Tom Reese told the author of On the Road to hit the road.
Legendary beat novelist Jack Kerouac, living out the last alcoholic years of his life in mid-1960s St. Petersburg, was known to frequent the Beaux Arts Gallery and Coffeehouse, the ramshackle bohemian outpost Reese operated next to the north-south railroad tracks in Pinellas Park.
Kerouac would sit in the back of the dark, high-ceilinged room, stuffed helter-skelter with stained easy chairs and ratty sofas, and listen to the poets and the folksingers. The writer was known to carry a flask of bourbon in his jacket pocket.
“Tom knew damn well who Kerouac was,” recalls musician John Balcomb, who lived for a time upstairs in one of the Beaux Arts rooms-for-rent. Reese told him the story a dozen times. Maybe a hundred.
“And Kerouac really appreciated Tom, because the Beaux Arts was a little bit of San Francisco, right there in St. Petersburg, just a conservative retirement town at that time.”
But for all the creative freedoms allowed and encouraged at 7711 60th Street N, butting up against the Pinellas Park police station, Reese maintained a handful of ironclad rules. According to Balcomb, “Kerouac was usually too loaded to do his own poetry. Or maybe he didn’t want to do it.
“But the last time, Tom escorted him to the door and threw him out. He said ‘I don’t put up with people drinking in my establishment.’”
Thomas Bruce Reese (1917-2006) was eccentric, opinionated, fiery, driven, and openly gay. He was also a man of eclectic tastes and extreme talents, an accomplished painter with a BFA from Stetson University and an MFA from California College of the Arts, a journalist who wrote art criticism, a published poet and a dancer who’d performed with Ted Shawn’s world renowned all-male company.
He was a Renaissance man who pointed the arts in Pinellas County towards its future.
A Navy postmaster during World War II, Reese had immersed himself in the art, theater and dance scenes of several large European cities, working and studying. He was also a voracious reader.
It was 1950 when Reese returned to Pinellas Park, where he’d lived, with his mother, since the age of 4. He worked as a mail carrier for the town.
Tom and “Mother” lived in a small house behind the Royal Palm Hotel, built in 1911 by his uncle Howard. She inherited the property – the tin-roofed hotel, the house and the garden – when her brother-in-law died.
Reese immediately set about turning the old wooden structure into the launching pad for his dream: A progressive art gallery and an art school. There was to be nothing like it in the area.
His co-founders at the Contemporary Arts Gallery and College included sculptress Maybelle Muttart Faldareau and painters David Anderson, Ted Powell and Sydney Stein. Among other accomplishments, Stein had designed the classic circus-train box for Animal Crackers, and the bright red packaging for Ritz Crackers.
Although Reese and the artists in his orbit continued to give art lessons for much of the ‘50s, the original plan didn’t pan.
“Students on the GI bill were precluded from attending his art school,” explains San Francisco artist Mari Eliza, who knew Reese later in his life. “That basically killed it for him. So he had to switch, from what he wanted to do, to something else.”
And so began the poetry readings and the folksingers’ nights, in the main gallery room, or outdoors in the garden. Art contests were regularly scheduled and proved extremely popular with the locals, with regional and even national artists.
He turned another downstairs section of the Royal Palm into the “movie room,” where he programmed foreign and experimental, “avant garde” films.
Maria Eliza was a Tampa teen, disheartened by what she perceived as the universal conformity of her peers, and whole-heartedly uninterested in the pop music on the radio. When she was introduced to the coffeehouse crowd, she says. “I felt really comfortable with the people. I didn’t realize how weird I was until I discovered people who were weirder than I was. I started going there on a really regular basis.”
For free spirits, there was one, and only one, place to go.
It was most likely the fall of 1961 when Jim Morrison, still six years away from stardom as the charismatic frontman for the Doors, wandered into the Contemporary Arts Gallery and Coffeehouse.
A student at St. Petersburg Junior College, the scruffy Morrison was obsessed with the poetry of Rimbaud, and the writings of Nietzsche and others who questioned the accepted way of things (he was also a big fan of Jack Kerouac, but it’s unlikely the two ever crossed paths).
According to Reese – and he told the story to anyone who would listen – Morrison, 17 or 18, got onstage and read his own poetry, with his back to the audience. On numerous occasions.
Reese’s friends insist he exerted great influence on the future rock star.
“Tom would explode on people,” recalls Balcomb, “and that’s what Morrison was copying on the dramatic parts of his Doors records, where he would go from singing to screaming. Tom infused him with a lot of theatrical stuff.”
There was something else, according to Pinellas Park artist and longtime Reese confidante Boo Ehrsam. “Tom advised him he should keep his junk on the outside of his underwear, under his pants. To get more attention.”
Belle of the balls
There was, to be sure, nothing conventional – or staid – about Tom Reese. He loved costumes, the more outlandish or revealing the better, and won several prizes at the Sarasota Art Club’s annual Beaux Arts Ball. He began producing Beaux Arts Balls himself, as fundraisers for his own organization, in St. Petersburg.
Theme of the ball is “Primitive Urge,” and costumes suggestive of Indian and frontier life are suggested as easy and appropriate. Judge of costumes, according to Thomas Bruce Reese, Contemporary Art Gallery director, will be Baron Sepi Dobranyi, famed sculptor, art director and film producer.
St. Petersburg Times/March 13, 1960
It was 1962 when the Contemporary Arts Gallery became the Beaux Arts Gallery, re-named for Reese’s beloved costume balls.
“Every Friday or Saturday night,” recalls Balcomb, “he would go to a place in Tampa he called The Baths. He would get all dressed up. He would gargle with some weird mouthwash; you could smell it all through the place. And he used some kind of a cream or ointment on himself, which had a very strong odor, too, when he walked by you.”
