Interior of the Club Alabam, New York

Club Alabam in New York

From the 1910s, into the 1920s and 30s, Black culture in all forms proliferated in Harlem and became known as the Harlem Renaissance. In particular there was a flowering of jazz music, performance and night-clubs in the early part of the 1920s. This trend extended into Manhattan, first with Lew Leslie’s cabaret venue called the Plantation in 1922 and then with the Club Alabam in 1924. At the same time Black artists invaded Montmartre in Paris and established a comparable ‘Harlem in Montmartre.’

Club Alabam became a hugely profitable and successful club that opened in early 1924 underneath the 44th Street, Nora Bayes Theatre (in the basement) at 216 West 44th Street between 7th and 8thStreets. The venue, along with many others, had been run by Sam Salvin’s organization as the Little Club. However, the effects of prohibition had seriously eroded the Salvin Empire and many of their cabarets, cafes and restaurants had either closed or had been padlocked under a sweeping injunction issued by federal judges for the violation of the prohibition act. The Little Club closed in March 1923 but had then been taken over, remodeled and opened as a quiet cabaret called Club Balagan with Russian entertainment, but it only lasted little under a year and was soon sold again. 

An interior image of the Club Alabam in New York, 1926
An interior image of the Club Alabam in New York, 1926

In early 1924 it re-opened as the Club Alabam, under the ownership and direction of Sam Weiss and presented a series of stunning floor shows featuring some of the best black artists in New York. Weiss had clearly observed the success, first, of the all black Broadway production of Shuffle Along in 1921-22 and then the opening of the Plantation Club by Lew Leslie, with Sam Salvin in the former Folies Bergere cabaret premises over the Shubert Winter Garden Theatre in early 1922. This had been designed as a mythical Southern Plantation on the Mississipi and was later emulated in other places in America and even in Paris at the Acacias nightclub. Leslie staged an all-coloured revue called Night-Time Frolics in Dixieland that featured the new star-in-the-making Florence Mills.

 Conceived as an intimate, pricey venue Club Alabam provided  dinner, dancing and an all-coloured floor-show and the house band was Fletcher Henderson and his orchestra. It ‘stood out for its quality entertainment and exclusive clientele’ and was frequented by a mostly white clientele and a few black celebrities.  The cuisine was also viewed as a major feature with ‘delightfully prepared international dishes regally served’ with a variety of dished and a real old-fashioned Sunday dinner. In fact it was announced that the cuisine at Club Alabam became ‘quite as famous as its entertainment.’

The Club Alabam was launched with the ‘Creole Follies Revue’ staged by Harold Goldberg that featured fifty coloured artists. There were two distinctly different revues, the first at 12.20am and the second at 2.30am. For some, the chorus girls of the Alabam, who were ‘light skinned, pretty and not weighted down by too many clothes, were the club’s big lure.’  It was made clear that unlike most supper club productions new features were added each week and a slightly different version of the cabaret was staged every few months often with new additions to the cast and later shows, in 1924, were staged by Sol (Saul) Leslie.

Two images from the Club Alabam cabaret show, New York, in 1926. Above the Opening number and main portrait of Ruth Walker, Lucille Smith and Ethel Johnson
Two images from the Club Alabam cabaret show, New York, in 1926. Above the Opening number and main portrait of Ruth Walker, Lucille Smith and Ethel Johnson

One of these new floor-shows made up the first half of a vaudeville bill at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem during the week of 28th April 1924 with Shelton Brooks, talker and comic as Master-Of-Ceremonies. This ‘show’ must have been staged prior to this date and then transferred to the Lafayette.  It had a beautiful Southern setting with a cabin and fence with the band behind (perhaps Fletcher Henderson’s).  It was a potpourri of material featuring Doc Straine, Arthur Byron, Clarence Robinson, Edwards and Helms, Mercier Marquez and the Alabam chorus with four changes of costume. The eight vamping beauties of the chorus were Gladys Bryant, Mae Fanning, Madeline Olden, Dorothy Hellis, Fredi Washington, Gertrude Hawkins, Ethel Sheppard and Ruby Cherry. There was a silvery moon number with Edith Wilson in a crooning number.

In September 1924 Arthur S. Lyons produced a new floor-show at Club Alabam and a short time afterward the legendary Johnny Hudgins joined the cast receiving $250 per week. Hudgins was a major Afro-American star, described as a pantomimist and dancing comedian, who later arrived in London and Paris with Florence Mills as part of Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds troupe in 1926. In November 1924 Eddie and Grace Rector, called the ‘Klassy Kreole Kids’ were added to the Club Alabam Revue.

A portrait of Johny Hudgins, 1920s
A portrait of Johny Hudgins, 1920s

In early 1925 Hudgins and the Club Alabam orchestra led by Sam Woodings were playing several vaudeville dates and doubled in the show at Club Alabam. It was announced that the cast would form the nucleus of an all-coloured show expected to play later in the season. The combine also played the Lafayette theatre in Harlem 18th January 1925 for 2 weeks.

There was a new floor show at the Club Alabam in June 1925 and at the time there were rumours that the Club was up for sale for $100,000 with the claim that the venue made $150,000 profit in the previous season. Despite this, Weiss did not sell in the end. Among the new stars of the floor-show, titled Alabam Fantasies, at this time was Clarence Robinson, the singing comedienne Alma Smith (born in New Orleans and who had been Florence Mill’s understudy). Another a special feature was Abbie Mitchell the famous coloured singer and actress and Jean Starr. When Johnny Hudgins took a vacation in Atlantic City in July 1925 he was replaced by Hartwell Cook.

