Gary Warne was a founder of the San Francisco Suicide Club, the predecessor of the SF Cacophony Society. During the late 70s Gary ran an independent bookstore called Circus of the Soul. He would go on to create The Answer Man Newsletter and Gorilla Grotto, before dying at age 35. His ideas led directly to the Cacophony Society and helped inspire Burning Man.
Gary was born in Charleston, West Virginia in 1948 and was raised in Florida, Kentucky, and West Virginia. He served two years in the army in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Gary first came to San Francisco in 1968 following a friend, Sutton Breiding. He lived at 800 Shrader Street in San Francisco, a corner house, near Golden Gate Park, with several friends.
In the early 70s, the Free University Movement was going strong, and San Francisco State University was sponsoring “Communiversity”, a series of tuition-free classes. The free university movement, a reaction to the free speech movement of 60s and student unrest, involved student lead education, free to participants and typically taught by volunteers.
In April 1974, Gary started his own Communiversity class studying the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The class met Sunday evenings in Gary’s bedroom, the large attic at 800 Shrader. William M. Breiding recalls these days:
Each week we piled into Gary’s romantically decorated garret to discuss a previously read Poe story or poem. The Poe group was diverse and interesting. Our range of activities went far beyond Edgar Allan to dinners and outings throughout San Francisco, including each other’s homes. Carter was a poet who organised readings. I met John Fugazzi there, fresh from Cincinnati, who was to become a lifelong friend. … John R., Gary’s old friend and roommate, was also a part of the class, and brought a vibrancy and humour to the class that might have otherwise been missing.
By 1974, Warne was a leader of Communiversity and receive a small stipend from SFSU. In September. 1974, Gary and some friends had the idea to do a practical jokes class. Gary wrote:
This event was to signal a new era for Communiversity, the Free University Movement and many of us individually. As soon as it hit the streets we were told [by the SFSU that the class] was “not educational, in poor taste and probably illegal from the sound of it.” Preliminary discussions went on among the top brass at State about withdrawing our pay checks until threats and coercion failed. At the end of the year we withdrew the school from State forming a non-profit. A hundred people signed up for the practical jokes class, making it the most popular class in the history of the school….
By the end of 1974, the student leaders decided to leave SFSU, form a non-profit organization and host Communiversity on their own.
During this period, Gary became a "garage sailor", spending much of his spare time canvassing small sales- and flea markets in search of books, costumes and other bizarre items. Over a period of foour years, he collected over 16,000 volumes.
In 1975, he opened a small, rundown used bookstore and community center, Circus of the Soul. For five years, Circus of the Soul became the forum for a variety of community events, ranging from the SF Roommate Referral Service, participatory music classes and band rehearsals (Gary was a singer/guitarist in two bands), and the Fantasy Film Society.
On January 2, 1977, during a heavy rain storm in San Francisco, Gary and three friends, Adrienne Burk, David Warren, and Nancy Prussia met at Fort Point, under the Golden Gate Bridge. During storms, the waves under the bridge become large and crash over the wall. The four friends took turns grabbing the chain and holding on while the freezing water hit them. Energized by the experience, and inspired by the Robert Louis Stevenson short story, the Suicide Club, the four decided to form the San Francisco Suicide Club.
To recruit new members, the group initially offered the club as a class in the Feb-May 1997 Communiversity Calendar (typos in original):
Charter Member Meeting of the SF Suicide Club
Meeting regularly but at odd times. Members must agree to set their worldly affairs in order, to enter into the REAL world of chaos, cacaphony and dark saturnalia, and they must further agree to live each day as though it were their last, for it may BE. The club will explore untravelled, exotic, dasmal and exhilarating experiences of life: deserted cemeteries, storms, caving, haunted houses, Nazi bars, fanatical movements, hot air ballooning, stunts, expose, impersonation. The Club will be ongoing for the rest of our lives.
Nancy Prussia, Gary Warne, Adrienne Burk, David Warren, R.J. Mololepozy, The Phantom, The Crimson Pirate, Nancy Drew & The Hardy Boys.
The Gorilla Grotto and More
In addition to the Suicide Club, Gary opened the Gorilla Grotto at 775 Frederick Street in late 1979. The Grotto was open for six nights a week, offering different games, lectures, movies, storytelling and music events each evening for over a year. The Grotto's unusual ambiance included a bookstore, a cafe, a giant playpen (for adults), and his unique collection of social events entitled the "Museum of the Inconsequential". Giant pillow fights often capped off the evening. (Hear John Law talk about the Grotto).
Gary contributed to facilitating and inventing games and activities working with formal play organizations in the Bay Area. Just before his death, he was coordinating a volunteer pet therapy program, which brought pets to elderly, hospitalized seniors.
Gary wrote articles and commissioned pieces for several publications, including SF Free and Easy, the Bystander, the Surrealist Exchange and his own book of unpublished fiction and poetry, The Lord of Sensations and Other Fragments and Dreams.
Shortly before his death, Gary began working with the S.F.P.D. as a trainee officer as well as the Friends of the S.F. Public Library, where he served as a city guide. He also began to produce a multi-media documentation of the San Francisco earthquake.
Gary also produced the Answer Man Newsletter, a service where people could, for a small fee, ask any question of Gary. He would then send the person references to experts in the field, who could provide detailed information.
Gary Warne died on Thanksgiving Day, 1983 of a phlebitis induced heart attack. His ashes were, in part, scattered from high above the Golden Gate Bridge, as was his wish. John Law also took some and painted them into the bridge itself, forever making Gary a part of the structure he loved to climb. Finally, some ashes were reserved, and given out in small vials to a select group of friends.