The counterculture clearly began in Chicago in 1933 and was in full swing through much of the 1950s. Or at least that is the impression that a look at Slim Brundage’s College of Complexes gives. An underground cultural space; a weekly series of lectures, performances, and happenings; or perhaps simply a bar, the college’s early 1953 motto was “The Playground for People who Think” and with its promise of “No Homework – No Credits / No Sleeping in Class” it managed to draw together college professors and youth, political radicals and nudists, proletarians and beatniks. Growing out of Chicago’s hobohemia around the Dill Pickle Club which closed in 1932, the College of Complexes first appeared in the depths of the depression “in the middle of the Bank Moratorium of 1933.” Hardly an auspicious beginning, it only “lasted three months then” according to a press release from 1983 (in the Jack Conroy papers). The College began its sustained run in 1951, building in part out of the radical, proletarian, and African-American connections of novelist Jack Conroy, who loaned the college his mailing list and was the first speaker at the forum.
A glance at the monthly “Curriculum” for the college gives a sense of many of the currents running beneath the placid façade of the fifties. The May 1953 first issue, a single 8.5 by 11 inch sheet printed as a folded newsletter with lively typography, includes young writers, jazz, pacifism, emerging anti-colonial movements, book review nights, and quiz programs promising a “Bottle and Pennants for Winners”. Evenings proclaimed titles like “When will Ike stop the Wars as Per Promises?”; “The Male Hormone”; “Young writers will read excerps [sic.] from their mss. Primitive drums, folk song festival, progressive jazz, opera workshop, experimental poetry, Charles Wiltfong playing his own composition”; “Why are the African Mau Mau Killing Europeans?”. This presents an alternative educational space, an eclectic forum that kept alive several apparently disparate strands that sprang back into national prominence with the New Left in the following decades.
Despite Brundage’s crusty “Janitors’ Notes” detailing the difficulties of keeping the enterprise going and repeatedly offering to sell the whole thing off, the College was surprisingly durable, opening a New York City branch in Greenwich village in 1957 before closing under controversy in 1961. Dodging creditors, the College reopened briefly as The Culture Vulture from 1961-62 and then again as a café in the mid 60s. Abandoning brick-and-mortar obligations, the College of Complexes became a roving speakers series that continues celebrating free speech once a week in Chicago to this day.
- Michael Rozendal, University of San Francisco