I submitted this piece about the handful of times I hung out with Star Trek, Twilight Zone, Kung Fu writer and Logan’s Run co-creator George Clayton Johnson for hopeful publication to the San Diego Comic Con International 2016 souvenir program book. Unfortunately it didn’t make the cut, probably due that three or four other people had already beaten me to the punch with tributes written about George and the untimely passing of Darwyn Cooke which occurred just before Memorial Day (of which his last project, Future Quest, a tribute to the Hanna Barbara action heroes was conceptualized before his death was already covered in the Jonny Quest tribute blog posted a few months ago) that probably contributed to being pushed aside. However, a photo or two from this entry made it in the final edition, so I guess that’s just as good as compensation.
Anyway, with the format, I could make it a little bit longer with some photos of a recent trip I took down to Laguna Beach to investigate the area where George was a co-owner of a somewhat historical and controversial coffee shop that once existed in the late 1950’s through the early 60’s called Café Frankenstein which looked a little something like this:
It wasn’t long to be on this earth as the local police had to constantly be called to the premises as local resident complaints festered concerning the use of drug paraphernalia (spiking the coffee with brandy) and public acts of nudity which landed George Clayton Johnson in jail on occasion. They were persecuted by a local church group for using the Frankenstein Monster on stained glass. The coffee shop also ran a bookstore consisting of banned book and were probably piled ceiling high with William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac books.
Upon my investigation, I discovered I had more in common with George than I originally thought. This café was a not even a half a block away from the street corner I used to hang out in Laguna Beach down the street from an aunt of mine’s cottage from where supposedly Timothy O’Leary first started introducing LSD to the masses of delinquent Orange County beatniks. Also, songwriter Steve Gillette of folk group, the Stone Poneys, an acquaintance of my twin aunts both living there in the 1970’s, wrote and performed songs on the store front’s porch.
A recreation of the coffee shop was constructed for the San Diego Comic Fest, a moderate gathering of the old San Diego Comic Con alumni held every February with help from designer Wendy All who helped with restoring some of the stained glass artwork.
Here is the original text for the 2016 Comic Con International Souvenir Book that probably never got the chance to pass the editor’s smell test.
I recently came back from a fan memorial tribute held over at one of Hollywood’s most oldest and prestigious luxury movie revival houses called the Egyptian Theater, knowing much more about the man I’m going to say a few words about than what I knew then.
His once writing partner and best friend, William F. Nolan summed it up most eloquently during the presentation concerning his best friend, legendary lauded ‘fictioneer’, George Clayton Johnson: ‘Getting old is s@#t!!’
Perhaps ‘perpetually old’ is the way I’ll always remember my first meeting with George. Old, as in if ‘old wise and powerful sage’ had allowed an unintentional mentor into my life and had easily departed just the same leaving me completely spellbound as if Don Juan stepped tirelessly into material form as from out of an old Carlos Castaneda book that I would check out quite frequently from the library in my New Jersey youth from time to time.
George Clayton Johnson was a modern-day sorcerer seen usually adorned in an orange double downed goose feathered vest and a straw hat, had by chance nonchalantly took it upon himself to sit down next to me at a porch table at an early nineties San Diego Comic Con party held in the unlikely of all places, at a golf driving range in the middle of downtown San Diego (which was directly parallel to the Santa Fe Depot). His first words to me were to ask if he could bum a cigarette off me. For the price of that cigarette, he began enthralling me with tales of transcendence hovering between the metaphysical scales of life and death, and writing for television shows, particularly at some point a yearning to pitch to the X-Files. Weird combination of subjects interweaving in an out, thinking to myself but there was no way I could bring myself to cut him off because he seemed to articulately knew what the hell he talking about even as I sat there looking back at him with a blank stare of befuddled comprehension of how I could possibly keep up with his meandering tangent.
I didn’t know who the heck he was at first, but he kept bumming cigarettes from me and I, like an attentive inquisitive child kept listening to these stories woven by him for like three hours or at least until the pack of smokes ran out. Then the announcement rang out that they were closing off the no host bar. I realized I was having so much fun listening to him. He reminded me was like the wacky relative I had yearned for all my life.
However I do remember him dropping the bomb on me that he was the co-author of the book based on the film Logan’s Run.
Interesting bit of trivia mentioned by William Nolan: the first draft of Logan’s Run was torpedoed out in the matter of ten days during the mid-sixties, written completely in a Malibu beach motel room 24/7 with either William or George getting up to get food or cigarettes at a county market (most likely the Trancas Market – if I’m estimating my geography correctly) while the other remained in the room to pound away on the manuscript. It was practically a twenty four hour operation of conscious thought of making it up as they went along.
That revelation put me on a higher plateau of respect for this stranger. I loved Logan’s Run as a kid. It was one of my favorite movies of all time while growing up. Wasn’t really too crazy about the cheesy television adaptation though. Before too long I also learned he had penned a handful of classic Twilight Zone episodes, specifically the one that gave a young actor by the name of Robert Redford his first big break portraying a very young “Death” in a form of a hapless pacifist rookie policeman.
