Nov 8, 1936: Waller Says the Joint’s Officially Jumpin’
Fats Waller was in town, headlining the Hot From Harlem Revue opening at the RKO-Boston Theatre on November 6. The Hot From Harlem stage show played Boston annually with its cast of dancers, singers, comedians, and musicians supporting the show’s headlining star.
We can assume that the ebullient Waller played hits like “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and probably introduced a few new songs, too. A party atmosphere likely prevailed among the RKO-Boston crowd, because FDR had been re-elected by a landslide just two days before Fats opened.
But Hot From Harlem isn’t my reason for checking in with Mr. Waller today. I’m interested in the Theatrical Club, on Tremont Street in the Theatre District, and Waller’s role in ending its Jim Crow policy.
The Theatrical Club was not a city-licensed nightclub as was, for example, the nearby Cocoanut Grove. It was a private club, organized under state charter, and operating with a different set of rules. Foremost was the rule about closing time…the Theatrical closed somewhere around 5:00 in the morning. The city mandated a 1:00 closing time at the Cocoanut Grove, but at the Theatrical, they were just getting warmed up then. This was of course a source of annoyance to the fellows running the Grove, but somehow its status as a private club, along with a bit of baksheesh slipped into the right pockets, enabled the Theatrical Club to run wide open.
“Everyone went there of course,” recalled George Frazier, writing in 1942. “Everyone you could possibly think of. Debutantes, racketeers, Harvard crew-cuts, musicians, newspapermen, the help from night clubs…And everyone had a swell time.”
Club manager Al Taxier hired a fine band for those late-night revels—Bobby Hackett’s splendid small group with Hackett playing Bixian cornet, trombonist Brad Gowans writing arrangements, Teddy Roy playing piano like Earl Hines, reedmen Billy Wildes and Pat Barbara, and swinging drummer Russ Isaacs, a refugee from the society bands.
Word about the club and Hackett got around, and the likes of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Bunny Berigan, with bandmates in tow, came by to sit in. But not Basie’s band, or Lunceford’s, or Webb’s. It was whites only at the Theatrical Club, which brings us back to Waller.
Hackett and Frazier kept after Taxier to open the doors to everyone, but he resisted, fearing that a backlash from social conservatives might pressure the city into curtailing the club’s after-hours operation. But eventually he relented, won over by Frazier’s argument that an open door would be good for business. Frazier then approached Fats Waller to see if he would be willing to crash the party at the Theatrical. And in the wee small hours on one of those November mornings, Waller strode into the Theatrical Club, took his seat at the piano, shouted “Look out now!,” and broke into his popular hit, “The Joint Is Jumpin’.”
Afterward, Fats noted “now this joint is officially jumpin’.” And that was the end of Jim Crow at the Theatrical Club.
The glory days at the Theatrical Club lasted for only about a year, from the time Hackett brought in his band in early 1936 until he left in early 1937. Hackett was a major part of the magic, and Taxier never found a suitable replacement. The musicians seeking jam session kicks went elsewhere, and without the first-rate music, the clientele drifted away. The club quietly closed in the spring of 1938. “The Theatrical Club was a lot of things to a lot of people,” summed up Frazier in 1942, “but mainly it was jazz.”
Here is a video of Fats and band playing “This Joint Is Jumpin’” but be advised, this film is a product of its time.