by Jim Smith
Phil Melnick, one of the founding staﬀ of the Free Venice Beachhead, died Feb. 4 of lung cancer, just months short of the 50th anniversary of the paper. Phil was a 19-years-old college student when he connected with John and Anna Haag, Rick Davidson and the rest of the Free Venice crew that was trying to create an independent movement in Venice. They decided a newspaper would be a good way to reach all 40,000 Venetians. They brought out the first edition on Dec. 1, 1968. Phil hung around the Beachhead for six months, shooting photo and helping with production.
He remained a supporter and contributor oﬀ and on for nearly 50 years.
In addition to participating in founding the Beachhead, it had been a busy and adventurous 69 years for Philip Melnick. Although his travels took him away from Venice many times, he lived a true Venetian life. He was never a one-dimensional man. He delved into and studied diﬀerent forms of living. He stood up for the underdog in the U.S., Europe and Latin America. He was never constrained in his endeavors by society’s mores or narrow- mindedness. Such is the ethos of the Venice way of life.
My first encounter with Phil was around 1971 at San Fernando Valley State College (SFVSC). He had been elected Associated Students Vice President, in an election that pitted the fraternities and sororities against the radicals and students of color. But a short time later, Phil resigned. I didn’t know him, but when I spotted him sitting near the free speech forum, I admonished him for giving up the fight. Instead of getting angry, he explained that staying on as VP would only give credibility to a facade of democracy. “The students have no power. It’s all rigged,” he said with a smile on his face. Nothing could rattle Phil. I admitted that he was right.
We became friends for the rest of the semester.
After Valley State, we both enlisted in the labor movement. Phil with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) and me with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Somehow, we both went to work with the Communications Workers of America about the same time. He in Utah and me in Los Angeles. At the time, CWA had invested a lot of money in organizing 8,000 psychiatric technicians at 11 state hospitals around California. The campaign had little chance of success mainly because a competing organization, the California State Employees Association (CSEA) already had more than 50 percent of the workforce signed up as members. In desperation, the headquarters organizing department asked Phil and me to take over the campaign. Why would a union pour another $750,000 into a sinking ship that had, at best, the allegiance of 10 percent of the workers? We later found out that the union’s national organizing department was full of coke heads and some of their main sources of the white powder were the very members we were organizing.
Phil’s labor involvement was long and varied. In addition to ACTWU and CWA, it included stints at the California School Employees Assn., the California Nurses Association (CNA), the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists where he represented TV and radio staﬀ in Pennsylvania. Wherever he worked he made long lasting friends among the workers and staﬀ.
Phil and I – in the arrogance of youth – believed we could win the Psych Tech campaign. We divided our duties: I mainly stayed in the oﬃce and worked on administration and strategy, while Phil hit the road in his Ford LTD for what turned about to be a months-long “drive about” from one end of California to the other. Phil saved the day time after time by convincing psych tech leaders at the various hospitals to “stick with the union.” It was a diﬃcult task, especially with the rednecks in Porterville who hated our arab organizer and dear friend, Ali Hebshi. When our organizer at Stockton, Eldon Allen, who had been fired as a psych tech on a trumped up charge of patient abuse, which was actually an attempt at union busting, Phil, Eldon and two other psych techs chained themselves to the facility’s main flagpole. We told the young Governor, Jerry Brown, that he was ultimately responsible for the union busting by underlings and that we would conduct a public campaign targeting him. Brown quickly made his administrators back down. Eldon was allowed to do his union organizing on the hospital grounds and Phil moved on to the next hospital. Month after month, Phil played a key role in building support for what we were now calling the CWA Psych Tech Union. When election day came, we won in a landslide.
While the suits in CWA headquarters were pleased that we had done the impossible and brought in 8,000 new dues paying members, they were unhappy, very unhappy, that those workers paid allegiance to Phil and me. We were “sent fishing,” a euphemism for being fired. Most of the 22 organizers we had hired quit in support. Within two years, CWA was fighting a successful decertification eﬀort because they had neglected to replace us with competent staﬀ.
