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Hot Nights Cool Club The Harlem Club Was Spokane’s Original Hip Hangout, Taking Its Cue From The Fame Cotton Club In New York

Sun., Nov. 2, 1997

The huge rooftop sign flashed “Dine-Dance, Dine-Dance,” chasing away the gloom of the Depression and promising the hot glow of jazz.

This was the Harlem Club, a swinging nightspot exactly 2,624 miles from Harlem.

It was a few blocks south of Appleway (now Sprague Avenue), and from 1929 to 1951 the billboard-sized sign blinked its message out over a broad swath of Spokane. The Harlem Club, or Club Harlem, was one of Spokane’s hottest nightspots until the day it got so ferociously hot it burned to the ground.

It was an ironic end to a club whose motto was “Sizzling Syncopation.” Sizzling was also a good word to describe the tenderloin steaks and the club’s atmosphere during its heyday. With customers such as Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis, Jr., it was almost as if the Harlem Renaissance had touched Spokane.

The Harlem Club was the creation of Ernest J. Brown, hardly a Harlem native. He was from Tennessee, and sometime in the mid-1920s he made a grand entrance into Spokane in a chauffeured touring car.

He was the chauffeur.

E.J. Brown died in 1965, but his story has been kept alive by one of his daughters, Doris Mae Aaron (originally Doris Mae Brown), 68, who remembers her days as a singer, dancer and waitress in the club as the happiest days of her life.

According to Aaron, Brown had been working in Tennessee as the chauffeur for H.G. Lee, a Southern tycoon who made his fortune manufacturing Lee overalls.

Lee first brought Brown to Spokane - or to be accurate, Brown brought Lee - on one of their auto tours in the 1920s. Brown thought it was the most beautiful place he’d seen. He decided he’d like to settle in Spokane someday.

Soon after that, Lee had to stop traveling for health reasons, so he no longer needed a chauffeur. He gave Brown “a chunk of money,” enough to move to Spokane with his wife, Myrtle (Theo, as everyone called her), and their young family, said Aaron.

In 1927, E.J. and Theo opened a restaurant in Spokane called the Sawdust Trail, so named because of the sawdust on the floors. The specialties were Theo’s lemon meringue pie and E.J.’s fried chicken and biscuits. He usually threw a couple of barbecued spareribs on the plate, too, just to get people accustomed to them. In those days, people in Spokane didn’t even know what barbecued spareribs were, he later said.

In fact, Aaron said her dad was apprehensive about the entire enterprise, because “they’re not used to black folks here.”

But almost immediately, Spokane became hooked on those lemon pies. The cars were lining up at the take-out window.

“That first year, they made so much money on my mother’s pies that they started adding more tables,” said Aaron. “Then in 1929, they took the money they had made and built the Pirate’s Den.”

It was a huge 350-seat restaurant and nightclub, on Sixth Avenue, just above the spot where the East Sprague Drive-In is now. All of the employees, mostly Aaron’s older brothers and sisters, wore pirate outfits.

It became the spot for traveling black celebrities to eat while in Spokane. In fact, family legend has it that it was either Louis Armstrong or Nat King Cole (or both, the legend is unclear) who first suggested changing the name of the place around 1936.

“I’ve been told that they came to to eat while in Spokane. In fact, family legend has it that it was either Louis Armstrong or Nat King Cole (or both, the legend is unclear) who first suggested changing the name of the place around 1936.

“I’ve been told that they came to eat at the restaurant and they said, ‘This place reminds me of the Cotton Club in Harlem. Why don’t you call it that?’ And my dad said, ‘Well, I don’t want to call it the Cotton Club, but I’ll call it the Harlem Club,”’ said Aaron.

As in the famous Cotton Club, jazz was the main attraction.

“We were called the Black Cats, or the 13 Black Cats, and we played jazz,” said Berneice Adams, 82, who played the piano there in 1936 and 1937. “We played a lot of Duke Ellington, Count Basie. Music to me was like heroin to an addict.”

And there was a floor show every night, starring the Brown children doing a tap-dance routine.

“The Brown Sisters were very good,” said Adams. “They were a laugh a minute. The crowd really went for it.”

