Ginsberg in Wichita
by Lee Streiff
It was the late spring of 1963, and my first visit to Moody’s Skidrow Beanery:
The Skidrow Beanery was a strange combination of the tattered and decaying and the exotic. The air smelled of damp mortar and mold and of incense, and … bean soup. The floor underfoot was of narrow boards covered in areas by threadbare Persian rugs. The ceiling was high, and made of stamped, figured metal; the light was dim and yellow. In the counter area several old men with a couple of days growth of beard and raggedy clothes sat vacant-eyed over their soup bowls.
I walked past the counter back into the gallery. The furniture was aged and worn — purchased at the Salvation Army next door. Sitting on the floor were a number of people smoking and drinking wine. Dave Haselwood waved at me. Glenn Todd sat next to him, cross-legged, an ironic smile on his face. They were like two spectres out of the past. It had been eight years since I had seen them.
“How long are you staying?” I asked, still standing.
“Just passing through,” said Glenn in his melodious accent, slow and musical.
Dave giggled. “As I said on the phone,” he answered, “we came in yesterday, we’re going on tomorrow.”
“Where?” I sat down on the floor facing them.
Dave poured me a glass of wine and thrust it forward, I took it.
“Back to San Francisco,” he said. Glenn absently gazed out across the room to where people stood in small groups talking.
“How did you happen to come?” I asked.
“It was kind of mixed up,” Dave said. “We were supposed to meet Charlie Plymell here. I don’t know if he’ll make it. His collages did, though.”
I turned to look behind me on the wall across the room where Plymell’s magazine paste-ups hung on the wall. The party was for the show’s opening.
Jim Mechem came over to us, standing, with a bit of a nervous twitch.
“Charlie just called,” he said in his high, nasal Kansas twang. It was such a contrast to Glenn’s dulcet Texas tones. “He needs a ride over and I’m going to go get him. He wondered if Dave and Glenn were here.”
The Beanery had been open only a few months then. According to P. J. O’Connor, in his book Moody’s Skidrow Beanery, Kansas Underground from Beat to Hip:
In January, 1963, Moody Connell took over the Mission Snack Bar from two men he had loaned $350.00, after they “started bickering.” Connell had run Moody’s Swap Shop at the same location, 625 E. Douglas […]. A few months later, Connell changed the name to Moody’s Skidrow Beanery.” [O’Connor, 1999: 4].
The location was in a run-down section of Downtown Wichita, next to the railroad tracks – in the midst of a jumble of lower class bars and cafes, with a Salvation Army store right next door, and the shabby Eaton Hotel a block away. The area was a natural draw for alcoholics, the homeless, and the down-and-out.
Apparently it was Moody’s intention from the beginning to offer a place where both bums (a term Moody applied with intended respect) and Beats could come and find a cheap haven [O’Connor, 1999: 4]. For the more intellectually minded, he installed a book rack and discussion area — with “a few rickety booths, two old sofas, and an antiquated piano” — called “Socrates’ Square” [O’Connor, 1999: 4-5]. It was in Socrates’ Square that Dave, Glenn, and I had our conversation that day in the late spring of 1963.
I was at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois on a John Hay Fellowship during the 1963-4 school year, but I received a number of letters and newspaper clippings from my friends in Wichita detailing the happenings at the Beanery during my absence.
In a letter dated January 3, 1964 (but obviously written a few days earlier), Jim Mechem wrote me that Charlie Plymell had written him from Tucson, where he was staying with Bruce McGrew, and that he had married a girl named Ann Buchanan and was coming back to Wichita. According to Mechem, Plymell apparently planned to open an art theatre and gallery, and start up a printing press. He also spoke at that time of an “anthology” of Wichita poets that he and Ginsberg wanted to publish. He was planning to stay for three years and work at Beechcraft to earn enough money to go to Australia.
Jim also enclosed an undated clipping from the newspaper, entitled “Poet to Edit Anthology of Local Works”. This article stated that Ginsberg would be arriving in Wichita in February, and that he had “in mind editing an anthology of Wichita poets and writers with the assistance of Plymell […] .”