He asked me of my age and I responded to him I think my ‘life clock’ had just freshly ran out. Then I remember him narrowing his eyes at me and asked, ‘well, now that you’re thirty – do you feel any different from when you were, say, twenty or twenty-five’
I responded with some trepidation revealing that “I feel somewhat wiser now that I’m talking to you” even as all around us, the party was closing down for the night. Just before I thought we were going to depart with a gentlemanly handshake, he handed me a comic book that he written called “Deepest Dimension Terror Anthology” and I couldn’t help notice it was published by Revisionary Press, a small publishing imprint owned by a frequent letter writer to the Comics Buyers’ Guide (ditto for me as a contributor) named Jay Allen Sanford. I later told him about this crazy idea I had in my head about a private investigator who only took cases on in the afterlife (that same character later became the future focus of my self-publishing venture called the Deposit Man) that made the wizened sage talk to me for another twenty minutes as we were walking down a downtown city street. I think the concept appealed to his sense of storytelling modus operandi. He had a fascination with subjects of life transcendent unto death, but in real life, was quick enough to shy away from it himself.
I would run into George over the years at San Fernando Valley local events such as birthday parties held at bookstores such as Dark Delicacies in Burbank or at the Mysterious Book Store in Glendale which was where I got to see him one final time while taking a hooky day from the con last year.
There was even a time when I ran into George aboard a LA transit bus in Studio City wondering how in the heck he missed the stop at the corner of Laurel Canyon Blvd and Magnolia Blvd running late for a Duttons’ bookstore signing. Seeing as how he was a little disjointed, I had to get back on the bus with him and help show him where it was. Sometimes he knew me by name and sometimes he didn’t. All I had to do to bring a copy of my comic book, The Deposit Man and he would be reminded “Well, yes – I like that book. You wrote that?”
There was something that George’s son Paul said during that Egyptian Theater panel which particularly resonated with me: ‘didn’t you feel that my father somehow knew each and every one of you? He loved people. He didn’t care whether you were rich or poor or what background you came from. He loved everybody and would talk to you as if you were his equal. He was a child from the depression. He was raised to be that way.’ Paul nailed it perfectly. THAT’s exactly how I felt when I first met his father. A man of such prominence sitting down with me to converse with a nobody such as myself and had carried on an enlightening conversation as if I was amongst his peers.
I’d like to think that his uncanny ability to speak on a myriad of subjects must have had some profound effect on me; because whenever I sit down to write dialogue for my independent comic book, The Deposit Man, I find myself dialoging in all sorts of tangible directions, never pausing once to throw out the kitchen sink. Hanging out in brief intervals with George at various conventions and gatherings WAS the living embodiment of stepping into a guided tour of the Twilight Zone.
Aside from an autographed book of Twilight Zone scripts and treatments that he wrote, I really don’t know much of his later outputs other than hearing from a couple of tearful eulogies presented by his grandchildren at the Hollywood tribute event that he used to assist them with writing their own stories.
One of the things, I plan on investigating further as soon as I put this tribute to bed, is to investigate the interesting stories I heard about the coffee shop that he used to co-own along the Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach called the Frankenstein Café, just to see what is in standing in its’ place this day. I lived briefly in Laguna Beach in my teens but I’d never heard of that place (I do remember a bookstore named Fahrenheit 451 after Ray Bradbury on that same street, Coincidence perhaps, seeing as George professed to have been his protégé).
The above four images are approximately where George was once a co-owner of a coffee shop/beatnik hangout called Café Frankenstein. The physical address of 860 Pacific Coast Highway no longer exists, it is now a parking lot and motor repair shop. The closest street corner would have been Cleo Ave and the Pacific Coast Highway which INCIDENTALLY was the corner of where I used to hang out the most in the summer of 1978 before starting my freshman year of high school reading my comic books and checking out the surf chicks. The pictures were taken recently this past July 4th weekend. It’s pretty much the same way I remembered it with the difference only being that the Ralph’s used to be an Albertson’s and the Taco Bell was a mere take out shack before getting bulldozed over to be made into condos.
The last time I saw George at Comic Con was at the Bradbury memorial tribute panel in 2014, so when I heard he wasn’t making it last year due to ill-health, I had to head back home for that one last birthday celebration. He told me last summer at that party that he wanted nothing more than to be here with the rest of us, but the doctors rejected any type of strenuous travel.
Cheers forever to this phenomenal sorcerer of storytellers and I give thanks for some of the craziest mystical pep talks we shared. My convention experiences may have altered, but the cosmos await him to forge on with old friends long lost seen.
Cary Coatney has worn many hats in the past twenty or so years in the industry. He’s been a retailer, a department head for this convention, a contributor to Comics’ Buyer’s Guide, a studio lackey, and now currently does his day-to-day routine as a residual consultant for many of the Hollywood union area guilds. He self publishes a comic book called the Deposit Man only when he feels like it.