The Fatty Arbuckle Caper

These photos were a re-creation of the final shoot out on an abandoned ship to shore fueling platform on a dead end street on Islais Creek just south of the intersection of Marin and Illinois Sts.

The Suicide Club (1977-1982) would host pretty much any idea that anyone might come up with as an event. “Event” was a catch all descriptor that could be vague. Some years ago when Don Herron and I were writing a book (not yet published) on the adventures of The Suicide Club, I broke the events down into categories. Here’s roughly what I came up with: 1) Urban  Chase &  Hiding Games. Variations on Hide & Seek, Foxes & Hounds, Killer, Capture the Flag, etc. Usually played on the streets, cemeteries or in huge abandoned buildings. 2) Costumed Role Playing Games. In specific interior locations or on the streets. 3) Street Theater. Different from #2 because the Costumed Role Playing games were entirely for the benefit of participants. Public interaction was unneeded and sometimes unsolicited for Suicide Club street theater events, though when people on the street did notice, things could get funny in unexpected ways. 4) Urban Exploration. Exploring abandoned and sometimes occupied buildings, bridges, tunnels, and the occasional lone abandoned structure in more rural and natural environments.  5) Group Psychological games. Usually played in a soft, safe environment like someones home (often in Gary Warne’s comfy Circus of the Soul Bookstore on Judah St at 10th Ave. in SF) and drawn from popular psychology of the period and experimental theories on human communications. My favorite was Gary Warne’s “Lock Yourself In A Room and See If You Agree”. Five to ten people would agree to stay together in a comfortable place with tea & snacks. The group would pick the most extreme issue they could think of – one that they all did not agree on: gun control, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, etc. Players agreed to respectfully listen to and REALLY TRY to understand the, in some cases, disagreeable beliefs held by their fellows. The scrum would discuss the topic until everyone understood the reasons behind the strong views of others. The goal was not to agree on the issues, rather to understand the reasoning and belief systems of others. It wasn’t that radical an idea at the time – understanding others. What was uncommon was to make it a game. 6) Infiltrations. Members of the Club would “join” or at least visit with and observe extreme or fascinating groups. Religious cults, political extremist organizations, protest groups and the like.

7) Suicide Club “away trips” to visit weird tourist attractions or to attend curious events or performances, occasionally to join in in some odd fashion as in attending The Calaveras County Frog Jumping Contest in 1977 where the Suicide Club entered a human in a formal dress (Gary Warne), white gloves, top hat, etc., carried out to the jumping line by a giant frog (Jayson Wechter in a frog costume).

Suicide Club enters giant frog in Calaveras County frog contest 1st popularized by Mark Twain

Various Suicide Club games, events and protocols can be studied HERE and HERE.

Don Herron was a member and event organizer in the Suicide Club from the very first. He was influenced and informed by fiction, and he used his knowledge of and love for fiction in building some of the most involved and amazing Suicide Club events.

JL coming out of The Albatross Saloon (later San Francisco Brewing Company. Even later The Comstock) on Columbus Street. Hot in pursuit of Maude Delmont.

Don’s primary literary influence was Dashiell Hammett the American hardboiled detective fiction writer that virtually founded the genre. Don, like many in the Club, was encouraged to create events based upon his interests. Concurrent with the founding of the Club. He started a walking tour based upon visiting and recounting tales of the locations in San Francisco that Hammett lived and worked in as well as the actual and imaginary locations Hammett described in his novels and short stories set in SF. He presented his first tours as “classes” in the SF free school Communiversity, which was also the cradle of the Suicide Club. 

 In the earliest iterations of The Dashiell Hammett Walking Tour, although Don was not a professional presenter or speaker though he was very knowledgable about his subject. His amateur delivery was honed by several tours every week, and he quickly turned his walk into a professional, entertaining and very hardboiled tour. Now in its 41st year, the Hammett Tour has been covered by most media outlets you could name, and is the longest running literary walking tour in the United States. While Don was building his tour, he also created and led Suicide Club events based upon his obsessions.

