In 1951, I was young and it was the summer of my junior year in high school.
I left St. Louis to join my older brother, a waiter at Martha Raye’s nightclub. It seemed to me to be an interesting life and he had agreed, after some pleading, to let me join him — as long as I worked and paid my own expenses. So, after apparently every possible stop in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, my non-air-conditioned Greyhound bus arrived in Miami Beach and I saw, for the first time in my life, the ocean, framed by palm trees, sand and the just rising sun — and I was hooked.
My brother lied about my age and my “several years” of experience to get me a union card and a job as a busboy. My “experience” consisted of an hour or so of practice carrying dishes and glasses piled upon an up-turned coffee table. From the late ’40s through the ’50s and ’60s, the Collins area between 20th and 25th Streets was one of the liveliest in Miami Beach.
Martha’s Five O’Clock Club was on the corner of 20th and Collins; Collins and 22nd housed “Wolfies,” the quintessential New York delicatessen. The Grate, the Pin Up, the Place Pigalle and the Night Owls clubs were within blocks; the Embers restaurant and Dubrow’s cafeteria were nearby; Junior’s deli and the old Roney Plaza hotel were just off 23rd Street. The 22nd Street public beach, between the Roney and the Sea Gull hotel, was well known as the gay beach.
My daytime job was working for $3 a day and tips as a “cabana boy” at the Sea Gull, handing out towels, setting up beach chairs and umbrellas, keeping an eye on guests in the pool and ocean and selling them on the local water ski schools, hand-woven palm hats, Monkey Jungle tours, scuba lessons and other “opportunities” for which, if they bought, I received a 1 percent commission.
In the 1950s, the Five O’Clock Club was a popular small nightclub offering two shows a night and three on weekends. The club was named for dispensing free drinks to anyone still at the bar at 5 a.m. The 5 a.m. sessions were populated primarily by after-work waiters, waitresses and musicians from other clubs, an occasional hooker and sometimes, a celebrity or two. The club had a three-drink minimum and, if you didn’t order food at the 6 p.m. dinner show, you paid a separate cover charge. The experienced nightclub-goer nursed a glass of wine, paid the minimum or cover and never, ever ordered food from what was one of the worst kitchens on the Beach.
Martha’s was where I learned to maneuver trays of dirty dishware through narrow aisles of tiny, tourist-filled tables and sometimes helped the bartender water down the bourbon, scotch and rye. I also learned that the “snowbirds,” particularly those who had perhaps had a drink too many, were often easy marks for inflated bar tabs. Martha’s was a lesser club, not as big or flashy as Copa City, the Beachcomber or the Latin Quarter but, when Martha was on the bill, the club catered to loyal locals and aging movie-going tourists who remembered her from her ’30s and ’40s Hollywood musical comedies and who appreciated her off-color comedy routines and very considerable talent as a jazz pianist and vocalist. The five o’clock shows also featured lesser comics, male or female vocalists on their way up, or down the showbiz ladder and, sometimes, a movie-star friend of Martha’s.
I sometimes frequented the Rockin’ MB lounge, which featured saxophone duos, drums and no-name vocalists, performing from an elevated “stage” behind the narrow bar. The band played mostly tunes like Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock, always at full volume. The sound cast out on Collins from late night to early morning, and the entrance sheltered a large, bored gatekeeper, seated on a stool, who casually checked IDs and denied entrance to nobody. The offices above the MB also housed a phone-filled “wire room” handling bookies’ action.
What wasn’t legally wagered at Hialeah or Gulfstream on the horses or at dog tracks on the greyhounds or at jai alai frontons was gambled with bookies in cabanas by the pool at the ocean-front hotels — like the one at the Sea Gull.
The Rockin’ MB’s clientele, like that at the Sea Gull and other beachfront hotels, were mostly young tourists, often female, in groups of twos and threes — secretaries, teachers and office workers, down from east Chicago, Indiana, Cleveland or other cities up north lured to Miami Beach by the airlines and hotels advertising “3 days and 2 nights (or 7 days and 6 nights) of sun and fun” on the “American Plan” where airfare, hotel and most meals were included in the package. For example, in the 1950s, you could stay at the Di Lido or Shore Club and other ocean-front hotels for less than $27 a day, and for an additional $25 get breakfast and dinner. The American Plan became very popular in the 1960s, and its utilization by mega-hotels like the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc with in-house nightclubs and New York/Hollywood level shows and entertainers marked the beginning of the end for clubs like Martha’s as well as the bigger entertainment venues.
I met celebrities besides Martha — had my picture taken with Jake LaMotta and Rocky Graziano at the Sea Gull, parked a car for Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher, made sure Irving Berlin’s jockstrap and bathing suit were dry for his morning dip, and was able to finance my “other” education at the University of Miami — thanks to Miami Beach and the generosity of tourists.
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