Program : 
Manhattan After Dark: The Night Club Scene in the '20s

"Teaching Old Dog New Tricks," 1920s' Life magazine cover by John Held, Jr. Image in public domain.

This week on Riverwalk Jazz, we've got tales of bootleg liquor and late-night raids as we explore Manhattan After Dark: The Night Club Scene in the '20s.


Our show takes a look at New York nightlife in the '20s, through the eyes of newspaperman Stanley Walker, who was city editor of the New York Herald Tribune. Walker collected his memories of Prohibition in his 1933 book, The Night Club Era. And we'll hear first-person accounts of the Jazz Age in the words of club owner Joe Helbock, and others who were on the scene.


Our special guest and good friend Vernel Bagneris joins us to bring these scenes of Manhattan in the '20s to life. A native of New Orleans, Vernel is an Obie Award-winning playwright, actor, singer and choreographer. His plays One Mo' Time and Jelly Roll, produced in New York, have garnered wide acclaim. Vernel also choreographed and appears in the acclaimed Ray Charles biopic, Ray.


Vernel Bagneris

Vernel Bagneris. Photo courtesy Riverwalk Jazz

In this show Vernel and The Jim Cullum Jazz Band perform popular songs from the nightclub era including Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave," Harold Arlen and Jack Yellen's "Sweet and Hot" and a set of tunes that Duke Ellington composed and played at Harlem's famed Cotton Club: "Big House Blues," "Sophisticated Lady," "Black Beauty" and "Rockin' in Rhythm."


Among many colorful characters that populated the night club scene of New York during Prohibition Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan, better known as "Texas" Guinan, combined the curious traits of Queen Elizabeth, Machiavelli and P.T. Barnum.


According to Texas Guinan's Culture Club, in her New York days " Texas" was "one of the first entrepreneurs to see the vast potential for profit in selling liquor during Prohibition. At first she partnered with a gambler and bar owner named Larry Fay. She was soon running her own speakeasy called the 300 Club at 151 W. 54th Street that served illegal booze, accompanied by pretty hostesses and chorus girls who served mainly to distract customers from how much their drinks were costing."


"Texas" Guinan. Photo courtesy Texas Guinan's Culture Club.

Texas was famous for greeting her customers with "Hello, Suckers! Come on in and leave your wallet on the bar!"


Her clubs were often raided by police. On one occasion, as they led her away from her club in shackles, she had the orchestra play the "Prisoner's Song." At the station house she mercilessly teased the men who raided her club and she furthered the joke by wearing a necklace of solid gold padlocks.


The next month she was cleared in federal court. Meanwhile, she received publicity worth a fortune. In the end, both Texas Guinan--and the suckers who came to her clubs--had plenty of good times to remember.


Photo credit for Home Page: One of several 1920s' Life magazine cover illustrations by John Held. Public domain.