A Blackout Tavern— Study in 1960s Folklore
by Pat O'Connor
[Originally published in Midwestern Folklore, Spring 1997, and modified for use as first chapter in Tales From A Blackout, Rowfant Press, 1997, by Patrick Joseph O'Connor.]
The purpose of this collection of interviews is to delineate how the folk group of Blackout customers used expressive behavior to separate themselves from society at large. A Blackout Tavern, a college bar that went from folk singers to hippies, provided a community of and venue for social change. Throughout the transcripts of these tradition bearers is found the "Humane Impulse," first catalogued by Richard Dorson (6).
This cycling, subcultural apparatus, while sustaining the tavern's community, also drew those of widely disparate political and cultural views, putting a face on the antagonist, and allowing a semblance of understanding and a guarded acceptance of alternate moralities. As in Bell's findings in his work at Brown's Lounge, a location (again a tavern) is a legitimate arena for folklore studies.
Given the extremism of the era, such havens for folk groups were instrumental in providing the continuity and cohesion necessary to achieve social change, no matter the initial small scale. As will be seen from the interviews, such vanguard acts as integration, communal drug use, flexible gender style of dress and appearance, and non-nationalistic behavior became news, thus influencing others.
Dorson found that "the vital folklore and the legends of a given period in American history reflect the [period's] main concerns and values...." (xiv). The concepts of folklore research may be used to experience the meaning of the Movement. As Alan Dundes writes, "the term 'folk' can refer to any group of people...[with] some traditions which it calls its own" (7). The participants in the 1960s underground were quick to begin their "autobiographical ethnography" (Dundes 13), relying to some extent on Native American traditions (passing the pipe in a circle, thinking of themselves as belonging to different tribes, and other borrowings of dress and artwork), on American legends (dressing in coonskin caps and buckskin, fastening on the underdog associations of earlier folk heroes), and esteeming the rural processes over the urban.
The costumes, stories, and decor chosen by these rebellious youth became traditions that gave the group "a sense of identity" (Dundes 7). The folklore of the 1960s, through traditional selection, has filtered through to current times in styles of music, art, and dress, and in environmental awareness and cultural relativity.
The altruism and regenerative impulse that swept the nation relied heavily on all of the folklore genres--myth, legend, tale, proverb and ballad; and even the riddle is evident, in the lyrics of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind."
How many roads must a man walk down
The following interviews, whether entirely factual or not, are a part of the workable material of folklore. They involve selected traditions in the making as the participants look back on their youthful days and recall events that colored that time. The counterculture of youth was separated from the majority culture and gladly came to their own myths, legends, and ballads. This will be demonstrated below. As Dorson recounted the Owsley legend, comparing the LSD manufacturer with Barney Beal, the Maine lobsterman (283), so does one of the interviewees tell of the drug dealers in A Blackout outwitting law enforcement.
Another informant tells of one pipe full of marijuana that intoxicated a roomful of people at a party, in correlation to the marchen of the renewing bread basket or ever-filling purse. The anecdotal or personal legends that the participants convey have to do with A Blackout Tavern, thus forming a correlation with the category of local or place legends (Dorson 291). The geographical location is a focal point, the purpose of which changed over the fifty-year life of the building to meet the needs of the neighborhood culture and then those of the counterculture.
The corner of 21st and Erie is a three-way intersection, two blocks from Wichita State University. From the 1930s until the early 1980s, the lot at 2930 E. 21st held a small building, some 450-feet square. This location began as a neighborhood grocery but concluded its existence as a tavern, at first called the Silver Dollar, and then A Blackout. It is in this last incarnation that the preponderance of this study is concerned.
The 1930 Wichita City Directory lists a Clarence and Mabel Gleason as householders at 2930 E. 21st. Clarence's trade is laborer. The 1933 Directory gives Harvey C. Noles Grocery at that address. During the 1940s, the building was often vacant. By the next decade, the structure had become a tavern, the Silver Dollar. Buddy M. Calvert is listed as owner in the 1953 Wichita City Directory. It remained the Silver Dollar Tavern until 1962 when it became Ina's Silver Dollar. The tavern held this name until it became A Blackout in 1964. The last listing found for A Blackout is in the 1979 Wichita telephone directory.
