The true story of Clyde Casey, a street performer who used surrealism and abstract art to fight crime in Los Angeles’ Skid Row in the 1980s, and the creator of a place called Another Planet. Also featuring the voices of Tim Robbins (yes, THAT Tim Robbins), Lonnie Johnson, Flame Simon, Richard Haxton, and Lil Daddy.
Produced by David Weinberg, Brendan Baker, and Nick van der Kolk. This episode is a co-production with The Organist podcast, from Believer Magazine and KCRW.
Image credit: Rachel HarperPLAYLIST
Artist – Title – Album
Califone – Rooftop Static – Deceleration One
Califone – Night Falls – Deceleration One
Matmos – Rainbow Flag –Supreme Balloon
Califone – Rooftop Static – Deceleration One
Matmos – Rainbow Flag – Supreme Balloon
Robert Black – Amok! IV – Evan Ziporyn: Gamelan Galak Tika
Philip Glass – Prophecies – Koyaanisqatsi
Clyde Casey‘s music
Phillip Glass – The Grid – Koyaanisqatsi
Deerhoof – Desaparecere – Milk Man
Mountains – Identical Ship – Centralia
Tim Hecker – Arctic Loner’s Rock Part 1– Haunt Me
Mountains – Map Table – Choral
Tim Hecker – Arctic Loner’s Rock, Part 1 – Haunt Me
Moondog – Intro and Overtone Continuum – Elpmas
Moondog – 5/4 Snakebite Rattle – Moondog, the Viking of 6th Avenue, An Authorized Biography
Matmos – Rainbow Flag – Supreme Balloon
Clyde Casey – Artist, Security Guard
Can you set the scene for me? Like, for someone that never been here before. The scene, where we explain it and then what we’re looking at and where we are.
Lil Daddy: We’re on the corner. No, no, that’s too much information for your radio station. Way too much.
I’m going to tell them, they’re going to know where we are. That’s a given, I mean, asking you to say it.
Nah, I’m not going to say it.
Okay. Well, we’re at King Eddie’s. What does it look like? Just say what you’re looking at.
King Eddie’s is off the hook. There are people standing out in front. If you go inside, there’s going to be a bouncer. You know what I’m saying? He regulates pretty good. Then they’re going to be some people at the bar. You’re going to see a couple of cute white girls. You’re going to see a couple of cute black girls. You’re going to see a couple of cute Hispanic girls, and you know what I’m saying. Your going to get your swag on. You walk up in there and then automatically, you know what I’m saying?
All eyes are on you because you got that hundred percent swag going anyway. Right? You sit down, you know, you order a drink, right? You ordered the lady next to you, a drink. You know what I’m saying? You know, you have a discussion. You take her out on the dance floor and you dance with her when nobody else is dancing in the whole bar, right? You make her feel like a lady full of wine. She doesn’t even have to be that attractive. And then they’re all going to start like, “Wow.” You know, this guy is just like, you know. What is with this guy, you know, and they’re going to want to have that vibe and they’re going to gather around and they’re going to start, you know.
There’s a science to it too. There’s everything that you can imagine up in there. Anything that you want, you know? You want a girl, you know what I’m saying? Whatever you want. You want some bud, whatever you want, it’s up in there. But just so you know, it’s just like any other place down here on Skid Row. That’s what this place consists of. Disease and drugs and alcohol and poverty. Yeah. And outside giant insane asylum. That’s what it is. The devil’s den. That’s where you’re at. You got a lot of balls.
Clyde Casey: Downtown LA back in the later eighties, there was a lot of cardboard condos where people slept on the street. A lot of missions. A lot of these people were in a revolving door of dependency upon a handout. It was tough. And in the middle of all that, there was the wholesale district, a wholesale district. And then on the other side was somewhat of an avant garde art community that was beginning to form downtown. And were we were at, was at Wall and Boyd street, the Wallenboyd Theatre.
Scott Kelman was the director of the Boyd Street Theatre. Hit it off with Scott. At the time I was living in my car and he invited me to stay in the Theatre. One night they had some kind of production going on and the security guard didn’t show up and he needed somebody out there to keep an eye on things and watch over the cars coming in and these cars were coming in from the outskirts of LA. I said, “Sure, but can I perform while I’m doing that?” He said, “Oh, you can do anything you want. Just keep an eye on everything out there.” I said, “Sure, not a problem.”
