Moody's Skidrow Beanery
by Pat O'Connor
[From a time long ago, the spirit of a seeker. This is about the 1960s and their influence on today. In Wichita, Kansas, Moody Connell believed in a mix of hoboes and Beats and sought to serve them simple fare and give them a place to congregate. The following is a chapter from Moody's Skidrow Beanery: Kansas Underground From Beat To Hip, by Patrick Joseph O'Connor, Rowfant Press. Moody Connell died February 4, 1996.]
Social interaction is perhaps at its best in intimate settings open to anyone who walks through the door, and in which ideas and philosophy are encouraged and discussed, making use of the symbols in art, poetry, and song. Cafes and inns have served this purpose through the centuries. More recently coffee houses have taken hold. Away from the soddening qualities of alcohol, the customers are closer to true enlightening discussion. The 1950s and early 1960s were a time of such places of exchange.
Wichita's Skidrow Beanery was a unique installation in this city of a quarter million. Though there had been other places patterned after the East Coast Beat haunts, the Beanery was downtown, next to the tracks, and sought to serve both hoboes and citizens down on their luck, as well as the burgeoning counterculture.
The Beat poet (and former Wichitan) Charles Plymell has coined the term "hobohemian" and this aptly describes the atmosphere and social reality of the place. Plymell was referring to a literary genre among the Beats, that movement that was instrumental in making the average American aware of the materialistic flaws in the ideal middle class existence. The Beanery acted the catalyst for all the reactions against the Beats that came from the authorities.
This chapter will chronicle the events in the Beanery's short, troubled run, making use of contemporary newspaper accounts, interviews with the participants, and books concerning the Beat movements. The intent is to describe conditions of the times and locale, to depict the social forces that were marshaled by the Beat influence, and to catch the counter-cultural drift of that movement.
The Beats emerged in the early 1950s, a later chapter in the long history of bohemianism. As quoted in Garrets and Pretenders (377), Harry T. Moore wrote that the Beats were "somber of mood in contrast with the gaiety of their forerunners. The early bohemians usually had a sense of mischief and could see the humor of their own position." This position attacked the morals of society.
The Beats were against elitism and mass movements. The Beat movement made a statement against conformity, even though their anti-conformist rhetoric and style of dress established a model. They had a peculiar parlance, beginning with the nominal term, Beat. Jack Kerouac, one of the pantheon of Beat writers, first used the term in the early part of the decade. It referred to many things: an understanding of cool jazz (the musical beat), a downtrodden minority, and disillusionment with American values. Faced with the nuclear missile-backed tension of the Cold War, they "got beyond the point of caring," as Moore put it.
John Clellon Holmes, author of the Beat novel Go, wrote in a New York Times essay: "A man is Beat whenever he goes for broke and wages the sum of his resources for a single number; and the young generation has done that continually...."
The familiar Beat terms have fallen in and out of favor over the years: hip, cat, chick, pad, square, bread, dig, head. They used this argot as the communication method has been used for centuries: to keep them distinct from the masses and to underscore their heightened awareness, keeping the concepts of their lifestyle always as a reminder in their speech.
"Reading poetry aloud is one of the great ploys of the Beats," Moore wrote, noting the Beats' claim of "getting back to the original oral culture of this art form, in which rhapsode, scop, or bard recited poetry" (Parry 383).
With their democratic approach, the Beats were categorized as anti-intellectual by the poets of academia. A number of magazines came into being to explore this new literature. "All of them featured creative over critical writing, reversing the formula that was well established by then in the university quarterlies," according to Bruce Cook (99).
National publicity first came to the Beats in 1956 with the publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems. An obscenity suit was brought and production blocked for a time. The newspapers and magazines began to pay attention to this odd assortment of folk who practiced "disengagement and disaffiliation" (Parry 388). Their actions were thought strange and psychotic by hard-working, middle-class Americans.
The November 30, 1959, Life magazine contained a feature on the Beats, showing their newsworthiness and the curiosity with which the majority viewed the movement. The magazine, circulation 640,000, accompanied Paul O'Neil's piece "The Only Rebellion Around" with a black and white photo, captioned "The Well-equipped Pad." Models were dressed in black and wore sandals. Props, labeled in the cut-line, included: espresso coffee, marijuana, bongo and guitar for "accompanying poetry readings."
In the lengthy article, O'Neil pointed out that "Beat philosophy seems calculated to offend the whole population. The industrious square...is a tragic sap who spends all the juice and energies of life in stultifying submission to the 'rat race' and does so, furthermore, with no more reward than sexual enslavement by a matriarchy of stern and grasping wives and the certainty of atomic death for his children."
