In our October 'Nowstalgia' issue we're taking a look at 100 Years of New York Nightlife, tracing after-hours trends to their beginnings and analyzing the ways our nocturnal habits of the past continue to influence our habits of the present. Below, we kick things off with one of the best good-time eras the Naked City has seen yet: the Roaring '20s. Check back for future decades each day.
The 1920s era in nightlife was one in which you had to evolve or die. With Prohibition taking (legal) alcohol off the table, clubs had to be sexy and appealing enough that patrons would risk arrest to go. There were two categories of venues: the speakeasy that was operating and selling liquor illegally and then legal clubs that weren't (visibly) selling liquor and where patrons would come in with their own flasks and would pay covers and buy mixers.
Among the most popular places of the time was the Country Club, whose owner, Belle Livingstone, would always lounge around in red silk pajamas. The club featured live music, and had ping pong and mini golf within the venue. There was the Pirates' Den, which had marine paraphernalia all over the walls and waiters dressed up as pirates who every so often would stage sword fights while the guests would swill cider from mugs. They would also experience a mock storm every few hours where thunder sheets would rattle and lights would flash and water would be sprayed in the air. And there were Russian-themed establishments like Russky Medvied and Little Rumania across the road, with birch trees painted on the walls and Russian immigrants and ex-pats drinking tea and lemon and champagne and listening to balalaika music.
You had musicians like Duke Ellington and his orchestra, who primarily
played at the Cotton Club in Harlem, and people like Benny Goodman and
the Dorsey Brothers and Guy Lombardo and Cab Calloway. Of course, this
period also included what would become known as the Harlem Renaissance
and that neighborhood became an epicenter for jazz and nightlife with
the Cotton Club and Smalls Paradise. Although it was ironic -- and
unfortunate -- that many of these venues, including the Cotton Club,
catered to an exclusively all-white clientele even though all of their
performers were black. But even then you had community organizers and
members of the intelligentsia intersecting with mobsters and drunks and
It was funny that the Depression started right before
Prohibition was repealed. Now that there were no longer the constraints
with alcohol that forced people to be creative, people were suddenly
broke and the era had passed. It was a different time in the '30s, one
that was less like the nightlife Wild West and instead more corporate.
But there were still some lasting trends in nightlife culture that
continued into the '30s, and that we still see today. With the advent of
electricity and amplified music, people started going out late and
staying out later and on the way home stopping by a Chinese restaurant
for chop suey or a diner or automat for cheeseburgers and pie. And what
was also special about this moment -- that's easy to forget when you're
looking at it with a nostalgic lens -- is that these decades were
also very focused on the future. With the domination of industry and new
technologies, a lot of these establishments were awash in glass and
chrome and neon lights. They were futuristic, not old-timey. It's not
unlike what we see today in big EDM clubs with crazy lights and booming
sounds. Nightclubs then, as now, were full of this exciting feeling of
"right now, this very second, the present and the future are colliding."