Barry Wolf from Continental, Maude Delmont & The Op

Among other events, Don created three based on the mythology and trappings of modern hardboiled fiction; these games were particularly influenced by the writings, aesthetic and real tough guy substance of Dashiell Hammett (he told HUAC to stuff it and went to prison) and his characters, Sam Spade and the Continental Op were the very embodiment of the phrase “hardboiled”.  Don not only affected a Hammett-esque hardboiled persona, he embodied it. Like many well known writers, Don needed a “real” job to make ends meet and drove taxi for Luxor Cab for decades. Among his many adventures as a cabbie, he chased a fare that bolted without paying into Golden Gate Park and tackled the guy, holding him until he paid up! Encouraged by the spirit and collaboration of the Suicide Club though he undoubtedly was, Don groused a bit about the “lack of character development and authenticity of period dialogue and mannerisms” in many of the clubs participants in his first two detective games. In his desire to infuse the game with as much genuine 20’s Hammett Frisco essence for the third and final game, Don cast his net further than the Suicide Club for many of the primary characters. On his walking tour, which met every Sunday at Noon, perhaps half of the audience knew nothing of detectives and were attending merely because it was on the tourist information boards, Maybe another 30-40% had some small interest in the field. There were always that 10%: the died-in-the-wool hardboiled aficionados. It was from this group that Don recruited his perfect Nick Charles: graphics artist and club bouncer Charlie Oldham, a man so glib and with such a witty and sardonic delivery that many of his off the cuff comments, observations and insults could have been written by Hammett.  Oldham had played the character of Dashiell Hammett in an earlier game.

L to R: Dis n Dat Kid, Vito, Francis Xavier O’Leary, Rocco & Fatty

A hard drinking US military research scientist, John Surinchak impressed Don with his uncanny resemblance to Hammett’s second most famous creation, the Continental Op: a nameless dick from Continental Detective Agency that appears in two novels and many short stories. The Op was balding, paunchy, not too tall, sharp as a damascus blade and tough enough to take repeated beatings from bruisers and psychos and bounce back with a street level bon mot and a beefy right to the jaw. It turned out that Surinchak was a tough guy in real life too. The event was designed with three tiers of involvement for potential players and a rough outline created by Don that contained several facts relevant to the theme yet required no specific scripted outcomes. The third and outer tier, “The Hats” were players that showed up the day of the event in costume, but had not taken the time to create complex characters. They had some autonomy in the game, and if they were clever enough, could in theory take initiative and alter the course of the game; for the most part, they would follow the second & first tier players about and do what ever they said. Hence the appellation “The Hats” dropped by Charlie Oldham’s Nick Charles character when noticing that wherever he went, he was followed by a “Sea of Hats!”

L to R: Lt. Pucinni, Maude Delmont, Barry Wolfe, The Continental Op (taking it in the gut) and Fatty.

The first tier consisted of major characters with established backstories and some existing history which might reasonably lead to conflict between some and the need for cooperation between others. These players were maybe a bit obsessive, typically well versed in detective and mystery fiction, protocols and plot mechanisms. Don gave each of these players a little “special information” prior to the game that would serve them in negotiating, threatening and/or partnering with others. The second tier consisted of those engaged enough to pick a character from fiction or simply make one up and have the wherewithal, without the months preparation, character development and deeper immersion of the tier 1 players, to involve themselves in and even change the course of the games direction. Anything could happen and it depended upon the cunning and ambition of the players.
Although there was no stated goal that all parties were necessarily moving toward, the central figure and “McGuffin” of the piece was Hollywood comedic superstar actor Fatty Arbuckle. Fatty was being prosecuted for the accused sexual assault with a coke bottle of an unknown LA actress, Virginia Rappe who consequently died from injuries claimed to have taken place at a wild party hosted by Fatty taking place in several rented suites atop the St. Francis Hotel.

Charlie Oldham played Nick Charles, leader of the detective contingent trying to rescue Fatty Arbuckle from the clutches of Vito Lawton, Rocco and the other gangsters.

