Ginsberg in Wichita
Tuesday, February 15, 1966
Lee Streiff’s Account
In February of 1966, I was teaching in the Language Arts Department at Wichita High School Southeast, located at 903 South Edgemoor. Every Friday during the school year a group of teachers would get together after school at a nearby tavern and drink beer. Since the summer of 1961 we had been meeting at a place called The Lamplighter, but had decided to go elsewhere after it changed to a private club, and we moved for a couple of months to The Telephone Booth, a tavern a few blocks away from Southeast, at 1622 South Parkwood.
The Telephone Booth was basically just a big room with a bar and tables in it. It suited our purposes because a large number of people could sit together at the tables — usually there were ten to fifteen of us. However, some of the group began to think it was just a little too public because, having large plate glass windows at the front, some of our students would occasionally walk by and they could see us inside. By common agreement, then, we decided to return to The Lamplighter and become members of the club.
Sometime before February, The Telephone Booth was renamed The Showboat and, according to Pat O’Connor, it was hosting “well-scrubbed” folk singers for entertainment, though I never went there to listen to any of them, even though the place was less than half a mile from where I lived then, at 1920 South Roanoke. Roanoke was one block east of Edgemoor, and Parkwood Lane one block west.
In any case, an interview with Allen Ginsberg appeared in the Wichita Eagle on Sunday, February 6, and I read the article and cut it out. A week later, Joan Pepitone called me to tell me that Ginsberg would be reading at The Showboat on Tuesday. At the time Joan was close to a number of people that frequented Moody’s Skidrow Beanery — Jim Mechem, Tom and Gretchen Grow, and Eddie (“Dallas”) Hullet, among others — and I assume that is where she found out about the reading.
On Tuesday, the 15th, I told some of the teachers at school about the reading that night (Frank Jensen, Dick Will, and others) and several of us planned to go. When I arrived in the evening it was still daylight — and sometime before the reading was to start. Inside, I didn’t see any of the teachers, but I did spot a former student of mine, Jane Robertson, and I sat down with her. We talked for a few minutes and then she said she wanted me to meet Ginsberg. She went back to the stage area where Ginsberg was and they both came back to where I was sitting and she introduced us.
Ginsberg sat down across the table from me, and Jane sat down at the end of the table on my right. Ginsberg had one particular trait that was very impressive: when he was talking to you, he devoted his entire attention to you. He looked straight at you, listened carefully to what you said — as though he was interested in nothing else, and talked directly to you in a thoughtful and incisive manner. For the most part he let you lead the conversation, not pushing his own point of view or agenda, but rather, seeming to be intent on learning from you what he could, only occasionally asking a question now and then. One had no feeling that he was talking to a famous “celebrity”, but rather, simply to a friendly, intelligent companion.
At first we talked about the Wichita group in San Francisco — and I told him about growing up with Mike McClure, Dave Haselwood, and Bruce Conner. He asked about some of the other Wichita people, and I said that, of course, I knew Charlie Plymell and Alan Russo — but that they and most of the rest belonged to a later generation. I also mentioned that he had met my sister, Celeste. At one point while we were talking, Charlie came over to stand behind Ginsberg and we nodded to each other and said hello, but he didn’t enter into the conversation and soon left.
Jane had told Ginsberg, apparently, that I had been her teacher, and he asked me about what teaching was like in Wichita and about my students. I was apologetic about what I was able to accomplish with most of the students in my classes — but pointed out that there were a few who made it worthwhile. I told him about Ralph Hollis, Steve Hawkins, and Janet Bramel’s publishing their own book of poetry and selling it in the halls at school, and that delighted him. Jane interjected that my Honors classes also put out a literary magazine each semester.
Much of what I said about Wichita and the students at Southeast was negative, and I mentioned the conservative, business-oriented leadership of the city and the earlier troubles that we had had with the John Birch Society. It was apparently what he had already heard from others. On the matter of what I was teaching, I think I probably told him that I was teaching semantics and logic, and Hamlet and Moby Dick to my Honors Juniors. Then I also mentioned to him about the Humanities course we had just started that year and how the two classes seemed to have a number of kids who were excited by what we were doing. Ginsberg’s eyes lit up and he said that he would be happy to come to the class the next day and read for the students. I was surprised at how enthusiastic he seemed about the prospect — and I almost took him up on it — but then, realizing that it was impossible, I explained that we had no academic freedom policy — and that for purely bureaucratic reasons, it wouldn’t be practicable. He was disappointed, but understood, and we discussed how “educators” sometimes got in the way of real education.
