Bill Christman's art studio near Washington University looks like it could play host to one fine party. Out front a hulking sculpture of a rooster stands next to a broken cigarette machine, and through the wood fence and into a forested garden, towering monkey bars and cartoon-style rockets are visible. The word "bar" glows in red neon through the window.
For the past four years, Christman, a fixture in the St. Louis arts scene and the creator and operator of Beatnik Bob's Museum of Mirth, Mystery and Mayhem at the City Museum, hosted Thursday-night parties at the studio. For the weekly community get-togethers, usually featuring a variety of bluegrass bands, Christman named the now-defunct venue Joe's Café.
"This was something that started as a good neighbor program. It was kind of a 'Wouldn't it be great if we had a place everyone could go and listen to music and have a good time,'" says Robert Mahon, president of the Skinker-DeBaliviere Community Council.
Described as a reserved man in his mid-fifties, Christman, in addition to designing the exhibit at the City Museum, has worked as an artist and sign maker in St. Louis for the past three decades. Attendees say Joe's Café was as much a gallery for Christman's offbeat work as it was a concert hall.
"The music was really important but I loved seeing the quirky high-meets-low art that he does," says Lori White, a south city resident who began attending Thursdays at Joe's Café last summer. "They were building a 30-foot silo-sized face smoking a cigar. I really wanted to see that finished."
The portion of the studio where concerts were played featured what one person describes as a "vaudeville" stage, along with bistro seating and a movie-theater style popcorn maker.
With its unique atmosphere, Joe's eventually gained a reputation outside of the neighborhood as a fun, cheap place to see a show. Others saw the opportunity to take advantage of the BYOB liquor policy.
"People started dragging in coolers and fifths of whiskey. Too many people started coming for reasons beyond the community of the place. It became a crazy place for people to get drunk in," says Jonathan Parker, who lives five doors down from Joe's. "Early on it was more of a neighborhood crowd, but it was so close to the university. I don't want to pin blame, but I had a feeling that was where the abuse was coming from."
Parker, who lives near the studio, says Joe's Café began to attract rowdy crowds. "You'd see young people standing outside on the opposite side of the street with cell phones, telling people, 'I'm in the craziest place, get some whisky and come on over.'"
"It got real popular, real fast," says Darcell Braylock, the executive director of the Skinker-DeBaliviere Community Council. "He was never big on advertising, so it had to be word-of-mouth."
A handful of residents complained about not being able to find a parking place in front of their home and litter on the streets. "Every single night there was an event there, there were beer bottles scattered all over the neighborhood, including in the playground," says Melissa Van Rohr, who lives half a block away from the studio.
Last November Christopher Howard, the ward's neighborhood stabilization officer, was called in to address the concerns. "I talked to [Christman] and he was more than willing to do what he needs to do. I think he was kind of embarrassed about how things had gotten out of hand," Howard recalls. "When Bill was notified, he voluntarily closed down. The city in no way sent him notice or requested that he close his doors."
Christman learned he would have to obtain liquor licenses from the city and state to have people consuming alcohol on the premises. Joe's Café closed shortly thereafter.
Christman partially blames Riverfront Times for contributing to the unwelcome popularity the café received. In RFT's Best of St. Louis issue last year, Joe's Café was heralded as the city's Best Kept Secret. The listing was accompanied by a one-sentence description that read: "If you don't know, we're not telling."
"It was in a quiet neighborhood. It brought more attention than I could comfortably handle," says Christman, declining to comment any further. Whatever the case, most people in the community recall Joe's Café fondly.
"I think if you asked nine out of ten people, they'd think Bill's studio and garden, and Joe's Café, is a real welcome part of the neighborhood," says Mahon, the community council president.
"I played there a few times when he was just beginning. It was nice then," remembers Bob Case, a St. Louis blues musician. "It was a great community he had gotten together. It was a bohemian kind of community. It was a good place to go."
Still, Van Rohr and other neighbors grew tired of the boisterous crowds Joe's began to attract. "I love the fact that there's a cultural opportunity like that right there, but I cannot stand the way the patrons treat the neighborhood," says Van Rohr.
The last concert at Joe's Café was reportedly performed by a venue regular, the Soulard Blues Band, on February 7, 2008. Five days later an e-mail went out to a Joe's Café mailing list, saying the place was "closed until further notice, until we resolve a permit issue."
The permit issue involved a liquor license. Bob Kraiberg, St. Louis' excise commissioner, explains that in order to charge admission and regularly host events where people are drinking, a property owner needs to obtain a "consumption of liquor license," from the city and the state.
"It's a rare license," Kraiberg says. "There are only a couple of them in the city because owners of those types of facilities generally want to sell the liquor."
Darcell Braylock says Christman worked hard to address his neighbors' concerns and that the venue will be missed.
"Bill was very neighborhood-conscious," Braylock says. "I miss the way that it was. It's great to have places to walk to in any community, things to do in your neighborhood. It was a great, inexpensive place to go on Thursdays to hear music and bring a friend and have a conversation. Everyone from college students to long-term residents enjoyed it."
Christman wouldn't say whether he plans to obtain the necessary licenses and reopen Joe's Café.
Says Howard, the neighborhood stabilization officer: "It's too bad. I was actually looking forward to going. I've heard a lot of people speak pretty highly of it."
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