Down at the Radio Café

By L.A. Fleming

Down At The Radio Café is a literary historical novel set in Denver in 1924. It is a coming-of-age story about a young man, Fred Swan, who is tempted by the Ku Klux Klan, which was a powerful, evil national force at that time, with echoes that still haunt today. The novel is also an ensemble story that includes many historical as well as fictional characters, all trying to find or keep their place in the growing city during that very political year. 

The story begins with a mistaken murder—the wrong man is killed. Each person who is in the room where the murder occurs has a part to play as the story unfolds. Besides Fred, there is Gano Senter—the owner of the real, historical Radio Café. Gano and his wife were a major social force in Denver. She ran the women’s branch of the KKK.

Edward Jones is fictional but represents a real person. Edward is a member of the Denver branch of the Boulé, an actual, highly secretive group of African-Americans in the 1920s who worked to protect their communities from the reconstituted KKK. Edward’s own story is crucial to the novel, and he centers it morally.

The men and women in this book each have a distinctive point of view, and they influence Fred in different ways. Fred’s teenage admiration for the Klan is tempered by its open corruption, exhibited through the nonfictional character of Harry Bellow, as well as the Grand Dragon of Colorado’s KKK, John Galen Locke. 

Then the real anti-Klan Judge Benjamin Lindsey recruits Fred to box for his team, and he finds another friend there, Ron Sullivan, who influences him to think for himself—and who has a pretty sister, Lydia. 

Fred’s mother, Alice, is a tailor at a Jewish-owned department store in downtown Denver. She harbors secrets herself. She is protective of Fred, but appears to be passive in the face of his pending adulthood and his relationship with the politically powerful KKK. It’s important to note that the Klan of the 1920s, while openly racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and violent, was viewed contemporaneously as just a slightly more radical fraternal club than groups like the Masons. It was looking back on it that America shuddered over what might have been. Throughout this novel, there are a number of details that to a modern reader will create a shock of (horrified) recognition—but to the people of the day did not stand out. 

The Jewish community of Denver is victimized by the Klan, and Fred takes part in this. He subsequently meets a young, brilliant Jewish lawyer, Charles Ginsberg. Charles is also a real historical character—an unsung hero of Colorado history—and he influences Fred, much to the young man’s chagrin.

Halfway through the novel, the incompetent murderer of the first chapter is himself murdered. This affects Fred in unforeseen ways. Over the course of the book, there are car chases, boxing matches, and the highly charged election of 1924, which historically put many KKK members into power across the United States and at the federal level.

Fred’s story arc requires him to decide whether to accept Harry’s grooming of him to become a Klan enforcer, or to reject that “easy” path and make a new future for himself. 

In the end, his mother’s situation, his attraction to Lydia, his friendships with Charles Ginsberg and Judge Lindsey, his ironic relationship with Edward, and his realization that his mentor, Harry, just wants to use him, force Fred to reassess what he had thought were truths, and face life with uncertainties. 

The book concludes with a short epilogue set in 1935, when former Grand Dragon of the KKK John Galen Locke dies, rejected by everyone. 

In the 1920s, drugstore soda fountains were the Starbucks of the day.
In the 1920s, drugstore soda fountains were the Starbucks of the day.