Tag Archives: nightclubs

Image gallery: supper clubs

supperclubdine&dance813Supper clubs, night clubs where meals are accompanied by live music and (usually) dancing, began as private clubs rather than as businesses. Groups of people who knew each other, often socialites or theater performers, met regularly for late-night meals and entertainment, at either a single restaurant or at a succession of restaurants. The revelry might last until 2 or 3 A.M. if not later.

By the 1920s the habit had developed into a type of restaurant catering to fun seekers and open not to the select few but to the general public. Perhaps because supper clubs had once been associated in many people’s minds with capital-S Society, these restaurants enjoyed an aura of glamour.

Although a supper club is a night club that serves food, there are many variations. Some were urban, such as NYC’s well-known nightspots El Morocco, the Stork Club, and the Copacabana. But from the 1920s until the decline of supper clubs in the 1970s, many across the U.S. were located on roads outside settled areas. This is particularly true in the upper Midwest. In Wisconsin, where supper clubs have particularly flourished, they have ranged from rustic roadhouses serving barbecue to swanky resort-area clubs.

In movies of the 1930s and 1940s, supper clubs were portrayed as places where big stars and popular bands such as Glenn Miller’s played, but far more common were the sort that hosted local musicians. Still, patrons dressed up and enjoyed a night out, dining and dancing, and maybe a floor show, without spending a fortune. Many a wedding and anniversary party was held at supper clubs across the country.

Despite the low point reached in the 1980s and 1990s, supper clubs showed an ability to incorporate trends such as the Tiki-mania of the 1960s and are reportedly making a comeback, now as retro-deco revivals with gourmet food. This has not always been true. According to menu-planner Lothar Kreck the wise supper club manager of the 1970s saw to it that the menu selections – whether stuffed lobster tails or capons — were prepared in advance of the arrival of guests.

The Gallery

supperclubThePyramid

The winner of the title “Dairy Princess of Dodge County” was announced at a dairy banquet at the Pyramid Supper Club in Beaver Dam WI in June, 1973. The illustration’s proportions would appear to be a tiny bit exaggerated.

SupperClubTesch'sSC,AntigoWI

At the other end of the glamour spectrum was the very modest looking Tesch’s Supper Club in Antigo WI, one of the many mom&pop operations.

supperclubTeaneckNJ

In the 1950s and 1960s The Casa Mana in Teaneck NJ  hosted the Lions Club, United Steel Workers, and Democratic Party functions.

SupperClubSilverDomeWI

The Silver Dome Supper Club and Ballroom featured dining and dancing in two separate buildings.

SupperClubMardiGrasOaklandCA

In Oakland CA, the Mardi Gras Supper Club offered music in a raucous setting.

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El Morocco in NYC was visited by celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and then-husband Joe DiMaggio. Did they stay long enough to get some food on their plates?

SupperClubAmato'sPortlandORAn

Most supper clubs patrons were not celebrities. In an earlier incarnation Amato’s Supper Club had been the Roseland Ballroom owned by one of Portland Oregon’s leading restaurateurs, Larry Hilaire.

SupperClubDallas

Menu of the El Tivoli, established in 1929 on a former golf course west of Dallas on the Fort Worth Pike.

SupperClubMineolaNY1933An

Tiny Tim, famous for his falsetto rendition of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” played this Long Island supper club in 1970, a year before the Mineola NY property was put up for sale.

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The Lotus, a Chinese supper club, was one of the many that did not use supper club in their name, preferring the term Cabaret Restaurant. Chinese and Afro-American supper clubs were numerous in big cities. In his book Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C., John DeFerrari documents both. Club Bali, opened in 1943, featured Sarah Vaughn, Erroll Garner, Dinah Washington, and many other topnotch Black performers.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Filed under night clubs, roadside restaurants

Dining by gaslight

GSThreeFountainsINTThough it seems fairly obvious when you think about it, the development of entertainment districts post-WWII encouraged the growth of restaurant-ing in many cities across the U.S. On the minus side, the fate of such restaurants was highly dependent upon the fate of the districts.

The Three Fountains [pictured] was the star restaurant in the entertainment district of St. Louis which began in the late 1950s and was officially named Gaslight Square in 1961. The one-and-one-half block area attracted affluent suburban St. Louisans and the city’s many conventioneers with restaurants, live theater, and clubs that featured national acts such as the Smothers Brothers, Joni Mitchell, Lenny Bruce, and Miles Davis.