Don was having a hell of a time finding the right “Fatty”. He had to be excellent in order to anchor the game. He had to be big, jovial, quick witted, dexterous and agile in that big man sort of way. Don wasn’t finding anyone capable of the role and was getting frustrated. Finally, not long before the game, Ray Nelson came on the Hammett Tour. Over drinks after the walk, Don realized he had his perfect Fatty. Nelson was a veteran SciFi novelist and owned Big Cat Bookstore in Albany CA. He had been close to Phillip K. Dick when they were both starving writers in Berkeley in the early 60’s. Ray is cited by PKD experts as the inspiration for the character of Roy Batty in Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: “Phil thought I was a machine like fellow, with little emotional expression. I was a MENSA member and I think he was a little put off by that.” {paraphrasing Ray from a long ago memory} Ray also holds the distinction of writing the story that John Carpenters awesome movie They Live! was based on. Ray ended up being the perfect Fatty, glib, spry, resilient, and a bit paradoxical: did he do it? or was he an innocent, like his movie characters? Don recruited me as lead gangster Vito Lawtoni & Jayson Wechter as “Rico” to work with Don’s “Rocco” as the NYC gang that kidnaps Virginia Rappe and Fatty to use as coin for buying their way into the SF underground after being run out of Palm Springs and LA by established mobsters. Lead characters backstories got fairly complex and we were encouraged to drop hints about them to other players. The three lead gangsters were all longtime Suicide Club organizers and were expected to be able to hold our roles and parlay effectively with the newer folks dropping clues for them to move ahead when they ran into a dead end in pursuing the action.

L to R: Rico. Joey Falconer, Vito in Tosca.

A good example was early in the game when the Nick Charles, the detectives and “Hats”, over a dozen strong were stuck at the holy trinity of North Beach bars, Specs’, Vesuvios’s and Tosca Cafe not knowing where to go. We gangsters had just hijacked Fatty from his old vaudeville buddy, Fritz Leiber’s at his apartment in the Tenderloin. After waiting awhile, we sent one of the players back to North Beach to insure that the good guys “heard the rumor” that Vito and gang were would be leaving a Tenderloin dive apartment building with Fatty in tow. Maude Belmont, best friend of the dead Virginia Rappe’s (read the attached article pdf’s for more story details) was caught in this action too. She was played by another excellent find from the Hammett Tour a young lady named Chris (can’t recall her last name – Chris – are you out there?). She really had the femme fatale thing down and used her powers to snooker several of the male players out of information as the game wore on. Mayhem, cracking wise, rousting yeggs, (orange PlayCo dart) gunplay, cigar smoking and 20’s style atmosphere ensued. As with all Suicide Club events, this one was not created for or intended to attract media attention. One of the generally accepted tenets of the Club was complete immersion in the event, making it a total life experience as opposed to being an exercise in self-consciousness.Fatty dead! Vito soon to be dead....

Why then, did this event warrant three full pages in the City’s main newspaper? {Newspaper: a large format, multiple page paper instrument completely covered in thousands of words and some badly reproduced images that presented very compressed and seemingly random articles on local, national and international news that could be purchased in “newsstands” or metal boxes on the street that one would place coins into, or could be delivered to one’s home by a child – yes things used to be that weird}. Don was becoming famous for his Hammett Walking Tour by this time.

L to R: Fatty, Vito & Rocco

After starting as a Communiversity class (a default Suicide Club event) it quickly became a stand alone project that required Don’s continual efforts, meeting weekly at that time. It had also already been repeatedly covered by local and national press. The SF Examiner (Hearst flagship paper) had recently done a feature on Don & the Hammett Tour. When the reporter filed the piece, he dropped the info about an upcoming “detective/gangster street game that Herron was planning. The paper’s entertainment editor was very intrigued and called Don to see if the paper could “cover” the event. Don was not very encouraging. He told the hapless editor that he could not have a reporter and photographer intrusively following the characters and impeding the flow and serendipity of the game. The editor was insistent. After thinking about it a bit, Don told him it might be alright, but ONLY if the Examiner writer played a serious character in the game. The editor balked – “We’re a newspaper, We cover stuff. We can’t be the subject of our pieces.”

Randy Shilts pumping Continental’s man Barry Wolf for clues in Chinatown.

