Show business genes – I attended a fantastic show recently called “On Kentucky Avenue – The Club Harlem Revue,” that brought back memories. It was a story about an historic African American nightclub in Atlantic City (AC) where several of my relatives performed. Club Harlem was considered the ‘Black Copacabana’ of its time–among the best of the Chitlin’ Circuit! Besides cooking genes, there seems to be a lot of show business genes in my family, especially on my father’s side (Harlem via New Orleans and Mississippi). If you were born with showbiz genes, being a performing artist or working in the entertainment industry is probably the only thing you can do or want to do. Maybe we could also call it diva or divo genes! Is the world your stage? Are you prone to drama if the right music or circumstance presents itself? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, then chances are that you were born with showbiz genes. I am related to a lot of characters like that. Even if they are too old or infirmed to dance, sing and perform, they still do. When my jazzy cousin Tempy was in her eighties she would perform high kicks and splits just to let you know she still had it! Cousin Jojo Smith at 70+ had two hip replacements and still choreographs, coaches and teaches.
Atlantic City was the Gold Coast for the rich, white international set. Films and songs have been written about this iconic seaside town. I assume that the owner of AC’s Club Harlem added the name “Harlem” to his club’s title because it gave his place the global brand for great black entertainment. The validity of AC’s Club Harlem was that it gave talented artists of color like my relatives another place to perform in the region besides the ‘real’ Harlem, other Chitlin’ Circuit venues and Europe. Like the ‘real’ Harlem in New York City, Atlantic City was racially segregated back when my relatives performed there. My Aunt Jeri Smith, was a pianist and bandleader; Uncle Joe and Aunt Helena Smith had a tap dance routine with Cab Calloway; and cousins Jojo Smith, Tempy Fletcher and Kathy Smith were dancers with the Lon Fontaine Trio, Larry Steel Dancers and in “Rio” and “Mambo” acts. They told stories about performing on the same night with such greats as Dinah Washington, Sammy Davis, Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong, Lou Rawls, Sarah Vaughn, Gladys Knight, Ella Fitzgerald, The Hines Brothers, Moms Mabley, Slappy White and too many to list here.
Aunt Jeri said that black artists were always booked as performers and entertainers in the big Atlantic City venues. But because of race laws, blacks could not enter these fancy establishments. So, they needed someplace else to go ‘after-hours’ to unwind. Can you imagine? After receiving standing ovations, the black stars had to exit through the back door. As fans clamored for their autographs, security guards harassed them until they left for AC’s all-black section on Kentucky and Missouri Avenues, a few blocks away.
Well, once inside Club Harlem on Kentucky Avenue that’s where the ‘real’ shows happened, according to family stories. Club Harlem became THE after-hours venue for the hottest shows in AC. Many of the big white stars like Frank Sinatra, the Rat Pack, and Marilyn Monroe and others would hangout with the black stars and patrons there.
There is a Smithsonian Institute exhibit about Club Harlem in the works to tell this unique chapter of African American music history. Here’s link: http://www.atlanticcityweekly.com/news-and-views/local-history/Got-Club-Harlem-smithsonian-exhibit-museum-music-history-ac-139380708.html
The recent show (2/17/2014) portrayed a wonderful spin about an original place that had closed years ago. Set during an era when entertainers had an elegant soulful style rarely seen today, there was one fabulous act after another. The stories within a story involved a 1969 opening night and a love triangle. I am certain that everyone in this cast was born with showbiz genes! There was plenty of drama, theater, dance and original music that brought everyone to their feet and dancing in their seats. Check listings for upcoming shows at www.onkentuckyavenue.com.
The awesome cast included, in order of appearance: Ty Stephens, Cheryl Freeman, Andrika Hall, Mindy Haywood, Brian Davis, Cassandra Palacio, Renee Ternier, Adam Bourque, Donna Clark, Gregory J. Hanks, Lee Summers. Guest star and Creator, Jeree Wade; Director Adam Wade; The Freddie Baxter Orchestra: Frank Owens, piano; Richard Cummings, synthesizer; Damon Duewhite, drums; and Wilbur Bascomb, Odell Craft-Bass.
Do you have showbiz genes in your family? Do tell!
Here are some photos from my family archives and event photos taken from a recent show at The Triad Theater, 158 West 72nd Street, 2nd Floor, NYC.