This dump is closed on Thanksgiving: Arlo Guthrie’s satirical classic “Alice’s Restaurant”

By on November 23, 2017

We’re pretty sure you’ve probably heard about this one before, but a little over fifty years ago, on November 25, 1965, folksinger Arlo Guthrie — just eighteen at the time, the son of the legendary Woody Guthrie — and his friend Rick Robbins had an eventful and somewhat absurd Thanksgiving experience, which Guthrie later turned into a satirical epic eighteen-minute song, creating a new Thanksgiving tradition (listening to the song, or watching the film made about the song) for an entire generation.

On that day, Guthrie attended a Thanksgiving dinner at the home of his friends Ray and Alice Brock, who lived in an abandoned church, the former Trinity Church located near Van Deusenville Road and Division Street, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the western part of the state, near the town of Stockbridge, which you can find on a map located about halfway between Albany, New York, and Springfield, Mass.

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The Brocks had a little restaurant at their house, and Guthrie — who had taken classes at Rocky Mountain College — was among the guests at their home that day, but he and Robbins were treated more like family members.

Alice Brock had spent $2,000 a year earlier to buy the deconsecrated church, where she and Ray would live, and run a little restaurant, originally called “The Back Room.” Alice was actually a painter and designer, and Ray, an architect and woodworker, but both had worked at Stockbridge School, a nearby private music and art-oriented private academy, which is where they had first met Guthrie, who graduated from Stockbridge.

Ray Brock had noticed that there were bags of trash piling up — bottles, garbage, papers and boxes, plus an old discarded divan — and said to Robbins, having seen them drive in a red VW microbus, “Let’s clean up the church and get all this crap out of here, for God’s sake. This place is a mess.”

Arlo and Rick helped sweep up the church and the restaurant, and loaded all the trash into Rick’s microbus and hauled it out to the city dump, which was was closed for the holiday.

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They started driving around until Guthrie remembered a side road in Stockbridge up on Prospect Hill — by the Indian Hill Music Camp, which he went to one summer — so they drove up there and found the fifteen foot cliff and at the bottom of the cliff saw that there was another pile of garbage, and so they dumped theirs and drove back to Alice’s Restaurant.

They thought that was the end of it until they were contacted at the Brock house by Stockbridge police chief William J. Obanhein…. “I found an envelope with the name Brock on it,” Chief Obanhein told them.

It turns out that they had dumped their junk on Nelson Foote Senior’s property on Prospect Street, off a residential section of Stockbridge that consisted largely of estates on the hill across from Indian Hill School.

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Obanhein placed Guthrie and Robbins under arrest for illegal dumping. He hauled them off to jail in Prospect Hill, where they spent the night.

The next day, they were brought before the judge, Special Justice James E. Hannon, in Lee District Court, who entered the courtroom with a seeing-eye dog.

Obanhein presented his evidence at trial (in Guthrie’s words): “Twenty-seven 8×10 color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was to be used as evidence against us.”

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According to a local newspaper report about the arrest:

Chief Obanhein told the court he spent ‘a very disagreeable two hours’ looking through the rubbish before finding a clue to who had thrown it there. He finally found a scrap of paper bearing the name of a Great Barrington man. Subsequent investigation indicated Robbins and Guthrie had been visiting the Great Barrington man and had agreed to cart away the rubbish for him. They told the court that, when they found the Barrington dump closed, they drove around and then disposed of the junk by tossing it over the Stockbridge hillside.”

They pleaded guilty to the charge of illegal dumping, were fined $25 each and ordered to go back and pick up the trash, which they did on Saturday afternoon, following a heavy rain.

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Guthrie went back to the church and, after another dinner, they all thought the situation was so absurd that Guthrie, Alice Brock, and Rick Robbins started to write a song about it. “We were sitting around after dinner and wrote half the song,” Alice once recalled, “and the other half, the draft part, Arlo wrote.”

That other part she mentions, that happened later, when Guthrie leaned that as a result of his criminal record for illegal dumping, when he went before the draft board in 1966, they sent him to the “Group W bench,” where he sat for awhile, learning that he was eventually ruled unfit for service.

That’s right — in another absurd turn-of-events, his arrest had made him morally unfit to face the enemy in Vietnam.

Guthrie sings: “I’m sittin’ here on the Group W bench ’cause you want to know if I’m moral enough to join the Army — burn women, kids, houses and villages — after bein’ a litterbug.”

“Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” (usually shortened to “Alice’s Restaurant”) later appeared on his debut album in 1967, and Guthrie played the epic song publicly for the first time on WBAI radio in New York — the final part of the song encourages the listeners to sing along, to resist the draft, and to end war — after which it became so popular that it was turned into a movie, in 1969, starring Guthrie himself (Alice Brock made a few cameo appearances in the film, but she did not play herself).

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Stockbridge Police Chief William Obanhein also appeared in the movie (he was “Officer Obie” in the song), and it turns out he had been a model for artist Norman Rockwell, who lived in the studio upstairs from the Back Door restaurant, which was — you guessed it — the name of Alice Brock’s restaurant.

The filmmakers found local residents of Stockbridge for extra and used many of the original locations mentioned in the song, which had to be padded out with some additional fictional sub-plots in order the movie to be feature-length, and today watching the film, or listening to the 18-minute song itself, a kind of rambling, semi-folk song with a very funny spoken-word monologue.

Classic rock radio stations around the U.S. have been playing this long song every Thanksgiving day for decades now, and it has become as much of a Thanksgiving tradition in some homes as turkey dinners and football games.

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Alice Brock operated her restaurant for just a short time, in 1966, divorcing Ray in 1968. In 1969, Random House published her book, Alice’s Restaurant Cookbook, which featured recipes and hippie wisdom, as well as photos of Alice and Guthrie, and publicity stills from the movie.

She went on to launch two more restaurants, then left that business behind in 1979, and began running an art gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

She illustrated a children’s book, written by Arlo Guthrie, in 2004, called Mooses Come Walking, and authored and illustrated How to Massage Your Cat. Ray Brock, after the divorce, moved back to his original home of Virginia and died in 1979 of a heart attack.

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Finally, that once-abandoned church, where the memorable 1965 Thanksgiving dinner was held, is now the location of The Guthrie Center, where Thanksgiving dinner is served every year for those involved in the fight against Huntington’s Disease.

In 1995, Guthrie recorded a new, even longer version of the song, performed live at the Guthrie Center.

NPR‘s Debbie Elliott interviewed Guthrie about the song in 2012, if you’d like to hear Guthrie talk about it, or watch this clip on “CBS This Morning,” also from 2012.

(NOTE: This is a repost from Thanksgiving Day 2015, with a few new modifications)

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.