Sometimes there would be someone in the area who had tried to bring in a little bit of negative into the area, some kind of a confrontation, or really being ugly with people. And all of a sudden it’s like, just going to have to deal with it. Alright.
Could you just do an introduction for me?
Tim Robbins: Oh, okay. Yeah. Hi, I’m Tim Robbins, but you want to go to in context?
Yeah, put I.D yourself or however you want to be.
Hi, I’m Tim Robbins. I was a writer and director at the Wallenboyd Theatre in the eighties.
Do you know how Casey became a fixture of that scene and sort of like, you know-
I really, I don’t. All I know is that when we arrived at the Wallenboyd, Casey was there. And I oftentimes wondered, “Well, what would happen if there was an actual altercation? The guy’s not the biggest dude in the world, and I’m not aware of any kind of secret martial arts training that he has.
Clyde: The Theatre had closed for the evening. It was around one o’clock in the morning and everything was real quiet.
Richard Haxton: I witnessed this, Casey is just doing his job, you know. There were these two guys. They were coming from opposite directions. And one guy was really wasted on wine, you know, I mean, he was really drunk and the other guy was kind of, I don’t know what it was, crystal meth or cocaine. I don’t know what it was, but he was really hyper, you know? And he was jumping around and the guy who was drunk, kind of stumbles over to him and reaches out his hand.
Clyde: This guy, he came up to me and asked me for a dollar.
Richard: The other guy, he reaches in his pocket, pulls out a knife, trying to attack him.
Clyde: And then that’s when I would just like back out of a situation, I’d do something different.
Richard: Casey. He had a military uniform. He had boots, military boots, a beret and he had sort of a military belt and holsters and where a policeman would have a gun or a night stick or something on one side, he had all orange, like those bicycle horns and that squeeze and it goes, “Wonk.” On the other side, he had a phone. This was before cell phones. Really? So it was a portable phone. It didn’t work, really. If you just punched it, it would ring. First he hit the horn, “Wonk, wonk.” These two guys look up, you know? They both kind of, “What is this?” And then the phone rings.
Clyde: We have a telephone call coming in. Maybe I should answer it, huh?
Richard: Pull the antennae out. Casey answers it.
Richard: Oh yeah. Okay. Uh huh. Yeah. It’s for you, man.
Clyde: Oh, yeah, its long distance, it’s for you. I’d say, “It’s for you. It’s collect.” It’s collect. Do what? Do what?
Richard: Hands the phone to the guy who has the knife out.
Clyde: Really, it was a long distance collect call from the planet Yuma. Home of the Yumights or Yumight not.
Richard: The guy just looks at him like, “What?”
Clyde: And you walk towards him with antennas coming out the glasses. You’d honked the horn. You’d buzz the buzzer.
Richard: He looked down at the ground. He looked at himself. He looked at the drunk guy, and he just started laughing.
Clyde: More than anything to dissuade the negative from the area was my harmonica.
Richard: And the guy’s saying, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Get away from me, man. Get away from me.” You know? And these two guys looked at each other. The drunk guy says, “So, hey man, can you spare me a quarter?” And the other guy just shook his head and kind of went off down the street, you know?
Clyde: And if anybody was getting in the face of somebody or giving me a hard time, I’d just play sounds. Different sound effects. The sound effects I carry with me now are a little bit different. You know, this right here. And just being abstract and surreal really worked. I figured well, so this was an avant garde theatre. So I guess that makes me the Avant Guardian. I had my bicycle and I would peddle around and with a bird on my shoulder.
Richard: Casey had a little cockatiel named Casara, that it would ride around on his shoulder, you know.
Clyde: Casara. Later on, I wound up putting nontoxic food coloring on her and I called her a [inaudible] and as the Avant Guardian evolved, I went over into the Korean wholesale district and started getting a lot of little goofy little things like a spring loaded Nerf gun, a fly shooter, a little accordion. And so when people would pull up to the Theatre, I started saying, “You’re well protected now, the Avant Guardian, trained by Barney Fife.”