And Don thought, that was that. Evidently not, since the editor couldn’t put it down. He remembered that a new reporter working in the Health section of the paper was a great detective fiction fan. This is how we acquired one of the best players in the game. John Jacobs reputedly canceled a skiing weekend with his wife (much to her dismay) in order to cover Fatty Arbuckles adventures in Frisco. One of the great things about Don’s plotting was the mix of real life history with detective fiction fantasy and individual players off the cuff creations and plot twists. Once Jacobs realized the scope of the game and the potential to immerse himself in it, he kind of went native, becoming the most obsessive and effective player in a scrum of obsessive and effective players. The actual Arbuckle case included three mistrials for the rape (reputedly with a coke bottle) and consequent death of aspiring Hollywood actress Virginia Rappe at a wild three day debauch amidst the penthouse suites atop the St Francis Hotel on Union Square. Information unearthed during the various prosecutions implied the possibility of alternate narratives,including the story that Rappes death by internal bleeding (assumedly from the leering fat man crushing her by his ponderous mass during a drunken assignation in he is private suite) was actually caused by a botched abortion that had recently taken place.

O’Leary, Dis n Dat Kid, Pucinni, The Op & Barry Wolf

As near as I can tell, the jury is still out today on how this young woman came to her untimely death. However, in the mid-20’s this lurid tale was just what the blue noses, wanna be moral inquisitors and Hollywood censors represented by the Hays Commission needed to rein in what they saw as the rapidly growing degeneracy of the new Hollywood aristocracy. The attendant media frenzy swirling around the trials was the biggest story of the decade and the yellow journalism pioneer Hearst papers led the charge of moral outrage, selling a s*** ton of papers in the process. In his zeal to play an effective character and to tell great story, Jacobs dove into the Examiners archives digging up the most incredible and lurid accounts created by his predecessors by 50 years at the Hearst papers.

Vito Lawton & The Continental Op

John Jacobs created his character of “ace reporter Johnny Jacobs of The Daily Call (The Examiners main competition in the news game in SF in the 20’s!) and proceeded to write his piece as though it were for his employers rival! This was all very “meta” before the term was ever in use. One of the old pieces from the Ex’s graveyard files was of Fatty sitting in the middle of a spiderweb with strands leading out to the various ingenues present at (or even remotely connected to) the now mythical party/debauch. His editor scratched that one, probably figuring they were already risking their jobs due to the lurid and professionally damning accounts they were already presenting regarding their employer The Hearst Corporation. To top things off there was another journalist who had petitioned Don to cover the game. After agreeing to the same requirements his rival at “The Daily Call” had, SF journalist Randy Shilts donned a hat with a press card sticking out of the hat band and chased gansters and detectives around Frisco’s mean streets for the next two days as well.

Fatty, Vito & Rocco

As a free lancer he never sold his piece to our knowledge, but his (forgotten – please contact if you know who he is) photographer took the awesome recreation shots that accompany my post. Randy Shilts went on to well deserved fame as a journalist and author of several books including the seminal early history of the AIDS epidemic “And The Band Played On”. Both of these wonderful journalists died at young ages, Shilts of AIDS in 1994 and Jacobs of melanoma in 2000. It was a neat trick of Don’s to require, convince and inspire these two sharp and talented writers to play such wonderful characters and to add so much to our collaborative narrative and the magic conjured.

The Fatty Arbuckle Caper remains one of my favorite experiences and was influential in my creative life by showing me just how profoundly the collective mind can shape events and experience.

Some Neon

Cover page on Kodachrome neon article issue #3 2018. This is one of William Binzen’s large format pix of Desert Site Works #1 Black Rock Springs Nevada 1992. The neon installations are mine. There is a multiple artist performance ritual taking place in the springs encircled in underwater neon installations. Dangerous? Not really, but “electrifying”.


Underwater neon installation, Desert Site Works, Black Rock Springs, 1992

neon installation, Desert Site Works, Black Rock Springs, 1992

Neon installation (by John Law) Desert Site Works, Trego Springs, 1993. photo by John Law

Kodak Corporation launched a magazine called Kodachrome last year, published in London. In the third issue there are two features that I am presenting here on my blog. The first feature is an article on William Binzen and his protean project Desert Site Works, an event built with the help of Judy West, artists from Project Artaud with major support from The Cacophony Society.
I was a collaborator on this project and in addition to making several large scale site specific neon art installations as part of the overall large scale installation tableaus, I was the operations and transport manager for these ambitious desert art events.

Neon installation (by John Law) and Kingpost truss bridge installation (by William Binzen) Desert Site Works, Trego Springs, 1993. photo of Wm Binzen & art by John Law

The entire article from Issue #3 of Kodachrome Magazine Sept 2017 on William and DSW can be seen in the pdf images at the bottom of this article. I have written more extensively about Desert Site Works HERE.

