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Thanksgiving Down at Alice’s Restaurant

November 24, 2014

On Thanksgiving Day 1965, folk singer Arlo Guthrie decided to help his friend Alice get rid of some trash. What happened next would go on to inspire a hit film and one of the biggest anti-war anthems of the ‘60s.

In late 1964, Alice M. Brock and her husband bought an old church in Massachusetts and turned it into their home. The next Thanksgiving, they had some friends over for dinner. Among them was the folk singer Arlo Guthrie, son of the legendary Woody Guthrie. In return for Alice’s hospitality, he and another guest agreed to haul away their garbage.

Overlooking or forgetting the fact that it was Thanksgiving, the two drove to the nearest dump, which was closed for the holiday. Undaunted, they decided to get rid of the garbage in a nearby ravine. They were quickly arrested by a local police officer named William “Obie” Obanhein. Obanhein photographed them in the act but he had a surprise waiting for him two days later when Guthrie and his partner in crime went to court to face the charges. The blind judge arrived with a seeing-eye dog and couldn’t actually look at the photos. He gave the two culprits a fine and told them to never litter again.

This charge would later help Guthrie avoid getting drafted into the Vietnam War. During a trip to an induction center in New York City, the singer did his best to come up with any excuse to get out of military service. After pleading insanity and bombing the physical exam, the recruiters decided not to draft him because of his “criminal history” as a litterbug.

Arlo Guthrie Alice's RestaurantGuthrie later wrote and recorded “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” an 18-minute “musical monologue” inspired by these incidents. It was featured on his 1967 album, Alice’s Restaurant, which reached at #17 on Billboard’s album chart. The song was never a hit single, but it struck a chord with the anti-war movement. Weirdly enough, supposedly Richard Nixon owned a copy of the album—Guthrie later joked that the infamous missing gap in the Nixon White House Tapes had the same running time as the song.

Broadcasting the song became a Thanksgiving tradition on rock radio stations around the country and some of them still break it out every Turkey Day. It was so popular that a film version titled Alice’s Restaurant, starring Guthrie, was released in 1969. The producers even managed to convince Obanhein to play himself. The police officer later told the press that he accepted the role because he wanted to make a fool out of himself rather than let someone else have the honor.

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