Developing out of a racially borderline, transitional neighborhood populated with apartments, music schools, and antiques stores, its pioneering establishments included the Crystal Palace theater, the Gaslight Bar, Smokey Joe’s Tavern, the Laughing Buddha coffeehouse, and the Dark Side jazz club.

GSThreeFtnmenuThe Three Fountains exuded luxury with a multi-level interior lavishly decorated with  antique fixtures complemented by an oversize menu filled with expensive dishes (the $6.50 pepper steak would cost about $46 today). Its decor, like most of the restaurants and clubs in Gaslight, consisted of an extravagant, crazy melange of salvaged windows, doors, railings, paneling, statues, fountains, and light fixtures from structures mowed down by a city obsessed with urban renewal.

gsMillCreekValleySlum clearance in an area known as Mill Creek Valley brought its bounty. There the destruction of residences formerly housing 20,000 people (95% of them Afro-Americans) freed up tons of antique woodwork and hardware for decorators with a taste for Victorian. The transfer of objects from Mill Creek to the nightclubs and restaurants in Gaslight Square can also be seen as an illustration of a troubled relationship with the city’s black population who lived close by, worked in Gaslight’s restaurants, and performed in its clubs, yet whose patronage was not welcome.

According to Jorge Martinez, owner of a couple of jazz clubs, the block’s business association ruled against his proposal for a dance hall out of fear it would attract Afro-Americans. Terry Kennedy, an Afro-American who grew up in the neighborhood adjacent to the area and became a city alderman in 1989, observed that if you were black “you better not be there too long, or the police would run you off.” (Interviews with Kennedy, Martinez, and others are found in the book Gaslight Square, an Oral History, by Thomas Crone.)

Yet, Gaslight Square offered opportunity to a few Afro-Americans. Sandra J. Parks occupied a rare position in America, that of black female chef. She cooked in several of the area’s better restaurants, including Kotobuki and Port St. Louis and managed Two Cents Plain before moving to Chicago for a career in catering.

Compared to the city as a whole, Gaslight Square was a somewhat integrated area. Nonetheless racial tension would become a major factor in its downfall, most evident in white patrons’ grossly exaggerated fear of black-on-white crime.

From the area’s beginnings as an entertainment zone to its serious decline by 1968, at least 20 restaurants, dozens of nightclubs, and numerous coffeehouses and theaters were in business there [see map]. After-hour parties took place above street level, in apartment buildings and flats.

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There were steakhouses (Magnolia House, Marty’s, Jacks or Better, Mr. D’s), two Mexican restaurants (Tortilla Flat and a branch of Chicago’s La Margarita), a Polynesian restaurant (The Islander), a Japanese restaurant where servers dressed as geishas (Kotobuki), a fish restaurant where servers dressed as sailors (Port St. Louis), a Greek restaurant (Smokey Joe’s Grecian Tavern), a deli (Two Cents Plain), an Italian eatery (Bella Rosa), a tavern (O’Connell’s Pub), and several places whose cuisine I could not determine (Red Carpet, The Georgian, Carriage House, Die Lorelei, Left Bank).

Many of the restaurants were in converted town houses. Whenever possible they had patio dining in front, and most featured entertainment such as cabaret, folk music, or Dixieland, ragtime, or cool jazz.
GSLaughingBuhdaSTL60sThe more expensive restaurants were first to suffer from the area’s decline as well-dressed, well-heeled customers stopped coming. Conventioneers were warned off, in many cases, by cabdrivers who refused to drive there. Clubs with go-go dancers in the windows displaced coffeehouses with folksinging and poetry as a younger, more casually dressed crowd took over.

Although Gaslight Square was in ways a model for Chicago’s Old Town and Omaha’s Old Market, many businesses began closing or moving away by the mid 1960s. Port St. Louis and Two Cents Plain moved to more promising locations. In 1965 Craig Claiborne gave the Three Fountains a short – and horrid — review (“It is said to be the only French restaurant in the city and, if this is true, it is unfortunate.”) A few years later a number of gaslights were extinguished for nonpayment of gas bills. By 1972 when O’Connell’s moved to South Kingshighway, the area was largely in ruins.

