NORTH SHORE SUNDAY

Radio Fishtown
Henry Ferrini and crew have finally completed their bittersweet documentary about a well known Gloucester character-the crusty Simon Geller.
By Alexander Stevens
September 2, 1990


(Simon Geller photo by David Spink)

Henry Ferrini had looked a lot more relaxed the day before, when he was alone in his editing room.

But on this Sunday evening, he was bouncing around, playing host and head technician to a group of about 25 people, who had gathered in the third floor screening room of his Gloucester home. This audience was carefully chosen--lovers of the arts and preservers of the past, all armed with checkbooks. They had been invited for a special private screening of Ferrini's latest video, and the hope was that they would reach into their pockets, and help pull the project out of the red.

Not only was the crowd generous with their money, but Ferrini and his collaborators-Ken Riaf and Judd Wilson, also of Gloucester-got an added bonus-a wonderful and supportive audience reaction to the 30-minute video that had consumed its makers for the last seven months. The crowd was moved to laughter, poignant silences and applause-the perfect welcome for a crew that had just emerged from a long hibernation in the editing room. Their show was a hit.

It's called "Radio Fishtown," and it's a portrait of one of the most colorful North Shore personalities of the 20th Century-Simon Geller, the mysterious, reclusive, disheveled one-man radio broadcaster who took on the Federal Communications Commission and won, before selling his station-which is now WBACH in Beverly-in 1988 for $1 million, and disappearing as mysteriously as he arrived. The thoughtful, beautifully crafted video is a bittersweet portrait of a man Gloucester both loved and hated (a public screening is planned for Sept. 16 at the Blackburn Theatre, on Elm Street, in Gloucester).

Like other Ferrini productions, this video transcends its subject and becomes a story about Gloucester. In fact, the story is not told by Geller himself, although Ferrini and company did track him down and include him in the tape. Instead, this story is told from the perspective of the townspeople-a video portrait of Geller painted by the people who listened to him, as Ferrini, Riaf and Wilson launched a total assault on the town to get interviews from every corner.

In fact, that was the buzzword for their on-street guerrilla tactics-TATV, Total Assault Television, as they pushed uninvited microphones into the faces of fisherman, pedestrians, and even a guy in barber shop, lathered for a shave. Some of these people actually met Geller, perhaps in a fish store, or in Geller's studio as they dropped off one of the private donations that sustained his station. But to most, Geller was just a voice over the airwaves.

The portrait drawn by these sightless witnesses is sometimes amusing, sometimes affectionate, sometimes sad, but always vivid. Several people describe him as a curmudgeon, others as a miser, or a dear old man. One person labels him a "Yiddish Yankee." And Robert J. Lurtsema, who narrates "Radio Fishtown," called Geller an "island of individuality in a sea of soul-destroying sameness."

Art is a family affair

Henry Ferrini isn't the only artist in the family. North Shore poetry enthusiasts will recognize the Ferrini name in connection with Henry's uncle Vincent-the prolific writer who has authored more than 30 books, 15 plays and volumes of an epic poem called "Know Fish."

And now the two Ferrini artists-who have the same wispy, kinky hair tied back into ponytails-are collaborating on "Poetry in Action: A Portrait of Vincent Ferrini," a video project that has consumed more than seven years and 125 video tapes. Henry has documented the life and art of his uncle, as well as the physical surroundings that have had an impact on Vincent's work.

"This project has a texture that it would never have had if it was shot by someone with an arts grant," says Henry, adding that it was taped during the "golden hours," an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset. "When I saw something that knocked me out, I'd go get it. I can do that, because I live here. I also have access to the subject."

Vincent supports Henry's quest to capture the history and characters of Gloucester. Although Vincent was born in Saugus and lived in Lynn, the 70-something (he won't tell) poet has called Gloucester home for the last 40 years, and considers the town unique.

"There are only two cities that matter-San Francisco and Gloucester," he says. "Gloucester is a small San Francisco. It's a town that attracts the people who love the arts."

Henry is winding down on the project, closing in on the final edit. His deadline is Oct. 11, when the Ferrini family will take their show on the road to the Essex Institute in Salem, where the video will be presented, and Vincent will read from his work as a part of "Our Lives, Our History: Remembering the 20th Century." end

One-man show

Certainly, the most endearing memories are those of his on-air mishaps. Geller's operation was strictly a one-man show, and he would operate for up to 20 hours in a single day. People tell stories of hearing the toilet flush in the background, or of Geller excusing himself from broadcasting for a few moments because his peas were burning, or, at dinner time, of Geller playing an opera, so he'd have time to eat.

