Hip in the Heart of Texas (Like, Part 1, Ya Dig?): Coffeehouses

The year was 1959.
What was going on in America sixty-three years ago?
For starters, popular movies included Ben-Hur, Operation Petticoat, Some Like It Hot, Pillow Talk, Rio Bravo, and North by Northwest.
Popular TV programs included Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Have GunWill Travel, Danny Thomas Show, Red Skelton Show, Father Knows Best, and 77 Sunset Strip.
Popular songs included “The Battle of New Orleans,” “Mack the Knife,” “Personality,” “Venus,” and “Lonely Boy.”
In baseball’s annual All-Star Game, played that year at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, the American League batting lineup began with Minnie Miñoso, Nellie Fox, Al Kaline, and Bill Skowron. The National League batting lineup began with Johnny Temple, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays.
The National League won 1-0.
In 1959 Dwight D. Eisenhower was president; Tom McCann was mayor of Fort Worth. The two U.S. senators from Texas were Ralph Yarborough and Lyndon Johnson. Both Democrats.
In 1959 Buddy Holly was killed, and Fidel Castro took control of Cuba. Alaska and Hawaii became states. The Barbie doll hit the market. “Weird Al” Yankovic was born. Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer died.

In 1959 Carlson’s was hiring carhops.

Leonard’s was selling Stratorester recliners (with Kidney Roll) for $49.88.

And Overseas Motors was selling used luxury foreign cars at what today seem like salvage yard prices.

But something else was happening in Fort Worth in 1959. Cowtown was beginning to look—and sound—like Greenwich Village-on-the-Trinity.
The Beat Generation, with its literary triumvirate of William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, was, like, making the scene in squaresville Fort Worth, which heretofore had been more Cowtown than nowtown, dig? More Louis Lamour than Kerouac, more Levis than leotards, more Stetsons than berets.
According to the Star-Telegram, in March 1959 Fort Worth’s first coffeehouse opened. The newspaper announced: “The Black Beret, 3400B Camp Bowie Blvd., opens Friday as a coffeehouse. Instruments are on hand for the musically inclined—lots of bongo drums—paintings, cartoons and a determined effort to be Left Bank with none of the undesirable aspects of the artists’ colony.”
By October the city had enough coffeehouses for the Star-Telegram to review them:

“The Black Beret at 3400 Camp Bowie,” the newspaper wrote, “reportedly owns the only espresso machine in town. Co-owner Robert Romo said it was imported from Milan, Italy, a holy place for espresso houses.
“Romo injects a slug of imported coffee into the machine. Water and fire shoot a jet of steam through the grains . . . and ‘presto,’ you got espresso. The machine cost about $1,000. So Romo agrees it’s expensive ‘instant coffee.’”
The Black Beret offered a dozen types of coffee ranging in price from thirty to seventy-five cents. “Among the espresso elite, brown sugar and a nip of lemon are added for the continental taste. Fruit juices are popular with the younger sports. Olympic Flip combines three juices and five spices. Uva Rile has grape juice for its base. Romo can whip up a corned beef sandwich or serve such cheeses as provolone, cheddar and Swiss.”
Many of the Black Beret’s patrons were Casa Manana and opera people, both performers and patrons.
“Bongo drums are handy for customers who get the urge to thump. Romo, sometime opera singer, is moved occasionally to sing ‘If I Loved You,’ or ‘Old Man River.’ A 50-foot-long bulletin board is handy. One daring student has a pinup of Khrushchev on it. Local artists display their modern stuff. Romo removes anything patrons find objectionable.”
“There might be one or two beatniks in Fort Worth,” Romo told a reporter. “Dallas has several.”

