In September of 1967 Bill Killeen and two partners opened The Subterranean Circus, the first and only true hippie boutique in Gainesville, supplying the city's burgeoning counterculture with an ever-expanding inventory of posters, buttons, dresses, Nehru jackets and Cossack shirts, bidis, strobe lights, black lights, underground newspapers, magazines and comic books, pipes, rolling papers, peace signs, sandals, belts and other leather goods, waterbeds, strobe candles, and incense. A businessman whose retail savvy influenced local style and culture, Killeen managed to keep the store profitable for over twenty years, eventually opening an adjunct location next door that focused on clothing. Neither archetypal hippie nor typical business entrepreneur, his business savvy and appreciation for a sense of community he helped foster makes him a major player in the Gainesville music scene, if only for offering the first bell bottoms in town. Currently he lives south of Gainesville on a ten-acre horse farm where he breeds racehorses.
I grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts, about 26 miles north of Boston, almost on the New Hampshire border. After graduating from high school in June 1958, I enrolled at Oklahoma State University—I wanted to go to school in a different part of the country. OSU used to have a college magazine called the Aggievator, but it wasn't being published at the time.
I liked to write, so I worked for the university newspaper and I put a lot of copy in, and eventually decided I could have a lot more latitude writing for a magazine. Since they weren't willing to resuscitate the old magazine, I started my own magazine, Charlatan. We called it the State Charlatan at first. They wouldn't let me sell Charlatan on campus so I had to run around the dorms late at night to sell it. That went on for four issues, but by then they were ready to throw me out of school and I left voluntarily after about two-and-a-half years, came home and published one edition in Massachusetts.
I decided I eventually would move to Albuquerque and continue the magazine there and attend the University of New Mexico.
In the summer of 1962, I was driving my 1950 Cadillac Superior Model Hearse across the country from Massachusetts to New Mexico when I was rudely interrupted. Somewhere in Oklahoma, my radiator developed a tiny leak. I was almost fundless, so there would be no new radiator. I found an old girlfriend from Oklahoma State to stay with for a couple of days while the repair shop guys did what they could to keep it alive.
There would be no trip to Albuquerque, a thousand miles away. But I might be able to make it to Austin, 400 miles south. My friend Gilbert Shelton had already invited me to stay at his apartment, sleep on his “hair couch” and help him put out The Ranger, the University of Texas humor magazine.
We had worked together on the Wonder Warthog comics—I wrote the first one. He came to my house, we did the comic strip. He couldn't figure out how to get started so we developed an Origin of Wonder Warthog, just like all the comic books had the origins of the characters. That was published in 1962 in Bacchanal, an indie mag at the U of Texas, then later in the Ranger. Anyway, I was working on the staff of the Ranger and at the time we were exchanging magazines with the Florida Orange Peel. The old one published by the University was called the New Orange Peel, and the non-University one was called the Old Orange Peel. So, eventually I headed to Gainesville.
I saw how much advertising the two magazines had, but there were already two magazines in Gainesville. I knew I couldn't get enough ads, so I went to Tallahassee in '63-'64 and it was there that I resumed publication of the Charlatan.
I often would drive down to Gainesville, where I sold copies of Charlatan in front of the Gator Shop, and eventually I started selling some ads. I didn't need to sell many because most of my ads were from Tallahassee, but I realized that Gainesville was the place with the most advertising potential, and it had a bigger and hipper student body than Florida State University. The magazines had been successful down here, and I thought this was the place to go. So I moved down here in 1965, and soon after, the University Orange Peel folded, followed by the Old Orange Peel.
I'd been selling the Charlatan here already, and needed to sell more ads. When I began selling ads for the magazine, there were about fifty places I had a chance with. One of them was Alan's Cubana [318 W. University Ave], a hut next to the Seagle Building. Alan Lederman was from Massachusetts, where I had known his sister. When Alan opened Alan's Cubana, he was the only sandwich shop that delivered sandwiches, there was nobody delivering pizzas. He started buying ads on the back cover, so from that vote of confidence I got a ton of advertising, The Charlatan was in production from 1963 to 1967 until the Subterranean Circus opened.