Plymell arrived on January 1st, and the expectations of the local community were high, anticipating both the putting together of the anthology and Ginsberg’s appearance on the scene. Soon after Plymell’s arrival, an article on him appeared in the Wichita Eagle. The article reported that Plymell was accompanied by his wife, Ann, and that they were living at 1537 North Topeka. Plymell announced his plans to stay “five or six months”, and stated that although Ginsberg had “expressed a desire to come to Wichita several times” he was presently making a movie in New York and would not be able to come for “three or four months.” [The Wichita Eagle, January 7, 1964: 8C].
He was quoted as saying that he was presently writing a novel “that will include a lot of Wichita in it” and said that the work on the anthology had already begun. He showed the reporter a poem of Michael McClure’s that he planned to include. He also had plans to make a film with Wayne Sourbeer based on American Indian mythology and/or Tarot cards. [The Wichita Eagle, January 7, 1964: 8C].
Joan Pepitone wrote to me about what was happening:
I met Charlie Plymell. Janet Brammel and husband were there, they are something. It was a pleasant evening. […] His [Charlie’s] wife is a beautiful girl and beautifully built. She is modeling at the u. now. Jim and Eddy went by to leave a copy of a group of writings they have published (2 times now) called the beaters because they beat Greg, and Plymell. [Letter from Joan Pepitone to Lee Streiff, February 11, 1964].
Everyone was excited about the anthology, and both Mechem and Joan, among others, had been asked to contribute writings for it.
Apparently soon after arriving, Charlie had changed from the idea of opening his own art theatre and gallery, and instead had adopted the Beanery as the locale for the realization of his plans.
First, Joan wrote me:
Tomorrow I read my poems at the coffee shop Plymell has a hand in. It is the beanery, by the Salvation Army by the viaduct. A very uncontrolled place. I don’t know why I am in this. I think I will read my lighter things, unless I give up and run. […] I went to the beanery last week, lot of people I knew, and it was pleasant, talked to Ann, very lovely and not shallow. Jim will read Thurs. Eddy Tues. I don’t believe it is so good breaking it down this way, you have to be there every night to hear everyone read. Charlie read Fri, and Sat, I couldn’t go […]. [Letter from Joan Pepitone to Lee Streiff, March 18, 1964].
But the bringing of frankly explicit books and art into the mix at the Beanery had played right into the hands of the authorities, and everyone had seriously misjudged the force of the official censure that would be brought to bear against the activity there. It all became a cause célèbre when the police came down hard on Moody Connell as a result. Their threats to get warrants to confiscate “obscene” books and pictures and to close the place down for code violations set off a chain of unfortunate events. A letter to me from Mechem a few days after Joan’s indicates what had happened:
Listen – we need your help here we are in bad trouble with police who are trying to close us down and Connie told me today that Moody […] that someone, someone told Moody today that City Hall was going to get him today – before this thing is through – the pressure is on – a building inspector was in inspecting the joint. He told Moody “I’ve got to condemn this place. If I can’t find some fault so I can condemn it – I lose my job – they fire me and get someone who can. Moody – you’re ending up on the street one way or another.”x[…] and Betty Dickerson said to me – ”I hope we’re not next – we have models in the nude – I hope they don’t make trouble for us – but if they can make Charley take down his poetry and censor everything that is read – [”] […] the police are scaring Moody badly – […] the night the police raided and the story broke – KFH announcer blasted the police – worse than this story [in reference to a newspaper account he sent] – like some of the letters to the editor that have been appearing – really blasted them […] The letters we’re getting are really making fools of them–so the police are going to close it – -or else. Moody has to go – [Letter from Jim Mechem to Lee Streiff, March 21, 1964].
