Crystal Palace, St Louis

The Crystal Palace in St Louis was a short-lived but legendary night club. It predated Gaslight Square, but moved west on Olive to join the up-and-coming district as it grew in popularity. The move benefited both. During its heyday on Gaslight Square, it was a combination saloon and 300-seat theater.

The Crystal Palace only operated for about 16 years, but it put St. Louis on the map, attracting national acts. Its mix of Victorian architecture, a cobblestone sidewalk, traditional lights, and antique decor inside is still widely imitated.

The mastermind of Crystal Palace in St Louis

Crystal Palace St Louis
This is the Crystal Palace in St Louis as it appeared in the mid 1960s. Inside, it looked like a church gone bad, in Lenny Bruce’s opinion. Gaslight Square took its name from the 102 old-fashioned gaslights that lined its sidewalks.

The Crystal Palace spent most of its existence at 4236-4242 Olive. It was the brainchild of Jay Landesman, his wife Fran, and his brother Fred. Fran’s brother, Sam Deitsch, operated the Opera House and Golden Eagle clubs in Gaslight Square. In a 1970 retrospective, Jimmy Massucci, another Gaslight Square pioneer, told the Post-Dispatch the area thrived on establishments that were something other than a jukebox-pinball type bar. The Crystal Palace was definitely far from that.

Landesman’s parents operated an antique shop on Olive called Landesman Galleries. He took over the business in the 1940s, which led to his next venture. Buying trips to New York introduced him to the Beatnik scene, and eventually, he and Fred moved to New York and started a publishing business. It was also where Jay met Fran.

In 1952, they moved back to St. Louis and bought a bar at 3516-3518 Olive called Dante’s Inferno that had been in operation since the 1930s. They turned it into the first iteration of the Crystal Palace, decorating it with antiques they appropriated from their gallery. Landesman said he opened it because there wasn’t anywhere in St. Louis to get a decent drink. Their bartender was Jack O’Neill, whom the Mutrux family lured to The Gaslight, the bar that gave Gaslight Square its name. Their piano player was Tommy Wolf, whom they poached from the Jefferson Hotel.

In 1957 the Crystal Palace followed its former bartender and moved seven blocks west, about a mile and a half, to join what would become Gaslight Square. They took the decor a step further in the new location, adding salvaged stained glass to the antique decor. Lenny Bruce said it looked like a church gone bad. It was a formula many Gaslight Square proprietors would follow, and it’s still widely imitated today.

A bit of New York in St Louis

Crystal Palace, St Louis
In 1961, a young Barbra Streisand opened for the Smothers Brothers at the Crystal Palace.

The key to the Crystal Palace was Landesman’s connections to New York. He was able to lure a large number of up and coming entertainers from New York to perform at the Crystal Palace. Allen Ginsberg, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Miles Davis and Barbra Streisand were just some of the New Yorkers that Landesman hosted here, in many cases before they were superstars. Landesman billed the Crystal Palace as the place to see tomorrow’s stars today. The Crystal Palace was one of the few clubs in the country Lenny Bruce could perform in legally. The Smothers Brothers recorded their first album on the Crystal Palace stage.

Landesman also staged plays and musicals, including original productions he and Fran wrote. Two songs Fran wrote with Wolf, “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” and “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” became jazz standards. Fran wrote the lyrics, and Wolf contributed the music.

Their musical The Nervous Set was a hit in St. Louis but didn’t do well on Broadway. And that was when things started to unravel for the Crystal Palace. Their subsequent shows proved a bit too controversial and/or ahead of their time for St. Louis, so they wound down the theater. They didn’t like the Dixieland Jazz and singalong clubs that were opening up nearby, and they grew bored with the kinds of acts they were booking that successfully drew crowds.

In 1964, the Landesmans sold the Crystal Palace to Howard Hill. In 1967, a group of people tried to revive theater at the Crystal Palace, and Hill operated the club until 1968 or 1969. Business declined sharply in 1968 and by 1969 there were only 12 clubs left in Gaslight Square.

The buildings on the south side of Olive survived longer than the north side. The former Crystal Palace was vacant for about three decades, and the south side of the street was demolished in 2001 and 2003.

Moving on

After selling the Crystal Palace, Jay and Fran Landesman moved to London. Fred Landesman maintained a home in Missouri but also lived in New York. Fred died in 1977 at the age of 62. Fran returned to St. Louis and played a show at the Gaslight Theater, a few blocks south of the old Gaslight Square, in 2008.

Jay and Fran died in London in 2011, five months apart. Jay was 91. Fran was 83. They had been married 61 years.

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