Let`s go back to the early 1970s, a time when Boulder was a simpler place to live and life was slower paced.
The pedestrian mall on Pearl Street had yet to be built, the old Crossroads Mall was a small shopping center, and the summer’s big bicycle race was still called the Red Zinger Classic. Fields of grain grew beyond 30th Street. Celestial Seasonings made its soonto-be-world-famous teas out at the industrial park on 55th, which pretty much delineated where Boulder ended and the prairie began. Broomfield was a small cluster of homes with no nucleus, and the suburban tentacles of Denver were still miles, miles away. Boulder had not yet acquired the upper-class glitz that it now has.
Along Broadway between Canyon and Pearl existed a row of so-called “head shops” — old wooden storefronts, some from the early part of the century, that had been taken over by young entrepreneurs who offered various services.
For a short period of time there existed in the middle of them a quintessential example of the hippie, love, sharing-caring movement introduced by the ’60s. It was a small restaurant brightly named the Carnival Cafe, a gypsy-esque bundle of energy that exuded beyond the perimeters of its walls. Outside it looked a bit faded and worn at the elbows, but to enter within was to be ushered into a whole other realm.
The Carnival Cafe was a colorful potpourri of enthusiastic alternativeness. Vibrant posters papered the walls, and plants possessed corners and overflowed from shelves. A huge, U-shaped, glass display counter dominated the middle of the main dining room and housed hand-made trinkets for sale and whole-grain goodies generous in their size, price and healthy ingredients. The insider name of the bakery section was “the Dateful Bread.” Behind the back counter, bangle-bedecked girls in tie-dye T-shirts and saris baked next to the long-haired fellows in sandals who were cooking.
One corner was a children’s play area with toys.
Music laced the air, ranging from folk to the Grateful Dead. The atmosphere was thick with character, laughter and love. When one came to the Carnival to eat, it was not just a feast for the tongue and stomach, but one for the senses and spirit, too. The Cafe started out as the “Carnival Restaurant” in September 1972, created by five friends who took over a vegetarian eatery called the Family Table Restaurant. They were soon joined by other similar-minded friends, bringing their number to 13.
Mark Gunther helped get it going by bringing his significant experience in cooperative operations that he had gained in Berkeley, Calif. Others in the troupe had been involved in a food cooperative in the same area. The “Carnies” were a lively bunch, involved in theater, clowning and dance.
The name “Carnival” came from a busker’s carnival on the library mall that they participated in that summer. The core idea in the enterprise was that “Life is a Carnival,” and it should be so lived, as stated by a famous banner they had displayed in the kitchen.
By 1974 only Margaret Theno of the original 13 remained, but the cafe had expanded to 14 fulltime and five part-time workers. The fare was vegetarian and as organic as was possible in those pre-Wild Oats days. The only true organic produce back then came in from local farms and was limited to a few lettuces, potatoes and green vegetables. But the Carnival still turned out meals that have never been equaled in wholesomeness and creativity by any of Boulder’s healthier restaurants throughout the years. No pesticides, chemical fertilizers or herbicides were used on the produce. Whatever people ordered, they could be assured that they would get a plateful of healthy grub, rich in vibrant ingredients and love.
The cafe started out as a collective. Everyone would share the tips and managerial duties and would divide the earnings amongst themselves. They shared a checkbook called the “Sojourner Truth Memorial Checking Account.” All lived in two houses that the Cafe paid for. When this proved difficult, they changed to a system where one could work 14 hours a week for unlimited meals and groceries, or 28 hours a week for meals, groceries and some managerial responsibilities. Many of the Carnies had second jobs where they earned their real living wages. On each shift, people chose which jobs they wanted to do that day. Those who worked on a particular shift were the authority for that shift. Everyone would stay an hour after closing to clean. There were some in town who questioned how sanitary the place was, but the Carnival’s rating with the health board was always very high.
The Carnies always had a goal to make enough money to pay off their debt. Gunther had loaned the money to buy it, and by 1975 the debt was paid off. At one point, a legal pad was passed around, and 26 “employees” signed on as legal owners, meaning it truly belonged to the people working there. They, in turn, felt that the Carnival belonged to the community, and that working there was a form of service to the people of Boulder. The Carnival had the cheapest prices in town and great quality to boot, in contrast to today’s premium prices for natural food in restaurants.
