The Old Student Union

You come in the south door, clamoring down the curve of steps that lead to the basement. Brushing past the expanse of tidy mailboxes on your right, you quickly jog down a couple more steps where you might turn left into the bookshop, mayhap to toss down a dime in payment for a blue book required for an exam in your next class, or just to roam the few aisles appreciating the scent of ink, reams of white paper, or a raft of sketching pencils. But truly, the quest is not here, but across the small lobby where large doors open into the room full of crowded tables, wonderful aromas of coffee and hamburgers, and the roar of chatter from a hundred voices. For me, this place more than any other embodies the reality of life on campus.

There, to the right, behind tall counters laden with coffee and iced tea urns, stand the women in white aprons and hairnets. They watch each student who approaches. At least two of them tend the grill, a massive flattop of well-worn steel burned black by the incessant demand for another hamburger, another fried egg. An endless task of scraping the surface clean with a large flat spatula occupies any spare moment. You watch as one of those women turns her attention to you, and you place your order, mouth already watering.

For a dollar and a quarter, manna from heaven in the form of a grilled cheese sandwich can be yours. You stand there and watch as she turns to her work, wielding a big floppy brush to spread melted butter onto two slices of bread before slapping it onto that grill. The bread quickly turns golden brown before being flipped over—more butter, more searing heat. Then cheese. Glorious marvelous wonderful cheese is added, and the two slices of bread marry it into a sanctified One.

Suffering a quick angled slice of razor-sharp knife to form two triangles, your bundle of deliciousness sails down the line under the supervision of successive women in white, passing the lighted refrigerated case where a person might choose a slice of cream pie, or a peeled egg, or perhaps a salad. But your eyes follow the rich ooze of cheese that rims the bread crust and threatens to inch onto the heavy white china plate. Along the way, a few slices of dill pickle are added along with a glass of iced tea. Finally the plate makes its way to the lady at the cash register and lands on a tray. You tender your cash and then you were standing there, peering through the roiling clouds of cigarette smoke in search of a place to sit.

Squinting toward the bright light pouring in through big windows and glass-paneled doors leading to the porch, you peruse the tables for someone you might know, or—futilely—for an unoccupied table. If fortune fails to smile, you wander through a door to the left of the cashier into the larger dining area where an empty table is more easily found. Or you might, weather permitting, ease out onto the big porch in search of that gang of friends who usually occupy one of the tables. Most desired is the first room with the grill where the bodies, the flattop and the mingled aromas of food generate more warmth than the building’s heat can supply.

Whatever the case, finally dragging out a chair and with the books, notebooks, and other encumbrances unloaded onto an adjacent chair, you lift the sandwich in trembling hand. With a last swallow of eager saliva, your teeth sink into the crisp-tender concoction that will nourish the rest of your afternoon. The bite of just-enough sharpness in the cheese contrasts with the buttery crunch of the toasted bread still hot from the stalwart grill, and the sandwich begins to disappear. The tang of dill clears the palate for the other half of the sandwich, and then, alas, it is gone.

There’s time yet to sip the iced tea. With a brief glance around, you might leave your table to visit the cigarette machine where a quarter dropped into the slot and a quick jerk of the knob yields a fresh pack of your preferred brand. You stroll back to the table, slam the pack a few times against your palm, then unwrap the shiny cellophane to retrieve one of the perfectly-shaped cylinders. Then, with the smoke filling your lungs briefly before you exhale, there is time to look around, assess the day, ponder the meaning of life. A great lassitude supplants your otherwise fraught existential despair, courtesy of butter, cheese, and the endorphins they bestow.

Yes, an exam in French is coming in a half hour, and you’re not ready. You probably didn’t perform as well as you wished on the algebra exam earlier this morning. But these too shall pass, what’s done is done, and so forth. As you tap ash into the tiny flat metal ashtray and consider the nature of life, the comfort of cheese lingers.

Maple Street side leading into porch area

As do many other memories. I left after my sophomore year to live near Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with my new husband. Two and a half years later when he was transferred to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, I returned to Fayetteville to finish my degree. There were mornings when I’d drive to campus in early morning fog to park in a graveled lot across Maple Street and venture up these steps into the Union for a cup of coffee before my early class. Those too were nostalgic moments thinking of the earlier years, of fellow students and dorm mates, of professors and classes, of ever changing current events.