We had been talking for about twenty minutes when Charlie came back — obviously it was close to time to begin the reading. It was then that I asked Ginsberg why he had come to Wichita, and he replied, “I wanted to see where everyone came from.” I smiled and nodded and he smiled.
The Showboat had a little stage area about mid-way back on the north side of the large open area, and that was where the people who were going to read had congregated. Peter Orlovsky and his brother were there, along with Ginsberg, Plymell, and a person I did not know, but who I learned later was Roger Angle. By the time the reading was to start, Dick Will had come in and he and I moved down closer to the stage, but still at some distance away, so we could talk without interrupting what was going on.
I do not recall whether it was Plymell or Angle who read first — but it was in the midst of Angle’s reading that a flurry of excitement took place. It was difficult at first to know exactly what was happening. Then it became clear that a policeman had come in from the outside and was being taken over to Ginsberg by another person. The policeman said something to Ginsberg, who then got up and went out the front door with the policeman, motioning for the others to go on with what they were doing. According to Ginsberg, later quoted in the Wichita Beacon by reporter Kent Britt, “… this one young officer took exception to what was being said. He came over and said something like: ‘Either clean that stuff up or we’ll have to arrest you.’”
I got up and went to the plate glass front window and saw a police car parked sideways about fifteen feet from the entrance, and Ginsberg earnestly talking to the policeman, who was standing next to the door of his car. Another person stood two or three feet behind Ginsberg, listening. I could not hear the conversation taking place, nor could the several others who were now standing around me — because the front door was closed — but we could watch the actions of those outside. The policeman sat down on the seat of his car and pulled out a microphone connected by a long cord and stood back up. He spoke into the microphone, holding a copy of something and reading from it.
The Beacon reporter wrote of the event in these words:
“Ginsberg immediately called two local attorneys “just so they’d be ready in case we needed them. “After I did that, I went outside where the cops were and there was one of them, sitting in the car and reading the poetry over the police radio. I suppose he was trying to find out from a superior if he was supposed to arrest all of us. …”
[Kent Britt, The Wichita Beacon, February 17, 1966: 4A].
I am not certain that it happened exactly that way. Ginsberg went out with the policeman and I don’t recall his having come back in to make a phone call. Perhaps he did, or perhaps someone else made the call to alert the attorneys, whose services — as it turned out — were not needed after all.
The reporter continued:
Ginsberg said that he and one of the officers were getting into a pretty heated discussion about obscenity laws when two “older, more experienced” officers arrived. These two older cops,” Ginsberg said, “came in and told the younger ones to forget it, to cool it. “After that they all left. They apologized and left. They were real nice about it then.”
[Kent Britt, The Wichita Beacon, February 17, 1966: 4A].
If Ginsberg did, indeed, feel that the discussion was getting “heated”, we could not tell that from inside. Actually, to us, it seemed quite calm.
Later, according to the reporter, Lt. Bobby Stout (who had not been at the confrontation) stated that he doubted whether anyone in the police department was “qualified to determine” what was obscene, and Ginsberg, when told of that statement, “commended” the vice squad for its “sensible” approach. He also expressed the view that “I hope they will maintain this attitude so that free literary expression in Wichita won’t be threatened at any time in the future.” [Kent Britt, The Wichita Beacon, February 17, 1966: 4A].
After the police left, Ginsberg came back in and an offhand statement was made that the reading would go on. There was no real discussion of what had been said outside — and for the most part we had to wait until later to read the details in the newspaper.
But the encounter with the police was not the only trouble that night.
After Ginsberg began to recite some of his poems and some poems by Orlovsky and others, raucous laughter and loud, ribald remarks started coming from a table immediately in front of the stage. At first I couldn’t exactly hear what was being said, and for a moment I even thought that the people at that table, who numbered about seven or eight mixed men and women, were simply expressing their amusement at what was being said in the poems. But it quickly became clear that that was not the case at all; instead, the group had obviously come to disrupt the reading by ridiculing the poetry – and Ginsberg personally, as well. One loud voice in particular, from a florid, hard-faced man, made several insulting remarks that crossed the bounds of taste – using such terms as “queers”, “draft dodgers”, “peaceniks” and “communists”. Years later, Plymell was to write that the group was composed of John Birch Society members – though I do not know whether that was only a surmise or whether he knew it for a fact – but by this date Birchers were no longer a group that was taken seriously anyway.