The Charlatan, with no competition, accumulated much advertising and plenty of sales. By 1967, it became lucrative enough to provide seed money with which to open the Subterranean Circus.
In 1966, nearing the end of the Charlatan era, Dick North, Gerald Jones, Newt Simmons and I lived in a modest stone house on 6th street in Gainesville, about half way between University Avenue and 39th. I’m not sure of the exact address, but if you’re looking for it I think it still has a Church of The Redeemer sign in the front yard. Newt lived in the attic, the rest of us had bedrooms and the Charlatan office was a closed-in porch in front. Newt’s future wife Ann moved in upstairs, Pamme Brewer spent most of her time with me, while Gerald and Dick alternated girlfriends. No, not with each other. Anyway, it was a busy place, and productive.
Dick—and Pamme—have, sad to say, passed from this orb. But not before helping me open the Subterranean Circus in September of 1967. I had mentioned to Dick that we needed some kind of money-generator for the summer since Charlatan did not publish between June and September due to an insufficient number of students enrolled in summer school in those days. I was thinking about a bookstore which would sell all the newfangled hippie newspapers, comics, etc. Dick suggested adding posters, which were becoming big on the West Coast and in New York City. Pamme found a place in Washington, D.C. that sold unusual dresses, etc., so we embarked upon our enterprise. I mean, how could we go wrong?—we had all of $1200 to invest!
First, we needed a location. We found a place on 7th St., just six blocks from U of F, an old fertilizer warehouse with an office in front. It was set back twenty-five or thirty feet off the street, ideal for parking. And it was big. You needed a lot of room to hang up all those posters, right? The rent was $75 a month. We didn’t try to bargain them down.
So now we had a building. Unfortunately, when we had the power turned on, water burst loose from thousands of uncapped pipes. Well, it seemed like thousands. But what do you expect for $75 a month? Also, the electric wires were a little spotty, jumbling into a giant, bulging mare’s nest where they entered the fuse box. We made a point of shutting everything off at the box every night when we left. So now we were ready. We just needed something to sell.
Naturally, the logical place to go for inventory was New York. The Village had several little stores selling hippie stuff, many of which became wholesalers. Joining me on this trip to the city was Michael O’Hara Garcia, who was always up for a good time.
Garcia was also responsible for The Diabolical Bonker, which we later installed in the Circus after a break in. Mike had been in Vietnam and had witnessed the effectiveness of Viet Cong trail traps, one of which was a large spike implanted in part of a tree branch or such, which, once set into motion by someone tripping over vines along the trail, would swing into motion and perhaps impale the unfortunate tripper. Our weapon was more of a giant slab of steel hung in the rafters, which could be easily tripped by a miscreant. Or by Mike Hatcherson, one of our employees, who set it one night, accidentally tripped the wire and dived to the floor just before being demolished by The Diabolical Bonker. Mike (and a few other people) threatened to quit after that so we had to take it down before we killed somebody. Even those thieves have families who will sue you. But it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Anyway, Garcia accompanied me on my trip to NYC to procure merchandise for the store, most of which we found In Greenwich Village. There was a magnificent poster store on Bleecker called The Infinite Poster. We bought hundreds of posters and, later, thousands of buttons from a place nearby. Meanwhile, Pamme Brewer was up in Washington buying a few dresses and other things. We got some color wheels and blacklights and began to set the place up, opening in September, 1967.
