A swing back to The Avenue's glamour, elegance

February 29, 1992|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Staff Writer

All of the clubs on Pennsylvania Avenue had cigarette girls back in the 1940s, recalls Daniel Evers. At least all of the respectable clubs did.

"I can't remember going to any club on The Avenue that didn't because most of them were respectable," says Mr. Evers, who has lived near The Avenue in West Baltimore for nearly 50 years.

"Sometimes some people -- men mostly -- wanted to see more of the cigarette girls than the show itself. With them cigarette girls, that meant it was a classy place."

Cigarette girls at Pennsylvania Avenue clubs gradually disappeared during the 1950s and 1960s. So did doormen in top hats and waiters cn tuxedos. And the stylish crowd that gathered at The Avenue's numerous nightspots stopped coming.

Now, nearly all of the Pennsylvania Avenue clubs -- including the ones that booked big-name entertainment -- have closed their doors.

However, this weekend, although on a much smaller scale, part of the elegance, glamour and swing of the old Pennsylvania Avenue is being relived at the Arch Social Club at Pennsylvania and North avenues.

The club's cavernous grand ballroom has been transformed to resemble the stylish clubs of The Avenue of 1945, compete with cozy parlor-type tables and a Copacabana-style orchestra pit with palm trees.

Students have been hired as waiters, doormen and cigarette girls in hopes of re-creating the total aura of 1945.

And a couple of vintage cars are parked out front.

"We tried to re-create the entire setting and atmosphere of 1945," said Thomas Saunders, director and coordinator of the transformation, sponsored by the African-American Heritage Society and the Inner City Community Development Corp.

"I hope it will help reflect the essence of our history."

The music of Ella Fitzgerald, the Nicolas Brothers, Dinah Washington and other celebrities who once showcased their talents at Pennsylvania Avenue clubs will be performed. Ruby Glover is scheduled to perform a tribute to Billie Holliday.

Three people who helped make Pennsylvania Avenue an entertainment hotbed will be honored during the weekend: William "Little Willie" Adams, founder of the Club Casino; Charles Tilghman, founder of the Sphinx Club; and Ida Murphy Peters, of the Afro-American Newspapers, who wrote of the many events on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The idea to transform the ballroom at the Arch Social Club to the1940s came while Mr. Saunders was giving tours of the city's historic black areas to out-of-towners.

"So many people wanted to see the elegance of Pennsylvania Avenue," Mr. Saunders said. "I wanted to re-create some of what people talk about."

They chose 1945 because World War II had recently ended, job opportunities were increasing and Pennsylvania Avenue had become one of the city's "swingingest places" for blacks to go.

The Arch Social Club was picked because it is the largest and most "workable" of the few remaining Pennsylvania Avenue clubs, according to Alvin Gillard, one of the events organizers.

"Back in those days if you were going out for the evening you started and ended on The Avenue," Mr. Gillard said. "This is part of Black History Month celebration. It tries to rekindle the spirit of that time."

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