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St. Louis Oral Histories

Photographs by Matt Marcinkowski

Mississippi Valley Ragtime

Trebor Tichenor was named after his father, Robert (his parents just reversed the letters). His band, the St. Louis Ragtimers, played in Gaslight Square, and are still together 50 years later. Unlike other kids who grew up in the ’50s, Tichenor didn’t care for rock and roll. He was obsessed with St. Louis’ own indigenous music—ragtime.

My mother was a musician. She had a little band, from 1930 to 1935, called Lettie’s Collegiate Syncopators. They played pop music. She was pretty young, because she was only 20 or 21 in 1935, and it was the end of the music, and she sold her tenor was a gold-plated tenor sax. They started me in on lessons when I was 5, but I didn’t really take to it. I was interested in what boys are interested in, playin’ ball and stuff like that. Sometime between age of 13 and 15, I discovered ragtime. I didn’t really know what it was. All I knew was that I was crazy about it. I think the tune that really became kind of the center of my musical life was the “Maple Leaf Rag.” I was well trained enough that I could find my way at the piano. I stopped taking lessons for a while, and then I went back when I was like 18 or 20. Same teacher. Believe it or not, he’s still in business, John Gross. He’s still involved in music, at St. Lucas Church on Denny Road. John’s got to be 90. He never particularly liked ragtime, but he helped me with the technical stuff.

My grandmother was very sympathetic with my interest in music. We found this place called the Gravois Music Center, near Bevo Mill…It was a record store that sold ethnic records, square dance records, German records, all kinds of stuff. I used to go in there and have the guy go in there and start looking through the 78s. I bought anything that had the word “rag” on it. When I was 16, my grandmother found the first book on ragtime, which was published in 1950, They All Played Ragtime. That kind of put it all together for me. I remember being at Country Day and reading that book. I just got more and more obsessed with the music and the collecting. I can’t tell you why. I just loved it so much when I first heard it, and it just became a lifetime obsession. That’s all sheet music [he gestures to a floor-to-ceiling bookcase behind him.] I have thousands, but all those folders where what was left of the old Hunleth Music Company downtown, and I bought all they had. Then, in the basement, I’ve got 10,000 piano rolls. That’s always been my main thing, the piano rolls. I built my knowledge tune by tune, collecting this rag I’d never heard of, and then I went after the sheet music, and just built this great collection. It’s not the only rag collection, but I think it’s the most complete.

I finally found an incredibly good piano tuner, who’s made my old Steinway sound like it did in 1956. My grandmother bought it for me. She knew I was serious about the music. So we went downtown. Aeolian had a big store downtown, Ballwin had a big store. Those were the two big competitors. So we went down to Aeolian, and she said, “Pick one out.” It was these little Baby Ss, a small-sized Steinway, that they don’t make anymore. I picked one out, and she plunked down $3,000. She was born in 1888, in the city. She was very much an urbanite. She remembered hearing ragtime. She was 16 during the World’s Fair. She was really quite young, but she managed to get around and listen to things. That piano is on its second set of hammers. This is the piano I used to play down at Gaslight Square. I bought this in 1960 or ’61… This is a 1919, made in Chicago by the Cable Company. I kept it going, all these years. I played it open like this so that people could watch the hammers.

The great thing about the Square, you could find just about any kind of music there. At one time, I counted five Dixieland bands working. [Laughs.] There was modern jazz, as we used to call it, at a place called The Black Horse. That was where Jeanne Trevor sang. You could find any kind of music. The Crystal Palace had all this avant-garde stuff. From 1961 to ’64, we were at a place called The Natchez Queen. This was a club, and the front, as you walked in, it looked like the front of a boat. It was right around the corner from Boyle and Olive. Beautifully appointed, with raised wallpaper. It was a first-class production. Then we moved down the street to a place that was called Bustles and Bows. That later became the Rooster Tail. When we got to the Square, it was going full blast. At night, you could not even think about driving a car down Olive. That was where everybody went, and some of us had the illusion it was going to last.

In 1960, they tore down Millcreek Valley, around Union Station. It all came down. And if there’d been more feeling or knowledge about ragtime, the old Rosebud building could have been saved. It was on the corner of 22nd and Market. I got so close—I was looking for the bar. We were playing in the Natchez Queen one night, and Al was with his banjo player, where he talks all about the tunes and stuff, and he was talking about 22nd and Market. And some guy in the audience, “Oh, that was my building.” You know, you had these salvage people, who would buy all that was left, after the headache bomb. I said, “What did you do with the bar?” And he said, “Oh, I couldn’t sell it, so it got destroyed.” More stuff has gone by the wayside like that…it’s just unbelievable. I remember of course, before they tore down Millcreek. And you could still get a sense of what it must’ve been like down there. Josephine Baker was born down there in 1906, in dire circumstances, and life could be tough there. But that’s where early ragtime was born.

St. Louis Magazine - November 2010 - Trebor Tichenor from St. Louis Magazine on Vimeo.

