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Look Back "Hair"

The cast of "Hair" during a performance in St. Louis. (Martha Swope)

ST. LOUIS • Doris Bass was a young widow and Republican tenderfoot in a Democratic ward. In 1969, she doggedly knocked on doors and beat two-term incumbent Thomas O’Shea by 19 votes.

She had bigger ambitions than serving the Tower Grove Park neighborhood on the Board of Aldermen. Only eight months into representing the 15th Ward, Bass announced she was running for U.S. Senate.

Far away in New York, the counterculture musical “Hair” was playing Broadway to hip audiences. Thin on plot but generous with decibels, it included the songs “Age of Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In.” The musical slammed the Vietnam War, the draft, parents and traditional morality and included a brief scene of nudity. Hair was set to run in St. Louis.

On Jan. 16, 1970, Bass filed legislation to ban Hair from local stages. Critics accused her of a campaign stunt, and it worked. It also scratched across a raw cultural divide.

Bass said she was “trying to restore the American sense of decency.” She said she was representing the sentiments of her native South Side, where many working-class people had had enough of the hippies.

Predictably, the hearings on her bill made for bad theater.

On Feb. 18, dozens of long-haired young people crowded the room. Bass scolded them for “interfering” and said, “You ought to be in school!”

One young woman said she was — at City Hall with her college civics class.

Alderman Henry Stolar, representing the trendy Central West End, warned the bill would make St. Louis a “cultural backwater.” The exasperated committee chairman, Albert “Red” Villa of Carondelet, muttered, “We’re in a state of chaos here.”

In a replay one week later, Bass accused her young critics of “trying to force radical views on a society that wants peace and order.”

The board adopted her modified anti-obscenity bill in a 16-11 vote on March 20. Mayor Alfonso J. Cervantes signed it, calling the bill “a symbol of public rejection of growing permissiveness.”

With little for a campaign but her quotable right-wing self, Bass was trounced in the 1970 GOP primary by state Attorney General John Danforth, who narrowly lost the November election to Democratic U.S. Sen. Stuart Symington. (Danforth won a senate seat six years later.)

Hair didn’t arrive in St. Louis until Nov. 2, 1971, and only after St. Louis Circuit Judge Lackland Bloom flew to Kansas City, watched a performance and ruled it not obscene. Dueling pickets marched outside the American Theater, 416 North Ninth Street, on opening night. Four police officers who attended the sold-out opener called it stupid but not worth shutting down.

Bass kept battling the counterculture, facing hecklers in 1972 in a packed auditorium at St. Louis Community College in Forest Park, where she responded, “Your disagreement doesn’t ruffle me.”

But she lost her aldermanic seat in 1973 to Democrat Geraldine Osborn.

Bass remarried and ran unsuccessfully three more times in Republican primaries, the last in 2002 for U.S. Senate. She died in 2014.