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Second Set: Frederick's had a private club feel, but what a strange club it was

In Performing Arts

9:38 am on Thu, 05.03.12

Lately, I’ve been buying more worms than I have in the past. Which has probably caused me to think about Frederick’s Music Lounge a little bit extra, since my worm dealer, Paul’s Bait & Tackle, is almost directly across the street from the shuttered venue.

Images courtesy Paul Stark

Sometimes, for me, I’ll see a place that’s no longer in business and I’ll start to think about what it was like, back when it was around; maybe that happens to you, too? Especially when you’ve worked there? Yeah, I know it does. Let’s not be silly.

True, true. Here comes another Thursday confessional, you’re thinking. Yup. I did, for the span of about three months, work the door at Frederick’s, the new guy on the rotation, assigned to Tuesdays, some Thursdays and the occasional weekender. It was a interesting place to work, in large part because Frederick’s was pretty much already my go-to, default bar on nights when I wanted to catch some music, without ever having to pay a cover. Actually, my attendance there had really kicked in well before the place was reborn as a five-night-a-week-music hub for South City.

A quick bit of history, with some gaps, no doubt:

A tour by Fred Friction

Frederick’s was founded by the late Frederick Boettcher Sr., a salesman who traveled the Midwest from his homebase in Cape Girardeau. Through those traveling years, he frequently moonlighted as a vocalist, a crooner who enjoyed the mid-century styles of music. With a family in tow, he eventually resettled in St. Louis and, after a time, took up residence in an interesting building on Chippewa Street, halfway between Morganford and Kingshighway. A large, sunken room addition provided a perfect place to host musical events; and, for a time, Frederick’s had a certain swingin’ '80s notoriety, with a piano bar, comely servers, a small menu and a reputation as place to tuck away from the daily troubles of life.

By the time I lucked into the space, a decade-and-change past that heyday, the room had a different feel. Frederick Boettcher was often the lone employee, tending bar with what could be described as a salty touch. If you were unknown and wanting to burrow into what was happening inside this fun, unusual room, you had to pass through a period of hazing. The stories came constantly, from Frederick and from one of his prime regulars, Paul Stark, who enjoyed a very specific seat along the rail.

There were stories about weddings performed alongside the backyard grotto, presided over by Boettcher, himself. (True.) About an ice cream factory located in the basement. (True.) About the key club days, when you had to be a member to come in, with membership including access to a closet full of adult videos. (Very possibly true.) That the room was, in its prime, a meeting spot for gentlemen and ladies and the significant others, those special someones who were not their wives and husbands. (Almost surely true.) That you had to ring a bell, identify yourself and be buzzed in (100 percent known to be true) since it was my introduction to the place, and the one enjoyed by many a hepcat in the '90s.

To gain entry to Frederick’s, for a time, was to gain admittance to a public room that had retained a private club feel. To drive past, seeing the funky, wooden sign for the Lounge, you might not stop for the first 100 times, until someone would clue you in to the delights inside. And once you found it, you tended to stick. If anything, the regulars at that version of Frederick’s were a fairly tight-knit group, often running down Chippewa together, to Johnny Gitto’s on Sunday nights. There, Boettcher would serenade the room, in front of Bill Rowe’s house band. It was a cool time.

Frederick Boettcher died in 2000, succumbing to cancer. And his son, Fred Friction, would become the new face of the operation, with Stark running many of the day-to-day operations.

A second (third? fourth?) life

Frederick’s Music Lounge didn’t have a full nine lives, but it didn’t lack for changes over the years. And as Fred Jr. took over the booking of the room, live music returned to the tiny, front-of-house stage, augmented with a player piano that was frequently in use and sometimes in tune. Surrounded by a crazy-quilt of wall decorations, a full-sized, dead tree inside the doorway and a tiki hut over the bar, the stage at Fred’s would soon become one of the most sought-after destinations for young bands in St. Louis.

Though there was an Americana vibe to many of the bands, on a given night you could find some twisted hip-hop, lots of singer-songwriters, a few comics and an occasional oddball act, so out there that it would be hard to peg it in a genre. Though local groups began the process of filling the Frederick’s calendar, touring bands soon followed, some playing Frederick’s pretty much exclusively when coming through town. The room may’ve had an occupancy of 49, but on nights when the more-popular draws pulled in, the room could accommodate (at times, uncomfortably) about twice that, with the body heat causing the front windows to literally sweat right along with the crowd.

While buying worms recently, it dawned on me that the room had been shuttered for a little while. How long? The website that Stark developed to document the strange days of Frederick’s has the best materials on the departure of the room, which hosted its last show on Feb. 11, 2006. Though some of the links on the site have disappeared from the digital realm, there are still plenty of fun reminders of early 2000s, when Fred’s was one of the most intriguing, unique venues in town.

