The Bandersnatch grand floor to ceiling window at Colwell House (1968)
“The Birth of the Bandersnatch - Beginning of a Denison Landmark”
Jeffrey W. Pettegrew (’68)
Communication Major; English Minor
The 1960’s was the pinnacle of the halcyon era of folk music. Unlike the earlier big band era and contemporary rock ‘n roll, winsome folk music involved easy-to-carry acoustic instruments associated with sing-a-along songs and more intimate settings. When I arrived as a freshman at Denison University in 1964, it was not uncommon to hear someone playing acoustic guitar in the dorms or on the academic quad lawn. Spawned by lone performers, folk music served as a social magnet, with folk singers leading others in harmony in popular refrains from standards like “Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore”; “Cruel War” or “This Land is Your Land.” It was the proverbial, feel-good “campfire” music that many loved to join in on.
Make no mistake though, rock bands in the 60’s ruled the party scene at “the Dunes” on weekends in the frat houses or at off-campus parties in Newark (the closest venue to consume 3.2 beer) or as far away as the lodge at Buckeye Lake. Folk music was for singing, not partying or dancing. It also better served as the musical medium of choice for romantic inspiration, political protest, and humorous badinage.
I was one of those fledgling folk musicians who brought my acoustic guitar and 5-string banjo with me to campus in the fall of 1964 - my freshman year. There I met Dan Int-Hout (’67) as he hammered away at his big Gibson 12 string guitar in the reverberant stairwell of the Smith hall dorm. We went on to form a quartet of Denison folk musicians and called our group “the Countrymen.” The name seemed to fit the types of songs we sang ranging from “Draft Dodger Rag” to bluegrass favorites like “8 More Miles to Louisville” and “Deep River Blues.”
Incorporating bluegrass instruments like the 5-string banjo, dobro, mandolin and autoharp, the Countrymen enjoyed success by traveling on weekends to college gigs as far away as Boston or St. Louis. But we wanted to find a place at Denison where we could practice, perform and share our passion for music with other musicians. Slayter Union was out. There was no room there; and besides, its bowling alley and TV lounge just didn’t fit the intimate “Bitter End” (Greenwich Village) or “Cellar Door” (D.C.) coffee house atmosphere we wanted to find. Coffeehouses were a destination in the 50’s and 60’s and were synonymous with American folk music and the counterculture.
With its historic roots in 17th century London, coffeehouses were also an interactive haven for cultural interaction, literati, poetry and the arts. Patrons and musicians could congregate and commingle in an open atmosphere that encouraged sharing similar to hippie communes of the era. While I was active in the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity at Denison, the coffeehouse organizers made a conscious attempt to escape the social casteism that fraternity and sorority life promulgated on campus in the 60’s. We wanted to establish a sanctuary of sorts where students could hang out after classes and in the evenings without attention to their Greek affiliation, who they were with, or what they were wearing. It was a safe and cozy place to go.
Our luck came about in the fall of 1965 when we discovered the unoccupied basement of East Talbot Hall, one of Denison’s oldest campus buildings that was scheduled for demolition in the near future. Denison allowed Dan and I to become its co-managers, and it was up to us to make it work out. We were given a key to its door and opening night was scheduled on Oct 23, 1965.
Located adjacent to the campus walkway, the old brick campus building was the perfect spot for our first coffeehouse venue which we dubbed – appropriately – “the Cave.” Painted by fellow students, Denison donated the chairs and a rug for our 6” stage. We rigged up our own Radio Shack microphones and some primitive incandescent spot lights. A crew of coed singers showed up to paint the windows black, then they proceeded to paint the interior in the nude. No, I wasn’t there at the time to offer artistic direction. The room held about 80 people in a squeeze, and it quickly became a place where musicians could perform with other musicians. Denison had its first coffeehouse.
The Cave quickly turned into a convenient place adjacent to the quad where students could escape the cacophony of the dorms, frat houses, or the student union. Friday nights were dedicated to open workshops where interested student musicians were invited to come and share picking techniques, new songs or share arrangements. The Cave even hosted a no-name faculty bluegrass band. Guest acoustic artists and singers came on weekends from as far as Ohio State to perform, and admission to cover costs, if charged, cost 50 cents. One of the most famous musicians to play there was Tom Ewing, a phenomenal bluegrass guitar picker from Columbus who later toured world-wide for 10 years as lead guitarist and singer for Bill Monroe – the most famous bluegrass icon. We’re still in contact with Tom, who’s now retired in Kentucky.
