On February 10, 1959, a tornado swept through St. Louis, toppling the KTVI tower and damaging the Arena on Oakland Avenue. It eventually bore down on Olive Street at its T-shaped intersection with Boyle.
The Musical Arts Building, on the southwest
corner of Boyle and Olive, was a landmark of the once fashionable
West End neighborhood. Opera star Helen Traubel studied voice there;
movie star Betty Grable learned to dance there; a young Vincent
Price had gone to the dentist in one of its offices.
* * * *
The Musical Arts building was built around 1900. Private schools and fashionable shops were located in the area, frequented by residents of the big houses on Westminster Place. The neighborhood deteriorated to the point of becoming a notorious red-light district in the 1930s, but a revitalization began in the 1940s. Playwright William Inge lived there then, and the first version of his play "Picnic" (entitled "Front Porch") was produced at the Toy Theater at 455 Boyle.
Alex Bayou opened
Smokey Joe’s Grecian Gardens in the early 1950s at 4255 Olive, with
its glowing pink neon sign and its much-photographed Greek columns.
By this time, the area was becoming known as "Greenwich Corners."
In the mid 1950s, the area started to attract an assortment of saloons, eateries and antique stores, as well as the Adams Hotel, where baseball players like Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella stayed before they were welcome at the Chase. Richard Mutrux opened the Gaslight Bar in the Musical Arts Building, a favorite stopping place for businessmen heading home from work at day’s end.
In November of 1956, Jimmy Massucci opened the Golden Eagle, just west of Smokey Joe's. Then came Theo Goldston's Eagle’s Nest and Jay Landesman's Crystal Palace, along with a drugstore, a laundry and a few other places that nestled at the intersection of Boyle and Olive.
In those early days, from 1955 until the tornado of February 1959, the atmosphere was loose and casual. The various owners would meet for lunch in the drugstore, then sit on the curb, exchanging dreams and ideas. Everyone knew – and enjoyed – everyone else, and it was easy to wander from place to place, usually with drink in hand. The only threat was the streetcar that rumbled along Olive Street.
* * * *
The 1959 tornado at first seemed to have
snuffed out the promise of a rebirth at Boyle and Olive. But then
something good began to happen. In the wake of the destruction came
sightseers and the insurance claim adjusters.
During the 1959-61 period, the openings were
almost nightly. Jack Newman had Jacks or Better. The Dark Side of
the Moon, generally know just as the Dark Side, brought cool jazz
under the guidance of Spider Burks and the talents of Jeanne Trevor
and the Quartet Tres Bien. Ed Dorsey brought a steak house, Mr. D’s,
where Ceil Clayton played the piano. Bustles and Bowes brought
ragtime, the Bella Rosa offered pizza, Marty Bronson made Marty’s a
sing-along place, the Whiskey a Go-Go was an early disco. Singleton
Palmer’s tuba boomed through the Opera House and to the street
outside, and Sammy Gardner’s clarinet sang at Joe and Charlie’s.
The entertainment places and restaurants on the Square had increased tenfold. On April 17, 1961, the Smothers Brothers opened in a revue at the Crystal Palace. Second on the bill was an 18-year-old singer named Barbara Streisand.
To many, this was the golden-age of Gaslight
Square. By the summer of 1961, Gaslight Square’s fame had spread far
and wide. Conventions were coming to St. Louis because of it.
Sightseeing buses were letting people off at Boyle and Olive on a
regular schedule. Parking had become a serious problem.
One of Gaslight Square’s most glorious moments
came on December 20, 1960 when Richard and Paul Mutrux opened The
Three Fountains restaurant in the basement of the Musical Arts
Building. It was one of the most elegant restaurants in the nation,
and it served French cuisine to match.
Richard and Paul Mutrux were two of 12 brothers and sisters, nine boys and three girls, including Paul's twin brother, George. Their father, Louis Mutrux, and their mother were both of French descent.
"We lived in a rambling house out in Ladue when
that was out in the country," Paul recalled, "and every time another
child or two was born my father added another room."
During World War II, Paul and his twin
brother George worked together as architects in Bordeaux, helping to
build an ordnance depot. They had an apartment and two French
cookbooks, one an Escoffier, and decided to master French cookery.
The Three Fountains exuded luxury, with a
multilevel interior lavishly decorated with antique fixtures. The
wrought iron balcony railings were salvaged from the Grand Avenue
bridge. The brass chandeliers hanging over the dining room were from
the British Building at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. There were
stained glass windows depicting various foods from an old St. Louis
home, and burled mahogany panels from the Merchant’s Exchange
building. Two of the three fountains that gave the restaurant its
name were copies of the third, which came from a private garden in Vandeventer Place.
The Three Fountains
built their business around such
specialties as tripes à la mode de Caen (prepared by Paul), les
escalopes de veau Cordon Bleu (sometimes prepared by Richard),
cuisses de grenouilles à la Provençale and Paul’s own French bread.
There were also recipes from La Tassée du Chapitre, a Parisian
restaurant owned by Paul’s twin brother, George.
