The Moon Cusser

Folk Music Coffee House

 
 


The Moon Cusser Coffee House

The First Summer -- 1963

Remembered by David H. Lyman, who built and managed the  coffee house that first summer.



It was the summer of 1963 . . . fifty this ago this next summer.

The Vietnam War was in full swing. A Kennedy was in the White House. The Beatles had yet to arrive in the US. Woodstock was five years away but folk music was still folk music and as popular as rock, even more so than the blues and most forms of jazz.  In Boston, folk music was the rage.

    That spring of 1963, something special happened on the Vineyard which had an impact on today’s music and many of today’s musicians. Ginny Blackmar, a summer resident on the Vineyard and a student at Colby Junior College in Wellesley, told me the Island would be a great place for a coffee house with folk music. At that time, I was the manager of Boston’s Unicorn Coffee House, where the co-eds from Colby spent their weekends.  The Unicorn was the largest of the three folk music coffee houses in the Boston area--the Club 47 in Cambridge was perhaps more well known, but was smaller, offered more traditional performers and was slightly more “authentic.” The Cafe Yana in Kenmore Square was the smallest and featured local singers. The Unicorn, on Boylston Street, brought in people like Theo Bickel, Ian and Sylvia, the Lime-lighters, Jose Feliciano. 

    The idea of a summer coffee house on Martha’s Vineyard gathered momentum as I talked up the idea at the club.  Two of the regulars, Fritz Dvořák  and Dick Randelet,  electronic engineers from Route 128, pooled their resources and backed me with $2,000 cash. Dick and I visited the Island in April, where we found a vacant grocery store on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. The space was huge, it would seat (legally) 125. That would be enough. The price was right.

    With a signed lease, an application for a common victuals licenses  and other necessary permits filed with the Oak Bluffs’ selectmen, the work began on assembling the rest of the elements. Over the next two months, working part time as the Ring Master on the Bozo television show,  hosting a series of radio shows and managing the Unicorn--I pull together the elements that would turned that empty space (now, an up-scale clothing store) into the Moon ‘Cusser Coffee House.

    Mitch Green, a booking agents in Boston helped me assembled the summer’s schedule of act.  Some performers I knew from Boston: Tom Rush, The Charles River Boys, others I’d interviewed on my radio show, or who had played at the Unicorn. In May, I bought used kitchen equipment from dealers in Boston, cups and saucers, plates, flat ware, a PA system, theatrical lights, a cash register, and from Good Will I purchased 20 tables and 100 chairs. We printed menus, and advertised in the Gazette for help.

    Randelet had found an old barn in Wellesley that needed tearing down, so I tore it down, loaded it into a rental truck and drove to the Vineyard with all the stuff I had gathered: two large rolls of  brown, Indian burlap. With the barn board and burlap, the crew that had assembled and I  turned the old super market into a cozy night club, one that would not serve alcohol.

    There was a 2-feet high stage against one wall, a false balcony opposite that housed the stage lights, and a barn board barrier at the entrance directing people to the cash register to collect the $1.50 cover charge. The walls were covered in alternating panels of barn board and burlap. Tables and chairs filled the floor. Bathrooms were installed off to one end of the room, adjacent to the kitchen. A stair well led to the basement, turned into  hasty “green room” for the musicians. There was a pay phone on the wall by the kitchen. Our phone number was MV #211


    The name Moon Cusser came from New England and England’s shadowy past.  I wanted a name that was traditional, colonial and slightly naughty. From Samuel Elliot Morrison’s book on New England maritime history, came the ”backstory”  for the name.  From a copy of the original menu, I wrote the following:  (The “s” in  old English type often look like an  “f”, so read accordingly)




These innovative colonists cursed the moon, when it reviled their subterfuge.  I worked with an old letter press printer in Alston and we came up with a look, a logo and a type face that looked old. “Antique Caslon” had the look I wanted. The  “s” looks like  an “f” which confused everyone.  People called the place the Moon Cuffer Cossee House. The logo for the coffee house was a lantern from the printer’s collection of engravings. The sign that swung over the door, I made to look like signs that would swing over the door to tavern in colonial times. That sign exists today, swinging over the do0r to the liquor store on  Circuit Avenue.



   

    The week before we opened was hectic.  The place needed to be built, bathrooms installed, a stage constructed, lights rigged, posters printed and put up, ads places in the Gazette, deals made and a staff hire. Rambling Jack Elliott’s wife Janet, whom I’d met the previous winter in Boston, came along as my head waitress. An ad in the Gazette for an assistant manager, produced Philip Metcalf, a Princeton Junior and summer resident on East Chop. Philip knew the Island, was a member of the beach club, a clean-cut collegian, and had 1951, yellow, rag top Jeepster. Itv was the jeep that actually got him the job. We needed a vehicle to tour the island each week, putting up posters. Standing at the cash register each evening, in his blue Princeton blazer, added a degree of respectability to an otherwise seedy operation.

