Source: Western Historical Manuscripts Collection


March 10, 1959 Premiere of The Nervous Set

The world’s “first beatnik musical” opened at the Crystal Palace on March 10, 1959. St. Louisans had never seen anything quite like the play or the decor of the cabaret theatre in which it appeared. Comedian Lenny Bruce once described the Palace as “a church gone bad;” Owner Jay Landesman called it a “cross between a church and a movie palace, without the reverence.” Its walls were painted fire engine red; a backlit 50-foot stained glass mural cast a glow which was reflected in the Landesman-designed chandeliers worked of brass and crystals salvaged from Victorian structures falling to the wrecker’s ball as part of the city’s “progress.” Stained glass, ornate wooden paneling, marble busts, and even wrought iron grilles rescued from the demolished Merchants Exchange building found new life in this transformed retail space.

The Nervous Set was adapted from Landesman’s unpublished novel of the same name, and set to music by composer Tommy Wolf, with lyrics written by Fran Landesman, Jay’s wife. Based loosely on the Landesmans’ experience with the beat scene in New York City, the storyline follows the romance of an avant-garde magazine publisher (which Landesman had been) and a young woman from “uptown,” and their encounters with a variety of Greenwich Village characters. Its satire was directed at conformist “squares” as well as the unconventional “beats.” Nervous Set was a big success in St. Louis, attracting the attention of Broadway producers. It opened in New York in May, 1959, to mixed reviews, and closed after a short run, during which Columbia Records produced an original cast album. Several of the songs from the musical, notably “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” and “"Ballad of the Sad Young Men.”, became jazz standards. The writing collaboration of Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf continued successfully for many years.

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