a big discount one day to anyone who would streak to the store. Several people did in fact show up naked at the store’s counter, and a photo of them (taken from behind) ran in the Michigan Daily. Another time they had Andy Warhol there, signing copies of an expensive book he had just published (about Marilyn Monroe, as I recall). Several students who couldn’t afford the book but wanted a Warhol autograph went first to the White Market nearby, where they bought boxes of Brillo pads or cans of Campbell’s Tomato Soup — all of which Warhol reluctantly signed.

Raymond Detter:

Those were years in which I enjoyed a number of fun dinners and parties at Milton’s apartment with the attached skylight studio and presentations of his creations.  I remember, particularly, “Openings” before he left town, first with Hilly Amis, former wife of Kingsley, and then permanently for Cape Cod where I visited him on two separate occasions at Wellfleet.  Shall we start putting together a Bloomsbury type memoir? Milton never drank alone.  But he was never alone. A very special person. He had his last lover and companion put his ashes into castanets so one could play Milton. She brings them with her when she comes to town.

So check out the map, share your stories about these historic sites, and augment our work with your own “list” of 1960s Ann Arbor hotspots!