By South Florida standards, the diminutive man in owlish glasses who stood outside the Coral Gables coffeehouse, wrapped in an Ivy League-type scarf on a sweltering summer night, should hardly have attracted stares.
Curious folk abound here. And in the late 1960s, with nearby Coconut Grove a bohemian rhapsody of performance artists, folk singers and jolly raconteurs, this guy with his shoulder-length blond hair and curious accoutrement was just one of many oddities.
But the man was John Denver, about to soar into the pop music stratosphere and become one of his generation’s top songwriters, with standards like Leaving on a Jet Plane, Take Me Home Country Roads and Annie’s Song to his credit.
And the guy he was talking to, Chuck Mitchell, had already given his then-wife, soon-to-be legend Joni Mitchell, her lifelong surname.
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Denver died nearly 17 years ago at age 53 while piloting his experimental plane solo over the Pacific. But Mitchell is about to return to the site of The Flick, the Coral Gables haunt, for a three-day 50th birthday blowout.
The Flick Coffeehouse itself is long gone, shuttered in 1974 to be exact, a decade after opening. Today, The Flick is the Titanic Restaurant and Brewery, across from the University of Miami’s baseball stadium on Ponce de Leon Boulevard. But the building, and its distinctive bay window, remain intact.
The Flick, so-named because it screened old movies when its stage wasn’t occupied, was a breeding ground for nascent folksingers and players, along with some who had already made it. On any given night patrons could hear the likes of Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Jimmy Buffett, Tom Rush, Michael Martin Murphy, Jerry Jeff Walker, Dion and Peter, Paul and Mary.
Fledgling comedian Gabe Kaplan also began developing the characters he would incorporate into his 1975-’79 ABC sitcom, Welcome Back, Kotter, at his Flick shows in the mid-’60s.
“I would come down for the winter and do club dates on the Beach,” Kaplan said. “Somebody said there’s a coffeehouse in Coral Gables, and I talked to the owner. He said, ‘We don’t have comedians but it would be nice.’ I started working there and telling stories about the guys I went to school with, like being in a remedial class in high school. [ Welcome Back, Kotter] had its beginnings at The Flick.”
Kaplan, now 68, has mustered a cadre of musician pals from The Flick for the celebration weekend, Friday through Sunday at the Titanic.
“I’m looking forward to seeing all these people and working together again,” Kaplan said from his home in St. Barts. “It was the place to go if you were in South Florida to hear whoever was in the folk music scene. All these people who were great performers at that time became stars.”
Among those regrouping for the shows are Chuck Mitchell, Estrella Berosini, Vince Martin, Barbara Barrow, Bobby Ingram and Michael Smith. Kaplan, who met Welcome Back, Kotter songwriter John Sebastian at The Flick, will perform, too.
For these old friends, Kaplan’s endeavor has stirred memories of The Flick and its swank decor: those red and gold velvet chairs; red carpets and wallpaper; multicolored Tiffany glass chandeliers. Owners Max and Ann Launer put plenty of money into The Flick, remembers Peter Neff, a songwriter who maintains a Facebook page dedicated to the place.
“The Flick meant a lot to me,” Neff, 66, said. “It was a home away from home. I didn’t have a great family situation, so it became my second home.”
Berosini and her brother Bill, children of a Czech circus high wire walker, became like a surrogate family for Neff. The Launers put a premium on the performance aspect of the spot. Waitresses, juggling plates of food like house specialty Syrian Sandwich Pie, moved with the agility and silence of ghosts and were instructed to shush chatty patrons and direct their attention to the stage, Berosini recalled.
Joni Mitchell’s cerebral lyrics and complex, lilting tunes weren’t an immediate hit. “It took them awhile to realize how good Joni was,” Kaplan said. “Estrella said, ‘You got to listen to her. She’s really good.’ ”
Flick fans had to pay attention.
“The Flick was different,” Neff said. “Older clubs, it was enough to have a concrete-block rectangle with chairs to have the groups perform in. Max ran it vaudeville-style, four acts a night, and they all had 20 minutes and then you were off.”
The small alcohol-free venue (this was then-dry Coral Gables), tucked into a block where nothing else was going on, created a kind of forced collaborative effort.
“The Flick was isolated so we there was nothing better to do than sit at the back of the room and see each other’s set,” Berosini said. “Gabe [Kaplan] would sit in the back of the room, and he’d fog the windows with his thinking.”
Berosini and Mitchell bonded. “It was kind of a peer thing where we, as two women, we were taking notes and sharing notes about what it was to be a female singer-songwriter and we continued that friendship when I moved to California,” Berosini said.
Mitchell would immortalize her friend from The Flick in the lyrics of her 1970 tune Ladies of the Canyon:
Estrella circus girl/Comes wrapped in songs and gypsy shawls
Songs like tiny hammers hurled/At beveled mirrors in empty halls.
“In the back closet of The Flick she taught me her songs. She thought I would record soon, and she wanted me recording some of her songs,” Berosini said. “We also started to spend hours and hours exchanging information about how to write songs and we became creative allies or creative associates.”
By the time Chuck and Joni Mitchell arrived at The Flick their three-year marriage was near its end, and they performed on separate bookings. He relocated to a bungalow in Coconut Grove, where he remarried in 1970.
Mitchell, 78, still admires how some players on The Flick circuit grew from seeds planted at the small Gables hothouse. Michael Martin Murphy, for instance, enjoyed a major 1975 hit single in Wildfire. Kenny Rogers had The Gambler, Lucille and The Coward of the County.
Coming back, Mitchell said, should be an experience.
“I’m a rabid Carl Hiaasen fan, he’s talking about the Florida that is there and hidden away in a few places. It isn’t so much the edifice, the spot The Flick, but the whole enchilada as it were. Every once in awhile it was a Camelot-type situation, and that’s what I think of when I remember The Flick.”
Speaking by telephone from his old steamboat captain’s home in Keokuk County, Iowa, Mitchell picks up on a particular memory: the street encounter on Ponce with the odd young man in “owl-y glasses” who pondered his future.
“John Denver had been in town just starting to get his reputation. He was going on and on and the two of us were standing outside of The Flick and traffic was going by. He was telling me how Peter, Paul and Mary had just recorded Leaving on a Jet Plane. He said, ‘I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I can feel it.’”