In its later years, the exterior was painted flat black and was decidedly dilapidated. The tavern by then was notorious for the rudeness of the furnishings and inhabitants. From its days in Wichita's Beat era, the bar had been a gathering place for those unconventional. The proximity of Wichita University (later Wichita State University) meant that a goodly number of students came into the tavern. Gradually, in conjunction with the area becoming part of the northeast black community, the neighborhood clientele was replaced with one that served the youth of the city. By the time A Blackout came into existence, the neighborhood patrons had for the most part exited.
There were several scenarios at work in the tavern in the 1950s and 1960s for those coming of age: adult acceptance by those of the other gender, grappling with the formal higher education process, the overriding moral question of global military and political involvement, and furthering the cultural revolution through the pursuit of pleasure. As detailed by two informants (Hein and the Irishman), the strange mix of non-involvement beats, traditional and protest folk singers, and renegade working class found haven in the Silver Dollar in the '50s.
When A Blackout came into existence in 1964, there was a general mix of students who went there: those who sought to participate in the social retooling of America, and those who came for the show. The bar was a college hangout, equally accessible to hard-drinking fraternity members and their sorority dates, as well as the coffee house set. A visit to the bar was for many a brief excursion into the world of the unconventional.
As can be assessed from the interview with the Irishman, those from the majority culture had no hope of belonging to the folk group of Blackout heads. They went as a group to observe, to feel superior, and to be entertained much in the manner of a sideshow that served beer. The Irishman points out the safe zone concept of the tavern, allowing the post-beat and hippie regulars an opportunity to be observed and to have their thoughts heard in the bar conversations, thus giving the straight patrons a chance to view firsthand a phenomenon of modern times. Above all, A Blackout management and regulars formed a folk group that fostered acceptance among all patrons of the tavern.
Justin Hein graduated from Wichita University in 1959 with a bachelor of fine arts degree. He recalled spending many afternoons in the Silver Dollar.
"It wasn't a neighborhood bar. And it never was that crowded. The most interesting thing I remember was the tin ceiling. There was a bar in the southeast corner and a small picture window looking out on 21st. The Silver Dollar had a jukebox, two rest rooms [little more than stalls] at the north end and some tables and chairs.
"When I was there, the clientele was more literature class and the arts. The university art department hung out there—Robert Kiskadden, David Bernard, Corban LePell. I went to school with Jim Davis and knew Robert Branaman and Alan Russo. Alan Russo introduced peyote to Wichita. It was more of a religious experience [rather than simply taking drugs]."
Hein also went to other taverns near the university. "There was the Cedar [3906 E. 13th] and the College Inn, which used to be at Central and Hillside across from Wesley [hospital]. That bar was supposed to be good for [meeting] nurses."
Though the Silver Dollar was a gathering place, Hein kept to himself. "One day, someone [in the bar] pointed out Joanie O'Bryant as a celebrity who had just recorded an album. She taught at the university in the English department."
After graduating, Hein "went out on a dream. I hitched a ride to the West Coast. I had read Kerouac's On The Road and went out for a big adventure. I went to North Beach, fresh from the Kansas Plains, right after Ginsberg read 'Howl.' I was there for six years, part of a circle of people from Wichita interested in the arts." These included: Dave Haselwood, Michael McClure, Bruce Conner, and Charles Plymell.
Hein's refusal to characterize the Silver Dollar as a neighborhood bar shows that establishment as one that attracted a selected clientele from artistic and intellectual (or anti-intellectual) circles—not due to geographical consideration. Hein mentioned several area bars, each offering a different ambience, different goals (meeting nurses, for example) and distinct boundaries.
The Silver Dollar's ability to mix university faculty with students allowed for a breaking down of the stiff, student/teacher hierarchical structure of the 1950s. The tradition of doubters and nonconformists as patrons of the bar found continuance when it became A Blackout.
Gil McNabb was connected with A Blackout from 1964 until late 1970. He worked at Boeing much of that time and loaned Dennis Harrison and a partner $500 to buy Ina's Silver Dollar. They rechristened it A Blackout. His observations:
"I worked behind the bar two nights a week. It was pretty lively. When Dennis took off without paying bills, I took over to recoup my losses.
"Ina's had been a rough place. She had a nightstick carved like a dildo and she would use it on anyone that got out of line.
"We introduced folksingers."
This stylistic change was part of a simpler time. Patrons could park on 21st. McNabb used to leave the money in the till overnight, unafraid of break-ins, though this practice changed in later years.
