If you’re new to living on Tulsa Time, here are some of the city’s most iconic locations and stories from its popular history.
When I walked onto campus as an out-of-state freshman last year, I knew a lot about TU as a university and the opportunities it could present me: I knew that the school has a pretty stellar student to faculty ratio; I knew that it’s home to the Nimrod, an international journal of poetry and prose; I knew that the research opportunities on and off campus are pretty ubiquitous across majors; and I knew that, according to Wikipedia, the campus’s architecture is largely “Collegiate Gothic,” perfect for any of my fellow mid-to-late Middle Ages European architecture fans. I know you’re out there somewhere, supporting the continued vision of our favorite 11th century friar Abbot Suger.
What I didn’t know while enrolling at TU was anything about the surrounding city of Tulsa. I had toured the campus during my senior year of high school, flying in from my homeland of Charlotte, North Carolina, but I didn’t have the time to visit the city proper. That led to me having to play a lot of catch up to Tulsa history and culture, especially considering so many TU students are local.
So if you’re also an out-of-state student who neglected to do your Tulsa research, don’t sweat it. I’ve got it handled for you with the following semi-snappy listicle featuring just a few of Tulsa’s key pop culture locations and figures and a bit of each one’s story. Tulsa has been home to a ton of important, unique voices, and I can only include so much in one article, so here’s to hoping some of my favorite highlights will do.
CAIN’S BALLROOM: Built in 1924 as a garage, then used by Madison W. “Daddy” Cain as a ten-cent dance academy in the 1930s, Cain’s Ballroom now stands as a highlight of Tulsa’s arts district, merging the city’s current and historical musical cultures. From 1935 to 1942, Cain’s was known as the home of Bob Willis, aka “The King of Western Swing.”
Infusing jazz into classical western and country music, western swing reached huge popularity in Tulsa. During the peak of the genre, Willis and his Texas Playboys played nightly at Cain’s and were regularly hosted by KVOO to reach a radio listening of over 6,000 people. This basis in western swing is still apparent within the interior of Cain’s itself, which is plastered with banners of past Western music icons who have graced the venue’s stage.
Speaking of gracing the stage, the Sex Pistols chose Cain’s as one of their seven stops for their 1978 American tour. This famous show left a mark on Tulsa’s music scene in more than one way. For one, the Cain’s office still proudly displays a cut-out section of the venue’s wall that Sid Vicious punched out. It also helped resolidify Cain’s Ballroom as a relevant music venue after the western swing wave had come and gone.
The Sex Pistols brought punk to Tulsa and propped up the venue’s popularity in time for Cain’s to make a new name for itself in the music world by bringing new wave to the city in the following decade. Today, Cain’s continues to stand for the city’s rich musical history.
Last, and these are words from the wise, wear earplugs if you’re planning on seeing a musician here and you want to hear out of your left ear the next day.
VILLA PHILBROOK: Rivaling the Golden Driller as the premier symbol of Tulsa’s previous status of “Oil Capital of the World,” the 1920s-villa-converted-museum is a punchy aesthetic reminder of that Tulsa’s history is one of contrasts. The 72-room mansion houses a diverse collection of artwork spanning from European renaissance, to ancient Egyptian applied art, to the artwork of Kehinde Wiley, the American artist best known for creating Obama’s iconic floral presidential portrait. However, the Philbrook puts particular emphasis on its collection of Native American artworks in both its villa and downtown locations.
Tulsa’s history is one inherently connected to the history of American Indian peoples. After all, the name of Tulsa itself is a bastardization of the Creek word for “old town.” Though the villa Philbrook isn’t the first thing that comes mind when you think of pop culture, the old oil mansion has always struck me as an epitome of the Tulsa historical experience: looking back at pasts that are equally opulent and flawed.
THE CHURCH STUDIO: Like Cain’s Ballroom, the Church Studio is often credited as being the home of a distinct musical genre. This time, the genre is named after Tulsa itself. Combining elements of blues, country, rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll, Tulsa Sound popped up in the music scene during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s in the Greenwood district. During the genre’s height in the 1970s, its most notable artists included such talents as Rocky Frisco, J.J. Cale, Eric Clapton and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
The studio—located in the Pearl District, for anyone keeping score at home—was built originally as the Grace Methodist Episcopal Church in 1915. In 1972, the building was repurposed into a studio by Leon Russell to launch his Shelter Records recording company. Tom Petty would sign his first contract with Russell in this building, and in 2010 the stretch where the church resides was renamed “Leon Russell Road” after the studio’s owner. Though right now the structure isn’t much to look at, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in September of last year and has been in the pre-stages of renovation since 2016.
CAVE HOUSE: The Cave House was built in the late 1920s as an outdoor restaurant and has been baffling passersby ever since. With an architectural style best described as Flintstones-esque, the Cave House doesn’t really look like anything else in Tulsa. Located just west of Tulsa’s downtown and having gone through its fair share of owners, the ramshackle building has a surprisingly rumor-laden history.
Allegedly, legendary bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd was frequently seen here late at night when the house opened its doors as a speakeasy. Remains of prohibition-era alcohol containers have been reported to have found beneath the upstairs floorboards. There’s also speculation that the rounded building is connected to an old set of underground tunnels from the 1920s that were used by the Ku Klux Klan, but the city has yet drum up the money to excavate them. And, finally, it may or may not be haunted by the ghost of an old woman called “the rag lady.” If any of this happens to catch your interest, the current owner is doing interior tours for $10 a head.
BRADY THEATRE: Located in the Tulsa Arts District along with Cain’s Ballroom, the Brady Theatre has a long, varied history. Though now serving as a venue for musical and comedic acts, the theatre spent its first 40 years being referred to simply as the Convention Hall. It’s a decently fitting moniker, seeing as the theatre was built in 1914 to split its time hosting conventions and acting as a municipal auditorium. Over the past century, the theatre has hosted The Cars, Styx, U2, Robin Williams, Phil Collins, Devo and apparently continues to host the ghost of Italian opera star Enrico Caruso, who caught a fatal flu in Tulsa at the tail end of 1920. Also, Alice in Chains will be there next month, if that’s your kind of scene.
The theatre’s history extends into Tulsa’s complicated relationship with civil rights. Due to its size and proximity to the Greenwood district, the theatre was also used as a detention center for black citizens arrested during the 1921 Tulsa race riots; over 6,000 detained black residents were split between the Brady Theater, McNulty Park and the Fairgrounds. Several individuals are known to have died while interned at these locations.
Hopefully one of these locations made you want to get out there and explore Tulsa even just a little. The city has a lot to offer, being home to both the center of the universe and Hanson, everyone’s favorite one-hit-wonder boy band from ‘90s. It’ll also soon be home to its very own pop culture museum. The Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture will open its doors across from Cain’s Ballroom late next year, and I hope you’re all here with me to see OKPOP launch.
If the city’s more serious, complex history of race relations, oil money and groundbreaking music at all interests you, then I would absolutely urge further research. Tulsa is not an easy city to sum up, and history is always more complicated than it appears on the surface. The best we can do is try to understand.
Welcome to Tulsa!