Longform

When the Beach was Hot

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Plenty of celebrity firepower, and lots of laughs and sex, the essential components of nightlife. Rumors of "buffet flats," South Beach hotels with different sex shows on each floor. As with the modern epoch, the Beach had a considerable number of gay bars, the clientele favoring suits and ties rather than Spandex shorts: the Charles in the Charles Hotel on Collins Avenue, where female impersonator Charles Pierce started out; the Echo Club on Collins at Tenth; Billy Lee's on Alton Road at Dade Boulevard, with a notorious back room that was periodically raided. Then as now, people tended to get carried away on the Beach. John Jacob Astor VI, an incorrigibly decadent playboy, was known to hire a half-dozen women at a time for his lavish private parties. Even at the elegant Surf Club A run by Alfred Barton, a former Hollywood art director who counted Noel Coward among his friends A an incident of sorts was provoked when the actor Clifton Webb became infatuated with one of the pool boys.

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.

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Tom Austin