Reviving a noteworthy past

Nightspot: New owners hope to rejuvenate Dotson's Live, a longtime black venue in Glen Burnie, bringing back stars and honoring its history.

February 08, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

As generations of patrons tell it, women in party dresses and men in suits would flock to the old Glen Burnie roadhouse to drink and dance. A guy named Slim parked patrons' cars, and a host ushered guests to crowded tables and booths. Waitresses served beer and rum cocktails with baskets of fried shrimp - a house specialty.

Like black entertainment districts in Baltimore and Annapolis, Dotson's became a showcase, drawing top acts such as Dinah Washington and Redd Foxx in the 1950s and 1960s.

"Dotson's was a mecca of entertainment for the African-American community," said Annapolis resident George Phelps Jr., 75, the county's first black law enforcement officer and a long-standing regular. "If you didn't get to Dotson's by 9 o'clock, you didn't get a seat."

The dirt parking lot, black metal staircase and unmarked door at Dotson's Live, as the club is called today, don't promise much of the good old scene.

But Carroll H. Hynson Jr. and Daryl Jones, who bought the club from family members in May, intend to change that. The new owners aim to revive Dotson's, bringing back the stars and showcasing home-grown talent while preserving its history as a testament to a preintegration era when many black-owned businesses flourished.

Dotson's opened in 1928, at a time when much of Anne Arundel County was still a network of dirt roads, farmhouses and rural towns - and segregated establishments. Over the years, the club, originally called Dotson's Beer Garden, has been many things: gin mill, dance hall, juke joint and roadside restaurant.

In the 1970s, it offered Sunday softball games and picnic fare for hundreds of families. The tournaments, organized by former Dotson's manager Frank Reddish, who was also friends with Redd Foxx, drew hundreds of spectators. Teams - most of them African-American - came from Washington, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey to play.

Bill Dotson, the club's creator, opened the bar at a time when venues for black entertainers were scarce. Dotson built his bar on a slice of Glen Burnie farmland he inherited from his father, said his daughter Vivian Dotson Hall, 81, who lives down the street from the tavern on Furnace Branch Road.

Her grandfather, she said, argued with his son that the bar business was no good, but Bill Dotson paid him no heed. He wanted a place where his people could congregate, Hall said.

From the beginning, Dotson's was a popular summertime pit stop for families returning from a day on the Chesapeake Bay. The black beaches near Annapolis - Carr's and Sparrow's - drew great crowds for weekend gospel concerts and picnics.

"We had a famous bandstand on the beach," said Annapolis resident Morris Blum, 92, a former radio station owner. "My, what great days they were." On the way home, carloads of swimmers would stop by the club for fried chicken and ribs.

Dotson's flourished in its early years but burned to the ground in 1949. It reopened a year later with the help of donations from friends - black and white - and its income enabled Dotson and his wife, Matoaka, to put six children through college and technical schools.

Downtown districts catered to throngs of black customers, who arrived from all over in fancy dress to listen to big-name acts such as Ella Fitzgerald and R&B singer Ruth "Miss Rhythm" Brown. But Dotson's, like so many other roadhouses, drew locals.

Bill Dotson never needed posters or newspaper ads to advertise a big act - word of mouth was all it took to sell out.

"We were our own little crowd," said Eleanor Dotson, 72, of Glen Burnie, Bill Dotson's daughter-in-law, who has worked at the club since she was 19, first as a cashier and later as waitress, barmaid and manager. "Back then, it was about the only black club around. Everybody knew everybody at Dotson's."

Many African-Americans who grew up in Anne Arundel County, Baltimore or Washington know of the club because it was frequented by their mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, and grandmothers and grandfathers. Many of them met and courted at Dotson's.

Old-time patrons remember Bill Dotson as a fair and friendly businessman. He also ran a garage. When he died in 1960, his family discovered stacks of IOUs to him that had never been paid.

"Everyone in the county knew him or knew of him," said Eleanor Dotson of her father-in-law, whom she called Papa. "He helped everybody. People would come to him when they didn't have money to pay rent. He was just that kind of man."

Even today, the roadhouse remains a gathering place.

On a recent visit, Michelle Huff, a 36-year-old assistant property manager from Davidsonville, spotted a childhood friend on the dance floor. She first heard of Dotson's in grade school from her mother and father, aunts and uncles, who recall party nights they shared at the club.

"To see her out dancing like that, it's kind of cute," said Huff of her friend, a younger woman who was grooving to the tunes of an Annapolis-based band called The Clones of Funk.

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