Tag Archives: ken kesey

“Cuckoo’s Nest” Turns 35

During November 1975, Gerald Ford was the president, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank to the bottom of Lake Superior, Generalissimo Francisco Franco died in Spain (and is still dead), and Jack Nicholson was known more for being one of America’s finest actors than as the number one Los Angeles Lakers uber-fan.

The film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was released on November 19, 1975, which makes it 35 years old this week. It starred Nicholson at his anti-authoritarian best in the role of Randle Patrick McMurphy, a habitual petty criminal who chooses to serve the remainder of a prison sentence in a mental hospital, thereby avoiding hard labor. McMurphy quickly comes into conflict with dictatorial nurse Mildred Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher, who employs threats, intimidation, and more evil forms of manipulation to control the patients. McMurphy constantly challenges Ratched’s authority, becoming a rabble-rouser for the patients by leading them in loud card games, demanding to watch the World Series on television, smuggling booze and prostitutes inside the facility, and even “escaping” with the patients for an impromptu fishing trip.

McMurphy eventually learns that he jumped from the skillet into the fire by leaving prison when Nurse Ratched begins harsher forms of “treatment” for him to make him more docile. After a series of electroshock treatments, he is eventually lobotomized, leaving him in a vegetative state. As an act of mercy, he is euthanized by his friend Chief, a silent 6-foot-7 Native American who the staff believes to be deaf and mute.

The film was a brilliant adaptation of the 1962 novel of the same name written by counter-culture pioneer Ken Kesey. Kesey based the book on his own experiences of working at a mental health facility in Menlo Park, California while studying at Stanford University. While there he became a guinea pig in a CIA-funded study of the effects of hallucinogenic drugs on humans. His experience in the study placed him squarely on the path of chemical enlightenment, making him a leader of the psychedelic movement.

The book was adapted for the screen by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman and directed by Milos Forman. Louise Fletcher became Nurse Ratched after a host of Hollywood A-list actresses passed on the role. Several familiar faces appear in the film, including patients Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito, who would later team up again for many years on Taxi. Brad Dourif made his screen debut as a stuttering patient named Billy, and was awarded an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

The movie was filmed at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, which was also the setting for the novel. (No one but me will ever find this interesting, but I visited this facility a few years ago when I was doing research for a project I was working on called America at a 45-degree Angle, where I explored the U.S. along the 45th parallel. It just so happens that the Oregon State Hospital (now closed) rests directly on top of the 45th parallel, placing it halfway between the Equator and the North Pole. … See, I told you no one but me would find this interesting.)

The film went on to sweep the “Big Five” Academy Awards that year (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay), something that has only happened two other times in history.

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Missed Buses: Ken Kesey & the “Furthur,” Part 2

"The Onion" in North Hills. Site of the first L.A. Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Last week I wrote about the 1960s counter-culture gang of troubadour trippers know as the Merry Pranksters and their leader, author Ken Kesey, who would have turned 75 last Friday. The Pranksters, who were made famous in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, spent much of the early 60s travelling around America in a psychedelic ex-school bus called the “Furthur,” attempting to enlighten the uninitiated to the joys of the drug LSD (which was still legal at the time).

The Acid Tests, as their staged hallucinogenic extravaganzas were called, first came to Los Angeles in February 1966, not to a concert hall or rock festival as you may imagine, but to a church.

The church still stands and is known officially as the Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society, but is more commonly referred to as “The Onion” due to its unique bulbous shape.

The building had been designed and built two years prior to hosting the Acid Test by Hungarian architect Frank Erenthal. The contoured wood beam building, with its unobstructed round interior, was designed to promote the church’s non-hierarchal structure, thereby placing everyone on the same plane, much like King Arthur’s Round Table.

Kesey had met and befriended the church’s pastor, Rev. Paul Sawyer, a year earlier in Northern California. When the Pranksters decided to motor the Furthur to L.A. to psychically heal the city after the devastating Watts Riots, Sawyer was asked if they could stage an Acid Test inside his church.

