A Conversation with Jim Sampas

On the new Jack Kerouac Center in Lowell, Massachusetts

Cross-section of the proposed Jack Kerouac Center
Cross-section of the proposed Jack Kerouac Center

by Jerry Cimino

Jim Sampas is the Literary Executor of the Jack Kerouac Estate in Lowell, Massachusetts. I caught up with him by phone last Saturday afternoon after spending some time with him in October during the annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac event in Jack’s hometown. My wife, Estelle, and I had just returned from a ten-week-long cross-country road trip where we spoke about Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation at various locations across the country, and Lowell was the highlight of the trip. 

I’ve known Jim for over ten years, ever since he and film director Michael Polish visited the Beat Museum with a film crew in 2011, during the filming of the movie Big Sur. Jim was an executive producer on that movie, and he and Michael invited me down to Big Sur the following weekend to watch the movie magic taking place near Bixby Canyon Bridge. You can read about that here.

Jim was named the second Literary Executor of the Kerouac Estate when his uncle, John Sampas, passed away in 2017. One of Jim’s passions is music, and with his company, Reimagine Music, he’s produced a great many projects combining music with spoken word. Beat enthusiasts are likely familiar with such records as Kerouac: Kicks Joy Darkness, One Fast Move Or I’m Gone, Pictures of the Gone World and A Coney Island of the Mind.

Jim’s latest project is Sal Paradise Press, the newly formed publishing arm of the Kerouac Estate. On the day of this phone interview, The Beat Museum hosted a book launch event with Charles Shuttleworth, editor of Desolation Peak: Collected Writings by Jack Kerouac, the first of six books scheduled for release under the Sal Paradise Press imprint.

November 12, 2022

Jerry Cimino: It was great to see you again in Lowell last month, Jim. Another terrific gathering of friends at Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, and Charles Shuttleworth’s Desolation Peak presentation absolutely blew everyone away. From the depth of insight he gleaned from Jack’s 1956 notebooks, to the photographs of the handwritten entries themselves, written atop Desolation Peak and included in the back of that book, it’s breathtaking. Congratulations on the new publishing enterprise, Sal Paradise Press. I hope Desolation Peak will be simply the first of many.

Jim Sampas: Thank you, Jerry. Charles did a terrific job on Desolation Peak. It’s good to have a chance to catch up again.

JC: I agree. And you’ve been busy in other ways these last few months. Some additional upcoming titles from Sal Paradise Press, a new Jack Kerouac Foundation, and the proposed new Jack Kerouac Center in Lowell that’s being met with some real excitement. How are you managing it all?

JS: Well, I’ve had a lot of help. You’ve known many of the people involved in Lowell Celebrates Kerouac all these years. That organization has done such a great job keeping Jack’s memory alive ever since its inception in 1985. So it was only natural when we started talking about the idea of a Jack Kerouac Foundation and a Jack Kerouac Center, that some of the past and current members of LCK should be involved.

JC: Tell me how the idea for a Jack Kerouac Center came about.

JS: It came to our attention a while back that St. John Baptiste, the church where Jack served as an altar boy in his youth, and the church where his funeral Mass was held when he died in 1969, had been purchased by a developer, with a likelihood of the church being turned into a commercial space. There was talk of a performance center to be used by theater groups, musical groups, and a film collaborative. There was also talk of a condominium project. The local community was looking for ways to repurpose the space. Local banks were involved, and after a while, we realized if we could secure the proper funds, we could buy the church and utilize its natural function as a gathering and performance space, while paying homage to its place in Lowell’s history and connection to Kerouac.  

JC: Tell me more about the church itself.

JS: Well, it was built between 1889 and 1896, in a neighborhood in Lowell known as Little Canada. It was designed in a Byzantine style, and as you know, this was Jack’s parish. It’s where he met Father “Spike” Morissette, who mentored Jack in his youth and helped him obtain a scholarship to Columbia. Father Spike conducted Jack’s funeral Mass, and later called Jack “a modern saint.” 

JC: When I saw the plans for the new Jack Kerouac Center, and especially when I saw the renderings, just like everybody else I was totally awestruck. I’m looking at the pictures online right now, and the plan for the multiple floors that will be built out so the church will function as a museum, as a performance space, and the hotel…

JS: I know! All of this is in play. The rendering of the new glass building next door is consistent with how we hope it will look. Sylvia Cunha, my colleague at the Kerouac estate, has been a huge part of this. You met her in Lowell and witnessed how fantastic she is. As a mutual friend told me, “She’s a force of nature.” The design renderings by SCB Architects are inspired. Bryan Irwin and the folks at SBC have done a phenomenal job, incorporating the performance center in the church, and the incredible entryway on the side. He’s really trying to merge the old with the new. The architect has been incredibly respectful of the church itself, and yet the design is daring—quite daring with regard to what the entire Center can be. This is the dream, and based on the level of interest we’ve been getting, I really believe it’s all achievable. I’m feeling quite bullish about the project. 

JC: That’s a phenomenal position to be in at this point. The glass entranceway, the walkway that curls around the interior, and the big mural of Jack on the exterior bricks; it’s very reminiscent of the new Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa.

JS: Yes, it is. But there’s more: the church is located in the center of an area that is about to be developed, so we’re hoping we can be a central point, a centerpiece if you will. There is a very strong possibility that our museum, the Jack Kerouac Center, could be a way for folks to really imagine what can happen in that area.