McNabb met Harry Weldon and Tom Collins through the bar. These two individuals were to have a profound impact on the underground movement in Wichita, in folk and blues music and in poetry and fiction. Weldon, at first a folk singer and part-time bartender at A Blackout, later managed the tavern. He lived in West Virginia before attending Wichita State and brought with him folk songs from that region, and others. Among Weldon's most requested songs were "San Francisco Bay Blues" and "Grand Coulee Dam." In addition to ballads, the folk singer performed bottleneck blues and played the autoharp.
Weldon's photograph was on the front page of the Wichita Beacon in November, 1966. He was depicted as one of several Wichita State University students who attended class without socks. Such unconventionality was news in that transitional decade.
Weldon, in addition to being an astute folk musician, was a writer who edited the university's literary magazine, Mikrokosmos in 1968. According to the 1983 Mikrokosmos 25th anniversary issue, Weldon "held a party with the [competition] prize money, assuming the prizewinners would rather have it that way." Not all of those awarded prizes appreciated this option.
"Harry was always on tap for anybody who wanted him, when he wasn't literally singing the blues in...[A] Blackout, renamed from the Silver Dollar, which had been an informal hangout for the earliest editors"(1983 Mikrokosmos 8).
Tom Collins also tended bar at the tavern. A native Kansan, he had worked on ranches in the West, hitchhiking to California and learning of the psychedelic drugs that would soon sweep through the Midwest. Collins, like Weldon, was a writer of fiction and played drums in one of Wichita's first white electric blues bands, Sliding Delta, with Weldon. Yet he was largely at odds with institutions of learning, dropping out of high school and only attempting to obtain his GED and get into the university when in his early twenties. Weldon, two years older, was an upperclassman and played the game of grades with aplomb. Collins was the editor of Mikrokosmos in 1971.
"Probably the most difficult issue to put out was the one started by T.C. (Tom Collins) who died Christmas Day, 1971, from injuries received in a motorcycle accident on Christmas Eve" (1983 Mikrokosmos 8). Taken together, the two offered divergent views—at least until Collins' entry into college—on how best the young might get through life.
"Between Harry, T.C. and me," McNabb said, "We kind of got the thing going, setting up an atmosphere like B.C.'s and the Id [Wichita coffee houses] but serving beer. And we used to sell a lot of beer. We did 20 kegs on one weekend. That was a record of beer sold for our size. We had a capacity of 49. This was set by the city fire marshal.
"Our phone number was MU-49000, which I thought was pretty good. I could always remember one from the other."
Once launched, the new-attitude bar made use of several devices to bring in customers. In that small, rectangular building, blessed with doors at front and rear to aid ventilation and give the prospective drinker two routes through the crowd to the bar, there were often three bartenders. McNabb introduced the concept of beer cards to reduce time per transaction. The cards were punched as drink was dispensed. The customer benefited from this method, in that the 24-draw cards were purchased for $5.00 in advance, instead of the usual $.25 a glass.
McNabb's reliance on the genre of ballads in the use of folk singers is indicative of the scope of the bar's intent to create a community. In addition, the club-like practice of running tabs and punching beer cards—founded on the mutual trust of management and patrons—contributed to the atmosphere of community. This was a club of malcontents who might trust one another in transaction and indulge in shared appreciation for the topical and traditional folk music. As McNabb states, the concept of A Blackout was to allow beer in a coffee house.
In a mood of whimsy often encountered in college bars, an International Outdoor Pinball Tournament was held. One machine did service during the event on a slab of concrete in front of the tavern. This practice was one of several rituals engaged in by McNabb and the regulars, serving the purpose of distancing A Blackout customers from other bar patrons. It was one of the methods employed to offer the students, activists, and idiosyncratic young adults something other than merely a place to drink beer.
"We had Blackout bumper stickers, a black and red stars and stripes with the slogan: I Drink At A Blackout, I Smoke At A Blackout, and so on. We had some complaints but our flag [on the 7 by 5 inch sticker] had fewer stars and stripes."
This emblematic device further strengthened the impression that the bar's patrons were a step apart. The variety of messages offered—drinking, smoking (marijuana), and other subcultural pursuits—depicts the inventiveness of A Blackout in describing the folk group.
