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

Primus offers another theory for the show's quick demise: "The next Broadway show to open after us was Gypsy. Ethel Merman was a major star; Jerome Robbins was a major director. It had big sets, lavish production numbers. That's the kind of show where audiences think they get value for their money. We were like a club act. New York audiences weren't hip to that in 1959."

A month after The Nervous Set closed, Flicker -- who knew he'd never return to St. Louis -- wrote a public letter to Myles Standish, in which he asked the Post-Dispatch critic to "tell the people of St. Louis...I think it is a wonderful theater town. Where else could a theater as unique as mine was, open and make a colossal profit in its first year?" After noting that the only production to lose money was the opener by Chandler Brossard, Flicker stated that "by the end of the season the Crystal Palace was not only solvent, but paid off things that ordinarily take from five to ten years. It was a season unique in the theater in this country."

But life goes on.

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

In June 1959, the same month Flicker's valedictory to St. Louis appeared in the newspaper, the Crystal Palace commenced to use "Gaslight Square" as its official address. In February of the following year, Jay and Fran Landesman, along with Tommy Wolf, collaborated with Nelson Algren on a musical adaptation of his novel A Walk on the Wild Side. This time David Merrick did fly out to see the production, but he didn't buy. In '62 Wolf and the Landesmans were enlisted by local journalist Martin Quigley to collaborate on Molly Darling, a musical set in 1899 St. Louis. It premiered that summer at the Muny but did not enjoy a continued life.

Jay Landesman continued to mount plays at the Crystal Palace. Though some of those productions were well received -- The Boy Friend was a popular Christmas offering -- they were tame stuff in contrast to Flicker's repertoire. But as the neighborhood's popularity escalated, even conventional theater gave way to nightclub performers. Crystal Palace bookings of Lenny Bruce, Barbra Streisand and the Smothers Brothers are now the stuff of local legend. Less remembered is the fact that Jay Landesman also introduced belly dancers and limbo dancers to his bistro.

"As it grew more popular, Gaslight Square became a series of honky-tonk joints," recalls KWMU critic Joe Pollack. "It lost its camaraderie, its closeness. It lost its appeal to the regulars. It became a spot for children."

Once that happened, "all hell broke loose," Jerry Berger picks up. "From a sort of wonderfully edited, interesting street, many of the new places were very schlocky. The elitist, snobbish air disintegrated. You could feel that its days were numbered, and indeed they were."

In 1964 the Landesmans moved to London. Fred and Paula moved to New York. He died in 1977; she passed away in 2000.

Out in Los Angeles, Tommy Wolf carved out a successful career as a rehearsal pianist for TV variety shows. He continued to write songs, some with Fran, others with the likes of Fred Astaire. Wolf died in 1979.

The members of the acting ensemble Flicker had nurtured in St. Louis went their separate ways. Aldredge has starred in 30 Broadway plays, including On Golden Pond and the Stephen Sondheim musicals Into the Woods and Passion. Primus forged a successful screen career, appearing in Boxcar Bertha; New York, New York; Absence of Malice; Night and the City; and Life as a House, among others. The eccentric Del Close returned to Chicago where, as an improv instructor, he served as a mentor to the likes of Bill Murray, John Belushi and Mike Myers. When he died in 1999, he left his skull to the Goodman Theatre so he could appear onstage as Yorick in future productions of Hamlet.

Never one to remain idle for long, Flicker in 1960 produced, directed and appeared in (along with Aldredge, George Segal and eventually Buck Henry) an evening of off-Broadway improv called The Premise. The set was by Crystal Palace alum Dave Moon. A smash hit, The Premise ran for three years and more than 1,200 performances. Flicker then wrote and directed feature films. His controversial 1967 satire The President's Analyst, with James Coburn and Severn Darden, is regarded as a classic. He also created the hit TV series Barney Miller. After the sitcom concluded its seven-season run, he sold the entire package to Coca-Cola. Flicker now lives on an estate in Santa Fe, where for the past eight years he has worked as a sculptor.

Fran Landesman has continued to write. As her lyrics have been interpreted by scores of jazz artists, from Ella Fitzgerald to Miles Davis, her reputation has continued to grow. Last December, at age 76, she returned to the United States for a sellout two-night appearance at Joe's Pub in the East Village. "My hero came: Stephen Sondheim," Fran recounts. "He said to me, 'I've just listened to The Nervous Set again. I wanted to see if I liked it as much as I did when I was young.' And he said, 'Every track was surprising.' He liked that show a lot. It's odd, because to tell you the truth, I feel like I've gotten better."

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