O'Neil rebuked the Beats for their strident criticism and avant-garde posturing. "They are talkers, loafers, passive little con men...writers who cannot write, painters who cannot paint...." O'Neil however provided an important function by pointing out the dearth of other iconoclast movements, hinting that at least the Beats were correct to raise issues, and by crediting a few writers associated with the movement (William Burroughs, Norman Mailer, among others) with true talent.In December of 1959, a series of raids on New York City Beat joints resulted in a multitude of arrests for drugs, marijuana to heroin. This further served to sully the Beats' image with the public. Soon after, the Beats moved operations from New York to San Francisco, and a few points in between.
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, downtown Wichita, in a run-down block, flanked by the elevated mainline railroad tracks, that also held the Salvation Army headquarters and Okie's Tavern.
A few months later, Connell changed the name to Moody's Skidrow Beanery. "I thought I'd call it exactly what it is," he said in a February 12, 1964, article in the Wichita Beacon. His sense of humor and compassion for people down on their luck--"They don't lose their pride when they come in here"--plus a flair for confrontation and the dramatic, put him in the sights of the media, particularly the newspapers. The Wichita Eagle and Beacon's combined offices were two blocks away.
The same article reported Connell's plan to mix the two cultures of hoboes and Beats, and his idea for a book store, Socrates' Square, with booths for customers of all religious faiths, free from pressure to convert.
"Men don't like a mission. They don't trust a mission. Every time they go to a different mission to spend the night, they've got to be converted all over again."
The menu at the time was:
Okie T-bone (toast and creamed gravy) - 15 cents Pea-farm [prison farm] Steak (baloney, fries, onions, bread, and beans) - 25 cents Jail House Chili - 25 cents
The fare was popular among the hoboes and low-income crowd. "Beans is the main deal, though," Jim Anderson, a cook at Moody's, pointed out. "It comes with everything you get."
The Wichita Beacon noted that a little monkey had the run of the place. Connell stated that the city was creating difficulties for him with constant inspections.
"They want to make Wichita as unattractive for bums as possible," he said. A sign in the Beanery read: "Through our doors walk the finest bums on earth--our customers."
Moody's was housed in one of the deep, narrow buildings that lined Douglas. According to the February 2, 1964, Beacon, furnishings included "straight back wooden chairs, rough carpentry, tile floors, grim walls, and faded colors. Socrates' Square held a few rickety booths, two old sofas, and an antiquated piano. Parts of the wall lack plaster, lighting is poor, ventilation does not exist."
One month after the above article came out, Connell was told by police, regular visitors to the Beanery, that he must take down a painting exhibited on the wall and beware of selling books of poetry officers labeled "obscene trash," (Wichita Beacon, March 17, 1964.) Included in this category were works by Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Charles Plymell.
Police Lt. Colonel J. H. Reeves said he was concerned about juveniles who attended some of the poetry and music sessions. A 17-year-old and 15-year-old were found in the back room of the Beanery and taken to Juvenile Hall until their parents could retrieve them. The youths were cautioned against going to such places in the future.
The Beacon article said that Captain E. H. Cook, head of the police juvenile section, gave a copy of Plymell's poetry to city attorneys "so they could look at it and decide if it's obscene."
Despite the pressure, "new drawings keep appearing on the walls [and] increasing numbers of poets and guitarists perch upon the central stool to read or play" (Wichita Beacon, March 17, 1964).
The April 4th, 1964, Wichita Eagle had a story about John Pemberton, Jr., executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, talking with Connell.
By this time, Connell had "cut out pieces of paper, wrote 'censored by Capt. Cook,' and pasted them over the parts [of the painting] he didn't like." This proved ineffective.
"Captain Cook said I couldn't do that either," (Wichita Eagle, April 4, 1964).
Pemberton, in town to speak at a meeting, advised him to write down everything the police said.
A letter to the editor from Verna Cota in the April 8, 1964, Wichita Eagle gave the Beats' side of things. She wrote: "How long have the police officers been studying to be art and poetry critics?...I suppose the police would like for us to go to local bars and get drunk instead of frequenting Moody's where no alcoholic beverages are allowed. Down at Moody's you can take a deep breath without being afraid of someone coming up behind you and telling you that that just isn't the proper thing to do....
"The only trouble there has been at Moody's is what trouble the police have created....Where else in the city can we go and hear good folk music, good poetry, and release our own thoughts and feelings without fear?...We are a new generation and it will take more than the police to cut us down."
In May of 1964, the Skidrow Beanery was closed for 37 violations of fire and health codes. These included: rough floors, narrow doors, improperly constructed balcony, same toilet facility for both sexes, and faulty electrical wiring. The balcony, overlooking the back room, was used by declaiming poets. The age of the building and Moody's culinary practices contributed to the list.
