Last Saturday, the Janet Kurnatowski Gallery opened its last show—HYPE—a look at the life and work of the legendary press agent Billy “Silver Dollar” Baxter. The show is a collection of writings, photos, videos and vintage audio recordings that Baxter was part of during the peak of his career in show business in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“Greenpoint has always been made up of hardworking individuals: people who have the do-it-yourself attitude and Billy was all about that,” the show’s curator, David Ohliger, explains. “He loved the challenge of going against the Hollywood establishment. He was a true believer in doing a lot with very little and he loved undercutting the big dogs. And this show’s got it all. It’s a really unique look into a person’s showbiz life in that Mad Men era where different rules applied.”
A longtime Greenpointer of Polish descent, gallery owner Janet Kurnatowski opened the space over ten years ago. “After moving back into the neighborhood in 2002, I was living in the same building as the gallery,” she explains. “My intention was to use it as a studio for my work and also run it as a gallery. It didn’t really work to try to use it as both, so in November 2004 I launched my first official gallery exhibition with the works of Ben La Rocco, a brilliant painter who was just completing his MFA at Pratt.”
“I am an art lover and I wanted to create a platform for emerging artists in the community with a focus on abstraction,” she continues. “I didn’t feel that there were enough spaces with that emphasis, and there certainly weren’t any gallery spaces this far in Greenpoint. Williamsburg was the really big hot Brooklyn scene. But I didn’t want to be where everyone else was, and I didn’t want to show what everyone else was showing.”
Indeed, her latest show HYPE does not feel like a typical gallery show. It is a walk through some fascinating nuggets of film history as told through the life of Billy Baxter. Born in Manhattan in 1926, Baxter always lived his life close to the edge. In the early 1960s, he was bankrupted when he brought the novel Mandingo to Broadway starring Dennis Hopper. It was a massive flop and he had to start over, so he switched gears and began working in public relations. Throughout the 1960s, Baxter promoted groundbreaking foreign and independent films like La Dolce Vita, The Pawnbroker, and others. In the seventies, his relationship with film got more involved as he put his name on a series of cult classics, most notably George A. Romero’s zombie epic Dawn of the Dead.
“Billy was larger than life,” David explains. “A true showbiz hustler in every sense of the word. The entertainment world is a really tough gig, you have to be fearless if you’re gonna make it and Billy understood that better than most. He was a risk taker and a gambler so the wild west culture of showbiz at that time suited him very well. You have to remember that at that time it wasn’t that easy to fact check things. Billy was a master at hyping his projects in the press. Even if it was all bullshit…who knew? He was so good at putting the spin on it that it was believed. Whatever it was: imitation trophies, planting stories in the press, Billy subscribed to the belief that if it’s presented to look legitimate…it is!”
“But that’s not to say he didn’t also do some real projects,” David continues. “He exposed an American audience to Italian film legend Giancarlo Giannini with Love & Anarchy, championed the Canadian film Outrageous!—one of the first LGBT themed films ever made—and he helped get the horror classic Dawn of The Dead financed and finished. It’s a life story that had to be told.”
Billy was longtime friends with Roger Ebert, and the two spent many a Cannes Film Festival in each other’s company. In fact, it was Ebert who gave Baxter the nickname “Silver Dollar” because he would tip everyone from waitstaff to maître D’s with silver dollars when he was working the festival. For Ebert’s memoir Life Itself, an entire chapter was written about his most gregarious friend.
After giving up over ten years worth of weekends, Janet decided that this would be a good show for the gallery to go out on. “I want to enjoy some time being an artist again, focusing on my own work, and I want to spend a little time with my new husband.”
Last summer, Janet and David were married at St. Stanislaus Kostka church in Greenpoint, solidifying their status as one of the neighborhood’s more unusual power couples. Janet explains, “We met at the gallery a few years ago and made a romantic connection. With David’s background in construction, our first collaboration was rebuilding the gallery space. He had some fantastic ideas and I felt that having him curate the final show would be another way for us to collaborate. David spent months sorting through countless photos and memorabilia from the Baxter estate; he could have easily filled a museum. We had a lot of fun with the installation, and it was great seeing David’s vision come to life.”
“I’ve got a much greater respect for what she does now that I’ve been through this process,” David adds. “She deserves a nice break after doing this for ten years. I’m exhausted and I only did the one show. She’s done over a hundred!”
HYPE: The Life of Billy ‘Silver Dollar’ Baxter, curated by David P. Ohliger, on view now through August 16, 2015. The Janet Kurnatowski Gallery is located at 205 Norman Avenue. Gallery hours are on Saturdays and Sundays from 1-6pm.