If you asked someone what it was like living in Atlantic City during the 1960s, they might give you a vague description. But Jeree Wade, an Atlantic City native for more than 40 years, remembers the town like it was yesterday.
Wade, 70, who currently resides in Montclair, says when she was 9 years old her grandmother always took her to Club Harlem on Kentucky Avenue in Atlantic City to watch the singers, showgirls and poets perform. This famed establishment was a dominant venue for African-American entertainment from the ’40s until the ’70s.
After much practice and passion, before she knew it, Wade was performing in Club Harlem in the early 1980s singing “Touch Me in the Morning” by Diana Ross and Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love.”
Through her memories, Wade continues to cherish those exciting productions with her musical “On Kentucky Avenue – The Atlantic City Club Harlem Revue,” which will have three performances at Stockton University’s Dante Hall Theater 8 p.m. Friday, March 27, and Saturday, March 28, and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 29. The Club Harlem extravaganza show takes place before the casinos took over, when nightclubbing was in vogue with leggy showgirls, hysterical comedians, great singers and dancers.
The original Club Harlem opened in 1935 by two brothers, Pops and Cliff Williams. By 1940, the club was the hottest place to be with live, fast-paced entertainment for all. The venue could sit 900 customers and its front bar alone sat nearly 100.
“Once you crossed over to the north side, it was like a magical, musical street,” Wade says. “My show is a way to keep those old genres alive.”
Starring in this weekend’s shows are Ty Stephens, Cheryl Freeman and Andricka Hall who will perform musical numbers by artists such as Nancy Wilson, Otis Redding and Ella Fitzgerald, who all performed in Club Harlem during its prime.
Stephens, of Philadelphia, has toured the country and opened for many singers including Celine Dion, Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder, Janet Jackson and Prince. Freeman has performed on Broadway and was the voice of Melpomene in Disney’s 1997 animated film “Hercules.” Hall has gone on international tours with Annie Lennox and Chaka Khan.
Seventeen ensemble cast members will recreate experiences from the 1960s with a mix of original music produced and written by Wade and classics from the era such as “My Girl” by The Temptations. Costumes will be true to the time period – bright, beautiful and big.
“The street (Kentucky Avenue) you see now was totally active and vibrant (back then). People couldn’t wait to get in,” she says.
So what happened to the place?
Once Cliff Williams died at the age of 75 in 1972, it was difficult for Pop Williams to keep the club afloat. On top of that, a shooting occurred between gangs, leaving five dead and the club wrecked, according to Wade.
“It (Club Harlem) truly never recovered,” she says, “... And then of course gambling came along and changed the scene completely.”
The club officially shut its doors in 1992 and the building stood vacant for several years. All that’s left are artifacts collected by Ralph Hunter, founder of the African-American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey in Hammonton and at the Noyes Arts Garage of Stockton University, who is co-producing “On Kentucky Avenue.”
“We have costumes, posters, ashtrays and the neon sign that hung outside the building,” Hunter says. “We actually have the doors that led to the main show room.”
The cast has performed “On Kentucky Avenue” in New York City, but this will be the premiere of it in Atlantic City.
There will be a meet and greet reception at the Noyes Arts Garage of Stockton 6 p.m. Saturday, March 28, for attendees to meet the cast members and hear live music from the Chicken Bone Beach Jazz Society.
“It was a wonderful street, in a wonderful time,” Wade says. “It was one of the best kept secrets and yet one of the most famous night clubs in the country.”