The Last Great Coffeehouse?

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The Muddy’s idea began in 1975 as the brainchild of Joe DeRose. It started as a debating club for a few graduate students from Colorado University. They found a place in an old downtown hotel that was on the lower end of its declining years. It was a marriage of convenience—cheap rates, poor students. Too soon, urban renewal broke up this union, forcing the students to scurry about fifteen blocks up into north Denver, where they reopened.

The place quickly morphed into a bookstore that couldn’t support itself. In desperation they added coffee, then pastries and sandwiches and finally an old manual lever espresso machine. Although the birth canal had been strange, what emerged was a full-fledged Coffeehouse, “Muddy Waters of the Platte Inc.” It spent the next ten years surviving on a month-to-month lease, under the mainstream radar and against all odds.

It became a wildly successful “Bistro of the night,” open from seven in the evening until four in the morning, seven days a week. Along with the bookstore-coffeehouse, it added The Slightly off Center Theater, all in the same building. Now there was a place for Music, Plays, life-drawing classes and the piece de resistance, Muddy’s “Summers of Jazz Concerts.”

Muddy’s hosted all of the governors of Colorado and all of the Mayors of Denver from when it opened until it closed its doors in 1997. However, that was only a small part of Muddy’s patina, because it also caught the tail end of the “Beat” generation. Pontifical greats like Ken Kesey and Alan Ginsburg railed against man and machine in our confines.

Jack Micheline headed a list of great poets who spoke their lyrical prose on Muddy’s stage. Both the known and the unknown poet mixed pentameter and hexameter for all who would listen and then strode out the doors leaving their ambience behind.

What made Muddy’s worth writing about was not only who came and went, but also what happened to people while in its ethereal grasp. The real importance lay in its ability to expose people to each other by gently mixing together the grist of their characters, laying bare what was and wasn’t known about each other. It forced us to look at ourselves through the eyes of our contemporaries, some of whom had dared to live outside that damned mainstream box; showing us that social oxygen exists everywhere.

-excerpted from “Muddy’s Chronicles” by Bill Stevens

Author Bill Stevens will be signing copies of his new book, “Muddy’s Chronicles: Secrets of the last Great Coffeehouse” on Sunday, Dec 21 at 2 p.m at the Mercury Café. Admission is Free.

Mercury Café
2199 California Street, Denver

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20 Responses to The Last Great Coffeehouse?

  1. Victoria says:

    I spent a lot — a lot — of my college years at what I always called “the real Muddy’s” (before something called Muddy’s appeared uptown and way before Paris on the Platte superceded it).

    I remember going up on top of that rickety lofty thing with a pitcher of Mexican chocolate and talking about films with who was to become my best friend until the sun was coming up. And going there after the clubs were closed and we were too wired to go home.

  2. Trevor Alyn says:

    The second Muddy’s was unique in its way, and I loved the people there an awful lot, but for me, the first Muddy’s symbolizes a turning point in my life — the point when I realized how big the world actually was.

  3. Susan Pratt says:

    It was at Muddy’s in 1979 that my life changed forever when I met a charming and romantic Spaniard from Madrid named Jose over a game of Yahtzee. We adored Muddy’s (his brother Felix worked there, I think or had some other official connection) and we spent almost every evening there. The photos on this site make it all come rushing back! We would use a small drawing pad to communicate (he spoke limited English and I virtually no Spanish) and we would “talk” for hours on end over coffee and pastries. Jose and I parted ways just a couple of months after meeting due to life events beyond our control, but those weeks at Muddy’s remain some of the best memories of my life. I will always be grateful.

  4. Marc Neville says:

    Muddy’s was the salvation of my college years as an impoverished working-class student at Auraria in the early 1980’s: I could rent a table for the evening for the price of a pot of coffee and an occasional piece of pie, study chemistry and differentials util four in the morning, then get on my bike to motor home to Capital Hill for a few hours sleep before heading off to either of two jobs or to class. I was really sad when Muddy’s fell victim to urban gentrification, but ever grateful for the time and the space that allowed me to get a leg up on life back in the day.

