CORRECTIONS: *Previous version misidentified the color of the guitar. **Jim Rush was incorrectly listed.
COLUMBIA — When Dave Para moved into the basement of First Presbyterian Church in January 1975, he had music on his mind. The Chez Chandelle Coffeehouse was just down the hall and it was his job to fill the folk club's four one-hour time slots each Friday and Saturday night.
The then-MU sophomore rarely had trouble finding talented artists to play the stage. Back then, a time Para refers to as the “folk scare,” budding musicians were easy to find. A slew of local acts lined up at the door to audition every Wednesday, from solo acoustic artists to dueling banjos to full bluegrass bands.
Living underneath a staircase, Para was often kept up at night by the sound of footsteps. There always seemed to be someone heading in for a late-night set.
“When artists were in Columbia, they played the Chez,” Para said. “People called up and asked. Usually the answer was yes.”
Some 40 years later, church members went into the third-floor attic of First Presbyterian searching for mementos from the once-prominent folk cafe. The objects they discovered reminded them of a special time and place, both for themselves and the city of Columbia.
A chance discovery
Most of the items in the First Presbyterian Church storage space were stray cardboard boxes or old signage. What they were looking for was resting against the far wall by a purple bag with the word “Chez” scrawled along its side in faded black ink.
Betsy Rall, 66, had been wandering through the third-floor attic with two other longtime church members during a hot spell in August. Sweat and dust caking their Sunday clothes, they hoped to find anything concerning the old Chez. Although the space once occupied by the coffeehouse is still in use by college youth groups, it had a different role when it opened in 1964: a haven for folk artists.
“I was in high school when it started,” said Rall, the daughter of a First Presbyterian pastor. “Friday and Saturday were the busy nights — that’s when they had the music. But they had films, open mics, faculty discussions. It was open every night.”
After pinpointing the location of the Chez archives, Rall looked through every little folder and shoe box she could find. It had been close to 50 years since she had seen some of the items.
There were photos, concealed in an envelope, saturated with the colors of the red brick behind the stage and overhanging orange awning; newspaper clippings detailing the laid-back environment of the no-cover club; lavishly-designed handbills announcing the week's performers; laminated menus covered in doodles; a vinyl LP, “Joint Effort,” recorded by Chez regulars in 1969.
"We kept finding things, and we would go, 'Oh, look at this, look at this!" Rall said. "It's just such a big part of our history as a church."
Origins of the Chez
One crinkled picture from the find stands out to Van Shaw, 82, the retired First Presbyterian campus minister who started the Chez back in 1964.
In the candid snapshot, a man with dark curls and rimless glasses picks at an acoustic guitar in front of four conversing women. The surrounding decor looks just the way Shaw remembers it — coffee mugs litter the tables, a piano rests near the stage and cracked screen windows let in light behind the performer.
Shaw had been responsible for decorating the previously-unused space leading up to its opening. With the help of student volunteers, he constructed a stage and hauled down tables from the attic. He also tapped artists at Stephens College to paint stained glass windows in an art-deco style.
The idea for wall paneling came from his barber.
“He said, ‘I’ve got an old barn, it’s all oak, it’s fallen down. You’re welcome to it,’ ” Shaw said. “So I took my students out there and we tore down the barn, cleaned the boards and had lovely wood. It was very fashionable.”
Shaw, pictured outside the church in the file photo at left, thought of starting a coffeehouse months earlier when he was working as a Presbyterian pastor in Lubbock, Texas. When he was offered the campus minister job at First Presbyterian — a building near three universities — folk music crept into his head. The genre was gaining in popularity across the war-torn nation, with acoustic artists like Peter, Paul and Mary dominating the charts.
The message of the music was most important to Shaw. On his radio dial, he heard music more reminiscent of a church sermon than a top-40 hit.
“Folk was a way of communicating in a non-threatening way what was important in life,” he said.
His pitch to the First Presbyterian Board of Directors was simple: He wanted to create a place where kids from local universities could play a genre that addressed a wide range of themes, encouraging open dialogues about everything from the Bible to the war in Vietnam. There was already a newly-created student center right next door with an empty room that would be perfect, he told them.
“They were immediately on board,” he said. “They were all Presbyterian faculty and interested in our conversation with students.”
Students were at the core of everything going on in the basement, Shaw said. When they weren’t lining up outside the door for performances or volunteering to serve coffee as “Chez Keepers” behind the bar, a handful of students lived in a stretch of rooms adjacent to the cafe. They managed the weekend’s entertainment, auditioning artists and drafting the schedule.
Shaw said he never really felt like he was in charge of the Chez. Residents took that role.
“They were everything,” he said. “We didn’t control what was said or done – the students were the leaders.”
A Chez love connection
One of Para's favorite performers to book at the club not far from where he slept was Cathy Barton.
The first time Para saw the brunette singer, she was trying to squeeze onto the narrow basement stage with her folk quintet. He asked her out on a date after they paired together for a folklore studies project later that year, singing an old settler ditty for a class Para was taking.