During that same period of time, Denison hosted some nationally known folk musicians, like Ian & Sylvia in 1966, as part of its surprise D-Day celebration and concert in Swasey Chapel. One of the headline groups heralded in 1967 at Denison was ‘The Mitchell Trio.” Originally known as the Chad Mitchell Trio, John Denver was picked as Chad’s replacement and the name of the trio changed accordingly. Dan Int-Hout and I quickly became friends with John Denver since his parents lived nearby at Lockbourne Air Force Base in Columbus where his father was a colonel in the Air Force.
While touring with the Mitchell Trio, John would often come to Denison on his motorcycle whenever he was in the area. I laugh to think that that I often arranged dates for John from very willing Denison coeds until John met Annie. John’s favorite times at Denison were sitting outside on quad singing with his 12 string guitar. I’ll never forget him asking me what I thought of a new song he just finished composing. He sang it for me seated on the lawn by the pedestrian bridge as students walked by. I asked him what he named the tune. He said: “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” He added that Mary Travers liked it and that Peter, Paul & Mary were going to record it.
A few years later on John’s first solo album, he recorded a song he learned at Denison from the Countrymen called “Dun Stomped on My Heart.” John and I and his wife Annie had flown to Chicago from Columbus and I helped John re-write our lyrics – adding a verse – on cocktail napkins. We then played it together on our guitars in the TWA Ambassador’s Lounge at O’Hare airport. That was one day with John that I’ll never forget over our many years of friendship.
Despite the growing popularity of the Cave, it had no rest rooms, heat, or running water, and it would have made a perfect wine cellar.. After Dan Int-Hout graduated in June of 1967, I reconfigured the Countrymen – to no commercial success - and renewed my search that fall to find another venue for a coffeehouse somewhere on the hill of the campus. I was determined to provide fresh brewed coffee and a refreshment bar. I also wanted space large enough to have tables, restrooms, stage lighting and a stage. Fate had its way with me.
Denison University, with the personal approval of President A. Blair Knapp, allowed us to use the back of the dining hall in the Colwell House as our new coffeehouse and to allow me to be its first salaried student manager. This support by Denison University’s Administration was the key ingredient to establishing a permanent coffeehouse on campus.
Colwell House was an aging white, wood frame building built in 1878 as a private residence east of the Swasey observatory on the chapel walk. It was deeded to the university in 1917 and over its lifetime housed Phi Delta Theta, a women's dining hall, a women's lounge, a bakery and food service center, the Alumni Public Affairs & development offices, and the Bandersnatch coffee house.
The building had a rear entrance off the parking lot with steps that led up to a separate large room that would replace the Cave. Denison approved a coffeehouse budget that I submitted which included a snack bar, stage, rest rooms, carpeting, tables & chairs, stage lighting and a very modest sound system (hi-fi speakers). It had windows including a large multi-pane window facing the west, which ultimately served to inspire the new name of the coffeehouse. We were bound and determined to transform the space into a real coffeehouse.
Anxious to get this new venue up and running, a wide variety of Denison students including musicians, patrons, as well as art and dance majors helped in its design and construction. Nancy Connor (’68) an art major, suggested that she and her fellow artists design a “stained glass” window (with outdoor lights facing in at night). She suggested an artist’s interpretation of Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872.
Known as one of English literature’s greatest and most imaginative nonsense poems that is a mock heroic balled, it reads (in part):
"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"
As Alice of Wonderland proclaims (in the paragraph following the poem):
“It all seems to fill my heads with ideas – only I don’t know what they are.”
How perfect could that be.
Inspired by the name’s whimsicalness, we all liked the concept. So, the artistic Nancy Connor designed an image which was hand cut from cellophane panels and glued to the west window. We quickly decided that the new coffeehouse should be dubbed ‘The Bandersnatch.” We even had color post cards of the coffeehouse produced and sold in at the coffeehouse (above photo). My mother, in Columbus, hand sewed hems to the window draperies that were made of red burlap.
Witnessing its construction during the winter of 1967 was like a dream come true for me. I was so pleased that Denison shared my vision for its campus. It would be the first student run facility for the college. Every aspect of its operation except the custodian services were handled by student managers or volunteers. You could feel the excitement as the coffeehouse concept was about to launch a major new addition to campus life. It created a buzz.