Little Athens

Virginia and Georgia Doumouras are sisters who have lived in the same house, a few blocks from St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, since 1932.  

Virginia: That’s a picture of our father over there. He was very dapper. Bow tie, straw hat. He was born in Dragoumanou—it’s now Kotili. My mother came from a village called Manari, also in the Pelopónnisos. Her brother brought my mother and three of her sisters to the U.S., because see, in Greece they needed dowries to find a husband. Now, my mother’s brother had a man picked out for her—he owned a packing house—but she didn’t want him. She’d already met my father. He didn’t have money, though. Her brother said, “If you marry that man, you are going to starve your whole life.” Well, that didn’t happen.
We moved here in 1932. April 15 to be exact. I was 12.

Georgia: And I was 10.
Virginia: We shared a back bedroom—and we still do. The reason we moved here was, we’d lived on West Papin, north of Chouteau, and they took all that neighborhood and built Highway 40.

Georgia: There used to be a pool hall.

Virginia: And a hamburger stand, and Ann Lisette beauty salon. When they built the clover leaf, all the businesses on Chouteau and Kingshighway went away.

Papin, Clayton, Chouteau, Gibson, Arco—the whole neighborhood had Greek families. In the ’40s and ’50s, they called it “Little Athens.” See? [She pushes forward a yellow legal pad.] I listed all the people who lived here: 34 on Chouteau, 14 on Gibson, 12 on Clayton, West Papin, and Taylor… I remembered them.

Most of the Greek people worked in restaurants. My father owned The Press downtown. Uncle Gus owned the Forest Park Café, at the corner of Kingshighway and Chouteau. First it was an ice cream parlor and candy store—peanut brittle, chocolates, all home-made. A lot of Greeks were in the candy business. He had huge, solid marble tables to make the candy on, and a long marble counter, and little white marble ice cream tables. We got a lot of people from the tennis courts.

Georgia: We used to call them “our tennis courts.”

Virginia: Later he added sandwiches. And then he sold it to another Greek, an Olympic champion wrestler who was brought to this country by General MacArthur. Why, I don’t know. Uncle Gus owned apartment buildings too, all Greek.

Georgia: The Greek school was there.

Virginia: We all went to Greek school three days a week after grammar school. Mrs. Andreades taught us. She’d been a teacher in Greece, a very dramatic lady. If you asked her how she was [hand to her heart, Virginia mimes the response with a half-sigh, half-moan].

Georgia: Our textbooks were The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Virginia: Georgia and I had little blue plaid satchels, always full of books, so of course they were very heavy. Once I was misbehaving, and she came over and went like this [she whacks herself on the head] with my satchel!
Later, her husband retired, and they moved back to Greece. A friend visited her in Athens and of course, when the Greeks get together, there’s always political discussions. So Mrs. A. gets up, goes to her closet, pulls out an American flag and says, “These are my politics!”

Georgia: Our parents missed Greece a lot.

Virginia: We made our own games—in those days, kids didn’t need their parents to run their games. [Forest Park] was our back yard. My brother’s friends would leave their equipment in our basement.

Georgia: And religion played such an important part. The church was the center. I remember the priest would ask, “Did you mind your mother?” only one time, Virginia got up and said, “No.”

Virginia: No, no, you got it wrong. He said, “Have you been a good girl?” and I said, “No.” Because you don’t lie to the priest.
My father never laid a hand on any of us; why, I don’t know. Georgia and I would argue who was going to do the dishes, and my father would get up and he’d do them.

Georgia: We had no air-conditioning. The ice man would come up the alleys, and you would put a card in the window: 50, 70, 100, 125, however many pounds of ice you wanted. We’d blow fans over the ice, and we slept out in the back yard. Some people slept in the park. And we’d go to the [Muny] opera, and we’d walk home through the park—can you imagine?

Virginia: We went to the movies, too, at the Manchester Theatre. We called it the Mad House. The tickets were 10 cents.

Virginia: The ladies of the neighborhood would congregate every afternoon in someone’s home or yard. They would kind of know where it was going to be, because they could see where people were gathering. They would have Greek coffee and cookies. Some of the ladies loved the wrestling matches on TV. They thought it was real, and they would cuss the villain in Greek!
On Saturdays, the Greek ladies would go to the park with knives and a sack and dig up dandelions to eat. The black ladies would also go, but they would get the collards, and we’d go for the dandelions.

Georgia: Our mother was a great cook. Dolmades, spanakopita, pastitsio—like a macaroni casserole. In those days, they called the Greek Festival the Picnic, and the women did their cooking at home. Our mother was known for her spinach pita. Our aunt was known for her galatoboureko.

Virginia: The Greek people do not celebrate birthdays, they celebrate name days. The feast day of the saint you were named for. Your family would hold open house to everybody in the neighborhood, no invitation, and there would be lamb, feta cheese, olives, baked bread, ouzo, Greek dancing—they even danced in the yards. The Greeks were known for their hospitality.

