Upstairs/Downstairs: A Night Out on MacDougal Street
We’ve been focusing a lot lately here at Off the Grid on the newly designated South Village Historic District and the designation report that allows us to learn much about the architecture and history of the district. The designation report is a powerful tool, so we thought we would share one of the ways we here at the Greenwich Village Society use the South Village, and other, historic district designation reports. Each year, GVSHP receives hundreds of requests for research assistance from scholars, writers, and the general public. The South Village Historic District designation report came in very handy last week when a former resident of the Village wrote to ask for assistance.
Planning to write an article that reminisces about a night he was recording musician Dave Van Ronk for WKCR-FM radio, our questioner writes:
“Years ago, when I did radio shows for WKCR-FM, I used to do remotes from a small club under the old Kettle of Fish at 114 MacDougal St. This was about 1969-1971. One night, when Dave Van Ronk was appearing, we went upstairs to the Kettle between his sets to drink tequila.”
He then notes that he cannot remember the name of the club “under the old Kettle of Fish.” I began my search for this request by confirming that the Kettle of Fish was located at 114 MacDougal Street from 1969 to 1971. The new South Village Historic District report, which is available on the GVSHP website, did just that. Designation reports list information for every building in the district. So I quickly located the entry for 114 MacDougal. The entry tells me that 114 MacDougal was built in 1900 as a tenement building with a commercial ground floor. The entry also notes that the “historic configuration of storefront with possibly historic wood-and-glass materials remaining.” Finally, the entry notes that:
“For more than three decades (from 1950 to 1986) this was the location of the Kettle of Fish, a popular bar frequented by writers and poets of the Beat Generation and folk singers of the era, often between sets at the neighboring coffeehouses where they typically performed. One of the more famous photographs taken of American novelist and poet Jack Kerouac features the venue’s neon “BAR” sign (no longer extant). Known patrons include Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Edie Sedgwick, and Andy Warhol. In 1986, the bar relocated to 130 West 3rd Street, and relocated again in 1998 to 59 Christopher Street, where it remained as of 2013.”
Now that I had confirmed that the Kettle of Fish was indeed located at 114 MacDougal Street from 1969-1971, I wanted to confirm whether there could have been another commercial tenant in the same building. My next step was to locate a current picture of the building. A quick look at Google Maps allowed me to see that there is really only one commercial space in the building and that the entrance to the commercial space is at sidewalk level. My next step was to locate images from the late 1960s. Sure enough, the entrance to the Kettle of Fish at 114 MacDougal Street was at ground level. I suspected as much, seeing that the designation report indicated that the commercial storefront had not been altered since the building was built.
Memories are not always accurate, a fact historians often take into account when using personal source materials such as oral histories and the like. So, my next step was to see if there might have been a club nearby the Kettle of Fish. I had a guess what club he was talking about. But I wanted to be sure. So, I went back to the designation report and did not have to look far. The next entry after 114 MacDougal Street was for 116 MacDougal Street. The entry notes that:
From about 1958 until 1971, this was the site of the Gaslight Cafe (aka Gaslight Poetry Cafe), an early Beat hangout offering poetry readings by such notables as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Television reporter Mike Wallace did televised interviews from the Gaslight in 1960 for his special on the Beat Generation. The venue soon became well-known for folk music as well, with early performances by Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan cited. Comedian Bill Cosby began his career at the Gaslight, building a reputation for himself as a performer there during the summer of 1962 while a 24-year-old student at Temple University. In 1960, the Fire Department closed the coffeehouse, along with others in the neighborhood, citing safety concerns and violations of city zoning laws – more specifically, for providing entertainment in the form of poetry reading and music without a cabaret license. Protests and sit-ins by patrons of the Gaslight continued until at least the following year, and the café survived until 1971.
However, since the original request noted going “upstairs” to the Kettle of Fish, I thought I would take a look at the entrance to the Gaslight. Sure enough, contemporary images show the entrance to the gaslight as a basement entrance. You would need to go upstairs and next store to reach the Kettle of Fish.
When I shared this information with our writer, he agreed that these were the two clubs. As a bonus, he provided a rather fun anecdote about one particularly interesting evening at both the Gaslight and the Kettle of Fish:
“The club was indeed The Gaslight. For a while, I did lots of remote radio shows from there, and on several occasions with Dave Van Ronk. The first night we met, he did three sets, and after each we’d go upstairs to the Kettle of Fish. On that night, he taught me at 18 the full ritual of drinking tequila, although I only managed 3 on the night to his 20-25. Obviously, he got more and more drunk before each set, and the music got more and more gritty.”
We hope you will take some time to review some of the amazing information in the South Village Historic District designation report which can be accessed on the GVSHP website. And keep those requests for research assistance coming.