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  • September 18th, 2020

YUH WANT COCKROACHES WITH THAT?

By Joel M. Vance

 

There are two enduring legends on the campus of the University of Missouri at Columbia, both conceived in the fertile imaginations of generations of students (imagination which sometimes even manages to translate into the classroom).

 

One is that the stone lions flanking the entryway between the university’s two original journalism school buildings will roar if a virgin ever walks between them. The lions have been mute for decades, and I can testify from personal experience (humiliating but sadly true) that the rumor is false.

 

The other rumor is that the 1956 popular song “The Green Door” recorded by Jim Lowe was a tribute to the entry door at the Shack, an historic beer joint which defiantly squatted directly across the street from the University’s administration building, Jesse Hall.

 

That rumor also is not true, although Lowe was a graduate of the University (in 1948) and hailed from Springfield. But the song itself refers to a joint in Texas. A local historian wrote that he knew of a green door in Columbia, but implies that it opened to a brothel.

 

No one ever would confuse the vintage Shack with a sporting house. Describing the place in its glory years is virtually impossible. Imagine the most decrepit sharecropper’s shack in Mississippi transported to the University campus and plopped down facing the the most hallowed structure on the campus just across the street. It was, most generously described, an inflamed zit on the otherwise flawless face of Miss America.

 

The ill fitting green door, led into a murky fog composed of  cigarette smoke and beer fumes (everyone smoked and certainly, everyone was there to drink the dime glasses of beer). There also was a lingering tinge of sweat, especially in the sweltering days of early summer or fall. Hovering over all was the unappetizing aroma of the shack’s grill which created burgers and fries for anyone daring enough to eat them—I never did preferring to spend my meagre dimes on beer rather than on 25 cent hamburgers, cooked by impoverished students, desperate to make a few bucks toward the cost of their education.

 

The dimly lit interior was crowded with booths that looked as though they might have been built of weathered wood left over from a failed deck project. Generations of students had carved their initials, names or other symbols (perhaps some representing devil worship) in the tabletops leaving them so corrugated that there wasn’t a square inch of level space where you could perch a beer glass without it tipping over.

 

The origin of the Shack is as incongruous as was its presence as an irritant mongrel building defacing the august majesty of Jesse Hall across the street.

 

In 1920 the Chandler Davis family began serving sandwiches from a quintessential dining car which gradually became a building as bits and pieces were added to it. It actually began life as a tea room presumably patronized by Columbia’s staid matrons, delicately sipping oolong as they gossiped about those rowdy, outlandish college boys behaving irresponsibly with their prohibition liquor.

 

The tea room ceased life in 1933 but Vernon and Mary Blackmore reopened it in the nineteen thirties and named it Jack’s Shack after a co-owner Jack Armel. They shortened the name to the Shack and then in 1962, sold it to Joe Franke after I graduated from the University in 1956 (and I like to think of the glory years of the Shack as the late nineteen forties and nineteen fifties).

 

The Davis Tea Room and tea garden morphed into the beer joint that we knew and loved but it fell into disrepair (as if there ever was a period when it was in repair)

 

Columbia businessman Joe Franke, who also owned two other businesses next to the Shack, hung out in the beer joint with other ex-GIs after World War II and in 1962 bought his favorite hangout and would own it until 1984. He died in 2016 at the age of 94.

 

 In 1968 After Joe Franke bought the Shack, he temporarily closed it. In 1974 it reopened but went broke, but then in 1984 a couple named Weston closed the Shack for the last time. Joe Franke sold the property to the University, thus effectively ending its life as a private enterprise. And in 1988, a fire described as “suspicious” ended its life in any form.

 

It was at the Shack that Mort Walker, who would become the creator of Beetle Bailey after his 1948 graduation from the University, held staff meetings as the editor of the University’s humor magazine “The Show Me”. The magazine, typical college humor (not very funny) did have the distinction of being suspended by the administration about as often as it was actually in publication.

 

An indication of the level of humor was that the college president, Frederick Middlebush, was called Centershrub. But this also was the era of the panty raid when gangs of testosterone poisoned guys would gather outside the women’s dorm and plead for the girls to hurl lingerie from the upper windows. This became a national fad for a short time until college authorities cracked down on it. That was a major national college scandal until some years later when streaking became popular (running naked through the streets certainly is less offensive to the populace than another fad of the nineteen sixties—burning down the administration building).

