For the Vietnam War generation, one song has become a thanksgiving staple: “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” by Arlo Guthrie, commonly known simply as “Alice’s Restaurant.”
It was – and still is – a holiday tradition on many radio stations: an 18-minute, mostly spoken-word ramble about illegal garbage dumping and the draft, set during Thanksgiving.
Arlo Guthrie was 18-years-old in 1965 when the events of the song took place. He told NPR in 2005 the story that followed was only a little bit exaggerated.
“A lot of people thought it was fiction, and this is all real stuff,” he said. “I had visited my friends during the Thanksgiving break, Ray and Alice, who lived in this abandoned church. They were teachers at a high school I went to just down the road in the little town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts.”
Arlo Guthrie and a friend found Ray and Alice Brock’s church full of garbage and thought they’d do them a favor.
The song tells the story: “So we took the half a ton of garbage, put it in the back of a red VW Microbus, took shovels and rakes and implements of destruction and headed on toward the city dump. Well, we got there and there was a big sign and a chain across the dump saying ‘Closed on Thanksgiving.’”
So they tossed the garbage into the woods, and – to make a very long story short – they got arrested. And the arrest kept Guthrie from being drafted.
I went to Stockbridge to find the restaurant Alice owned. Alice called her restaurant the Back Room. She moved out of the area in the late ‘60s. It changed hands a few times over the years. Now it’s called Theresa’s Stockbridge Cafe – after the owner, Theresa Sonsini, who bought the place in 1994.
“I worked here in high school,” Sonsini says. “I was a waitress to the prior owners.”
And it hasn’t changed much. The restaurant can only seat maybe a dozen people. It’s a well-lit hole in the wall with a deli counter. The walls are covered with memorabilia she gathered in her time running the restaurant.
“Arlo, Alice and I,” she says, pointing out a picture. “That’s one of the photos, from ’97.”
But here’s the bad news – these days, the restaurant is no longer regularly open for business. Last year it was only open for one day. She says there’s just not enough people to help out.
“Stockbridge is quiet, it’s seasonal,” Sonsini says. “It’s hard to keep staffed, which is the story in Berkshire County, finding reliable help to help you. So we open it, we close it, we open it, depending who’s here and what the staffing is.”
So if you want to visit the restaurant, you’ll have to choose your time wisely – or just be lucky. But like the song says, “Alice doesn’t live in the restaurant, she lives in the church nearby the restaurant.” So I headed down the road a few miles to the Old Trinity Church, where Alice used to live.
Arlo Guthrie bought it in 1991 and turned it into a music venue and community spot called the Guthrie Center. It’s a beautiful white structure with stained-glass windows and a steeple – quintessential New England. And parked out front is a red VW microbus – just like the one Guthrie used to tow away garbage in the song.
George Laye meets me at the door. He’s an old friend of Guthrie’s, and he runs the center.
“I’m the executive director, the director of operations, the head of maintenance, I’m the garbage man, you gotta do it all,” he says.
There’s an active sanctuary – plus a kitchen, a few offices and a balcony. But when Alice and her husband bought the place in the ‘60s, they kept the church the way it was left – one big open space. Alice’s husband Ray did the carpentry.
After Arlo Guthrie bought the building in the early ’90s, he decided to make it a church again.
“Arlo tells the story, when he was down here cleaning up after he bought it,” Laye says, “A local minister came by and said, ‘Arlo, you bought the church, what kinda church is this?’ And without missing a beat, Arlo said, ‘It’s a bring your own God church.’”
There are regular services here with a minister named Reverend Karen. There’s no specific denomination or doctrine.
“We just came to an understanding,” Laye says, “it doesn’t matter who your God is if you have one, or where you pray to him. It could be a gas station, it doesn’t have to be a cathedral.”
The Guthrie Center offers a weekly free community lunch, free legal aid and tutoring services. George Laye says they also host a huge Thanksgiving dinner every year.
“That’s our holiday. Arlo owns that one,” Laye laughs. “And it’s a fun time of the year. It’s right before the real cold comes, and all the hill town people and everybody up here are resting from the influx of all the tourists.”
About 150 people usually show up for Thanksgiving dinners. The center never turns anyone away.
“And we always have extra,” Laye says. “‘Cause there’s nothing like a cold turkey sandwich about 10:00 Thanksgiving night in my memory [laughs]. Little things like that are important to people.”
But George says a lot of the visitors are just nostalgic for the place made famous by the song.
“We just get all the old hippies, we get all the Woodstock folks,” he says. “We get a lot of Vietnam vets come here, and they relax and find their peace. Cause that, that song got a lot of guys through that war.”