At the Centaur on Forest Park Boulevard patrons were greeted by a quotation from Virgil on the welcome wall: Monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum.
Centaur co-owner Bob Moore translated: “Horrible monster . . . misshapen, vast . . . with its only eye put out.”
Appended to that quotation was a postscript in English: “Such is society.”
Moore and partner Charles Grimes, occasional college students, envisioned the Centaur as a classic coffeehouse “in the Italian or Parisian stripe.”
The Star-Telegram wrote: “They see an espresso house as a place for brains to browse on such subjects as religion, economics and sex. The owners brooded over their kaffee wien cups. Business was gloomy. Candles stuck in cider jugs could be heard dripping.”
“How do you advertise a place like this?” Grimes asked rhetorically. “Like ‘We’re going to philosophize tonight. Come on out!’”
“Grimes told of big black Cadillacs cruising up to the door. ‘Then people, 50 or 60 [years old], slip in. They peep around like they’re putting something over on their neighbors,’ he said.
“Moore noted ruefully, ‘That’s always the time no bearded college student comes in singing a Communist marching song.’
“Kaffee wien is the Centaur specialty . . . coffee, spice and chocolate, among other ingredients. Moore and Grimes will argue long that true espresso coffee can be stewed in a washtub. ‘It’s the blend that counts.’”

On Collard Street near TWC in Poly the walls of Le Café Cabaret were painted black with silver glitter. A jukebox was stocked with jazz and a smattering of rock and roll. Caricatures of beatniks, signed by a Poly High School student known as the “Menace,” decorated the walls.
An inscription read, “I feel more like I do now than I did when I came in.”
“The house is a favorite for teenagers,” the Star-Telegram wrote. “Parents also come by. Co-owner Bob Christian said, ‘Parents are all for it now. Keeps the kids off the street.’”
Christian said youngsters with no money volunteered to wash dishes so they could hang out at Le Café Cabaret.
The Star-Telegram wrote: “One customer has promised partner Mary Novak a Chinaman’s skull. ‘I hope he doesn’t find it,’ she said. If he does, the skull probably will go into one of the more remote dark corners.”

Another Poly coffeehouse was La Chat Noir on Vaughn Boulevard.
“‘Jamming’ is a favorite pastime at La Chat Noir,” the Star-Telegram wrote, feeling the need to place the hip term in quotation marks. “Jam sessions are spontaneous.”
Nights at La Chat Noir set aside as “quiet nights” were often the loudest, the newspaper wrote. “More reserved patrons don’t dig improvised jazz so the youthful musicians will oblige with something like ‘Moonglow.’”
“Owner Don Nicholson pointed out a young man as a near-beatnik. Why? For one thing, he’d just spent 10 years in California.
“The patron didn’t want to talk at first, asserting words aren’t worth anything. But he did say he worked sometimes in such fields as mechanical engineering, meat cutting and common laboring. When the beat mood hits, he often carves balsa wood and makes ‘nothing’ out of glue, pins and colored paper. As for California coffeehouses, he said, ‘Out there, they’re mostly cocktail bars.’
“Coffeehouse habitues may run into Gloria Pack [see Part 2], who does portrait sketches at several houses. Check her feet. She ordinarily enters barefoot. A few days ago, she stepped on a nail. A sore foot forced her into shoes at least for awhile.”

Another coffeehouse was on South Henderson Street. Patrons of the Off-Beat were mainly teenagers, co-owner Ron Opitz said.
The Star-Telegram wrote: “Even plain soft drinks are available plus pizza. Dancing is allowed, taboo at some establishments . . . Opitz said, ‘Our place is not for real beatniks. They detest rock ’n’ roll . . . we create a night club atmosphere without liquor for kids.’”

At the Kismet on Park Hill Drive, owner Lanning Searcy was already thinking ahead to when the coffeehouse fad faded. He hoped that “programming” would keep the Kismet in business.
The Star-Telegram wrote: “Searcy has arranged book reviews, is thinking about a lecture on modern jazz, turns loose a combo some nights. ‘We cater to the intelligentsia and pseudointellectuals out for culture,’ Searcy said.
“Sometimes ‘Big Mike, the Irish Poet’ recites his verse freely. ‘Big Mike’ revealed that local beatniks are disgruntled at Fort Worth city government. ‘Wouldn’t be surprised to see a beatnik run for City Council,’ he said like an Irish politician. He admitted beatniks, near or pure, couldn’t elect. But he predicted victory with aid from people with ‘common sense.’”
Big Mike the Irish poet indeed would soon run for office.

