On Kentucky Avenue: A Celebration of Atlantic City’s Historic Club Harlem

With the collaboration of The City College Center for the Arts and Byron and Sylvia Lewis, a grand celebration depicting Club Harlem was bestowed. This joyous festivity was possible due to the Lewis’s strong and diverse expertise in media, production and business. Byron Lewis established a multicultural advertising agency, UniWorld Group, Inc., the oldest of its kind in the nation, and founded the American Black Film Festival. Sylvia Lewis is a journalist and CEO of Narrative Network, a public relations consulting firm.
The City College for the Arts, a Harlem based performing arts complex, has year-round student and professional presentations and exhibits. When asked about the mission of CCCA, Gregory Shanck, Managing Director stated, “CCCA is an arts presenting organization for City College. We offer multicultural programming that exemplifies the diversity of the City College student body. This summer we will be presenting The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts production of; She Stoops to Conquer, and a special presentation celebrating Cuban music featuring Yosvany Terry and others.”
On this night, however, the partnership between CCCA and Byron and Sylvia Lewis allowed for a unique homage to showcase the production of On Kentucky Avenue, a musical portraying Atlantic City’s renowned Club Harlem. Audience members were treated to a show stopping presentation of this staged reformation that honors Club Harlem. The reenactment is a series of vignettes based on portrayals of stage occasions and performances. Produced by Robert R. Blume, Cobi Narita and Peter Martin and directed by Adam Wade, an intensely colorful assembly highlighted the vivid acts that Club Harlem bestowed in its glory days.
Formerly located on Kentucky Avenue and The Curb (as it was called) Club Harlem opened in 1935. It was the foremost African American nightclub in Atlantic City, featuring the prominent Black talent of the times. Brothers, Pops and Cliff Williams, took ownership and changed the name of the club to Clifton’s. The establishment reigned throughout the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, with its myriad of first-rate dancers, comedians, showgirls and specialty acts. The rooster of entertainers included Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Gladys Knight, Count Basie, Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson and others. Club Harlem’s orchestra was led by the amazing, Chris Columbo. It was here jazz artist Lonnie Smith recorded his album “Move Your Hand”, and trumpeter Hot Lips Page, organist Wild Bill Davis and many other black musicians honed their craft.

On Kentucky Avenue, was created by native Atlantic City singer, actress, and producer Jeree Wade. Ms. Wade and husband Adam; singer, actor and the first African American game show host headlined at Club Harlem. As the Creator and Executive Producer, Mrs. Jeree Wade described her character in the musical, and her personal experiences at Club Harlem.

JW: I created it and more than wanting to be a part, I wanted the younger performers, as well as, the public to know about this part of our history. I chose to do a cameo and play the character Damita Jo. She was a staple at Club Harlem and a well-known singer of her time. She is also part of the inspiration for this show and for my choice of becoming a singer. I was a commuter baby, raised between Harlem, New York, and the North Side of Atlantic City. I grew up near and often on Kentucky Avenue. As soon as I could, I went with my parents to Club Harlem. I knew from the sounds and sights of Kentucky Avenue that I wanted to be an entertainer. My research was thorough, that said, Kentucky Avenue was in my heart all the time. We are proud to be going to Stockton University in Atlantic City to perform, happy to be on the North Side and sad because it is all gone …the street, the magnificence, the legacy.”

In response to what imprint she wanted to leave the audience Mrs. Wade stated:
JW: “Joy, memories, new memories and respect for the young dancers, singers, actors in this this show. They so embody the time and genre of Club Harlem without ever being there. Their artistry and their excellence say it all. I have never experienced more joy than watching my company grow and live and perform the past…our past; our legacy.”

With a dynamite cast of show biz veterans, On Kentucky Avenue was just as thrilling on this night as one might imagine having witnessed at the actual venue. Performers: Ty Stephens, Cheryl Freeman, Andricka Hall, Lee Summers, Donna Clark, Cassandra Palacio, Renee Ternier, Mindy Haywood, Gregory J. Hanks, Brain Davis, Olutayo and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, (who gave a tap dance set extraordinaire), all contributed with world class reenactments. The audience delighted in observing the rare gift of a night exemplifying such top notch singing, dancing and acting of a by-gone era. The flamboyant costumes; created by multitalented actor, singer and original musical score creator, Ty Stephens and Pearl Williams were especially gorgeous. Not surprisingly, some of the original Club Harlem entertainers such as: Betty Jo, Patti Harris, Barbara Clark and others were in the audience, admiring the routines and musical score.

Conductor, Richard A. Cummings Jr., (synthesizer), Musical Director, Frank Owens (piano), David Silliman (drums), Wilbur Bascomb (bass) and Jack Cavari (guitar) represented “The Hot on Stage Band”. They rocked the house with musical renditions spanning more than five decades. Mr. Cummings Jr. listed some of his musical history and what he would like the audience to gain from their viewing experience.

RC: “I have worked with Jeree and Adam Wade since the ‘80s, so I consider us as originals. My character is Vincent Campbell, music conductor for the Freddie Baxter Band. I did play in R&B bands and musical revues in the pre-casino Atlantic City clubs around 1970-72, and as a 20 year old pianist, I once accompanied the late Arthur Prysock. We would like them (the audience) to have witnessed the actual truth of a Club Harlem opening night rehearsal. This production has bolstered my confidence as a caretaker of our musical and historical heritage.”

Choreographed by Ty Stephens, Mickey Davidson (Swing Dance Choreographer), Donna Clark (Associate Choreographer) and original Club Harlem showgirl, Betty Jo, (Show Girl Consultant), the stylized movements of On Kentucky Avenue were immortalized. Rarely do musicals portray this type of fashionable and period specific gamboling boogie. To witness the past Black Jazz experience is a chronicle of and a peek into how our parents and grandparents partied and the revolutionary music that marked their eras.

Club Harlem had performances throughout the day and night, including breakfast shows. The crème de la crème of musicians and entertainers were featured. During its prime there were copious clubs and bars in Atlantic City, but in the sixties and seventies many closed. In 1986 Club Harlem said its last farewell and in 1992 the once famous venue was torn down. Fortunately there is On Kentucky Avenue to memorialize Club Harlem and its contribution toward today’s entertainment.

On Kentucky Avenue is playing at The Triad Theater, 158 West 72nd Street, NYC on March 11, 8 pm; March 16, 7 pm. It will also be performed at Dante Hall in Atlantic City.
For more information, please contact: www.Stage72.com or www.onkentuckyavenue.com