Janie Thomas, Age 4.
How I got to Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter starts way back when I was about 3 or 4 years old. My Aunt took me to Radio City Music Hall to see the Christmas Show. I was mesmerized by the production. In the Christmas Show were of course the wonderful Rockettes. At the end of the show I declared, “That’s what I want to be”.
By the end of the next week, I was enrolled in a terrific dance school. I was very lucky in that my parents supported my dreams, despite the fact that neither of them came from an arts background. My mother worked at a variety of places during my youth, including a cafeteria worker at my school, among other jobs. My father enjoyed a long-time career with the Department of Unemployment until his retirement. Before that he worked for the Navy during World War II, loading and unloading ship cargo. I was an only child with unusual career aspirations, but they were there for me, encouraging me all the way.
Janie Thomas recital portrait, Age 9.
And so I committed completely to learning dance and because of that, I performed in numerous recitals and continued to hone my craft throughout grade school and into my teenage years. And although my parents had challenges during their married life, made sure I was happy and could support myself before they eventually went their separate ways. And since I started my performing arts path early, it wasn’t long before I was finding independence and bringing in my own income.
I always reasoned that even if I was unable to become a working dancer, I could teach dance, which I quickly learned I enjoyed doing. By the time I was about 13 or 14, I was providing dance lessons to the “babies” – 3, 4, and 5 year old kids. This helped to pay for my own lessons.
The summer I turned 16, Radio City was looking for season replacements for The Rockettes who would be taking vacations. Off I went to become a Rockette.
Russell Markett was in charge of the auditions. My dancing was fine. All was going well until I was measured. I was told dancers were required to be at least 5’5” and I was only 5’3”. Well, I felt that my life was over. Sure, you can take more dance classes, but how do you make yourself grow 2 inches? Now, as fate would have it, as I was leaving the stage door, several of the girls were going to another audition. This one was at the Latin Quarter at the 48th Street location, managed by Lou Walters. Mr. Walters, father of the journalist, Barbara Walters was the impresario of the world-famous Latin Quarter nightclubs.
Janie Thomas (Age 13) & parents
The other dancers invited me along, I went and got the job as a dancer at the Latin Quarter and the rest is history. We started rehearsals within a few days. I made lot of friends. It was an exciting time. About a week before opening, however, I was informed that to work in the nightclubs that served alcohol in those years, performers were required to obtain a police license and had to be 18years of age in New York to acquire one. In Florida it was 21years of age. Do you think that stopped me? No. I went for my license, said I was 21. No one questioned me. The rest is history.
Until this time, we were rehearsing in rehearsal studios. Now the show is about to open and rehearsals moved to the nightclub itself. On the evening the show was to open, I was sitting on the some stairs to the side of the stage, when this very handsome man approached me and started a conversation. That man, Bob Freed has been my husband for the past almost 59 years. Bob was the maitre d’ at the nightclub. He remained there until the club closed in the late 1960s. So for many reasons, my time at the Latin Quarter is a beloved and cherished memory. It changed the course of my life and out of it grew a wonderful family, full of kids, grandkids and even great grandkids.
Latin Quarter dancers Sandy Keyes & Janie Thomas, Miami Beach Sun, 1958 (subject to copyright)
In addition to the Latin Quarter, I also worked the Town and Country club in Brooklyn, the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. I never worked at the Boston Latin Quarter location, that was before my time, but I did dance in productions at the Latin Quarter in Palm Island, Miami, Florida.
I worked for Clairol when they launched their promotion, If I have only one life, let me live it as a blonde.
These days I am a permanent resident in Florida. I’m very involved with The Broadway Ziegfeld Entertainers. In 2006, I entered Ms. Senior New Jersey and was honored with First Runner Up.
The Latin Quarter days bring back fond memories and I’m proud to write they also brought great lifelong friendships with my fellow dancers and performers that I continue to hold dear. Dance has remained a significant part of my life to this day.
Watch Janie Thomas Freed and other Latin Quarter dancers, showgirls and employees recall the mid-century nightclub era at a 2018 event.
“John Hemmer & the Showgirls” panel, Delray Beach Public Library, Delray Beach, Florida from KirstenStudio on Vimeo.
