Memories of The New Bijou Theater

 

When my good friends Curt Hargis and Steve Canaday said it was to be called, The New Bijou Theater, I was intrigued.  They explained the concept and where it was to be located.  They talked about all the touring bands and musicians they wanted to bring to town.  It all sounded really good to me, then somewhere along the way they mentioned that employees would be able to drink free beer while working.  Then after a few moments of silence, they asked me if I’d like a job. 

 

 

It was the summer of 1972 and I was 25, with no real ambitions other than to make some form of music on a daily basis and hang out with my friends. Building the New Bijou Theater was a job I very much needed.  The idea of earning an actual paycheck seemed to me like the perfect solution to my current state of destitution.  Plus it sounded like some fun might be had at this New Bijou Theater.

 

 

My first day on the new job was also the first time I’d ever noticed, much less been inside of the old vacant brick warehouse under the Glenstone viaduct that would soon become my place of employment.  I remember it sure didn’t look like much at first glance.  Upon arriving for work that morning, I met a man called Fuzzy, who would be the head carpenter.   Then I was introduced to another co-worker who was standing there at the ready with a hammer in one hand and a cold beer in the other.  He was known simply as “Grassler”. 

 

 

Together Curt, Steve, Fuzzy, Grassler and I spent the next few months building thingsThings like a bar and a large walk-in cooler, a very big stage and a sound booth/backstage hang out area. We also constructed a balcony that overlooked the whole club with spiral staircases at both ends.  Towards the end of construction we began putting together tables, lots and lots of tables.  On those tables we placed hundreds of werid cut-outs of pictures and articles from magazines like Rolling Stone.  We’d arranged them like a coalesce on all the table tops and then brushed some funky smelling clear petroleum based finish over each and every one of them.  I remember not particularly enjoying those couple of weeks of my employment. 

 

 

But then a day came when all the construction was finished and I put down my hammer and took up a position behind the new bar.  It was to be a fun job, and an easy one at that.  Lots of slow afternoons with the sound system cranked up loud while listening to records by bands like the Sons Of Champlin, War and Harvey Mandel, then drawing an occasional beer for a patron or a friend who might not have a job or any money. 

 

 

At that time in my life, I thought it was a pretty cushy little job and it allowed me enough money where I felt I was at least one step above total poverty, which was the state that most of my fellow musicians around town existed in. 

 

 

One afternoon Randle Chowning came in and walked up to the bar and started talking to me about songwriting.  After a while he asked if I could step outside to his car to listen to a cassette of a few of his original songs.  I’d seen Randle perform with a local band once or twice, but I didn’t remember hearing that band doing any original stuff.  I listened to his songs and heard several things I thought were pretty interesting, plus I like his voice.  Before I went back in to the club Randle mentioned that he’d heard a few of my songs that I’d done with a local band called “Granny’s Bathwater” and asked if I’d be interested in sitting around with him sometime to play some of our original songs for each other.

 

 

We eventually did and it wasn’t long after that when Randle asked another local songwriter, John Dillon to join in our loosely organized get togethers, which usually also took place in the afternoons at the Bijou when business was slow and no one was around. 

 

 

At some point John brought along his friend Steve Cash, who was just learning how to play the harmonica and was also starting to turn some of his poetry into songs, one of which was Black Sky which would later make it’s way on to the first OMD record.

 

 

John had been doing what I’d call his weekly Springfield pizza circuit, playing for tips, but mostly for free pizza and beer at a couple of establishments around town.  After the Bijou Theater had been open a few months John started playing there one night a week under the billing of John Dillon and Friends, and it wasn’t long before Randle and I were sitting around on the stage with John and Steve picking our way through each others songs, kind of learning as we’d go.  Somewhere along the way Michael Granda started showing up to play bass along with Bill Jones from Granny’s Bathwater and also John’s girlfriend and future wife, Elizabeth Anderson. This loosely knit songwriters co-op continued making music together at the Bijou right up until the clubs untimely demise due to an unexplained fire.

 

 

The night the New Bijou Theater burned to the ground I was driving back to Missouri from San Francisco where I had been visiting friends and checking out the scene.  After only 10 days or so I had fallen in love with San Fran.  The city and all the music that was in the air produced an intoxicating yearning to stay.  My west coast friends were all advising me to go back to Missouri, pack-up my instruments and make a move out to the Bay Area. 

 

 

The morning I arrived back into Springfield I learned the Bijou had burnt down the night before. The fire had taken not only my source of income , but also my drums and my piano went up in smoke with it.  I now found myself with no job to save up cash for a move out west, and I also had no instruments to make music with except for a classical guitar I’d left with my mom.  So all plans for my big move to the west coast was put on an indefinite hold.  To say the least, I was bummed out and a bit disheartened.

 

 

The Bijou was still smoldering when I drove over to see what might be left.  There wasn’t much except for the grant pile of bricks and the remains of a few of those damn tables.  It was a sad sight to see.  There had been some really rockin’ nights in that place with the likes of Canned Heat, War, and even old Sonny and Terry being in the blues.  But besides the local musicians that played there, and a small collection of hipsters who'd frequent it, the Bijou was gone before most people in Springfield even knew it existed.

 

 

Yet out of The New Bijou Theaters ashes new music was to be made.  Some one involved with our little writers co-op made the call for a gathering.  It seemed as the smoke was still in the air, our group of music makers found comfort in each others company and something started to happen that felt very positive and organic.  It was like we were a family tree of musicians and songwriters, with branches coming from different Springfield bands and different musical influences. 

 

As our music continued to perk here in the Ozarks, unbeknown to us, Steve Canaday was on the run in New York City with a reel to reel tape he’d made one night at the Bijou that contained music made by John Dillon and Friends.  Steve was determined to see a man,” The Man” at Columbia Records, John Hammond Sr., because Steve just knew in his soul that Mr. Hammond would get this music. 

 

 

Canaday was right in his instincts about our music and within only eighteen months of those first song sharing sessions in the office of The New Bijou Theater, a band was formed out of this small group of friends and we were in England recording our first album. 

 

 

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Obviously I never made that move to San Francisco like I had wanted to.  Who knows where life would have taken me if I had.  The OMD’s may or may not have ever materialized after the fire, but one thing is for sure, had I gone to San Francisco I wouldn’t have been there to be a part of it.  It’s interesting to think about how something as simple as a fire, happening at a certain moment in time, could end up changing ones direction to such a degree as this one may have. 

 

 

Destiny may present itself to us as forks in the road of life, yet those forks are almost never seen as such at the moment, and can only be pondered upon as time passes.

 

Comments

Mike Garrison February 22, 2015 @06:48 am
Thank you for sharing this. Similarly, I have had multiple un-planned 'forks in the road' and have had an amazingly rich life that continues to evolve. I was in Springfield & Ozark in those early years and wish that I could have heard some of the music prior to OMD making its first album. The movie Sliding Doors has an important subtle message. Best wishes for your continuing journey. Mike G.
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