Richard: He used humor as a weapon in a way.
Clyde: That’s things that either provoke a laughter or provoke a curiosity, but the bottom line is that it does alter the mood for that brief moment in time. And that’s all life is, made up of moments.
I was able to in a very real situation, use the power of surrealism to make a person turn around their way of thinking. It worked. It worked numerous times.
Tim: The plays we were doing at the Wallenboyd were satire. What we were doing on stage, Casey was doing on the street. He was there to be the ring of surreal protection around us.
What would he do? Like what was sort of his role as the Avant Guardian, but as the security guard, in a sense?
Well, he was, I think his role was to make sure the folks that came down there in BMWs stayed down there because you’d roll up to the Theatre and you thought, you’d think, “Oh, this is a dangerous neighborhood full of thieves. And I’m going to turn around and go.” And your date’s going, “Well, I don’t know, darn it. Why don’t want to see the actor’s today?” “No, no, no. Honey. Not down here.” And then Casey rolls up in his bike, this bizarre looking dude. And then he’s like, “Hey guys, how you doing? You can park right over here. I’ll be watching the cars through the whole show.” And then your date goes, “It’ll be okay.” So then everything’s fine. Casey was there to make everything okay. That’s what he was there for. He was creating his own surrealistic world.
Richard: That eventually evolved into something much bigger than that.
Clyde: That was ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Arrest me for impersonating a human being. I need to be given at least 12 years in Leavenworth, 11 years in twelveworth, 5 to 10 in Woolworths. Hey, put me in Woolworths. Now get out of here. Don’t disturb the monkeys unless you got bananas.
You got some change?
I don’t have any change actually.
Nah, but I got, I got what I think I got. Yeah, here you go. Because the wholesale district, I’d wind up getting harmonicas for such a cheap price. I’d always have them with me. And you know, you’re always getting approached for change and stuff. So I would give him a harmonica and then I’d have change inside of the harmonica. And I have a little note. I felt better from the heart. Always believe you give an energy to receive an energy. You know, whatever you put out will come back to you.
You know, he’s just going to use it to get high.
Yeah. He’ll put some weed on one of the holes, you know, and light it up. Probably be able to suck in on a G note.
Lonnie Johnson: I got to say, man, this is a harsh world. This area is not conducive to people helping each other. If people helped each other, then misery and depression wouldn’t be prevalent like it is. It’s dog eat dog. Don’t bother than me. Go get high your damn self. If I walk down the street and somebody say, “Hey man, I ain’t seen you in a while. Come on, lets go get a drink.” I say, “Oh man, I don’t need a drink right now.” People kind of look at you strange. Like I say, [inaudible] things that we’re all in the same boat and the boats adrift at sea. We not worrying about getting land.
One day, Casey was standing in front of the Wallenboyd Theatre and looked across the street at the abandoned gas station. It had gone out of business long ago. It was on a corner lot. Just a little building with an awning, decaying in a grim neighborhood. Standing there, staring at this gas station, Casey had a vision.
Clyde: It just looked separate from everything else that was around here. It was a corner spot. It was all just separate. And when I looked at that property and the structure that was on it, I was seeing that this would be another planet. There is a sixth dimension, beyond that, which is known to man.
Richard: It was almost like a mind creation.
Clyde: It is an area as vast as space.
Richard: In other words, it was a thought brought to life in physical reality.
Clyde: As timeless as infinity.
Richard: It was an amazing place. And as it-
Clyde: It is a middle ground.
Richard: … Progressed, it was almost as if…
Clyde: … Between light and shadow.
Richard: … Somebody drew a circle around this place.
Clyde: And it lies between a pit of man’s fears.
Richard: … This service station.
Clyde: … in the sunlight of his knowledge.
Richard: Not somebody, but something. It’s almost… It’s very difficult to-
Clyde: It is a dimension of imagination.
Richard: … To describe it, but within the circle-
Clyde: … It is an area that might be known-
Richard: … of this place. The rules were just completely different.
Clyde: … As another planet.
Yeah, could you sort of describe for someone that had never seen it? What was it like to go there? What it looked like?