It was commonly known among the boarders and coffeehouse regulars that Reese held after-hours parties, in the second-floor room he kept for himself, with male visitors.
“Halloween was unbelievable,” Balcomb says. “My jaw dropped. I would sit by the front door and watch the characters coming in. All these gay guys in these outfits, and women, too, that were accompanying them. In these outlandish outfits, wearing almost nothing. Feathers all over them and stuff like that.”
In November, 1961 – around the time young Jim Morrison was hanging around – Reese was arrested for “crimes against nature,” and given five years’ probation. He was acquitted of “lewd and lascivious conduct” in 1964. Run-ins with the police, over the explicit nature of some of the films he screened, continued through the decade. He laughed them off.
He caused a scandal when dancer Bob Achlin, dressed in barely-there Indian attire, was featured dancing on a coffee table just inside the front door.
“Apparently,” Boo Ehrsam says, “Pinellas Park blamed him for the ‘60s.”
‘Walk like a ballet boy’
Reese enjoyed being the center of attention; a natural storyteller, he would hold court between folksinger sets and describe the afternoon in 1961 when Marilyn Monroe, vacationing on Redington Beach with ex-husband Joe DiMaggio, came into the gallery and bought an “outre” painting.
Or the time Allen Ginsberg dropped by. Or Gamble Rogers, or Will McLean or Bobby Hicks – Florida folk music legends all – or when Fred Neil and Vince Martin played a set. Or Jerry Jeff Walker, from Greenwich Village. Or Tampa’s Henry Paul (soon to rocket to fame with the Outlaws).
Then there was guitarist Danny Finley, whose successful band Bethlehem Asylum literally formed on the Beaux Arts stage.
He was the first in the county to show Andy Warhol’s underground films, and to screen John Waters’ controversial Polyester, complete with “Smell-o-Vision” scratch ‘n’ sniff cards.
“Tom was not shy, and he would brag openly that he had the oldest coffeehouse in the south,” says John Balcomb. Anyone could come and perform – it was the St. Pete area’s first “open mic” club.
Although you paid the modest admission at the door – Reese’s ancient mother handled the cashbox – the coffee was free, and it was bottomless. Absolutely no drugs or alcohol allowed.
Unless, that is, you were boarding in one of the old hotel’s upstairs rooms. “There were a few transients – guys that just wanted a cheap room,” Balcomb says. “But the others that lived there were musicians. We used to leave our doors open, and there was always guitar music. People were always smoking a joint and playing guitar. During the week, it was so placid and quiet. You’d go down into the garden and walk around. It was just an ethereal place to hang out at and live.”
Still, he adds, “I’m sure he was bi-polar. He had a very, very intense personality. He knew everything about art, and all the greats and all that. If you were talking to him, he would tell you stories, he would talk about the sexual proclivity of different people. And he would always talk about Morrison.
“And then, if you had asked a question of Tom, he would flip out on you. Even strangers, like a husband and wife that came in to see the gallery, he would be very nice and cordial at first, and then he would just snap out and start yelling YOU’RE NOT LISTENING TO ME! YOU HAVE TO LISTEN TO ME! Just totally manic.”
Balcomb, who’s writing a book about Reese and the Beaux Arts (to be titled The Source of the Madness), says that even those who saw Reese every day never quite got used to his sudden mood swings.
“He would scream at you in the gallery if you were walking upstairs with your boots on, clomping up the steps: WE CAN HEAR YOU ALL OVER THE HOUSE! His voice would go into a falsetto. YOU HAVE TO WALK LIKE A BALLET BOY!”
‘A center of creativity’
The end began in 1977, when fire took out the music room (the building was not insured). A dozen years later, a bigger fire did irreparable damage to the upper floors (the building was still not insured).
Reese battled Pinellas Park government over code violations, permits and unpaid taxes. The Pinellas Park City Council bought the property for $162,000, paid off the back taxes and liens and razed it to the ground in 1994 – the same year, ironically, the Pinellas County Arts Council gave Reese its “Friend of the Arts” award.
Boo Ehrsam, whose friendship with Reese solidified and intensified in the late ‘80s, says that like a lot of creative people, he just wasn’t very good with money. The crowds had already dwindled perilously low by the time of the second fire.
“He tried lots of things, and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t,” she recalls. “Musicians are really great, but that didn’t mean that the people who attended had money. That’s part of the problem. The people who knew him forever maybe donated a little, but they were retirees. Or young people who appreciated being there, but just didn’t have the money.”
By this time, there was competition, as St. Petersburg was starting on its belated journey to arts mecca status.
Reese opened a “new” Beaux Arts, downtown in St. Pete, but although it lasted nearly a decade, it never was much of a success. The times they were a’changin.’ The magic was gone.
He died in a Clearwater nursing home Jan. 19, 2006, of complications from the diabetes he’d neglected for years, at the age of 88.
In her letter nominating Thomas Bruce Reese for the Arts Council Award, Boo Ehrsam effectively summed up what her friend and mentor had done for St. Petersburg:
Tom has put aside his own aspirations to contribute to the arts as a facilitator, instructor and muse. He gave Pinellas County a center of creativity before the Dali, Museum of Fine Arts and the PCAC. He created a much copied format for gallery/coffeehouse facilities. He has helped to mold great talents. Tom Reese kept this area from becoming a cultural wasteland, encouraging all creative efforts. The people who passed through Beaux Arts, and those who were touched by Mr. Reese’s influences, are better for it.
This story originally appeared in the Catalyst in August 2021.