  5. Marc Neville says:

    Muddy’s was the salvation of my college years as an impoverished working-class student at Auraria in the early 1980’s: I could rent a table for the evening for the price of a pot of coffee and an occasional piece of pie, study chemistry and differentials util four in the morning, then get on my bike to motor home to Capitol Hill for a few hours sleep before heading off to either of two jobs or to class. I was really sad when Muddy’s fell victim to urban gentrification, but ever grateful for the time and the space that allowed me to get a leg up on life back in the day.

  6. Maria Campbell says:

    I will swear to my deathbed that the Eagles song, “Sad Cafe”, was written about Muddy’s. “We thought we could change the world with words like love and freedom…we were part of the lonely outside the Sad Cafe…oh it seemed like a holy place protected by amazing grace… I remember the times we spent outside the Sad Cafe…”

  7. Tom Schmitz says:

    I still tell people about the mythic pitchers of cappuccino covered in cinnamon. Drinking coffees on the theater stage, read the graffiti on the bathroom walls and the months long conversation between myself and an unknown friend via messages written onto the loft wall.

  8. Shameless says:

    As usual Bill Stevens has his head up his #$%. I still want to congratulate him for actually doing what many others more worthy failed to do… tell a story. It’s all back asswards, but we always understood Bill’s fantasies and for the most part forgave him. A lot of people were left out. ie. Christian and Omar. Elfego, Jerry Crow,Hero. Others were not given credit due. Chief was Joe De Rose, supporter of the walking wounded, steadfast and calm through all storms. Chas Clements who regaled everyone with never ending stories of terror and adventure. He solved all of my problems in 24 hours as my bodyguard. His girlfriend Elisa beautiful peace maker. BMW John. Scotty, Michael the book seller,Michael Shea piano player. Jack Davis, Kevin and his Saint Bernard that dueled Buck to near death, and Steven who kept everyone half way sane. There were the poets, the artists, the playwrites and actors, the late night hobknobbers, the cons and hustlers, the druggies. All with one thing in common… Home.

  9. Kezia says:

    I spent so many nights at Muddy’s, met so many interesting locals and so many drop-ins from out of town. It was peaceful, real, calm and interesting. There were people playing games, usually strangers mixed with some regulars. Tables of people working over books, before computers. Tables of people talking. Loners hanging and gregarians chatting away. Across the street was a bar with no name posted, had to know about it. Up the street were real lofts (long gone and ungraded into tiny fake expensive lofts) and throbbing dance clubs with no indication from the street whatsoever. The true essence of a coffee shop as gathering place for people with something going on other than their wallet, that was Muddys on the Platte. When I retire, I would love to re-create it somewhere. And in my imagination, world reknown jazz players know about it and just happen to drop by and just happen to play a little harmonica, guitar or sax – and then go back to their coffee like everyone else, leaving the notes hanging in the air. Yeah, Muddys was the best.

  10. Meredith says:

    I was hoping someone would mention the bathroom, Tom. I was amazed at how that tiny cramped little space could hold so much ink. I remember seeing “Thumbs Up Sissy” with the drawing of Sissy Hankshaw’s giant apprendages, and thinking I hadn’t known very many people who read that book. Muddy’s was an amazing cosmic coffeehouse. Part of me is still there. Circa late 70’s/early 80’s…

  11. Jeff Maguire says:

    I thought I’d chime in as I was raised and educated in the coffeehouses of Denver and have a little history for you.

    Before Muddy’s there was “Signs of the Tarot” at 17th and Pearl a few steps from the, Folklore Center. I spent almost every night there in my youth, playing chess and mingling with the new hippies and the remaining beatniks who haunted the place. It was closed in 1967 when the manager, Anthony Dubois a wonderful man, killed himself in court as he was sentenced for a match box of pot. He was one of my chess buddies.

