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Classic Posters – Interview with Chet Helms by Michael Erlewine

Classic Posters – Interview with Chet Helms by Michael Erlewine

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Published by Michael Erlewine
These are articles on concert-music posters and poster collecting from the site ClassicPosters.com founded by award-winning archivist of popular culture Michael Erlewine who founded All-Music Guide, All-Movie Guide, Astrologyland.com and many other popular Internet sites. All articles copyright and written or produced by Michael Erlewine. Do visit ClassicPosters.com in its current incarnation.
These are articles on concert-music posters and poster collecting from the site ClassicPosters.com founded by award-winning archivist of popular culture Michael Erlewine who founded All-Music Guide, All-Movie Guide, Astrologyland.com and many other popular Internet sites. All articles copyright and written or produced by Michael Erlewine. Do visit ClassicPosters.com in its current incarnation.

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Published by: Michael Erlewine on Jan 08, 2011
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Classic Posters
 –
Interview with Chet Helms by Michael Erlewine
 
Classic Posters
 –
Interview with ChetHelms by Michael ErlewineBackground in Texas
 
Michael Erlewine:
What was your givenname Chet?Chet Helms: August 2nd, 1942.Chet Helms: Born in Santa Maria, CA.Chet Helms: Chester Leo Helms, Jr.Michael Erlewine: You've done so much
I can't hope to… everyone says you
have a wealth of stories and knowledge.Basically, what I'd like to know is: howdid you get to California or to this areaof California? How did you get involvedin the scene? How did you get started inthis whole dance-hall scene?
Chet Helms:
Chester Leo Helms, Jr.
Michael Erlewine:
How did you get toCalifornia or to this area of California?How did you get involved in the scene?How did you get started in these wholedance-hall scene?
Chet Helms:
 
Well, I think that‟s how it
seems to be getting written in historyright now. I think I and a lot of otherpeople started this whole dance-hall
scene. I was certainly one of the, I don‟t
know, inner circle of maybe ten or fifteenpeople who kind of generated it.
My background was that I was…welllet‟s put it this way: my background for 
presenting shows had to do with havinggrown up, after my father passed awaywhen I was nine, under the tutelage, ifyou will, of my grandfather. He was afundamentalist Baptist minister whoessentially made his living and way inthe world by starting little churches allover Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, andback there. And he had the Worth BibleCollege, and he had a correspondenceschool. You could take private lessons.You just sent him money and ultimatelygot some kind of a little doctorate ofdivinity or something of that order. Butbasically, many of the samefundamentals for creating and producingchurches apply to creating andproducing shows. So, a lot of the skillsthat I had, that I brought to that, came,really, pretty directly out of, in a sense,being back stage at a church. Youknow.
Michael Erlewine:
Hmm, what wouldsome of those skills be?
Chet Helms:
Well, promotional skills,for one thing. How to communicate to
the world that you‟re doing something at
a particular time and place. Part of thatcame out the fact that my uncles wereprinters. I think my uncles and mygrandfather got into printing initially, sothey could publish Bible tracks. But tomake a living at it, they also printedadvertisements for newspapers andbroadsides for local supermarkets andthings of that order. My brothers and Ihad a canvassing distribution business
when we were teenagers, which doesn‟t
sound like much now, but we were
makin‟ two bucks an hour, when there
were plenty of grown men making fifty,sixty, seventy-five cents an hour inTexas. This was primarily because weguaranteed our work.And if we covered one of these newtract-house subdivisions with hand billsand someone found some in a gutter orsomething of that order, if there was anyquestion whatsoever about ourcoverage of it, we went right backimmediately into that neighborhood anddid it over again a second time. As you
know, it‟s a tedious, monotonous,
 
