Richard Feynman and the Alibi Room

During the late 1940’s, a Cornell physics professor was asked to give a series of lectures at the university’s aeronautics laboratory in Buffalo.  The professor would later recount his adventures four decades later in his autobiography, including some unusual (for a physics professor) adventures in a downtown bar called the Alibi Room.  That professor was Richard Feynman, who won the Nobel Prize in 1965.

Feynman begins his tale with the travel arrangements from Ithaca to Buffalo.  He was spared the three hour drive by flying Robinson Airlines, with the plane piloted by Mr. Robinson himself.  This regional airline was one of the many that began service after the war and would supplant train travel over the next few decades.  Robinson Airlines eventually became Mohawk Airlines which was bought out by Allegheny Airlines in 1970.  Allegheny changed its name to US Air in 1979 and was folded into American Airlines in 2015.  A picture of a Robinson airplane along with Mr. Robinson can be found here.

Cornell gave Feynmen a $35 ($350 in 2017) stipend each week for his trouble.  At first, Feynmen considered saving the money, but Feynman being Feynman, decided to use the funds to look for some adventures while in Buffalo after his lectures at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory.  The facility was originally operated by Curtiss-Wright, but as the war ended, the company downsized its production in Buffalo greatly and turned the lab over as a gift to Cornell.  During its run as a Cornell facility, the staff invented the crash test dummy, seat belts, and developed aircraft simulators.  Now privately operated, the facility is still located across the street from the airport and is known as Calspan.

Feynman was hired by Cornell after working at the Manhattan Project where he became known for his uncanny ability to quickly solve equations and for picking locks.  The latter was Feynman’s way of irking the powers that be at the project.  During the first atomic test at the Trinity site, Feynman threw off his eye protection gear so as to be one of the few to actually witness the blast.  However, Feynman eventually became melancholy over both the destructive nature of the atomic bomb and the death of his wife in June 1945 from tuberculosis.  This may have contributed to his slow career start at Cornell.

“I would see people building a bridge and I would say “they don’t understand.” I really believed that it was senseless to make anything because it would all be destroyed very soon anyway, but they didn’t understand that and I had this very strange view of any construction that I would see, I would always think how foolish they are to try to make something. So I was really in a kind of depressive condition.” – Richard Feynman from the documentary The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.

Nonetheless, when Feynman got to Buffalo, he asked a local cab driver, a man named Marcuso, driving cab No. 169, to take him to a bar “with lots of interesting things going on.”  The cabbie drove Feynman to the Alibi Room located at 8 W. Chippewa near the corner of Main St.  The late 40’s, at the start of the post-war boom but before the exodus to the suburbs starting in the ’50’s, was when downtown was in its peak.  The Alibi Room was situated in the heart of the theater district and the scene would have looked like this as Feynman’s cab approached the bar.

Main Street one block north of Chippewa, 1950, from a postcard of the era.

The Alibi Room itself was new, first appearing in the Buffalo Register in 1946.  Feynman described it as a place where, “The women were dressed in furs, everybody was friendly, and the phones were ringing all the time.”  As Feynman would later find out, the phones were ringing all the time as it was a local bookie joint, and the women in furs were ladies of the night.  This is confirmed by my discussions with those familiar with the Alibi Room.  Eventually, Feynman settled into a routine where he would order shots of Black and White scotch with chaser of water and close the place down at 2 AM – Buffalo’s current 4 AM closing time did not go into effect until the 1970’s.

This went on for the duration of the semester.  Sometimes, Feynman would end up at an after hours speakeasy.  Following his last lecture of the semester, Feynman found himself in a fight in the restroom at the Alibi Room.  Once the situation calmed down, Feynman downed a shot of scotch, started talking loud, almost caused hostilities to resume at the bar with three friends of the original antagonist.  Another regular at the bar, whom an appreciative Feynman later described as a first-rate expert in diffusing bar fights, interceded by pretending to be a friend of Feynman, then convinced Feynman to leave.  Returning to Cornell with a black eye, Feynman went to teach his class, looked at his students, shiner and all, toughened up his tone of voice and asked…

Any Questions?”

That was the end of Feynman’s adventures with Buffalo nightlife.  In 1951, Feynman moved on to Caltech where he developed a quantum theory of electromagnetism.  Referred to as quantum electrodynamics (QED), this theory incorporated relativity with quantum mechanics.  Merging the two fields is the holy grail of physics.  There are four basic forces of nature, electromagnetism, weak nuclear (released in radioactive decay), strong nuclear (released in nuclear explosions), and gravity.  The first three are explained by quantum mechanics, the physics of atomic scale.  Gravity is explained by relativity, the physics of large scale that we can see.  Finding a quantum theory of gravity would unify relativity and quantum mechanics into “the theory of everything.”