Flame Simon: Well, it was like a triangular lot, a little gas station, an old gas station, old gas station, no gas things, but the building… And he decorated it and there were things on the roof and sculptures and…
Clyde: The whole environment, it was very real, but it was very surreal.
Flame: Oh my God, he had so much stuff. He had mannequins up on the roof-
Clyde: … All kinds of mannequins and womanquins. You have a presence-
Flame: People would give him stuff and he’d set it up.
Clyde: I’m a huge collector of cosmic debris.
Flame: Whatever he could have access to or ask for, or somebody give him, he’d make art out of it.
Clyde: Sculptures and very abstract art.
Flame: It was just flotsam and jetsam and a lot of people around. He had seats.
Clyde Casey: I had like a stage and people doing rap, telling stories and stuff like that.
Flame: Somebody gave him a piano.
Clyde: There’s always people playing the piano and singing around it.
Flame: And some of those musicians were really good. Some of those guys. He had a TV set.
Clyde: And I faced it towards the street.
Flame: Which he could show films. He showed movies, old movies.
Clyde: And I was donated a film called Koyaanisqatsi and it’s a Godfrey Reggio film. That’s still my favorite film of all time. No actors, no words spoken. Phillip Glass does the sound score, Ron Fricke did the film footage. I showed it every sunset. Koyaanisqatsi means life out of balance and in the downtown area, that’s exactly what was going on. It was pretty much a life out of balance. Another Planet was an environment that was kind of bringing a little bit of a balance to the area.
Flame: It was another planet. I think he might even come from another planet. He might Clyde, Clyde, Clyde Casey. I do believe he lived there somewhere up on top.
He slept on the roof.
Yeah, he did.
Clyde: So people from the surrounding area started coming by. It was meant for everybody, but it turns out that the homeless latched on to it in a very quick way. And I pretty much let it be known that, you know, make yourself at home. You can’t camp out here, but it’s open 48 hours day, days a week, walking [inaudible] small planets and no shirt, no shoes, no problem. Come in and make yourself at home and I served coffee for a dime on a silver platter. Kind of like a little bit of that Southern hospitality, because originally I’m from Memphis and I was just transplanting it into the gritty industrial downtown environment. So you’re walking down the sidewalk and hey, there’s things to do. I had a big ping pong table-
Flame: Oh and he had chess games. Chess sets up.
Clyde: Chess is the closest game to life. Whether I win or lose, it’s not the point. I just love it.
Flame: Another Planet just was there. It was just that corner, which had life. Downtown didn’t have a lot of life at that time.
Clyde: And Another Planet wasn’t meant specifically for the homeless. It was meant for the neighborhood.
Lonnie: You know, there was always something going on, something to do.
Clyde: Just so happens that neighborhood was mainly the homeless.
Lonnie: With Planet, it was like going home, maybe not at your own home, but at your neighbor’s house, you know what I’m saying? Anybody can so sit in the Mission, but sitting in the Mission was like going to your pastor’s house to a degree. For most people Missions was our place of last resort. You know, in Missions you had to conform and stand in line, have proper attire, not be under the influence in any way and have to deal with people who are basically hostile. Okay? So you got conditions that you have to mentally prepare yourself for before you even get there and that can be difficult, especially if a person he has any form mental problems. And the majority of the people in this area, myself included, should have been on some form of medication and they weren’t. At the Planet, there was no actual hostility, okay? And you knew that before you went there, so you could go there as you were and be accepted and welcome.
Richard: Hundreds and hundreds of people would be there every night. It was an oasis for homeless people. And for a lot of people. For me, it was, I mean, I was not homeless, but as it attracted more and more attention, it became problematic. The local businesses were getting more and more upset and they were putting pressure on the city. And on one hand, Casey received a commendation from the Mayor of LA, you know. On the other hand, there were these constant barrages of complaints about, “What are these… Let’s get this thing out of here.” You knows?
Clyde: In May of 1989, I thought I’d go surprise my mother for Mother’s Day and she’s in Memphis. I didn’t have the money to go there and I thought, well I’ll just hitchhike. The quickest way to hitchhike is juggling, especially with pins, bright orange pins. You can be seen. They look like your a clown that just escaped from the circus. And so they’ll pick you up to take you back to the circus, you know.
