Beat Regeneration

When audiences dug the dexedrine-fueled, pot-stoked Nervous Set at the Crystal Palace back in 1959, St. Louis was like cool, man, cool

March 10, 1959, was a dreary day in St. Louis. Temperatures hovered in the forties and rain showers played havoc with traffic. In the evening, as moviegoers attended the Tivoli, Granada, Maplewood, Rio, Tower and Wellston theaters to see Rosalind Russell's Academy Award-nominated performance in Auntie Mame, everyone was abuzz about that morning's announcement that the new museum for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial would be located underground so as not to detract from the stainless-steel arch that would soon begin to rise on the riverfront.

Songstress Jaye P. Morgan was headlining at the Chase Club; Somethin' Smith and the Redheads were performing down the street at the Embers Supper Club. But the place to be that night was the flaming orange-red Crystal Palace at Boyle Avenue and Olive Street. The city's socialites and sophisticates were all crammed into the saloon-theater, umbrellas tucked under their tables, eagerly awaiting the world premiere of The Nervous Set.

World premieres were nothing new to the Crystal Palace. In this, the bistro's inaugural season, three of its first five plays had been premieres, and the other two were fresh to St. Louis theatergoers. Because all five shows were performed by essentially the same professional acting company, a warm rapport had developed between cast and audience. But The Nervous Set was different: Whereas for theater lovers it was the hottest ticket in town, for its creator, 29-year-old Ted Flicker, the production was intended to be a ticket out of town.

Michael Austin
Before Gaslight Square was Gaslight Square: a postcard of the Crystal Palace's interior
Courtesy of Western Historical Manuscript Collecti
Before Gaslight Square was Gaslight Square: a postcard of the Crystal Palace's interior

Flicker had adapted The Nervous Set from an unpublished novel by Crystal Palace co-owner Jay Landesman. Loosely based on Landesman's experiences in New York City in the late 1940s and early '50s, the libretto concerned the uneasy marriage between Brad, the beatnik editor of an avant-garde magazine, and Jan, a square girl from Connecticut. Although the plot about variant lifestyles strove for a sense of tragicomedy, Flicker had cunningly crafted his musical to please audiences -- and not merely in St. Louis. Two days before the opening, Post-Dispatch theater critic Myles Standish revealed that the producer-director intended to present the show either on or off Broadway in the fall. That was so much bluff; Flicker didn't have the wherewithal to produce a Broadway show. But if his crisp, witty, minimalist musical was a hit, well, stranger things had happened.

As the opening night of The Nervous Set played out, Flicker -- who was highly nervous himself -- prowled the bar area at the rear of the theater. A cigarette ever dangling from his lips, he kept one eye on the stage and the other on the audience. What he saw gratified him. Viewers were responding to the musical's edgy originality. There was no dancing chorus, no orchestra; instead the sometimes tender, sometimes ribald songs were accompanied by an onstage jazz trio. The topical jokes skewered everyone -- Catholics, homosexuals, intellectuals -- and the opening-nighters laughed at them all, even when they themselves were the butt of the humor.

"We had an incredible first-act ending," Flicker recalls, speaking by phone from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "Brad goes to a party at Jan's house in Connecticut, but it's not his scene at all, so it looks as if they're going to split up. At which point our broken-hearted heroine sang 'Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,' and then the guy sang it. It's a brilliant song, and it left the audience completely moved."

Act Two had its share of effective moments, as well, not the least of which came when a character inspired by Beat poet Alan Ginsberg performed "Pitch for Pot," a paean to marijuana. (Forty-five years later, cast member Barry Primus is still able to sing the first verse from memory: "My friends, tonight I've got the finest grade of pot you've ever seen/I guarantee it'll get you high/But please don't feel obligated to buy/My supply is to sample and to see/Tonight the smoke's on me.") The song was downright seditious -- and St. Louis audiences ate it up.

At the curtain call, the crowd erupted into prolonged cheering. But as Flicker watched the actors -- his actors, whom he'd brought to St. Louis from New York and Chicago -- take bow after bow, the evening's irony was not lost on him. Were it not for Flicker and his wildly inventive theater company, the new Crystal Palace might not even have been built. Now, on the night of his most successful production, he could hardly wait to get as far away from St. Louis as possible. How had the situation turned so sour so quickly?

In 1952 St. Louisans Jay and Fred Landesman opened the original Crystal Palace bar at 3516 Olive, just east of Grand Boulevard. For five years the tiny pub, festooned with chandeliers from the family-owned Landesman Galleries antique store nearby, attracted a devoted clientele. KWMU-FM theater and film reviewer Joe Pollack, who at the time was a sports reporter for the morning Globe-Democrat, recalls Jay's public function as Crystal Palace proprietor. "Jay was a kind of overarching Rasputin," Pollack says. "He enjoyed being a raconteur. To borrow a line from Noel Coward, he had a talent to amuse." Jay's older brother Fred, Pollack says, was not as outgoing. "I don't think he used as much dope as Jay did. He didn't have an open marriage like Jay and Fran did. He seemed to be a sane and sober guide to what was going on."

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