Longtime Tulsan Joe Kifer finds worth in undervalued treasures.
Real estate agent Joe Kifer, with items from his Tulsa collection, calls himself a history detective. “When I find something I don’t understand, I have to investigate,” he says.
Joe Kifer refers to himself as the Forrest Gump of Tulsa because he was “lucky enough to be in the perfect place at the perfect time.”
His family moved here in 1960 when he was 7 years old, the perfect time to enjoy a simpler Tulsa. Kifer recalls that kids could shoot fireworks at Johnson Park along Riverside, get caught up in the excitement of The Beatles’ music and later enter the workforce via lost Tulsa favorites like the Nine of Cups club at East 17th Street and South Boston Avenue, one of Tulsa’s go-to music venues in the ’70s and ’80s.
Kifer made his own mark on Tulsa as part-owner (along with then-wife Lise) of Chubby’s Ice Cream, located first in Stonehorse Mall on Brookside and then in Utica Square. People magazine voted their vanilla bean flavor the third-best ice cream in the country in 1984. Kifer’s family also opened and owned the Grapevine Restaurant on Brookside from 1981-1998.
Although he can’t say exactly when or why he began collecting Tulsa memorabilia, Kifer’s work as a real estate agent gives him the perfect opportunity to run across
estate sales in Tulsa’s historic neighborhoods. He keeps an eye out for old photos, vintage cookbooks and more — anything he can get for about $2 or less.
“I do have a small network of friends who collect different things, so we tip each other off,” Kifer says. “Since I’m a cheap date, one good friend actually buys things knowing they’re right up my alley and that I’ll be good for a gamble.”
Kifer’s first interest was old matchbooks, which he says are like “little billboards.” Many of them list five-digit phone numbers, which sparked a curiosity about the history of Tulsa telephone numbers.
One of his favorite finds is a reverse telephone directory that he estimates to be from 1926. The four- and five-digit numbers are listed numerically, not alphabetically, making it difficult to decode. However, the back of the book lists addresses by street along with the accompanying phone number. Eventually, using his knowledge of Tulsa real estate, Kifer deduced the original phone numbers for Tate Brady’s estate and his Louvre Ballroom (now Cain’s), among others.
A newer fascination is vintage advertisements. He owns city entertainment guides from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and says he was surprised by how many ads they contain for bars and burlesque shows.
“For a town in a state with such backward liquor laws and that was allegedly in the heart of the Bible Belt, T-town was pretty damn open for business,” Kifer says.
Perhaps the most interesting ads give insight into the history of some of Tulsa’s popular businesses. A 1958 city entertainment guide advertises The Colony, now a bar and music venue, as Tulsa’s only shrimp and oyster bar. Another, from 1968, promotes the former Glen restaurant in Utica Square, where the Polo Grill is now. This ad is particularly meaningful to Kifer because it pictures a chef he worked with during his time there as a 16-year-old dishwasher.
Kifer is passionate about collecting, but he doesn’t go out of his way for it. If he comes across an estate sale, he’ll stop in and head straight for the “doesn’t fit in any other room” room.
That’s where he finds the type of historical artifacts he likes best: the neglected treasures left over after the heirs are finished fighting over the crystal and silver.
“The bottom line,” Kifer says, “is that I’m simply trying to document things for those of us who were there and to share with my kids and grandkids the magic Tulsa has always owned. They’ll likely not appreciate it till they’re my age, but I’ve left a breadcrumb trail behind.”