The October 12, 1964, Wichita Beacon reported that renovations were in progress at the Beanery and that Connell hoped to reopen soon. However, two days later the controversial owner found himself in court, pleading innocent to a charge of failing to remove a fire hazard. He was arrested while loading rubbish, accumulated from remodeling, onto a truck.
The November 27, 1964, Beacon reported that Connell was found innocent of the charge. The city had failed to prove it had given him written notice of the fire hazard (the load of rubbish) 48 hours prior to the arrest.
The Skidrow Beanery reopened nine months after being closed, with $2000 worth of repairs. An article in the February 22, 1965, Wichita Eagle found the "risque art" gone but observed that there were still poetry readings and folk music.
In the winter of 1990, Moody Connell recalled the Beanery experience; "I had a lot of publicity. I was running ice cream trucks during the summer. I had nineteen of them. The Beats kind of took over the place from the hoboes. That's when the police started coming in. Charlie Plymell was a hero to the college kids. He would come in dressed up like a lord of England."
Charles Plymell, who has written extensively on Wichita's Beat experience, called Moody's "a flophouse and a beanery which was a personal Goodwill Industries complete with ice cream wagons if you wanted to earn your beans."
Connell recalled Plymell taking him for a visit to San Fransisco. "There was a club of people out there who used to live in Wichita. I met Ferlinghetti. He was all right. The rest of those characters were a little too far out for me."
Connell returned to Wichita and tried to keep his business going, treading the narrow path between popularity and police scrutiny. "I finally had to close the Beanery. I was losing $3000 a year."
James Mechem, then a Wichita writer, and a publisher of several small magazines, was one of those who made use of the Beanery. "I went in one afternoon--anyone could walk in--and went into the back and got up on the balcony. Somebody was playing the guitar but there wasn't much of an audience. I started to read from my novel, Dream Of Juno. A few people would come in and listen for a while. I ended up reading all afternoon and finished it."
Mechem outlined his version of the history of the place; "Charlie came into a cafe Moody had. He talked him into opening the room in the back for poetry readings and a little book store. Charlie brought in a magazine called Fuck You.
"First the bums had the Beanery, then the Beats, then the college kids came in, and finally high school kids took it over."
Far from being simple, disillusioned drop-outs, the Beats provided a valuable service to thinkers and activists of the 1950s and 1960s. For one thing, they opened the fields of poetry and fiction to writers and their audience distressed by the academic ritual. Fellow Beats were encouraged to compose, to give vent to their feelings in the structure of art. The lasting quality of the Beat endeavor has yet to be determined, but from a contemporary communications standpoint, the open poetry readings and art shows did all they were required to do.
The media gleefully reported the bizarre band's antics and as a result the Beats (derogatorily termed 'beatniks') became part of the popular culture. Their disillusionment with society and their anti-materialism was not lost on many young people growing up in the 1950s. While the Beats treasured the erratic and discordant strains of cool jazz, another type of music, folk songs came into favor the latter part of the decade. Moody's served both audiences.
Wichita is a city that is isolated geographically. This isolation allowed the inhabitants to develop unique approaches and answers to the countercultural phenomenon converging on the larger cities on both coasts. In the early 1960s, Wichita had long known of Beats. Folk music was on the radio and television. When it came time for the city to offer similar entertainment, two men, a poet and an ice-cream truck entrepreneur, emerged with a "Plains" version. The Skidrow Beanery served two factions of the dispossessed populace, hoboes, and folk poets and singers who flouted mainstream America. Mainstream America reacted accordingly, first attempting to censor the Beanery and then closing it down.
The artists, musicians, and poets who gathered at the Beanery were involved in expressing ideas for the betterment of society. The symbols chosen, modern art and Beat poetry, were to serve a "new generation." The humble cast of the dwelling and the shabbiness of those who went in acted as clear indictments of an insensitive majority. This same majority labeled the Wichita Beats and folk singers as deviant.
Moody's Skidrow Beanery provided a classic example of the outrage of conformist (square) society at the acts of the deviant (Beat) reality that was being fostered there. In Wichita, where fads and movements arrive months or years after their inception, the non-conformists had opportunity to weld their own article, combining the workable elements from the Beat and folk song performing cultures.
The newspaper articles were generally favorable to Moody Connell, championing his activities, if treating him as an eccentric. The letter to the editor aided the Beats and the folk singers by eloquently summing up their point of view. It was news and the public enjoyed it, feeling superior to the anti-materialists.
The Beanery was important in that it provided a venue for the exchange of new ideas. This example of a populist approach was one step in loosening the stranglehold the Cold War mentality had on the art and culture of the United States.