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Looking Back at the Birth of Watts Writers Workshop

April 27, 1987|RAY LOYND

The Watts Writers Workshop, a once-proud phoenix that rose from the ashes of the Watts rebellion 22 years ago and then faded in the '70s, got a burst of renewal last week with a visit from its first professor, author Budd Schulberg.

The occasion was an all-day tribute to Schulberg for his assistance and dedication to writers, given by the USC Master of Professional Writing Program. The celebration also honored the 22nd anniversary of the Watts Writers Workshop and featured readings by Watts writers who were once Schulberg's workshop students when Charcoal Alley (103rd Street) was still a shell.

Schulberg, facing a crowd in Seeley G. Mudd Auditorium at USC, said he never planned his founding of the Watts Writers Workshop. "I drove down to Watts after the devastation to see it for myself. It was August of '65 and it was like civil war in L.A. . . .

"Gerry (his late wife, actress Geraldine Brooks) said, 'They'll hand you your head down there.' I didn't want to be a hero. It wasn't a fake humanitarian thing. But I wanted to be where things were happening, which is what writers are supposed to do.

'Burning Was Selective'

"I got there and looked around; 103rd Street was mostly burning. But I learned that the burning was selective. Some buildings were afire and some not."

At that point the white-haired, tousled Schulberg raised his soft, halting voice for the only time: "But if it's selective, it's not a riot--that's a white word. This was not a riot. It was an uprising, a rebellion, a violent put-down by the National Guard."

Three months later, Schulberg rented a house on Beach Street in Watts, turned it into a dormitory for members of the Watts Writers Workshop and watched the group grow to "several hundred" members and into "the one project in my life that I'm most proud of."

Los Angeles magazine did a piece, then Time magazine did a full page, and the workshop was hot, a burnished caldron of black literary talent.

"There were people who couldn't get into the house for classes and who stood outside looking in through the windows. It was spontaneous combustion. These were sophisticated writers using their pain in a creative way," said the man who wrote "What Makes Sammy Run," "The Disenchanted" and the Oscar-winning screenplay for "On the Waterfront."

'Symbol of Hope'

Schulberg cautioned, however, that while the Watts Writers Workshop "is a symbol of hope," the present casts worrisome shadows. "There are fewer black students going to college today than 20 years ago," he said. "But the feeling of camaraderie here today is what we all felt in the beginning."

Author Betty Friedan and actor Jack Klugman toasted Schulberg, tributes were sent by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), director Robert Wise and actress Eva Marie Saint and commendations came from the offices of Mayor Tom Bradley and county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn.

The event was arranged by James Ragan, director of the Professional Writing Program at USC.

Schulberg later told The Times that the goal of the now-thinning ranks of the Watts Writers Workshop (headed today by former Schulberg protege Jimmie Sherman) is "reform and incorporation as a nonprofit organization, as it was previously."

New York Counterpart

The Watts Workshop fell into some disarray after Schulberg moved to Westhampton, N.Y., in the early '70s, and after his successor, writer Harry Dolan, died. But Schulberg's Watts experiment served as a springboard to founding a New York counterpart, the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center. That 16-year-old organization, at 168 West 46th St., today enjoys a membership of several hundred (including some Latino and white members) under Schulberg's chairmanship.

It also benefits, he said, "from what I learned at the Watts Workshop: The Frederick Douglass Center has a tighter structure and offers 11 different writing workshops." It also siphoned away from Watts an influx of some key Watts writers, such as Louise Meriwether and Quincy Troupe.

Today, Watts Writers Workshop has fewer than 20 members, but it's a vigorous group, essentially composed, Schulberg said, of original core members who meet once a month in the Claude Hudson Auditorium of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Hospital in Willowbrook.

"I hope it can thrive," its founding mentor said. "I'm hoping my New York group can be of assistance helping the movement here."

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