Censoring Flaming Creatures

Censoring Flaming Creatures

 Flaming Creatures debuted in 1963 and was shown three times in early 1964 at the Gramercy Art Theatre without incident until the police issued a summons against the movie and the theater was forced to halt its screenings. The resourceful Jonas Mekas continued the screenings at the Bowery Theatre in the East Village, which was then hosting Diane di Prima’s New York Poets Theatre company. On March 3, 1964, an undercover police officer in the audience arrested as many people as he could, including Mekas. “He watched the film,” Mekas recalled, “and I knew, ‘That’s a cop, and he may arrest me.’ I even had sandwiches in my pocket prepared already. Chicken sandwiches. I knew I might be arrested. They had seen an advertisement and the police just came in. They were waiting until the end of the film. No big fuss. I just spent a couple nights in jail.” Future gay rights activist Harvey Milk was another audience member who was thrown in the police wagon and taken to the Ninth Precinct house on East Fifth Street. Mekas was sentenced to sixty days in a prison workhouse in 1964, an unsettling irony for the survivor of a Nazi labor camp who came to America for the freedoms it offered. His sentence was eventually suspended, and fifty-one years later prosecuting attorney Gerald Harris reached out to Mekas. “I feel I owe you an apology,” he wrote in a 2015 email. “Although my appreciation of free expression and aversion to censorship developed more fully as I matured, I should have sooner acted more courageously.” The New York Times reported that Mekas replied immediately: “Your surprise generous apology accepted!”

From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore


New York Poets Theatre
84 E 10th St, New York, NY 10003