A TIN PAN ALLEY song hit was a major factor in changing the face of New York geographically and establishing Harlem as an amusement center. The tune was “Under the Bamboo Tree,” interpolated in a 1902 musical comedy called Scilly in Our Alley by Marie Cahill. The music publisher, E. B. Marks, suggested that the two Negro songwriters, Bob Cole and Rosamond Johnson, invest their royalties in property in the upper Seventh Ave. district, thereby starting a revolutionary real estate trend which was to make Harlem the capital of Negro life in America. . . . New York cafe society did not discover the new Harlem until the Prohibition era when, largely due to the weekly Morning Telegraph prattling by a perfervid press agent named Lee Posner, “slumming” trips to Harlem be-came the thing to do….In 1926, more than 12,000 Harlem residents were employed and an estimated $12,000,000 passed through the tills of the cafes, nice clubs and speakeasies. The most popular spots were the Cotton Club, Baron Wilkins’, the Plantation, Connie’s Inn, Small’s Paradise. At the Cotton Club, which lasted 14 years, Mayor Jimmie Walker had a “royal box.” The entertainers included Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Jimmie Lunceford, Adelaide Hall, Cora Green, Cora “Truckin’ ” La Redd, Ethel Waters, Earl (Snakehips) Tucker, Aida Ward, Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, and a chorus girl who arrived with her schoolbooks and her mother as chaperoneLena Horne.
The Harlem of the 1920’s and 1930’s is no more. Due to the inroads of progress, modern (and expensive) apartment houses, new and modern schools, new hospital wings, and up-to-date housing developments are wiping out the old landmarks.
The Cotton Club, boarded up and fallen into decay, will shortly be razed as part of Delano Village, a middle-income private housing development. Where the Nest Club was is a real estate office. Old Connie’s Inn is now used as a storage cellar for the building itself. Atop Connie’s Inn is a neighborhood bar. The Lafayette building still houses all the lodges of Harlem and its best tenant is the New York Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. … The old Mimo Club, where the late Bill Robinson used to bet a fortune on a throw of the dice, now houses a supermarket…. The old Lincoln Theatre, where Fats Waller and James P. Johnson played the organ and piano, now houses the Largeree Baptist Church. The rest of the area is being demolished to make way for Lenox Terrace, another housing development. . . . The old Lafayette Theatre, home of the Lafayette Players, which featured the late Abbie Mitchell, Percy Verwayne, Willie Bryant, the Whit-man Sisters, Ethel Waters, Wilton Crawley, clarinetist Clarence Muse (who became the first big Negro movie star), Bill Robinson and the unforgettable Florence Mills, is now the Williams Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. . . . The old HOT CHA BAR, where a younger singer named Billie Holliday got her start, is still there, but no longer the place to go.
The famous Savoy Ballroom is also doomed to make way for a segment of Delano Village, though there is a drive on, spearheaded by Borough President Hulan Jack, Mal Patrick and Lee Posner, to save it as a souvenir of Harlem’s past. . . . The Tree of Hope, in front of the Lafayette Theatre, under the shade of which young Negro actors, singers and dancers waited hopefully to be spotted by the talent scouts, is now only a desiccated stump, surrounded by a small iron fence and a neglected plaque to remind future generations that this was once regarded as a shrine of showbusiness.
Small’s Paradise, at 2294 Seventh Ave., one of the few remaining landmarks of the Harlem that was, is now only rented out to private parties. Upstairs, above the basement club once famous for its fast singing and dancing revues, is the Orchid Bar in a room that has been enlarged to cover half of the 135th St. block. A small jazz band is the sole entertainment, but the back room is being remodeled with the idea of restoring upstairs the type of oldtime Harlem revue.
The Red Rooster, at I 38th St. and Seventh Ave., has been nicknamed the Stork Club of Harlem because it is hangout for younger collegiate set as well as the elite. Another reason for its resemblance to Mr. Billingsley’s boite was the custom of the proprietor, the late George Edwin Woods, of barring from his club anyone whom he didn’t like.
The Pink Angel, at 149th St. and St. Nicholas Ave., a tiny bar where Big Sam is the singing host and Chink Cunningham is the manager, caters to what is fancifully known as the “sophisticated” set.
Count Basie’s Bar, at 2245 Seventh Ave., was once HarLis Corners, where the sporting element hung out. COUNT BASIE’S, a plush little restaurant as well as a bar, perpetuates the live jazz tradition, and at the moment of writing this, the Eddie (Lockjaw) Davis Trio was holding forth.
Wells’ (not Dickie Wells), next to COUNT BASTE’S, also features live music, but it is more important as the rendezvous for the stay-up-lates, coming home from downtown theatre engagements or local dances, for a snack of fried chicken and waffles.
Sugar Ray’s, down the street at 124th St. and Seventh Ave., is a swank little restaurant where during the dinner hour your host is Sugar Ray Robinson, world champion fighter. Hi-fi dinner music is the only entertainment.
Frazier’s, in the same block, is a well-known restaurant famed for southern cooking. Nearby is LEO ALT-MAN’S, noted for West Indian and African dishes, and the CAPITOL BAR AND GRILL, a neighborhood pub which has its own following.
Carl’s Corner, on Broadway at 149th St., is, I am told, regarded as Harlem’s swankiest bar and grill. Carl Tomlinson is host.
Fat Man On Sugar Hill, 450 W. 155th St., is a Chinese restaurant, and “Sugar Hill” gets its name from Harlem slang. “Sugar” means money, and that part of Harlem is, or was, where the richest families lived.
But Harlem no longer welcomes “slumming” parties, and a visitoreven a born New Yorkerwould do well to take an informed guide along when visiting the region north of 125th St. In recent years, top Negro talent is featured at most of the midtown and down-town clubs. Lena Home, the little chorus girl who danced in the old Cotton Club chorus for $50 a week, now works at the Waldorf for $5,000 a week. Pearl Bailey, who worked the little Harlem joints, is another who has become a major attraction at the Waldorf. Harry Belafonte, too young to have known Harlem in its heyday, is today rated one of the greatest attractions in the nite club field. Negro jazz bands are legion and many have figured in the State Department’s good-will programs in Europe and Asia.
Anyone nostalgic for Harlem’s strip-tease and coochdancer shows might better visit the SAVANNAH CAFE on W. 3rd St. in Greenwich Village. Anyone who visits it should be well prepared to shell out for souvenirs of all kinds and pay pLices reminiscent of the old clip joints of Prohibition days.