The Wichita Beacon article on March 17 is headed, “Wichita Police Keep Eye On Skidrow Art, Poetry”. In the article, Lt. Col. J. H. Reeves, who is identified as the “head of the police investigations division”, is quoted as saying, “[…] until we get some [court] ruling on it […] and obscenity is on the walls in the form of poetry, we are going to take it out.” [John Husar, The Wichita Beacon, March 17, 1964]. The police putatively centered their objections on the presence of juveniles at the readings:
Officers have ejected at least two youngsters — one a 17-year-old girl, the other a 15-year-old boy. They took the pair to Juvenile Hall, summoned the parents and told them they should not let their children go to such places, the youths said.Not for Public Record Asked why the students were ejected, Capt. E. H. Cook, head of the police juvenile section, at first said he didn’t know. He later said he does not have to give a reason, since juvenile matters are not for public record. Cook then said any youths who “loiter” at the beanery will be taken into custody. He declined to answer when asked if loitering means listening to poetry at designated sessions. [John Husar, The Wichita Beacon, March 17, 1964].
Even when Reeves was asked whether he had read any of the poetry he was labeling as “obscene” or seen any of the pictures he had ordered removed, and he admitted that he had not, he was still adamant: “If I found (them) offered for sale, I would go to the city attorney’s office and order a warrant.” [John Husar, The Wichita Beacon, March 17, 1964].
The lines had been drawn.
On March 27, another Beacon article reported that five inspectors (three from the fire department, and two building inspectors) had toured the Beanery two days earlier and that two more had come in later with cameras to “gather evidence”. The inspectors told Moody, “We’ll teach you to go spoutin’ off in the newspaper.” [The Wichita Beacon, March 27, 1964].
Such heavy-handed censorship immediately caused a backlash in the intellectual community. Suddenly the audiences at the Beanery swelled and letters poured into the newspaper offices defending the right to free speech [The Wichita Beacon, March 27, 1964]. The newspapers themselves not so subtly ridiculed the police and city inspectors. In a satiric column in the Beacon entitled “The People vs. Skidrow Beanery”, Robert J. Nelson provided a dialog between a “Prosecutor” and a “Judge” at a trial:
Judge: First case, The People vs. Moody Connell and the Skidrow Beanery. What’s the charge Mr. Prosecutor? […] Prosecutor: […] We charge Mr. Connell and the Beanery with practicing and abetting nonconformity. […]
Second Witness: Mr. Connell lets people read poetry at his place. Out loud, mind you. And some of it’s —well, far out. Judge: You’re an authority on poetry?
Witness: I’ve always been a fan of Edgar Guest. […]
Fourth Witness: And the people it caters to. Bums and hoboes and beatniks. Just the people who are out of step. The majority is ignored. This seems un-American to me. […]
Defense Attorney: […] Is nonconformity a crime?
Judge: Hm. Good point. Didn’t used to be. But times have changed. . . Be that as it may, the evidence is incontrovertible. We find the defendants guilty as charged – nonconformists to the core. However, we shall not pronounce sentence. This can be imposed only by the people of the community. Well, thank you, gentlemen. A stimulating case. Confusing, too. Had trouble keeping in mind who was on trial – the Beanery or the community. Court’s adjourned. [Robert Nelson, The Wichita Beacon, March (?), 1964].
Moody was defiant. While promising “co-operation” with the authorities, he also was also “mad”. According to the newspaper, “Connell said he will fight to keep his place open as long as possible.” [The Wichita Beacon, March 27, 1964].
In the midst of the conflict, a “Good Friday Morality Play” was presented on March 27, 1964. Put on by a new and younger group of “Beats” – most just out of high school – the play was a commentary on the problems the Beanery was having with the police, vice-squad, and fire inspectors. The characters included a cynical “Lyon”, “Crusader Rabbit”, a “Poet”, played by Eddie Hullet, and a “Mystic”, played by Gretchen Grow, among others. [Gretchen Grow Scrap Book, Wichita, 1967].
Moody commented on the play, “I feel better about that play than I do a Sunday School class. […] They’re doing what they want to do and it’s good.” [The Wichita Beacon, March 27, 1964].
By April 5, Joan informed me that Plymell had left town. And Moody still had problems: “In May, 1964 the Skidrow Beanery was closed for 37 violations of fire and health codes.” [O’Connor, 1999: 7].
