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

By 1957 the bar's novelty had begun to wear thin. Jay was looking for a way to reinvigorate the Crystal Palace when he heard about an improvisational company in Chicago called The Compass Players. He went up to the Windy City to take in a performance. "The minute I saw them, I knew they were for us," Landesman says by phone from London, where he and Fran, his wife of 54 years, have lived since 1964. "It was as if I had been looking for them all my life."

Jay promptly went backstage and entered into negotiations to bring a second Compass company to St. Louis. Compass veteran Theodore J. Flicker came to St. Louis to run the adjunct ensemble. "He was a human dynamo," Landesman writes of Flicker in his 1987 memoir Rebel Without Applause, "who never seemed to run short of ideas or ways to have fun." One such idea was to bring the then-unknown comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May to St. Louis. When Nichols' prowess at improv seemed to throw the other Compass performers off kilter, it was also Flicker's idea to have Nichols fired.

After Nichols and May departed for New York, the local Compass Players came to an end. But rather than return to Chicago, Flicker had another ambitious idea: He wanted to direct a professional Equity production of Samuel Beckett's bleak tragicomedy Waiting for Godot, which had confounded audiences and critics when it opened on Broadway the previous year.

Too cool for school: Jay and Fran Landesman in the 
late 1950s
Courtesy of Western Historical Manuscript Collecti
Too cool for school: Jay and Fran Landesman in the late 1950s
Columbia's Nervous Set soundtrack album 
(shown here in its reincarnation as a CD) featured art 
by Jules Feiffer and photos by Richard Avedon.
Columbia's Nervous Set soundtrack album (shown here in its reincarnation as a CD) featured art by Jules Feiffer and photos by Richard Avedon.

"The only way Fred would let me do Waiting for Godot in the old Crystal Palace was if I sold all the tickets first," Flicker remembers. "So I financed that production by pre-selling the tickets. It wasn't easy, but I have to tell you. Fred was a business genius, a Machiavellian character. I believed he could make anything happen. It's just that he couldn't exist in a world where he didn't own everything."

When Godot opened in February 1958, Post-Dispatch theater critic Standish praised the "imaginative experiment" as "extraordinarily well done." With the early weeks already pre-sold, the show became a hot ticket. "It was an amazing thing," recounts Flicker. "People could smoke and drink and see Beckett! You couldn't do that in New York."

Buoyed by his triumph, Flicker began to formulate an audacious plan. He envisioned his own St. Louis-based permanent professional theater company: "I planned a season of six plays running one month each and rehearsing one month each, which at that time was unheard of. The regional theater movement had not yet begun. You had the Alley Theater in Houston, and one or two others. But no one was doing the kind of theater I wanted to do."

At Flicker's prodding, Fred Landesman began to seek a larger venue. He didn't have to look far; an antique store at 4240 Olive, adjacent to the Landesman Galleries, suddenly became available. Whereas the old Crystal Palace could accommodate 120 theatergoers, the new space could seat 250. It would fit neatly into an arts-oriented block anchored by the Gaslight and Golden Eagle bars and known to habitués -- though not yet the general public -- as Gaslight Square.

In order to build the new Crystal Palace, Flicker says, "Fred and I set up a corporation. Being a naive jerk, it never occurred to me to look at any of the papers. I just did whatever Fred said, and I knew that I was part owner. Fred, who in addition to all his other talents also was a great painter, designed an ornate, wonderful-looking theater. One day, I remember, we stopped a truck that was loaded with leaded-glass windows. The driver told us they came out of turn-of-the-century mansions that were being torn down. He was taking them to the dump, so we gave him a buck apiece. Then Fred added them to the décor."

While Fred supervised the theater design and Flicker assembled a company of actors that included Godot veterans Tom Aldredge and Severn Darden, plus young up-and-comer Barry Primus, what did Jay do to keep busy?

"Made trouble," Flicker replies. "He was such a pain in the ass. He was a titanic pain in the ass. Jay loved to float around on the social scene and do the next hip thing. Fred wasn't too crazy about doing 'the next hip thing.'"

It was Jay who persuaded Flicker to open the theater with the world premiere of Love's Success by Chandler Brossard, a Beat writer who had served a stint as a bartender at the old Crystal Palace. The new theater opened on November 11, 1958, to a gala crowd of St. Louis socialites. The next day in his Post-Dispatch review, Standish praised the theater's "bizarre" décor but condemned the play as "a tawdry drama....a cloudy, pretentious affair."

For his second production, Flicker turned to one of his own pals. Friend of the Family, based on a comic novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, was written by Flicker's ex-roommate at Bard College, Peter Stone. "I was the first one to give him a professional production," the director says of Stone, who went on to write such hit films as Charade, Arabesque and Father Goose, as well as the librettos for Broadway musicals including 1776, Woman of the Year and Titanic. Stone died last year at the age of 73.

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