Live entertainment enjoyed a great high in the United States from vaudeville of the late 1800’s to the rise of the Cafe Society following the end of Prohibition in the early 1930s. The mid-20th Century represents the beginning-of-the-end of this particular social tradition.
Although photojournalism soared in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, documentation from performers of the genre remain scarce, yet whispers of what was permeate certain communities today.
Those who were there haven’t forgotten and although living the life of an entertainer had its challenges, it was in many cases the best of times for artists who performed during this era.
In New York City, work was plentiful for those who harbored both talent and extreme determination. Auditions were still competitive, and some took non-industry jobs between showbiz gigs to make ends meet. Nevertheless, work was out there, and an abundance of Broadway and off-Broadway theatres enjoyed both short and long runs. Nightclubs were filled with New Yorkers and tourists alike year around. Live performance was on a high for a long stretch and New York City was a nucleus for the art form.
Entertainment hubs such as The Copa and the Latin Quarter were considered destination hot-spots where a visitor to the city might get an opportunity to hob-knob with a celebrity over dinner and a show.
Jack Silverman’s International Theatre Restaurant and other establishments, including the Latin Quarter, not only hosted elaborate musical productions, they ran radio shows from their locations, broadcast television specials and game shows and drew attention from newspapers across the United States and abroad with listings of the latests stars to appear on stage and in the audience on any given night. Some clubs produced traveling revues under their moniker.
On a Sunday afternoon this past October, a cohort gathered to celebrate this special aspect of the performing arts. During the nightclub era, thousands of dancers, showgirls, singers, comedians and novelty acts entertained America from the stages of many-a unknown “gin joints”, to world renowned supper clubs, to The Great White Way.
Approximately 25 performers assembled at the Olive Garden, Times Square this fall to recognize the one-time location of Lou Walters’ World Famous Latin Quarter. From 1942 until New Year’s Eve, 1969, the Latin Quarter, located on 48th and Broadway in New York City, boasted full-scale productions complete with a cast of male and female dancers, showgirls, novelty acts, comedians and a headliner, wowing an audience packed into over 400 seats (other Latin Quarter locations included Boston and Miami).
During the Latin Quarter days, the space was filled with dining tables, wait staff carried large food trays and pushed dessert carts. Camera and cigarette girls made their way through the crowds offering a commemorative picture or a post dinner cigar. A popular souvenir for your time was a photograph proving your Manhattan experience included a night-on-the-town.
The Latin Quarter and its competitors promoted their respective brands through slogans like, “As much a part of New York as Broadway… Latin Quarter,” and consumer trinkets. Patrons could leave the club with customized matchbook covers, souvenir programs, cocktail stir sticks, drumsticks, postcards and more – all of which featured the club’s name.
Promotion was key and Lou Walters, Jules Podell and other impresarios were famous in their own right, but the real attraction were the productions featuring beautiful dancers and showgirls and some of the biggest entertainment names in the business.
At the height of the club’s popularity, the Latin Quarter supported its own costume house where some of the best costumers of the day, such as Freddy Wittop and Erte, were engaged for various productions. Top Broadway choreographers such as Michael Kidd were brought in to create ambitious dance sequences.
Each production was built around a theme. The Venus Touch was conceived around Roman mythology, other themes featured unlikely fusions, as in the case of French Dressing that showcased both French inspired costume and American West attire. It’s a time that is often reflected upon romantically. That type of live spectacle no longer exists nor does it bring out crowds in cocktail attire.
Decades following the club’s closure, former performers of the Latin Quarter and their larger community of entertainment industry veterans have met to honor this period in their lives. A time that has yet to be surpassed in its historical iconography.
The earliest congregation took place in the mid-1980s when former Latin Quarter dancers, Chickie James Kulp and Janie Thomas Freed placed an ad in a paper, inviting others to reunite. Singer John Hemmer responded to the call and a movement began.
For 15 years the group staged charitable productions benefiting a variety of causes focused on the support of children while keeping the spirit of the era alive through performances inspired by the celebrated clubs. They partnered with similar groups formed in Florida and Los Angeles, offering shows in the New York State area as well as on the west coast. Their reboot has since ceased, but through continued reunions the Latin Quarter Social Club transpired with Freed, her husband Bob, and Hemmer at the helm.
In 2019 they carry on the effort to keep their community together, despite setbacks of loss (James Kulp passed in 2015, Hemmer in 2017 among others along the way). On a recent afternoon men and women milled about the Olive Garden restaurant recollecting the original layout of the club as it was when they were there (The original building was torn down in 1986).
Some worked together on the same production at the Latin Quarter back in the day, while others met for the first time at a reunion past. Most had worked at least one show there, while others knew one another from their stints at The Copa or as a June Taylor Dancer or any number of Vegas productions. One woman was once part of an adagio act that performed on stage and television.
It was a joyous occasion for these entertainers, some of whom are still working in the field, transitioned to other careers, and still others enjoy retirement. To this day, newcomers find their way to the luncheon to seek out a former colleague or to reminisce with those who they know through common connections, “I worked with Donn Arden in Vegas, but not in New York”, “I was in a production there a year later”, “Oh, I know her, we worked ‘Minsky’s’ in Chicago”, and so on. A lot of the attendees are life long New Yorkers, but some drive from surrounding cities and states, or fly in from Florida or Las Vegas.
Books and photographs were shared between dancers and showgirls. One performer has written a screenplay about her life, others have written articles and shared their stories through public speaking. A few have gone on to other careers so completely outside the industry, they don’t have another opportunity to talk about their time on stage with others who understand what it was like back then. “I’ve always been a gypsy,” a dancer declared. “Once the lifestyle is in your blood it never leaves.”
A costumer attended to solve mysteries around some costume designs. In an effort to identify a Latin Quarter production they originated from, he brought photographs of illustrations from the show in question. A showgirl helped him identify what staging the illustrations were created for. He was thrilled.
A social club newsletter maintained by Hemmer and fellow performer and friend Teri Paris kept a list of over 100 members for decades. Today the newsletter carries on through the John Hemmer Archive efforts and reaches around 70 or so.
Naturally the numbers have gone down over the years as people pass, move or limit their travel due to health and/or budget, but the beat goes on. “I’ll keep coming as long as these reunions take place” a radiant New York showgirl exclaimed.
To learn more about the nightclub era and performer experiences, visit our Meet the Performers page.
If you performed during this era or have a connection through family or friends and would like to be on the Latin Quarter Social Club newsletter list or this site’s email list, contact us through the John Hemmer Archive Credits page.
*Please let us know about any suggested edits or fact corrections. We care about accuracy. Contact us through the John Hemmer Archive Credits page.