The student union of those days is gone, sacrificed into other uses for a larger more elaborate facility than what Memorial Hall could ever provide. Built in the early 1970s, the new union seems to us older alumni as somewhat cold and vast compared to the old environs of Memorial Hall. Yes, it was crowded and unquestionably not best suited to more modern needs, but it was our place in our time. In service as a student union only thirty years from its construction in 1940, the facility nevertheless filled a critical role in campus life.

As described in the 1941 yearbook: “The basement floor is made up of the confectionery with a black and chromium soda fountain and cafeteria facilities, and the amusement rooms. Walking down the hall from the confectionery one can go into two rooms equipped with ping-pong tables, and one with large, lively snooker tables. Up the stairs to the main floor, and there one sees the front entrance, from which leads the ballroom and the lounge room. With a lofty ceiling support four huge glass and metal chandeliers and tall arched windows draped with yards and yards of flowing expensive cloth, the ballroom is truly a ‘dream.’ Over the especially designed band shell is a mural depicting all phases of student life at the University, and all around the floor are chairs for chaperones and those who care to sit the dance out. Overlooking the ballroom is a balcony for those who care to watch rather than dance. The chandeliers are all connected with one master switch which changes the lights in the room from red, blue, green, and orange back to natural lighting in a gradual fading process.

“Equipped with heavy leather chairs and divans, the pastel-colored lounge room can compare very well with the lobby of an expensive hotel. Scattered throughout the room are lamps with indirect lighting, and down at the end is a large fireplace topped by a huge square mirror. Here students come to read, talk, or just listen to the radio.” 1941

“The fountain room of the Student Union, where at some time or other, everyone sees everyone, is a happy confusion of coffee lines, bridge games, table-hoppers, and glaring renditions from the juke-box. From 9-11, 2 until 5, it’s the place to see and be seen, grab a late breakfast or a hurried lunch, or just sit and talk.” 1951

Bookstore 1950s:

Open hallway where advocates of one issue or another could interact with students. In my time, it was to sign the petition to save the Buffalo River and then to stop the war in Vietnam.

Note: If you’d like to wander through the Razorback yearbook from your time on campus, here’s the link

Dickson Street — Stayin’ Alive

Courtesy Fayetteville Visitor’s Bureau

The heart of Dickson Street runs six blocks east from the southeast corner of Fayetteville’s University of Arkansas campus. After one hundred years of industrial and commercial development that came with the railroad, entertainment took over. By the 1970s, bars and nightclubs thrived in the run-down buildings alongside old school barber shops, pawn shops, artist studios, restaurants, and head shops. The sound of live music filled the night air. Patrons from all over the region flocked to the street to mingle with co-eds, quaff a few beers and cheer on the rock ‘n’ roll. The alternative community centered at the street; walking down the sidewalk meant seeing and greeting old friends and meeting new ones.

The 80s saw further decline and the emergence of tawdriness and then with the arrival of the Walton Arts Center in the 1990s and concurrent rising rent, the magic started to drip away like water through fingers. Depending on the point of view, Dickson Street is now either a thriving commercial mecca or a faint shadow of its former glory. In 2004, an article in the bi-monthly tabloid All About Town addressed the issue of Dickson Street and the decline of the music scene. And not for the first time.  The first such complaints appeared in an earlier tabloid, The Grapevine, in the 1980s and periodically become the focus of community consternation. Some of it has to do with changing demographics. The people who packed the live music venues in the 1970s were staying at home to raise families in the 1980s. Each generation enjoys its high points on the street then subsides into other activities as years pass.

Nevertheless, the article does a good job of peeling back the layers to discover some basic issues. From that, city leaders, musicians, club owners, and other interested fans of the street might derive some workable ideas of how to ensure that the Dickson Street scene never dies.

Five reasons were cited, which have been added to for this piece.

1. Club owners have to pay the bills. That includes ever increasing costs for rent, utilities, wages for employees, advertising, insurance, supplies like glassware and napkins, and inventory of alcohol and any other items served. Back in the day, rent on Dickson Street reflected the run-down nature of the real estate. Now with gentrification all around, rent has skyrocketed. Also, there’s increasing pressure to pay higher wages, utilities keep going up, and … well, it’s all about the money. The clubs count on alcohol sales to generate the profits they need to keep their heads above water. Some bands don’t attract people who like to drink. And people who like to drink have increasingly begun to patronize stand-up bars.

