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The Commonspace

Aug 2002 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

St. Louis Can Really Hang You Up the Most
By Sandra O'Brien

I was born and raised in St. Louis. I've lived in San Francisco for 40 years. This spring someone from St. Louis turned me on to The Commonspace and an article that appeared there in February 2001, called "Camelot in St. Louis." At the bottom of the article was a sprinkling of small black-and-white photos that I recognized: The back of apartments at 4440 Olive Street. The bartender at Le Jazz Hot with a copy of "The Nervous Set" on the stereo (which indicated that's what was playing at the time). The owner of Le Jazz Hot and the "collage" of jazz instruments above the bar. And in two of the small photos, there we were: two young girls sitting at the pool at 4440 Olive deep in thought with our typewriter and a couple of "admirers" (Harvey Pilot and Derrick Van Nimwiggen). With a sudden rush I realized, "Wow! — I took those photos!" I could almost hear the laughter, taste the vodka and kahlua and feel the heat and excitement of the summer of 1959!

Gayle and Sandy Long before there was Thelma and Louise there was Gayle and Sandy. In those little black-and-white photos Gayle Tibe was the blonde, Sandy MacDonald was the brunette. We were best friends always. We went to Cleveland High School, graduated, went to college, married, divorced and became obsessed with Kerouac's "On the Road." In 1958 we read Lawrence Lipton's "The Holy Barbarians." Inspired by the description of a cool and different way of life than we knew in St. Louis, we packed our black leotards, black turtleneck shirts and black Capezios, got into Gayle's '57 red MG convertible, left the "squares" behind and headed to Venice Beach (California) where we could be different (like every one else). We lived and slept on the beach, drank red wine in coffeehouses in Manhattan Beach (The Passport Inn), listened to flamenco and poetry (The Insomniac) and jazz all night in Hermosa Beach (The Lighthouse). For one glorious summer we were part of the Beat scene. We fell in love with musicians, writers, poets and a few bartenders. We ran out of money and headed back to St. Louis with dreams of opening a coffee house. Man, did we have stories to tell. Man, were we cool.

In the summer of '59 we discovered Olive Street: people in black clothing, writers and artists, bohemian bars like those in Venice Beach right in our own back yard! In the 4400 block of Olive near Taylor was Pat Alouise's Le Jazz Hot. Parties went on there way after closing hours at Pat's pad behind the bar. After all night jazz and vodka (Black Russians or Vodka Martinis were our drink) and what we considered intelligent, stimulating conversation (and a few "Toga Parties") we would all get dressed to see the sun come up from the Rex Café where everyone who was anyone had breakfast. At the other end of Olive Street near Boyle there were four or five bars and a "theatre" of sorts that were really exciting. We would drink at The Golden Eagle and the Opera House and cross the street to go to the Crystal Palace. After being ushered to our seats by Harvey Pilot and listening to Bobby Short sing or laughing hysterically with the improvisational group The Compass Players (Jerry Stiller, Ann Meara, Alan Arkin) we would go around the corner on Boyle to The Gaslight and listen to Paul Mutrux play guitar ("Greensleeves" still makes me cry).

Gayle and I rented a pad on Euclid owned by the Landesmans; they owned the Crystal Palace, too. No furniture — just cushions, a big stereo, records, books, and jazz and vodka. All the hip crowd lived either there or at 4440 Olive. Later, when Gayle was writing poetry (and trying hard to write a book about our adventures) and I painted, we moved to Olive Street to a loft behind a bar (Frosty's). It had great skylights, housed our huge stereo and came with a bongo player and an artist. We were all in love! No one worked at a "straight" job. We knew the bartender at Frosty's so free drinks were no problem. We seldom ate. We had "rent parties" — no "squares" allowed. There was a wall at the entrance to the loft where everyone coming in to party signed their name and gave us a dollar to pay our rent. We partied and partied, knew and sang all the songs from Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolff's new Off Broadway show, "The Nervous Set." We stayed up all night and would sleep all day. Man, we were cool.

Gayle opened the Dark Side around 1961. All of a sudden bars were everywhere on Olive Street. It was Gaslight Square! The Dark Side (and in the back — Spider Burke's The Other Side) were jazz: Jimmy Forrest playing "Night Train," James Moody singing "Symphony Sid." Next door at the Butterscotch Lounge they were doing The Twist. There was Dixieland up the street. The Living Room had phones on every table and you could call other tables to (discreetly?) pick up a date. Jorge's was more jazz (wow, Miles Davis and Stan Getz!). The serious thinkers, poets and writers were still at the The Gaslight and O'Connells. There was "Seventeen," the cool cat who gave you a safety pin (I still have mine) and sold hard-boiled eggs on the street. The Crystal Palace had great theatre and in between Samuel Beckett and William Inge it was a showcase for the up-and-coming like Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, the Smothers Brothers and many others. Man, they were cool.

I was the Serious Artist, Gayle the Party Girl (and now bar owner). We went separate ways because of the cats we fell for. Gayle was in love with the bongo player and I married the artist from the loft, had babies and eventually moved to San Francisco.

Gayle moved upstairs from her bar and later married her bartender (not the bongo player).

I moved to San Francisco and tried to remain cool by pursuing my art. Some of my love of words and art and music comes from those hot, humid summer days and nights on Olive Street, the places where we would hang out, the music we listened to and the people we met and loved. The bar owners, bartenders and waitresses knew everything about everybody. Some are still around, some are gone, but none are forgotten: Bobby Darr, Red Gardner, Jack Sherrill, Sam Dietch, Jack O'Neill, Jackie Parker, Jorge Martinez, Pat O'Brien, Jimmy O'Donnell, Lyle Waggoner, Harvey Pilot, Derrick VanNimwiggen, Jay and Fran, Carol Petri, Carby Cheney, Rich Tokatz, "April," "Sandy," Pat Kelly, Russell Louis, Marty Bronson, the brothers Mutrux. Man, they were cool.

In the mid '60s, as Gaslight Square faded away, Gayle Tibe closed the Dark Side and moved to California where she passed away. She had been married to Bill O'Brien.

I moved to San Francisco in the early '60s, was married, had five children, helped start The San Francisco Street Artists Program in 1970 and married Bill O'Brien 30 years ago. Man, is that cool?

The last time Gayle and I were in Le Jazz Hot (1971) there was still the graffiti we drew and wrote there in the "Chicks Room" in 1959: a cool cat with shades, all in black, sitting cross-legged over the words Gayle wrote: "Jesus Loves and Mama Drinks Vodka Martinis."

Sandra MacDonald O'Brien lives in San Francisco.

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