The new show, staged by Dave Bennett, had two scenes retained from the previous show – The Slave Market and Apache’s Den and was described as ‘the best floor show entertainment in and around New York.’ The Billie Fowler Orchestra, described as a smart dance band, was sitting in for Sam Wooding’s band since the latter was now playing with the Chocolate Kiddies show at the Admiral Palast in Berlin.  Fowler had first came to attention at the recently opened La Petite on West 45th Street.

A scene from the Club Alabam, New York cabaret show in 1926
A scene from the Club Alabam, New York cabaret show in 1926

The new Francis Weldon show opened 9thOctober 1925 at the Club Alabam and was the 4th edition of the Alabam Fantasies and ran 45 minutes. It was a unique conception of Castillian revue entertainment with a creole flavor and a chorus of twelve backing eight principals that must have included Johnny Hudgins and Ruth Walker, who was thought to be a famed Creole beauty. The motif was Dixie turned Spanish with effective delving into Oriental sidelights and was thought to be a zippy floor entertainment with the lavish costumes designed by T.E. Knight (and executed by Vanity Fair). There was a corking Charleston jazz wedding scene that began the show and a thrilling March of the Toys number from Babes in Toyland with the dancing of Victor Herbert. The finale was a Chinese fantasy.

It was described as ‘the most pretentious cabaret revue’ in town with a $2 cover charge, a moderate menu, the Billie Fowler dance orchestra and made money. Enigmatically, Variety stated that ‘the wisdom of the lavish Shult-Baumeroll-Schwartz investment has been proved in the past’. Presumably these were Sam Wiess’s backers.

Interestingly, an advert in Variety from December 1925, stressed the importance of Johnny Hudgins as the ‘World’s Premier coloured pantomimist and eccentric comedian’ and stated that he had been the ‘stellar card’ at the Club Alabam for one and half years, and after a ten week ‘star’ engagement at the Cotton Club was back at the Club Alabam as the star of the new show in early 1926 in a new song and dance series. According to press reports, the Cotton Club issued an injunction against Hudgins as he had jumped ship for a higher salary at the Club Alabam along with Clarence Robinson. 

The Black Bottom scene from the Club Alabam, New York cabaret show in 1926
The Black Bottom scene from the Club Alabam, New York cabaret show in 1926

Once again, in May 1926 the Club Alabam revue was staged at the Lafayette theatre with Abbie Mitchell, Jean Starr and George McClellan. The listings for the principals in the Club Alabam show (Alabam Fantasies) at the time were Jean Starr, Abbie Mitchell, Alma Smith, Geo McClellan, Freddie Washington, Al Moore, Johnny Vigal, Clarence Robinson, Eilda Webb along with the Caldwell band. It was stated that Jean Starr was the leading lady and had been in the show for two years having made her debut in the stage show Runnin Wild. Freddie Washington was from Savannah and had formerly played in Shuffle Along and Runnin Wild.

In June 1926 a version of the Club Alabam Fantasies show opened at the cafe at 24th and Chestnut streets in Philadelphia with a cast that included George Stamper, Ellsworth Battles, Herman Taylor, Mr and Mrs Shepherd, Miss Otis and Miss Lavender.  By July this cabaret show, along with other additions was being considered as vaudeville turn for the Keith Circuit but it is not known if this went ahead as some of the original Philadelphia cast were added to the Club Alabam show in New York.

Two images from the Club Alabam cabaret show, New York, in 1926. On the left is Lucile Smith. The three male performers may be Jimmie and Eddie White and George Stamper
Two images from the Club Alabam cabaret show, New York, in 1926. On the left is Lucile Smith. The three male performers may be Jimmie and Eddie White and George Stamper

During the autumn season, there was a new edition of the show staged by Elida Webb. Once again many performers were retained including Alma Smith, Abbie Mitchell, Jean Starr, George McClennon, Al Moore and Freddie Washington along with Billie Cain, Ruth Walker, Lorraine Harris and Johnny Thrill. There was also Clara Titus and Lucille Smith direct from Connie’s Inn in Harlem.

The dancing of Jimmie and Eddie White and George Stamper was admired along with that of Al Moore. Described as a ‘Creole dancer’ Moore had made a success in Earl Carroll’s company ‘Strut Miss Lizzie’ and then went into a show at Connie’s Inn in Harlem before coming downtown to the fashionable Club Alabam where he had danced for two years and was ‘creating a sensation’. He cited the great ballroom dancer Maurice Mouvet as his idol and inspiration.

The photographs in this post come from an original programme that is likely to be from this time frame (autumn 1926) since four people are mentioned: Ruth Walker, Lucille Smith, Ethel Johnson and Alma Smith and one photograph of three male dancers may represent Jimmie and Eddie White and George Stamper.

Detail from a programme for the Club Alabam, New York in 1926 showing the numbers in the second show staged at 2pm
Detail from a programme for the Club Alabam, New York in 1926 showing the numbers in the second show staged at 2pm

At this time the Club Alabam announced that ‘because of its sparkling individuality’ it had progressed in the space of two short years ‘from a night-club of local renown to an institution of international reputation.’ There was also a new Sunday evening format with a spectacular double show at midnight that vied ‘with an irresistible menu in attracting New Yorkers and out-of towners.’

Seemingly, in early 1927 there was a new floor-show entitled Magnolia Gal and another version was staged at Lafayette Theatre in March 1927, but then in the summer of 1927, Sam Weiss decided to change direction. He re-decorated the club, abandoned the policy of the all-coloured shows and reverted to an all-white floor-show, changing the name of the club back to the Little Club. Variety observed that the Club Alabam had ‘brought Harlem to Times Square but more in the form of elaborate coloured revues than any particular personalities’ with the exception of Johnny Hudgins. They thought that Weiss had overlooked booking big stars and that this had damaged business. Whatever the reason, clearly the vogue, for what was called ‘black and tan’ floor-shows in downtown Manhattan had slipped.

Sources

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