After our election victory, one of the biggest in years for organized labor, we were in demand by other unions. In 1982, Phil and I, along with Yolanda Miranda, JD Dixon and others formed a non-profit union consulting organization called Western Labor Organizing Project (pronounced wallop). Our headquarters was at Main and Market streets, a short walk from our Venice homes. We wanted to be the opposite of the union-busting consulting firms that were rampant at the time. We did training sessions, publicity campaigns, brain-storming sessions and hands-on organizing for quite a number of unions.
Phil loved to learn. That kept him coming back to colleges and universities to learn more skills, such as filmmaking and screenwriting and disciplines like Archeology. At Valley State, where we met, he had majored in Chicano Studies, he attended the George Meany Labor College where he received a BA in Labor Studies and received honors for his thesis. He also attended Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, Prescott (Arizona) College where he received an MA in Labor and Media Studies; and S.F. Valley College where he took more film classes.
He grew up in the San Fernando Valley. He was born in Burbank but his family, including Ted, his father; and Frances, his mother, moved, when he was nine, to Canoga Park/West Hills. In addition to the Valley and Venice, Phil lived in Powell River, British Columbia, and in Guatemala where he ran a cantina He met another American there who told him he was running weapons to Mayan guerrillas, and explained how it was done. Phil wrote a screenplay based on the premise. It is called “The Year of the Volcano.”
After several years in the Eighties of constant organizing and activism in unions, Phil went to Europe. In a little more than two years, he had roamed throughout Italy, became a columnist for the Danish newspaper, Land og Folk (Land and People). His column was called “Letters from America.” Last but not least, he spent time in Yugoslavia where he married his second wife, Zorica. His first child, Natasha was born in April 1984 in Sarajevo. A son, Jonathan Nicholas, followed after they had returned to the U.S.
Phil’s list of wives goes as follows: 1) the late Linda Grinberg; 2) Zorica Velomirovic; 3) Nikki Rhoe. Phil and Nikki were constant companions during the last 16 years of Phil’s life. Together, they raised Manna, who is now a teenager.
Throughout his life, music was very important to Phil for self-medicating and for pure enjoyment. He studied and practiced guitar and writing music. He became lifelong friends with the Brazilian superstars Flora Purim and Airto Moreira.
Phil spent time in Oaxaca, but his real love was the area around Mérida in the Yucatan. In total, Phil visited Mérida eight times. It was here that he met the shaman, Don Antonio, who introduced him to a variant of Ayahuasca and to “magic beans” one of the most potent natural sources of DMT. Don Antonio, who died recently, had never left his village, Halachó, but he made two exceptions for Phil. He journeyed to Mérida to purify Phil and Nikki’s home, and another time to oﬃciate at their wedding (they later got married again in California to make sure their union would be recognized by the state).
Nearly everything Phil did began with an idea and ended with a list of examples of how he carried it out. One of his last eﬀorts which he was unable to complete was a plan to financially help young Mayan children in the Yucatan who live in poverty. He and Nikki started a film company, Gopyaka Films, recently as a vehicle to fund this project.
Their last trip to Mérida was in 2016. The following year, Phil was diagnosed with lung cancer and had a tumor removed. He went to Tijuana for a few weeks to investigate the possibility of getting cancer treatment at a clinic there. However, he was unimpressed and returned to the U.S.
His last weeks were spent in the house in the Valley where he grew up. Phil was in good spirits until the end. He played folk music on his guitar, some of which he wrote. He was with Nikki and Manna most of the time and spent a lot of time on the phone with friends including Yolanda Miranda, Karl Abrams and me. Because of his ebullient manner and energy none of us thought death was coming close. On his final evening, they had pizza and sat down to relax. He told Nikki that when he died he didn’t want a funeral, but he would like a party. Around 8pm, he told Nikki he was going to take “a little nap.” He never woke up. A party celebrating Phil’s life was held March 3 at the West Hills home owned by his family for the last 60 years.
It was a fine life, and a fine death. Only it came years too soon to suit his friends scattered around the world. Now, we’ll have to carry on without our witty genius and trail blazer. I am reminded of Ossie Davis’ wonderful eulogy of Malcolm X. Phil was our own funny, crazy, loquacious, shinning Prince.
He laughed in the face of death as he had life, never flinching, never backing down, but always seeing the humor. None of us can do better than that.
by Jim Smith