Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Dialogue Coffee House

Leonard Miller asks a question during a session of the Dialogue Coffee House about a series of tape recordings written and produced by Rev. Malcolm Boyd about civil rights. This dialogue was held January 14, 1966, at the First Methodist Church in Schenectady. Photograph from the Dialogue Coffee House Records.

“Political protagonists seem to lay down their arms when they go to the house. Persons from all major political parties gather at this Schenectady night spot to talk and listen. Those of opposite political camps – liberals and conservatives – find they can hold dialogue with each other with feelings of tolerance and understanding.”
- Paul Dubner, in a 1967 Schenectady Gazette article, writing about the Dialogue Coffee House.

“We are convinced that dialogue is the ground out of which responsible community grows.”
- Grover E. Criswell, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Dialogue of Schenectady, Inc., 1966.

Dialogue of Schenectady, Inc., also known as the Dialogue Coffee House, was a non-profit organization aimed at creating dialogue among members of the local community. The organization’s coffee house hosted presentations and open dialogues about a number of topics, including social, economic, and political issues, local politics and government, civil rights, the war in Vietnam, visual and performing arts, health, religion and spirituality, psychology, labor issues, education, morality, and the nature of dialogue. While controversial topics were often featured at the Dialogue Coffee House, the atmosphere tended toward conversation rather than debate. In addition to open discussions and presentations, the coffee house also provided a space for underground films, musical performances, and plays as an impetus for dialogue. 

Newspaper advertisement for the
Dialogue Coffee House. 
The Dialogue Coffee House was organized by Rev. Grover Criswell of the Union Street Christian Church, Terry Hewitt, a lay Catholic, and Rev. Donald Stake of Union Presbyterian Church. The origins of the organization were inspired by the nascent “coffee house ministry” movement and by the progressive and ecumenical spirit of the Vatican II.  An initial organizing meeting for the coffee house was held in January 1965 at the First Methodist Church in Schenectady. By the following month, a statement of purpose had been written, which outlined the purpose of the coffee house as “to provide for the Schenectady area a place dedicated to the fostering of dialogue between persons. By dialogue we mean: the experience of significant conversation where the barriers between persons can be dropped because there is an atmosphere of trust . . . where the personal in our mass society is discovered.” The organization chose “The Dialogue” as a name and “a setting for significant conversation” as its motto. After several months of planning and organizing, The Dialogue held its opening session on September 12, 1965, at the First Methodist Church in Schenectady. Its first topic of discussion was United States foreign policy in Vietnam. The Dialogue continued its series of 54 programs at the First Methodist Church through June 1966.

The Dialogue operated in program years which ran from October through June, with a break from July through September. After ending the 1965-1966 season at the First Methodist Church, the Dialogue’s next season began in its own location at the second floor of 121 South Ferry Street in Schenectady. Interest and attendance at the Dialogue grew during the organization’s next year of operation; a 1968 report indicates that attendance at the Dialogue reached its peak around March 1967. Nearly 1,300 were in attendance at the coffeehouse during that month, in comparison to just over 400 in March 1966. At its busiest, the Dialogue Coffee House was open four evenings a week, Thursday through Sunday, with two days featuring speakers or other programming and two days based solely in fostering free-form discussion.  

This photograph shows the second location of the Dialogue Coffee House at 121 S. Ferry Street. The Dialogue was located on the second floor. Photograph from the Dialogue Coffee House Records.

As the popularity of The Dialogue grew, it encountered a few growing pains. Managing director Terry Hewitt wrote in March 1967, at the height of the Dialogue’s popularity, that “unfortunately . . . the program is now generally viewed as the end rather than the means . . . thus, it appears to me, that we are guilty of overemphasizing both the physical existence of the coffee house and the programming within it and have increasingly overlooked the very essence of this endeavor which is that of promoting personal interrelations among members and between the members and the public who come into the coffee house . . . We are quite rapidly becoming a commercial coffee house and losing the very spirit and motivation which brought this endeavor into existence.”

The coffee house also experienced changes in the ages of its participants as its popularity grew. Teenagers began to make up more and more of the crowd. Terry Hewitt recalls in his memoir that “the increasing number of young people was tending to keep some of the adults from attending.” A letter from Miss G. Kaminski written in 1967 addresses her reluctance to visit the Dialogue with its increased numbers of teenage attendees: “my first encounter with The Dialogue over a year ago was very stimulating, and I seriously considered becoming a member of your group . . . now, after my second encounter two months ago, I regretfully find The Dialogue is no longer appealing or inviting . . . at the last meeting, I was most disappointed to see the preponderance of teen-agers in attendance. Being well past the adolescent years, I do not actively seek the social company of adolescents, especially those Bohemian types to whom ‘coffee house’ spells Greenwich Village.” Perhaps in response, The Dialogue soon after helped to subsidize a teenage coffee house group, The Id, which met at the YWCA. In 1968, The Dialogue temporarily limited visitors to those 18 and older, and during 1969 opened up its doors one night a week to teenagers only. 

The cover of Vol. 1, No. 1 of The
Dialogue Journal.

In addition to activities at the Dialogue Coffee House, the Dialogue also published a journal, The Dialogue Journal, in spring 1967. John J. Waggy, Jr. served as the journal’s editor. Three issues were published from 1967-1968, featuring editorials and articles written by local people about a number of topics. Articles printed in the journal include “Alarming Problems Face the Schenectady Public Schools,” “Vatican II and the Albany Diocese,” and “Terminal Cancer and the State of the Theatre in Schenectady.”

The collection of Dialogue Coffee House records comprises the records of the organization from 1965 through March 1968, when Terry Hewitt served as managing director. The Dialogue Coffee House continued to operate at least through September 1969; it is unclear when the organization ceased operation. The records include correspondence, meeting minutes, newspaper clippings, publications and ephemera, photographs, financial information, and reports. The collection also includes a memoir written by Terry Hewitt, the organization’s first managing director, regarding his memories of the Dialogue Coffee House that includes a complete list of programs from 1965 through March 1968. A complete finding aid for the collection can be found here.

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