“Everything we did was professional,” said Aaron. “I took lessons for 10 years.”

Theo and E.J. presided over the kitchen. Theo’s lemon pie was still one of the big draws. Since pie and liquor didn’t always mix, the pie was more popular in the Harlem Club’s tree-shaded family picnic area, called the “Oval Oasis.”

Brown’s specialties were his tenderloin steaks (“fried in pure butter”) and his fried chicken.

“I still dream about those chicken dinners,” said Adams, who went on to play jazz in clubs all over the Northwest and western Canada. She now lives in a Spokane nursing home, suffering from lupus.

Brown had one other specialty: smokey slabs of ribs covered with his own “Comeback” sauce (see recipe).

Brown, in fact, was featured as the city’s “barbecued sparerib expert” in a 1958 Spokane Chronicle story after his retirement. In it, he discussed his philosophy of barbecue:

“The right kind of wood fire is important to the proper preparation of spareribs. Back in Kansas City I used hickory, but when I came out here I tried apple and found that it gives a beautiful flavor and beautiful color. Food has to look good, too, you know.”

As in the Cotton Club, the Harlem Club’s clientele was largely white. Aaron bristles at any suggestion that black people were barred - they weren’t. Her father, she said, was an important member of the black community and the grandmaster of the Prince Hall Grand Masonic Lodge, also known as the “black Masons.” But he had a family to raise, and the black population in Spokane hovered at barely 1 percent.

“In those days, the white people didn’t want to socialize with the colored people,” said Adams. “Well, the man (Brown) had to try to make his living. So the white customers had six nights a week and we had one night.”

On Sunday or Monday nights, when the club was ostensibly closed, Brown invited the black community in for what he called “dance specials.” Aaron remembers those as the best times of all.

“It was a lot of fun,” she said. “I had a lot of friends at those.”

Aaron remembers the regular clientele as including a lot of Spokane’s most affluent white citizens (“high-high mucky-mucks,” she called them). The club was a combination of elegance (a big fireplace, red velvet drapes, plenty of high rollers) and somewhat untamed revelry.

“There were fights every night,” she said. “Every night! That used to be the fun of it. People would come just to watch the fights. Guys would take their girlfriends out to the parking lot, and their wives would follow them out there and …”

She said the county sheriff’s officers often showed up off duty, and they were some of the rowdiest customers of all.

“They helped keep people in line, at least when they weren’t acting up,” said Aaron.

She remembers only one bit of racial trouble. Once, a customer asked her brother for a cup of coffee, and he added, “Black, like you.” Fists were thrown, the customer’s jaw ended up broken. The police came out, but all they did was separate the two combatants and tell everybody to simmer down.

The police never gave the club much trouble, said Aaron, even during Prohibition.

“Once in a while, they pretended to raid the place - wink, wink - but nothing ever happened,” said Aaron.

She said that despite some wild times, the Harlem Club always had a good name, never a bad name.

You wouldn’t know that from reading contemporary newspaper clippings. In one 1950 story Judge Ralph E. Foley declared the club to be “a common nuisance” after Brown was fined for furnishing liquor to minors. Brown was also charged in January 1951 with violating an ordinance banning public dancing after midnight, but a jury acquitted Brown, finding that the dance was a private party.

By July 30, 1951, the Harlem Club was getting a bit tattered around the edges, but it still had its dignity. That big “Dine-Dance” sign was still flashing its message to Spokane.

That, however, may have been the problem.

Electrical lines snaked across the hot tar roof to feed the sign. Somehow, the lines shorted out, apparently starting a fire that sent a huge cloud of black smoke over the city.

That afternoon, the Chronicle reported breathlessly that Brown’s daughter Doris was thought to be trapped inside. She wasn’t, of course, or she wouldn’t be alive today to tell the tale.

“Some guy stopped me on the street and said, ‘Am I glad to see you! You’re dad’s club’s on fire,”’ said Aaron.

She had left the club just a little earlier, although her father was afraid she was still in there. One of her younger brothers was in the club at the time, but he escaped unharmed.

