Remember When? 

Revisiting the old downtown without going retro—or neo

The changing face of downtown. You could go all proletariat about that. Talk about the gentrification of Missoula, etc. Drone on about the real bars of your youth. But there are some of us who remember Missoula before it had good coffee. Before it had good bread. Or microbrews. We didn’t drink microbrews, we drank ditches.

“I’ll have a ditch.” You actually said that. You said it in the Stockman’s Bar, “the Stock’s,” which has been basically how it is since time immemorial. It is authentic and unpleasant in a necessary way, and this keeps it safe.

But let’s not talk about authenticity. It’s a tiresome topic. Let’s just remember stuff about downtown Missoula. Remember the Park Bar? Going to the Park, if you were 18 and thought Missoula was a city, was like going to the Bronx. Remember Eddy’s Club? The characters in Lee Nye’s photographs—for a long time on the wall at Charley’s—were up at the bar at Eddy’s. Remember The Flame, with those dark booths and that huge fish tank and drinks called Hawaiian Coolers and bathrooms called Les Hommes and Les Femmes?

Remember the Turf, with that big mirror and gorgeous bar? Remember the Turf war? It marked the beginning of the new downtown, the moment when the Turf was trashed (after it burned) instead of rebuilt. Or was it rebuilt then burned? The details become hazy after awhile. All that remains is the controversy.

Remember Alice’s Restaurant, Missoula’s first real foray into health food? Even the cheesecake was intended to be good for you, and had, possibly, a garnish of sprouts. Everyone was sprouts crazy. Those were also the days of macramé. Even now, you look at sprouts and think of macramé. And of heavy, one-of-a-kind, hand-hewn coffee mugs, from which you drank Evening in Missoula tea, unstrained, bits of shrubs sticking to your lips.

Remember the Rishashay? No, not the Rishiri, that came later. The Rishashay, with its exotic essence of patchouli. Remember the Queen of Tarts? That welcome abandonment of health food! The eggs Benedict bespoke cholesterol and calories.

Remember that little record store that was upstairs in the building where J.C. Penney’s used to be, or maybe it was in the next block, but, anyway, there was a little record store, upstairs, where the Magic Mushroom originally was, later, before it became Magic in the mall, and this record store, of course, had only LPs, and a retro collection, and you asked the proprietor “Is Ella Fitzgerald any good?” and he said, kindly, “She’s the best,” as if you’d presented him with a legitimate question.

Remember when the tiny hole in the wall, about six feet by 10, just down from the Crystal Theater was—seriously!—Budget Tapes and Records? (Remember the first movies you saw at the Crystal? They were all retro—Mario Lanza playing Enrico Caruso, that sort of thing—and you laughed in your coarse serape at the top hats and spats, sitting with your beaded sister and her bearded friend, who had recently slept on top of his van in Morocco.) Remember walking down from Jesse Hall and buying a record at the tiny Budget Tapes and Records, knowing this purchase would mark a whole new era in your life? Remember when whole new eras in your life began every three months? (The U was on the quarter system then.) Remember when the hole in the wall became Body Basics? Remember Indian Earth? Indian Earth was a powdery substance you got at Body Basics, the smallest dab of which, evenly distributed over your face with the special brush provided, transformed you into a person of color? If you got too much on, though, you looked like you were auditioning for a part in Silkwood.

Remember the Top Hat? It’s still there. Remember neon? It’s coming back. Didn’t the Florence Hotel at one time have a big, neon sign on top of it? (Remember the Florence Hotel?) There was nothing anywhere quite like that sign then—such solitary fluorescence—except maybe in Shanghai, where there was a single enormous neon sign casting a lurid glow over the mouth of the Yangtze, its enormous characters advertising a power company. Missoula at the end of the ‘70s was similar to the Communist China of then. Both were emerging from a big sleep, which, in the case of China, was induced by the repressive confusions of a series of social experiments: the (failed) Cultural Revolution, of course, and before that the (failed) Great Leap Forward.

And in the case of Missoula? Well ... it depends what you remember. Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom.

Remember the Pink Poodle? You don’t? Well, it was probably before your time. Speaking of neon, check out the sign for the new art gallery going in on west Main, scheduled to open on New Year’s Eve. It’s a neon sign in large, lush color. It complements the Zip Auto neon across the street, without trying to compete with Zip’s authentically non-retro art deco. It also—whew!—doesn’t go neo-Western, with curlicued lariats or any other Miles City overlay. It’s just: Catlin Galleries, Inc. This is art, no illusions, the sign seems to say. The Central Park sign of the parking garage glows in the offing, like the green light on Gatsby’s dock.

Catlin Galleries open Friday, Dec. 31 with a champagne reception from 5 to 7 p.m. at 241 W. Main.

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