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Hollywood Goes Poetic

Times Staff Writer

Justine Bateman, star of “Family Ties” and the fast-track party circuit, wasn’t dancing at Helena’s.

She was reading poetry.

Smiling serenely, she recited “Ice,” a romantic, confessional poem about a platinum blonde who abandons her fiance at a party where “guests could already hear her packing.”

On another night, actor Robert Downey Jr. cracked up an attentive industry crowd with his raunchy satire/erotic fantasy on an alternative scenario for “Gorillas in the Mist.”

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And recently, Katey Sagal, “Married . . . With Children’s” Spandex queen and mom, instructed her listeners that “we can never be all things to all people, but we can be all things to ourselves. Just for the fun of it.”

It’s poetry, Hollywood style. And since last October, it’s been served up weekly at Helena’s, the West Temple Street private supper club known for its elite, New Hollywood clientele.

Celebrities Do Readings

Here under the fuchsia lights each Wednesday night, entertainers such as Judd Nelson, Ed Begley Jr., Michael Des Barres, Harry Dean Stanton, Carl Reiner, Michael J. Pollard, Michael O’Keefe , Patti D’Arbanville and others have read their own work or that of established poets.

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Their performances have been so well received that other actors have agreed to read as well--Melanie Griffith, Don Johnson, Charlie Sheen, Ally Sheedy, Rebecca De Mornay, Alfre Woodard, Rutger Hauer, Howard Hesseman and David Carradine among them.

As poetry record producer Harvey Kubernik describes the weekly phenomenon, “New York had the beat poets. L.A. has the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) poets.”

What’s more, serious literary figures have occasionally come by to share the upscale spotlight and listen at tables graced with Dendrobium orchids.

Says Hubert Selby Jr., author of “Last Exit to Brooklyn” who’s read several times at Helena’s: “The thing is, everybody has a lot of fun. Most of the time, poetry readings are in less than hospitable surroundings. This makes it available to people rather than keeping it in some academic classroom.”

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And L.A. poet Wanda Coleman, a medical transcriber who’s won an Emmy for soap-opera writing and a Guggenheim fellowship for her poetry, recently gave such an intensely moving reading of her work that a producer in the audience later called to offer her an acting job.

Officially, the presenters are called the Temple Street Poets because of the location. But they will temporarily become Poetry in Motion when Helena’s closes for the month of April. The readings will continue on Tuesday nights at the Heartbreak Cafe on La Brea Avenue.

(Former actress and dancer Helena Kallianiotes, who opened her club to the public and lowered food prices for the weekly readings, hasn’t decided what she’s going to do with her business in the interim. “They (city officials) want me to rebuild it and put in paraplegic bathrooms,” she says. “Or I could go back to a lower capacity.”)

While club insiders say that the Helena’s traffic on other nights has not been particularly stellar of late (with the star heat moving to the recently opened club, b.c.), the poetry readings have been standing room only.

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Audiences typically hear about 10 poets--roughly a 50-50 mix between actors and non-actors--performing for about seven minutes each. As Kubernik puts it, “Some of the stuff’s like radiation. You get five- to 10-minute jolts.”

According to observers of the L.A. poetry scene, the weekly experiment at Helena’s is unprecedented. Though a theme usually is assigned to each evening’s presentations (“Ecstasy” and “All Dressed Up With No Place to Go” were explored recently), an abundant mix of styles and subjects has been addressed by the readers. And typically, plenty of uncensored verse on the unglamorous side of show business.

“You get your share of the ‘I’ve blown my audition’ poems,” says actor Michael O’Keefe, who recently read a freshly written commentary on “actresses as female impersonators,” a poem he felt sure would insult the actresses in the crowd.

O’Keefe had never performed the poem before, but it was received with wild applause and all-too-knowing laughter.

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Testing New Material

Though some of the more established poets say they’d never risk reading a new, untested work before such a hip, demanding crowd, many of the actor/poets first expose their poetry to the public at Helena’s.

Katey Sagal, for instance, has long been a songwriter but only lately began writing and performing her poetry at the club. She claims she’s not ready to have one of her poems published in a newspaper, but didn’t mind performing them before her peers. “It’s a risky thing to do,” she acknowledges. “But everybody’s such a ham, once you start, you get the bug.”

It’s a new experience for many in the audience, too.

