Thursday, September 27, 2012

St. Michael's Alley, 436 University Ave, Palo Alto, CA

St. Michael's Alley, 2010

"You could shoot a cannon down University Avenue and not hit a thing," said Vernon Gates, who opened the first incarnation of his cafe, St. Michael's Alley, in 1959. (2)

Opening as a kind of European-favored coffehouse in the late 1950s, it just caught the end of the Beats, helped launch Joan Baez when folk took over and became the happening spot in town.  In the mid 60’s it garnered a bad reputation, making police watch lists and drawing the wrath of mainstream Palo Alto. 

Because Palo Alto lacked hot spots in 1959, the crowds at St. Michael's Alley were large when it opened April Fool's Day. So large, in fact, that Gates locked the doors by noon. Before long, he became an impresario, presiding over a host of beat poets, intellects and local musicians like Joan Baez, The Jefferson Airplane, and the Warlocks, a band soon to call itself "The Grateful Dead."
Robert Hunter washed dishes in the back, and Jerry Garcia picked his banjo out front. Certain customers loitered with a 25-cent purchase. "Jerry used to come in, nurse one cup of coffee all day, and pick up all the chicks," said Gates.

Because in its early days St. Michael’s Alley was really just a hipster hole-in-the-wall.  Opening at 436 University Avenue on April 1st, 1959, owner and former political pollster Vernon Gates was looking to capture the spirit of the European cafes that he had known during his studies at the University of Innsbruck in Austria (St. Michael’s Alley is actually the London street where many of the first English cafes opened in the 17th Century).  Palo Alto’s Alley was a modest establishment, about 90 x 30 feet with a high ceiling and service bar in the back.  It had a dark, woodsy atmosphere, a piano painted speckled green against a side wall, and no bandstand. The atmosphere was cozy and informal.  As jazz musician Dick Fregulia remembers, “A piano player could literally play with one hand on the keys and the other hand reaching for a coffee cup on one of the adjacent tables.”

There were performances of all types --- folk singers, jazz bands, staged plays, poetry readings.  And while it wasn’t obvious at the time, the place was becoming a proving grounds for many rising stars.   Paly high schooler Joan Baez, members of Jefferson Airplane and Jerry Garcia and the members of the early incarnations of the Grateful Dead all played there.  Bob Hunter even washed dishes in the kitchen for a while.

It was a credit to Gates that such a creative atmosphere could thrive at St. Mike’s --- especially in a town as mainstream as Palo Alto in those days. From the beginning, the amateur watercolor artist and poetry writer pushed his employees to dance, paint and play music.  He saw St. Mike’s as a “bohemian establishment in a sea of Republicans.” And as such, it soon began attracting counterculture types from all over the Peninsula.

Perhaps too many.  When an 18 year-old Woodside girl was arrested for selling marijuana to her high school friends in 1964, the judge spoke from the bench about her entry into “the world of pseudo sophistication, the world of Saint Michael’s Alley.”  The local media ran with those comments and soon St. Mike’s acquired a not-so-wholesome reputation.  After the Palo Alto police department called St. Mike’s a hangout for “narcotics users and homosexuals,” the city attorney’s office tried to strip it of its beer license.  And in June of ‘65, a crackdown by Palo Alto police on what they called “a bunch of local beatniks” led to the arrest of 4 alleged frequenters of St. Michael’s Alley on drug possession charges.  Soon St. Michael’s more affluent clientele began to fade away.  As Gates would later recall, “Most of my paying customers…thought they would lose their security clearances [at work] if they came to the place, so I was virtually put out of business.”

This might help explain the memories that the somewhat cantankerous Gates had of the musical legends he once hosted.   Of Joan Baez he recalled, “She would go on signing all night and everybody would hang around and not buy anything.” Of the early incarnation of the Grateful Dead: “The only thing I credit myself with is kicking them out and telling them to go home and practice.”(1)

He did audition the Warlocks sometime in mid-1965, but he rejected them as being "terrible."(3)

In 1966, Gates closed St. Mikes and spent the next seven years designing silk screenings, writing metaphysical poetry and meditating “4-6 hours a day.”  But although he called this the happiest period of his life, Gates made an entrepreneurial comeback in 1973.  

In 1973, Vernon Gates opened a restaurant in Palo Alto called St. Michael's Alley. This time, the venue was on 800 Emerson Street (at Homer Avenue). This was about six blocks from the old St. Michael's Alley. The second time around, St. Michael's Alley was a relatively upscale restaurant rather than a coffee shop. (3)

It came to pass on Thursday, October 30, 1980 that former St. Michael's Alley dishwasher Robert Hunter came to be performing at the new St. Michael's Alley. The most remarkable thing about the show, however, is hearing a completely relaxed Robert Hunter bantering with the crowd and taking requests, clearly with people he knows.
Certainly it would have surprised owner Vernon Gates in 1965 to think that his dishwasher would be performing in an upscale version of his coffee shop a decade and a half later. Of course, it would have surprised Gates even more to know that the sloppy band of recalcitrants he had rejected would be playing Radio City Music Hall that very same night, singing many songs co-written by the dishwasher in question.(3)

And as Gates told the Palo Alto Times Tribune in 1991 “I made a conscious effort to drive away the people who destroyed St. Michael’s Alley.  They can’t support the business.  They were some of the finest people from Stanford, but they nickel and dimed us to death.”

Then again, perhaps the new clientele was the old counterculture with new affluent identities.  Gates seemed to consider this possibility later in the interview: “They grow up.  All the people who might have contributed to the demise of the first St. Michael’s Alley are middle-aged now… I have clients that have been coming in since we first opened 18 years ago.”

Despite the higher prices, there was still an alternative feel to the place--- Gates and employees hung their paintings in the windows and his dishwasher grew a corn garden out front.   There were weekly poetry and open mike nights in the so-called “Waiting Room” next door ---a kind of homage to the original St. Mikes.

But in 1994, the links to the past were severed when Gates sold St. Mike’s and got out of the restaurant business.  Now the “Waiting Room” is gone and St. Mike’s has taken an even sharper turn toward upscale cuisine and fine dining.  But no matter how much St. Mike’s changes to cater the capitalist Silicon Valley around it, the secret of St. Michael’s Alley remains safe with us --- it was once a pretty happening place. (1)

Jerry performed here in
Summer 1961 David Nelson
Yet another meeting place was one of the local folk music spots, St. Michael's Alley on University Avenue in Palo Alto. It's there that the area's most celebrated singer and activist, Joan Baez, got her start while she was still a student at Palo Alto High School. As Alan Trist puts it, 'Kepler's was the main spot in the daytime and at night everyone would go over to St. Michael's Alley.' Garcia and Phil Lesh met at St. Michael's Alley that year.(4)

Autumn 1961
Garcia and Phil Lesh met at St. Michael's Alley that year.(4)

1965 Warlocks
Vernon Gates did audition the Warlocks sometime in mid-1965, but he rejected them as being "terrible."(4)

2.)^Tindall, Blair, Mozart In The Jungle, Psychedelic Palo Alto
4.)^ Teddy GoodBear <>
5.)^Jackson, Blair, Garcia: An American Life, pg. 31, 43.


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  2. I caught St. Michael's in it's last days while living on Emerson street in the early 90's. I would catch a superb Irish Celtic group, called Magic Fire in those last days. It was a wonderful place as I recall. Sad when good things fade away. C'est la vie. Joyfully ~ James Velmoth