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The Man Who Built St. Louis Nightlife



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If Rio's passing a decade back still weighs on Burkhardt, other challenges have presented themselves in more recent years. Within his circle, there's a fierce sense of protection around him, as folks know that he recently spent time in federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Charged in 2010 with a single felony count of distributing crystal meth, Burkhardt pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison. He was released from the Terre Haute facility about a year ago, with a chunk of the remaining calendar year spent at a north-city halfway house. He left that space on July 12, and spent the balance of 2015 in tiny Crescent, where he can attack projects on his own time — his ever-expanding grotto, the classic red Gran Torino in the front yard.

It's Burkhardt who initially brings up his time away, by saying, "I got one visitor there, in five years. I didn't like visits. They leave and you're stuck. Prison's not that bad, but who wants to be there, anyway? They make millions from it, that's what it's all about. You've got people in for non-violent crimes who are doing twenty to thirty years, and some people who kill other people are released in five."

As quickly as the topic arises, it recedes. Wistfully, at that.

"I spent five years in prison," he says, dragging at a smoke and sipping at a tiny tumbler of Jameson. "And I did three years in the army. That's eight years that I gave. On Thursdays, I have to go to these group meetings. They've got drop-ins four times a month." He pauses. "I did my time. Now just leave me alone."

He needs time. After all, there's still work to do, including a "readying" of his home in Crescent, where his house, largely hand-built, sits within spitting distance of three golf courses, the Meramec River, deep woods and, just yards from his front door, a heavily traveled railroad track.

He's preparing for a possible move back to St. Louis. After fifteen years on the furthest edges of town, it'd be a proper return for a true city kid.

And maybe, just maybe, a return to the trade that made his name.

"Yeah, I was thinking about buying a place, you know," he says, his voice, as typical, just above a whisper. "I'd like to open a place like the Preservation Hall in New Orleans. Everyone's dying in my age group; it'd be neat to have a place for us. There's one area I like, south of the Arch. It's an area where the old slaughterhouses were. It's an old hotel. It's got an iron door with bullet holes in it and sign that says 'Little Willie's Last Chance.' That's the one."

It's another longshot, this idea, born in an area of the city that, once again, most have abandoned or regarded as hopelessly out of step. In a sense, then, it's a perfect Burkhardt target.

Money might be an issue; for most of us, it's an issue when turning dreams into reality. For him, though, any project is a chance to reject that notion, or at least to fight it.

"I don't really care about money," he says. "I never cared about money. I was in the business because I liked it. I like people. That's the whole trick to being around the entertainment business: If you don't like people, you're in the wrong one."

Running a place long-term might not be in Burkhardt's DNA, but getting one off the ground? That's where he excels.

As O'Shaughnessy says, "He's an artist and he can become bored with his creations after he builds them. But he's like a Bob Cassilly. The dreams and the schemes...they just shine when they have that idea."

Or, as Smith adds, "He designs pretty. He really does."


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