Aside from a memorial constructed out of the pillars that once stood outside Smokey Joe’s, not a trace of Gaslight Square remains standing today.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Roadside attractions: Toto’s Zeppelin

toto'sAs alcoholic beverages made their return in the early 1930s, supper clubs and roadhouses offering meals, entertainment, and good cheer sprang up on highways and byways across the nation. Eager to attract customers, some adopted unusual designs that, on the surface at least, promised something out of the ordinary.

Toto'smenuOne of them was Salvatore “Toto” Lobello’s place on the main road leading from Holyoke to Northampton MA. It looked like the German Graf Zeppelin that was always in the news with tales of travelers gliding through the sky while enjoying its deluxe dining and sleeping accommodations.

The fantastic building was a type of roadside architecture of the late 1920s and 1930s commonly associated with California where sandwich shops and refreshment stands resembled oversized animals and objects ranging from toads to beer kegs. The zeppelin-shaped building was constructed in 1933 by Martin Bros., a well-known Holyoke contractor experiencing serious financial distress at that time. The nightclub apparently failed to open and, in 1934, suffered fire damage (for the first, but not the last, time).

In December of 1935, after months of trying to obtain a liquor license, Toto Lobello announced the grand opening of the Zeppelin. He solved the licensing problem by teaming up with Lillian and Adelmar Grandchamp who were able to transfer the license from their recently closed downtown Holyoke restaurant, the Peacock Club.

toto's1936The advertisement for the opening of “New England’s Smartest Supper Club” announced that drinks would be available in the Modernistic Cocktail Lounge, which was on the ground floor below the dirigible-shaped dance hall. With Web Maxon and his orchestra providing dance music, and a promise of “Never a Cover Charge, Always a Good Time,” the Zeppelin soon became a popular place for nightlife generally and for dinner parties of organizations such as the Elks and the Knights of Columbus.

Toto's1936ADVToto Lobello also had a confectionery business in Northampton located on Green Street across from the campus of the all-women Smith College. Like the confectionery, the Zeppelin became one of the students’ favorite haunts for the 3-Ds (dining, dancing, and drinking). According to an informal survey in 1937 the majority of Smith students liked to drink, preferring Scotch and soda, champagne, and beer. Toto’s ranked as a top date destination.

Toto’s Zeppelin served lunch and dinner and a special Sunday dinner for $1.00. On Saturday nights Charcoal Broiled Steak was featured.

One year after Toto’s grand opening the restaurant/nightclub faced a licensing renewal challenge requiring it to withdraw its application until unspecified “improvements” were made to the facility. But a more serious problem was about to emerge when dirigibles suddenly lost their appeal following the May 1937 Hindenburg disaster in which 36 people perished. Not too much later, in November of 1938, fire would also completely destroy Holyoke’s Zeppelin. In rebuilding, Toto chose a moderne style with a pylon over the entrance.

In the mid-1950s Salvatore Lobello, owing the state a considerable sum for unpaid unemployment taxes, filed for bankruptcy. He closed his Northampton restaurant, auctioning off all the fixtures in 1957. The building, at the address now belonging to a pizza shop, was razed. The Holyoke restaurant continued in business until 1960 when it was seized by the federal government for nonpayment of taxes. It briefly did business as the Oaks Steak & Rib House, a branch of the Oaks Inn of Springfield, before its destruction by fire in 1961.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Find of the day: the Stork Club

It seems harder all the time to find interesting things at flea markets and vintage paper shows, but I got lucky at Brimfield last week and turned up an unfamiliar Stork Club postcard. What is special is that it dates from before the nightclub/restaurant’s 1934 move to its well known address just off Fifth Avenue on East 53rd Street in NYC.

The postcard shows some of the “Stork’s” entertainers just before the era when its patrons became bigger attractions than its performers. When debutante Brenda Frazier, featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1938, started coming, attention shifted to who was seated at the tables. The early dinner crowd was followed by a late-night set of glamorous publicity seekers, many of them movie stars. Proprietor Sherman Billingsley installed a telephone at the entrance so that the orchestra could strike up an appropriate tune as celebrities were escorted to their tables. [William Boyd, aka Hopalong Cassidy, pictured]

To feed the celebrity mill, newspaper columnist Walter Winchell, always at table no. 50, informed all America of the evening’s highlights the next day. Billingsley had his own radio and TV shows for many years [a 1946 photo shows him interviewing some of the club’s stars]. During its prime in the 1930s and 1940s the Stork Club was the country’s best known nightclub. It’s closest rival was El Morocco. There could never be any doubt about the location of photos taken at the Stork Club thanks to the club’s black and white ashtrays and oversized matchbooks which always appeared prominently.

