Not quite as well known as its neighbor across the street, Grace's Little Belmont was nonetheless and integral part of Atlantic City's once-vibrant Kentucky Avenue night club scene.
Spend significant time anywhere in the nation and you’ll likely hear locals lament about how times have changed, and how the good old days are long gone. Newcomers may brush this aside as wistful drivel, but so often the nostalgia associated with Atlantic City’s past is spoken of with a special brand of sincerity — particularly a section of Kentucky Avenue between Arctic and Atlantic avenues.
The area was known as “KY and the Curb,” and became a jazz mecca and the premier nightclub district for Atlantic City’s African-American residents and tourists in the mid-1900s. But because the district didn’t really start heating up until others were winding down, visitors of all races and walks of life would flock there from the far corners of town to a warm welcome.
The centerpiece was Club Harlem, but directly across the street was a highly popular hangout called Grace’s Little Belmont. That club, owned by Hernan Daniels and his wife, Grace, thrived from the mid-1930s through the late ’70s.
“When the 500 Club [further south on Missouri Avenue, and famously owned by Paul ‘Skinny’ D’Amato] and others let out, that’s pretty much when Club Harlem and Grace’s Little Belmont would just be getting started,” says Ike “Nick” Nicholson, stage manager/music director for a summer series of Boardwalk jazz shows put on by the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Society since 2000. “Some of the employees and the people at the 500 would come up to Kentucky, and they’d be bouncing back and fourth between Club Harlem and Grace’s Little Belmont. They sort of fed off one another. Club Harlem was the keynote on that street and had a 6 o’clock breakfast show there. Grace’s featured a really popular artist in the summertime named Wild Bill Davis, who had done some things with Duke Ellington.”
Davis is also credited with helping to popularize the Hammond B-3 organ as a jazz instrument, and his arrangement of the song “April in Paris” was made into a huge hit by the Count Basie Orchestra in 1955. The Wild Bill Davis Swing Organ Quartet recorded two live albums at Grace’s Little Belmont, the first coming in 1966 when Davis teamed with his friend and tenor saxophonist Johnny Hodges, a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
In 1967 he recorded another album, Midnight To Dawn, there. Davis would end every live show with what would become his signature song.
“The song that he ended every show with was ‘April In Paris,’ and he’d wrap up each show by saying, ‘Not anutha futha,’” says Nicholson, a drummer who would occasionally sit in with the Wild Bill Davis Quartet as a young man.
Ike’s Corner on Tennessee Avenue (about two blocks north) was owned by Nicholson’s father and encompassed a bar, a liquor store and 10 apartments. The senior Nicholson also owned a record shop called Ike’s Records across from Grace’s Little Belmont, and would sometimes drop his son off with Grace Daniels if he had business elsewhere.
“My father was very good friends with Hernan Daniels, and maintained an alliance with Grace after Hernan passed away,” says Nick Nicholson. “She not only had Grace’s Little Belmont downstairs, she also had a beauty salon upstairs next to her apartment, and when I was a kid and my father had to go somewhere, he’d always leave me with Miss Grace — so she was sort of like halfway babysitting me. She had a beautiful apartment. There was some outstanding mahogany furniture up there.”
Grace’s Little Belmont, says Nicholson, was smaller than Club Harlem and featured a horseshoe-style bar off the entrance. One of its barmaids was Elvera “Baby” Sanchez, a former Vaudeville singer and dancer — and the mother of Sammy Davis Jr.
“Baby Sanchez [who passed away in 2000 at age 95] was good friends with my mother, and she was a very talented entertainer in her own right back in the day,” says Nicholson. “There were usually about five barmaids that pretty much got locked into that horseshoe bar, because Grace’s business was mostly people coming in off the beach for the matinee shows and the night shows that they did, and the place would get so crowded they basically got trapped. Even though she had some booths in that area, it would get so crowded that the barmaids couldn’t get through and had to wait on people from behind the bar. [Sanchez] did a bang-up business from back there.”
Gambling was far from being legalized in Atlantic City back then, but nearly every nightclub and bar had some form of it going on, says Nicholson. In between Grace’s and an establishment called Jerry’s Barbecue was an alley where a popular game of chance took place.
“People would play a game called the ‘skin game’ [for a hilarious take on this, read The Skin Game and Other Atlantic City Capers by Joseph Wilkins]. It wasn’t legal, but as long as people behaved themselves [the police] pretty much looked the other way.
“There were a lot of things that were looked the other way back then,” adds Nicholson. “A whole lot of stuff was going on, and the women were the key to the whole thing. You had Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs Dancers [at Club Harlem], the waitresses everywhere were all very, very attractive young ladies, and when you had the women there — that attracted the men.”
Do you have any memories of Grace's Little Belmont? Leave a comment below.
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