On May 31, Phil Bongiorno will lock the doors of Santa Clara’s Studio Bongiorno one final time. He’ll click off the lights and turn over the key, as the studio-gallery is closing after four-and-a-half years of serving South Bay artists and artisans. The studio, however, was much more than a place to simply buy or exhibit art; it was a sanctuary that felt like home to many.
Due to lease negotiation issues with the building’s owner and a host of health problems that need to be tended to, Bongiorno made the decision to close, but he didn’t want to quietly shut down. Instead, on May 20, he held one last event–a mock funeral and potluck followed by the final chapter of The Burning Tale, a monthly poetry event hosted by “Mighty” Mike McGee.
The afternoon began with a short procession where guests crossed Bellomy Street from the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery to the studio. McGee then gave a eulogy and guests were given the opportunity to share their feelings about the space. It was a fitting end to a place with “embracing the light and dark that exists within us all” emblazoned on its outdoor signage.
“I think about the slogan here,” said Billy Bouzos, who booked music at the venue for about two years, “’embracing the light and darkness in us all’ and this place really did that for me … This place meant more to me than I could possibly explain.”
Speaker after speaker tried to express how they truly felt about the studio, which served not only as a location to showcase local bands and arts; not only as an inspiration to writers and poets, but a spot where people could safely share their stories. There was an energy buzzing throughout the building and newcomers felt it the moment they walked in. Good days and bad, happy days and sad, Bongiorno was there, ready to brew a cup of coffee and chat.
“I sold the espresso machine recently,” said Bongiorno. “At first I was happy, but then I thought about it. I have served thousands of cups of coffee to thousands of people and had thousands of conversations, and I got depressed … This place allowed me to be vulnerable, and nobody took advantage of that.”
Throughout its time, Studio Bongiorno hosted many prominent people. Sam Cutler, former manager of The Rolling Stones visited three times, one of which he engaged in conversation with music journalist Joel Selvin. Selvin later credited the studio for inspiring the book he wrote on Altamont.
Rolling Stone photographer Robert Altman gave two talks, showing photos he took in the 60s, including images shot at Woodstock. Music journalist Richie Unterberger delved into his arsenal of knowledge on The Velvet Underground and Rosie McGee dished on her time with The Grateful Dead.
Mike McGee’s poetry readings allowed poets to bare their souls, and artists were brought to tears when explaining their work during artist discussions. It wasn’t just another venue. For many, it felt like home–a place where patrons wore their heart on their sleeve. They felt the studio was their oasis, and their sentiments were made clear by consistently reminding Bongiorno it was he who made the space what it was. Many said that although their feelings of sadness would fade, the friendship they cultivated with him would remain.
“I really feel overwhelmed,” said Bongiorno. “All of the love and support I’ve felt today has really given me strength for whatever lies ahead … part of me is really excited about that. When one door closes, another [door] opens up. It’s going to be a blast.”