History 301: When the beatniks invaded Indianapolis

By CONNIE ZEIGLER, Contributing editor

Indianapolis experienced a zeitgeist moment in the fall of 1959. It came in the form of the city’s first expresso café. In the 2020s we might think that an espresso cafe heralded a wholesome early appreciation of good coffee in the city, but in the late 1950s “expresso café” was code for “beatniks,” and most of conservative Indianapolis – that is, most of the city’s adults – did not consider beatniks wholesome. Far from it.

Merriam Webster defines a beatnik as “a person who participated in a social movement of the 1950s and early 1960s which stressed artistic self-expression and the rejection of the mores of conventional society.” Ought-oh. The source of the word “beatnik, according to Oxford Languages, came from the “beat” poets and the last syllable of the USSR’s       satellite, “Sputnik.” Horrors.

By Oct. 20, 1960, when this ad appeared in The Indianapolis News, the idea of the beatnik had already become a cult-like character.

Whatever the word’s source, for Indianapolis parents, beatniks were “no-good-niks,” to steal a term from Natasha Fatale, the pseudo-Russian spy from the cartoon Rocky and Friends (later named Rocky and Bullwinkle). Speaking of zeitgeist, Rocky and Friends first aired in November 1959, just one month after the opening of The Space Cage at the corner of 16th and Alabama streets was announced in The Indianapolis Star.

The city’s first espresso café would offer such exotic brews as cappuccino, according to The Star article, as well as about 25 other coffee drinks, but none of the “strictly from nowheresville” stuff Indianapolis was used to drinking, according to The Star business editor, Don G. Campbell.

As pretentious as the coffee offerings must have sounded to the Folgers crowd in the city, it was the anti-establishment culture brewed in these places that really worried people. In an article published in The Indianapolis Star in June of 1959, conservative bastion Billy Graham called beatniks and their “lack of inhibitions” sinful – just the sort of rhetoric that inspired young folk to check out the places where the uninhibited liked to hang out.

Entrepreneurs capitalized on the uninhibited, disenfranchised, growing audience willing to pay up to 75 cents per cup. By Oct. 23, 1959, three expresso cafes had opened in the city, including Quiet Harbor at 4208 N. College Ave., Space Cage at 1601 N. Alabama, and Chez When at 811 N. Delaware, according to articles in The Star and The News, which seemed interested in staying on top of this new phenomenon, usually under headlines featuring the reporter’s version of beatnik-speak, such as the Oct. 22, 1959, headline in The Star article about Chez When: “Like Tasty, Man!”

Chez When kicked off its opening with Professor Fritz Whitehouse reading Shakespeare to modern jazz accompaniment on Oct. 23 and promised a folk music festival the following weekend. Quiet Harbor didn’t open for business until 7 p.m. most days. The Space Cage offered “modern jazz” until 4 a.m.

The espresso coffee shop in what is now Herron-Morton Place was advertised in the April 14, 1960, edition of The Indianapolis Star.

It did not take long for one thing to lead to another in beatnik land. By Oct. 24, just about a week after it opened, The Indianapolis News reported that a “riot” broke out at Quiet Harbor. It “took five cars of the boys in blue to cool the caper at an espresso shop.” Apparently around 200 customers were milling about when a fight started. Not coincidentally, police were parked right in front of the establishment at the time, following “previous complaints about the beatnik hangout.” They broke up the fight and arrested co-owner Don Hohlt, 24, for “keeping a disorderly place” and customer Erich Bretzman for “being a disorderly person.”

Several articles about the expresso raid appeared in both The News and The Star. On the day after the raid, co-owners Holt and William Lutes, also 24, met with police and said that they had “hoped to attract a different type of clientele – artists, writers and folks who felt inclined to read poetry while sipping mocha,” according to an article in The Star. But police inspector Carl C. Schmidt told the newspaper that the police were “not going to permit dives to set up under the beatnik title.”

Bretzman, who wasn’t involved in the fight, but who had simply refused to leave Open Harbor when ordered by police, was found not guilty of being disorderly and “freed of a charge of visiting a dive,”according to an article in The Star. Hohlt’s case was discharged on Nov. 20, but Quiet Harbor was stale coffee by then and closed soon thereafter.

The espresso craze seemed to cool across the city quickly after that. By 1960, and in a sure death knell for a subculture, beatnik-themed parties became the rage in social Indianapolis. In May, Thomas Carr Howe High School hosted a beatnik party, and The Star article about it reported that “beatnik parties are increasing in popularity, and they are just about setting the town on fire.” By October, stores were selling beatnik costumes: beard and mustache, sunglasses, jean jacket, pants tied with a rope, for Halloween. Country clubs and social groups had beatnik-themed events.

Beatniks were appropriated like crazy, man.

By August 1960 in an Indianapolis News article titled, “Like flop,” Earl Moses reported that of four espresso cafes opened in 1959, only the Space Cage remained open; it disappeared by 1961. Owners of the Lion and the Mouse, a coffee shop which took over the spot that had been Chez When in late 1960, expressly stated that they were “not aimed at the beatnik trade.”

Espresso shops were gone; the beatniks were beat. Indianapolis parents could breathe a sigh of relief by 1961. Or so they must have thought. How could they know that an even bigger, broader “What’s the matter with kids today” moment was headed their way in just a few years with the dawning of the age of Aquarius.

Connie Zeigler holds a master’s degree in history. She enjoys digging up a surprising, forgotten story and sharing her pirate’s booty with Urban Times readers.