The first day we were open, we made $27. The second day, $54. The third day it was up to a little over a hundred, then The Gainesville Sun put a picture of Pamme on the front page in front of the store with a flower in her teeth (Pamme was famous for posing nude in the Charlatan and causing a gigantic stir on campus, ending up with a UF trial covered by Walter Cronkite). After the Sun article, business went wild. We used all our profits to buy more stuff, taking only enough for Pamme, Dick and I to live on. We sold bell bottoms when no other stores knew they existed. One salesman, Danny Levine, sold fifty pair the first day he worked for us. Then there were Nehru shirts and Cossack shirts, remember them? We sold so many we couldn’t stay supplied and eventually hired eighteen women to make them, under Pamme’s direction. The money was coming in so fast it was unspendable, definitely a new experience for all of us. And, best of all, we were having fun.
With the Subterranean Circus inventory increasing dramatically by the month, the store soon became too small to comfortably display everything we wanted to sell, especially the clothes. After protracted negotiations between our realtor pal Louis Bliziotes and the Standard Fertilizer family which owned the building, we purchased the building next door and also the one next to that on the corner of SW 7th street and University Avenue. The building next door snugged right up against our building. It was the same length but about five feet wider. This is where we moved the clothing and jewelry. We called it Silver City.
Before we bought it, the Silver City property contained, barely, Cecil Shannon’s auto salvage operation. Cecil had automobile engines in various stages of disarray scattered all over the building. We had to spray the place first with hydrochloric acid, then water, to get it sufficiently clean to move in.
We decided to put the retail area on a wooden platform about six feet high and connect it to the Circus with a large doorway in the middle. On the first floor, we erected a fountain we had shipped in from Mexico in sixteen crates (don’t ask what the freight on that one was). In the right front corner, we established a triangular garden, bordered it with a rock wall, the stones of which were once ballast in a ship that sank off Miami Beach. We put in a skylight so the plants would grow, and strung leaded glass lights on chains from the ceiling from front to back. For a very short time, we had an enormous plexiglass aquarium opposite the garden in front. After a couple of days, it exploded (too much pressure, despite the assurances of our engineer friends). We saved all the fish, though.
On the floor, we had a couple of large burl display tables for ladies shoes and photographs of our clothes modeled by our staff, including my wife, Harolyn, once a fashion model. The long, curved stairway from the first floor to the platform was crafted by Ron Blair, then a member of local band Mudcrutch and later one of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. My semi-office, which had been in the Circus was moved to the east end of the platform, well away from the retail area. We brought in a mobile unit from one of the popular local radio stations and had a giant opening which lasted past Friday midnight. And for several years, the daily gross of Silver City exceeded the nice figure the Circus was earning. The building on the corner was rented to Dan Ianarelli, an ex-Gator lineman, who opened Dan's Beverage, a drive-in beverage mart, which he kept open until 2 a.m. The Circus and Silver City were both open until 10 p.m, so if you ran out of things to do there was always our corner.
We did the right thing at the right time and we were lucky. We knew we didn't have enough stuff in the store to keep going on forever, so instead of spending the profits we just bought more and more stuff.
We didn't have a name for it. Silver City was a boutique. If we were to going to be diplomatic and try to avoid a drug reference in naming it we would have called the Subterranean Circus a poster shop...it never really came up. Other people called it a headshop. However, we did experience some political pressure. Gene Whitworth was the States Attorney, and they came in and raided the place a few times, took posters off the wall they said were obscene, a Kama Sutra series of posters by a classic, prominent French artist. Also, they were sure we sold drugs in there, but no drug sales went on in the store. And we didn't let people hang around the parking lot; I remember back then the hippies wanted to have a Meditation Room; I said "Sorry pal, no Meditation Room." This is a business, had to treat it like one to be successful.
One of the reasons so many of the so-called "headshops" didn't stay in business is because they did sell drugs. I knew that wasn't gonna work.
Gene Whitworth busted us and he tried to scare us, but I was hard to scare, I had been abused by everyone in the world when we were selling our magazines, cops were always trying to find ways to stop us from selling Charlatan either by arresting us and putting us in jail. But if you don't scare, and if the ACLU eventually helps you out, which they did, you're O.K.
