FEW VISUAL ARTISTS have ever caught the zeitgeist of bohemian Los Angeles better than Burt Shonberg, whose psychedelic paintings and murals graced the walls of the Southland’s many happening coffeehouses — including Laguna Beach’s legendary Café Frankenstein, which he helped found — were featured in the pioneering horror films of Roger Corman and adorned the album covers of revered bands like Love and Spirit. Although Shonberg is now better known as the lover of occult artist and cult figure Marjorie Cameron, who introduced him to peyote and the teachings of Aleister Crowley, Spencer Kansa hopes his new biography, Out There: The Transcendent Life and Art of Burt Shonberg, will bring the artist’s own substantial creative legacy back into focus. Recently I had the chance to ask Kansa some questions about Shonberg, Cameron, and Los Angeles’s artistic bohemia of the 1950s through the 1970s.
JOHN WISNIEWSKI: How did you become interested in the life and art of Burt Shonberg?
SPENCER KANSA: I first encountered Burt’s artwork about a decade ago, while I was in L.A. researching Wormwood Star, my biography of the occult artist Marjorie Cameron. I knew Burt and Cameron had been lovers and lived together on a ranch out in the High Desert in the late ’50s, as I’d already seen a photograph of them together there, but that was pretty much all I had to go on at the time. During that visit, I met with Joan Whitney, who starred alongside Cameron in Kenneth Anger’s film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). Luckily for me, it turned out that Joan’s partner, Darryl Copeland, who’d known Cameron tangentially, had actually been good buds with Burt back in the ’60s. Darryl then introduced me to Ira Odessky, another of Burt’s chums, and they both spoke about him in such a laudatory way. They described how he possessed this super-essence and how he remained a profound presence in their lives. He’d affected their lives in an incredibly meaningful way, and it piqued my interest in him. I also got a real charge from the images of Burt’s paintings that they shared with me, and so I vowed that once I’d finalized my Cameron biography, I’d turn my attention to Burt’s life story. The publication of the book was timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of his death in 1977.
I would guess that if people have heard about Shonberg before it’s probably from the portraits he contributed to the Roger Corman movies House of Usher (1960) and The Premature Burial (1962). Whatever happened to those paintings?
The whereabouts of those portraits are unknown at present. Unfortunately, two of the pictures that Mr. Corman owned were subsequently stolen from his office, and Vincent Price’s daughter confirmed that any Shonbergs her father once owned were no longer in his collection at the time of his death. Sadly, this was par for the course for a lot of Burt’s work, which made cataloging an impossibility. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there, squirrelled away somewhere. A couple of unknown Shonbergs have surfaced just recently.
What research went into the writing of your book? Who did you speak with?
As with my biography of Cameron, the main meat of the book is made up of testimonies from friends and colleagues who knew the artist. They include some famous names like Roger Corman, who shared his memories of working with Burt, and the actress Sally Kellerman, who was bussing tables when she first met him. Actor and screenwriter Hampton Fancher related some of the roistering times he shared with Burt, back when they seemed to have the whole run of the town, and he’s naturally saddened that Burt didn’t live to see both of the Blade Runner movies he co-wrote. Marshall Berle was an invaluable contributor to the book. He became a close pal and patron to Burt in the last seven years of his life; he helped secure the use of Burt’s artwork on several rock album covers, most notably the Spirit LP Spirit of ’76, and he has created the Burt Shonberg website in order to exhibit his work online.
Considering how omnipresent Burt’s artwork once was, it’s ironic that Cameron is now the more famous of the two artists.
Yes, Burt’s work was featured prominently on the walls of many of the coffeehouses in L.A. throughout the late ’50s and ’60s; so, if you were a genuinely hip and happening dude or dudette, who frequented the hangouts on the Sunset Strip, you probably knew who Burt Shonberg was. Even if you didn’t know him personally, you were aware of his paintings and eye-catching mural work. Reportedly, Lenny Bruce was a fan and Dennis Hopper rated his work highly. His obscurity is especially galling considering the fact that his immense talent was recognized during his lifetime, and not just by friends but also by a string of well-connected movers and shakers, such as Forrest Ackerman, Herb Cohen, Roger Corman, George Greif, and Arthur Lee, who all championed his work throughout those years. I’m hoping this book will help broaden Burt’s reputation and reinstate him to his rightful place as one of the major artists of that period. It’s absolutely criminal that he has been overlooked by those who have chronicled the artistic history of Southern California, from the postwar years to the present day, and the book is intended to redress that injustice. He wouldn’t be the first great artist who was rediscovered by another, later generation in this way. But also, just like my biography of Cameron, Out There provides a juicy exposé of L.A.’s bohemian underground, from the Beat-era period of the late ’50s, through the counterculture movement of the ’60s, and into the spaced-out ’70s.
Why has he been left out?
I think there are myriad reasons. Burt wasn’t part of a clique of artists, which is something art historians like to latch onto, and there has been a lack of curiosity, and perhaps laziness, to rescue him from obscurity by those who like to consider themselves historical experts. Also, sometimes it doesn’t pay to be in the vanguard of an artistic movement, in the way that he was with psychedelia. I’ve wondered what might have happened if the one big exhibition of Burt’s work had occurred after the Summer of Love rather than a year before it. Also, Burt wasn’t a careerist. In fact, he considered money in and of itself a crime, which gives you an insight into how he felt about commercialism and the material world. His mind wasn’t tuned into such earthbound concerns at all. When Marshall promised Burt, before he died, that he would preserve his body of work, Burt just chuckled and shook his head, bemused by the very notion.
Cameron appears to have been a pivotal influence on him.
Absolutely, and I take a more benign view of their relationship than Burt’s pals do, who consider her a maleficent force in his life. I think she encouraged him to take himself more seriously as an artist, which meant, unfortunately for his pals, that he wasn’t as quick to humor as he was before. She was a seasoned woman and a sexual outlaw, with a wealth of otherworldly experience, and she’s blamed for mindfucking him with black magick and drugs, but as the biography makes clear, Burt was already popping pills before they coupled up, and Hampton stresses that he could detect a strain of schizophrenia in his friend prior to his meeting Cameron.
Was it Cameron who inspired Burt to open Café Frankenstein, the legendary coffeehouse in Laguna Beach?
No, Burt did that in conjunction with his friend, the folk singer Doug Myres, and their mutual pal, the then unrecognized science fiction writer George Clayton Johnson. Burt got the idea for Café Frankenstein while helping to design the decor and menu of the Unicorn, L.A.’s first ever beatnik coffeehouse. The Unicorn was Herb Cohen’s attempt to bring a slice of Greenwich Village to Los Angeles. However, Cameron did turn Burt onto Crowley’s The Book of the Law, and she introduced him to the sacramental use of peyote. Although he later beat her to the draw when it came to experiencing LSD for the first time. The other major subject that united them was their unwavering belief in the existence of UFOs, and their hankering to be abducted by them. This inexorably led to Burt believing that he was ultimately not a human being at all but an envoy of extraterrestrial origin.