Neon installation (by John Law) Desert Site Works, Trego Springs, 1993. photo by John Law

Neon installation (by John Law) Desert Site Works, Trego Springs, 1993. photo by John Law

Neon installation (by John Law) Desert Site Works, Trego Springs, 1993. photo by John Law

There is another article in the same issue that covers three neon pioneers from different parts of the world. The three are: David Hill and his Warsaw Poland Neon Museum (the largest in Europe), Aric Chen who is the go-to guy in Hong Kong for neon in HK movies and for pretty much anything else, and the third neon dude is lil Ol me here in San Francisco. This April, I was asked to moderate the first ever countrywide neon symposium, hosted by the Tenderloin Museum in San Francisco. Hosted by the dynamic duo of illumination, Randal Ann Holman & Al Barna, this was a wonderful meeting of neon professionals, writers, historians, artists and neon fans and fanatics from across the USA.  My history with neon and electrical signage began when I worked as a permit and survey technician for Ad-Art Sign Company in the early 80’s and more importantly when I became a sign hanger/service man for Federal Signal Corporation subsidiary Federal Sign Company Ad-Art & American Neon Sign Co. a couple of years later. Before my first hire in the electrical sign industry, I worked in signs as a teenager and worked for commercial sign companies (non-electrical signs) from 1979 on.

“FUN” John Law 2012 14′ x 4′ wood, steel, neon. all materials salvaged and repurposed. Made for SF Cyclecide – displayed at various events and galleries around SF

I realized a while back that over my 34 year association with the “noble gas” I actually had done a lot of pretty weird things with neon. My friend Natalia Mount, Director of Pro-Arts Gallery in Oakland  pointed this out to me while convincing me I should do a show with her curating at Pro-Arts. Coming from the Suicide Club, Cacophony and a solid trade work (electrical signs) background, I never really considered myself an artist. I can’t paint. I have never been able to draw anything even remotely recognizable as a human figure or a landscape. I guess it is all really how one defines things. 

One of the first neon art projects I began was lighting the Burning Man figure.

JL Placing neon arched border tubing in front of Burning Man figure in 1992








The first year in the Black Rock Desert (August –
September 1990) I place a half circle of white neon at the base of the figure uplighting it and I mounted two incandescent spots on the figures thighs pointing up to illuminate the torso and head. The following year in 1991 I gave the figure a neon skeleton for the first time, placing the neon units inside the figures skeleton. The next year, 1992 was the first time the neon was mounted on the front of the entire figure. Original Suicide Club member Louis Brill was the first journalist to write about the Burning Man’s illumination for Signs of the Times magazine in 1992.

Neon arched border tubing in front of Burning Man figure in 1992

“Junk Neon Ace” sign made for Billy “The Junkman” Kennedy and his Ace Auto Dismantlers Junkyard & Art Venue early 2000’s

“Joe Camel” by Jack Napier (John Law) and the Billboard liberation Front, 1995. photo by Nicole Rosenthal. This is the only illegal neon billboard alteration/hack/prank that I know of.



I have been servicing the neon and tower lighting on the iconic Oakland Tribune Tower since 1988 when I first hung in a bosuns chair on the neon clocks with Steve Bagley of American Neon Sign Company and Billy Greves of Federal Sign.

Most of my creative life, from age 18 when I joined the proto-urbexpranks and social experimentation cabal, The Suicide Club, until not that long ago, I never thought of what we were doing as art. The Suicide Club was not an “art” group. Nor was the later Cacophony Society despite the fact that both featured some members that certainly were artists. My mentor, visionary founder of The Suicide Club Gary Warne would have bridled had anyone accused him of perpetrating art, and I, his youthful protege adopted his antipathy for that particular designation. There was a reason for this stance. What we were doing in that early group was intended to be life – the real thing, not some symbol or simulacrum of actual human intercourse or real life.

I made this 16 foot diameter spinning neon cone for The Survival Research Labs Doom Show in 1994 with the assistance of Vanessa Kuemmerle, Michael Mikel & Robert Rogers. It raced open a 200 foot long cale to smash into the concrete floor and be attacked by massive fire breathing machines.

