• U.S.

The City: No Squares on the Square

4 minute read

In the gazetteer of U.S. night life, St. Louis has never placed very high. Like Atlanta, Cleveland, Buffalo or Pittsburgh, it has been traditionally an entertain-at-home sort of town, and with the exception of a night at the Symphony or Municipal Opera, most of St. Louis spent its evenings the way much of the rest of the U.S. did: watching television or drinking beer in somebody else’s living room.

But now all that is changed. St. Louis finally has a place to go at night, and the place is Gaslight Square. A three-block oasis of nostalgic frivolity where some 50 gaudily atmospheric taverns, cabarets, restaurants and antique shops are packed together in fine, fin de siècle jumble, it combines a sort of Disneyland quaintness with the gaiety of Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens and the innocent naughtiness of Gay Nineties’ beerhalls.

Pipers & Chicks. Old-fashioned Welsbach gas street lamps glow cheerily along the wide sidewalks of the L-shaped intersection of Olive and Boyle. With the arrival of spring, St. Louisans have been turning out by the thousands to sit in the sidewalk cafes and stroll through the square (a stroller can drift from place to place with the same drink in his hand all evening if he has a mind to). There is plenty to do, and the way is never blocked by cover charges. At the Opera House, where a frieze of 2,500 croquet balls (“I got them all for $8.” says the proprietor) and mallets decorates the walls, there is Dixieland jazz. The Vanity Fair, a sort of English pub is built mostly from old telephone booths painted red and black. O’Connell’s features Irish pipers, who lead customers in impromptu parades up and down the square. Bustles & Bowes has draught beer and sawdusty floors; the Roaring Twenties is an unabashed speakeasy with a high-stepping stage show, mock raids and gangland fights; the Natchez Queen is done up like a Mississippi riverboat and purveys ragtime music. The Crystal Palace, a cabaret theater, presents big-name entertainment and imported repertory players in nightly revues. Last year it grossed nearly $400,000.

From the first, Gaslight Square attracted a fair share of mink coats along with turtleneck sweaters and black stockings. Then the latter took on a different look as proprietors required customers to wear coats and ties. Says one cabaret owner: “We give a buck’s worth of booze for a buck. And no strolling, lonely chicks. Once you start letting that happen, you are in for trouble.” Today, the Square has no strippers, no gyp joints, lots of good clean gaslit fun.

Pioneers in the Gaslight Square venture are the Mutrux brothers, Dick and Paul. In the early ’50s, they bought the old Musical Arts Building (here Miss Bess Morse once operated an “expression school,” where Tennessee Williams and William Inge put on some of their first plays) and opened up a colorful saloon called the Gaslight. The neighborhood then was a collection of seedy secondhand stores and a community of couldn’t-care-less flat dwellers. Following the Mutrux brothers was self-styled “Environmental Engineer” Jimmy Massucci, who opened up another saloon, the Golden Eagle, near by; then Jay Landesman, whose Crystal Palace theater was operating farther downtown, decided to move his establishment into the neighborhood.

Raids & Whoops. The Olive and Boyle quarter began to spruce up; even the antique-and-junk dealers caught the spirit, began upgrading their wares and window displays. St. Louis was in the process of demolishing 465 acres of downtown property for redevelopment, and the intrepid Gaslighters staged foraging raids behind wrecking crews, picking up church pews, chandeliers and marble bathtubs. With their truckloads of artifacts, they transformed the old buildings into a gingerbread plaisance calculated to bring a tear of delight to the eye of St. Louisans yearning for the good old days, a whoop of joy to younger citizens looking for a new way to have a good time.

Last year this casbah of culture and whoopdedoo earned more than $3,000,000 for its investors, and property values have tripled over the last four years. A Gaslight Square Association has been set up, and Jay Landesman has been voted unofficial mayor of the quarter. Says Landesman grandly: “It means nothing. I’d rather be king.”

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