Previewing “A Dance With Death”

Kelly Johnson and his daughter Leda Meredith in the final minutes of his life on May 7, 2018.

KQED TODAY OFFERS a preview of the New Fillmore documentary A Dance With Death, screening Wednesday night, August 15, at 7 p.m. at the Clay Theatre on Fillmore Street. It tells the story of longtime Fillmore resident Kelly Johnson’s decision — after a celebrated career as a dancer, musician and vaudeville performer — to end his life earlier this year.

PREVIEW ON KQED

A Lesson in How to Die
A conversation with director Arash Malekzadeh

Buy ADVANCE TICKETS to the screening at the Clay

 

A Fillmore film premieres at the Clay

ADVANCE TICKETS are available HERE and at the theater box office.

How a coffee shop saved my life

James DeKoven at Peet’s on Fillmore in 2007.

FIRST PERSON | JAMES DeKOVEN

On February 4, 2000, I arrived in the Fillmore under dire circumstances. Six months earlier, my fiancee had given the ring back — a devastating blow that occurred weeks after I gave up a well-paying job to write fulltime. Broken-hearted, half-mad and facing an uncertain financial picture, I fled from Santa Barbara to San Francisco.

At the time, it was more of an escape than any sort of plan for the future. For better or worse, I’ve never had many long-term goals. I just needed to get my head together. Once healthy, I could have clarity about the next step. But as I found out, sometimes destiny provides the relief. Who needs a personal coach, Jungian therapy, psychedelic journey, or self-help book when there’s Peet’s Coffee at Sacramento and Fillmore?

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That cat could write

She turned her newspaper articles into a book.

AFTER OUR FRIEND William died, we helped empty his house and put it on the market. His downstairs tenant was moving, and the pregnant cat that lived mostly under the house and on the street was left without a home.

It turned out no one wanted a pregnant cat — not the nearby Pets Unlimited, nor the SPCA, nor anybody else. So we took her home. Then she had 11 kittens — on 7/11, no less. This did not seem lucky, at least not for us, now with a dozen cats.

Although she was busy enough already, eating and nursing and grooming, again and again and again, we put her to work writing for the neighborhood newspaper. Her nametag — and byline — said simply Saralee. It turned out she was a talented writer with a gift for delicate phrasing and an eye for the wry detail.

“I’ve called this beautiful neighborhood home my entire life — more than two years now, although a proper lady never tells her age,” she began her first story.

These were not her first kittens. “A moment of ardor with an attentive tabby left me with eight kittens to tend — and me just a kitten myself,” she wrote. “No sooner had the kids left the nest than I was out the window again. A small partay with a cool gray long-haired tomcat and I soon found myself with nine little ones this time.”

A visit to the vet capped her prolific output at 28 kittens. Her stories in the New Fillmore made motherhood sound like a joy. “I have to say, this might be my most beautiful brood yet,” she wrote.

She told her story so well that all of her kittens found new homes — and, in the process, we became related by cat to many of our neighbors. Her kids would write on Mother’s Day and 7/11. It was a lucky day after all. Nearly everywhere we went — to a local restaurant, store, church or coffee shop — we’d get an update on Saralee’s kids.

She turned her stories into a book, available on Amazon. And she blossomed into a beautiful and classy Miss Lady, with a lipstick pink collar and heart-shaped nametag.

Saralee died on July 28 after a short illness. She will be missed by many in the neighborhood — and in the literary world.

— Thomas Reynolds

The Brown Bag served up an eclectic mix

Treasures from the Brown Bag, the emporium and office supply store at 2000 Fillmore.

FLASHBACK | BARBARA WYETH

Every time I walk past the corner of Fillmore and Pine, I am transported back to the Brown Bag, the stationery store that was a mainstay on the northeast corner for many years.

Back in the day, I owned a small business in North Beach, but was struggling. I met Dawn, one of Brown Bag’s owners, when I was helping out on weekends at the nearby California Street Creamery. We had become friendly, and when I decided to quit my store, Dawn offered me a job at the Brown Bag.

I’d had ongoing connections with the Fillmore neighborhood since moving to San Francisco, so working at the Brown Bag seemed like a good fit. I loved its eclectic mix of practical supplies and wildly impractical baubles. It reminded me of the old-fashioned 5 & Dime in my Midwestern hometown. The place even included the smell of bacon wafting in from the Chestnut Cafe next door.