Six days drinking—taverns were closed on Sunday—often was not enough for A Blackout patrons. McNabb instigated off-site parties. "I had an old school bus and we'd load it up every Sunday when the weather was good and go to Sims Park [one of the city's major parks]. We sold tickets the night before [at the tavern], $2.00 or $2.50 a couple, and got by the state law that way. The bikers who hung out at A Blackout would give us a motorcycle escort." After arriving at the park, McNabb would park the bus, open the back door, and unload the kegs. "I remember one Sunday. It was Easter and we were set up at our usual place up the hill from the sandbar [on the Arkansas River]. About 250 kids came out of the woods looking for Easter eggs.
"When we had the curfew during the race riots in '67, I'd collect everybody at A Blackout in the school bus and we'd drive to a bar I'd opened in Derby [nearby community], The King's Knight. All the locals with black shoes and white socks got an eyeful when the Blackout chippies strolled in."
The use of the school bus—resemblant of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and their bus, Furthur—was a solidifying device that involved skirting authority to provide A Blackout patrons with recreation and safety in the violent seas of the '60s, contributing to the sense of a clan.
The drug culture was a normative part of the '60s Blackout. As owner, McNabb had to self-police the proceedings or risk being raided. "I tried to keep the drugs out of the bar and away from the back lot. They would have loved to close me down."
However, the trade in marijuana and psychedelics went on nightly. "There was one fellow who used to show up early and drop off little packages in the back lot. He would play pinball and do business by sending folks out on their own little Easter egg hunt."
In an interview with another dealer, Carney, who went to A Blackout, it was learned that this practice was mimicked with a slight variation.
"I used to keep my supply outside in the back lot that was never mowed. When I made a sale, I would pick up what I needed out of the bag that held the grass or acid and make the exchange in the front part of the parking lot. I had pretty good luck at that until one night someone, who was obviously watching, helped themselves to the entire supply. I remember coming back inside and announcing as loud as I could 'There is nothing worse than a thief,' a line from W.C. Fields."
In another narrative, Carney draws on a legendary device.
"One night I ended up at an after-closing party at a little apartment on New York [street]. I was using a pipe then, an old briar. There were about eight hippies sitting around on the typical torn up, thirty-year-old furniture and the floor. I packed the pipe and I mean really packed it; lighted it up and passed it around. Everybody got three or four hits as it circled and, strangely, got high. It must have been the lateness of the hour or something else. It was good grass, but that was a little unbelievable.
"Anyway, the reason I'm telling this—the next day, I ran into a head at the Blackout who was trying to score some of that grass. He'd heard about it from somebody who was at the house on New York. 'One pipe knocked out the whole party, man!' he said. I sold him a lid for fifteen."
McNabb's fears of on-premise drug deals came close to realization one night. He recalled "A big black guy, real nice fellow, sold some grass to a plainclothesman. The cop flashed his badge. The black guy said 'Let's go outside. Don't embarrass me here in front of my friends.'
"The cop said okay. They get outside, the guy turns and cold cocks the cop, gets his stuff back, and takes out down the road. Nobody saw anything, of course. He got out of that bust."
McNabb clearly indicates another aspect of the folk group in this tale of the black man who outwits the plainclothesman. This is clearly within the definition of Dorson's hippie trickster-hero (299). The tavern offered a sort of sanctuary for those who conducted the illicit drug trade. While it may have happened that no one witnessed the assault in the parking lot, the implication was that if there had been witnesses, none would have come forth.
A Blackout was implicated in the largest roundup of drug dealers in Wichita's history (up to that time) on June 29, 1968. The U.S. Bureau of Narcotics, Sedgwick County Sheriff's Office, and Wichita police were all involved. Sixteen people were arrested for possession and sale of STP (an LSD derivative) as well as amphetamines and marijuana. Many of the transactions originated and occurred in the tavern or outside in the parking lot.
Three hundred capsules of STP were recovered from one car. The individual's identity wasn't known to the police. He was taken in on a John Doe warrant (Wichita Beacon, June 29, 1968). This major bust represented the first federal charges on the exotic STP in Kansas. Drug Enforcement Records show that the tavern was never a subject of an investigation per se. However, it was found that the tavern's name was mentioned in six files.
The June 30, 1968 Wichita Eagle ran a front page story on the aftermath, "Hippies Remain Cool." Despite the headline, the article painted the few patrons at A Blackout on the afternoon following the big sweep as dispirited and suspicious.
"Bearded and semi-bearded individuals stood outside the front and rear doors to pick up the evening breeze and nip the juice."
The talk was of the bust and the resulting paucity of supply. One fellow asked a companion for a cigarette.
"'One of these?'
"'Yeah. I've got to smoke something.'"
