Miami Beach

What happened to the hottest club in South Beach? A look back at the Latin Quarter

Lou Walters, owner of the Latin Club, with dancers.
Lou Walters, owner of the Latin Club, with dancers.

South Beach is known for its clubs, but you should have been there in the 1940s and ‘50s.

This place was hot.

Celebrities flocked to the Latin Quarter on Palm Island along the MacArthur Causeway. Sammy Davis Jr., Sophie Tucker and Milton Berle were among the performers. Millionaires and socialites to gather flocked to the club.

The Latin Quarter was run by Lou Waters, father of TV broadcaster Barbara Walters.

The club got its start in the Roaring ‘20s as the Palm Island Club. It was a gambler’s paradise, with illegal drink, frequented by both the underworld and high society.

Waters reopened it in 1939 with the new name. In 1959, the Latin Quarter burned in a fire and sat derelict until its charred remains were removed in 1968.

Here is a look back at Palm Island and the Latin Quarter, one of the most famous Miami-area clubs, through the archives of the Miami Herald:

FROM MUCK AND SAND TO HOT SPOT

Published July 25, 1993

Created from muck and sand, with Roaring ‘20s fame for its craps-shooting, illegal-whiskey pouring casino and resident mobster, Palm Island today is a three-street community surrounded by sea water, guarded by a gatekeeper, entered only by bridge or boat.

“Full-time security,” responds Lisa MacIsaac of Wimbish Realty when asked to describe the island’s No. 1 selling point. She cites prices of “less expensive homes in the low to mid- $500,000 range.”

Bargains are available, however. A motivated seller has knocked $150,000 off the asking price for Casa Contenta at 10 Palm Ave., an eight-bedroom, eight-bath walled manse built in 1924. Snap it up for $3.75 million, reduced from $3.9 million.

Despite its facade of exclusivity, Palm Island is a democratic place where you may not be able to afford to live but have free use of its streets and million-dollar park.

FLASHBACK MIAMI: THE END OF THE LATIN QUARTER

“The streets are open for the public whether security guards are there or not. People can just drive on. They can’t stop you,” said Marshall Kanner, president of the 300-member Palm-Hibiscus-Star Island Association, which supplies the round- the-clock gatekeeper.

In fact, whether for roundball or roulette, the public has been coming and going from Palm Island since day one.

That was in 1919 when bay-bottom sand was sucked up and deposited there to form it, halfway between Miami and Miami Beach, a bridge length north of what is now MacArthur Causeway.

Building lots sold out before the job was finished and quickly the island enjoyed its banner year: 1922.

Ed Ballard, co-owner of the French Lick Casino, opened the Palm Island Club, a snoots-only casino where prohibited alcohol flowed freely and admittance was for tourists only. Logic was the cops would look the other way if only out-of-towners got fleeced. Both did.

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Latin Quarter showgirls, left to right Betty Hammann, Sheila Stampler and Baby Lake. Miami Herald File/1954

Big Bill Dwyer, a New York bootlegger and race track owner (Miami’s Tropical Park) took over the club next. One show offered bandleader Earl Carroll’s Vanities Revue, featuring, according to a Miami Herald reporter, a naked showgirl in a huge glass of champagne.

But the cops began refusing to look the other way. Refurbished, renamed, it opened as the Latin Quarter in 1939, run by New York producer Lou Walters, father of ABC’s Barbara Walters. Gambling was gone.

By the 1950s, tourists no longer wore tuxedos, television changed nightlife and the Latin Quarter was in decline. Gutted by fire in 1959, the club’s shell stood as a ghost of Miami’s flamboyant past.

Neighbors complained until Metro condemned the site in 1968.

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Al Capone’s former Miami Beach mansion at 93 Palm Ave. on Palm Island is on the market for $14.9 million.

The island’s most famous resident was Chicago mob boss Al Capone, who in 1922 bought 93 Palm Ave. for $40,000. Seller was Clarence Busch, of the St. Louis beer barons, whose family also owned 94 Palm Ave. across the street.

With a 100-foot dock on the water, Capone spent $200,000 to create a winter command post with a gate-guest house, boat house, main house and coral rock grotto.

Capone left the property for eight years, sent to prison for income tax evasion in 1931. He returned in 1939, a broken, diseased wreck. He died there in 1947.

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The home is still splendid, hidden behind a tan and white wall and gatehouse, lined with royal palms and a flaming royal poinciana.

The old Busch estate at 94 Palm Ave. is empty, now being redone. In 1979, guru Maharaj Ji, “God on Earth” to four million followers of the Divine Light Mission, lived there, paying $8,800 a month rent for the eight-bedroom home.