And in March 1960 he would get national publicity. Life magazine published a spread on Fort Worth’s beatnik scene and focused on the fact that two beatniks—Big Mike and Peter Gill—were running for the office of Democratic precinct chairman.
Life wrote: “‘Kick the cows out of Cowtown and let the cats in to swing.’ With this slogan a small Beatnik group cantered into politics last month in Fort Worth, Texas taking its place beside such venerable quadrennial U.S. signs of hope or hoopla as vegetarians, anarchists and hard-shell prohibitionists. At stake: two Democratic precinct chairmanships. The candidates: ‘Big Mike’ Callaway, 23, and Peter ‘the Hero’ Gill, 27. As ‘whippists,’ [?] which is Fort Worth for Beatniks, both candidates earn marginal livings working and reciting poetry in newly established coffeehouses. Their approaches to politics vary. Peter (who has not paid his poll tax and can only run as a write-in) urges passersby on street corners to come to the rally for ‘free espresso, dancing girls and Beatniks all over the place.’ Mike, who has paid his poll tax, is more serious. He promises to clear slums, build better flophouses for ‘winos’ and cleanse local government of corruption—‘not of square thinking, that’s asking too much.’ Mike also takes his chances of winning seriously, but even his close supporters think he will remain beat.”

In the top photo, Peter Gill advised the Junior Chamber of Commerce on how to stage a beatnik ball. In the bottom photo candidate Callaway rested after a hard day of politicking.

Big Mike (in the monk’s robe made of Army blankets) and Gill campaigned downtown at 7th and Houston streets.

Lastly, in October 1959 the Star-Telegram reviewed the newest coffeehouse in Cowtown.
The coffeehouse, the newspaper wrote, “was packed at 1 a. m. Several types were partly visible under red and blue lights. They sat on pads on the floor. All seemed relaxed. A quartet, dressed like lunching Jaycees, sang ‘Nature Boy’ and ‘Stormy Weather,’ sweet and low. One patron, dressed in a blue kimono, had some suki yaki, pork and bamboo shoots bubbling on a Sterno stove. The waitresses, dressed in men’s white shirts and red leotards or opera hose, get much exercise bending over to serve the low-slung customers.”
The coffeehouse, the newspaper wrote, “serves cheese cake besides the espresso combinations, fruit drinks, hot and cold cider. The house seems to be doing the best business. It’s open 22 hours a day. The other two are for cleanup. Day people, office workers, can buy sandwiches. . . . One beret-topped patron recites ‘futile poems.’ Odes to soda straws are not uncommon. A progressive jazz combo soothes customers.”
The owner of the newest coffeehouse said, “Everybody has a ball. We have a nice crowd. No rowdies. We opened to keep from going to work, so now we’re at it 24 hours a day.”
The Star-Telegram noted that Fort Worth police “often take a look at coffeehouses.”
The owner of Cowtown’s newest coffeehouse confirmed that. “We’ve been investigated by everyone. People sometimes think opium is going to come out of the wall.”
This owner certainly looked like the owner of a coffeehouse, like a beatnik sent straight from central casting: gaunt, bearded, dressed in black.
But in reality he was a savvy businessman who had hitched his wagon—and his cash register—to the coffeehouse fad. He defined a “beatnik” as “a guy who don’t go anywhere . . . but sits in a free attic and mopes . . . he considers anybody who opens a coffeehouse a capitalist.”
And after Fort Worth’s other coffeehouses had rung up their last espresso, this savvy businessman and what he called his “joint” would become Cowtown legends.
That man was Pat Kirkwood:
Hip in the Heart of Texas (Like, Part 2, Ya Dig?): The Cellar


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2 Responses to Hip in the Heart of Texas (Like, Part 1, Ya Dig?): Coffeehouses

  1. Gerard Daily says:

    I worked at Record Town in the 70s. Mrs Bruton would tell me stories of Peter “The Poet” Gill who worked at Record Town and did displays in the front window of the store. Mr Bruton used to play in bands that played The Cellar.

  2. Ann (Briley) Weiss says:

    Ah, those were the days. My class of 1959 was the last to graduate from Handley High School. Eastern Hills would open in the fall. We students were very excited to “hear” that students were going to choose the mascot and school colors. The rumor was the new school would have pink and black colors and the mascot would be a “cool cat!” Of course, not true!

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