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The final days of Kelly Johnson

In the final minutes of his life, Kelly Johnson was surrounded by friends and family.

By ARASH MALEKZADEH

A month ago, I was offered the opportunity to film the last days of Kelly Johnson’s life. I did not know him. I did not know how or why his death was predetermined.

I was told to meet the next morning at Peet’s for coffee. Then I’d walk half a block with my equipment to a beautiful blue Victorian overlooking Fillmore Street where he’d lived since 1969. After climbing two flights of stairs, each step creaking with antiquity, I entered the top flat. I followed an oxygen tube strewn across the carpet.

Kelly Johnson sat on his red couch, calmly staring out the window, as I approached with my camera in hand. A smile stretched across his face as he greeted me. He was ready for his close up.

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Help save Browser Books

Photograph of Browser Books at 2195 Fillmore by Daniel Bahmani

A PUBLIC APPEAL | CATIE DAMON

We need the help of the neighborhood to ensure that people continue to make memories at Browser Books, as they have for decades.

With the proliferation of online shopping and e-books, it has been challenging to keep Browser’s doors open. When the recession hit in 2008, we almost closed, and my dad, owner Stephen Damon, was forced to double down so that the shop could continue. Business has vastly improved since then, but the debt has accrued. And my dad can no longer sustain the debt and his medical bills.

This month, we begin running a Go Fund Me campaign to save Browser Books. The goal is to raise $75,000 to pay off the store’s debts. Any money received after the debt has been paid will go to building the store’s future. This will enable the bookstore to continue under the direction of its longtime employees.

If we cannot raise this sum, my dad will be forced to close Browser Books at the end of the year and the neighborhood will lose an important literary and cultural center.

For more details — and to donate to the campaign — please go HERE.

UPDATE: The campaign to raise $75,000 to retire the debts of Browser Books and help keep it in business was overwhelmingly successful and topped its goal within a month.

FIRST PERSON: “Growing up at Browser Books

Growing up at Browser Books

Browser Books owner Stephen Damon with young Catie Damon.

FIRST PERSON | CATIE DAMON

Browser Books, the literary landmark on Fillmore near the corner of Sacramento, was originally located one block north, beside the Clay Theatre, in a building that had also been a head shop and a recording studio for Carlos Santana’s first album, called simply Santana and released in 1969.

How my dad, Stephen Damon, came to own Browser in 1978 is, as he acknowledges, a curious and incredible story.

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Monty’s big day out

Monty on a visit to Chouquet’s on Fillmore.

MONTY HAS A SWAGGER. It’s a swagger of self-assuredness, a wiggle. It’s the wiggle-swagger that only a noble and confident West Highland Terrier can have. That was exactly the swagger he wiggled on his recent Big Day Out.

Monty’s best friend, Alison Carlson, was having work done on their home in the neighborhood. Contractors were in and out the door when one of them left it open, and Monty had the idea that he wanted a breath of fresh air. He decided on Chouquet’s, at Fillmore and Washington, where he knows the outdoor terrace well. He walked along the sidewalk unchaperoned, chest-out and proud. He made it to the orange-colored table Alison normally sits at and curled up underneath, unconcerned about the lunchtime diners with confused and worried expressions.

Longtime Chouquet’s staffer Pamela Gioe, who knows Monty well, brought him a bowl of water. Monty lapped it up, squinting in the sun. Luckily, Monty wears a handsome nametag around his neck, and Pamela was able to find Alison’s contact number and call. Unperturbed and feeling right at home, Monty remained curled up under his usual table and laid there Buddha-like until Alison zipped over in a cab to take him home.

It was the perfect rescue ruined only by lack of danger.

— Mark Fantino

The end is near

Kelly on Fillmore, a portrait of Kelly Johnson by Anne Ruth Isaacson

NEIGHBORHOOD ICON Kelly Johnson, a steady presence on the corner of Fillmore and Sacramento for many years, plans to die in early May. Wracked by terminal illness, he has invoked California’s new End of Life Option Act. After a final few weeks of celebrating with friends, he says May 7 will be his last day on Fillmore, where he has lived since 1969.

EARLIER: “Kelly’s Corner