Now being able to hold over 100 students and a real stage, I had told Denison Administration that the Bandersnatch would become much more than a haven for folk singers. I had taken classes in theater arts under Dr. Wright, and had the privilege to perform on stage with many of the very talented students in the Denison theater productions (including the Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana). I realized that Denison needed a special venue where students with stage, dance, or other entertainment talents could perform in an informal setting. As an example, we decided that Wednesday nights would be “open mike” nights where students could sign-up to perform “acts” of their choice. We also sought to expand the exposure of ethnic music to students by bringing in performers from bluegrass bands to classical musicians playing instruments ranging from mouth harp to cello.
With running water, a refrigerator, and a toaster oven we could now serve fresh ground coffee, tea, and cider, as well as eclectic snacks like toasted bagels and cream cheese that I had delivered fresh from Columbus. Many students had never even eaten a bagel before in those days. We also dreamed up exotic non-alcoholic fruit drinks like the Gyre & Gimble (ginger ale and ice cream with a short of grenadine and whipped cream topping), Mimsy or Vorpal Sword. It was a labor of love, and we were ready to share the joy and fun with others.
Our spring grand opening was fast approaching, and I wanted a special act to launch our first night’s dedication. I called John Denver at his home in Chicago and asked if he and the Mitchell Trio would come to the Bandersnatch as our grand opening performance. For only $500 + travel expenses, I booked John and his fellow musicians, Michael Johnson, David Boise, and their renown back-up instrumentalist, Paul Prestopino. Denison even agreed to let them use the visiting VIP facilities on the other side of Granville for their overnight accommodations. With drink and snack sales, we hoped to come close to breaking even opening night, but I knew that would be an historic event. I wanted to open the Bandersnatch with a concert that no one would ever forget. History proved me right.
John Denver and his fellow musicians (soon to be known as Denver, Boise & Johnson) arrived a couple hours before opening and the fledgling sound system was acting up. While John and the guys went to get something for dinner, Paul Prestopino eyed an antique apple peeler that we had found in the kitchen during the coffeehouse construction. I ended up trading him the apple peeler and he stayed around to fix the sound system before the 9:30 pm performance. The sound sytem finally worked perfectly.
We had pre-sold 125 tickets for $2.50 each. To accommodate the huge turn-out, we moved all the tables outside and sat a lot of students on the floor. We even had a snack bar set-up outside to handle the overflow. Even though John Denver’s group was performing at huge auditoriums on other college campuses and theater venues, John knew this was a special event for Denison, and he cherished the friendships he had made during his many visits to the campus.
John’s trio was supposed to perform for about 2 hours, but the warmth of the reception they received by appreciative students that night encouraged them to perform until after 2:30 am. They stayed so long that they went from Denison to the Columbus airport without sleeping. It was a marvelous performance that I - and others who were there - will never forget. It was as though they were performing in your own living room. Scott Calkins reminded me years later that the Denisonian wondered how Jeff Pettegrew got better entertainment that the Denison Social Committee. I’ll never tell.
The Bandersnatch lived up to expectations after opening night. Student response to the new coffeehouse was incredible. Open each night, they would drop in for a beverage, snack and a quiet conversation where there was dimmed lighting, and recorded folk music or other live entertainment. You get a something to drink and a bite to eat when everything else on campus was closed, and you never knew what to expect when you dropped in. One Wednesday “open” night, we had two students inside a box on the stage that small peepholes. They moved it ever so slightly to see how students reacted. Most laughed. I guess you could call that an act. We wanted to encourage artistic expression no matter how bizarre we may have thought it was. It was a living, breathing environment that stimulated artistic expression.
My days at the Bandersnatch came to a close when I graduated in June, 1968. Scott Calkins (’70) took over the following year. Doug Reid (‘71) followed in the role the year following. Scott and his team succeeded in bringing back John Denver, Michael Johnson, Laura Nyro, and other famous folk artists who all seemed to love Denison and performing in the coffeehouse. But as we would all agree I’m sure, the success of the Bandersnatch was because of Denison’s student volunteers, coffeehouse workers, musicians, artists, and patrons. It was created by a spark of inspiration that has kept the fire going for over 40 years. I am in awe that the Bandersnatch has thrived over the past four decades. It’s the greatest college legacy I could ever have dreamed of. I never thought I’d be writing an article some 40 years later for the Denisonian.
Living in the San Francisco bay area since 1968, I haven’t been back to the Denison campus in over 20 years. But in the coffeehouse and folk singer tradition, I attend annual musical reunions each March in Hollywood, Florida with Dan, Scott, Doug, and other Denisonians of that era - whoever can show up. The funny thing is, we still sing and play the same songs we did at the ‘Snatch. Perhaps we can stage a reunion there some day before we’re all gone. Some things never change – at least in folk music.
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