Saturday, February 5, 2011

TODAY IN BLACK HISTORY: Small's Paradise

Small’s Paradise (2294½ Seventh Avenue near 135th Street, New York) was owned and operated by Edwin Smalls and was one of the premier nightspots in Harlem during the late 1920s. Smalls, a former elevator operator, was a descendant of Captain Robert Smalls, a former slave who became a captain in the Union navy and later a congressman from South Carolina.

Small’s Paradise was one of the most successful and best-known nightclubs in the history of Harlem, and the most prestigious club owned by an African American. Its reputation for first-class musical acts, elaborate floor shows, and dancing waiters attracted thousands of patrons who were eager to participate in the exciting nightlife of Harlem during the Roaring Twenties.

By the time he opened the Paradise in the autumn of 1925, Ed Smalls was already an experienced nightclub owner. Since 1917 he had been running a popular joint in Harlem called the Sugar Cane Club, which catered primarily to an African American clientele. But Small’s Paradise was a much more elaborate venture, and one designed to attract not just local Harlemites but also moneyed white revelers from downtown. When the Paradise opened its doors on 26 October 1925, Smalls marked the occasion by throwing a spectacular gala. . Of course, national Prohibition was in full force at the time, but patrons at Small’s could either drink discreetly from their own bottle or flask of hooch, or else buy bootleg liquor from the waiters (at an exorbitant price).

Nearly 1,500 guests jammed themselves into the brand-new basement club and danced to the tunes of Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra, which would serve as the house band for the next ten years. Johnson's Orchestra through the years featured several South Carolina musicians, including Gus Aiken and Jabbo Smith from the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston.

In 1929, the entertainment magazine Variety listed eleven major nightclubs in Harlem that catered to a predominantly white crowd. The four most popular were Small’s Paradise, the Cotton Club, Barron Wilkins’s Exclusive Club, and Connie’s Inn. Many wealthy white curiosity seekers actually preferred some of the other big-name clubs—especially the Cotton Club and Connie’s Inn—to Small’s Paradise, because these other clubs were owned by whites and admitted only white patrons. While the entertainers and the waiters at these establishments were almost exclusively black, African American customers were firmly turned away unless they were true celebrities, such as the dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

Small’s Paradise, in contrast, appealed to whites who wanted to attend a club where African Americans made up a sizable portion of the audience. But despite the racially integrated nature of Small’s Paradise, all its patrons were financially well-off; the high prices for both food and liquor were enough to force most working-class Harlemites to seek out a more affordable speakeasy. Although Small’s was not as expensive as Connie’s Inn, for example, an average tab at Small’s was about $4 per person in 1929, when the average domestic laborer in Harlem earned between $6 and $12 a week.

One of the signature features of Small’s Paradise was its dancing waiters, who would balance heavy trays full of bootleg liquor while dancing the Charleston, sometimes on roller skates, as they moved among the tables. Small’s also carved out a niche for itself in the competitive nightclub business by staying open much later than most other clubs, including the aristocratic Cotton Club. After other cabarets closed down at three or four o’clock in the morning, black and white patrons alike would descend on Small’s Paradise for one of its famous early-morning “breakfast dances.”

The floor show, complete with twenty-five or thirty dancers and showgirls and two dozen musicians, would go on at six o’clock in the morning, and the dancing might last until noon or even later. The entertainment at Small’s was always first-rate, and some of the most famous musicians of the Harlem Renaissance played there, including Willie “the Lion” Smith and Duke Ellington. And in the early-morning hours, many of the finest musicians in Harlem who were engaged by other clubs met at Small’s for impromptu jam sessions.

More than most nightclubs in Harlem, Small’s Paradise figured prominently in the lives of many important artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance, including Alain Locke, Harold Jackman, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes. Even William Faulkner is said to have attended a party at Small’s during a visit to New York.

One of the club’s most loyal customers was Carl Van Vechten, the wealthy white writer who helped launch the careers of many famous figures of the renaissance. In fact, some critics claim that Van Vechten based his description of the Black Venus, a nightclub prominently featured in his controversial novel Nigger Heaven, on his experiences at Small’s Paradise. After Nigger Heaven was published in 1926, the managers of Small’s were so offended by its portrayal of Harlem that they permanently banned Van Vechten from his favorite watering hole, much to his dismay.

Small’s Paradise holds the distinction of being the longest-operating nightclub in Harlem, witnessing the rise of not just jazz but rock and roll and even disco before it finally closed its doors in 1986. After Ed Smalls sold the business, the Paradise changed hands a number of times.

Basketball star Wilt Chamberlain owned the club briefly in the 1960s, renamed it Big Wilt’s Small’s Paradise, and featured Ray Charles as his star performer. Although the doors have now closed on Small’s Paradise, the frequent references to the club in newspapers, essays, autobiographies, and fiction from the 1920s testify to its enduring legacy as one of the most popular racially integrated nightclubs of the Harlem Renaissance.


2 comments:

BC3 said...

thank you for this great glimpse into the history of Small's. I'd love to read some more about the speakeasies and floorshows of this era - any recommendations?

Buster Stronghart said...

In the 50s Small's was the spot used by our music teacher, Mr. Evans, to educate a few of my classmates at Horace Mann, a leading prep school. How he got us in and how he got our parents to agree to let us go remains a mystery. Maybe it was his tweed jacket with the leather patches on the elbows. Mr. Evans knew everyone at the club and when he trooped in with his entourage of 5 or 6 preppies in our sport jackets, button down shirts and ties we were always welcomed with a tray of cokes. I think it was Frank Lunzer who was ready with a bottle of rum to wake up the cokes and whether or not Mr. Evans was hip to the rum I do not know. I'm pretty sure that we saw Cleo Laine there and I know we heard Earl Father Hines and Coleman Hawkins. I don't remember any floor shows but once there were two dancing waiters.