 

Walker died in 2016 At the age of 93.  I wrote him a fan letter several years before he died explaining that we were fellow journalism school attendees and that we both had spent quality time in the Shack. Mort Walker returned for a visit in 1978, his last visit to the original building.  In his letter, Walker asked if I knew that the University had built into its new student activity center, a supposedly replica of the Shack, naming it Mort’s, and featuring a giant statue of Beetle Bailey.

 

Walker’s time at Mizzou was not a smooth one, beginning with what happened to him when he was in journalism school and a BMOC (big man on campus). The letter went on:

 

“I returned from four years in the Army during World War II, became editor of the Show Me magazine, a member of the honorary journalism fraternity, a straight A student and had had an office in the J-School.”

 

“The Dean “(Francis Mott) told me to report to his office and he asked what I was doing in J-School I answered brightly “getting educated sir.”

 

He said, “But I see by your records that you didn’t take my prerequisite course, ‘History and Principles of Journalism.’ I replied, “I was too busy serving the world for democracy, sir.  He yelled “GET OUT!”  I came to class the next day and found my office locked and all my belongings thrown out on the floor I applied with Dean Mott for a diploma in humanities and left for New York I had several other conflicts with the school and here they were honoring me that’s Mizzou.”

 

My longtime friend and retired coworker at the Conservation Department, Jim Auckley, worked at The Shack when he was in college and his memories of the place are what one might call bittersweet.

 

“We had a cockroach that came out at night near the beer tap at the Shack. We named him Archy.  The man who ran the place was a retired Boone County farmer named Ray…can’t remember his last name. He ran the grill at the front of the building; it had an outdoor take-out window. Ray and his wife made the secret Shack Sauce for the hamburgers at home and brought it in. The man who owned the jewelry store just down the street actually owned the Shack building [Joe Franke]. I remember one lunch hour when a hamburger fell onto the floor from the grill; Ray looked around, saw none of the customers were watching and deftly flipped the burger back on the grill!

 

“I was usually stationed at the beer tap, except for busy lunch hours when things got hopping. The Shack had a juke box that was always roaring.  One night, on a typically slow evening, I served two girls that I knew were under age. I almost had heart failure when two men in suits, ties and trenchcoats came through the front door…I just knew they were cops. Never did that again.

 

“I’m sure you remember Beetle Bailey started life as a college student; he spent quite a  bit of time at the Shack before becoming an Army private.”

 

Archy Jim’s cockroach, was named in honor of a fictional insect from a column in the New York Evening Sun by Don Marquis 100 years ago. Archy, a cockroach, crept into the newsroom after hours and would type (in lowercase because he wasn’t heavy enough to do capitals) stories and poems. His best friend was Mehitabel an alleycat. The Shack’s Archy, even in the presence of journalism students, never produced prose or poetry, although I’m pretty sure there were alleycats in the vicinity, attracted by the ever present fog of cooking oil.

 

Jim doesn’t remember the prices from the Shack, so dime beer and quarter hamburgers may be wishful thinking on my part, but they’re close.  Jim has a board from the original Shack, with carvings from some of the army of thirsty students whose initials and other jackknife created memorabilia went up in flames. A board like that is akin to owning a body part from a saint. I envy him.

 

Joe Franke had removed several booths from the Shack which saved them from the fire and those have been incorporated into that supposed replica of the Shack in the university’s student activity center. It is as pale an imitation of the real thing as are those goofy looking imitators who infest the country posing as Elvis. The phony Shack doesn’t even serve beer. That’s like being invited to the White House for a state dinner and being served cheeseburgers.  But what President would be crass enough to do something like that?  Unthinkable!

 

In October 2010, Mort Walker returned to Columbia to help celebrate the grand opening of the student center, featuring “Mort’s” supposely the re-creation of the Shack which, of course, was a physical impossibility. Walker must’ve been conflicted over the invitation but graciously accepted the dubious honor.

 

Did The Shack succumb to a stray spark that ignited generations of grease- impregnated, highly flammable walls? Or did a surreptitious night crawler, perhaps on orders from the higher echelons of the University administration apply the fatal spark?, We will never know and considering that the University is Columbia’s largest employer, any investigation into the origin of the Shack’s final dive into immortality was likely to be minimal.

 

Today, Dean Mott is gone (although I still have his textbook which, of course, I bought to avoid being kicked out of the school), the J-School lions still have not roared, Mort Walker is gone although Beetle Bailey remains in the custody of Walker’s two sons, dime beer and greasy hamburgers cooked in company with cockroaches also have vanished, as has the Shack.

 

R.I.P.

 

 

 

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