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Book Review: Tracing Leonard Pitt's well-lived life and obsessions

Kunang Helmi
Kunang Helmi

Freelance writer

Paris  /  Thu, December 8, 2016  /  01:27 pm
Book Review: Tracing Leonard Pitt's well-lived life and obsessions

Ida Bagus Anom and Leonard Pitt displaying the masks they carved in 1978 when Pitt went back to Bali to further his mask-carving talents. He often holds workshops in Berkeley or elsewhere where students learn how to carve masks, wear them and use mime and dance to bring them to life. (Leonard Pitt, My Brain on Fire, 2016/File)

Leonard Pitt confided to me in a Parisian café last October, "If I’ve learned anything it is that we must work to create a condition where the marvelous can happen, for the marvelous can happen in the most unexpected ways. Doing little or nothing guarantees little or nothing. Partake in the world, and much is possible."

Pitt’s memoir, My Brain on Fire is his fifth book, after Paris Postcards, Paris: A Journey Through Time, Small Moment of Great Illuminations, Walks through Lost Paris plus countless presentations. His memoir only skims the surface of riveting experiences in the United States, Paris and Bali.

Born in 1941, Pitt is ever curious, observing people and places. After suffering at elementary school, he found refuge in drawing and attended Saturday morning art classes in Detroit. Pitt’s vocation as an artist had begun, but he was still lonely.

After graduation, Pitt attended the Art Center School in Los Angeles to pursue a career in advertising. A tough choice, but he thrived. However, he was equally attracted to mime. The mime teacher explained the difference between Marcel Marceau and his teacher Etienne Decroux, who was austere and technically demanding. 

Pitt took a break after second year and landed a lucrative job at the prestigious Detroit ad agency Campbell Ewald, but he toyed with the idea of studying mime seriously. He was told that Decroux was still in New York, soon to return to Paris. Spontaneously, Pitt used his annual vacation to partake in a short course with the master.

Fascinated by French mime, the twenty-year-old decided to move to Paris. Pitt traveled around France and Europe, before staying in Paris with his mother’s relative. Unfortunately, Marcel threw him out after hearing that Pitt planned to become a mime. 

Desperate, Pitt found lodgings at legendary bookstore Shakespeare and Company, where George Whitman offered him a bed in exchange for daily work. Afterwards, Pitt moved to a tiny attic room on Avenue de l’Opéra. Determined, he began mime lessons, living very frugally, and supplemented his meager income by selling the New York Times, assisting a street photographer and teaching English. He also made spiral balsa wood sculptures to sell and was featured in a short television spot. Decroux proved to be a very strict teacher, but Pitt persisted in learning and performing with the group.

Pitt selling The New York Times in Monmartre to supplement his income while studying mime with Etienne Decroux.(Leonard Pitt, My Brain on Fire, 2016/File)

After seven years of scraping a living, undertaking research into history, art and dance, full of ideas and meeting interesting personalities, Pitt decided to return to the States in late 1969, after the political fallout of May 1968. He was an avid collector of postcards, posters and old books, driven by his interest in Parisian history. Soon he was back in Denmark with a theater company, but in May 1970, he finally left Europe for Berkeley, California, his future base.

Although larger, Pitt’s accommodation was as sparse as his tiny room in Paris. Nevertheless, he decided to teach movement and mime – with unexpected success. However, Pitt’s own career as a mime, hampered by Decroux’s strict methods, was anything but a success.

The pivotal point came when a friend took him to a concert of Balinese dance and music, which fascinated Pitt. In 1973, he closed his school to fly to Bali. Pitt settled down in Peliatan and immersed himself in Balinese life. For three-and-a-half months, seven days a week, he studied topeng (Balinese mask dance) with the famous I Nyoman Kakul in Batuan. Back home, Pitt worked with masks brought from Bali and developed his own style of mask performance and song, while demonstrating the movements to students. 

(Read also: 9 Balinese dances make UNESCO heritage list)

Leonard Pitt in a photo of his dance teacher Nyoman Kakul teaching Purpa in 1973. He stayed several months in Peliatan learning dance after having witnessed a performance of Balinese dance in Berkeley.(Leonard Pitt, My Brain on Fire, 2016/File)

Later he became engaged at the Blake Street Hawkeyes Theatre. In 1977, Pitt, directed by George Coates, performed an improvisation called 2019 Blake, a huge success with three runs in different cities. In 1978 Pitt returned to Bali to learn mask carving with Ida Bagus Anom as his mentor for several months. Back home, Pitt, who was profoundly inspired by the possibilities offered by masks in performances, began teaching others to carve their own masks.

In 1986, Pitt founded the theater Life on the Water with Joe Lambert, Bill Talen and Ellen Sebastian Chang, aiming to present original contemporary theater. After seven successful years they decided to move on individually. Pitt, for his part, started a project with teenagers.

One postcard from Lenny's immense collection of old Paris, of the Louvre with the statue of Leon Gambetta standing where the glass pyramid by I Pei now stands in Paris.(Leonard Pitt, My Brain on Fire, 2016/File)

Pitt always enjoyed working with youngsters, and in 1991, after meeting some rappers in the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco, he created an eco-rap show as part of environmentalist action. Eventually, these kids were hooked after realizing that pollution also happened in their own backyards. The eco-rap group traveled abroad while exchange groups from Europe traveled through the States, attracting huge media and public interest. Five years of collecting funds, directing and traveling around for this strenuous project led to a breakdown, forcing Pitt to take a rest. 

Pitt never stays still for a long time; soon he was immersed in a book entitled Marville Paris. Charles Marville was hired by Baron Haussmann to document buildings that were to be pulled down and replaced by others in the 19th century. Pitt returned to his favorite city to find these sites and take photos of contemporary Paris. He walked through Paris to discover remnants of the past. Sifting through archives, he finally produced his book Walks through Paris, with hundreds of photos documenting how places changed. He began taking groups on guided tours to show them the changes, a focal interest that persists to this day. 

Not for Real, Pitt's solo show, created and directed by Rinda Eckert in 1986.(Leonard Pitt, My Brain on Fire, 2016/File)

A dramatic change in his lifestyle was about to unfold. In 1993, Leonard Pitt received a call from the Child Protective Services of Orange County in California. They inquired if he could offer a foster home for Stephen, whose mother was Pitt’s younger first cousin. Momentarily unattached and 53, he bravely agreed, as the eight-year-old had suffered endless homeless shelters.

Being a father worked out, not without great difficulties; he even managed to have a longer relationship with a woman. Pitt had also constructed a comfortable home in Berkeley. His adopted son Stephen, now a young adult, informed him that his girlfriend was pregnant. Pitt was outraged, as both parents were too young, but his grandson Miles inevitably charmed him and Pitt gained a new lease on life.

Pitt works every morning at the French Hotel Café in North Berkeley, arriving at 7 a.m, a throwback to Parisian café culture. Otherwise Pitt is a lover of good black chocolate. The Berkeley Chocolate Club he founded in 2005 meets monthly to test the quality of six different chocolate bars.

(Read also: French chocolate features Indonesian cacao beans)

One can almost predict that Miles will soon be a connoisseur of good chocolate, carve masks and dance around as cheerfully as his grandfather.


My Brain on Fire, Paris and Other Obsessions, copyright Leonard Pitt 2016, Soft Skull Press Berkeley, ISBN 978-59376-634-4

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