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“For a lot of people here, this is their first exposure to serious poetry--they’re finding it can be entertaining. It can make you laugh or cry. Some of the people in this room are making six figures a year, performing or directing or producing,” says Kubernik, a long-time participant in L.A.'s poetry scene.

“And they’re hearing people who grew up in South Central L.A., like Wanda Coleman, who’s been a welfare mother and still has to work a day job. . . . You see glimpses of light here you didn’t know existed. I felt the room lift a bunch of times. And none of the stuff was moon/June poetry.”

Few poems are greeted with silence, demure applause or contemplative “hmmmmms.” The folks here are demonstrative whether they’re pleased (whistling, barking and clapping) or not (booing, hissing and shouting).

Observes poet/actor Michael Lally, who organizes the weekly events with poet/producer Eve Brandstein: “The amazing thing is that a room full of mostly cynical Hollywood people spontaneously cries or bursts into applause or sometimes boos.”

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One poet, whose work resembled a letter to Penthouse’s Forum sprinkled with bits of animal torture, was not only booed but pelted with cries of “No, no, no” and “Sit down.”

Finally, he left the stage, muttering, “I guess people are still eating.”

How good is the other stuff?

Wanda Coleman declines to characterize the quality of the actors’ poems, but she applauds their performances. “When they’re actors, they deliver,” she enthuses. “They really deliver, baby.”

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“Some of the poets who read (a recent night) were not that strong,” says Austin Straus, a respected L.A. poet who teaches poetry at UCLA Extension and, with Coleman, hosts “The Poetry Connexion” on KPFK-FM. “Writing poetry is part of finding yourself. The actors are trying to go through that process. I’m not going to criticize them for it. I like to see anybody making the effort.”

Meanwhile, don’t expect the actors who read at Helena’s to forsake the celluloid trenches for the poetic life anytime soon.

Says O’Keefe, who’s appeared in “Ironweed” and “Caddyshack”: “My identity will always be as an actor, but it’s nice to have something else. I like being perceived as a poet because most actors are perceived as having the IQ’s of their bowling scores--not very good bowling scores, I might add.”

A New Yorker, he reports that there is nothing in Manhattan that even approximates what happens at Helena’s: “There’s the poetry scene in New York, but it’s not plugged into the acting scene.”

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According to co-organizer Lally, who has published 20 books of poetry and acted on shows such as “L.A. Law,” some poets were initially suspicious of reading at a private night club.

“A couple of poet friends of mine came and said, ‘What is this (expletive)? Linen tablecloths!’ ” Lally recalls. “I said, ‘Shut up. Who’s to say we can’t read in comfortable places where people spend a little money for dinner.’ ”

Others have scoffed at the notion of the glitterati tackling the work of great poets, mocking, “Right. Sure. To be or not to be. That is the question, babe.”

Even co-organizer Brandstein had doubts about the project initially.

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“I was reluctant at first to do poetry with the slant we have: the Hollywood poet. My fear was it would get too trendy, too hip and not be about poetry, something I value in a spiritual way,” says Brandstein, a producer and director who worked for 10 years as Norman Lear’s vice president for talent development and casting.

“But this is a culture, the Hollywood culture. And poets are the guardians of the culture. . . . I’ve had people tell me they go home and write after they leave here. There have been some really fine poems read here.”

Larger Audience

And they reach ears that might not ever find themselves at a traditional poetry reading, points out Los Angeles poet Jack Grapes.

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In his view, Kallianiotes, Brandstein and Lally are “getting poetry out of the cloistered halls of academia and the pseudo-intellectual coffeehouse scene” and “bringing poetry to a larger audience.”

“The L.A. poetry scene is one of the best-kept secrets in the country,” adds Grapes, who’s considered one of L.A.'s leading poets and has acted on shows such as “Hill Street Blues” and “MASH.”

“If poetry is vital and good, as it is in this city, it will survive anything,” he insists. ". . . So we get a different audience here. . . . At least the people here can afford to buy the poets’ books. We should be doing our poetry at Chasen’s and Ma Maison.”

A Cigarette’s Life By Justine Bateman The flame compels it To turn a fiery red. Hypnotic, swirling smoke Is emitted from its head. With each hit, ignition More burning of the friend. The waste sect grows, and Finally descends. Devoured by the air, Prepared for finale, It’s smothered by force Ending its trite ballet.

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