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« Boilerplate Adventures | Main | The Role of the Art Museum is ...? »

December 17, 2009

Night Club Echo

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Remember night clubs? Those fancy watering holes and dining troughs where celebrities gathered to rub elbows with one another and, perhaps of more importance to their careers, elbows of newspaper gossip columnists such as Walter Winchell.

Oh. You don't remember night clubs. Or that Winchell fellow, either.

That's the curse of being young.

I remember Winchell's radio show from my childhood. Night clubs? I never went to any, though I certainly heard about them via radio, TV, the newspapers and movies -- the latter in the 1930s-early 50s would sometimes concoct über night clubs on sound stages where glamor was shown, big bands blasted, dancers cavorted and movie plots were occasionally advanced when all the rest didn't get in the way.

One night club I experienced in a very tenuous way was New York's famous Stork Club. I hiked around Manhattan a lot back in 1962-63 when I was in the Army and had a weekend pass. The Stork was on a side street east of Fifth Avenue and had a discreet entrance announcing itself to a world that already knew perfectly well where it was. In short, I occasionally walked past the Stork Club, but never dreamed of trying to enter.

Blowhards reader Richard Wheeler has a closer connection to the Stork Club, as he indicates here:

* * * * *

The Stork Club, Manhattan's premier watering hole from the thirties into the sixties, is an American legend. No other night club has even come close to matching its glamour and excitement. It was the place to see celebrities, and not just the movie variety either. One could just as easily spot John O'Hara or Ernest Hemingway there as Humphrey Bogart or Greer Garson.

The club was the topic of a dour social history by Ralph Blumenthal of The New York Times, who devoted himself to focusing on its roots as a speakeasy and its troubles with labor unions and its snobby exclusion of various people. What was utterly missing in Blumenthal's accounts was any sense of the sheer joy it evoked in its patrons, or a sense of its glamour.

Sherman Billingsley's night club was the place to go for a great time, to dance or drink or socialize or have fun. It was the most glamorous spot in the nation; the place where Walter Winchell would broadcast from Table 50 in the Cub Room, beginning each program with his usual "Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea."

My sister-in-law, Shermane Billingsley, along with her family, has created a splendid cultural and historical website that catches the actual excitement and joy and fame of the Stork Club. It will be a curiosity to the young; but to others it will bring back the magic.

It can be found here.

* * * * *

Wow. We have really interesting readers here. Thank you very much for your account, Richard.

And be sure to check out the link he provides. There are other Stork Club-related links on the Web. For example, the Wikipedia entry is here.



posted by Donald at December 17, 2009


Heeeeey, I know Winchell. Wasn't he like a Mencken without the brains?

Posted by: Spike Gomes on December 18, 2009 12:26 AM

I'm a little too young to remember Winchell, except as the narrator of The Untouchables. And I've never been a barfly or boulevardier, so I know nothing of "nightclubs".

Except, of course, what I've seen in a thousand movies from the 30s and 40s; nightclubs were a very common setting.

I think the classic nightclub was killed by labor costs in the 50s. (Though the Peter Gunn TV show from 1958-61 used a jazz club as a frequent scene.) A full orchestra and floor show was just too expensive.

Then in the 60s, the discotheque took over - a DJ and a pile of records made a cheap dance club.

Today... there are dance clubs, some of which are allegedly hard to get into, unless you're a pretty young woman or a fat cat of some kind. DJs are now ranked as performers of a sort. Some are even famous. There are also music clubs where live bands do one-night gigs.

Incidentally, it's generally conceded that Winchell made the Stork Club by publicizing it. In return he got a free tab there.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on December 18, 2009 3:37 AM

Sites like this are the new coffee table books. Fun, info and easy reading. Love it.

And love that telephone dial!

Posted by: Robert Townshend on December 18, 2009 5:28 AM


We had discos in the 70's!

I was 11 years old back in 1979, and I snuck into Studio 54, I wore a fake moustache and the stupid doorman didn't know better!

I remember partying with all the stars back in the 70's! Cher, Gloria Vanderbilt, Andy Warhol, Steve Rubell, Mick Jagger, Liza, Brooke Shields, Salvador Dali, Michael Jackson, Truman Capote, the Village People...the list goes on, I knew them all!

I remember hanging out with Gary Coleman and Adam Rich in the back room of 54, we were wired on Pixy Stix!

Posted by: Wade Nichols on December 18, 2009 12:06 PM

No, Winchell wasn't like "Mencken without the brains." Mencken was a serious old-school reporter, editor, and critic; Winchell was more like . . . I'm struggling to come up with a modern-day analog . . . a gossip-mongering scribbler for the National Inquirer.

Posted by: Narr on December 18, 2009 3:21 PM

The Stork Club was not particularly a spectator place. The swing music was for dancing and kept at levels that didn't interfere with good conversation. One of the Latin bands played the rumba. At the Stork, people enjoyed themselves and their friends in a place that seemed the center of the universe.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on December 18, 2009 5:17 PM

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