The reporter was recognized as an outsider. "You've got to do more than discard your tie and jacket to conceal the Establishment image at A Blackout," he noted. He received little information from the regulars after this. The feature article serves to show how the public was led to view the majority who went into A Blackout: drug fiends who became frantic without a fix. From this time forward, the tavern was linked to drugs in the minds of many Wichitans. The police, in pairs, strolled through the tavern regularly on busy nights.
Along with the police, the fire marshal took an active interest in the place. With the easily-reached over-capacity crowds, A Blackout was in constant danger of being closed down in violation of city fire code. The underground newspaper, The Wichita Trucker, a permutation of The Wichita Free Press, reported the tavern closed November 14, 1970 for violations of fire department regulations (Issue Two, Volume One). This was on a Saturday night and A Blackout reopened the following Monday.
The underground press was naturally sympathetic with the tavern's plight. A Blackout advertised in several papers, including the city's Nexus, Wichita Free Press, and Reconstruction Press, Topeka and Lawrence. These display ads were six to nine column inches and often featured the bar's flag motif and slogan. Other times a drawing of a singing nun was used, especially when folk singers were listed.
McNabb recalled the running battle with authorities. "The fire inspections were a real hassle. Then I hired Linda to tend bar. Her uncle was a chief or something [in the department] and we managed to find out when they were going to make a raid. When the marshal would drive up, he'd find 30 people inside and about 100 out in the lot."
The above is representative of the subculture making use of contacts with the dominant culture to provide security for their society. This connection with the dominant culture continued when McNabb ran a campaign for Wichita City Commissioner in 1971. His slogan was "Keep 'em flying with Gil McNabb," and he had a number of signs made. "Trouble was, everybody got so stoned they didn't put the signs up." He received 229 votes in the March primary. ACLU attorney Jim Lawing received over 3000.
There was a palpable mystique to A Blackout in an era when there was a remarkable amount of energy in the air. McNabb was well aware of the unique, clan-gathering aspects of the tavern. "We did things that were way ahead of their time. A lot of people resented us in other parts of Wichita. We were one of the first integrated bars in town. “Those days were pretty intense. We were living full-tilt. We never set out to harm anyone, but the life style back then did something to the people who went through it. Some it broke. Some it made stronger."
The tavern regulars seemed part of a new order. "Stan Chilton, who had the vending concession there, would loan T.C. or one of the bartenders tuition money out of the jukebox take. He knew it would be there next week and every week after that until it was paid off."
McNabb took a trip to Europe in 1970 and spent some time on his return in New York. "I saw what was going to happen—the drugs and all the excess. It was just a matter of time until it hit here."
McNabb sold the bar after he came back to town.
"We had some great music in the bar back then, and had some great times. There always used to be somewhere to go in Wichita [for entertainment]. The reason we all got along so well—all the different groups who came into the place, black or white, jock or longhair—we were all creative, or at least appreciated creativity.
"So many people work all their lives so they can get on a tour bus when they're sixty-five. The only things you get out of life are memories and experience, when it comes right down to it."
McNabb's comment on the style of life at A Blackout, and by extension the social changes that were occurring there, adequately support Dorson's assessment of the two themes connected with the "druglore" of the 1960s, damage and transcendence (288). A Blackout prominently displayed a "Fuck Communism" sign behind the bar, signaling one of the liberation themes inherent in Dorson's Humane ideology, that of the use of obscenity to reject the old culture (6).
African-Americans, long kept from the doors of the Silver Dollar tavern when it was a neighborhood meeting place for the diminishing white residents in the northeast community, were welcome in A Blackout. And the folk community of the tavern was able to transport the apparatus to other locations—a park and another tavern in a different town—because of the creative interaction practiced in A Blackout.
The Irishman was a regular at Blackout events during McNabb's tenure and also tended bar. His recollections reflect the piquancy of events that occurred back then.
"Once we were at a party in Haysville [nearby small town]. Bill was coming over to the party and noticed he was being followed. Bill drove up and down in front of the house, honking his horn. Then he left." This caused a good deal of suspicion.
"People were paranoid around that time anyway. They put all these matchboxes [containing marijuana] in the air conditioner, ready to turn it on if the party was busted. Bill was arrested [away from the party] and Vern Miller [Sedgwick County Sheriff and later Kansas Attorney General] put on his clothes and showed up at the party. Miller [in disguise] walked through and had a good look around."
