License to Tell, a 56-minute documentary film, traces the adventures of journalist Ken Kelley during the heyday of the underground press and the Playboy interview. Kelley's rise and fall mirrors the achievements and failures of America's radical counter-culture during the 1970s and 1980s. The film captures the atmosphere of San Francisco's bohemia, where journalists rubbed shoulders with artists, novelists, pornographers, filmmakers, politicians, and Hollywood stars. Key themes include the antiwar movement, the Black Panthers, and the rise of gay politics.

Ken Kelley in the film Television: The Enchanted Mirror.

Berkeley journalist Kate Coleman worked with Kelley on articles about Huey Newton and the Black Panthers.

The counter-culture's main communications vehicle during the 1960s and 1970s was the printed word. The alternative press ruled, especially in the SF Bay Area. License to Tell traces the history of this explosion of writing through the story of one of its most colorful and wildest creators. Ken Kelley helped create the LA Weekly, he was co-founder of Sundance—for which he got funding from John Lennon and Yoko Ono—and an editor of the Berkeley Barb. With access to anyone, he had a hand, along with Warren Hinckle of Ramparts fame, in making and breaking three San Francisco mayors. He became a sleuth for the ACLU in a famous case involving the banning of Richard Brautigan's novels in Shasta County. He was behind the leaking of important news pieces about the SLA and the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and helped to chronicle the decline of the Black Panthers.

Noted editor and journalist David Weir co-founded SunDance Magazine with Kelley in 1972.

Wilma Parker, a San Francisco painter, was Kelley's roommate in Chicago and again in San Francisco. She contributed to SunDance.

Writer, promoter, interviewer, charlatan, con man, boulevardier, radical revolutionary, altar boy, liar, thief, drunk, master of the army pass—these are just some of the terms used to describe Ken Kelley (1949-2008), a man who reached the heights of his avocation as an interviewer only to fall into the abyss of his own self-destruction.

Music promoter and agent Lee Houskeeper started the LA Weekly with Kelley.

Tamara Baltar, Ken Kelley's friend and transcriber. Kelley convinced her that the Black Panthers had murdered her mother.

Kelley's greatest gift was the art of the interview. The widely influential long-form Playboy Interview became his palette. His skill at getting celebrities from politics, baseball, the arts, music, and literature to reveal their secrets was unparalleled—including the likes of William Westmoreland, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, Cheech and Chong, Arthur C. Clarke, and many others. The most notorious of these was his 1978 interview with Anita Bryant. The beauty queen turned anti-homosexual evangelical crusader confided her deepest, darkest secrets to Kelley. When Kelley's interview with Anita Bryant appeared in Playboy in 1977, Bryant's anti-gay activist career was over, undone by a gay man she had fallen in love with. The interview is considered a milestone in gay history and has been staged as a play at the Hollywood Fringe Festival three years in a row. Interviews and clips with the producers of this theatrical event are included in the film.

John Copeland has staged Anita Bryant's Playboy Interview in Los Angeles three years in a row since 2014.

A scene from 'Anita Bryant's Playboy Interview', September 20, 2016

Playbill for John Copeland's staging of Anita Bryant's Playboy Interview

Production on License to Tell started in 2015. The core of the film consists of interviews supported with footage from dozens of films, news videos, home movies, as well as photographs from news agencies and private collections. The project director has over 150 stills he took over the years of his friendship with Kelley. Voice recordings of conversations with Kelley have been made available by William Hjortsberg. We have been offered videos and photos from many sources and are looking for other materials to surface.
Former SF Chronicle reporter Frank Viviano first met Ken Kelley in Ann Arbor.

Kate Coleman and Ken Kelley, 1991

License to Tell will try to convey the atmosphere of the Bay Area's literary and newsy haunts during the '60s and '70s. Several days and nights will be dedicated to filming the places in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco relevant to the stories being told.