Montgomery Entertainment 1850 - 1950
W. R. Robertson, in his Reminiscences of the Early Settlers of Montgomery County, says about the Montgomery of the 1840s: "Montgomery was composed of a good class of people to begin with; they were as a rule moral and sober, notwithstanding they could buy whiskey for twenty-five cents a gallon." This happy condition evidently did not last long.
Bars, Lounges and Pool Halls, 1859
Although the total population of the city was only about 8,800, the 1859 city directory (the first one ever published) carried large advertisements for one Ale House (Robinson's) on Montgomery Street; four Billiard Saloons--Beebe's on Perry Street, The Oriental on Commerce Street, the Exchange underneath the Exchange Hotel, and the Arcade on Commerce Street; three Lager Beer Saloons--Ruppenthal's on Court Street, Jacob Sutters on Court Street, and Zang & Behler on Court Street. There were also five merchants dealing in wines and liquors for off-site consumption--N. C. Allman on Court Street, Lewis Cahn under the Exchange Hotel, Lewis Cardinal on Court Street, and J. A. Diaz & Company on Market Street.
Most social entertainment in the 19th century was in private homes, with lavish meals, plenty of alcohol, and dancing, usually to the accompaniment of the grand piano, played by the hostess or one of the guests. Such steps as the "Grand March" and the "Virginia Reel" were popular, as was waltzing. By the 1890s, the "german" had become a popular dance at these private affairs. Germans Private clubs often hosted parties called "germans". A german is a complicated dance for many couples in which partners are changed often. Examples of clubs putting on germans were Joie de Vie, Standard Club, Saxon, and Inter-Se.
Since Montgomery was on the direct route between New York and New Orleans, performances offered at the Montgomery Theater, built in 1860, and later at the Grand Theater by traveling companies were, by all reports, high quality and well-attended entertainment. For some years after the demise of these theaters and well into the 1940s, traveling theater groups played at the Lanier High School Auditorium.
On January 16, 1919, the Volstead Act (prohibition) was ratified by the states. Partying and drinking promptly went underground. "Speakeasies" abounded. It was general knowledge that there were locations at which illegal alcohol could be bought without much fear of arrest. This charade (the "Roaring Twenties") went on until the repeal of prohibition (21st. amendment), which was ratified by the states on December 5, 1933.
Big Band Sound
After prohibition, night clubs and road houses began to appear in and near Montgomery, Invariably their advertisements bore the words "dine and dance." Over a period of years in the 1920s and 1930s, as a result of syncopation and innovation, the "big band" sound evolved. As public dancing (as opposed to private parties) became more and more acceptable, the bands such as those of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Hal Kemp, Artie Shaw, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and Glen Gray, gained tremendous national popularity.
By the late 1950s this phenomenon had faded into obscurity. However, at its peak in the 1930s and 40s the "big band" sound was well represented by several local bands in Montgomery. Erskine Hawkins, a trumpet player and leader of the "Bama State Collegians," wrote Tuxedo Junction which became nationally famous after it was recorded by Glenn Miller in the late 30s. Jimmy Hamn, a saxaphone artist, led the Nomads. John Allen Wolf, who played in the band, became a staff announcer for CBS in New York city. Cecil Mackey, saxophonist, who had a very popular local band, was secretary of the Musicians' Union Local 409. For some reason Mackey's band was led for a short time in 1932 by Frank Tennile, who was involved in a family furniture store and was the father of Toni Tennile. Frank later sang with Bob Crosby's name band. Mac McKee worked at Art's Music Store, a hangout for local musicians. He had his own band after World War II. Bill Haynes, who played sax and second clarinet, led a local band during and for a time after World War II. Jack Walden, pianist, was an auctioneer by trade, but managed and conducted a ten man band on the side. Merritt Jordan had a popular dance band in the 1940s. The bands of Al Stanley and Louis Watts come to mind. After World War II, Jim Reed, a piano player, had a combo featuring Bill Strength, Andy Strong, Sandy Randall (who later worked for Artie Shaw), and a female vocalist. Popular singles were Marian Page, piano and vocals, and Billy Pinkston, who also played piano with local groups and operated a successful dance studio. Maxwell Field, not to be outdone, provided a dance band during World War II, the "Maxwell Rhythmaires," formed by Sergeant Gerald (Jerry) Yelverton, a native Montgomerian who had played with Glenn Miller's civilian band before entering the army. June Stanley was the Rhythmairs' vocalist, and the AAF Cadet dance band, with local singer Peggy Penton as vocalist. The AAF Cadet dance band had another local singer, Peggy Penton, as vocalist.