There were no arrests. "There were enough people who knew who he was." Perhaps aiding this was the fact that Miller was forty pounds lighter than Bill, somewhat skewing his costume.
"It was a time of KGB paranoia, a drawn-shade mentality. The narcs that busted Bill were DEA. Other people were looking at me for weapons [violations]. Back then everybody was thought of as a dealer. The thinking wasn't in terms of drug cartels."
As seen in the arrests in June, 1968, association with A Blackout meant being under suspicion by several law enforcement agencies. The gathering tendency of the subculture was an aid in its surveillance, allowing the police, as well as the straight patrons, an observation post. The Irishman concurred with McNabb's assessment of the general freedom of expression found in A Blackout.
"During the day it was open forum, longhairs sitting next to guys with ties. Then at night it was pretty much freaks."
Assembled in the similar pursuits of congeniality, the tavern customers, regardless of ideology, fell into a receptive state. In this way, a middle-aged future owner of the bar, Dudley, found himself in proximity to wild youth. "Dudley started coming into the bar during the day. He was a clinical alcoholic who had stayed dry. He'd come in there and do a couple of business deals over the phone—selling typesetting equipment. Then he fell off the wagon."
The Irishman also recalled outdoor events. "We'd go to some woods near El Dorado for river parties. One night, somebody went out to take a whiz and they heard something. He saw a lot of Butler County sheriff's officers getting ready to hit the party. I think a couple of underage girls were hidden up in trees and all the incriminating stuff was disposed of."
Then the sheriff's officers made their appearance. "There were just these guys in regular clothes with hunting weapons. They looked like the reserves who had just gotten out of bed."
As the incriminating substances had been disposed of (and youngsters hidden), the trespassing Blackout regulars were told to move on, with no arrests. This fits Dorson's "heads tricking the cops formula" (290), and indeed there was often a running test of wills between authorities and bar patrons.
"One year on St. Patrick's Day, a Hispanic cop came in and wanted to know what the Irish flag was behind the bar. While we were explaining it to him, somebody rolled a green smoke bomb under his car. He went out and couldn't even see his car. He came back in and said his vehicle was on fire. He finally saw what it was." There were no arrests.
Wichita's St. Patrick's Day parade provided a few of the tavern's customers with opportunity for public exposure. "We usually had an 'IRA' contingent marching in the parade. One year we had a small armored car. Bill and I were running around in these quasi-IRA uniforms for a few days, posing as recruiters. There was a radio editorial commenting on the 'IRA' recruiting activities in town.
"We went into the Flicker [3901 Vesta; a fraternity hangout across the street from the Cedar]." An individual asked to see Bill's helmet and another individual took it from the first.
"Suddenly there was this typical barroom brawl, with guys coming out of the back room with pool cues. We managed to crawl out of there."
According to the Irishman, this exemplified the contrast between most of the college bars and A Blackout. "The Blackout, in the good years, was neutral territory. There were people in there who would murder each other in any other bar in town."
The authorities had to address at least some of the bar's flagrant legal violations. "We had a keg box that gave up the ghost. It was set up in the back on blocks. An inspector for the Health Department came out to measure how far the box was above the ground—it turns out it had to be 11 inches, or it was considered an attraction for rats. They kept coming out to inspect it, and one day it finally sank down in the sand below 11 inches."
This set the bureaucratic wheels in motion. "McNabb was on a date one night and was pulled over and arrested for harboring rats."
McNabb's progress through the streets of the city was not hard to track. "He had Stars and Stripes, which was a VW painted like a flag. The body was red and white stripes and the roof was a blue field with stars. McNabb went out of town one time and when he came back, it was painted."
There was a similar element of caprice in much of what went on in the bar. "People were playing criminal more than being criminal. We shut down the Blackout a couple of times just to go to the drive-in movie. We took the kegs from the bar and left a note on the door. We did business at the drive-in."
The intervening years have allowed the Irishman a perspective.
"As far as enlightenment went, we were all probably conning ourselves."
The recollections of the Irishman add a certain dash to McNabb's and are particularly valuable in determining the aspects of the folk community. The boundaries of the folk group are described as indistinct during daytime hours, allowing outsiders a chance to discuss differing views and observe the subcultural workings of A Blackout. His tales of the sheriff entering a pot party in attempted surreptitiousness, field parties (where underage girls are hidden in trees), painting the owner's car in a distinctive flag pattern when he was out of town, and conducting tavern operations clandestinely at a drive-in theater depict the ritualistic disregard for convention connected with A Blackout during the 1960s. This was an inherited tradition from the 1950s Silver Dollar crowd. In addition, such personal experience narratives are quite likely to affect the city's present day alternative community.
