Today is the birthday of that divine pistol Joan Rivers (born 1933) (for my piece on the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, go here.)
I am writing today to plug a crazy artifact I saw her in a few months back, the low budget folksploitation flick Hootenanny a Go-Go a.k.a. Once Upon a Coffee House (1965). The film is an amazing document of a particular moment, although not quite in the way the film-makers intended, I don’t think.
Show biz and (life) are all in the timing and unfortunately Once Upon a Coffee House was sadly dated before it even came out. The folk craze had been growing and swelling for years, ever since the late 1950s. By 1965, its popularity had grown to such an extent that rock and pop acts (most notably The Beatles, but really everyone else too) were emulating its sounds, and the folk acts themselves (Bob Dylan, the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas) were morphing into rock and pop acts. No one realized it yet, but this was the beginning of the end for “folk” (with its ethics of purism, simplicity, traditionalism, etc) as an influential force on American culture. It would continue to play a role (indeed it’s still out there) but it increasingly became a bit of a backwater, one of a thousand American subcultures, losing the central place in the American consciousness it had once enjoyed. What’s wild about the movie in question is that it records that exact moment. Filmed in 1964 (when the eclipse of folk wasn’t yet the case), it was released a few months later, and must have seemed 10o% yesterday. Beatniks by then had given way to hippies, but this movie hasn’t yet caught up with that development.
The plot of this film (such as it is): a square rich boy wants to make it with a pretty folk singer chick, so he buys the coffee house where she and a bunch of others perform. The story is essentially a framing device for a concert film. Oscar Brand was the only big player in the folk scene in the movie; others like The Goldebriars and The Free Wheelers were people I’d never heard of, but may have had local followings at the time. The music AND the plot are, frankly dull and forgettable (and poorly shot and acted). BUT, the film does include a now forgotten COMEDY folk trio by the name of Jim, Joan and Jake…and Joan is none other than our own Joan Rivers. Her partners were Jim Connell and Jake Holmes. (The latter was the original author of the tune “Dazed and Confused”, later adapted and recorded by Led Zeppelin.)
The group’s turns in this film (there are a couple) are fairly adorable..they remind me of many a contemporary improv or sketch comedy group. Joan is clearly already a star waiting to happen and not long after this, her stand-up was getting her solo spots on national television.
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.