Thing of it is, it would be a great story/song even if the whole thing was made up, but it wasn't! Now, even according to Guthrie himself, he "might have exaggerated a little" in the song (he's a storyteller; it's an inherent right), and the film version of Alice's Restaurant took a few liberties for the sake of making a movie, but essentially, yeah. The man got arrested for littering and, at the time, any American citizen who had been convicted of a crime could be ruled morally unfit to be drafted. Amazing!
Alice M. Brock, a friend of Arlo Guthrie's, really did own a restaurant in a small town in Massachusetts. She and her husband Ray really did live in a former church. It was originally built as the St. James Chapel in 1829, then in 1866 was enlarged and renamed Trinity Church. Ray and Alice bought the deconsecrated church in 1964 and made it their home until sometime in the early '70s. In 1965, the Brocks hosted a "Thanksgiving dinner that couldn't be beat" for friends (though not nearly as many as were seen in the film). Guthrie was one of their guests, and since there was a lot of garbage in the church at the time, he decided to be a good guy and help them get the church cleaned up some. Guthrie had gone to school a little ways away from the church, and so was familiar with a lot of the back roads of the area, including a place that a lot of local people had used to dump their trash. Quoting from an interview Guthrie did with NPR in 2005, "...it wasn't like some pristine virgin forest that we... were screwing around with. And our pile of garbage, well, we couldn't tell the difference once we threw ours down. But there was someone who could and that happened to be the local chief of police, a guy named Bill Obanhein, who we called Officer Obie. And he confronted us that next morning after Thanksgiving with our crime."
When you're the son of a songwriter as legendary as Woody Guthrie, I'd guess it's only natural to make songs out of odd stories in your life. "Alice's Restaurant" wasn't released on an album until 1967, but part of the reason was that a lot of the song hadn't actually happened yet. After Thanksgiving (Guthrie really did have to go clean up his pile of garbage; I haven't been able to confirm if he ever paid a $25 fine or not) Arlo wound up leaving school in the midst of so much social upheaval; "all the world was changing and I wanted to be where that was happening," says Guthrie. Of course, leaving school meant that he was also eligible to be drafted and sent to Viet Nam, but upon going to the induction center, he really was declared ineligible for the draft because of littering. Guthrie was reportedly dumbfounded at his fortune, and turned the incidents into his most famous song. He says it took about a full year to put the song together; he would add things as they happened to him and keep them in the song if they were funny and true; if things weren't funny or people didn't respond, he would drop a bit from the song. Eventually, it morphed into the very familiar story we all love so much to hear, especially at this time of year.
The song, as you might guess, hasn't remained static. Since it was over 18 minutes long, it was way too long to be released as a single (wouldn't even have fit on a 45), but two years after the album, Guthrie released a reworked "Alice's Rock & Roll Restaurant" as a single.The nearly five-minute tune incorporated the chorus and removed the entire monologue. There was a very different arrangement, and extra verses, but in all honesty, it wasn't anywhere near as charming or captivating as the real deal. Guthrie has, of course, performed the song numerous times in concert, and it has been adapted and re-recorded a couple of times since the 1967 album was released.
In 1969, the story was adapted for the big screen, starring Guthrie as himself (and I must admit... he played himself well on camera!). The real Alice makes several camero appearances in the movie, though her character is portrayed by Pat Quinn. Probably my favorite incidental bit about the movie is that police chief William Obanheim plays himself, Officer Obie, in the movie. I have to give him credit for his reasoning for accepting the role; he told Newsweek magazine that "making himself look like a fool was preferable to having somebody else make him look like a fool." While most of the significant plot elements in the movie were based on truth, some characters were added, events were made up and a few details changed on screen (Ray and Alice, for example, lived alone in their church, not as part of a commune as the movie depicts). The song is a more accurate representation of the real events than the film is. I found it surprising to learn that the film grossed over $6 million in the United States, making it the 21st highest grossing movie of that year.
My personal opinion of the film? I have a difficult time watching it... not because of the liberties taken (that's okay, it's a good story) and not because it's a bad movie or anything (I don't think it's bad at all). The problem I have is in the darker moments of the film; the graveside service for a passed friend... the scene where Ray goes on his enraged rant and makes me feel like his character never really believed in the whole hippie thing, but just grabbed onto it for convenience sake... I know the movie is listed as a "comedy," but I just don't see it as such... more a tragedy with some very light moments. In an odd sort of way, I strongly compare it to the film version of Quadrophenia. Arlo and Jimmy (Quadrophenia's lead character) seem so similar to me; young men who think they've found something real to believe in which they give themselves over to heart and soul, only to learn the harsh lesson in the long run that it was all a phase, a facade, and all the beauty and revolution and revelations were more posturing than lifestyle. Both films make me sad watching something so important being stripped away from people who believed so innocently and completely in the ideals.
Alice Brock was always something of a renaissance woman. Before she owned her restaurant, she was a painter and designer and teacher, and she returned to her creative muses from the '70s onward. The Alice's Restaurant Cookbook was published in 1969 with recipes and "hippie wisdom" from Alice, and she also illustrated a 2004 children's book entitled Mooses Come Walking, written by Arlo. I found many references to her having an art gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She has a website that displays her paintings and other creative works; there is a blog on the site, but the last post to the blog was made in 2011. I honestly couldn't find any reference to Alice dated after 2007 or so... but I also couldn't find any reference to her having died, either, and I'd assume that a lady of such significance would garner some attention and some loving tributes for her life had she passed. She and Ray divorced in the early 70's, and Ray died in 1979.
Alice, if by good fortune you see this, drop me a line!
Arlo, of course, is still going strong. He still plays a lot of live shows, and in fact his Here Come The Kids tour started in October of this year and continues through May of 2014. His son Abe is joining him on keyboards and vocals for the tour. I saw Arlo in, I think, the late '80s, and Abe was with him then as well. The show I caught was during one of the periods where Arlo preferred to not perform "Alice's Restaurant," and he didn't that night, much to the irritation of a lot of the crowd. That's sad, because the show was really good; Arlo was fun and funny and personable, in good voice and with a ton of great songs that he played. I even had the chance to chat with him and his son for a few minutes after the show, and he honestly came across as being an incredibly nice and kind human being. I'm truly glad I got to see that performance.
And you know what's REALLY cool? In 1991, Arlo purchased the Trinity Church, Ray and Alice's former residence. It has been renamed The Guthrie Center, and is described in Arlo's bio as "a not-for-profit interfaith church foundation dedicated to providing a wide range of local and international services." I guess I couldn't have been much righter when I viewed him as an incredibly nice and kind human being. The services The Guthrie Center offer includes everything from providing HIV/AIDS services to baking cookies with a local service organization... from an HD Walk-A-Thon to raise awareness and money for research into Huntington's Disease to offering a place for simple meditation... From a folk music venue offering concerts and regular hootenannies to an annual "Garbage Trail Walk," which also raises money for Huntington's research...
...and yes, they also offer up a Thanksgiving Dinner That Can't Be Beat every year for the local community. If outsiders are welcome, I think I need to add that to my bucket list. I'd even be willing to help get rid of the garbage.