Regardless of what people say about him, they all seem to beam when they say it.

Some of the most interesting observations on Geller come from Ferrini, who, as a result of the months spent working on the project, probably knows Geller as well as anyone on the North Shore. As Ferrini relaxes in his video studio, dressed in the baggy pants and loose jacket of an artist, a ponytail tucked up under his straw cap, it's clear he has great affection for the crusty old radio maverick.

"The mike would be on," says Ferrini, "and he wouldn't know it, and it was like a window into his life. It was fascinating. It was real life happening. WBACH...?" adds Ferrini, his voice growing noticeably harder. There's a pause as he just shakes his head."...Forget it. Simon had a totally different feel for things."

The idea for "Radio Fishtown" came when Ferrini, Riaf and Wilson were chatting over beers, and they asked themselves, "What ever happened to Simon Geller?" Everybody knew he had sold the radio station and left Gloucester, but no one knew where he went.

Winter was coming, and with the state's economy sagging, Ferrini, who also does industrial video tapes to help sustain his art projects, wasn't expecting much work. the three men knew that all Gloucester had a passionate response to Geller, good or bad, and he was a folk legend-"as much a Gloucester character as Floyd the Clammer," says Ferrini. So they began calling local businesses like the Ten Pound Island Book Company to see if they'd contribute to the project.

"People always said the Geller history should be preserved," says Ferrini, "and they put their money where their mouths were."

"When we hit $500 (in preproduction donations)," Wilson remembers, "Henry said, 'Let's go.'"

A 'prisoner'

None of them, including Ferrini with his decade-plus of video experience, anticipated the journey ahead. A predicted four-week project turned into a seven-month investigation. Wilson estimates Ferrini logged close to 1,000 hours on the project, Riaf another 700, and Wilson spent about 500 as they uncovered a wonderfully engaging story of a hermit radio operator who bought an FM band when FM was the joke of the industry, and watched that license, over the years, blossom into one of the most coveted pieces of property on the North Shore.

When the FCC came after Geller, it turned into a David and Goliath story, and, once again, David slew the giant. It's a rags-to-riches story. One person who was interviewed in the tape quotes a journal that reported Geller worked for about 58-cents an hour, and Geller himself says there was a time when he lived in Gloucester on $7 a week. It's a story with anti-Semitic undertones. But most of all, it's a story of an indomitable New England spirit.

"Like all great Gloucester characters," says someone at the end of the tape, "he was from out of town."

Wilson says that if Geller worked for 58-cents an hour, then he set the precedent for what the production crew made. The show is "in the can" at a price of about $5,000-"a pittance," says Ferrini. "In a feature movie, $5,000 is what they spend on coffee."

"But we were enthralled with the story," says Riaf.

And Ferrini says the dedication of the three amigos that fueled the project, as well as the

donations from the townspeople who realized that Geller was a valuable piece of Gloucester history worth preserving, are what give the show its texture.

"Gloucester is real community," says Ferrini, "a town with a social conscience, and people who are dedicated to preserving the town's history."

This Gloucester story ends in New York. Geller took his $1 million and landed in a 29th floor apartment on the West Side, near Lincoln Center. And a film that was filled with humor and laughter at the start, ends on a somewhat somber note. Geller, now in his 70s, suffers from failing health.

One of the most poignant stories, which didn't make it into the video, is the sad, Becketian drama that's played out on the 29th floor, where one button calls the elevators. But when the elevator door opens, Geller, with his slow and fragile steps, doesn't have time to get from the button to the elevator before the door closes.

"He's trapped on the 29th floor," says Ferrini. "He's a prisoner, just as he was a prisoner in his studio in Gloucester."

It's also sad that Geller still appears embittered and distanced from the community that was his home for 24 years. Ironically, Geller regularly bashes the town that seeks to make him a folk hero. Describing his 24 years in Gloucester, Geller says it was, "23 too long." And when the video crew asks him how he would like to be remembered in Gloucester, Geller responds, "I wish they'd just forget me."

Not likely. Even as Geller speaks the words, he's being immortalized. end