That Little Coffeehouse
The decade of the 1960s was the pinnacle of the halcyon era of folk music. When I arrived at Denison in ’64 as a freshman, it was common to hear an acoustic guitar being played in the dorm or on the academic quad. While rock bands ruled the party scene in the fraternity houses or at off-campus parties in Newark (the closest venue to consume 3.2 beer), or as far away as the lodge at Buckeye Lake, folk music served better as the musical medium of choice for romantic inspiration, political protest, and fun conversation.
I brought my guitar and five-string banjo to campus, and I met Dan Int-Hout ’67 as he hammered away at his Gibson 12-string in the reverberant stairwell of Smith Hall. We went on to form a quartet of Denison folk musicians called The Countrymen, a group that enjoyed success by traveling on weekends to college gigs as far away as Boston and St. Louis.
Back at Denison, we looked for a place where we could practice and perform alongside other musicians. Slayter Union was out. There was no room there; and besides, its bowling alley and TV lounge just didn’t fit the intimate coffeehouse atmosphere we were after. By the fall of 1965, we had discovered the unoccupied basement of East Talbot Hall, one of Denison’s oldest campus buildings— and one scheduled for demolition. Located adjacent to the campus walkway, the old brick building was the perfect spot, and we dubbed it—appropriately—“The Cave.” Administrators allowed Dan and me to become its co-managers, and it was up to us to make it work. We were given a key to its door, and opening night was scheduled for Oct. 23, 1965.
The Cave was painted by fellow students, and Denison donated the chairs and a rug for our 6-foot stage. We rigged up our own RadioShack microphones and some primitive incandescent spotlights. A crew of coed singers showed up to paint the windows black. The room held about 80 people in a squeeze, and admission to cover costs, if charged at all, was 50 cents. Friday nights were dedicated to open workshops, which interested student musicians were invited to attend to share picking techniques, new songs, or arrangements. The Cave even hosted a no-name faculty bluegrass band. Guest acoustic artists and singers came in on weekends from Ohio State to perform. In fact, one of the most impressive musicians to play there was Tom Ewing, a phenomenal bluegrass guitar-picker from Columbus who later toured worldwide as lead guitarist and singer for Bill Monroe, the famous bluegrass icon.
During that same period, Denison hosted some nationally known folk musicians, like Ian & Sylvia in 1966, as part of its surprise D-Day celebrations. One of the headline groups heralded in 1967 was the Mitchell Trio, led by John Denver, whose parents lived nearby at Columbus’ Lockbourne Air Force Base, where his father was a colonel. While touring with the Mitchell Trio, Denver often would come to Denison on his motorcycle whenever he was in the area, and I arranged dates for him with Denison coeds, until the singer met his future wife, Annie. Denver would sit outside on the quad singing with his 12-string. I’ll never forget his asking me what I thought of a new song he had just finished. He sang it for me seated on the lawn by the pedestrian bridge as students walked by. I asked him what he had named the tune. “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” he said, and then added that Mary Travers liked it, and that Peter, Paul and Mary were going to record it.
Despite the growing popularity of The Cave, it had no restrooms, heat, or running water, so I renewed my search that fall to find another venue for a coffeehouse somewhere on the Hill. Denison allowed us to use the back of the dining hall in Colwell House, and I became its first salaried student manager. Our budget from the College covered a snack bar, stage, restrooms, carpeting, tables and chairs, stage lighting, and a very modest sound system (hi-fi speakers). The signature feature of the space was a large multipane window facing west, which Nancy Connor ’68, an art major, and fellow artists turned into a “stained glass” window made with handcut cellophane panels glued to the glass. Connor suggested an artist’s interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
And with that, the venue had a new name.
The Bandersnatch could hold more than 100 students and a real stage. Wednesday nights were “open mic” nights, and we also brought in performers from across the musical spectrum— bluegrass bands to classical musicians—playing instruments ranging from mouth harp to cello.
With running water, a refrigerator, and a toaster oven, we could now serve fresh-ground coffee, tea, and cider, as well as eclectic snacks like toasted bagels and cream cheese— a delicacy in those days—that I had delivered fresh from Columbus. We also dreamed up exotic nonalcoholic fruit drinks like the Mimsy, the Vorpal Sword, and the Gyre & Gimble (ginger ale and ice cream with a shot of grenadine and whipped cream to top it off).
As the spring opening approached, I wanted a special act to launch our first night. I called John Denver and asked if he and the Mitchell Trio would come to the Bandersnatch as our grand-opening performance. Even though Denver’s group was performing at huge auditoriums on other college campuses and in theaters, I booked him and his fellow musicians— Michael Johnson, David Boise, and their renowned backup instrumentalist, Paul Prestopino—for only $500, plus travel expenses. Though they were scheduled to perform for only two hours, they played from 9:30 p.m. until after 2:30 a.m. They stayed so long that they went from Denison to the Columbus airport without sleeping.
The Bandersnatch lived up to expectations after opening night. Students would drop in for a beverage, snack, and quiet conversation amid dimmed lighting and recorded folk music or live entertainment, and they never knew what to expect. One night, we had two students inside a box on the stage, and the box had small peepholes. The students inside moved it ever so slightly to see how the audience would react. Most laughed. I guess you could call that an act. We wanted to encourage artistic expression, no matter how bizarre.
My days at the Bandersnatch came to a close when I graduated in June 1968. Scott Calkins ’70 took over as manager the next year, and Doug Reid ’71 the year following. Scott and his team succeeded in bringing back Denver, as well as Michael Johnson, Laura Nyro, and other famous folk artists, who all seemed to love Denison and performing in the coffeehouse. By 1987, the Bandersnatch had a new home on the first floor of Huffman Dining Hall, where students are still in charge, and are still snacking and talking and performing, four decades later.
A version of this essay originally appeared in The Denisonian, the College’s student newspaper.