The Laughing Buddha
One of Gaslight Square's pioneering establishments was Lee Young's Laughing Buddha, also located in the Musical Arts Building. The coffee house, which did not serve liquor, became a favorite night spot of underage celebrators. Young brought in many relatively unknown folk singers, who later became famous. Peter Yarrow was the resident performer for 18 months; a year later he was part of Peter, Paul & Mary. Judy Collins sang there early in her career.
Buddha was a much quieter place than most of the Gaslight Square
venues, except for its noisy espresso machine, which generally
waited to roar into brewing mode until performers were in the midst
of their most mellow songs. The cigarette machine had a weird voice
that said "The Laughing Buddha thanks you" whenever a pack of
cigarettes was purchased.
Jack Carl was born into the restaurant
business. His father opened Carl's Delicatessen in 1947 at 6633
Delmar in the University City Loop. Jack dropped out of Soldan High
School to work there with his brothers. When Jack returned from
serving in the Korean War, he opened his own deli in Gaslight
Jack Carl actually opened two delis in Gaslight Square. The first, Jack Carl's 2¢ Plain, was nestled between the Golden Eagle and the Opera House.
"He started doing really
great business," remembered Jorge Martinez. "I mean fabulous business there, because this
whole big huge patio area out in front of the two places, the
Eagle and the Opera House, with this little space between with
his deli. The people would sit out there and eat their corned
beef sandwiches and drink their beer and the music from the
Singleton Palmer Band would be wafting out, a great atmosphere."
The Golden Eagle and Opera House were much larger establishments than Jack Carl's 2¢ Plain. In an effort to drive him out of business, they started selling pastrami sandwiches for 65 cents. Carl charged a buck. When the 65-cent sandwiches didn't put him under, they dropped their price to 50 cents. Carl sought an injunction, telling the judge he didn't trust the two big joints to make legitimate pastrami sandwiches because he had been in each establishment late at night and seen the way the bartender poured whiskey from the cheap bottles into more expensive bottles. Carl won.
Carl took his neighbors to court a second time when they turned off the electric lights in the rear of his deli, making it difficult for customers to find their way to the restrooms. Carl testified that the darkened restrooms were part of a campaign of harassment by the owners of the Golden Eagle and Opera House, intended to force him out of business. He countered their move by furnishing his customers with flashlights.
In 1961, Carl moved away from his pesky
neighbors. He relocated six doors further east on
Olive, opening "Jack & Charlie Carl's 2¢ Plain" with his brother. The
new deli was next door to Annadel's Ice Cream Parlor and across
from the Crystal Palace. Entertainers playing at the Palace used to pop
across the street for sandwiches; many of them became regulars. Milton Berle came in every night for a tongue
Carl enjoyed insulting his regular customers. If they followed his orders and stuck with the norm, they might make it through the line unscathed. But if they declined chips or a side when asked, Carl would say, "No? Then to hell with you, cheapskate. You're holding up the line." Carl knew most of his customers by name. They knew his style and they liked it.
How did Carl come up with the name of his deli? In Brooklyn, seltzer (carbonated water) was once a popular drink. At the candy stores, an egg cream (chocolate syrup, milk and carbonated water) was a nickel, a chocolate soda (syrup and carbonated water) was three pennies, and for two cents you got "plain" carbonated water.
Jack Parker grew up in a little house on the
corner of Dover Place and Colorado Avenue in south St. Louis. He
went to Cleveland High School, where he pledged Delta Psi Kappa – a
frat more famous for good times than good grades. "I was kind of a
goof-off, and I didn’t apply myself," Parker remembered.
In November of 1962, Jack Seltzer, Dick Draper
and Ray Gottfried opened O’Connell’s Pub in Gaslight Square at 454
N. Boyle. Jack Parker was the bartender, supervising both drinks and
the tiny grill that prepared hamburgers and London broil, the only
menu items. A few months later, he added a soup tureen.
The burger was the mainstay on O'Connell's menu, introduced by a guy who’d tended bar at P.J. Clarke’s in New York. All the other burgers in St. Louis – even Medart’s – were flat-grilled. The O’Connell’s burger was thick, made with top grade beef, and it could be ordered rare.
There was also roast beef, cooked to order with or without au jus, the Coney Island, with a premium frankfurter grilled to perfection, and a salad with "Mayfair" dressing. Daily specials including fish and chips on Friday, and there was a soup of the day and chili.
* * * *
Theories abound as to what caused the demise of
Gaslight Square. Some believe its very success is what killed it.
Its growth lacked any kind of control. By 1965, the area was
becoming dominated by discotheques with go-go dancers and loud
recorded music. The charm of the original Square evaporated into
noise and rowdy crowds.
One after another, the restaurants and bars
closed or moved. Jack Carl moved 2¢ Plain downtown in 1965, where it
thrived until he retired in 2005. Gaslight Square's last ember died
in 1972, when Jack Parker moved O’Connell’s Pub to its present
location at Kingshighway and Shaw.
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