JC: How do you see your exhibits working in the museum portion?

JS: As far as the museum is concerned, we’re thinking of rotating exhibits of artifacts. We’re already speaking to people who own artifacts—the person who owns the lion’s share of Jack’s paintings, for instance—and we’re in touch with the New York Public Library, of course. And then, knowing how Jack was influenced by so many who came before him, and how Jack himself influenced so many who came after, we’re looking at the idea of exhibitions of other writers whose work links to Jack. I think that could be exciting.

JC: That makes a lot of sense. So you could have a six-month-long exhibition on Thomas Wolfe, for instance, showing how his work influenced Jack’s early development; or an exhibition on Hunter S. Thompson, to show how Jack’s work influenced Hunter. 

JS: Exactly. And musicians, too—like Charlie Parker or Thelonius Monk—and the other Beats, of course. I mean, we’re obviously themed on Jack, but considering his sphere of influence was so wide, we could bring in folks from all walks of life.

JC: Tell me about the support this project has received.

JS: Well, you’ve seen the work of these incredible architects. The City of Lowell wants to see this happen, and the state of Massachusetts, along with the local newspaper that Jack once worked for, The Lowell Sun, and other local media. UMass Lowell is also very much behind this effort. And while I can’t quite name-drop yet, I will say some pretty famous folks have expressed an interest in helping us. 

JC: Well, that’s terrific!

JS: Yeah. So, you know how this goes; when you’re working on something like this, or a film or a music project, once that first big name comes in, once that first big one is made public, things really start to happen. I can’t drop any names yet, but we do have the first big-name personality lined up, and once we’re able to announce that, I’ve got to believe more will come on board.

JC: That’s exciting. You’ve got city support, state support, local support, and the Beat community. I offer my hearty congratulations on all of that.

JS: Well, that’s music to my ears! I’ve always been honored by your example all these years. I truly appreciate it. You know as well as anybody, The Beat Museum is kind of the model here, based upon what you’ve done. You guys have been the inspiration for what we’re doing. I’ve known that and Sylvia certainly saw it as well. You and The Beat Museum proved this model can work. And you’ve been doing it for how long?

JC: Twenty years. Next year, 2023, will be our 20th year.

JS: Amazing.

JC: Thank you. Like we’ve discussed before, I view what you folks in Lowell are doing as something that’s only going to help the entire Beat community tremendously. “Rising tides lift all boats,” The Beat Museum included. I sincerely believe that.

JS: Yeah, me too. One can feed off the other, East Coast and West Coast. To have a Jack Kerouac Center on the East Coast and a Beat Museum on the West Coast, honestly, it couldn’t be any better. You and I were talking about this five or seven years ago. When people are traveling coast to coast, there’s a reason for them to make a stop in both places. 

JC: Right, and, in addition, we’ll obviously have our differences. The Estate has so much to work with that is Jack’s—there are the archives, and the estate owns Jack’s copyrights. Here in San Francisco, The Beat Museum is focused more on the Beats as a group, obviously with a heavy emphasis on Kerouac, but featuring an array of creative and counterculture luminaries, and their time here in North Beach. So our approach will of course be unique and different, but nonetheless complementary. We’re 3,000 miles apart. So having both on opposite coasts can only be positive for everyone who loves Kerouac and the Beats.

JS: Yeah. Speaking of community, my dream is to have this be all about community—about folks getting together, and creating an open space for all communities, for people from all walks of life, because I feel that’s what Jack would have wanted, and I think it speaks to his work. Because, as we both know, there is such a wide variety of folks that love his work. I think Jack is unique in that way. The idea of having educational activities in the church, bringing some pretty well-known recording artists to this area—I think that’s a good angle on what we can make happen because you and I have seen what’s happened in the past. Like with the movie One Fast Move or I’m Gone—I started reaching out to folks and next thing you know, Tom Waits, Sam Shepherd, Patti Smith, these people who are all gigantic fans of the work. I see it sort of being like the Red Rocks, if you will, of Massachusetts—in the sense that it’s a destination for performers—they want to play Red Rocks because it’s Red Rocks, and they go out of their way to do it. It’s not like money is the motivation—it’s that they just want to pay tribute to Jack. I think it would be incredibly beneficial to the city of Lowell, in terms of dollars, of course, but also in terms of national exposure. 

JC: That’s a fantastic thought, because it’s a great way for a city the size of Lowell to get such big names to come and play a 1,000-seat arena. By tying the performance space to Kerouac, you’re combining two different visions, and you have one foot in each of them already.

JS: Yeah. That’s what I was thinking.

JC: Well, my hat’s off to you, Jim. I wish you guys nothing but true success!

JS: Thank you so much. That means the world to me. 

THE JACK KEROUAC FOUNDATION officers comprise CEO: Jim Sampas; Executive Director: Sylvia Cunha; Board President: Christopher Porter; Board Vice-President: Michael Millner; Board Secretary: Steve Edington; and Board Treasurer Michael P Flynn. The Executive Board members are Suzanne Beebe, Deborah Belanger, Judith Bessette, Dave Ouellette, David Perry, Ryan Rourke, Sean Thibodeau, and Clifford J Whalen.

Jim Sampas is the Literary Executor of the Jack Kerouac Estate, and CEO of the Jack Kerouac Foundation in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Jerry Cimino is the Founder of The Beat Museum in San Francisco. In 2023 The Beat Museum will be celebrating its 20th year.