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

"Martha Raye took over a place called the Five O'Clock Club on 22nd Street. They had a gimmick of buying a free round, either at 5:00 a.m. or 5:00 p.m. Near the current Herald building there was a club called Danny and Doc's Jewel Box, which had female impersonators. Jennie Grossinger from the Catskills had a hotel on the beach at 30th and Collins, and there was the Lord Tarleton down the block, where they also had a lounge with entertainers. Place Pigalle [on 20th Street], strippers and comedians. Jack Dempsey was a partner in a hotel on Twentieth Street called the Dempsey-Vanderbilt. There was a nightclub in the hotel called Pago Pago, where you'd sometimes see Ed Sullivan and his wife. Not laugh-a-minute people.

"The Beach was full of great characters. Swifty Morgan, the inspiration for that Bob Hope movie, The Lemon Drop Kid, who went around selling ties in the clubs. Kingfish Levinsky, a punch-drunk ex-fighter who also sold ties and watches as well. He supposedly tried to sell J. Edgar Hoover a hot watch one time for a hundred bucks, claiming that there was a reward on it for $250. Harry the Hipster, this jazz musician who used to hang out in the jazz lounges. And of course John Jacob Astor, who was really the black sheep of the family. One of his divorces was so bad they sealed the court records so it wouldn't leak out to the press.

"It was just a whole different kind of town. Anything could happen. I remember one day on the Beach in high school, walking down the street with three or four friends. This guy and his wife pulled up in a big Buick convertible and offered us a lift. Who would give a ride to a bunch of teenagers now? But it was Miami, and that's just the way it was."

A Photographer Ray Fisher, now living in South Miami "It was a very different time; Miami Beach was very elegant, very chic. At the Brook Club everybody would be in black tie having a gorgeous dinner and watching a show, while gambling went on in the back room. I think it was run by the S&G Syndicate. The Latin Quarter had glittering, ostentatious stage productions, the kind of thing you might see at Radio City Music Hall. And all the larger clubs had big orchestras with wonderful musicians.

"I started singing in clubs when I was fifteen, around 1948. I lied and told everybody I was eighteen, and hid it from my parents until I got caught. I used to sing Broadway show tunes, Spanish songs, and occasionally arias from operas. The first club was the Pago Pago, show tunes from Carousel, things like that. Fifty bucks a week, a lot of money for a high school kid then. After that I went on to the Brook Club, the Copa, and the Latin Quarter, when I was seventeen or so, starting college. There was talk about going on to Broadway, but then I got married at eighteen and a half, and that was that.

"The Latin Quarter came about when Hank Meyer came to our school, looking for somebody to do a publicity stunt with the singer Lenny Ross. They wanted somebody who could sing opera, which I'd been studying since the age of fourteen, and I did a routine with him, and later Willy Howard.

"Once we did a whole operatic production number based on the second act of La Boheme, the Cafe Momus scene. They had a tenor, I sang the role of Musetta, and they added showgirls. I'd sing a couple of arias and there'd be a couple of mostly nude girls walking around. After awhile they were just part of the scenery. Life backstage was an eye-opener, too. We had these two showgirls, the Wyland twins, Winnie and Twinnie, who'd stand on the side of the stage with nothing on but a white fur muff, both carrying chihuahuas. Thirty years later I was in a box at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and I saw this blond woman on top of a ladder taking pictures. It was Winnie, working as the chief photographer at the Met.

"Usually there'd be two production numbers and then the star would come on. We did two shows a night, and I'd study for school between numbers, and go home around 3:00 a.m. Then get up the next morning at 8:00 for classes. It was a good experience in not sleeping. I tell everybody now I hire somebody who sleeps for me.

"A lot of those clubs died when the hotels, places like the Fontainebleau and the Deauville, put in their own nightclubs. Tourists stopped going out as much. There really aren't any parallels between that time and South Beach now. We're getting back to it, the Beach is alive and moving again, but it was much more glamorous then. Now it's a younger crowd. A Latin Quarter today would be packed, though. The time for it has come back."

A Judy Drucker, head of the Concert Association of Florida
"The late Forties to mid-Fifties A those were the days. No cocaine or crack, and you really didn't have to lock your doors. It was a golden age after the Second World War. There was always gambling, at places like the Royal Palm Club [on Palm Island], which went on well after the Kefauver committee hearings. There weren't too many charity balls, or an opera house, but plenty of wonderful theme galas at the Bath and Surf clubs: beautifully dressed elegant people, not tacky in any way. In season you had the royals and their crowd. Lucy Cotton, a former silent-screen star who married the Russian Prince Eristavi Tcherine A everybody called her Princess Lucy. Prince Rospigliosi, an Italian nobleman, and his wife Elizabeth. The General Motors bunch, the Detroit ladies, wore big hunky jewelry. No one was afraid of being robbed, although I do remember driving up to Hollywood one night in an open convertible and some thugs actually did try to pull us over. I was traveling with a society lady wearing a huge diamond necklace, and her boyfriend, who was an accountant with the Chicago mob. But we got away. No real traffic then, either, and it was nothing to go to all the slumming bars in downtown Miami A you'd take off just like that. It was a sweet town.

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