As the counterculture swelled in the latter half of the 1960s, the underground press filled an essential role, disseminating information and ideas that the mainstream media would consider pinko propaganda. Locally, that need went largely unmet until 1967, when writer John Kois, still-kicking radio personality Bob Reitman, and John Sahli of The Shag (a fuzzed-out garage rock group best remembered for their killer single “Stop And Listen”) teamed up to launch Kaleidoscope, Milwaukee’s first and arguably most confrontational hippie newspaper. Now, thanks to the UWM Libraries, the paper’s entire four-year run is available online as a searchable archive, offering up a treasure trove of comix, poetry, advertisements for insane concerts, and all manner of reviews and features written in the far-out parlance of the day. Oh, and a highly engrossing firsthand account of one of the most politically turbulent times in the city’s history. Here are a few highlights:
1. “Sex Poem” goes before the Supreme Court
Beginning with Kaleidoscope’s very first issue in October of 1967, there were constant attempts to censor the publication, the most notorious being an obscenity case brought against Kois after running Chuck Bonamer’s artfully filthy “Sex Poem” in 1968, which eventually went all the way to the US Supreme Court. In the end, the Justices sided with Kois, who later went on to work for Al Goldstein’s controversy-courting Screw magazine. “One of the most maligned minorities in this country is the ‘pornographer,’ the man who attempts to deal with sex honestly and openly. The man who appeals to the ‘prurient interest,’” Kois reflected in the pages of Kaleidoscope. “I never understood it, and was even radical enough to think than an appeal to prurient interest was normal, healthy and often necessary. Now that I’m officially charged by the State of Wisconsin as being such a man, maybe I’ll begin to understand it.”
2. The Milwaukee 14 light a fire
On September 24, 1968, in one of the most dramatic acts of direct political action to take place in the city during the eventful era covered by Kaleidoscope, 14 Catholic pacifists broke into several Selective Service offices, stealing well over 10,000 draft registrations which they then torched with homemade napalm in a nearby park. The daring spectacle quickly caught the attention of the national media, but Kaleidoscope was there to give a local, leftist perspective of the ensuing trial, which resulted in the protesters receiving slightly over a year in prison. Initially, the publication seemed equally as concerned as to why Milwaukee had been chosen for such a large-scale display of anti-Vietnam resistance, speculating that “Milwaukee, contrary to what J. Edgar Hoover stated the day after the napalming, has long been known as a radical, at least in thought, city,” but needed a grand gesture to get it more actively engaged.
3. Wanted for crimes against the people
During Kaleidoscope’s run, clashes between protesters and police were hardly uncommon, but one member of the MPD became the focal point for the paper’s anti-authoritarian stance: Sgt. Frank Miller, commander of the department’s heavily armed and poorly overseen Tactical Squad. While some remember Miller as a decent and honest cop, his reputation for intimidating minorities and radicals made him public enemy number one for Kaleidoscope, who printed a wanted poster on their cover accusing him of, among other crimes, a “general inability to function as a feeling member of the human race.” Kois even claimed the hard-nosed officer threatened his life as he tried to get a burger at George Webbs. “Fingering his gun he told me he was really looking forward to coming to my funeral,” Kois was quoted as saying in Miller’s 1994 Milwaukee Sentinel obituary. “I guess he won’t be able to do that now.”
4. Boycotting the Big Gig
Prior to 1970, Summerfest consisted of a wide variety of events held throughout the city; the decision to relocate permanently to the current lakefront location didn’t sit well with everyone, especially Kaleidoscope, who championed an effort to shut down what they deemed a “cultural ripoff” that closed out the youth and spent city resources at the expense of the poor. “The affluent middle-class and the wealthy white oligarchy will not be allowed an orgy of soulless, mechanized consumption in a city whose ills are hinted at by a backlog of 1,000 county welfare cases to be processed, with 150 new applications received each day,” wrote Mike Zetteler in October of 1970. But despite their attempts to organize against it, Summerfest ’71 went ahead as planned, including the introduction of the Miller-sponsored stage, then known as the “High Life Jazz Oasis,” and a reportedly fun performance from the Jackson 5.