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As a Center for Primary Research and Training (CFPRT) AV scholar this year, I have been working extensively to process the over 400 films contained within the Synanon Foundation Records(opens in a new tab) (Collection 342). Founder Charles “Chuck” E. Dederich began Synanon as a drug rehabilitation organization in Santa Monica in 1958 and over the next thirty years grew it into a major lifestyle nonprofit with communities in San Francisco, Tulare and Marin Counties, and around the country in places like New York, Chicago, and Detroit. Membership declined in the 1980s following a few controversial incidents and arrests of key members.

Fitting the massive, all-encompassing aspect of life in Synanon, the mostly 16mm film collection is similarly large and varied in its contents. In some respects it matches a corporate archive (in the “people business,” as Dederich would say), with identity films, commercials, and PR spots. There are copies of documentaries made by others about Synanon and their radical methods of rehabilitation, a subject of much attention in the 1960s. For the community of about 1700 members at its peak, there are home movies and amateur and student films made in the internal Synanon schools. A significant portion of the collection is also self-documentation of many different Synanon activities, edited into “Synanon on Film” newsreel-like updates.

"Synanon on Film - August 1972" - 16mm print in Synanon Foundation Records

The film collection has been accessed occasionally based on research requests and the preservation of one title, “Instant Guide to Synanon(opens in a new tab),” with National Film Preservation Foundation funding, but there had yet to be a full inspection of the entire collection. Therefore, I have been winding through each reel to assess its physical condition and rehouse it into archival storage. The professional film editing process typically involves making many copies of a film, from camera original footage to work prints to printing elements to finally the finished composite sound release, with many variations in between. In the Synanon collection, the elements for one film have been strewn across different boxes and not always labeled consistently. As I inspect each reel, I’m also standardizing the film titles and determining relationships to each other, making the collection as a whole easier to understand into the future.

As I’ve been looking at these films, I’ve been struck by Synanon’s interconnected history with that of West Coast jazz in the 1950s and 1960s. Drug use was endemic to jazz music at the time, and as Synanon established itself in the late 1950s, it began to gather members who were musicians. Some continued to play while in Synanon, and the house band was a staple of weekend open houses at the Santa Monica headquarters. Anyone was invited to join the parties, introducing the clean Synanon way of life to “squares,” non-addicts who would become a significant part of the organization’s success.

From 16mm advertisement for Synanon's Bay Area locations, circa 1972

Jazz musicians in Synanon also brought media attention, increasing Synanon’s public profile and legitimacy in its early days. The collection at UCLA includes a 1” video transfer of the film David (1961), produced by Time-Life and made by direct cinema pioneers Robert Drew and D.A. Pennebaker. The short documentary follows trumpeter Dave Allen, who brags about once playing with Charlie Parker at the Tiffany Club in L.A. but is now struggling to overcome addiction in Synanon. Between Synanon’s innovative group discussions and Allen’s struggles with wanting to leave Synanon and join his wife and child, the film shows Allen playing with other members of the Synanon band. David won an award at the 1962 Boston International Film Festival and played on television and at other venues, including recently at DOC NYC in 2014, which made available the post-screening discussion with Pennebaker and collaborator Nell Cox on YouTube(opens in a new tab).

Dave Allen playing trumpet in Synanon House in Santa Monica. From David (1961).

In 1962, Dave Allen and the Synanon band released an album under the name Sounds of Synanon, led by guitarist and Synanon member Joe Pass (who also appears in David). After gaining attention for traveling with different jazz groups in the 1950s, Pass’ debut as leader was anticipated in the West Coast jazz scene and furthered Synanon’s profile. Song titles include “C.E.D.,” dedicated to Dederich, and other Synanon references like “Hang Tough” and “Last Call for Coffee.” The liner notes for the album(opens in a new tab), written by Down Beat magazine’s West Coast editor Joe Tynanon, emphasize the magazine’s support for Synanon and their organization of a benefit concert in 1961 with Los Angeles Local 47, American Federation of Musicians. Pass had a lengthy and successful career, and his time in Synanon has been credited for making that possible.

In promotion of the album, Pass and the Sounds of Synanon band were featured in an episode of the 1962 CBS TV series “Jazz Scene USA,” of which the Synanon collection at UCLA holds a 16mm print. In the episode, the band is interviewed by host Oscar Brown Jr., and perform multiple songs from the album, including “C.E.D.” (which can be seen on YouTube here(opens in a new tab)) and “Projections.” There’s also a short documentary segment showing life at Synanon and promoting the rehabilitation work underway, of which the UCLA collection appears to hold an additional 16mm copy on its own. Now that the 16mm print of the “Jazz Scene USA” episode has been inspected and repaired, it is awaiting digitization so researchers can access it in full.

Sounds of Synanon and Joe Pass in "Jazz Scene USA" (1962)

The collection at UCLA Library also contains promotional film material for the 1965 feature film Synanon, including a 16mm “Behind the Scenes” film of the actors consulting with Dederich and other Synanon members. Although telling a fictional story of addicts, Synanon was filmed in the actual Santa Monica Synanon House, showing the inner workings of the organization to its biggest audience yet. The film features a number of Synanon open houses and includes singer and actress Eartha Kitt in the cast as Betty Dederich, Chuck’s wife. Kitt was so enamored with her time working with Synanon that she began donate earnings from her dance classes to the organization.

"Behind the Scenes" of Synanon (1965)

The Sounds of Synanon name would be used for at least a few more recordings over the years. Greg Dykes, trombonist for the Joe Pass album, led the band for a release of “The Prince Of Peace: A Rock-Jazz Cantata(opens in a new tab)” in 1969. A single titled “Hoop La(opens in a new tab),” named for the special dance developed at Synanon, was also released sometime in the 1960s.

The early 1970s saw membership from saxophonist Art Pepper, who met his wife Laurie while in Synanon and talks about his time there in his autobiography Straight Life (1980). Trombonist Frank Rehak also joined around this time and stayed considerably longer, creating music for the “Synanon on Film” newsreels. Neither produced much public work while in Synanon, though Pepper experienced a career resurgence in the late 1970s after leaving.

The Synanon Foundation took a number of forms during its history, including becoming a much more rural community in Marin and Tulare Counties in the 1970s. Present throughout Synanon’s lifespan, jazz and the attention on members like Dave Allen and Joe Pass was an important way Synanon could distinguish itself and its rehabilitation services early, establishing a foundation for success and growth for a couple decades on.

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