At some point, almost every super-regular enjoyed at least one night in the employ of Frederick’s. For me, there were maybe a few-dozen shifts, spread out over several months. But I enjoyed more nights than that at Frederick’s, certainly in the triple digits.

These days, I’ll pass by the room at least a few times a week, sometimes forgetting to look over. At the time of the closure, well-documented by the local press, there was a general, vague reference “a Korean family was buying it, just for use as a house.” And whatever the owners’ ethnicity, the place is still closed to the public, the signage long gone, no plaque there to remind the unknowing of this awesome little slice of St. Louis nightlife history.

Seven for seven

As Frederick’s moves into a seventh year of non-existence, here are seven, random memories. Be sure to pull on some reading waders, as the nostalgia might get a bit thick underfoot.

1. Paul’s Playhouse

Those of us who enjoy a night in a barroom go for a cocktail, or three, sure. But we also go for that sense of place, that emotional connection that occurs when a room’s collective minds meet-up in perfect harmony with your own. While Fred Friction booked the biggest chunk of the week, Paul Stark usually held court on Monday nights, sometimes bartending. Though not trained in drink-making, per se, he understood the human component of it all, making everyone feel at home, through well-timed zingers and containers of fresh popcorn, served in plastic dog bowls.

On Monday’s Paul would program TV shows like “Police Squad,” running them one-episode-a-week until the program’s completion. Fun movies were a staple, played after the shows. And if you hung around long enough, he’d even let the regulars organize and promote their nights; I distinctly recall programming a night of short films and another one full of rock documentaries. If the room had the private club feel suggested above, the Monday night crew was even tighter, the same faces coming out each week.

The key programming on these evenings was “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” The room would roar when the secret word was announced, Paul ringing the loud bell behind the bar, or kicking on the in-house bubble machine. That act, of course, would lead to people pulling out the nearby umbrellas, kept around for just that moment. In those instances, the melding of entertainment and reality was nearly complete, all of us cast in roles, weirdos in a weird bar, enjoying life in a way that comes around only too infrequently. These nights happened a decade ago, but the scene’s so rich in my mind. I miss those Mondays, still. Really, truly.

2. Smoke House Blues

Frederick’s was a smoker’s bar. By the time a visit ended, even a non-smoker had downed a half-pack through simple osmosis. Working the door meant sitting on a deck, six, or seven feet above the stage and probably 10-feet over the floor. On nights when the room started filling up, you could literally watch the ceiling start to trap the smoke. Each time the door would open, a small ripple of wind would extend out a few feet, then would recede as the door closed. The house fans were outgunned, never able to catch up.

This might seem like exaggeration. It’s not. The reason I probably paused on my employment wasn’t the $35 cash tip-out at the end of the shift, or the shift drink after midnight, or seeing the Saw is Family every couple weeks on a slow Tuesday (though I certainly got my fill of their set). It was the smoke.

The door, in fact, was the prime place to people watch, as you could peek down on the crowd. It gave you a special vantage point to the madness below, even as you were busy logging Paul’s complicated run sheet, which included 15-minute check-offs, detailing how many people had come into/out of the room. Luckily, because the place was pretty well-regarded by almost everyone, the fools were minimal and the toss-outs infrequent. These were generally cool folks, even the 65-year-olds who were carded, per house custom, every time through the door. They were alright, yeah. And they liked to smoke.

3. Drinkey Drinkey

If there was one thing that the regulars at Fred’s enjoyed more than smoking (and maybe even more than seeing/hearing live music) it was this: drinking. If our half-pack analogy rings true, then walking into Fred’s stone-cold-sober meant that you’d immediately cross the threshold, walk down the steps, saunter past the tree and suddenly realize that you were buzzed. Just entering room meant hitting a .02 blood alcohol count. It was the damndest thing.

And to immediately contradict what was said just a paragraph above, it was the regulars who were the most-apt to get foolish and get away with it. Various stories circulated about late-night activities on the picnic bench in back. Or what happened when the Darth Vader mask was worn. Or ... well, there were a lot of stories.

One night, another regular and I tied one on. It was during the Noiseday Hootenany, the weekly, Thursday open mic. Roy Kasten, the longtime local music writer, was onstage. The other regular (no names; initials: Z.M.) convinced me that it’d be fun to stand behind the performer, in the window behind the stage, a few feet above the bandstand. We went up, pantomimed during the performance. We accepted hand-slaps and the like on the way in. But, in retrospect, it was something of a dick move. Really was. Not the only one that ever occurred at Fred’s and not the only one I ever engaged in there. But it’s the one I’d like back. Sorry, Roy, it was a drinker’s bar. And drinkers drink. And, then, gosh ... then!

