Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Rendezvous At Lucky's

Male couples were such a common sight at Lucky's Rendezvous, a popular nightclub in Harlem during the 1940s and 1950s, that people didn't bother to look twice at them. This liberal attitude put Lucky's Rendezvous ahead of its time and attracted nightlifers to its friendly, relaxing environment.

The narrow, smoky nightclub on St. Nicholas Avenue, at 148th Street, counted among its clientele those of the lavender persuasion, as well as artists and intellectuals, black and white. Celebrities such as Henry Fonda, Gene Kelly, Lena Horne, Langston Hughes, and the black gay composer Billy Strayhorn were either frequent or occasional drop-ins. According to Strayhorn's biographer, David Hajdu, Lucky's had "a piano that Strayhorn would likely end up playing by dawn." As a result, Strayhorn, one of the nightclub's frequent patrons, developed a following there.

Lucky's, which had no cover or minimum charges, and was described by Ebony magazine as "Harlem's strangest nightclub," because of the wide assortment of people it drew, was opened in December 1942, one year after the United States entered World War II, by jazz composer/pianist/bandleader Charles Luckyeth "Lucky" Roberts and his two silent partners. After an altercation with his partners, he became sole owner of the club in 1946. [Note: My aunt, Victoria Watkins (1917-1997) worked at Lucky's as a waitress.]

The garish red and white facade of Lucky's wasn't considered eye-catching or trendy (the club, writes Hajdu, "was located partway below street level"). Its interior decoration consisted of plain furnishings, a discolored ceiling, and uncomfortable chairs. Despite all of that, its bar was always crowded, especially Thursday through Sunday, when Harlem's cafe society set congregated. The reason Lucky's Rendezvous was popular, despite the above-mentioned shortcomings, explained a Columbia University psychologist to Ebony in 1951, was the fact that it "made [customers] feel at home. There was no hostility shown towards any of them."

A version of this article was published in NYQ magazine, April 19, 1992.

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