    Things came together those last few days. It was like summer stock--24-hour days of construction,  painting, setting up, organizing. A few days before we were due to open I appeared before the Oak Bluffs Selectmen, to answer their questions abut our licenses.

    “No, there will be no alcohol served.”

    “Yes, we will cease entertainment at 1 AM.

    “Yes, we will admit minors. That’s one of  our goals. To be  a place where anyone who loves music, regardless of age, can come,  see and listen to really great, world-class musicians.”

    We got the licenses. All the other permits were in place for the new bathrooms, the fire marshall’s inspection, seating capacity signs were posted (and mostly ignored). The local cops stopped in. There was a buzz in the air. Would this be a den of iniquity or something else?  The Moon ‘Cusser actually became known as a place where parents could drop their kids off on their way to dinner, then pick them up on the way home later that night. For the price of a $1.50 cover charge, a $2 desert and a mug of non-alcohol  Vineyard Grog (grape and cranberry juice and ginger ale)--it was cheaper than a Nanny.


Text from the back of the copy of a 1963 menu from The Moon Cusser.



Opening Night

    By opening night, Friday, June 21, 1963 all of us where exhausted, but we’d make it. “The Show Must Go On” . . . and it did.  We had three acts that weekend: The Charles River Valley Boys, an old timmy band from Boston; singer-song writer Mark Spoesltra;  and Texas singer-songwriter Carolyn Hester. They packed the place. It was a sell-out crowd. I was out back in the kitchen training my new staff. Philip was out front collecting the $1.50 cover charge and handling the stage lights.

    Halfway through the first act, Philip came back to the kitchen where I training the staff to prepare the make Greek coffee and Vineyard Grog, mulled cider.

    “There are three rather large Irish looking gentlemen out front who wanted in and they’re not going to pay cover--besides, we’ll full. Not a seat in the house.

    “Everyone pays . . .” I said and went on slicing up an apple pie.

    Philip came back a few minutes later and said: “They said they’ll tear the place apart if they don’t get in . . .  I believe they could. They said to tell you they are the Clancy Brothers.”

    ”The Clancy Bothers?”

    “You know them?”

    “Of course I know them. We are old friends, but they are supposed to be in New York City.

    “You’d better do something. Fast.”

    I wiped my hands and followed Philip out  front. There, in their hand-knitted Irish sweaters stood Patty, Liam and Tommy. The Clancy Brothers.

    “Out of the way, Lyman, we’ve come to open this place for you.”

    And open it they did. The boys had flown in on their own nickel. What a surprise.  The Charles River Valley Boys had finished their first set when I climbed on stage to make a announcement.

    “Ladies and Gentlemen. Just in from Ireland and New York to help us celebrate the Opening of the Moon ‘Cusser . . . . the Clancy Brothers, Tommy, Patty and Liam.” That was all I had time to say. The Clancy boys pushed me aside and took over. They sang rousing Irish drinking songs, told stories, got people singing along, and introduced Carolyn and Mark. It was a whale of an evening.


The Folk House

We’d rented a house on East Chop for the staff and visiting musicians that came to know as the Folk House.  As soon as the club closed a little after 1 AM, the crew and performers made a bee line for the house. I’d been the stage manager for summer stock theater, spent two winters managing the Unicorn and two seasons as stage manager for the Springfield symphony--working with actors and musicians taught me the necessity for there being a place where the artists could keep playing after the club closed. Those late nights, after the show, is were where some of the best music  is created. A musician is just warming up on stage, doing what they know. Later at night, surrounded by other musicians and an entourage, this is where a musician can experiment, make mistakes, work out riffs, develop a new sound, try out lyrics and get feed back from their peers. Can’t do that on stage. Being a part of that was magical.

    That first night, after the show, the Clancy Brothers were in the kitchen at the folk house; Mark, Tom Rush and Andy Rooney from the Charles River Valley Boys and others in the living room; the banjo pickers on the front porch, there was music everywhere. I was dead tired, and fell sleep in the large first floor bedroom. Around 3 AM, a female voice, whispered:

    “Move over.” I was dreaming? No, this was real.

    “No, you stay under the sheets,” said the soft woman’s voice. “I’ll sleep here on top, under the blanket. I’m worn out, I can’t keep up out here. I need to sleep.”

