Studs Terkel and Slim Brundage, 1967

Interview with Slim Brundage, College of Complexes “janitor,” on the “Studs Terkel Radio Program,” WFMT-FM, Chicago, 1967.  Abridged by TH.  Notes by Outspoken curatorial team.  Chicago Historical Society: Archives and Manuscripts Collection.

STUDS TERKEL:  Slim is the host to all sorts of speakers at a place called the College of Complexes that had many locales and is now at 105 West Grand Avenue beneath the St. Regis Hotel.  I like that title, the St. Regis Hotel.  Fridays and Saturdays.  And poetry on Thursdays. . . .

You came here in ’23, ’24 around there.  We think, again a memory of Chicago is the Dill Pickle Club, the Dill Pickle Club on the near north side of Chicago on Tooker Place it was.  Where many of the—who gathered?—newspaper men and poets, quasi-poets, actual poets, full-timers, half-timers, talks, thoughts and memories.  That was a certain period, too, in Chicago’s history, wasn’t it?

SLIM BRUNDAGE:  Yeah, well now you are getting into the people who were the “great unwashed intellectuals” they used to call ‘em.  Many of them had been on boxcars and in the hobo jungles and so.  And these people were self-educated, well-read and well-spoken.  The Pickle was full of ‘em. . . .

Of course, you know the Dill Pickle started from Bughouse Square, it was the indoor Bughouse Square which we’d been called.

STUDS:  So Bughouse Square was the antecedent of Dill Pickle?  For those who may not know, today there hardly is a… it’s in front of Newberry Library off Clark Street near Chicago [Avenue].  I think it was the will of Newberry himself that there be free speech allowed outside on the square.(1)  So from Bughouse Square came the Dill Pickle Club.

SLIM:  Yeah, the soapboxers got together and got a winter quarters, that’s what it was.  They chipped in a couple of bucks, you know.  But those things go, many of ‘em take off for warmer climes when it got too cold around here and hooked a boxcar somewhere.  And Jack Jones paid the rent.

STUDS:  Jack Jones was the first…

SLIM:  The janitor.

STUDS:  The janitor.  What you call yourself at the Hobo College, at the College of Complexes: the Chief Janitor.  Then he ran it.  He booked the speakers, he engaged everything.

SLIM:  He just started in as the janitor and custodian, you know, he never was much of a soapboxer, he couldn’t talk.  But he was a close man with a buck, you know.  And when the landlord wanted the rent, you know, which was $10 I think, why he found the 10 bucks and took possession of it.  And from then on….  At one time he was netting a thousand bucks a month back in ’27-’28.  That’s a lot of money in those days.

STUDS:  From Bughouse Square it came. . . .  Even though there was a great deal of ‘bull’ at Bughouse Square, there was a great deal of all sorts of wild, impassioned talk and conversation of all variety, from all strata of our thought, and to me at least, as a young boy it was a very colorful and very rich area.

That went, I suppose it went, ah, do you have theories as to why it went?  I suppose TV is a factor, radio is a factor, many things.  People talking less, too perhaps, I don’t know?

SLIM:  Well, I think we could do a book on that, too, Studs, but I don’t know.  I’ve looked into it as a matter of fact.  There’s no place anymore, you know.  There used to be speeches in Pioneer Square in Seattle, and Pershing Square in Los Angeles, and the pier in Long Beach, and Boston Commons, and Union Square and Columbus Circle in New York City.

STUDS:  John Spivak, the writer, spoke of his boyhood in New Haven, Connecticut, a place called the “Green,” there it was.  So every city then seemed to have its area of open forum out under the sky.

SLIM:  But they’re all gone, everywhere.

STUDS:  Well, Slim, you are a connecting link you might say, even though the young look at your gray hair and you’re a bit over thirty. . . .  Now what happens, this is the question, if the young, some of the curious ones… We know they are, a great many of the questioning young, the young who are disturbed and question, in a sense do look back for some sort of—even though what they’re doing is wholly new—back for something beyond the, before the ‘20s, back to the Wobblies, even earlier, looking you know.

