When the Beach was Hot

Eisenhower was president, shark-finned Cadillacs ruled the highways, and Miami Beach was the nightlife capital of the Western Hemisphere

The Fifties may have been the last great American era A a country powerful, generous, and sure of itself A and Miami Beach was (and still is in many respects) a place that belongs to the Fifties. When Jackie Gleason rolled into town in 1963 to tape The Jackie Gleason Show, traveling with assorted showgirls and bartenders on twelve Pullman railroad cars, it looked as if the party would never end. But Gleason only made the obligatory public appearances, Miss Universe pageants and such, and kept to himself in the evenings. Not a great club man. In fact, the show was rube stuff, played to the chumps. Package tour groups began infesting the Beach, the hotels started to put in their own nightclubs, and nightlife became more insular. Tourists could come down for a week and never leave the hotels. By 1965, the 50th anniversary of Miami Beach, things were starting to slide.

The clubs died off gradually, and now the past is being chewed up and reinterpreted, made into something that George Raft would never have understood. The Embers became Club Nu. The Charles has become Sinatra Bar. The venerable Miami Beach Kennel Club, the dog-racing track, was torn down and replaced with Penrod's. The old Cinema Casino became Paragon. South Beach, the low-rent section in those days, is now the center of the known party universe.

Miami Beach was undoubtedly more glamorous then, but more than likely it was also a stupefyingly vulgar, thoroughly corrupt resort town. (More or less as it is today.) But it was also an interesting vulgar resort town. The old publicity photos, the reminiscences of prominent local nightlife veterans A clothing designer and social pro Jay Anderson, publicist Charlie Cinnamon, photographer Ray Fisher, Rose McDaniel of Joe's Stone Crab, Joseph Nevel of Wolfie's, impresaria Judy Drucker A make it all come back again, strong and clear. And amid the mysterious workings of nostalgia, the past seems more compelling and, curiously, more alive than the present.

"I used to shoot social stuff for some of the local publications that were around in the late Forties, the social giveaway magazines, Panorama and such, where you'd go and take pictures of some restaurant or nightclub owner shaking hands with celebrities. I shot just about everywhere, except for the Brook Club [in Surfside] A that was operating illegally, with gambling and everything, and they wouldn't let photographers in.

Money was different then; it meant more and there weren't the taxes we have now. There were much less people, and hotels and apartments were cheaper. You didn't feel like you could get in any real trouble; this was well before Kennedy was assassinated. Most of the hotels had a bookie operating out of one of the pool cabanas, but the streets felt safe. Everything was looser then. None of this PR and entourage stuff with celebrities, trying to get approval to photograph them. You'd just go up and take their picture.

"High season pretty much followed the racing season at Hialeah, January 15 through March 15. But there was always plenty going on. The Beachcomber and the Copa A which later became the Copa City A on Dade Boulevard [near Alton], had every major star: Danny Kaye, the Will Mastin Trio starring Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Maurice Chevalier, the Xavier Cugat orchestra, Milton Berle. During intermissions at the Copa, they had mambo orchestras, the musicians all in frilly sleeves. You'd catch the last show at the Copa and then go to this place called Mother Kelly's [at Alton Road and Dade Boulevard] A they had thumb bits, little pieces of steak for snacks A and acts like Julie Wilson and Gene Baylos. Mother Kelly's attracted a real late-night crowd.

"South on Alton Road you had Kitty Davis's Airliner Lounge, this place that had an aviation motif, propellers spinning inside the club, that kind of thing. There was Papa Bouche's in Hallandale, half-nude showgirls, a bunch of entertainers who hadn't become stars yet. The Paddock Bar on Washington Avenue [now WPA], Lenny Bruce played there, and this 300-pound guy called B.S. Pulley, who went on to appear on Broadway in Guys and Dolls.

"Arthur Godfrey did a broadcast from the Kenilworth every day, where he'd schmooze and play the ukulele. Walter Winchell stayed at the Roney during the season and broadcast on Sundays from the old Herald building; you'd see him in restaurants with people like J. Edgar Hoover. Winchell also knew most of the gamblers. They all fed on each other: People would come up to Winchell like he was the Pope or something. I saw him at one of the conventions, '68 or '72, and it was really sad; nobody knew who he was. He barely got press credentials. A lost soul.

"Down on First Street, near the old dog-racing track, there was the Playhouse Bar on Ocean Drive. On Collins and Fifth, a place called the Circus Bar, where you'd see second-rate comics and singers. The Cinema Casino, on Twelfth and Washington, it was originally a casino and then became a movie theater. The Latin Quarter on Palm Island was very lush, owned by Lou Walters, Barbara Walters's father. Judy Drucker appeared there once when she was very young, singing the quartet from Rigoletto, in this act she did with the Ziegfeld comedian Willy Howard, his brother Eugene, and a blond showgirl. Judy was the only real singer in the group; the rest of them did a parody of the song. The showgirl was wearing a low-cut satin dress, and when the audience applauded, everyone bowed, and Willy Howard would encourage the audience to applaud more, so he could mug and look down her dress.

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