    All the equipment was purchased by Bob Goode, and moved to 20th and Logan, right up the street from the, “Exodus” (folk and rock 32 beer haven) and the bookstore, “Bell Book and Candle” including in the purchase was “La Victoria” an amazingly large espresso machine with a cast of a flying eagle sitting on the top of a round stainless cylinder, sometimes I see poor copies of this wonderful machine. It was a dangerous machine, and if the pressure got to high, a whistle would scream, people would duck under the tables, you could do 3 things…add water, open valves to release steam and manually turn down the gas. One blew up in, “Gaslight Square” in Saint Louis killing many. I know, I ran the place for two years with Jacqueline Haines my girl friend at the time, and I was easily distracted so that whistle would scream at me often and I would dash across the floor and open the water valve. I have a million stories, and I wish I had a few pictures.

    Some of you may remember me as the part owner of “Left Bank Books” next door to Muddy’s and as the former owner of “Paris on the Platte.”

  12. Mike says:

    It all kinda changed when Muddy’s moved. Omar and Christian were a hoot, that is until they got busted. Omar is out of prison now and lives in Hawaii (married with kids). Mark Gitlis is another one that needs mentioning.

    I wish my kid could experience what Muddy’s was and will forever be in my mind – a place of good company, food, and conversation and the best damned collection of people in Denver period.

  13. Chris (wehY) Meta says:

    Sadly, I was only introduced to the original Muddy’s a shortish time before its end. But it changed me, pretty profoundly. I had the honor of doing the last performance ever on its theater’s stage. I performed Pink Floyd’s “Fearless” as the last song, I think. Then there was a scramble and some various temporary places for us to go before Paris on the Platte opened. Though many of us went to Paris and had some good times, to be sure, its vibe just wasn’t quite ours, for the crowd I ran with. No offense to Jeff and Paris, it was and remains a fixture, with character and identity, and we not only appreciated a temporary place to do our coffeeshop thing, but many of us still go there from time to time, and did still during the existence of, Muddy’s Java Cafe. For many many people, that place was truly home. There were distinct and quite different groups co-inhabiting Muddy’s, and although we pretty much all knew each other, and freely interacted and cross-pollinated ideas and drama, the different groups – largely but not entirely delineated by age – were really mostly on different wavelengths from each other. And while Bill’s book chronicles pretty reasonably his “clique” as seen through his eyes (and don’t get me wrong, I didn’t always get along with Bill but we occasionally enjoyed a good conversation and/or a game or two of chess) but Bill’s book really doesn’t touch very much on the vibrant, bizarre, beautiful (usually, in its weird way) energy of the middle (like me) and younger sets of folks there. But Bill didn’t really participate in or pay a lot of attention to the other “generations” as far as group dynamics and zeitgeist went. So there is much that was experienced that truly changed, enriched, and sometimes SAVED lives among the younger crowd, so Bill’s book, while covering the zeitgeist of his set, as he saw it, it’s just not the whole story of Muddy’s Java Cafe, by far. I don’t know if anyone will choose to do s Bill did and write a book about their experiences in the younger generations, but many tales still go ’round, and many more don’t need to in conversations between us veterans of the younger set, a word or hint is often enough to reminisce between us. But I think as far as telling the tale for those who weren’t a part of it, it would be impossible to capture. Some stories, as one other veteran put it, would “burn the pages” if written down. And though the problem of capoturing its true zeitgeist is much bigger than just thgis, the sordid tales of miscreancy and naughtiness would quite likely overwhelm the other parts of the tales of the experience, for the reader, because they were intense. But for us, those page-burners were just another part of a much bigger story, the story of a crossroads, a haven, an altar, a mass group-therapy session, a rescue mission, an oracle, a school, a nonstop play, a magical forest with treaqsures and perils, and so much more. The last night of its existence, I was the last customer to leave. I drank the last cup of its coffee, and drank the last sneaky shots of smuggled-in tequila there. I was the last non-employee to walk out its door, coffee cup and tequila bottle in hand. (Thanks for letting me keep the cup, Sheila. :) I think Sheila was the only employee there when I left, and followed close on my heels out the door, to lock it for the last time as Muddy’s Java Cafe. I would say it was bittersweet, but the only sweet was having the honor of being the last patron, in a parallel to being the last performer at the first Muddy’s. And having that cup and bottle. Mostly the cup. The rest is bitter, as far as its closing, for me. But it is far better to have lived the amazing thing it was while it was, than not. I still have many, many friends from there. And so many memories, across the spectrum from dull to metaphysical, from lonely and desperate to the most friended, loved, and sated, from the weird to the weirder, and some things so truly magical that I can’t put them into words. While, as I said, I don’t know that the youngers could follow Bill’s lead of a book of chronicles, but I feel the need sometimes to speak up and do my pitiful best to represent those who didn’t make it into the book, or got misrepresented often in the Westword or one of the many art/hobby weeklies that went around. I can’t really do it well, but someone needs to and I’ve done my best to supplement Bill’s chronicle, I guess, along with all your comments, of course. I miss that place so much, still, all these years later. Its loss left a hole in my soul.