I was under 12 when I first had ouzo. Some of the ladies wouldn’t drink it of course, and my mother would bring it back to the kitchen, and we would sneak it.

Other holidays? Halloween wasn’t big. Easter was the predominant holiday. We did a 40-day fast from meat, dairy—that doesn’t leave much to eat!

Georgia: We dye all our Easter eggs are red. For the blood of Christ.

Virginia: At Greek funerals, the makaria [luncheon] used to be served in the home. It’s customary to have fish at a funeral. They’d serve a certain cookie—it’s not sweet, because you are not supposed to have anything sweet at a funeral—with wine and coffee. Now everybody goes to Spiro’s Restaurant.

Georgia: Our neighborhood went through a pretty bad period, with drugs and crime.
Virginia: It had deteriorated so, we would take a drive out Clayton Road into the city, and I would look in the paper, maybe see what was for sale, and we’d take the dog for a ride, and maybe get ice cream.

Georgia: We thought, isn’t it foolish of us to go into debt for an inflationary house, and we stuck it out. And now the neighborhood’s made a comeback, thanks to Wash. U.

Virginia: [Chuckling.] One night, years before, they stopped my father to rob him. They told him to put his arms around the telephone pole, and they took his watch, and then they said, “Oh! Give it back to him! That’s Al!”

A Portrait in Black-and-White

Charles Henson sits in a booth at Ferguson’s Corner Coffee House, with the city’s mayor several tables away. Since moving to North County nearly 40 years ago, Henson’s watched the neighborhood slowly change. He’s done his part to smooth the transition by helping start a group known as People Reaching Out for Unity and Diversity (PROUD). A former corporate director of community relations, founder of an HR consulting firm, and Wash. U. grad, Henson is currently unemployed.

In 1972, when I was 13, I moved from North St. Louis, near Wellston, to live with my grandma. She lived in unincorporated North County, on Maple Street, which was the dividing line between the Ferguson and Kinloch school districts. I was entering high school and my mother, who’d grown up in Kinloch and was a teacher, thought I’d have a better opportunity here—plus, our old neighborhood was beginning to change, and our home in the city had gotten broken into several times.

When I first started at Ferguson-Florissant, it was an all-white school. I’d just left an all-black school from K through 8th grade, and had limited exposure in that environment; my only interaction was limited to businesses in the area, when we’d go shopping. I was fortunate because I played football, so I started to develop some relationships with white kids prior to the start of school. I remember in the locker room, one of my teammates loaned me a bar of soap and when I finished taking a shower, I couldn’t remember who he was because everyone looked alike. I just remembered where his locker was, so I walked by with the soap out and luckily he reached out and grabbed it.

For my parents, the ideology was that I was in a better environment. In some ways, they were right—and in other ways, it was not the best experience. What was missing was the nurturing piece that I got in the city of St. Louis. Unfortunately, there were people in high school—classmates’ parents—who didn’t want me there. I had friends who’d tell me, “We can be friends here at high school, but you can’t come to my house.”

When my parents moved to Ferguson in ’75, our neighbors were predominantly white, and they slowly disappeared over time. It was kind of a slow triculation—older folks would die or move to a retirement home—but before you knew it, the neighborhood had changed. Communities that surrounded Ferguson, like Berkeley, Jennings, and Dellwood, those communities were thriving. But before you knew it, there were a lot more empty doors. The shopping centers and drive-ins and those kind of things that existed were disappearing.

Back then, during the late ’70s and the ’80s, I was working in the field of architecture for a lot of firms—I ended up working for seven firms in 11 years. The unfortunate side of the industry was, again, I was in an industry that didn’t look like me. My parents had always told me that you get a good education, you commit yourself to something, and the doors will open. Well, it wasn’t always the case. I’d grown so accustomed to layoffs that I used to keep a box under my desk, and I could tell when I’d see the look on my supervisor’s face.

By the early 1990s, a lot of the early signs of white flight and economic flight had happened, and people were starting to hear rumors that America was changing, with the word “diversity” being used more often, and there was fear and anxiety around that. There was a forum about it in 1994—the Oak Park Exchange Congress—and we brought in a lot of people from the community. People were just overwhelmed with the thought that we can live together and be different, and we wanted to keep that going. That’s how P.R.O.U.D. was formed—and we’re celebrating our 15th anniversary this year.

I know this effort has made a difference in this community. My children have shown me that, with the kids that have stayed at my home and where they go. It’s just been an amazing, 180-degree turn of events. There’s finally a generation—if we as adults don’t screw them up—that says, “You decide on your friends based on what you have in common and like or dislike, not based on the color of your skin.”

My daughter graduated in 2008 from Ferguson-Florissant, where I’m on the school board. I was at the podium and said, “I graduated from this school, and my daughter’s now graduating here, and my mom”—who was 85 at the time and sitting in the audience—“could not attend Ferguson-Florissant School District as a child. And here I am now, sitting on that very board of governors who promoted that ignorance a long time ago.” Thank God things have changed.

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