“Detroit” 2016 – aquarium, neon, matchbox cars, astroturf, & crystal ball. 24″ x16″ by 12″

Landmark Hills Bros Coffee sign Embarcadero at the Bay Bridge, San Francisco

Hanging out on the 20th floor of the Oakland Tribune Tower.

The people I admire most are artists. They obsess over their work; in many cases they give up convention, comfort and security to pursue it. Artists are by far the hardest workers I know. I can speak on this matter with some authority for I have led a dual life of sorts. In addition to my underground pranksters life, I have been a journeyman tradesmen for decades now. Trade work can be very hard physically. It can grind a fellow or a gal down and many of these workers put in their grueling 8-16 hour days and simply collapse with a drink or three when the work day is done. So many artists have the day job AND THEN they work as long or longer on their own art. Try to do both for a year or so – not so easy. I was (and remain for the time being) an electrical sign hanger, designer and service man. For this kind of career you must be conversant with several areas of craft and trade work: rigging and crane work, electrical circuits, basic construction and field installation, metal work and plastic, with some finish woodworking skills as well. That’s how I have paid my bills.

25′ tall rotating neon star atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco. Working for my company, Central Sign Services, I restored this incredible sign in 1999 with Paul Norton of Service One Neon Co.

Much of the work is tedious and punishing physically: climbing ladders, drilling holes in concrete. granite, wood facades, crawling through attics pulling wire, digging holes for sign footings, hanging on ropes and swing stages, wiring electrical fixtures, painting, welding and wrenching on signs while 100 feet up in a crane bucket. Some few jobs are quite fabulous though – the high neon displays that everyone knows because they loom (sometimes) majestically above the dense frenetic cityscape.

A classic sign restoration of mine with Central Sign Services for The Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation. photo by Mark Ellinger.


I have worked on many if not most of these displays in the Bay Area. The three I still service today are the Port of San Francisco sign atop the Ferry Building, The Hills Bros Coffee sign at the Bay Bridge & Embarcadero, SF and my office building, The Tribune Tower in Oakland. Each of these three are historic relics of a more serious and grounded era. They are huge classic neon displays from a world that took such things seriously and created these altars to commerce and progress that somehow over time have come to transcend their base commercial purpose. Some signs actually resonate powerfully with many citizens as part of the mental and cultural landscape. As an example, Hill Bros has not been a coffee plant for decades, yet the sign is so iconic that the various banks and real estate concerns that have owned the building it adorns have been compelled by public interest (and marketing schemes) to retain the now non-commercial sign. I am very fortunate to be connected to these fabulous monuments.

I serviced this sign in Crockett CA for several years in the late 80’s – early 90’s while working for Ad-Art Sign Co. This is the largest neon display in Northern California. I would ride a bosun’s chair the entire length and height of the sign changing light bulbs and repairing neon as my foreman George Edwards lowered materials to me on a rope.

In more recent years, I have had little choice but to accept the appellation and baggage that goes along with being called an “artist.” Our culture seems to demand that concession – the agreement that you somehow fit into an acceptable box so that you are “understood”.

I still can’t draw, paint or sculpt clay or stone, but in my defense, I have made a bunch of things over the years including singular neon pieces, both wall or standing pieces as well as large scale outdoor “environmental” and “site specific” sculpture.


Neon logo for Monkey Brains ISP in San Francisco. I made and installed this 15 foot diameter sign for a friends business and installed it without permission or permits on an industrial building in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco.

Neon Gears donated to a fundraiser for SRL crewman Todd Blair‘s medical needs after an industrial art accident.

I have produced photographs that took some trouble and thought to compose. I’ve written 3 books, 2 published. I’ve conceived, created, and led many, many “events” and collaborated on making hundreds more, that others might mistake for being “art”. Journalists, some of my friends, other artists and the random passer by have mistaken me for being an artist for many years now. So I give up and give in. Part of the process of aging is shedding stuff and consolidating what is left. So I’ll settle for being an artist.

This post is the first of several detailing this personal process. The work showcased in this post is neon art. More to come…


Kodachrome Magazine article on William Binzens work with Desert Site Works and Burning Man

Kodachrome Magazine article on William Binzens work with Desert Site Works and Burning Man