Nightclubs are a special type of restaurant in which food does not always figure too importantly. But the Stork Club was said to take its menu seriously, for example, flying in fresh crab and pompano from Florida in the 1930s. Unlike others, it opened for lunch. It had a staff of a couple hundred, about 30 of whom worked in the kitchen under longtime French chef Gustave Reynaud. In its best years it reportedly served 1,000 to 3,000 meals a day.

But I am not completely convinced that it was a diner’s mecca. Clearly tastes have changed, yet even by the standards of the day a 1948 menu looks like a real hodgepodge. Some selections are in quasi-French (Calf’s Sweetbreads Under Bell, Eugenie), others are standard American fare (Cold Cuts and Potato Salad). There are a few uninteresting specials stapled to the top (Minute Steak with Baked Potato and Green Salad) and a strange section labeled Chinese Specialties. And, 22 desserts?

Sherman Billingsley, whose background was in Oklahoma bootlegging and Bronx real estate development, began his club career in 1928 or 1929 when he took over management of several NYC speakeasies, one of them named The Stork. He bought out his mob partners, and when prohibition ended went legit. Sherman also ran The Streets of Paris at Coney Island and had interests in other places, while his brother Logan at one point owned a NY restaurant called Madeira House. He and Logan (the latter officially banned from Oklahoma in 1919 as a condition of parole) lived lives of contentiousness and court appearances – perhaps inescapable experiences for bootleggers, developers, and nightclub owners.

The Stork Club fell out of favor in the 1950s, a decade in which Sherman poured hundreds of thousands into defeating unions at his club. His lawyer, the infamous Reds-hunter Roy M. Cohn, told a NY state labor relations committee in 1957 that the Stork Club had been losing money for years. Nevertheless it ranked high as an attraction for out-of-town visitors for some years before its closure in 1965, in dismal condition. One sign it is still remembered is Ralph Blumenthal’s well-researched book, The Stork Club: America’s Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Café Society (2000).

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Find of the day: Steuben’s

I got lucky at a vintage postcard show this weekend and found this mid-1950s menu from a once popular restaurant in Boston’s theater district. Yes, believe it or not, Boston did have a downtown entertainment zone with night-clubby restaurants such as Steuben’s at 114 Boylston Street near Tremont, not far from another such place, the Hi-Da-Way. The neighborhood – which later came to be known locally as “the Combat Zone” — was eventually taken over by strip clubs, adult bookstores, and X-rated movie theaters.

The menu exudes a spirit of hilarity and puts Steuben’s in a category which I think of as the “nut club.” These were mid-century places where church-going suburbanites went occasionally to take a break from rationality and good behavior. It seems as though they proliferated after World War II — what you might think of as the PTSD therapy of that era.

Café Midnight was the part of Steuben’s that catered to the late-night crowd which often included celebrities performing in town who came there after their shows to unwind. At its peak, the restaurant expanded into five rooms, featured floor shows, Latin music in The Cave, and a radio broadcast by host Don Dennis who enthused about the restaurant’s cheese cake.

Steuben’s was established in 1932 by two Austrian-born Jewish brothers, Joseph and Max Schneider. At that time it featured a 63-foot long soda bar but clearly its opening was in anticipation of the much-awaited end of Prohibition. About a year later the restaurant was one of the first 114 “common victuallers” in Boston to get a full liquor license.

The restaurant was not kosher but it served dishes such as smoked salmon and cream cheese on a bagel, kippered herring with scrambled eggs, and chopped chicken livers. But the late-night menu also included standard restaurant fare such as steak sandwiches and grilled cheese with Canadian bacon. During the daytime Steuben’s Dutch dining room advertised lobster and turkey specials for shoppers.

Steuben’s closed sometime in the early 1970s. Co-founder Max Schneider, who also operated Ye Olde Brass Rail restaurant in Boston, died in 1975, Joseph in 1986. The brothers also owned the Blue and Gold Corp. which managed concessions at the Lincoln Downs racetrack in Rhode Island and Suffolk Downs in East Boston.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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