Monday, December 25, 2006

Johnny Coulon: Count Dante's first teacher and Mining MY Memory

Looking back to my early youth in the 1960s, my first years in Chicago living on South State Street in the Harold Ickes Projects, and a block from the Cermak and State Street "L," the Howard/Jackson/Englewood line. It was the lifeline of Chicago's Southside public transportation system. I think of how we used to hop the turnstiles when I hung out with my more adventurous associates.

Usually I was the one always caught. I was never fast enough to get to the doors most times and not brave enough to leap onto the back of the last car, climb over the chains and open the back door of the train as the car pulled out of the station. Well, I did do that once, proud and full of myself on a cold day and my "friends" held the door shut as we headed south for 35th Street.

These were the forbidden and secret "roughneck fieldtrips" I would take with those friends who were smart but prone to activities whose end result was usually a bench at 13 St. Police Lock Up, Prairie Police Station, or if you made the big time Moseley Juvenile Facility or, if you were just old enough Cook County jail. Fortunately, my tenure with them was not that long that I did not wise up in the nick of time. Whew!

Sometimes we would go north. If it was summer we would walk , stopping at Mr. Johnson's on 18th and Michigan(?) to ask about selling Jet magazine for him. On days like this he would not like the company I was keeping most likely and tell us to come back another time. Winter is when we did the L antics.

One of my friends, Marshall, had a bad habit of accosting white kids going to Beach Boy concerts and other events at the old McCormick Place before it burned down. He hated the Beach Boy music as I recall. He called it barbershop quartet music by the ocean. I liked Good Vibrations, even though I was never going to tell him that, good synthesizer work. He called laying low casing Sears and Wards and using us not as look outs ,but distractions while he plied his trade as a thief. No 13th Street Lock Up for the rest of us. We left him on his own. And kept to activities that did not involve the end result being a free ride in a Paddy Wagon or or get disciplined from the end of a nightstick.

My favorite roughneck outing was going to the Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium and the Field Museum. In the summer we would walk from Cermack to Prairie, over to Calumet and over the 18 St Bridge that crossed both the wide swath of Illinois Central railroad tracks and Lakeshore Drive. It was a long wooden spooky bridge that creaked. It was on these trips that a couple of us developed a more socially acceptable way of experiencing these outings. We were learning stuff.

One of my friend's, Mickey, was learning boxing. One day he pops up and asks me to go south to 63rd Street with him. He even had tokens, and we would not need transfers. So I was down for it because I had .25 US for 2 .12 comic books plus a penny for two peppermint sticks to suck on while I read them under a tree, if I found one as I walked around usually around IIinois Institute of Technology or somewhere.

Mickey was a little guy like me who liked to read and his father sent him to boxing at the Duncan YMCA and he had to go to this gym on east 63rd St. on the "B" Jackson Park train. 63rd Street was a black business Mecca back then, on the edge of the University of Chicago Campus. I had been up there shopping with my mom in the past and I had some older guys I knew who had jobs at Shine King around 63rd and King Dr.

Shine King for those of you who don't know was a shoeshine joint. Back in the days before Run DMC made "My Adidas", young black men wore the finest of leather shoes that they would keep immaculately shined along with being impeccably dressed, to get clean and to be cool. This was a ritual when I was growing up watching the older guys, and is still to this day for more than a few. The barbershop, the clothing store, and the shoeshine shop in lesser forms remain as image workshops in the hood. I am sounding like an old fart now, right? Hell, I am slowly getting there. :-)

To be "clean," in African American terminology, is to be beautifully dressed. The concept of "Clean" and "cool" are surviving African spiritual concepts in America. It is from the Yoruba, related to "Awa" or character, an aspect of being cool, or "itutu" all coming out of the creative force "Axé ." Being close to the "L" was like being on a river, a good part of the city was mine to explore and learn from and about, simply and efficiently.

If you want to reference the "clean" stuff check out Robert Farris Thompson's Flash of the Spirit and his essay , An Aesthetic of the Cool, African Arts, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Autumn, 1973). It must be scared or dangerous knowledge. You have to have an affiliation with an academic institution, university or pay for it. I found it online here, but could not access it. But you can see RFT online in an interview I did with him for a DVD extra for one of the films I worked on, Daughters of the Dust.

Anyway, enough digression.

This gym we ended up going to was Johnny Coulons, the train went right past the windows of the place, just as it did the old Jiu Jitsu Institute in the Loop. I don't think you could see anything but the office with all the boxing photos on the wall.

I did not remember any of this until I started doing research on John Keehan's boxing background. It was a lot of years back and memories were vague. John says in his last interview with Mas Ayoob in Jan. 1976, that he studied boxing at Johnny Coulon's Gym on 63rd St. Johnny, born in Canada in 1889, was a real character, a showman and a very warm welcoming tough guy, pretty much like John turned out to be. This is where the Irish kid from Beverly got hooked up to the South Side and why he was so comfortable around people of other races, because that was the man Johnny Coulon was and we tend to follow the teachers we admire.

Coulons Gym was a place where all the greats of boxing trained. Muhammad Ali trained at Coulons to stay in shape when he was banned from boxing. Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano had all trained at Coulons Gym. Talk about good beginnings.

LeRoy Neiman sketched boxers there; Ernest Hemingway sparred with boxers there; Haskell Wexler shot parts of the film Medium Cool there in 1968. Coulon has a walk-on in the film (I'll be licensing that if it is not too expensive).

Coulon was a good friend of Jack Johnson's and frequented his "Cafe du Champion." Coulon was also a pallbearer at Jack Johnson's funeral. As performer in vaudville shows and holding exhibition , he would do a trick where he would dare any man to lift his 110 lb frame.

Johnny Coulon was a man who did not belive in racism and taught that to his boxers. When the riots came in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Coulon's Gym was among those buildings not burned or looted. He was loved and respected by his community. I am betting Johnny Coulon was a role model for the kind of person John Keehan would ahve to to have been and remained. We definite know in a verifiable way he had a good base to work from.

The stories inside the story I am telling are fascinating in themselves. Makes it hard to make choices. But I will work it out. I am ending the year happy with the progress of the film and with my research. A little cash will not hurt at all about now. On to fundraising for completition in Jan and Feb 2007.

Well I got more to tell, like a months worth of stuff. More after I have my holiday meal.....


Anonymous said...

I would like to buy a copy of your Count Dante documentary... how can I get one?

Brenden Wirth said...

johnny coulon was my great uncle