Champion of the Gabfest

Remembering Slim Brundage and the College of Complexes

By Cara Jepsen

“I’ve always been allergic to formal instruction,” Slim Brundage once said. “If you want to find something out, the easiest way is to ask someone who knows. The second easiest way is to look it up in the Newberry Library. The hardest way is to go to school and listen to some ignoramus tell you how to cross the street when you came there to learn about the nebular hypothesis.”

Brundage made good on his word in 1951 when he used a $6,000 workman’s comp settlement to open the original College of Complexes, a tavern at 1651 N. Wells. He named himself “janitor,” and billed his bar as a “playground for people who think.” The place consisted of two rooms with black walls, which customers were encouraged to deface with white chalk. On the ceiling, Brundage wrote this description in two-foot-high letters: “No television, no jukebox, no 26 game–just beer, booze and bull-oney.”

The bull-oney was a mixture of art, poetry, music, and political debate delivered with a healthy dose of humor. Operating every night of the week, the College brought in speakers and visitors like novelist Jack Conroy, labor activist Burr McCloskey, Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, Alderman Leon Despres, Congressman Sidney Yates, United Nations delegate Archibald Carey, and Ziegfeld Follies star Frances Stuart Kenyon. Brundage welcomed judges, university professors, lawyers, poets, nudists, strippers, female wrestlers, black separatists, integrationists, and communists, all to speak on their areas of expertise. The College was also known for art exhibits, plays, and poetry readings. Live music ranged from jazz to folk to Tin Pan Alley.

It was a natural outlet for Brundage, who was born in 1903 in an insane asylum in Blackfoot, Idaho–his mother’s place of employment; his father was a newspaperman and laborer. After spending fewer than eight years in school, he hit the road and became a hobo. He joined his first labor union at 14 and became a Wobbly at 16. He was locked up for his labor activities and served time on a chain gang; in 1922 he landed in Chicago and found a thriving free-speech scene. Back then, the city had between 20 and 30 open forums where people could debate almost any topic under the sun. He became a regular on the soapbox circuit, taking part in discussions at Bughouse Square across from the Newberry Library, at the South Side Bug Club in Washington Park, and at the famous Dil Pickle Club (where he eventually worked as a bouncer). When not flapping his jaws, he made a living as a house painter.

Brundage, who died in 1990, captured that place and time in his writings. He wrote at least five novels as well as many short stories and plays (one of his last scripts was called Sex and to Hell With Ann Landers). He also penned several versions of his autobiography, hobo cookbooks, and countless self-described “ravings.” Yet most of these were never published. His prose style–which ignored many of the basic rules of grammar–may have been partly to blame, but his originality, passion, and ideas still make his work lively reading today. Brundage’s “ravings” have been collected in a new volume by local poet and historian Franklin Rosemont. The book, From Bughouse Square to the Beat Generation (Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company), provides an insider’s glimpse of the old bohemian Chicago.

“We hit the marijuana a time or two,” Brundage recalls in one entry. “We didn’t work any more than we had to, sometimes we rhymed our verse and sometimes we didn’t. We discovered Sigmund Freud, John Dewey, Walt Whitman, and Fred Nietzsche. We joined labor unions and fought for more money for less work. We got on soapboxes in Bughouse Square and hollered our heads off about Sacco and Vanzetti getting the hot squat, social security and all the other implements of the alleged Welfare State was a battle we inherited from our ancestors. But we were dynamic. We had somewhere to go and something to do.”

Brundage’s College of Complexes served much the same purpose, bringing together free spirits with divergent views, especially during the height of its popularity in the late 50s. “In the 1950s ‘beat’ did not refer to a trend in literature but to a social movement,” says Rosemont. “There was a tremendous amount of antibeat stuff in the media and the term was used as a slur for radical youth. A number of places in Chicago, frequented by people who were called beats, were visited by police and told that if they wanted their liquor license renewed, they should clean up the place and stop playing jazz. A lot of places started playing classical music and having little rules that kept these ‘less respectable’ people out. Slim was aware of that, and decided to go in the other direction.” A March 1960 schedule at the College of Complexes included such debate topics as “Are Beatniks Operating in the Past Tense?,” “The Chicago Police Department and Its Terrible Record of Civil Liberty Violations,” “You Too Can Be Reincarnated,” “The Psychology of Sex,” and “W.C. Fields and Charlie Chaplin.”

Rosemont began corresponding with Brundage in the late 70s while researching a book about IWW writer and humorist T-Bone Slim. The two met face-to-face for the first time at the College of Complexes’ 50th anniversary reunion in 1983 (Brundage started a short-lived forerunner to the College in 1933).

“He was a cantankerous guy and had complaints about almost everything,” says Rosemont. “I think he realized that the 1970s and ’80s was a period of political backsliding and that it was important to keep the College going, that it wouldn’t have the impact it once had until a more general revival of social radicalism was on the way–which he certainly expected to happen. Like many of us, he hoped it would get here a lot sooner than it has.”

Rosemont says his collection, which chronicles the city’s “working-class counterculture” from the 1920s through the ’60s, “seemed to fill a gap that isn’t covered today. History is broken up into little compartments, and I don’t think people relate the workers’ movements to the intellectual life of the day. The College of Complexes and the Dil Pickle Club were places where artists and intellectuals met working people.”

In the introduction to From Bughouse Square to the Beat Generation, Rosemont writes that Brundage’s “Wobbly trust in revolutionary creativity and spontaneity was reinforced and enhanced by a playful but desperate sense of nonsense, a free-wheeling sense of wild humor in which a defiant anti-rationalism provided the key to a whole new way of looking and living.”

Rosemont says the College of Complexes helped provide a launching pad for new forms of artistic rebellion such as improv comedy and guerrilla theater. When the College ended its day-to-day operations in May 1961, the beat craze was waning, and Brundage was closed down by the IRS for–what else?–back taxes. Brundage returned to painting houses before moving to Mexico in 1975. He died in California, but his remains are buried near the Haymarket monument at Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park. Rosemont will take part in a College of Complexes “class reunion” this Saturday at 2 PM at the Conrad Sulzer Regional Library, 4445 N. Lincoln. Other speakers include Leon Despres, labor historian William Adelman, peace activist Kathy Kelly, and folk singers Allen Schwartz and Ella Jenkins.

Rosemont attributes the passing of the old free-speech institutions to “suburbanization, the whole decline of bohemia, and the disappearance of those kinds of face-to-face situations. There’s this revival of cafes and coffeehouses, but a lot of it seems more economic than anything else.”

The College of Complexes was resurrected on and off over the years. The current version meets every Saturday night at the Lincoln Restaurant, near the intersection of Lincoln and Irving Park, where speakers address different topics each week.

“It’s lower key, but it’s revived in the last year or so,” says Rosemont. “In the old days it was a full-time operation, seven days a week. Anyone could show up at any time and know that something was going on. A certain spontaneity is lost when people put on the calendar that this is the day they have to go.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/ Charles H Kerr Publishing Company.