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By Mike Flynn

A lone movie poster hangs just outside the door of the White Eagle Cafe.

The only evidence remaining of the mad events that transpired inside this Acre neighborhood bar less than twenty-four hours before.

The White Eagle itself, at 585 Market St., and the C.C.A. French Candadian club next door, are sadly some of the last remaining landmarks of the former Little Canada enclave from Jack Kerouac’s childhood — and the grittier Market street bar scene of his adult years.  

Kerouac readers the world over have passed through the doors of these watering holes in hope of gaining more insight into the man whose writing impacted their lives.

On Monday night, Jan. 14, a group of Lowellians and devout Kerouac fans (collectively known as Lowell Celebrates Kerouac!) gathered together in the timeless confines of The White Eagle’s brown paneled barroom just around supper time.

It was as good an occasion as any to have a drink for Jack. And to hit the road. We were headed to Boston for an exclusive screening of On The Road, director Walter Salles’ (The Motorcycle Diaries) much-anticipated adaptation of the Beat writer’s most famous novel.

Sam Riley plays Sal Paradise and Garrett Hedlund plays the charismatic Dean Moriarty. Kristen Stewart of Twilight saga fame plays Marylou, a wayward woman who hits the road and complicates the relationship between Sal and Dean, in this ensemble cast that features appearances by Amy Adams, Steve Buschemi, Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortensten among many others.  

The movie made its debut at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2012 and opened all over the world before appearing in a limited U.S. release (New York and Los Angeles) in December 2012.

In March, the film is expected to land in theaters nationwide.  

Our group got a sneak peak at Lowes AMC Theater on Boston Common.

Members and friends of Lowell Celebrates Kerouac!, founded in 1985, have had their eye on the possible production of this film for almost as long as they have been gathering to honor and discuss the life and work of Kerouac himself.  

The novel-to-film project was first tackled by Francis Ford Coppola, soon after forming his American Zoetrope Film Studios in 1972, and rumors have come and gone over the decades about this or that director, or rising star, taking on a film about Kerouac.

Many in Hollywood have deemed On The Road an unfilmable novel, and apparently director Salles was beginning to feel that way himself until a research trip brought him right here to Mill City.  

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Sam Riley as Sal Paradise in On The Road.

In Lowell, Salles was shown the famous scroll – the 120ft-long roll of paper on which the author had famously typed the original stream-of-consciousness manuscript in 1951. This proved to be a turning point for Salles and provided the answer to the question: how do you film the unfilmable?

A far more visceral piece of writing than the heavily edited version that was eventually published by Penguin in 1957, the scroll opens with the death of Sal’s father and, for Salles, this represented the key to the film’s thematic core.

“The search for the father leitmotif was so much more present in this version than in the 1957 edition, that we immediately altered the beginning of the screenplay and Jose Rivera, our writer, started to use the scroll as the text he was adapting,” Salles explained in several press interviews.

I wonder, did Salles have a chance to visit the White Eagle while he was in town?

I arrived at the Market Street pub at 4:35 pm. The afternoon was unseasonably warm for January, with temperatures climbing near 50 degrees. The movie poster greeted me at the door.

Inside, the atmosphere was jovial and lively for a Monday afternoon. Cocktails were flowing and Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! president Mike Wurm held court in the sea of familiar faces from the city’s cultural scene.

Artists, writers, journalists and radio personalities all waiting to hit the road. 

Conversations volleyed from one side of the bar to the other. But local historian Roger Brunelle’s French Canadian accent kept ringing out from the crowd. It so closely resembles Kerouac’s, that at times I felt like Jack might actually be in the barroom with us.

At the bar local playwright, actor and filmmaker, Jerry Bisantz swapped stories with Genevieve Regan and Billy Koumantzelis, the de facto, if at times incredulous, patriarch of the LCK! family.

Billy was one of the closest people to Jack during the last years of his life.

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Jack Kerouac (left) pictured with Billy Koumantzelis.

Born on March 26, 1926 in Lowell, Billy grew up in the same neighborhood as Jack and the pair hung out together, sometimes carousing in this very neighborhood, in the 1960’s.

Jack often babysat Billy’s kids during those years, and sometimes Billy had to look after Jack. 

A reticent person by nature, Billy hesitated for years when it came to talking to strangers about Kerouac out of loyalty to his dear friend. Billy’s best girl and longtime companion, Genevieve Regan, tells me about a young actor who was turned away by Billy and left disappointed after the actor just showed up at Billy’s front door a number of years earlier. 

