Don Donahue @ Mowry’s

Posted by on November 9th, 2010 at 12:19 AM

by Patrick Rosenkranz

Mowry’s Opera House had seen the last of its glory days long before Apex Novelties and Rip Off Press moved into the third floor ballroom. Don Donahue was in there first and walled off a small room in the corner where he could keep himself and his presses warm, then sublet the rest of the open space to squatters, free-love filmmakers and other counterculture artists and musicians.

That’s where he printed Snatch and Jiz comic books on the Multilith 1250 press he bought from Charles Plymell, who had used it to print Robert Crumb’s Zap #1. Plymell, a Beat poet from the Wichita Vortex, was also responsible for unveiling the earliest published work of S. Clay Wilson in Grist Magazine (back in Kansas). He came to check up on his apprentice in 1968 shortly after Don set up for business.

“It was with some gallows humor that I traded the press to Don, and told him that he could learn printing as well. The darkness compounded when I saw the chaotic struggle of old wiring and mattresses and paper all over the place in his ghetto warehouse. I told him he could expect some waste. He fought it to its end in Great Balls of Fire. It took courage for me to enter the premises, and knowing all the complications that vex an experienced printer, I looked with sympathy at that chaotic scene, but he excelled in chaos. It served him well. A true Man of the Comix.”

Donahue shared his darkroom and what little expertise he had at that point with the four partners of Rip Off Press as they learned to operate their own Davidson 233 press, first running off four-color posters for the Family Dog, then printing Radical America Komiks, R. Crumb’s Comics & Stories, and reprinting God Nose. Jaxon chronicled those day 20 years later in a comic story called “Rip Off Press: The Golden Era.”

All the hippies upstairs and on the roof ran out into the street when the attic caught on fire in 1969. It was extinguished by city firemen, who walked away with pockets stuffed full of Donahue’s stock of dirty comics. The resulting water damage forced them to relocate. Donahue loaded his press into his Ford Falcon and moved to a storefront on Valencia. Jaxon still had keys to the condemned and shuttered former headquarters of the Family Dog, so Rip Off Press quietly moved their equipment in there and set up shop.

An arsonist finished the job the following year, much to the delight of San Francisco’s redevelopment commission. Mowry’s burned down to the ground in 1970, making way for “ghetto renewal.”

It may have been an inauspicious beginning to a lifelong career in subterranean art, but Donahue continued his entrepreneurial role for another fifty years. He was primarily a dealer in underground ephemera during his later years. His last publishing venture was a series of silk-screened posters he made in the early 1990s.

He was a unique individual. I don’t know who will fill his shoes now but whoever it is, I hope they also have Don’s discrimination and perseverance.

Illustration notes

Don Donahue sent me Xerox copies of these photos from his early days as a comix publisher when I was doing my final research for Rebel Visions around 1999. Those are his notations in red. The naked picture of Don was taken by Ingeborg Gerdes and appeared in an article in The Organ Vol. 1 #2, September 1974.

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