By Eric Yarber
At 11 a.m. on January 11, more than 420 people assembled on the green not far from the Sponto Gallery to collectively remember the man who made everything happen there. Most knew him simply as Sponto, but there were plenty who went back far enough to never stop thinking of him as Mark. No matter how long you’d known him, it hadn’t seemed long enough.
The event became a joyous mosaic of perceptions and expressions centered around one remarkable man. As his neighbor Colleen expressed at one point, “Where did he find the TIME to know all these people?” The question seemed even deeper when you consider how this varied assortment of friends, many of whom had never met before, managed to put together a unified, deeply focused event.
As it was, this was actually the third memorial service to take place in the two weeks since Sponto’s death. The first was the spontaneous, ongoing observance of a shrine that evolved in the doorway of the locked gallery, tended by a small core of friends but available to anyone who needed a place to focus their sense of loss. Candles, flowers, mementoes and testimonials quickly blanketed the space and were constantly renewed.
This was followed on January 7 by a remembrance ceremony primarily intended for the friends closest to Sponto. Beyond Baroque donated space for the evening, which began with a series of films Gerry Fialka had assembled to show at 7 Dudley that evening. Appropriately enough, the theme was Venice Beach history. Instead of the usual discussion afterward, the floor was opened to anyone with memories to share.
Over a hundred people attended the Wednesday ceremony. Gerry kicked off the proceedings with thoughts concerning his long collaboration with Sponto through over 200 shows at the gallery, Shirley Vernale read a letter from Sponto’s oldest friend Barry Weiss, and Suzy Williams performed her just-composed song “Sponto.” Artists, poker buddies, and Venice fixtures then spoke in turn of whichever side of Sponto’s life they wound up seeing. It was a deeply emotional, but consistently upbeat evening that seemed impossible to duplicate on a larger scale.
The ceremony on the 11th was meant as a chance for the public at large to acknowledge Sponto’s years of involvement in the life of Venice Beach. Though the general format of speakers with their memories would be much the same as the Wednesday event, expectations were that the gathering would be much more diffuse as people wandered in and out of the area at random. A solar-powered microphone was set up, and Titanic silenced its sound system to give some audio space for the event, yet it seemed impossible that more than an inner core of the spectators sitting around the dais would be attentive to the program.
However, everyone in the crowd had come for the same reason, and for over two hours held together with even more intensity than the Wednesday gathering.
Chavella brought the group together by blowing a conch shell. Gerry invoked Sponto with a cheer that had rocked Beyond Baroque but now took on even larger dimensions as the crowd repeatedly shouted, “Sponto, get me high” seven times in full voice. Shirley then had the audience shout in turn for each decade they had first met Sponto, demonstrating with each roar how long and consistently he had cultivated new friends. Joe Budd, perhaps Sponto’s oldest friend of all, came from Florida to tell about the man who had been a brother to him nearly all his life.
Suzy sang “Sponto” again, this time in a haunting a cappella performance. The other musical highlight of the ceremony was Ann Nicholson’s moving rendition of “Amazing Grace,” also a cappella.
Every participant shared in their own way. Carol had collected a series of “Sponto-isms,” that brought one laugh after another. Theresa Hulme delivered a poem she’d written especially for the ceremony. Donna assured the crowd that Sponto was most certainly living it up on Level 5 of Heaven at that very moment, and told of how magical it had been for her the day she first brought her husband to the gallery and was able to see it anew through the eyes of another person seeing it for the first time. The highlight of my own Sponto anecdote was mentioning his perpetual distraction at the sight of any pretty woman and hearing the crowd shout along, “I see her around here ALL THE TIME!” with me as we collectively remembered his favorite ogling catch-phrase.
For all the speakers who stepped before the mike, even more memories were shared within the crowd itself. Story after story was passed around until the remembrance finally reached a point of saturation, if not cessation.
Walter, a bagpiper who led a slow procession to the open beach, initiated the final stage of the ceremony. The entire crowd linked hands in a huge circle as a flock of doves were released, circling briefly over Seven Dudley itself before vanishing into the East. The crowd finally dispersed. Some returned to the Gallery for free sandwiches from Henry’s; others regrouped in smaller parties to continue talking, or left to consider the implications of the day alone.
Sponto had been a lynchpin of the Venice community for decades. Usually, removing such an indispensable link means that the tentative group he centered would dissolve. Instead, we held together even tighter, if possible. I think the reason for this is that Sponto was not a leader, but an inspiration. He formed such a string personal bond with everyone he touched that each of us held the circle together as individuals after his passing.
There were tears at the gathering, but little overt grief. Such displays simply didn’t seem appropriate for a man who had bestowed such consistent good cheer toward his enormous body of friends even as he became increasingly overwhelmed by the individual burden that is now up to all of them to collectively assume.
The memorial is not over. Gerry and Shirley have been assembling a network of friends and supporters to ensure that the Sponto Gallery continues to serve as a Free Arts and Venice History Center. To immortalize another of Sponto’s loves, an effort to place a backgammon table on the pier in his name is also underway.
To learn more about this ongoing project, look for updates on myspace.com/SevenDudleyCinema. Donations can be sent to Sponto Memorial Fund, PO Box 1553, Topanga, CA 90290, or Sponto.org. If long-distance giving seems a little distant as a gesture for gregarious Sponto, stop by the Gallery some sunset and talk to Gerry himself to see what you can do. He’s there whenever he’s not putting on a Seven Dudley show anywhere he can find the space. There will almost certainly be others with him still keeping the memory of our mutual friend alive.