“Stand-up bars are easier to operate,” said Dave Bass, formerly of Dave’s on Dickson and later yielding to the inevitable by opening two stand-up bars, The Blue Parrot and 414. “It’s impossible to make live music work during the week, and you can’t be open two days a week and make a living.” He admitted losing money with his live music at Dave’s.

2. People don’t want to pay a cover charge. Many people don’t realize that a cover charge is the only way to pay a band to play. As veteran performer Jed Clampit pointed out, “You don’t get free drinks, but you want free music. Think about going to your job and working for free.” Owner/operator of George’s, Brian Crowne said “People will think nothing of paying $7 or $8 for a two-hour movie but gripe about paying $5 for live, professional entertainment for four hours.”

Another problem for club owners and bands is that many young people today prefer to float from place to place depending on where their friends might be. A friend might text and want to meet them at a specific location. A half hour later, the two friends might decide to go to a third location. Cover charges don’t work for that kind of activity where the objective is socializing, not watching a particular band perform.

3. There are too many clubs and too many bands. Bringing live music to a particular venue requires a lot of upfront investment in securing the band, promoting the event, and doing as much as possible to bring in a crowd. If multiple venues compete for the club-going public, there’s less to go around. That’s the basic math. But there’s no shortage of aspiring bands whose goal of wealth and fame requires building a local following first. Also, painful as it is to recognize, there’s a big disconnect between the many musicians who want to write original songs and audiences who want to hear familiar music. This particular problem is exacerbated by the fact that record deals and other important steps on the road to wealth and fame depend on original music. Nobody wants to record the 38th cover of “Proud Mary.”

Wade Ogle, veteran of the Fayetteville music scene, says the quality of new bands isn’t what it used to be. “With today’s technology, practically everyone can record a CD cheaply. While I think it’s a good thing, the downside is that way too many new bands are looking to play live before they’re really ready.”

So bands thread a narrow line, forced to invest in decent equipment and hours/months of practice until they can get booked to play and then play covers of popular music in their chosen genre while at the same time working on original songs that might be worthy of record label or promoter interest. If they manage to get booked into a club and they’re not ready, people who bother to show up are turned off to live music in general.

4. There aren’t enough fans. This wasn’t so much a problem in the ‘70s when the Baby Boomers came through en masse, the right age and right mindset to thrive on live music. You could almost say that live music was part of their religion. Alas, those days have passed. Somewhat smaller subsequent generations don’t necessarily take song lyrics as their personal anthems. Some might even allege that popular music today can’t hold a candle to the music being created in the ‘60s and ‘70s. With the rise of digital media, music suited to personal taste is available any day, any time, and any place. Free. Why go to a club and pay a cover charge when you can listen to what you like at home? One benefit of live music will never change, however, and that is the attraction of mingling in a crowd of enthusiastic fans, dancing to the same beat and being part of the ‘family.’

5. The town and Dickson Street itself have changed. Yes, this is a big factor. Fayetteville’s population has tripled since the 1970s, and University enrollment has increased from around 15,000 in 1980 to over 50,000 in 2019. More cars and the infill of properties near Dickson means much less parking plus much of the available parking is now metered. Clubs with occasional live music have sprung up along North College Avenue and near the Northwest Arkansas Mall, meaning competition for Dickson Street. Also, until recent years, Dickson Street was the place to party for the entire region. Now that Benton County allows alcohol to be served, clubs have sprung up there like dandelions in early spring. In particular, the Arkansas Music Pavilion (AMP) at Rogers has created a major performance venue for big name performers that in the past would have appeared only in Fayetteville.

Slogans like “Keep Fayetteville Funky” notwithstanding, times change. We change. It’s inconceivable to think that a day might come when Dickson Street would no longer vibrate with the heartbeat of live music and of people streaming through the doors to hear it, commune with each other, and let their hair down. But the world is, after all, what we individually and collectively make it, and it behooves us to not let such a good thing slip unnoticed into the shadows of the past. Dickson Street has been an institution as well as a collective of our entertainment experiences. We have to pay attention and do what we must to keep it that way.

 

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“A brief history of why artists are no longer making a living making music,” by Ian Tamblyn