  14. Oh, such great memories! After getting off work at 11p or midnight, we enjoyed many pitchers of Latte’s (is that what we were drinking?) over great conversation and muses. Thank you.

  15. Kevin Temple says:

    I loved reading these post and like many miss those days gone by playing chess with my friends or talking about vampires with Zachary from Gasoline Alley. Staying up all night due to the crowbars ( 6 shots of the espresso and chocolate if I remember. I even used espresso with my friend John during a nude life study because nether one of us had the brains enough to bring ink. I moved a year before the close to Alaska and here I remain but stumbled upon this blog as I perform research into starting yet another coffee house and I only can hope that I am able to bring so much I learned at Muddy’s to the north. It was never about the coffee or the food but the people and the culture that made this place a warm and inviting refuge from the outside world.

  16. Bobby Ray Manzel says:

    I was a customer, also, back in 1975 -1977. I would drive there, late at night, usually with a friend, and have a coffee. We would review our lives, together, while listening to some moody music. It was always difficult to find, for me. My friend, Harri, and I opened up a coffeehouse named ‘Freeweavers’ at 524 E 17th St. in 1975. Just a block west of the Denver Folklore Center. I was struck by the similarities of the two coffeehouses. I was living in San Francisco in 1974 and stumbled upon ‘The Meet Market’, a comfortable coffeehouse which I attempted to recreate in Denver. Great memories from those years.

  17. Joanne Stato says:

    Bobby Ray!!!
    I am sure you don’t remember me, but I am Joanne Stato who used to sing and play the piano (thank you for having a piano!) at your Freeweavers coffeehouse between 1974 and 1978, when I moved away from Denver.

    I met some of my best friends and fellow musicians at Freeweavers.

    Freeweavers provided the most wonderful (if humble) space for those of us who just needed a place to talk, play music, and enjoy being young in Denver during those wonderful days when everything was cheap and life was relatively easy.

    I only went to (the original) Muddy’s a few times because I travelled by bicycle and it was kind of far from where I lived in the Cheeseman Park neighborhood. But Freeweavers was very accessible.

    (I also remember it was originally called “The Bare Tit” (with a graphic of same in the front window) until the people from the feminist bookstore up the street broke the window not once but twice.)

    I was trying to figure out how long Freeweavers stayed open.

    I am so glad to see you are alive. I did not know Harri spelled his name with an i. Both of you provided a wonderful service to the community. Thank you so much.

  18. Marc Wiggins says:

    Trying to contact a waitress from muddys. Late 80’s her name is Diane McKinnley.

  19. KS Kanne says:

    Lovely people , wonderful times. Lots of madness and magic.

  20. Ron Richardson says:

    I performed in a couple of plays at the Slightly Off Center Theater at Muddy’s in the late 70s. Drank a lot of coffee and fell for a pretty waitress there. Those really were great times.

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