Classic Posters
 –
Interview with Chet Helms by Michael Erlewine
 
grueling (particularly in Texas heat) kindof work. More often than not, whenpeople hired people to do that, thethings ended up in gutters or in garbagecans and that sort of thing. I think wewere, in a sense, too religious to do itthat way, and also we were kind of, tosome degree, supervised by my unclesand grandfather, who ran the printshops that got us the jobs.And you know, for kids, we did prettygood at that. And later, when I wasrunning shows here at the Avalon, I hadmy brother. He did all my canvassingand poster posting and things like that.He was the only person I knew thatwould do it in, essentially, an obsessivekind of way, and it would get done and
they wouldn‟t be in a dumpster 
somewhere. He was the only person I
could count on to get an ulcer doin‟ it,
you know. I knew it would get taken careof.From a promotional stand point, and Ithink
it‟s kind of central to the whole
poster thing, kind of at the core of mybeliefs about promotion, that while thefirst order of promotion is the word ofmouth; the second order, the mostintimate means of communicating anevent to people, is through a handbill or
broadside because, again, it‟s a one
-on-
one contact. It‟s a person saying, “Heretake this flyer, be here or be square,” so
to speak. My brother, in those days,really was my main conduit ofinformation from the street. He was avery important gauge to me of how wewere coming across to the public.Because, in the course of his travels allover the Bay Area to put up the postersand to hand out hand bills and leavestacks of hand bills, people talked to
him. “Oh I went to that show and that
guy suc
ked,” or, you know, “I had a hard
time with the doorman and my friendsaid he had a hard time with the
doorman,” all this kind of information.
 It came back to me through my brother,so it was a very important kind of gauge.
I was a printer‟s devil in let
terpressshops as a kid. I set type by hand andmelted down all this, you know, slagtype and stuff like that. I could run aLinotype machine, just a little bit. Theywere just beginning to train me a little biton that. I was in charge of melting downall of the cuts and recasting from thoselittle blotter paper molds with the casting
machine. I‟d make up the cuts, youknow. They‟d get mailed to you in the
form of these paper molds, essentially,
and then there was a way that you‟d
mask up this thing on the castingmachine. You would pour the hot leadand antimony into it. I always had littlepits in my arms that would never heal,because the metal blowback antimony ispretty toxic stuff. And those castingmachines would regularly spew metalback at you and stuff like that. And Ialways had belt burns on my arms,
because these big ol‟ presses that we‟d
use for the advertiser newspapers andstuff were built out of cast iron; built in1880s, but still running. The big drumpresses and newspaper presses werealways breakin' down 'cause they hadthese big leather belts, and the mostcommon thing that happened to them isthat the leather belt would go and thenmy uncle would have to get in there andreplace the leather belt or mend it orthat sort of thing.So that happened so frequently, he'dalways leave the belt guards off, so asnot to have to be taking them on and off
all the time. So if you weren‟t careful,you‟d walk into one of those belts. You‟d
be carrying a whole stack of posters or
 
Classic Posters
 –
Interview with Chet Helms by Michael Erlewine
 
handbills or something like that and justbrush against one of those moving belts
and it‟d burn your arm. I always had
streaks on my arms from, you know,things like that.Anyway, I spent a goodly time as aprinter's devil. I always loved printing,loved pretty much anything to do withbooks or typography. Of course, myuncle used to get all these sample
books, and he‟d get so many of them,he‟d toss them in the garbage. There
were typography or big, thick books ofstock cuts that you could buy littleiconographic things, you know, printedone time in a big catalog book. Youcould order the little paper mats to cast
these things from. And I‟d always haul
these things out of the garbage. I was
always fascinated by them, and I‟d hang
on to them.
Michael Erlewine:
Did you pour someof them, make them?
Chet Helms:
Yeah, yeah,
Michael Erlewine:
 
Oh, these weren‟t
the molds?
Chet Helms:
 
These weren‟t the molds.
 
Michael Erlewine:
I see.
Chet Helms:
You would order it fromthe company and they would mail youthis kind of a papier-mâché mold, somekind of wet paper that was formed overit and then became the mold for it.I first came to California in 1962, for acouple of reasons - really threeimmediate reasons. One was that I wasborn in California and I had a lot ofidyllic memories of my childhood, when
my father was alive. I wasn‟t happy
about moving to Texas at the time thatwe did.
Michael Erlewine:
What age were youwhen you moved to Texas?
Chet Helms:
Nine years old. Iconsidered myself into beat poetry and Iwas writing poetry and doing myobligatory hitchhike from coast to coast
… duty, to earn my stripes as a beatnik.
"
Michael Erlewine:
And when did youcome to San Francisco?
Chet Helms:
I came back here in 1962,and I guess I was about 19 or 20.
Michael Erlewine:
You came to thisarea?
Chet Helms:
To San Francisco, right.
Why I came to San Francisco is …
actually I think you made reference tothis yourself about coming to Venice asa beatnik wannabe, but that was a majormotivating factor for me. I consideredmyself into beat poetry and I was writingpoetry and doing my obligatory hitchhike
from coast to coast … duty, to earn my
stripes as a beatnik. I had readsomewhere that a lot of beatniks gottheir mail on the bulletin board at CityLights Books, so when I got to SanFrancisco, that became my mail drop,and it probably was for about five years
… several years anyway.
 Actually it was my primary mail drop forabout three years, and as I had officesand things like that, then of course I wasgetting my mail there, But you know, fora good five years there were still letterscoming from friends, who were travelingdifferent parts of the world, that wouldbe posted on the board at City Lights.So one reason was to kind of regain mychildhood, in a sense. I had wonderfulmemories of California as a child and sothat was part of the motivation. Part of

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