Corporate raider Victor Posner lives down the street at 39 Palm Ave., a six-bedroom, five-bath home where weeds have overgrown the tennis court.

Under attack by the Securities Exchange Commission, Posner has fallen on hard times. But Palm Island’s fortunes have never been higher.

Newest resident is Univision talk show hostess Cristina Saralegui, who moved into 64 Palm Ave. in January. The eight- bedroom estate, built in 1932, is assessed at $1.59 million.

“If you are a celebrity, you feel very comfortable there,” said Marcos Avila, Cristina’s husband.

PALM ISLAND’S VINTAGE YEARS

1919 Island created (with Hibiscus) when developer Locke Highleyman pumps bay-bottom sand into retaining walls. All lots sell before job is completed.

1922 Palm Island Club opens at 159 Palm Ave. First, ultra-chic gambling, Prohibition-era casino to have tourist-only policy .... Mob king Al Capone pays $40,000 for home at 93 Palm Ave., buying from Clarence Busch of Anheuser-Busch beer. Scarface Al adds $200,000 worth of improvements.

1939 Palm Island Club is renamed the Latin Quarter ... After eight years in prison, a “slack-jawed paretic” Al Capone returns to Palm Island home where he dies, Jan. 25, 1947.

1941 Three weeks after Pearl Harbor, New York producer Lou Walters, father of ABC’s Barbara Walters, opens Latin Quarter’s winter season with “Blackouts in Rhythm,” featuring showgirls dressed as lightning bugs. In heyday, stars such as Sophie Tucker, Jimmy Durante, Martin & Lewis and Jane Russell ($15,000 a week in 1947) perform.

1953 Declaring the end of “the gangster curse” on Palm Island, developer Nat Ratner, operator of Ocean Drive’s Clevelander Hotel, offers 20 new three-bedroom, two-bath, waterfront homes for sale at $38,500.

1958 Palm Island residents object to Metro’s plans to develop Dodge Island as major port. County offers to plant trees to screen view of commerce.

1959-- Latin Quarter burns.

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The Latin Quarter burns in 1959. Miami Herald File

1968 Metro Commission condemns club site and orders land cleared.

1975 Island Park dedicated.

1980 By vote of 283-26, residents of Palm and Hibiscus become first community in Dade to tax themselves for security guards and gatehouse.

1993 Newly widened, six-lane MacArthur Causeway opens. Trees screening Palm Island from Port of Miami are gone

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The Latin Quarter in its heyday. Wolfson Archives / Miami Herald File

HOW THE CLUB STARTED AND ENDED

Al Capone wasn’t the only colorful character debuting on Miami Beach’s Palm Island in 1922. That same year The Palm Island Club opened at 159 Fountain Street. Prohibition? Pish-posh. Booze flowed.

But 159 Fountain Street’s most famous face came in 1939 when New York producer Lou Walters (Barbara Walters’ pop) reopened the venue as The Latin Quarter. A ritzy nightclub, the venue drew performers Sammy Davis Jr., Sophie Tucker, Milton Berle and young Judy Nelson, a pal of Beach High’s Barbara Walters. Nelson became the Concert Association’s impressaria Judy Drucker.

In 1959, the Latin Quarter burned to the ground and never reopened. Its blackened, battered remains sat tattered until the city ordered their removal in 1968 as residents clamored for a park.

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4/27/06 Patrick Farrell/Miami Herald Palm Island Park is what is on the property where the Latin Quarter nightclub that burned down in 1959 used to be...w/Howard Cohen story... Patrick Farrell Miami Herald File

The now-residential Palm Island was once the home of a lively casino that later became a popular nightclub.

Built in 1922, before the island was zoned, the Palm Island Club was once a gambler’s paradise, catering to both underworld and high society clientele.

The club survived a dizzying array of owners -- even Al Capone once had a piece of the action -- and renovations.

New York producer Lou Walters reopened the place in 1939 with a new look, a new name and no gambling. The Latin Quarter became the “in” spot of socialites and millionaires for years. Walters blamed its decline after World War II on television, the medium that would make his daughter, Barbara, famous.

In 1959, the club was decimated in what was then the worst fire Miami Beach had ever seen. Then-owner Elias M. Lowe, a Walters associate, tried for years to resurrect the Latin Quarter in the face of opposition from neighbors. By then, Palm Island had been zoned for single-family homes; and the homeowners’ association wanted a park where the club stood.

The final death knell sounded in August 1968, when the Metro Commission voted unanimously to condemn the club and ordered demolition.

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