1580 Broadway was the home of Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter and it was located between 47thand 48thstreets. It was and is a landmark three story wedge building that marks the northern boundary of Times Square. I say a wedge building because 48thstreet is longer than 47thstreet. The southern end of the building was famed for the signs where Broadway and Seventh Avenue crossed. The most famous sign was the neon Pepsi-Cola sign.
From 1936 to 1940 it had been the home of the Cotton Club after it moved from Harlem.
Lou Walters, the father of journalist Barbara Walters, opened the Latin Quarter in 1942. During his time at the club featured big name acts the likes of Frank Sinatra, The Andrew Sisters, Frankie Laine, Ella Fitzgerald, Patti Page, Sophie Tucker, Mae West, Diahann Carroll, and Milton Berle along with a line of chorus girls that concluded the show with a racy can-can dance.
Lou Walters left the business in the late 1950s. Earl Wilson, the columnist, described the new management in 1964 as “more expensive than the Copacabana, but then, the shows are bigger, ‘nakeder’ and longer.”
Teak Lewis as a patron at the Latin Quarter in New York City
I remember as a teenager my brother and I being taken there by my parents to celebrate either my Mother’s birthday or a Mother’s Day.
The entrance was all glass doors on 48th street with a huge canopy of light that spelled out “Latin Quarter”. Patrons climbed a flight of stairs toward two coat check rooms, while looking at the photos of the current attractions. Another flight took nightclub goers to the main level and presented additional photos of the coming performances.
It was a short walk to the Maitre d’s podium. He looked very impressive. As a teenager, I was even more impressed when I saw my step father shake his hand as if they were old friends. What I didn’t realize then was that he was being slipped a tip. The Maitre d’ snapped his finger high in the air and a waiter appeared out of nowhere to show us to our table.
I was a professional dancer by then and at a special audition for choreographer, Michael Kidd. I was hired to be in the chorus of Holly Golightly,a new show starring Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlin being produced by David Merrick. We played out of town in Philadelphia for four weeks and an additional four weeks in Boston. We then came into New York City as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Musical, only to close after three days of previews. Of course this was a great disappointment. My dream was to work on Broadway.
When I finally got hired as a dancer at the Latin Quarter, it was October of 1967 and I stayed with the same show until late August of 1968, ten months. It was then owned by E.M. Lowe. The production I was in was a revue that had played The Garden of Stars at Expo 1967 in Montreal, Canada. All of our costumes were made for us in Paris and were gorgeous. We performed at the Expo for three months. We had two weeks off before going into rehearsal to do the same show, but at the “Comedie Canadien”, a theater in downtown Montreal. We did that for another three months before going on a tour of the province of Quebec.
Teak Lewis (foreground) performs at the Latin Quarter in New York City, 1967
The week before we were to close, George Reich, who was the choreographer on this production as well, asked if I was interested in dancing at the Latin Quarter. E.M. Lowe was bringing the production to the New York City location on Broadway. Needless to say, I said “yes”.
We did three major production numbers and had a company that consisted of:
- 8 female dancers plus two lead female dancers
- 6 partially nude showgirls
- 1 male production singer
- 3 male dancers, plus a lead male dancer
I can recall being there with guest headliners such as Allan Jones, Red Buttons, The Everly Brothers, Rodney Dangerfield, Brenda Lee, Louis Armstrong and his AllStars, the Doodletown Pipers, and Georgie Kaye, among others.
Latin Quarter program for “Women’s World”, 1967
By the time we got to spring, our lead male dancer was getting tired of all the work. We did two shows a night and were off one day a week. By late spring I had become the alternate lead male dancer. But suddenly, I got the opportunity to join a new show going to the El San Juan Hotel in Puerto Rico and I left the Latin Quarter at the end of August.
Early in 1969, the musicians were going to strike so they got a raise. Then the waiters threatened to strike, and they got a raise, but during a strike by the chorus girls, the nightclub was padlocked for non-payment of rent and closed. At the time, I was fortunately already in a touring company of Fiddler on the Roof.
When I was asked to dance at the Latin Quarter, I saw it as a second chance to fulfill my dream of Broadway, and ten months was a healthy run. Dreams do come true!
Learn more about Teak Lewis here.
(Blog post imagery courtesy, Teak Lewis)
Watch Teak’s oral history interview:
Meet the Entertainers: Teak Lewis from KirstenStudio on Vimeo.