Gretchen Grow, the driving force behind the “Good Friday Morality Play”, who had just turned eighteen on the 6th of March, went out to California that summer to visit relatives and see Ann and Charlie. She had met the couple in Wichita and had established a rapport with Ann. Gretchen wrote Ann in the late fall of 1964 after her return to Wichita:
[…] the beanery is going to open & Moody got arrested but he’s out on bail Coffee house [B.C.] opened last night with Tom’s sculpture & rock fountain in the middle. [Letter from Gretchen Grow to Ann Plymell, published in Gretchen Grow Scrap Book, 1967].
On October 14 Moody “ […] found himself in court, pleading innocent to a charge of failing to remove a fire hazard.” [O’Connor, 1999: 7]. However, in late November, Moody was found not guilty because the city had not given him sufficient notice before issuing its warrant. But the Beanery had been closed for nine months before it re-opened early in 1965. [O’Connor, 1999: 7].
1965 was a calm year at the Skidrow Beanery. According to P. J. O’Connor, folk singers still played and poets still read, but the “risqué” pictures had been taken down and Moody had upgraded the location to meet city codes at a cost of $2000 in repairs. Ironically, with calm also came another problem: Moody was losing money on the enterprise. [O’Connor, 1999: 8].
As a result, in January of 1966, Moody sold the business to Ike and Chloie Parkey [O’Connor, 1999: 24]. The Parkeys re-named the place The Magic Theatre-Vortex Art Gallery. The Parkeys intended apparently to revivify the failing business by offering rock music, and scheduled some local talent. Coincidentally, Allen Ginsberg had already decided to finally visit Wichita, and when he arrived in Wichita on February 4, 1966, one of the first places he visited after settling in at the Eaton Hotel was the Beanery /Vortex.
Later, on February 14th, Ginsberg gave a reading to a full house at the small Magic Theatre-Vortex Art Gallery. There was no announcement or follow-up story in the Eagle or Beacon newspapers of the event, but The Sunflower did mention it. Many people, however, recall the event: Jim Mechem, and Wayne Avery, among others.
Wayne was sixteen years old then and played guitar with the well-respected local band, the Outcasts, which performed at the Beanery / Vortex the same night Ginsberg read there. Wayne had no idea who Allen Ginsberg was at the time, but the band was excited about playing at the Beanery / Vortex because it was downtown and they would be playing for an older crowd than their regular audiences at The Attic — a local teen-age hangout.
The Outcasts were the first to play leading edge “hard rock” in Wichita — mostly the music of “the British Invasion”: the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and Eric Burden and the Animals. A piece they played almost as a theme song was “My Generation” by The Who. Fortunately, they had a singer who could handle this type of music and a drummer who was good enough to make it work. They also had a Theramin and projected a psychedelic atmosphere by using strobe lights that they sometimes aimed at the audience. According to Wayne, it was a “fun era” when the band could be “experimental and free-form”. [Wayne Avery, interview with Lee Streiff, December 3, 1999].
Wayne recalls that the evening of Ginsberg’s reading, the band arrived around five o’clock and set-up on the stage in the back of the long, narrow main room. By the time they were ready to play, nearly all the seats were taken in the cramped area between them and where Ginsberg was to read at the front, near the door to the street. The crowd was responsive to the music, but not rowdy, and when the band took their break, after about half an hour, the poetry reading began.
Wayne had never been part of a program where there was a poetry reading, but in this period, when all kinds of things were beginning to happen, it didn’t seem all that unusual to him. While the poetry reading was still going on, the band returned to the stage, and after the reading was over they played for another half hour or so, finishing off the evening.
Plymell returned to Wichita after going to Kansas City with Ginsberg’s party, and he was not back long before the Beanery/Vortex was in the newspapers again — and its troubles with the authorities started all over anew. It began with a showing at the Beanery/Vortex in mid-March of two of Plymell’s films: Great Brain Robbery and Night in the Life of Charles Plymell. One of Andy Warhol’s films, Haircut, was also shown and Plymell was scheduled to read some of his poetry. [The Wichita Eagle, March 17, 1966].
