An Underground Journalism Pioneer On His Counterculture Days at UT

Bill Helmer (far right), on a campus visit from NYC, circa 1962

When writer and editor Bill Helmer, BJ ’59, MA ’68, returned to Austin in the early 1960s after a stint in New York City, the campus counterculture community had stagnated. What was once an—admittedly small—beatnik consortium of black-garbed poets swigging Chianti became, upon Helmer’s 1963 return, nothing much, according to the man himself.

“The terms ‘alternative culture’ and ‘counterculture’ didn’t even reach Austin until the middle or late ’60s, with the hippie movement, which was pretty tame,” Helmer says. As such, any sort of underground publishing culture became an ad hoc installation courtesy of Helmer and his writer, editor, and illustrator friends.

Helmer, a onetime Daily Texan and Texas Ranger staffer, invigorated by alternative journalism like The Village Voice and Mad magazine, and with a mimeograph machine at his disposal, created and distributed underground publications to the campus community.

The Briscoe Center recently acquired Helmer’s papers, which include documents and correspondence from his time as a writer and editor at The Texas Observer, Playboy, Texas Monthly, some of his underground publications, and from when he was director of Texas Student Publications. Now 80, we asked Helmer about the the 1950s and ’60s counterculture movements at UT, his journalism career, and the future of alternative culture in Austin.

The Alcalde: What was the counterculture community like at UT in the 1950s?

Bill Helmer: When I was at UT, there was nothing you’d call a “countercultural community,” only a mild mutual contempt between the slightly more slickly dressed frat boys and the “average” looking regular students, plus a few idlers on the UT fringe who were largely ignored. The first thing that began to stand out was the beatnik movement.

Where were you based?

The “movement” found a home in 1957 at a big, ramshackle two-story house standing more or less alone on 19th street at Red River and was presided over by Ted Klein, which he called The Place. He and a couple of friends decorated it in classic beatnik style—old stuffed furniture, pads and beanbags for chairs, walls painted in stark blacks and whites, empty Chianti bottles covered with wax from often-burning candles, bongo drums accompanied by one or two guitars, and a stairway “poet’s corner” for the musings of beatnik-wannabes.

[It was] pretty tame, actually, but the only beatnik gathering place in town, with drop-in visitors day and night and parties every weekend. Klein adamantly discouraged any kind of drugs other than wine and booze, partly because the Austin police had a Red Squad still keen on busting any Communists or other troublemakers in those post-McCarthy days. I don’t think they ever found one. The beatnik movement was starting to peter out by the time I moved to New York in 1960.

What were the most important publications you worked on while at UT? 

For a couple of years I was on the staff of the Daily Texan, became “official” TSP photographer, then Ranger editor from 1959-60. At that time I was once chastised for printing a photo spread of sloppy-drunk frat boys having a wild party at some hotel, which made the Daily Texan, and we also tried to make trouble with some fairly tepid articles that only met disapproval. There was no UT action that I recall.

helmer2Were there other controversies?

The only event from undergrad days as Ranger editor was our failed effort to title an article by Lynn Ashby, about his Marine Corps Reserve career and some landing situation with a drawing of Marines coming ashore. We wanted to title it “Sons of Beaches,” but had to battle TSP Director Lloyd Edmonds to a draw. We had to make do with the word “Beaches” partly overlaid with the word “CENSORED.”

How did you become involved in the underground press at UT?

The so-called underground press evolved from the early efforts of Gilbert Shelton, an illustrator who I’d gotten to know when I was a staffer at and later editor of The Texas Ranger. Both of us had graduated from UT in 1959 and had taken jobs in New York City in 1960, where I worked on a men’s magazine and he on hotrod publications. Both of us had grown up on Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad, were enthusiastic about his EC comics, like Tales From the Crypt—which had been virtually driven out of business by some Congressional hearings—and both came to know him when he was publishing HELP!, to which we both contributed.

So, our twigs were bent in that offbeat direction, and also by New York’s Village Voice, which was considered “alternative” journalism at the time. In 1962 we were still in New York and were visited by another former Texas Ranger editor, Frank Stack, who had been amusing himself with irreverent comic depictions of famous biblical events while he was in the Army, stationed on Long Island. These were drawn on regular typewriter paper, which he gave to Shelton, who returned to UT later that year.

