Last June I attended a memorial meeting for film-maker Fred Baker, best known for his documentary “Lenny Bruce Without Tears”. As is customary for such events, others and I spoke about our connections to Fred. I said that when I first met Fred I was struck by his off-the-cuff observation that a revolutionary party could only be built out of a mass movement, something that had taken me over a decade to figure out. I also described Fred as a shining example of America’s bohemian underground that has been around since the days of Walt Whitman, a kind of permanent opposition to the dominant racism and imperialism that might be repressed from time to time but that never dies.
In 1996 I sat down with Fred for a series of videotaped interviews that covered his remarkable life as an actor and filmmaker. Born in 1932, Fred’s life straddles the CP-inspired Popular Front culture of Paul Robeson and the sixties counter-culture. Indeed, people of Fred’s age were a kind of transmission belt between the two periods, never giving in to the soul-destroying 1950s. Singing in leftwing choruses in the early 40s, staging a draftee’s Yossarian-like resistance to the Korean War, performing in musical comedies in the 1950s, launching a career as a pornographer in the 1960s, and making leading edge films in the 70s until his last year on earth—all this was part of his remarkable story.
At the memorial meeting, his partner Beverly mentioned that in the course of organizing his library on behalf of the Smithsonian, she discovered the 1996 videotapes. I became inspired to turn them into a Vimeo production on the Internet, something I am sure that Fred would smile down on from Red Heaven while sitting on the cloud next to Paul Robeson. Getting close to retirement, I hope to find more time for the oral history type videos that a modest camcorder, tools like Final Cut Pro and the Worldwide Web make feasible. The last time I spoke to Fred, I told him that I would like to sit down with him and get him up to speed on what can be done. He died before we could get together but I’d like to think that the DIY sensibility of Youtube and Vimeo was in many ways descended from his pioneering work and other guerrilla film and video makers of the 60s and 70s, including his good friend Frank Cavestani and Frank’s wife the late Laura Kronenberg Cavestani.
From time to time, when I get a nagging feeling that it is a little late in life to become a videographer, I am reminded of Fred Baker who did not let HIV, emphysema, and a host of other illnesses brought on by old age get in the way of his own productivity. Weeks before his death, he was all fired up about a documentary he was doing on striped bass fishermen on the Hudson River nearby his son’s home in New Windsor. Fred was a fireball up until the day his heart finally stopped ticking. At the memorial meeting his son-in-law described going to a jam session with Fred on a Saturday afternoon, where he could play drums. Drumming had been a passion of his since the age of 8 when Pearl Primus, an African-American dance counselor at Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, a leftist summer camp, introduced him to the instrument. His son-in-law said he practically had to run to keep up with Fred on the sidewalk, even as Fred was forced to lug an oxygen tank on wheels behind him for his emphysema.
As pleased as I am with the video, that only scratches the surface of Fred’s remarkable life. These resources help to complete the picture:
Acting on the Web: a website by Frank Cavestani for aspiring actors. I met Fred through Frank, whose connections to the both of us are covered in the video.
Garin Baker online gallery of fine art: Socially aware and artistically powerful works by Fred’s son.