Interestingly enough, despite unifying electromagnetism into quantum mechanics, Feynman was ambivalent about finding the theory of everything…

“Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics? No, I’m not, I’m just looking to find out more about the world and if it turns out there is a simple ultimate law which explains everything, so be it, that would be very nice to discover.  If it turns out it’s like an onion with millions of layers and we’re just sick and tired of looking at the layers, then that’s the way it is, but whatever way it comes out its nature is there and she’s going to come out the way she is, and therefore when we go to investigate it we shouldn’t pre-decide what it is we’re trying to do except to try to find out more about it.” – Richard Feynman from The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.

A decade later, around the time he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Feynman found himself in Buffalo once again and paid the Alibi Room a visit.  His former adversaries were nowhere to be found.  What would have happened if he had bumped into them again?  Knowing Buffalo, and that generation, they probably would have bought Feynman a beer (or a Black and White) and had a good laugh.

This time around Feynman found the scene different, describing the formally posh bar and neighborhood as seedy.  During the 1950’s, in Buffalo and across America, the middle-class fled the cities for the ranch houses and shopping malls in suburbia.  The downtown stores started to close and buildings became vacant.  Chippewa St. was on its way to becoming a red light district populated with flop houses, topless bars, and adult book stores.  The street reached its nadir in the 1970’s.

Oddly enough, there was an optical lab located on Chippewa during the ’70’s.  How do I know this?  Before the age of one hour glasses, a repair job for broken glasses could take a week or more.  After breaking my glasses in 6th grade, my eye doctor suggested I take them directly to the lab on Chippewa for a quick repair.  I hopped on the No. 24 bus, got off at the foot of Chippewa, and headed for the Root Building where the lab was located.  This was intriguing as Chippewa was the focal point for much of our middle school humor, but my trip was uneventful.  I walked by the Alibi Room without taking note, unaware a Noble Prize physicist once hung out there.  Got my glasses back, walked back past the forlorn Chippewa storefronts, noting how much the street resembled the ones television detective Baretta worked.

By the late ’70’s, the Alibi Room changed owners and was now operated as the New Alibi Lounge.  I was not able to find any images of the original Alibi Room, given the going ons inside, I imagine photography would have been frowned upon.  One image does survive from 1980 which shows the overall decline of the area Feynman commented on.

New Alibi Lounge is red building in center.  The brown building to the left was once a Gutman’s store.  Credit: Buffalo Department of Community Development/The Public.

Within a few years, all the buildings, including the former Alibi Room, would be gone.  Cleared out in an urban renewal project, this block was an empty lot for most of the ’80’s when Feynman wrote Surely Your Joking, Mr. Feynman!  The book was a best seller and Feynman became even more well known to the public as a member of the commission to investigate the Challenger disaster. It was Feynman who demonstrated to the public how the O-rings in the shuttle’s solid booster would have become brittle during the cold weather conditions the Challenger launched in.

Feynman passed away in 1988.  At the same time, Fountain Plaza was rising on the former site of the Alibi Room.  Once home to local banking operations, Fountain Plaza is now the site of IBM’s Buffalo Innovation Center as part of the continuing transition of the local economy.

Fountain Plaza in 2016. The Alibi Room was on the corner where the North Tower sits in middle of picture. Credit: Gregory Pijanowski

Throughout the 1990’s, Chippewa and the surrounding Theater District experienced a renaissance.  Mark Goldman got the ball rolling with the Calumet Arts Cafe, also played a key role in the development of Canalside.  The Root Building is now home to Emerson Commons, part of Emerson High’s Culinary program.  Once again, Chippewa is an entertainment center in the city.

Beyond physics, Feynman’s legacy continues in education.  During a stint on California’s Curriculum Commission, Feynman was critical of common educational techniques.  For example, rather than emphasize memorization, Feynman pushed for comprehension of physical concepts.  Feynman also wanted children to understand there are a variety of ways to solve mathematical problems.  His reasoning is that scientists focus on getting the right answer, not a rote process.  This is the underpinning of common core curriculum.

Common core is part of an overhaul to move education away from being geared toward the old industrial economy to one more suited for the 21st Century.  During the early 1900’s, rural residents moved to cities as farming became mechanized, reducing the need for labor.  The educational system was geared to train students for life in the manufacturing economy.  Now, 100 years later, manufacturing is becoming more robotized, meaning labor has to switch over to a knowledge based economy.  Feynman’s insights from his stint evaluating textbooks in the 1960’s influences science education to this day.

Chippewa Street today. Credit: Gregory Pijanowski

Last summer, a friend visited Buffalo and arrived at a downtown hotel.  She asked the staff where was a good spot to eat.  Like Richard Feynman some 70 years earlier, was suggested to go to Chippewa St.  Upon arrival, she witnessed a bar brawl that had extended out onto the sidewalk.

The more things change…

*Image atop post is Richard Feynman giving a lecture on planetary orbits in 1964.  Credit:  United States Department of Energy/Wiki Commons.

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