On this occasion he stuck a “water pistol” in his belt at the film showing and someone called the police and told them some-one was carrying a gun at the Magic Theatre-Vortex. Plymell is quoted in the newspaper article reporting on the incident as saying that he had the gun “for no particular reason.” The article states, “Plymell charged that, ‘Hannon dragged me out and said he didn’t care what I had and to stop mouthing off, when I told him I was recovering from a broken ankle. He gave me a real grilling and threatened to arrest me if I played with a water pistol again.’” [The Wichita Eagle, March 19, 1966].
Besides the appearance of Detective William Hannon at the showing, the vice squad in the person of Lt. Bobby Stout was there, as was Fire Inspector D. G. Nice. No one was arrested, and the showing was not stopped, even though Plymell did not have a city permit to show the films. Stout explained that because the city ordinance requiring such permits was being updated, it “would be unfair to require him to get one” at the present. Some people were, however, asked to leave by the Fire Inspector to reduce the overcrowding. The show was to be repeated the next night, Saturday. [The Wichita Eagle, March 19, 1966].
But the Beanery / Vortex was now back in the sights of city officialdom.
Later in the month of March, Flaming Creatures was shown at the Beanery / Vortex, and a “NEW MOON” art show was held. Money was being raised for a literary magazine and a “Film Board Bail Fund”, as well. Plans were also afoot for other art shows, and Moody’s “SKIDROW BEAT” was to have a “re-opening” the third week of April. [Dreaming Jewel, March 25, 1966, Vol. 1, # 4]. But none of these later plans ever came to fruition.
Once again, confrontation with authority had produced its predictable response — and had sealed the fate of the Vortex’s cultural future. The second time around, there was no public outcry to protect free speech and defend artistic expression. For whatever reason, the intellectual community lacked the will, or even the interest, to take up the cause under the current circumstances.
It was in April that the Beanery / Vortex closed because of “lack of funds.” [The Wichita Beacon, May (?), 1966].
In the end, then, it seems it was as much a financial and promotional issue at The Magic Theatre-Vortex Art Gallery as it was the pressure of the official guardians of public welfare that had spelled doom for the enterprise. The life of the turn of the century building itself was shortly to come to an end, in any case. In 1969 it was torn down, along with the other buildings on the block, to make way for the new Naftzger Park; as Ginsberg once said of another building, it has “vanished into a parking lot”.
Credits This Section first appeared in a slightly different form as Chapter 5 of The Vortex Souvenir Book, by Lee Streiff, © 2000.
Wayne Avery, interview with Lee Streiff, December 3, 1999.
Dreaming Jewel, March 25, 1966, Vol. 1, # 4.
“Films by Local Artist to Be Seen”, The Wichita Eagle, March 17, 1966.
Gretchen Grow Scrap Book, Wichita, 1967.
Husar, John. “Wichita Police Keep Eye On Skidrow Art, Poetry”, The Wichita Beacon, March 17, 1964.
Letter from Jim Mechem to Lee Streiff, January 3, 1964.
Letter from Jim Mechem to Lee Streiff, March 21, 1964.
Nelson, Robert. “The People vs. Skidrow Beanery”, The Wichita Beacon, March (?), 1964.
O’Connor, P. J. Moody’s Skidrow Beanery, Kansas Underground from Beat to Hip. © Rowfant Press, Wichita, 1999.
Letter from Joan Pepitone to Lee Streiff, February 11, 1964.
Letter from Joan Pepitone to Lee Streiff, March 18, 1964.
“Poem About Wichita Published in Magazine”, The Wichita Beacon, May (?), 1966.
“Poet Returns to Native City”, The Wichita Eagle, January 7, 1964.
“Poet to Edit Anthology of Local Works”, The Wichita Eagle, undated, 1964.
“Skidrow Beanery Proprietor Bugged”, The Wichita Beacon, March 27, 1964.
“Waterless Gun Source of Fuss”, The Wichita Eagle, March 19, 1966.