Among the popular night clubs of the 1930s and 1940s was Gunn's on the Atlanta Highway. Opened about 1941 and operated by Robert Lee Gunn, this night spot featured dining and dancing, with a walled outdoor patio (garden) for use in warm weather. Before and during World War II, this place was extremely popular with the high school crowd. Hilda's, on the Atlanta Highway, was built about 1942. This place was popular with aviation cadets training at Maxwell Field. They always had money enough to take the local girls there. The local boys were seldom if ever that affluent, and made no bones about their jealousy. The Mark Charles Grill, Atlanta Highway, was established just after World War II by Mark Brainard and Charles Phillips, just by the eastern loop of Hillside Road, and next door to the Montgomery Drive-in Theater. It featured steaks, seafood, and dancing. Many will remember Johnson, the singing waiter, who always claimed to have once sung with the Ink Spots.
Narrow Lane Inn on Narrow Lane Road served hamburgers, chicken, and other food. It had a large screened in open dance floor, a rock-ola and a spring-fed swimming pool which was reputed to be the coldest in the world.
Bob Hope's Plaza Terrace on Mobile Road was a night spot for adults with cover charges, high prices, and risque entertainment.
The Green Lantern on Troy Highway was originally a "Tourist Camp" with cabins out back. It stood at the corner of Carter Hill Road and Troy Highway (now McGehee Road), and was two or three miles out of town. Its original location is the present site of the Regions Bank on that corner.
Although the older teen-agers could get into most places of entertainment, the VFW lounge in the basement of the Murphy House on Bibb Street (now the City Water Works office), was strictly for adults. It offered a plethora of mixed drinks together with a band and floor shows. During the heyday of night clubs in Montgomery there were also the Casa Loma, the Cavalier Club, Club 31, Clyde's, The Colonial, the Hi-Hat, Lake Haven, and others. They are all gone now; remembered by very few. Restaurants Yungs Restaurant on Court Street, operated by David Fleming was the premier Montgomery restaurant of the 1870s. The Pickwick Cafe, founded by Frederick L. Ridolphi, a native of Corsica, was undoubtedly the best restaurant in Montgomery from the late 1900s to the late 1940s. The Pickwick proudly displayed an "Approval by Duncan Hines," plaque, Duncan Hines being the premier national restaurant rating organization of the time. In addition to fine food, the Pickwick featured a soda fountain serving all kinds of sinfully delicious concoctions.
The Town House Restaurant, which was opened in an antebellum house at 422 South Court Street shortly after World War II by Mr. Ridolphi's son Frank Ridolphi and Roger Condon, had a cellar bar and a number of excellect recipes carried over from the close of the Pickwick Cafe.
The Elite Cafe at 129 Montgomery Street, open 24 hours a day with a splendid menu including split tenderloin, fresh oysters on the half-shell, and Maine lobster, was owned and operated by Peter Xides, who opened it in 1910. During the 1940s and 50s this was a popular spot for young people to gather for breakfast after the masked balls at the City Auditorium put on by the several mystic societies.
It was also a favorite with legislators when the legislature was in session The Ranch Restaurant, located at 3118 Mobile Road and owned by Henry McCown, was one of the most popuar restaurants in Montgomery in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was located just across the street from where the Saint Francis, the first real motel in Montgomery, was later built.
The Ranch featured "planked steaks" and other well prepared food. Athey's Candlelight Restaurant across from the Hilltop Arms apartment complex was popular for a time during the 1950s. It later became the Press and Radio Club. Motion Picture Treaters By the time of World War I, Montgomery had three theaters offering a technology that had come into existence at the turn of the century, namely, the motion picture.
The pictures shown on the screen had motion but as yet no built-in sound. There was the Plaza on Dexter Avenue, the Colonial on Commerce Street, and the Strand on Court Square. Tickets were five cents except on Sunday, when prices doubled. After the era of sound had begun, at the Paramount and Empire theaters during the 1930s and 40s, the price of adult matinee admission was twenty-five cents. The Strand and the Tivoli charged ten cents, as did the Pekin Theater for blacks.
The movie or "flick" was shown from metal reels in the old style projectors. The film frequently broke, in which case the theater was filled with whistles and "catcalls" until the unfortunate projectionist could splice the film. In the 30s and 40s, the Paramount still often had a piano player. At the Paramount, sweethearts always tried to sit on the back row of the balcony, so their "smooching" would go undetected.
The End of an Era
By the end of the 1950s, the wonderful night clubs and sounds of the past had succumbed to amplified music, rock and roll, country music, and other styles most older people consider abominations. Coats and ties became things of the past. Every generation has to be different, but the older generations cannot help but feel sorry for the young people beginning in the 1960s for what they have missed.
[Citation: A memorandum from Gerald Yelverton to Dr. Wesley Newton, February, 1993, supplies invaluable information on the local musicians of the World War II era and the late 1940s. Dr. Newton gave a great deal of much appreciated editorial and research aid in the preparation of this article.]
The Montgomery County Historical Society
512 South Court Street, P. O. Box 1829
Montgomery, Alabama, 36102