SLIM:  Yeah, the Wobblies are getting a lot of people that are interested, young people interested in what their qualities or, much about them, I don’t know.

Well the thing today, you see, the kids have outlets that we didn’t have. We went and stood on the street corner and listened, you know, to somebody, and got up and said our own peace.  Well, where are the kids going now?  To college!  College wasn’t available to us.  And they have their own forums, even the churches have forums these days, there’s plenty of opportunities for them…

STUDS:  I think you’re pointing our something interesting here I hadn’t….  The fact that there are different kinds of forums and even the churches specifically on campuses, of course.  Well campuses would seem more outspoken in some quarters.  And churches, there’s the new forum, and coffeehouses, of course.  Yours is what you’d call the “over thirty coffeehouse.”

SLIM:  Well, you know there’s something I noticed about ten years ago.  When I was a kid, one of the great “enemies of the Revolution” as we called it—and I grew up with the Revolution, and I got Karl Marx with my first spoonful of oatmeal. . . .  The church was the enemy of all the radicals in those days.  And about 10 years ago, I discovered there wasn’t a revolution going anywhere in the United States that wasn’t starting in a church basement.  And if you examine them now, the Civil Rights Movement, and all of that stuff has come right out of the church basement.

STUDS:  I think it’s interesting how Wobblies would think, and the old hoboes would think, they were generally anti-clerical in feelings, and here we have a very fascinating switch, don’t we?  Coffeehouses and forums sponsored by churches.  So the role of the church, obviously, not wholly, but some aspects, particularly among the younger clergymen and priests and nuns there is this new kind of a freedom it would seem.

SLIM: Yeah, they’re getting’ with it.

STUDS:  And so the College of Complexes and Slim Brundage may be something of another time, nonetheless, you might say it’s a link.  It’s a coupling pin.

SLIM: Well, don’t forget to put a plug in for one of the Friday nights.

STUDS: Well, let’s hear some of the events, by the way, [at the College of Complexes]. Friday and Saturday it’s open at 105 West Grand Avenue. There are talks there. People, anybody can talk when the speaker finishes. Isn’t that it? Everybody can get up there.

SLIM: Yeah, we encourage that.

STUDS: Friday the 20th, ah, Friday the 13th, “Can Hippies Make a Happier World Despite the Status Quo of the Squares?” And Earl Siegel, who is one of the young patron saints of Old Town, [owner of the button shop] Mole Hole, and that was when the confiscations of the book took place, the big rock pull, the other day by the customs man. This is “LBJ and LSD Made the Customs Man Return the Book.” That’s Friday the 13th, Earl Siegel.(2) The 14th on Saturday you have a College of Complexes “Unfixable Quiz.” Now what’s the “Unfixable Quiz”?

###

Notes: (1) Walter Newberry never owned the land on which Washington Square Park sits. The land became a public park in 1842. Newberry’s will provided for the building of a library for the people of Chicago.  (2) In 1967, a secret service agent allegedly confiscated a copy of the Chinese communist leader Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book from Earl Segal at his Old Town button shop called the Mole Hole. Some jokingly claimed that President Lyndon B. Johnson and the hallucinogenic drug LSD “made” the agent return the Little Red Book to Segal.

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7 Responses to Studs Terkel and Slim Brundage, 1967

  1. Gordon POOLE says:

    At Slim Brundage’s behest, I played piano and sang and even chaired some lectures, one by an Episcopalian priest on the benefits of marijuana, for a few months in late 1956 or early 1957. A fine fellow named Smith was there, who just after I left ran for president. There was also the “gypsy,” and “Candy,” who was lovely, and whom…

  2. Tobias Higbie says:

    Thanks for posting your memories of the College of Complexes! Tell us more if you like.