    That was the night I slept with Carolyn  Hester.


    So, every evening, things didn’t get heated up until after mid-night, but this is where people like Tm Rush, Jeff Muldour, Don Maclean, and Alan Arkin  got to swap guitar styles with Charley Duffy from the Country Gentlemen. Music became the reason, the driving force behind the Moon Cusser’s existence. For a few of the hangers-on, it was the scene and the sex that interested them. For most, it was the realization that we could create magic, like the peddler behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, we realized that with a bit of  barn board and burlap, a spot light and a sound system, with good musicians telling stories with their songs, we could transport an entire  audience to Scotland, to the hills of West Virginia, back into time of the Jack The Highwayman.



How The Magic is Created

I’d learned how to create magic working in summer stock as a high school kid. It’s called “Suspension of Disbelief.” When an audience enters a theater, knowing, at least intellectually, they are going to see a play, a concert, a performance on stage. It’s all make believe. They know that. Nothing they see or hear will be real, yet they go willingly, even paying great sums of money to be fooled. Why? People want access to a life outside their own, to experience emotions they fear to experience in their daily lives. They want to be entertained, enthralled, enlightened, transported, made to laugh, even cry. That’s the role of the performer,  the storyteller, the actor, the director and the crew--to create an illusion, an altered state of reality, into which the audience steps, for a brief few hours, emerging on the other side, safe, if not changed in some small way for the lessons learned along the way.

    The rules I learned during my summers in stock theater and during that summer on the Vineyard have stayed with me these past 50 years. My life has revolved around making magic happen, not necessarily as a performer, but as the producer, the stage manager, the writer, that guy behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz.  The rules are: “don’t let the audience see the wires and don’t let them see you sweat.” They do not need to know how we what we do, how we create the magic, or how hard it is to do . . .  they just want to experience the magic of visiting another reality for a time. If there is a lesson be learned from the experience, so much the better, if not, then its’s been a pleasant voyage, a time out from their own lives.



The Summer of 1963
The old super market on Circuit Avenue could seat perhaps 150 people, legally, but when we removed the tables and chairs for Monday nights’ Hootenanny, people sat on the floor or stood along the walls, we could cram in over 250--just for the night.

     The “Hootenanny,” was talent night, where islanders and those from away had access to the stage for a few moments of fame or embarrassment. This is where James Taylor began performing. I would pay him $10 to cover gas for the family pickup, provided he brought down a truck full of kids from up-Island, each paying $1.50 to get in.  On Sunday evenings, local singers Dave Gude performed  along with Carey and Lucy Simon. I can still see the two Simon sisters, standing there in the spot light,  each  in a matching delicate white dress, with a guitar, singing “Winking, Blinking and Nod . . . .” On  Tuesday evening the week’s feature acts began a five night run, usually two acts, a solo and a group.   Tom Rush and Jeff Muldour, were regulars. The list of acts that summer, included some of folk music’s most ingenious singer songwriters and performers: Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Bud and Travis, Ian and Sylvia, The Country Gentlemen, Bonnie Dobson. Jean Redpath, arrived fresh from her first US appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. She was having such a good time, she cancelled her other engagements and spent the rest of the summer on the Island with us.  I can still see her carrying Eddy Adcock, the banjo player with the Country Gentlemen, down Circuit Avenue over her shoulder one evening because he wanted to go drinking at Munrows and she and other others wanted to go home.


The Scene

There were late night beach parties with bond fires, case of beer and music. There was romance and sex. “Grass” was around, but not not obvious. Philip and I were both straight and set a tone for the place that drugs were not welcome. The Folk House became a magnet for the more serious musicians on the Island, those who wanted to learn from the visiting musicians. No one woke up at the house until  after noon. A bunch of us would drive to South Beach to body surf in the afternoon. “The Club,” as we called it, opened at 8 PM. The first act went on at 9-ish, and we wound up just before 1 AM. The place became so well known ASCAP sent an executive to inspect us, with dreams of handing us a fine for performing live music without an ASCAP license.

    “We don’t play copyrighted music here,” I explained. “We don’t even play Broadway tunes, or jazz . . . we play old folk music, you know, songs that are part of the public domain. Songs from colonial times and English ballads.” He still wanted to listen.

    I told my performers that evening to make sure they didn’t sing anything ASCAP could claim was under their copyright.  The ASCAP chap stayed for the first set, waved goodbye and left. We never heard from them again. But we did hear from lots of other people. Charley Close, a New York City musician’s agent showed up, and hung out fort the second half of that first season. He eventually bought out Fritz, one of the backers, and became half owner of the place. Charley represented some of the acts I’d booked, and was interested in what the Moon ‘Cusser was becoming.