4. Art Gallery and Billiards Hall

It’s appropriate, somehow, that Fred’s had a pool table. Not a regulation one, the kind you see at every corner tavern. It was a bumper pool table. Weird, right? Nah. Not at Fred’s. It totally fit there. And no one could beat the owner. Frederick Boettcher owned the table, literally and figuratively. To fall into the trap of playing him for a beer was a rookie’s mistake, one that went through the generations. Poor saps. We all learned, eventually. And no amount of practice on an off-night was going to change your fate.

ASIDE

Above the table was a huge mural, painted by Frederick Boettcher Sr., one of a few that he drew on the walls over the years. As time passed, all kinds of other stuff started bunching up the walls, not the least of which was an impressive collection of women’s undergarments; they swung from a ceiling fan, the bras and panties becoming a de facto part of the air purification system.

At some point, I moved into and out of a house on nearby Parker. Two things were left in the house by a previous tenant: a 32nd degree Masonic certificate, framed; and a huge, three-by-four-foot wooden owl, also framed. Eventually, multiple moves of the owl got to me, and Fred Friction took it in, one of the many orphaned pieces that adorned those walls. Wonder what ever happened to it? And all that other stuff? ‘Cause there was so much stuff!

5. Ice Cream Factory

We alluded to the ice cream factory earlier, and that’s how the facility was introduced to newbies. In fact, Fred Sr. had set up a small packing plant in his basement, just through a doorway at the side of the bar. To walk through that door was to enter yet another level of the strange, multi-floored Frederick’s complex. In that room were multiple tubs, plastic bags and industrial equipment. As a frequenter of the place, I eventually asked to fill in on a shift in the ice cream factory, told to wear some old shoes and clothes that could get soiled by the dust.

As best as I could figure it, Boettcher was a middleman of some sort. He’d get frozen yogurt powder from parts unknown, which would then be re-packed and sealed in new, smaller packages. Those would then be sent to international buyers. To this day, I don’t understand how the system worked, or how this distribution system came to live in a South City basement, let alone one attached to a bar. If not mistaken, I was told that the packing we were doing was meant for a shipment to Oman or Yemen.

My shift was spent sneezing, despite a bandana covering most of my face. The colored powder kicked up constantly, and the device that heat-sealed the packages was a scary one, with the possibility to pinch your hands on a super-hot clip. Yikes. Happy to have done it once. And just once.

6. Radio, Radio

Despite the closure of Frederick’s in 2006, both Fred Friction and Paul Stark have maintained a strong, radio presence in St. Louis, through popular (and very different) shows on KDHX, 88.1 FM, where I've been known to also work.

Fred Friction was influenced by my new worm shop, Paul’s Bait & Tackle, which inspired the name of his show, "Fishin’ with Dynamite." Airing on Thursday mornings from 10 am.-noon, the show was not drawn up in the “best practices for community radio lab,” which is exactly why it’s so awesome. And, we’d guess, why it’s so popular with fans. Rooted in Americana, Friction runs through classic country alongside rock songs recorded last week. No small amount of the music comes from bands that cycled through Fred’s, some of them two- and three-generations removed from the exact bands that played there. But Fred Friction is loyal to the acts he loves, and you’ll hear Two Cow Garage, Nadine, the Bottle Rockets to this day. You can also catch Fred Friction as a live performer around town, playing music from his album “Jesus Drank Wine,” and other tracks from his days in the Highway Matrons.

Paul Stark held the distinction of hosting the longest-running ska show in the U.S., “Ska’s the Limit,” which is now ably hosted by JJ Loy. These days, he gets up early on Saturday mornings, hosting “Musical Merry-Go-Round,” a kid’s show aimed at both the pre-tween set and their parents. As he did with “Ska’s the Limit,” the show is remarkably organized, with Stark taking hours to lovingly prepare and organize each set, which takes up far more time than the two-hours of broadcasting. He also organizes touring shows to arrive in St. Louis, oftentimes through Off Broadway, which has hosted many a MMGR matinee show on Saturdays and Sundays. If you’re lucky, you’ll also catch him at the Trophy Room, after his every-three-weeks haircut.

7. Mystery pick

What to put here? A nod to the lovely bartenders: Erika, Kathy, Dana, Trish? A remembrance of all the Frederick’s-to-Rocket Bar runs at 1:30 a.m.? That time when I had to borrow $2 from Fred Friction to buy the complete CD catalog of touring performer Tracy Shedd? The good times in the grotto? Another reference to the “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” days and how perfect those were? Maybe a reference back to the Darth Vader mask? That one! Nah, that one’ll have to wait for the book...

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