“He wanted to know about Kerouac,” Billy told Genevieve. “He said his name was Johnny Depp.”

Billy is probably the greatest living resource for insight into the real Jack. You can hear him recall some of the colorful adventures from his and Jack’s storied past on the spoken word CD, On The Lowell Beat: My Times with Jack Kerouac, produced by Billy’s nephew George Koumantzelis.

Conversation turns to the raising of glasses. We all toast Jack.

A gleaming white stretch limousine is parked right outside the bar and manages to look extra bright in the Lowell twilight. 

Smiles and cameras flash as the passengers load in. I hear George Koumantzelis telling local poet Judith Stadelmaier that the moon is in Pisces and that the moon was in Pisces when the Jack Kerouac Comemorative was dedicated.

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Roger Brunelle, Judith Stadelmaier and Mike Flynn outside The White Eagle. Photo By George Koumantzelis.

We  gradually reassembled in the gigantic lobby of Lowes that has all the stylings of a glitzy Las Vegas casino. 

We make our way up to Theater 16, where most of the seats are marked reserved.  Some for press, some for institutions and schools. About 60 for Lowell Celebrates Kerouac!

“I gotchya seat Mike!” George Koumantzelis shouts to me from the middle of the theater, dead center — the sweet spot for audiophiles.  

I note his seat selection as I arrive next to him.  

“I want to hear this film,” he explains.  “I just finished reading the scroll. I’ve read On The Road many times but I just finally read the scroll. That’s the real On The Road man!”

“That’s Jack’s voice,” he says.

It’s a full house at 7 p.m. when the lights dim and the projector rolls. 

The film opens with a shot of a parking lot.

Tires screech. A 1940s automobile whizes in and out of parking spaces and screeches to a halt at the foot of a customer waiting for the attendant to retrieve his car.

“Oh, this is one of the best scenes in the book!” an older gentleman seated in front of me whispers to the young woman next to him.

It’s then that I realize I know the scene: Dean Moriarty parking cars and I’m seeing him for the first time through Jack Kerouac’s eyes.  

As Garrett Hedlund emerges from the vehicle and Sam Riley begins to speak in the glorious voice of Sal Paradise, I let go and jump in.

Like every character introduced after Dean Moriarty here, I am now along for the ride.

After the credits rolled I hastily made my way back out to Tremont Street. Billy and Genevieve exit the movie house.  I say goodnight to them both before they enter the limousine to head back to Lowell.  

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Genevieve Regan and Billy Koumantzelis. Photo by George Koumantzelis.

I ask Billy what he thought of the picture.  Quietly he says, “It wasn’t the Jack Kerouac I remember.”

Sam Riley is definitely not Billy’s Jack Kerouac, but he is Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise.

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Neal Cassidy, the real-life Dean Moriarty (on the left) with Jack Kerouac.

On the big screen, Kerouac’s On The Road is as beautiful and shocking, vulgar and tender and challenging — and at times as elusive — as the ‘it’ that Dean and Sal chase throughout the novel in that old Hudson in search of the Golden Eternity.

The movie will have stalwart Kerouac enthusiasts arguing over pints, as many LCK’ers did at The Tam following the screening.

And without a doubt, it will certainly turn a new generation on to Jack Kerouac and his work.

On The Road is expected to land in theaters nationwide in March. Also coming in March, keep your eye on LCK! as the organization holds its annual celebration in honor of Jack’s birthday.    

Writer Mike Flynn is a native Lowellian with a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication/Film from Emerson College where he produced The Jazz Oasis on 88.9 fm WERS.  After graduating college, he left Lowell for sunny California where he sought refuge from the horrors of Visual Effects editorial work on such abysmal pictures as Mission Impossible 2Kung Pow: Enter The Fist and Siegfried & Roy: The Magic Box  in Los Angeles’ many superb used record stores. Upon returning from Los Angeles to Lowell in 2001, Mike attended the graduate program in publishing & writing at his alma mater, Emerson College.  He was an on-air personality at 980 WCAP am in Lowell from 2008-2012 and has hosted Almost Acoustic on 91.5 fm WUML Lowell since 2011. He likes long walks on the canals and, for some reason, thinks that he has seen far more sunrises than sunsets.


*Photos by George Koumantzelis appear in this piece courtesy of Aeolian Photographic Works (All Rights Reserved).


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