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60 years ago, Gaslight Square had its official start

60 years ago, Gaslight Square had its official start

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Gaslight Square, 1965

Young people gather around Whisky a Go-Go, one of the new discotheques on Gaslight Square in 1965. Traditionalists said they were too loud and crowded the sidewalks with underage young people. Recorded music pounding from the discotheques drowned out the jazz that had made the square. It was just another thing cited for the decline. Photo by Lloyd Spainhower of the Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS • It was known loosely as Greenwich Corners. Funky taverns played Dixieland. Antiques shops peddled artifacts fished from the city’s vast land-clearance projects.

Artists, beatniks and barroom wits enjoyed their little secret. One of the hangouts was the Gaslight Tavern, 457 Boyle Avenue at Olive Street, west of midtown.

On Feb. 10, 1959, a tornado ripped through the heart of the city and smashed up the bohemian refuge. Suddenly everyone with curiosity and a car knew about Boyle and Olive. Check-writing insurance adjusters made the neighborhood flush for revival.

Visionaries got busy. Jimmy Massucci, owner of the Golden Eagle Saloon and unofficial mayor of Greenwich Corners, opened two more night spots. Within a year, eight more attractions helped create a new nickname, Gaslight Square.

By summer 1960, it was the place to be for beats, preppies, well-dressed adults, street troubadours and tourists. Olive pulsed with a happy cacophony wafting from places called the Crystal Palace, Left Bank, Laughing Buddha, and Dark Side. Jack Carl dished pastrami and genial abuse at 2 Cents Plain. A row of columns outside Smokey Joe’s Grecian Terrace anchored the landscape.

On March 24, 1961, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen anointed the obvious by renaming two blocks of Olive as Gaslight Square. Laclede Gas Co. later installed 121 gas streetlights, adding flicker to the buzz.

By summer 1961, Gaslight was noisier with more restaurants, taverns, nightclubs and shops. Some of the antiques dealers were squeezed out by rising rents. “The old gang doesn’t come around anymore, but perhaps it is a necessary evil of growing,” Massucci said as cash registers jingled.

Big and future names in show biz played the square. An 18-year-old singer named Barbra Streisand was warm-up for the Smothers Brothers. Allen Ginsberg recited poetry to mellow jazz. Miles Davis and Singleton Palmer were regulars. Earnest ministers opened the Exit, a coffee shop promising meaningful discussion and “jazz liturgy.”

But the crowds also attracted purse snatchers, car thieves and worse. On Dec. 30, 1964, Lillian Heller was fatally shot in a robbery in the vestibule of her apartment building at 4254 Gaslight, just east of Boyle. Heller, 61, and her husband, John, were artists.

Police added patrols and promised security. Young people flocked to discotheques such as Whisky a Go-Go, where hired dancers gyrated on platforms. But throbbing recorded music was drowning the live clarinet riffs. It became too crass and too much.

In an article in the Post-Dispatch on Nov. 1, 1965, police declared Gaslight Square one of the safest sections of the city, but the public wasn't buying it. 

"It is unfortunate that the square is in the middle of a blighted ares that is marked by a high crime rate," Capt. Thomas J. Moran said. "We have stepped up our patrol in the square in an effort to combat the criminal elements that tend to gravitate toward an entertainment area."

That wasn't enough.

"The kids don't belong down here but it isn't our fault their parents let them run all over the place," Whiskey a Go-Go operator, Russ Lewis said.

The old clubs began closing. Laclede doused some of the gas lights in 1967 for failure to pay. Police made drug arrests and thwarted a desperate bid to save the strip with topless waitresses. The Exit gave up the spirit in 1969, about when cultural pathologists pronounced the end of Gaslight.

Massucci died in 1971. Jack Parker, the last Gaslighter, moved O’Connell’s from Boyle to Kingshighway in 1972. Five months later, the aldermen abolished Gaslight Square, restoring the strip as part of Olive.

Check out the archives of the Post-Dispatch.

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Tim O'Neil is a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact him at 314-340-8132 or toneil@post-dispatch.com

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