Their relationship became something of a Chez legend — the folk artists who fell in love. When Para proposed to Barton in 1977, after months of performing together, they knew there was only one place to hold the rehearsal dinner.
“The Chez was a big part of the story of Dave and myself,” said Barton, who now tours around Missouri playing folk music with her husband. “It was a big part of a lot of people’s stories.”
Like Para, Barton said she became a better musician because of the Chez. She initially stumbled through its doors as a junior at Hickman High School, terrified to be performing for a sea of college students. With not a single seat empty, she pulled out her *acoustic guitar and played a few Judy Collins songs. The crowd was reassuring.
Through her time at Stephens, Barton made a point of hanging around the stage for hours after shows. That’s when the regulars would sit down and talk her through songs, providing a free lesson in the empty space. There were a number of prominent mid-Missouri artists who could come in on any given night — from fast-plucking fiddlers such as Charlie Walden and Spence Galloway to soft-voiced crooners including **Ron Edwards.
Para and Barton eventually became just as well-known, their pictures gracing several newspaper clippings found in the third-floor attic. In a Rural Missouri article, with a photo of the two plucking away on an unidentified front porch, the Chez performers are collectively referred to as “caretakers of our musical heritage.”
Barton said she grew into a mature musician on-stage with her husband. It didn’t matter to her that neither of them were getting paid at the end of the night.
“I have great sentimental feelings about the Chez, not only because we met there and started singing together, but because we were both nurtured musically there,” she said. “The Chez nurtured performance.”
One of the regulars
Lee Ruth’s frizzy white beard is longer today than it was in 1964. Back then, when he was a 23-year-old in between colleges performing at the Chez, it was short, stubby and light red.
An active music instructor in Columbia, the starving artist part of Ruth’s folk career is far in the past. For three months in December, after a couple months of intermittent performances at the Chez, the musician tried to make it in the heart of New York’s famed folk scene, Greenwich Village. He walked up and down the city streets playing at “basket houses,” passing around a wicker basket after shows to pick up tips.
The Chez was where he worked on his craft before he ever tried to make it big. The accomplished musician had been playing the guitar since he was an Elvis-obsessed tenth-grader in Appleton, Wisconsin, but he didn’t feel like an artist until he started playing clubs in mid-Missouri.
“It helped me become comfortable playing in front of people,” he said. “You’re nervous, but you just do it.”
He went to the cafe for the first time in September 1964. On that night, over by the fireplace, he introduced himself to two men playing a banjo and a guitar. Together, they worked through a number of songs over a few hours — what local folk artists referred to as a “hootenanny.”
“There was no other place even remotely like it in the area,” he said. “It was just a product of the times and the people that came through there.”
In January 1969, Shaw told Ruth and a few of the recurring artists about the ministry’s plan to record an album. A few times throughout the year a panel truck with a reel-to-reel tape recorder would be parked in the street, wires running from the trunk to the open basement window. Up on stage, there were two microphones.
Ruth recorded one song by himself and an additional two with The Sixty-Niners String Band, a three-piece bluegrass ensemble he was in at the time.
The albums were sold to promote the wide range of talent the Chez had to offer. A few church members even put together a cover design: pictures of the contributors atop an ink portrait of a man with flowing hair and dark circular sunglasses reading, “Joint Effort.”
“It was was kind of a spinoff of the Beatles album cover,” Ruth said, referring to the surrealist cover of “Revolver.”
At some point in the 1980s, years after he had last thought about the Chez recording, Ruth stumbled upon a copy of it at a garage sale. He said his feelings must have been similar to what Rall felt in the third-floor attic, finding something he wasn’t sure he would ever see again.
“Because it was a Columbia thing and was not distributed widely, it was a pleasant surprise,” he said. “It looked in good shape, and I bought it.”
The price was 50 cents. For Ruth, the decision that day was simple.
“I would’ve paid much more than that to have a copy.”
Remembering the cafe
Every time Rall pulls out an old photo or document, her mind drifts to the past. She remembers areas of the Chez as they would have looked when she was younger — the wood paneling behind the stage, the orange awning, the bar where coffee was served.
“It was the place to go,” she said. “I didn’t go as a high school student because it was for college students; I just remember always hearing that.”
Rall was working as a principal at Parkade Elementary in 1999 when the cafe was closed down for renovations — a step toward its new role as a church meeting space. There were 0ther venues for folk music in Columbia, and Rall said the Chez had served its purpose.
There are no plans to preserve what remains of the venue, though Rall said she hopes to organize a rotation of displays around First Presbyterian. It wouldn’t be her first church project. She’s championed a number of restorative measures over the years, including the recent re-framing of former pastors' portraits along the main hallway.
Today, she’s happy just to show off the trove to anyone who’s interested. All the newspaper clippings, crinkled photos and “Joint Effort” records may have been returned to the fifth-floor attic, but Rall has already made a few trips back upstairs.
“The Chez was a part of us — an important part of us,” she said. “I just want to share that with others.”
Supervising editor is Landon Woodroof.