The daily special was advertised by a sign saying, “The Carnival’s daily love gift.” On Thanksgiving, meals were free to all who entered the door, although the soybean drumsticks they had one year didn’t go over too well. There was a counter space where people could leave their plates if they could not finish their meals. The food would be put on a fresh plate, and anyone who did not have money or was hard up could come in and eat it. There was one guy who came in for a year and lived on it.
On Sunday mornings, the Carnies held “the meeting.” It would start with everyone sitting in a circle and chanting the spiritual meditation word “om.”
Then they would stand in a circle and massage the shoulders of the person before them, then turn and repeat with the person on the other side. After that it got down to business. Everyone had a voice in what was going on, even visitors. Once, a major debate took place about whether to serve coffee or not (coffee being a major source of both bad health and worker exploitation).
Working at the cafe was always an adventure. One time, the electricity went out and all the perishables in the cooler were going to be lost. The owner of the New York Deli, Tony Schwartz, sent employees over with bags of ice to help out. One customer remembers a day when a fly paper strip lost its mooring on the ceiling and fell, draping itself around a customer.
The cafe was visited by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Alan Ginsburg, Black Elk, Dan Fogelberg and Steven Stills. Mitchell once drew a picture of the cafe turning into a parking lot, which was added to the Carnival scrapbook. East- West Journal, Yoga Journal and others heralded the Carnival as the prototype of a collective business in the U.S. Celestial Seasonings mogul Moe Seigel used to deliver fresh herbs to them that he carried in his backpack on a bicycle.
For everyone, the cafe was more a lifestyle than a job.
“I am so grateful for the experience of love the cafe gave to me at such a critical time in my life,” Doe Gregoire says.
Cedar Geiger adds, “The cafe seemed to be a combination of many things to many of us. Lots of us were just frustrated with not having a skill, not having a home, not having friends/ family, etc. Here we found real family and a life learning experience that made us all a part of who we are now.”
But all good things must come to an end. In 1977, the city announced that the entire block would be torn down to make room for a parking lot. The Carnival had always had a monthto-month lease, and it was known when they got the place in 1972 that this would be its fate one day. Still, the Carnies were shattered.
People made parallels to Mitchell’s lyrics, saying “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Despite protests, no one in the higher financial and political end of things was going to listen to a bunch of hippies and their customers.
The parking lot opened on Aug. 11, 1978. It still stands today as a monolithic, uninteresting structure across from the Municipal Building on Canyon.
The Carnival died a premature death that year, its loyal keepers spreading to the four winds and other adventures. Surprisingly, many of the Carnies are still in touch with each other more than 30 years later. There is a website devoted to the memory of the Carnival Cafe with more than 50 members: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/carnivalcafe.
The passing of the Carnival Cafe signified the passing of an era in Boulder. Boulder changed from being a simple Western town to one that had a more metropolitan outlook and an upscale feel.
Similar establishments soon met a similar demise. The popular Green Mountain Granary, one of the first real natural food stores in Boulder, was razed to make space for the Senior Citizens Center. Hanna Kroeger’s New Age Foods kept making wonderful, inexpensive nutritious meals into the ’80s, until the success of the Pearl Street Mall brought in higher-stakes businesses with big budgets that drove out most of the local stores.
It is sad that the Carnival Cafe is so forgotten today. It was truly a unique institution and one that left a big imprint on the city’s culture and consciousness during its short existence. It offered a cherished look at life as a dance waiting to be danced and a song waiting to be sung. It showed to those who experienced it that amongst all of one’s daily work and strife, you need to not just stop and smell the flowers along the way, but lay among them and be one yourself.
This article was written with help from the following individuals and institutions: Carnegie Library, the written documents of Marc Weiss, Steven Miles and Stephen Gassaway. Information was also gathered from Larry Dixon, Karen Kaushansky, Richard Convertito, Cedar Geiger, Doe Gregoire, Mark Gunther, Barbralu Fried and Perry Sprout.