John Byers ran A Blackout from 1975 to 1978, taking it over from Dudley. According to Byers, Dudley ran a loose ship, sleeping on the bar, giving his dog an inviolable corner, and acting very much annoyed if he were called upon to furnish potations.
Byers had definite ideas on tavern management, partly defined through his experiences in the bar when McNabb owned it. "I wanted to bring it back to life. I put seashells everywhere and made it a seaside bar."
He also put wood chips and railroad ties behind the building, as well as a tall fence, so that his patrons could take in the out-of-doors in good weather with some privacy. The entertainment was a jukebox with hard-to-find records whose message was fiercely anti-disco.
Byers recalled the required visit to the vice squad when he applied for his tavern license.
"They said 'You know this is a known drug hangout, don't you?'
"I said I would try to clean it up."
After the initial conference, Byers learned that it was better not to request assistance from the police when he had trouble. "If I called them in for help, they would always ask if it was racial." It rarely was.
"If I said no, they would wait about half an hour before they came out. Then they would bother us for the next three weeks."
One of the incidents involved a disgruntled neighbor. The elderly black woman had the misfortune of living on the northwest corner of Erie and 21st, enduring many years of alcohol and other drug-induced antics. When one of the bar's patrons took a walk across the street to relieve himself on her property, the lady came over to complain. Byers, behind the bar, was given details of the home owner's approach. She carried a shotgun.
"I met her at the door and told her she couldn't bring the gun in. She kept saying 'I won't bring the gun in. Just you send the man out.'"
He finally calmed her and had a talk with the wandering customer.
During Byers' tenure, the bar was broken into a number of times. He tried his best to make it difficult to get in. "I put better locks on the doors but they broke in through the roof and hit all the machines." Though Byers counted 150 people inside the place on a number of occasions, particularly when he ran one of his promotions, the profit margin was small. There were too many other intoxicants circulating among the crowd. His promotions included: pinball tournaments; a free keg to get those assembled in a thirsty mood that would continue after the keg blew; hat night (free draw to those wearing hats); and something he referred to as "bent can night."
This last example of entrepreneurship came about when he bought cases of damaged cans from the wholesaler and sold them at a discount.
Byers cited financial reasons for relinquishing A Blackout. "I made enough to live on, but I never did get my original investment back." Rent on the building was $100 a week.
John Byers attempted to recreate the atmosphere of A Blackout ten years earlier, during the heydays of the 1960s. To this end, he sought to provide suitable balladry (folk rock replacing the then-current, highly stylized disco), an ethereal theme (seashells on the prairie) and an inviting and protected environment (the fence and railroad ties on which to sit) for the customers. He had his narratives that might later become folktales—the neighbor with the gun, playing along with the vice squad to get his tavern license, and bent can night. Through his dedication to an image of A Blackout, Byers again helped to form a folk group who denied the emergence of disco music and the ineluctable passage of time.
During the days of beat poetry, bennies, and folk music, the Silver Dollar became the logical off-campus meeting place for those with alternative views. Its primitive appeal and Wichita working-class customers who were, as the Irishman characterized them from his visits to Ina's, "the misfits of the redneck crowd," provided a crucible for the proposed re-working of society.
In a self-evidencing statement, there is a tendency for the inhabitants of each decade to take as their own, ideas and practices that have served others before them. The Blackout regulars made discoveries that obviously had been made in the Silver Dollar.
Just as the Silver Dollar served as outpost in the subcultural clash of the 1950s, A Blackout did the honors the following decades. The traditions of non-materialism and rebellion kept the small tavern in business. It was a dirty place many of those years.
The serving of beer brought together people from different backgrounds. The proximity to the university aided the intellectual tenor of the proceedings. The psychedelic drugs added flight to fancy, encouraging novel thinking in the beginning, but acting the inevitable drag toward the end of the tavern's (and drug culture's) run.
The synthesis of post-beats, folk song, and beer, as McNabb arranged it in A Blackout, was an innovation that would serve the new order. McNabb's reaction to the drug use he witnessed in New York as the decade of the '60s was drawing to a close, typifies many who were inspired by the liberality of the times, only to seek a more moderate stance as the excesses were revealed.
