On the death of Donald Bellinger

Donald and I were not friends, but we knew each other, or at least I knew Donald and he knew me until the last time we met, when he told me that he didn’t know me. That was, I believe, in December of 1999 or 2000 at Harold Channer’s annual holiday party in Harold’s Manhattan loft.

As had always been the case, at that last meeting I had no clue whatsoever about what was going on in Donald’s head. Just as some people are transparent to me, Donald was opaque. It was never clear to me what his motives or intentions were. He may or may not have forgotten who I was. At first terribly insulted, I was later much amused, or bemused, by our final encounter.

It reminded me of one of my earliest Bellinger moments, probably from 1971. He had invited me to his annual lawn party, which I think he billed as the Intergalactic Croquet Tournament, or something like that. I must have told him that I would be there, but didn’t go.

The next time I saw him he called me on it.

“You didn’t come to my party.”

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t make it.”

“You should be sorry. You’ll never be invited again.”

The dialogue is approximate, and I think that I was eventually forgiven, sort of, but never was invited again.

Bellinger was present in two ways around New Paltz, and both ways were impressive. His personal presence was by turns charming, imposing, looming and often belligerent, and he did engage in the occasional brawl. And for an upstate New York boy, he had an awfully haughty British accent.

His cultural presence was embodied by the Academy Theatre, where he was a magnificent film impresario, running an art house that was probably one of the best in the country. Occupying the space that is now the upstairs dining room at Barnaby’s, it was one of the cornerstones of downtown New Paltz’s high times, from the late 60s to the mid-70s. Bellinger ran great motion pictures through that funky film palace at a furious pace, including the work of Bertolucci, Bergman, the early Scorcese, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson, Antonioni, Cassavetes, and Rohmer, to name but a handful.

It was a gift that was soon enough taken for granted, and in classic fashion was not truly appreciated until it was gone. But I, for one, got a great education at the Academy Theatre, and Bellinger was the professor. He knew what he was doing, in two senses. He knew the value of the work he was presenting, and he knew that it was having a huge cultural impact.

Bellinger was one of perhaps a half-dozen people who were essential to shaping the dynamic downtown scene of that era, along with Mikhail Horowitz, the genius who was at the center of the New Paltz School of poets; Manny Lipton, the wild performance artist in, and proprietor of, Manny’s Lounge and who was the original mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in shtick; Ed Beck, who transformed P&Gs from a hangout into the lead Main Street honky-tonk; Bob Schuler, from the college art department and himself an enigmatic avatar of the art scene; and Richard Rizzi, who was and still is the Henry Miller Professor of street life at the speed of light.

At the Academy Theatre the films rotated through at about three per week, in a one-screen venue, but eventually always rotated back to Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts, which became the Wizard of Oz for the downtown cognoscenti. The collateral effect of King of Hearts was that it gave hope that the local inmates might eventually run the asylum, something that was briefly realized at the college from about 1969 to 1973, but more recently came to pass in the village with the election of 2003.

My most hilarious run-in with Bellinger took place at the Homestead, a notorious bar that occupied the building on the northeast corner of Main and North Chestnut where a sushi restaurant is now located. It was a hot late-summer afternoon, circa 1974. When I entered Bellinger was seated at the back-door end of the bar, the only customer in the place. He was alone in conversation with the bartender, a certain well-known femme fatale/earth mother, who had the talent of near absolute command over men. Bellinger was clearly held in thrall by her. Not wanting to be impolite in such sparse company, I took a seat near Donald, just one barstool separating us.

When the bartender, who was a friend of mine, began chatting with me and pouring the Jack Daniels with a heavy hand (she liked men to be unshaven, unwashed, and drunk, as I recall), Bellinger was incensed. He was visibly clenching his teeth, as he often did in the unbearable presence of others. During a moment when the bartender had stepped away, Bellinger got up off his barstool and thrust his chest in my face and told me to leave or he would give me a beating. He was about half-serious, trying to bluff me into leaving so that he could have the femme fatale/earth mother bartender to himself again, but not that far from moving from bluff to fisticuffs. Thinking quickly, I made a joke of the matter. Donald’s chest deflated a bit and he re-took his seat. I think you could say that we had “bonded,” at last.

These reflections are, of course, notes from across the room by a mere acquaintance, not the recollections of an intimate friend. I have no firm insight into Donald’s heart, although I suspect it was much bigger than he generally let on, and that he was unashamed to keep his truer and deeper feelings hidden.

The New Paltz Times of July 13 reported that Donald died on July 7, at his mother’s home in Amsterdam, N.Y.

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