Recalling Newark Night Life

by Barbara L. Rothschild


I just came across a FANTASTIC book in Barnes and Noble, about Newark nightlife for the early African-American community in Newark in the 1920's and 1930's. The book is chock full of photographs, and speaks of Newark, as the "other Harlem," where jazz clubs abounded in the West Kinney, Broome and Spruce Street areas, during the time frame mentioned above. Sadly, later, this same area became a mecca for prostitution and other vices of that era.

Sarah Vaughn, (a Newarker who lived on Barclay Street), sang there, before she was discovered at the famous Apollo. Other names mentioned as appearing at one time are Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, etc.

The book names some of the proprietors and managers of these speakeasy-type nightclubs, which catered primarily to the then African-American community, who came to the Old Third Ward. Unlike the New York Harlem nightspots, which dealt largely to white clientele in the 1920's era, the Newark "little Harlem" catered primarily to African-American persons, who began to reside in the neighborhoods around Spruce, West Kinney, etc. This began around the large migration of African-Americans to Newark, seeking employment in the many factory jobs and domestic employment which became available in that era. The former predecessors of the surrounding neighborhoods, the Jewish immigrant population, began to move out of the Old Third Ward, and into the then upwardly mobile far reaches of the Clinton Hill District, and ultimately, to the then very "affluent" Weequahic section, which became the neighborhood of choice for the wealthy and professional family. Many of these same professional families employed the early African-Americans as domestics and "nannies", and provided employment in some of the companies and businesses ,which some of them owned. Many such domestic employees rode the #9 Public Service Transit bus line daily, to these same wealthier locales, to service the newly "wealthy" employers, the children of the earlier immigrants and inhabitants of Newark's Old Third Ward.

One of the proprietors mentioned in the book, a Teddy Powell, owned one of these clubs. As of the late 1950's, Teddy Powell still resided in a large private home, I recall it being up on an elevated rise, up a rather lengthy flight of stone stairs. The residence was located at the far end of Belmont Avenue, going towards Clinton and Madison Avenues. As of the 1950's, I recall Teddy Powell still owned a tavern which was located around 880 Broad Street, going away from Broad and Market, probably closer to where Petty's Drug Store, and Busch Jewelers might have been located. There was a Child's restaurant, and a movie theatre near this tavern. I believe the movie theatre later became a John's Bargain Store, which was a predecessor of our modern dollar stores. The area was generally around and opposite City Hall.

I recall some of the entertainers Teddy Powell featured in the Broad Street tavern were one Dave "Baby" Cortez, a jazz organist, who had a hit record during the 1950's, called the "Happy Organ." From time to time, the oldies stations still play the record. But the heyday for the jazz clubs were long over by the 1950's, and Teddy Powell, became largely a manager of nightclub acts, and African-American singing groups and individuals. Many of Teddy's performers were featured on a Newark radio program, deejayed by one Danny "The Catman" Stiles, around 1300 AM on the radio dial, in the mid 50's.

The book is replete with photographs of the African-American nightclub scene in Newark, and it also names locations and addresses for same, most of them in the West Kinney Street area, previously mentioned. All of the clubs at that time operated clandestinely, since it was during the time of Prohibition. There were many dancers, also shown photographed, much like the chorus line at the famous "Cotton Club" in Harlem. The book speaks of the early performances of the late Sammy Davis, jr. and his family, father and uncle, who were tap dancers. Sammy and family danced in some of these Newark clubs as a small child, when the family was billed as the "Will Mastin Trio".


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