It has been more than two months , but my mind still continues to go back to an event on Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013, that brought back fond memories of something I did on many occasions as a young adult but had not done in a number of years. As the old folk used to say, “Quiet as it is kept,” it is something many of you probably have not done in years.
You probably have not done it with the vim and vigor you once did, as time has a way of slowing down the body. If you were attending the same event as I back in December, then perhaps it left you with similar thoughts. You see, I gathered with fraternity brothers, friends and strangers to party together at an old-fashioned cabaret sponsored by my fraternity, the Philadelphia Alumni Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi, Inc. As I observed what was going on around me that evening, my thoughts turned to cabarets that many of us enjoyed immensely, back in the day.
The cabaret of Dec. 28 was held at the Lulu Temple in Ambler. Just the location made it clear that it was different than cabarets of the past. The location was certainly different from those cabarets we attended back in the day. For me, the thought of a cabaret went hand in hand with the Imperial Ballroom, on 60th Street near Walnut Street. A cabaret at any other location in the Philadelphia area could not top this ballroom. There was something about its atmosphere. The Lulu Temple was not the Imperial Ballroom. Nor was it the Adelphi Ballroom, nor the Orchid Ballroom, nor the Olympia Ballroom, all located in West Philadelphia. You might recall other West Philadelphia halls such as the Republican Club, the Elks Home and the Fairview Golf Club, where you attended cabarets. The last back-in-the-day-type cabaret I attended in the Philadelphia area was many years ago at the Wynne Ballroom in Wynnefield. However, if you grew up below 52nd Street, in the famous “Bottom,” you attended cabarets at the George T. Cornish Post and the Cornucopia.
There were smaller halls that were more suited for dances, yet cabarets were held at these locations. How many of you were around when smaller cabarets were held in the second-floor halls at Broad and Girard and Broad and Erie? I cannot recall their names, perhaps you can’ However, I am sure you remember Times’ Plaza and the Starlight Ballroom that had Broad Street locations. What about Barber’s Hall, Venango Garden, Reynolds Hall, formerly known as Chris Perry Elks Lodge, Wagner Ballroom and Tropical Gardens, in the basement of Reynolds Hall. Do you recall attending cabarets at the Carman, which originally opened as an elegant movie theater that many remember as a skating rink, that stood until 1978 at Germantown and Allegheny avenues? While you may associate the Blue Horizon in North Philadelphia, with boxing matches, this facility also held cabarets and dances. Other popular ballrooms and halls that you or your friends may have patronized for cabarets were Elite’s Ballroom, Fleisher Hall and O.V. Catto Club all in South Philadelphia. Then there were Town Hall, Baslov Akim Belzer and Tymes Auditorium in Center City. Chel Ron Ball Room on Cheltenham Avenue was another place where many attended cabarets. I decided to point out these facilities, even though discussed in previous columns, to bring a smile to your face. After all, these are some of the places where many of you shared your teenage and young adult years, back in the day.
The Kappa cabaret of last year mirrored cabarets of the past in many respects. I got a kick out of watching cabaret-goers, older folk in particular, lug their food and beverages into Lulu Temple. Some had borrowed small carts as what they brought from home was much more than they could physically carry from their automobiles. Plates of fried chicken, or “yard bird,” and “tatoe salad”, as it is called by back-in-the-day brothers and sisters were visible. Numerous bottles of alcoholic beverages were observed. However, I did not see bottles of the “hard stuff” prevalent at cabarets in the past — Old Grand Dad, I.W. Harper or Old Crow. Even the drinks for the more sophisticated people were not to be seen. Back in the day, cabarets had bottles and bottles of Gordon’s gin or Smirnoff vodka, Bacardi rum or Canadian Club. I did not see bottles of any of the wines at this cabaret that we could only afford back then such — Thunderbird, Boone’s Farm, Mad Dog, 20-20, Tiger Rose or Gypsy Rose. Nor did I see participants becoming “tore up,” which is typically the result of drinking these wines or hard liquor. I did not see people who were a bit sweaty and somewhat smelly; this was noticeable at cabarets back in the day, even in the winter. The reason is quite simple; people did not party until they dropped as they did at cabarets back in the day.
Most of the old-school folk in attendance could not sit still as music from the past was blasted by a disk jockey. Even those who had not danced certain dances for years found it easy to quickly pick up the “cha-cha,” “stroll,” “horse,” “twist,” “mashed potato” and the “jerk.”, I did not see anyone with the energy or the courage to do a dance from the past that everyone did back then. The average age of these cabaret-goers meant it was no joke to try to do “the slop.” How many couples were dancing the “slow grind”?
The thought of leaving and stopping at a “short-stay motel” or even snuggling up in an automobile after leaving was just a figment of one’s imagination. For most of those who danced this intimate dance, it was just a matter of going home, getting in bed and going to sleep. These cabaret-goers had minds and hearts that said one thing, but bodies that said something significantly different. Perhaps the most popular dance was “the bop,” which has remained popular over the years. In recent years I have observed people, young people in particular, trying unsuccessfully to dance the” bop”. If you can smoothly do the “bop”, you are clearly from, back in the day.
While the Lulu Temple was a nice venue, you could not have been from back in the day and not have attended cabarets at places like the Crystal Ballroom in the Broadwood Hotel (later the Philadelphia Hotel) at Broad and Wood streets. The most elegant cabarets and dances were held in the Sheraton Hotel at 17th and J.F.K.Boulevard.
While you got dressed up for all cabarets, you got “dressed to kill” when you went downtown to these ballrooms. Men wore suits and ties, women wore dresses. This was not the case at last year’s cabaret. I wore a suit and tie; few other males did. For the most part, men and women were dressed casually. They even wore jeans. Those of us who are “old-school” cabaret participants recall that we got “chocked up” to attend cabarets. Men wore Edwardian and Nehru suits. Some sported the Ivy League look. There were also “iridescent”, mohair, silk and wool, Italian knit, sharkskin and “Continental” suits. Suede shoes, cordovans, alligator or lizard shoes, white or brown bucks, desert boots and high-top comfort shoes were the footwear of choice. Women were decked out in fishtail dresses, straight, long dresses or tight skirts, with nylon stockings with seams or fishnet stockings. They even wore hats and gloves, something not even seen in church today. I did see several men wearing big hats at the cabaret on Dec. 28.
If you found yourself sitting around doing little or nothing last Saturday evening, just think about what fun you could have had if you were at a fun-filled cabaret with all of the frills; the type of cabaret many of us experienced and looked forward to, back in the day.
Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at email@example.com or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back in the Day, 520 S. 16th St., Piladelphia, PA 19146.