After the store was successful for a while, Dick North concentrated on leatherwork. He set up a leather shop inside of the store where he made sandals, belts, a lot of brass belt buckles and peace signs. We must have sold about ten thousand of those peace signs. He eventually opened his own shop, The Apollonian Alternative.
When we had the Charlatan, there was a lot of political content, so it just followed when we opened the store that we would continue feeling that way. I was never 100% in any political camp, like the Students for a Democratic Society. Even the hippies. I would smoke some dope, but wasn't into anything heavier, wasn't someone who would take acid every day and be blissed out, that wasn't me.
I wasn't big into being a hippie. I realized it was really easy to lose control of your life if you decided you were just gonna go out and be a full time hippie; you just couldn't do it. I saw plenty of hippies running stores. We wholesaled to a lot of people, who would, say, open a store in Jacksonville Beach. They'd ask us to show them how to do it. You'd go out there, everybody would be zonked out. Two months after they opened the store they'd be really successful and then they'd screw up their business.
I had to run the store like a business but I didn't want to be like a straight business person and not have any fun, and I didn't want to be extremely divorced from the people who worked for me. It's hard when people work for you to be part of the crew, and you can't be, you're always going to be on a different level if you're the boss. I tried as much as possible to be a part of the group of people who worked for me.
The Sub Circus opened September 20, 1967 and closed in 1990. On several occasions, the state or the city passed various paraphernalia laws and other places closed up and we stayed open to see what would happen. They didn't bother us that much. Then Modern Age Tobacco opened up around 1988 or so. Waylon Clifton was the Chief of Police and he had been a narc before that. He was a totally inappropriate guy to be police chief. Modern Age was selling stuff he considered pornographic so he busted them. But he soon realized he couldn't bust them for the porno so he tried to get them for paraphernalia, and if he was gonna bust them for that he'd have to bust us as well. We went to court; they were willing to drop all the charges if I accepted probation, which I shouldn't have done, but I did it because it was gonna cost about $15,000 to proceed.
The new law said that by a certain date you couldn't sell any of this paraphernalia any more so we had a big sale to dispense of it all. We made a fortune selling the stuff. On the last day, we made $7000, so we had a celebratory party out at Camp McConnell on 441, and we hired a couple bands to play that night. That's the only time I was directly involved with local bands. Incredible. Free beer. A couple of thousand people. Dan Ianarelli from Dan’s Beverages brought 18 kegs. We ran out for half an hour and we had to quickly get about 16 kegs more. That was one expensive night. Halloween.
Later we sold the original property to the hospital and moved down next to Leonardo's Pizza, in a very small building. There just wasn't enough money coming in to justify it, we weren't legally allowed to sell as many things as we could before. Where we were grossing $1000 a day, we were netting $300 a day. I ended up letting it peter out, I set a target date that we were gonna close, and we did, sometime in 1990.
We put a lot of time and effort into the poster room. I put those up myself. I tried to display each poster to its best advantage. If one was really busy, I would surround it with posters with simpler designs. I’m not inferring it was an art gallery because you had to cram as many in there as you could.
I realize there's nothing like living in these small, hip college towns. Austin is probably my favorite place; if I wasn't raising horses I'd live in Austin-- it's got everything. I realized there were a lot of towns where you could live that were not much fun and only a few that were like Austin or Gainesville. When I lived in Tallahassee it was not the same, there was definitely a certain vibe in Gainesville. Towns like Ann Arbor, and Madison and Athens, Georgia have something special. I think those are places where a sense of community exists.
That's what is lacking in this country, a sense of community. When I travelled to Mexico, and spent time at people's houses, and at the plazas at night, everybody's out, they're all talking to one another, they're all walking by, communicating. They may have a television in the house but they aren't preoccupied with it, they are preoccupied with one another. We don't have as much of that. I didn't have a TV for the first several years when I had the store.
When we closed at night, we went out to the bars, out to listen to the bands. If it was nighttime you were out and about in Gainesville.