Black people toasting in new year

People “dressed to the nines” for the former Kappa Alpha Psi Extravaganzas for New Year’s Eve, reveling at the now-gone Civic Center in West Philadelphia. — PHOTO: Thomas Willian/Unsplash

So, what did you do to bring in 2020? Were you like many of my friends who stayed home just cooling out? Was watching television, for the dropping of the ball in Times Square, the most exciting thing that you did as the new year arrived?

I understand that many people avoided the hustle and bustle of welcoming the new year; they also avoided many of the traditions associated with “Black folk” over the years such as watch night church service, cooking black-eyed peas and collard greens.

Well, this year I did something I have not done for many years — I went out to a party. Now, this was not a house party but rather a gathering at a restaurant/catering facility with more than one hundred party goers. As I reflected on the activities during this event, I could not help but to think about the days when I joined members of my fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. on New Year’s Eves past.

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This was the Kappa New Year’s Extravaganza, the premier event on New Year’s Eve for Black folk in the past; an event that brought together so many members and guests that tables and chairs were set up on the stage of the venue for maximum participation. Yes, on New Year’s Eve back in the day, the brothers and sisters went out in style and had great fun.

The New Year’s Eve Extravaganza grew out of the fraternity’s Diamond Ball. Perhaps you have memories of driving to 34th and Civic Center Boulevard where one arrived early in order to secure parking under the Civic Center. It is amazing to think about parking under the Civic Center for free. I still have images of attempting to park near the escalator which took one from the parking garage to the lobby of Pennsylvania Hall.

Having this affair at the Civic Center was not something that any organization could accomplish. Some influential Kappas made this venue possible. For Kappas reading this column, the name of Brother Harold Rush must come to mind as he was the epitome of influence. Elegance described this affair. Pennsylvania Hall was attractively decorated with streamers, balloons, table decorations and other Kappa paraphernalia was strategically located in the hall; some items were given out upon entering the hall. You may recall glasses with a Kappa shield or diamond etched on it. These were placed on tables as a special souvenir for attendees. I have some of these New Year’s Eve paraphernalia at home, in particular, many of these glasses.

New Year’s Eve hats and noise makers were also given out. The participants were smartly dressed in tuxedos, gowns or after six attire. This was an absolute requirement. Unlike the fuss and confusion of checking coats at events today, details such as ease in checking coats were taken into consideration to address the needs of those attending.

Brothers purchased tables and gave tickets to friends or brothers sold tickets to those that wanted to attend this affair. Some of you face the inconvenience of dealing with seating arrangements at events. Sometimes it is too many people at a table, tables too close to one another or inadequate room to navigate the aisles between tables.

I was reminded, by a Kappa brother, of the care given to such details as this. One brother, very attentive to such issues, took charge of the layout for this event. This brother just happened to have been an architect; he used a measuring tape to allow a specified amount of space between each table. Senior Kappas know that I am referring to Brother Mark Canty. While this may not sound like a big deal, it was a blessing as it allowed people to move around Pennsylvania Hall with ease.

For some, the Kappa New Year’s Extravaganza was a chance for family bonding on the last day of the year. Like others, I invited family members as my guests. Most Kappas made it a point to purchase their tables early as assignments were made upon purchasing a full table. Everyone wanted a table in close proximity to the dance floor.

This was an event everyone wanted to attend. In fact, every Black politician, “wanna” be politicians and government officials were there. Now, this was not just Black folk, but white politicians and powerbrokers also attended. Even though seating was made available on the stage of the Civic Center to accommodate guests, this modification was not sufficient and those seeking tickets late were turned away.

With all of the dysfunctional behavior in our midst today, I must note that with thousands of people in attendance, I am unaware of any incidents occurring at this event. I cannot recall organized security on hand to deal with behavioral issues. Brothers did what brothers should do and what we should be doing in our communities today — police themselves.

The hired security personnel was stationed at the doors only to ensure that those attending the event were properly dressed. Back then, if not dressed in formal attire, guests were not admitted. This was strictly enforced!

The food was catered, and service for attendees was buffet style which was planned and coordinated by Kappa Brothers. Senior Kappas will identify the name of Brother Art Boyer with the mere mention of food at this event. With such large number of attendees, there was no shortage of food. The event featured an open bar and there were no lines as many of us experience at large affairs today. The Kappas came up with a solution to this potential issue by having multiple bar stations and by having drinks bought to tables by waitresses. Unlike affairs given by some of our “high falutin” organizations today, there was no cash bar at this back in the day, New Year’s Extravaganza as the Kappas did things in style and with the comfort of their attendees in mind.

I mentioned earlier that thousands of people attended this event. Based on discussions with several of Kappa brothers that chaired this event, on several occasions there were three thousand plus in attendance. I dug up a 1991 article from The Philadelphia Tribune’s archives, A Kappa New Year, Reveling at the Civic Center that brought back fond memories. The article contained several photographs showing those in attendance dressed as we used to say back then, “Dressed to the nines.”

The article caused some sadness as it mentioned many brothers that have passed on to the Chapter Invisible.

Still, the article and others that I uncovered also brought a smile to my face as I saw the name of the band that performed at most of the Kappa New Year’s Extravaganzas: the Bobby Felder Band from Washington, D.C. I can still hear this band as it played music for all ages and specifically for Kappa occasions.

I will always remember that partygoers had maximum advantage of the performance of the band because the band was set up in the middle of the dance floor with participants dancing all around the Bobby Felder Band.

Another article from The Philadelphia Tribune’s archives, Kappa Alpha Psi Alumni Host New Year’s Extravaganza, points out that while this was a fun event, contrary to the myth, the men of Kappa were not all about wine, women and song. In this 1993 article, the Extravaganza Chairman, Ledell D. Lipscomb, makes this clear. He points out, “It is the chapter’s fundraiser which assists in scholarships. At this time the Philadelphia Alumni Chapter is supporting 16 students. It encourages youth to attend predominately Black colleges and universities. However, the students are not restricted as to where to attend.” Lipscomb continued by saying, “The Kappas have a mission to encourage Black students to seek higher education and they are challenged to be the best they can possibly be. We try to achieve this in a wide variety of areas.”

Some people that attended this event have memories of the countdown by the band and the fraternity’s polemarch at midnight. Everyone hugged, kissed and made much noise as the new year began.

With many other organizations having holiday or New Year’s events, the Kappa New Year’s Extravaganza started to fade and eventually saw its last one in the mid 1990s. Still, most people from my era saw the Kappa New Year’s Eve Extravaganza as the major event on New Year’s Eve during its era; an event that would not have been possible without the effort of lots of brothers that spent the entire day setting up the venue.

While I had not intended on devoting this entire column to this Kappa New Year’s Eve Extravaganza, it was discussions with my Kappa Brothers Bruce Rush, Ernest Brown, Robert Ridley and Dr. Joseph Meade who kept supplying me with information that jarred past memories of this event. Discussions with non-Kappas also made me realize that this Extravaganza was one for the ages; one that was appreciated and enjoyed by all and deserved a trip back in time. I know that it is a long shot, but perhaps, just perhaps some Kappa or Kappas will come together and resurrect the Kappa New Year’s Extravaganza in the future so that we all can have major fun on New Year’s Eve as we once did, back in the day.

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at backintheday@phillytrib.com or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St, Philadelphia, PA 19146

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