    • Gordon POOLE says:

      Dear Tobias Highbie:
      I have got your encouraging answer, and I’m glad to submit a few lines. I have just turned 80 and my contact with The College of Complexes was over half a century ago, although the experience is vivid in my memory.
      I was working days at a wholesale-resale house in the Loop, I think it was called Bennet’s. I somehow happened into the College on a Friday or Saturday evening. The piano was free, and nobody seemed to mind, so I played some ragtime on the piano. At the time I could only play in F# because the first song I had learned on the piano was chopsticks. Although Slim Brundage, as I recall, didn’t come in every night, he was there that evening and said he’d pay me something to come and play on the weekends. I, of course, jumped at the chance, because I loved the idea of having someplace to hang out with kindred sprits and play the piano and show off and get a few free beers. I also chaired a few lectures.
      Moreover, the College was full of stimuli for a young man, psychologically weighed down upon by McCarthyism, who considered himself a conservative and, of course, given his conditioning, anti-communist. The conversation in that saloon, the people I met, the example of Brundage, turned my head around. Being there was a major moment in my education, for which I will forever be grateful. In the summer of 1957 I traveled to Europe by steamer and ultimately settled in Naples where I now live. My wife and I have four children and seven grandchilderen
      I’ve spoken too much about myself, but I wonder if other young people weren’t affected by their contact with the College much as I was.
      I remember one fellow who, as I understood it at the time, would put on a sort of act when we were sitting at the bar, imitating gay talk and gestures in a caricatural fashion. He was funny, a good actor, but the strange thing is that as he persisted in this routine, week after week, he eventually discovered that he was gay!
      I’m trying to recall the bartender. I remember him as a very good guy. Somehow I have the recollection he may have been black, but maybe not.
      Well, one more recollection: At one point someone had added to the graphics on the wall the following graffiti annotation: “VAT 69 IS NOT THE POPE’S PHONE NUMBER.” The police showed up–many nust have been Irish Catholics–and had it erased.
      Thanks Slim Brundage, thanks Bill Smith, thanks Candy, thanks to others whose names I have forgotten! Thanks to The College of Complexes!
      Gordon Poole

      • Tobias Higbie says:

        Dear Gordon: Thanks for your wonderful memories of the College of Complexes. I’m writing a book that touches on the world of urban open forums and lectures like those Brundage sponsored. If you would be willing to share more about your experience, I would like to hear it. You can contact me via email at higbie@history.ucla.edu.

        Toby Higbie
        University of California, Los Angeles Department of History

  3. Darrell Blobaum says:

    Bill Smith was anti-Candidate for President of the US on the Beatnik Ticket in 1960. Joffre Stewart, Black pacifist anarchist Poet, was VP running mate. Joffre, as a member of the Roosevelt University Wobbly Local, burned a US flag which resulted in the Wobs being banned from campus, but then reinstated after protests. Many of the College members were able to stand-in for a speaker if he didn’t show up, even if they hated his position. In the 70’s, with my flunk-out college degree, I was awed by Slim and these ‘intellectual hoboes’. My Great-Uncle, August Schiermeyer, Hobo Poet, published the poem, “Bug-House Square” perhaps 100 years ago, and may have known Slim, as well as Edited some issues of the HOBO NEWS monthly, 1913-192_? He died in Chicago in 1954, but I find nothing about him after 1926, when he was physically ejected from the Presidency of the International Brotherhood Welfare Association, the “hobo union” founded by James Eads How, “millionare hobo” who died of malnutrition and pneumonia in 1930. Such a time!

    • Tobias Higbie says:

      Dear Darrell: thanks for sharing your knowledge and family stories. I noticed that the Newberry Library has a pamphlet with two Schiermeyer poems (including Bug House Square) and a print from the 1910s. If you are near Chicago you should check it out. Also they have a great genealogical section that could help try to find other records. You can also contact me at the UCLA email: higbie@history.ucla.edu

  4. Darrell Blobaum says:

    Thanks, Tobias. Newberry Library graciously provided me with photos of the booklet, THE WONDER CITY and other poems, which you are referring to. Thanks for your advice.

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