by: Jack Neworth
The Venice Boardwalk is the second most visited international tourist destination in Southern California, right behind Disneyland. But in the late 1960’s the boardwalk was practically desolate. But when I moved back to the area in 1974, the boardwalk was booming with tourists and street performers including musicians, jugglers, mimes, and a unique street comedian, Swami X, whose irreverent humor was delivered while standing on a bench. “He would get up in front of 300 people and make them laugh hysterically.” said former L.A. City Council member and close friend of Swami X, Bill Rosendahl.
Swami X’s real name was Harry W. Heart, and he was born in Philadelphia in 1925. He passed away on August 29th, two months shy of his 90th birthday. He had been a fixture on the boardwalk from 1971 to 1985. His “mad prophet” comic style was a combination of Rodney Dangerfield and Lenny Bruce.
Swami X had lived with Rosendahl who generously took care of Swami’s medical expenses, including a nurse, for the past 10 years. Swami X wrote a regular column in the Beachhead “Swami X Speaks,” as well poetry and film reviews, assisted by long time Venice resident Karl Abrams who would often drive Swami X to the movies.
Swami X began his craft in Berkeley, Washington Square in New York City, Hyde Park in Chicago, and most notably, in Venice. In fact, in 2009 he was awarded a commemorative plaque by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. But let’s go back to 1974.
Intrigued with the phenomenon of street performers, I contacted the L.A. Times and was given the go ahead to write a piece on Swami for the Sunday Calendar section. I was hoping a story about Swami X might open a door to a writing career back in Los Angeles. It didn’t quite work out that way.
It was a hot July afternoon when I rode my bike from Ocean Park to meet Swami X on the boardwalk. As I approached, a crowd had formed and Swami X was about to step up on the bench to begin his act. Swami and I had agreed the interview would take place immediately after his act.
Tall and thin, he wore yoga pants, and a colorful long sleeve peasant shirt and a large straw hat to keep the midday Venice sun from frying his brain. He wore sunglasses and sported a long salt and pepper beard which was mostly salt.
Swami worked the gathering like a seasoned comic, often improvising as circumstances in the crowd or passersby warranted. His “act” was laced with profanity that only enhanced his satirical observations of contemporary culture.
Often reciting clever poetry, he covered religion, politics and plenty of sex. revelry. His intellect was considerable and yet he seemingly took nothing too seriously. “Sex is not the answer,” he boomed, “sex is the question. ‘Yes’ is the answer.”
Included in the crowd were a number of pretty hippy young ladies, whose presence didn’t escape Swami X’s attention. While he was considerably older than his audience, he effectively flirted with some of the women. Too effectively as you shall see.
About a half hour later, Swami X concluded his act. He had an attractive female assistant pass the hat. As I dropped $1 in, Swami gestured as if to say now would be fine to begin the interview.
I proceeded to lock my bike and get my notepad and pen out of my backpack. As I returned, I was stunned by how fast Swami had “transitioned.” To my shock, he was horizontal on the grass, making out with one of the pretty hippy girls in the audience. Though still fully clothed, it was slightly more than just making out as they were grinding away passionately.
Notepad and pen in hand, I felt rather foolish just standing there. I cleared my throat hoping to announce my presence but, if anything, the passion only increased. Seeing my prospective journalism career circling the drain, I cleared my throat even louder, so it was impossible to ignore me.
Sure enough, Swami X took a momentary break from his embrace. Stating the obvious, he said somewhat sheepishly, “I don’t think the interview is going to work out today, man. Maybe we should reschedule?”
I never did complete the interview, and I never wrote about that unusual afternoon. Until now. Swami X, R.I.P.
To see an intriguing video interview Google, “Swami X on KCET.” Freenlance writer Jack Neworth has lived in the area since 1974. He’s at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth and [email protected]