In any case, the taunts and jeering were obnoxious in the extreme, and it seemed that we were on the verge of some kind of confrontation between those who were there to scoff and those who were there to hear the poetry. But it didn’t happen.
Ginsberg took the situation completely in hand. Unruffled, he softly began talking directly to the hard-faced man in a calm voice, quoting lines of poetry and asking questions. It was a joy to see him work. With no sense of impatience or malice towards the man, he met venom with tranquillity and gentleness. And the result was startling — and effective. Within a few minutes all the conflict and rancor was gone from the dialogue. The two were simply talking as one human being to another.
In a few more minutes the poetry reading had resumed, and the offenders were offenders no more. They listened quietly now, and by the time the evening was over, they were applauding the readings just like the rest of the audience. It was quite a remarkable lesson that Ginsberg had given those of us who were thereDave Olson, a student at Wichita State in 1966, remembered his encounters with Ginsberg during his visit:
“I had Ginsberg autograph my copy of “Howl,” at the Showboat. I had expected him to just sign it, but he spent several minutes turning the ‘O’ in “Howl” on the cover page into a sunflower with the date and then his autograph.”
Charlie Plymell’s Accounts
Charlie Plymell discusses the events at the Showboat in both his entry in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, and in his memoir The Last of the Moccasins (1996).
“They [the police] had been called (of course) because of the obscene poetry. The reading was interrupted and turned into a grass-roots happening. Some John Birch members were in the audience and though disgusted with the filthy language, supported the poetry as the right of free speech. The cops didn’t know quite what to do, so they “got on the two-way radio” to the chief of police. Allen asked to talk to him and began a rather involved dialogue as only Allen can—over the police radio. He mentioned that Barry Farrell from Life magazine was coming to do a story about him. Over the radio, the chief instructed the cops not to interfere, saying, “Well, they’re doing this all over the country.”
Plymell, Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 11, 1989: 290].
It is not known who called the police – or the Wichita Eagle-Beacon reporter who was there.
In The Last of the Moccasins, the story is much the same:
“A cop came to the door and told someone at the door to tell him [Roger Angle] to come outside. He told him he couldn’t use that kind of language. […] The cop then took Roger’s poems to his squad car and started reading them to the Chief. By that time Allen had come out with his Urher tape recorder over his shoulder, microphone in hand and told the cop he couldn’t take Roger’s poems and to give them back. And the cop was saying something like he couldn’t read them in a public place. Allen held the mike up and asked him if he was citing a city ordinance or what law was he acting under or was he acting on his own judgment, etc. Meanwhile some A.C.L.U. lawyers had arrived along with some of the press. Allen advised the cop to consult his superiors before he got into trouble. The cop radioed his chief who squawked over the radio something like “well they’re doing it all over the country not much you can do about it.”
[Plymell, The Last of the Moccasins, 1996: 151-2].
As may be seen – and as is natural – each person’s remembrances of the events are somewhat different: Charlie’s later accounts, my own recollections, and the reporter’s story in the newspaper quoting Ginsberg at the time.
Ginsberg memorialized The Showboat appearance himself in a section of the “Wichita Vortex Sutra” dated February 15, 1966:
Kansas! Kansas! Shuddering at last!
PERSON appearing in Kansas!
angry telephone calls to the University
Police dumbfounded leaning on
their radiocar hoods
While Poets chant to Allah in the roadhouse Showboat!
[Ginsberg, 1988: 394].
The Showboat building was torn down December 17, 1999 to make way for a Walgreen Drugstore.
This Section first appeared in a slightly different form as Chapter 6 of The Vortex Souvenir Book, by Lee Streiff, © 2000.
Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems 1947-1980, © Harper & Row, New York, 1988.
Hollis, Ralph; Hawkins, Steve; and Bramel, Janet. The Worlds We Made, 1958.
O’Connor, P. J. Moody’s Skidrow Beanery, Kansas Underground from Beat to Hip. © Rowfant Press, Wichita, 1999.
Olson, Dave. (e-mail to Lee Streiff, January 14, 2001).
Charles Plymell, Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 11, 1989.
The Last of the Moccasins, © Mother Road Publications, Albuquerque, NM, 1996.