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

Friend of the Family was well received, but with the third offering in January '59, the Crystal Palace Players truly hit their stride. Critic Standish hailed Flicker's production of Beckett's Endgame as "brilliant theater," and once again, local audiences responded with gusto. "A big part of our audience base was wealthy third- and fourth-generation St. Louisans who hadn't ever worked a day in their lives," says Flicker. "Some of the most decadent people I ever met were in that crowd. St. Louis was really fascinating then."

"Those were glorious days," adds actor Tom Aldredge, reached in New York during a break from rehearsals for the current Broadway revival of Twentieth Century, in which he co-stars with Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche. "We had such fun. Whenever a touring show would play the American Theater -- the Old Vic came through, and so did William Inge's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs -- all those actors would come to see us. We'd be their local guides."

"It was a great, great time to be in St. Louis," echoes Aldredge's former colleague Barry Primus, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles. "The people in the community were so supportive. I remember having Thanksgiving dinner at a mansion where Lindbergh had slept and going to the Pulitzers' home to see their Picassos. There was always something happening. Like the day I got a call from [Fred Landesman's wife] Paula. She said, 'We're reading The White Negro by Norman Mailer in our garage.' So we all went down to Fred's garage and listened to The White Negro. I felt I was on the forefront of culture.

It all began in St. Louis: the cover of the program from 
The Nervous Set's Crystal Palace debut.
Courtesy of Western Historical Manuscript Collecti
It all began in St. Louis: the cover of the program from The Nervous Set's Crystal Palace debut.
The artist in repose: Ted Flicker in his Santa Fe, New 
Mexico, sculpture studio
David Kaufman
The artist in repose: Ted Flicker in his Santa Fe, New Mexico, sculpture studio

"We'd eat all our meals at the Rex Café. Then at night we did these beautiful productions. Our designer, Dave Moon, was a kind of genius. He had to be, because between Fred and Jay, this was a very visual community. But can you imagine? At a time when there were hardly any regional theaters in America, we were doing Dostoyevsky and Beckett. How anybody let Ted Flicker get away with what he got away with is beyond me."

How did he get away with it? One explanation comes from Jerry Berger -- not the Post-Dispatch columnist, but an intimate friend of the Landesman family who was at the Crystal Palace almost every night during those years. "The one thing about St. Louis at that time is that nobody would help you, but you could do anything you wanted," Berger reflects. "If you decided that you could open a theater on a shoestring, you could do it. And if audiences liked what they saw, they would come back. I would see the same people every Friday night attending the same play. It was one great big party."

But behind the scenes, seeds of discord had taken root. "Fred did not want me to stage Endgame," Flicker explains. "I don't think he ever wanted a theater. He wanted a nightclub."

No one could wrest the theater from Flicker, because he was part owner. Or so he thought. When he finally took the time to read his contract, Flicker saw that Fred Landesman had incorporated the Crystal Palace in such a way that the Landesman family owned the place outright, with Flicker employed as a member of the staff. "Nothing. I was entitled to nothing," Flicker says today. "Essentially, the contract stated that I was expected to work for $75 a week for the love of it."

In a state of rage and despair -- "The plans I had! I was going to reshape theater in America!" -- Flicker now realized he'd be lucky to make it to the end of his first season. In order to honor his commitment to the actors, he needed to produce a show Fred would not axe. Something as far afield from Beckett as possible.

That's when Flicker had the brainstorm to concoct a new musical that would highlight lyrics by Fran Landesman, who had been writing songs with Crystal Palace house pianist Tommy Wolf. Already some of their collaborations were being performed by the likes of George Shearing, Shelly Manne and Mel Tormé. "I knew two things," Flicker says today. "First, I knew that Fran was the only person who had Fred's ear. She was the only person who could influence his decisions. He would be hard-pressed to say no to any request Fran made. Second, I knew Fran would kill to have a musical. So I figured if I could write a show around her songs, no way would Fred stop the season."

Here Fran Landesman picks up the story: "One day Ted said to me, 'I'd like to make a musical using the songs that you and Tommy have been writing. Can you think of a story that you'd like to use for the plot?' And I said, 'Jay's been working on a novel about when he edited a magazine called Neurotica, which might make a good book.'"

Flicker: "So I read Jay's novel about his life as a beatnik. But it didn't make any difference what the story was about. If Jay had written a dictionary I would have told him it could be a musical. Because that show was going to be my ticket out of St. Louis. Writing it was an act of desperation."

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