And so the Harlem Club slipped into Spokane’s history, although not necessarily into its mainstream history. Most people today have no idea it ever existed.

But for the Brown family, the Harlem Club had a happy legacy. Because of the success of the Harlem Club, six of the Browns’ seven children were able to go to college and earn degrees. Aaron herself has two degrees, one from Oakland’s Merritt College and one from Eastern Washington University in psychology. She went on to have a long career in the office of the base commander and deputy base commander at Fairchild Air Force Base, and later in the Social Security Administration in Spokane. She’s retired now.

Yet she still gets misty thinking about that fire.

“That was about the biggest blow that ever hit Spokane,” she said. “It was one of the last great places to go.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: STRAIGHT FROM HARLEM CLUB’S KITCHEN Here are two recipes courtesy of Doris Mae Aaron:

E.J. Brown’s Comeback Sauce for Ribs

2 8-oz. cans of tomato sauce 5 tbsp. olive oil 1/2 cup brown sugar 1 clove garlic 1/2 cup molasses 2 diced onions 1/4 cup apple vinegar 2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce 2 tsp. chili powder 2 tsp salt 2 cups red wine Hot peppers or hot sauce to taste

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan, cook slowly for approximately 45 minutes, or until sauce is thick

Theo Brown’s World Famous Lemon Pie

1/4 cup corn starch 2/3 cup sugar 1/2 tsp. salt 2 cups warm water 1/2 cup lemon juice Grated peel of 2 lemons 4 eggs, separated 3 tbsp. real butter Meringue ingredients (see below) One homemade pie crust, or ready-made pie crust

In a 2-quart saucepan, measure cornstarch, sugar and salt. Stir and mix well. Slowly add whisked egg yolks, stirring all the while. Stir in 1/2 cup of warm water. Put on medium heat and cook slowly for five minutes. Slowly add remaining water, stirring constantly. Add lemon juice, lemon peel and butter. Cook slowly until mixture reaches slow boil, stirring all the while over medium low heat until it thickens. Remove from heat, and pour in a cooled, baked 9-inch pie crust. Meringue: Whisk 4 egg whites and a pinch of cream of tartar. Very slowly add 1/2 cup sugar and 1/4 tsp. salt until the mixture stands up in peaks, but not dry. Spread it atop the lemon filling. Bake at 350 degrees for at least 20 minutes. The top should be nicely browned.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Story by Jim Kershner Staff writer

This sidebar appeared with the story: STRAIGHT FROM HARLEM CLUB’S KITCHEN Here are two recipes courtesy of Doris Mae Aaron:

E.J. Brown’s Comeback Sauce for Ribs

2 8-oz. cans of tomato sauce 5 tbsp. olive oil 1/2 cup brown sugar 1 clove garlic 1/2 cup molasses 2 diced onions 1/4 cup apple vinegar 2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce 2 tsp. chili powder 2 tsp salt 2 cups red wine Hot peppers or hot sauce to taste

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan, cook slowly for approximately 45 minutes, or until sauce is thick

Theo Brown’s World Famous Lemon Pie

1/4 cup corn starch 2/3 cup sugar 1/2 tsp. salt 2 cups warm water 1/2 cup lemon juice Grated peel of 2 lemons 4 eggs, separated 3 tbsp. real butter Meringue ingredients (see below) One homemade pie crust, or ready-made pie crust

In a 2-quart saucepan, measure cornstarch, sugar and salt. Stir and mix well. Slowly add whisked egg yolks, stirring all the while. Stir in 1/2 cup of warm water. Put on medium heat and cook slowly for five minutes. Slowly add remaining water, stirring constantly. Add lemon juice, lemon peel and butter. Cook slowly until mixture reaches slow boil, stirring all the while over medium low heat until it thickens. Remove from heat, and pour in a cooled, baked 9-inch pie crust. Meringue: Whisk 4 egg whites and a pinch of cream of tartar. Very slowly add 1/2 cup sugar and 1/4 tsp. salt until the mixture stands up in peaks, but not dry. Spread it atop the lemon filling. Bake at 350 degrees for at least 20 minutes. The top should be nicely browned.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Story by Jim Kershner Staff writer


 
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