I had to leave Another Planet in the hands of someone. There was this woman who, she was somewhat of a missionary and she’d been helping a lot of the homeless on the street and actually living in her own little cardboard box. And she was a real good help. And so I left it in her hands, but she didn’t like all of the things that I had on the top of Another Planet, the mannequins and sculptures. When I came back, all that stuff was gone.
Her whole thing was getting jobs and pretty much taking care of the business issue of people’s lives more than the personal, emotional affect of people’s lives and that’s what Another Planet was about. It had to do with having a respite away from all of the chaos. The koyaanisqatsi that was going on all around, the whole out of balance, you know? And Another Planet was there to bring balance. She just stripped the visual magnet, just the art form and the form and design that I had created there, was just destroyed.
It was like somebody just ripped my soul away from me, you know. It’s not like it was all for me. I mean, I fixed it up for everyone to appreciate. And everybody did, except her.
What did you say to her when you saw that?
I said, “You said you destroyed a good thing.” I was invited to house sit an artist’s studio, her studio and her turtle. She had these big turtles. I got a call like midnight, one o’clock in the morning. I can’t remember what time it was. Said that the place was on fire.
Los Angeles Times, August 10th, 1989, Another Planet, an abandoned Skid Row gas station that had been converted to a shelter and cultural center for the homeless was destroyed early Wednesday by a fire that eye witnesses said was set by a transient who appeared to be mentally deranged.
Whew, man, it just threw me for a loop. I got on my bicycle and peddled over there.
Fire officials said they were investigating reports that the fire was set on purpose.
Nobody got hurt, but people’s possessions were destroyed and so were mine.
At least 78 boxes containing property of homeless people went up in flames. Another Planet’s creator, Clyde Casey sobbed, as he surveyed the ruins Wednesday morning. “The facility carried no insurance,” Casey said. He was not optimistic that he would soon find another site, but promised that Another Planet will rise from the ashes.
You know, things happen. Things happen when you believe in something and you believe in it strong enough to where you know that it’s necessary. It’s necessary to have a 48 hour day, day a week environment and for it to have the feeling of what a person would expect on Another Planet. You would really want it to be in many ways, representative of the best of what the third planet from the sun offers. People who are, you know, out on the street and living in dumpsters and hiding away from the enemy of the night to have a place that was like a little oasis. You know, a little, a little island of tranquility was cloud nine, you know? And you just don’t find that in any city anywhere. You’ve got to pay for your seat, you’ve got to contribute something to be there. This particular tune has to do with leaving the world as we know it and going into an invisible world.
Lonnie: Every planet in the universe is orbiting and doing what it does, but unless you make preparations before you get there, you’re going to be unwelcome. There’s also a hostile side to the universe. You follow? Okay, well like they just found water on Mars. For years and years, they believed there was no actual water. And what I was saying is, if I was planning a trip to Mars, I would have to prepare myself to go there and survive and if were not prepared then we are on a hostile planet. Okay.
Clyde: All I really want to do is, right now is to get Another Planet revolving again and whenever I do get Another Planet going again, I want the headquarters to be in a Roswell. I want to do it in Los Angeles and Skid Row. And I want to do it in New Orleans, set up a geodesic dome for two or three or four or five, or six, and just really…
Little daddy is a current resident of skid row.
Lil Daddy: You’ve got that hundred percent swag going anyway, right?
Richard Haxton was a musician at the Wallenboyd Theatre.
Richard: It was almost like a mind creation.
Flame Simon was a frequent visitor to Another Planet.
Flame: Oh my God. He had so much stuff.
Tim Robinson is a movie star.
Tim: But you want to go to in context?
Lonnie Johnson was a frequent visitor to Another Planet and has spent most of his life living in Skid Row.
Lonnie: I got to say man, this is a harsh world.
Clyde Casey is a street performer.
Clyde: That was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life.
Clyde Casey is also the Avant Guardian.
Nick van der Kolk, Host & Director
Brendan Baker, Producer
David Weinberg, Producer