Second Set: City Museum and music and magic
In about a month’s time, on Sept. 26, it’ll be a year since the passing of Bob Cassilly, a fact laid upon me by a friend who has studio space in the City Museum. He’ll be moving out of the facility before that sad anniversary rolls around. And in a purely selfish way, it’ll be a shame to not know someone with access to the museum after-hours, when Cassilly’s playhouse could be enjoyed quietly and in a way unknown during normal business hours.
On Monday night, for example, we rode the elevator up to the last stop, walking out to the world’s craziest rooftop patio. Climbing up a bit further, we wandered to the seating area just underneath the praying mantis.
We drank a beer, ate some chips and eventually caught just enough of a cool night’s breeze to hop onto the famed school bus, which dangles over the street below. Having sat in the driver’s seat during a rainstorm a few months back, a truly spooky experience, I didn’t need that particular thrill again. Sitting on the back of the bus was just fine, with arguably the greatest view of downtown imaginable.
It struck me while sitting there that a decade ago I was gifted one of the greatest things a St. Louisan could ever be handed: a one-year, all-access pass to the City Museum. At the time, I was writing for a cool, short-lived publication called St. Louis Design Magazine. Editor Barbara Walter had a particular interest in stories about the Museum, and I picked it up as a beat. After calling the office enough times for interview requests and the like, then-GM Elizabeth Parker handed me the pass, told me to just to come around any old time and find whoever I needed.
That kind of approach to PR worked for me. If a new exhibit was going, just drop by, find the artists responsible, talk to them. Cassilly was the museum constantly, strolling through halls and available for quick interviews as he walked. Those were fun moments, but Cassilly spoke quickly and in clipped sentences; and it was tough to scribble while clambering through an in-progress area like the climbing caves. While not pretending to be close with the man, I appreciate today the easy access he granted me during that period.
Eventually, the Design Mag went away and my pass went with it. Parker moved on, as did a few other folks I knew working in the offices, or in the Cabin Inn. In time, I traveled down a bit less, which actually made trips to the museum a bit more special; when I had the year’s pass, it wasn’t uncommon to make a diversionary trip on a Friday night, “just to see if there was anything new.” That pass got used.
Here are six memories of reporting on (and hanging out in) the City Museum.
6. During the Design Magazine years, I was sent to cover the work of mosaic artist Sharon von Senden. Her name was familiar to me from her prolific mosaics at the Venice Cafe. Spending about an hour watching her work, though, made me appreciate her craft in a whole new way. The mosaics at the Venice and the museum went down slowly that afternoon, meticulously. In the short time we spent speaking together, a relatively small patch of ground had been covered, but it was done with exacting care. While she worked, engaging her workplace while lying directly on the floor, visitors passed by and goldfish swam in the small pond on which I sat. To watch someone who’s mastered her craft work in this way was a delight.
5. Cassilly’s widow, Gi, had a long history with members of Fishbone, befriending the punk-funk pioneers during her years in Los Angeles. For a time, Fishbone became a bit of a house band and the group’s first show at the venue was amazing, singer Angelo Moore being passed above the crowd, high enough to be pulled right up to the mezzanine surrounding the first-floor dance floor; all of this of course, was taking place in a room outfitted with giant fishtanks and painted trees, with a good-size PA pumping out the sound. Having seen the group ignite a crowd in more-conventional spaces, it was amazing to see and hear Fishbone in a space like the museum. A perfect fit. (Thinking also of Moore: He was a regular at museum after that show, often playing the massive pipe organ in the Caves. There was a time when well-regarded St. Louis video producer Bill Streeter was interviewing him for a project. I rode shotgun and a watched the pair interact, which was pretty funny as they have different conversational styles. Listening to Moore, in fact, requires a bit of added attention, as he flies around on different subjects at warp speed. Having listened to the man’s music since my teen years, it was fun and a bit fanboy-ish to sit with him for a few minutes, as visitors wandered by without any knowledge of him, or his band’s history.)
4. The Cabin Inn has gone through no small amount of changes of the years, with a few people I’ve profiled taking on the challenges of the room. Pablo Weiss has been making the space a bit more family-friendly in recent days, adding ice cream to the beer and wine offerings. Like his predecessors, the Cabin’s an interesting venue to make work, as it serves as variety of functions; largely, it’s there for parents to enjoy a beer and a moment’s peace, while their kids go nuts in MonstroCity above them. But in the early days, the Cabin was the premier spot to catch local folk musicians. Even in cooler months, people like “banjo boy” Dave Landreth would set up shop outside the little Cabin, trading songs and stories around a fire. That type of thing can still happen, but not the same frequency as it did. For the first year, or two, under the direction of Bob Rocca, the place had something special, the perfect antidote to the busier, nearby Washington Avenue scene. Speaking of which, there was a brief moment of magic as chef Blake Brokaw took over No. 9, his ninth Downtown spot, and one tucked just outside the Cabin’s doors. He and Cassilly were both smart, headstrong guys and the venture didn’t last too long. But that Cabin patio was humming for a second there, probably my favorite space in St. Louis during that too-quick moment.
3. Random moments ... Leaving Midwest Mayhem at close over a few years in a row, then popping over the Missouri Bar & Grill, followed by a trip east; never home before 4 a.m. and always appreciative of the music and fun that KDHX brought to the museum on those nights... Meeting Bill Christman through his whimsical Beatnik Bob’s. ... Listening to crew member Myk Miano tell off-color stories at the Cabin at twilight. RIP, Myk. ... Wandering through the in-construction World Aquarium with enthusiastic founder Leonard Sonnenschein. Etc. and so on...
2. While not involving the Museum, this one does involve Cassilly. A few summers back, the owner of a prominent local creative shop called me and said he had a guest in town who wanted to go exploring urban ruins. I happened to be free for the day and we hit the Pruitt-Igoe site, then St. Mary’s Infirmary and, lastly, Cementland. At the time, the latter was still largely a mystery, with not many photos escaping the place. We clattered up a bushy hill, found a gap in the fence, slid through and came across the initial bones of Cementland, with towers and berms and bridges and a general sense of “what is this place?” settling upon us. It was a hot day, and we were three explorations in, but it was easy to wander the space, trespassing on what will hopefully still become of the strangest public attractions in the U.S. If (let’s say: when) it does open, it’ll surely be great and complete and wondrous. But even an incomplete Cementland was a sight to behold. Going there now is not legal and not advocated here. But it is amazing.
Cassilly, in the white trunks, fights Pablo Weiss at an event at the City Museum.
1. There were boxing matches at the City Museum twice, but it was the first card that brought somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 to what’s now the ball pit under MonstroCity. Cassilly was himself taking part in the event by fighting Pablo Weiss. He also oversaw the building of a wild ring, made up of iron, ropes and a bit of industrial foam. Probably, it’ll go down as the most-memorable night of my life, having a chance to also compete on that same, zany card. It’s one that wouldn’t have happened without Cassilly bulldogging the event through, basically, calling in favors from all across the state to help waive some legal hurdles that were threatening the night. I’d like to think that he was doing that for all of us fighting, but I tend to believing that there no way Bob Cassilly wasn’t going to box that night, on his property, in his homemade ring. Whatever the motivation, it fell in line with determination to make his space memorable.