It was not that strange of a request for the UU facility, because the church, then as now, leaned heavily to the left, and was a gathering place for anti-war rallies and activist forums. (The same holds true today, where the only change is the location of the war that is being protested.)

Sawyer said it would be okay as long as LSD wasn’t passed out to the crowd. This request was ignored and acid was served as dessert following an opening meal’s main course, which was a Prankster concoction known as Pineapple Chili.

What followed was one of the wildest nights of the entire psychedelic era. The event was co-hosted by hippy hipster Wavy Gravy and Beat poet Neal Cassady, with the Grateful Dead taking advantage of the Onion’s perfect acoustics.

Kesey, who was famous for writing the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, didn’t attend the Onion’s Acid Test as he was busy hiding out from the law in Mexico at the time. He remained friends with Rev. Sawyer until his death in 2001. Rev. Sawyer passed away in July of this year at the age of 75.

This unique piece of L.A. hippie history can be found at 9550 Haskell Avenue in the San Fernando Valley community of North Hills.


Missed Buses: Ken Kesey & the “Furthur,” Part 1

 

 

 

“You’re either on the bus, or you’re off the bus.”

I have never used illegal drugs, but that doesn’t stop me from considering myself a hippie. 

Although I was too young to appreciate it at the time, the 1960s “stick it to the man” era still resonates with me, and I make regular pilgrimages to San Francisco’s newly-gentrified Haight-Ashbury district to catch some of the lingering vibe. 

Author Ken Kesey, one of the many founders of the counter-culture movement, would have turned 75 today. 

Kesey was born in Colorado in 1935 and grew up in Oregon. He was a gifted athlete and scholar and entered the creative writing program at Stanford University in 1959. While there he volunteered to be a guinea pig in a CIA-funded study on the effects of mind-altering drugs. 

The experience led to the creation of his masterpiece One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest  in 1962, which was an instant success. He used the money from the book to purchase a home in La Honda, California, where he lead a group of like-minded experimenters known as the “Merry Pranksters” in mind-expanding drug trips known as “acid tests.” 

Deadwrite & the Furthur.

In an attempt to enlighten uptight America, Kesey and the Pranksters took to the road in 1964 in a psychedelic 1939 International Harvester bus named the “Furthur,” which Kesey purchased for $1500. The trip was made famous by Tom Wolfe in 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which is considered a landmark work in the emerging field of New Journalism. 

Kesey later spent years on the lam and dropped out of the San Francisco hippie scene after spending a stint in jail. He moved back to Oregon where he continued writing and participating in counter-cultural events until his death from liver failure in 2001. 

 

Which brings me back to the Furthur. 

One would expect that such a famous bus that had such a large cultural impact on American history (for better or worse) to be in the Smithsonian, or perhaps in a private collection. 

Uh-uh. 

Kimi and I found it a couple of years ago disintegrating into a pile of multi-colored rust in the middle of a field on Kesey’s farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon. 

We were given directions to the farm by some locals who had known and loved Kesey. We didn’t feel comfortable showing up uninvited, but they assured us that the family wouldn’t mind. When we arrived, we glimpsed the Furthur in the field in all its decrepit glory, but discovered that no one was home. 

We snapped some photos of the bus, as well as of Kesey’s grave in the back yard, then left a note on the door informing the family of our visit, noting that our intent was to pay homage rather than trespass. 

The last I heard, the bus had been dragged from the field and is in the process of being restored. Who knows? Maybe it will actually make it to the Smithsonian someday. 

But I like the idea of it rusting in a field, because it was on fields in places like Woodstock and Golden Gate Park where the counter-culture movement was first born and once thrived. It seems fitting that this symbol of the 60s would pass away in a similar setting.  

 

(Next week we will visit The Onion in North Hills where Kesey and the Pranksters first brought the acid tests to L.A.)