Particularly relevant is McNabb's remark about the role of creativity in the community of Blackout regulars. The majority of patrons were unified in revolt, their actions at times flavored with the uncertain workings of psychedelics, challenged by the authorities but dependent on one another and aided, in their desire to communicate with the tavern observers, by the immense amount of art that was offered during those years.
McNabb's recollections are rife with the experiential comportment of one who has dealt with the public in near-psychotic states. He sought to create a community, a tavern in the spirit of a beat coffee house, encouraging expression, creativity, acceptance, and appreciating the life experience. The crowd was young and the energy level high. In addition to folk singers and jug bands, rock and blues bands performed there, with amps and drums adding to the impassibility. On other nights, A Blackout was a jukebox with walls built around it, giving fortissimo offerings of modern cant. This colored the event. McNabb's business sense (actually not that much of a rarity among the counterculture) helped the tavern stay in business, despite the drug arrests and front page news that kept the less adventurous from entering the wooden front door.
After McNabb sold the place, it went into the decline he predicted. People who use drugs and who find an ample stock of them in the current of the times are not going to spend a lot of money on beer.
John Byers took over the tavern with ideas, borrowing from the innovative spirit of the era, providing another social club-like atmosphere. During his tenure, A Blackout was by then in competition with other counterculture bars and clubs—Kirby’s, the Foundry, the Looking Glass, and Coyote Club. The 1970s saw the general population adopt many of the liberal concepts for personal use, reflected in dress and drugs.
But the Blackout name retained an aura of origination and desirability on which Byers capitalized. He might have been hobbled by his patrons' lack of money, but he made up for this in his enjoyment of the nightly situation he created.
While McNabb maintained a distance between himself and the tavern, working at an aircraft plant and hiring managers, Byers' sole income came from the bar. He was there most nights and his presence flavored the proceedings. Publicans and club owners are a short-lived lot. Popular taste and fashion are major determinants in choosing which tavern to visit. A crowded bar is its own best reason for being there, the social opportunity factors playing an important role in the decision of where to go. New management, attitude-creating setting, or entertainment will bring in customers for a while. Something has to sustain interest.
In the case of A Blackout, which was in existence 15 years, this attraction was achieved by moving slightly ahead of the wildness of the '60s under McNabb, and by seeking a return to those times by Byers. As Bell observed in his work at Brown's Lounge, and in the words of Clements, the "physical features of the place create signals that define behaviorial expectations" (Journal of American Folklore 97: 346-347). Those who went into the tavern were expected to act in fashion with the times: "Get experienced," Jimi Hendrix advised. And the jukebox played.
As found in the interviews, news reports, and ensuing reputation, A Blackout served as institution for applying the tenets of anti-materialism, anti-authoritarianism, and, regrettably, discovering the limits of intoxication and illicit drugs. Particularly relevant is the history of Ina's Silver Dollar "misfit" patronage, as described by the Irishman, as well as Carney's firsthand detailing of drug pushing using the back lot of A Blackout. While Hein found an artistic crowd in the 1950s, the Irishman's remarks reveal that the shared elements of the tavern regulars were simply those of iconoclastic Wichitans in the early 1960s, a working-class subculture who mixed with the few Wichita University faculty and students drawn to the unpretentious "physical features."
In the mid-1960s the mix gradually shifted until the city's underground movement became identified with A Blackout through news reports, both conventional and underground. This same movement was comprised of a cadre of creative people and those who appreciated creativity. In its various incarnations—the beats, folk musicians, university students and those on the fringe—this subgroup sought to discover affinity instead of rank, as well as an understanding of the complexities of individualism.
The focalizing aspect of A Blackout Tavern gave the Wichita underground a venue for political and cultural revolutionary activities. The System was the antagonist, and the alienated, the dispossessed came to the tavern to sample a community of the new.
McNabb's remarks give insight into the fact that the concentration of art and decor, music, and futuristic dialogue that A Blackout allowed was a unifying force in its patrons' lives. Conventional society was permitted a glimpse into these lives and, through direct and indirect communication (observation), came to realize the force of the new thinking. Straight society's perceptions were shifted in the outing, fostering an increase in understanding. Without the theoretical impulse of the folk group that comprised A Blackout—admittedly wrapped in the hedonistic trappings of a tavern—and similar places throughout the counterculture of the '60s, this exchange of views and movement toward acceptance would have been far less likely to occur.