When did you come back to Austin?

In 1963, and then to graduate school at UT in 1964. [Shelton and I] were living around the corner from each other at 22nd Street and Pearl when he decided to assemble Stack’s drawings into a booklet of sorts, making 40 or so copies on one of the new Xerox machines, still on regular typewriter paper, to which he added a cover sheet with a picture of Jesus and titled it “The Adventures of Jesus,” by Foolbert Sturgeon, as Stack didn’t want to use his real name. I helped him staple some together and he passed them out to a bunch of friends at no charge.

So this booklet was, I guess, the prototype of what would soon become underground comix. I’m pretty sure that Shelton and his friends came up with the name “underground comix,” a term popularized by Robert Crumb, out of Detroit, and who’d since become a friend of Shelton. A month or so after The Adventures of Jesus was printed, another UT student, Jack Jaxon, produced God Nose on a mimeograph machine, which was then losing favor to the new Xerox copier.

The Texas Ranger staff sailing in the Littlefield Fountain

How did you become involved with Texas Student Publications? What was UT like back then?

After my return from New York I was named director of the Journalism School’s Texas Student Publications, and the hippie movement—the first true “counterculture” era—was beginning to take root in California but did not reach Austin or UT until the Vietnam War began to escalate. It generated the hippie era of wildly decorated VW buses with peace signs and driven by peaceniks and flower children. Judging from their publicity, they were getting into pot and drugs and acid and Timothy Leary, but didn’t constitute much of a peril at UT. A little excitement, but not much.

What were some of your important pieces after UT?

While in New York, when homosexuality was flatly prohibited, a gay guy I’d gotten to know well at UT persuaded me to do what turned out to be a sociological—I guess you’d call it—article for Harper’s magazine titled “New York’s Middle Class Homosexuals,” which I found out years later was considered the first non-critical and non-judgmental article on the subject.

Much later, at Playboy, I headed up the “Playboy Defense Team” [a group of lawyers and researchers that helped win new trials and acquittals] that got a little scary at times—pot smokers or growers, a bizarre murder conviction was overturned—and years earlier I did the first Charles Whitman article for The Texas Observer, but nearly everything else was humor or nostalgia pieces for Playboy, Texas Monthly, The Texas Observer, The Chicago Reader, Chicago magazine, and more.

img_1759What are some lasting memories from your publishing career at TSP?

About ’68 came a particularly humorous flap when Ranger illustrator Glenn Whitehead did an elaborate illustration of “Hairy Ranger” at the steam typewriter, with an armadillo tied to one leg. Then we all got a hoot from a news article reporting armadillos invading Oklahoma, with a cartoon depicting that. When some more armadillos were drawn by Whitehead, TSP director Lloyd Edmonds asked me what the armadillos meant. I assured him that the armadillos were merely Whitehead’s favorite creature, being utterly stupid and harmless and persevering and self-protective and so forth. With a laugh I reported Edmonds’ worries that maybe they stood for something indecent that he didn’t know about.

I was quite baffled when a couple days later he called me into his office, outraged, and shaking a letter from a supposedly irate parent denouncing UT for allowing its student magazine to spend his tax dollars printing anything so indecent and offensive as armadillos. The letter was signed by somebody who’s name was in the Austin phone book, and when I pleaded innocence—maybe the armadillo did stand for something bad, and even I didn’t know that—he called the number.

The man who answered said he hadn’t written any such letter. Still puzzled, I reported this strange event to the Ranger staff and they cracked up. Seems the letter had been written, in very convincing style by one of the staffers. Thereafter, every issue of the Ranger included dozens of little armadillos—dancing, skulking, sleeping, whatever, especially separating the jokes that ran on the last couple of pages. Edmonds was embarrassed into joining the whole sport of the thing, and at our special end-of-semester party he was presented with a sizable cake in the form of an armadillo. Much fun was had by all.

A couple of years later, UT’s own Janis Joplin’s LP record covers began featuring armadillos, most by the increasingly prominent illustrator Jim Franklin, but probably inspired by the hundreds of little armadillos that, at UT anyway, had become virtually a trademark of The Texas Ranger.


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