    On Mondays, Philip and I would drive around the Island in his yellow jeep, stapling posters for the following week’s performers to utility poles, bulletin boards, and the side of Pool’s Fish Market in Menemsha.

    “Sure you can put up your poster, but just see that you remove the staples,” said Everett Poole. Years later, when Philip stopped into Pooles, he asked about the need to remove the stapes.

    “Of course I was serious. You leave those staples in cedar shingles and they rust and split the wood.”

    I got to see a lot of the Vineyard that summer.

    Monday night was Hootenanny. We moved the tables and most of the chairs into the alley next door to make room for the crowd we knew would arrive. By 8 PM there was a line outside waiting for us to open. We packed the place. There was standing room only. So many people Philip, standing at the cash register and lighting panel, could not see the stage, so controlled the lights looking at ceiling. There were solo performers, duos, trios, bands, each with their own entourage, crowded in. A large, industrial fan in the rear of the club, sucked out the hot, smoky air into the street adjacent to the post office. It wasn’t air conditioning but the breeze did have a cooling effect on hot August nights. 

    This was a seven day week job, but the work was not really work.  We loved what we were doing--what we were involved in.  There were no days off, besides what would one do if they had a day off? Where would you want to go that was better than being where you were?


What Carley Simon had to say . . .

From a July 2011 article  in The Gazette,:

    “It was thrilling. It was absolutely thrilling. It was the biggest thing that had ever happened to me,” said Ms. Simon, who turned 18 that summer. “It made me inspired to do so much. It obviously had a profound effect on me because I somehow saw it in my mind that I would be singing with a man and that it would be very Vineyard based, and when you picture something, when you visualize something, it very often comes to be. And so I felt it very much when I met James Taylor.  It was like Jessie [Benton] and David [Gude] and as it turned out Davie had taught James some guitar chords too, just in the way he taught Lucy and me.

    In that same article Philip Metcalf wrote from his Santa Fe home:  “What sort of made it special? I think that one of the things . . . was just that everyone had so much fun,” said Mr. Metcalf. “Because this was sort of an innocent age, there was nothing like it on the Vineyard when it opened, there was no other comparable facility that was offering good live music, a good cup of coffee, good pastries. The pastries were all handmade by a woman who lived further down Circuit avenue. We’d go up and say, we need two apple pies and a cherry pie, and she would make them and walk up Circuit avenue and deliver them.”


The Moon ‘Cusser’s Impact

The Moon ‘Cusser had an impact on the Island, on music and on the lives and careers of people who were here that first summer of 1963.  Philip Metcalf and I are still close. He’s retired from a career in finance in New York, now living in Santa Fe.

    A young kid who hung around the club in the second summer, Chuck Kruger, is now a member of the Maine House of Representatives, following a successful career as a touring musician and concert producer.

    “Miss American Pie’s” Don Maclean was an “artists in residence” the second summer,. Don went on to an illustrious career as a singer-songwriter. He now lives near me here in Camden, Maine. We all know what happened to James and Livingston Taylor and of course Carley Simon. Folk music changed that summer--drugs became more prevalent, politics and the Vietnam War took the music away from its roots, made it more a advocacy for social change. Things changed when Bob Dylan went electric and Judy Collins used strings in the background on her albums.  George Papadupalo, the owner of the Unicorn, came to the Oak Bluff that second summer and opened a competing club. The scene changed, as did the people and the music. But nothing stays the same, except our memories, which just keep getting better, if less sharp.


This next summer, 2013, will be 50 years since that first Moon Cusser summer. People still remember the place, and those who weren’t there, have heard about it. Like Brigadoon, it was a magical summer--9 weeks of music, friendships, romance and growing up on The Summer Island . . .  it sure would make a great movie!



David Lyman

Creative Director

The Bert and I Company of Maine

Camden, Maine 04843


Founder and first manager, The Moon ‘Cusser Coffee House

Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard

You can contact me at DHLyman@mac.com.

   

 

Folk Music on the Vineyard  50 Years Ago  -- 1963 - 2013

Posters and  literature from that first summer










My  business card. Hand-made paper and  letter-press hand-set type.


The Clancy Brothers at the Unicorn, winter 1963. Below: The flyer from the summer of 1964.
The
The flyerwt

 

Circuit Avenue, Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard- just up the street, on the left, in 1963 and 64, was the Moon Cusser Coffee House (2009 - David Lyman)