The charleston massive

The US club scene in the early 20th century was dominated by Art Deco design and revolving dancefloors. Nick Smurthwaite takes a spin

Clubbing wasn’t always the preserve of the young. In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s money, rather than youth, guaranteed you a stimulating nightlife.

Back then the social demarcation lines were a lot more pronounced than they are now. Rich and poor, black and white, hip and square.

In her lavishly illustrated book Nightclub Nights: Art, Legend and Style 1920-1960, Susan Waggoner chronicles the golden age of American clubs.

“It wasn’t enough for a club to be merely a club,” writes Waggoner. “It had to have a theme, above average food at below average prices, liquor flowing like water, the illusion of sex, elephants and, if possible, a pool lapping the first tier of tables.”

The more exotic or tropical the better, which explains names like Zanzibar, Copacabana, El Morocco and Tropicana. Palm trees, pools, balconies, sweeping stairways there was no such word as excess. The idea was to transport the punter to another country.

The Rainbow Room, which opened in 1934 on the 65th floor of New York’s new Radio City building, boasted a gigantic dancefloor that revolved “like a lazy lagoon”. Inside the club’s glossy opulence nobody cared if unemployment in the city was running at 21.7 per cent.

The International Casino in Times Square, capable of accommodating 2500 people, had a mobile stage with a dancefloor, sides, back and ceiling which were all moveable, to create dramatic effects, while Chez Ami was famous for its revolving bar that only allowed patrons to witness occasional glimpses of the floorshow.

You can see why the idea of a club in the shape of an airliner, like the one on Miami Beach, never caught on. The same can be said of Bimbo’s in San Francisco, which featured “the world-famous girl in the fishbowl”.

New York took its cue from Paris in the 1920s, with Art Deco design and cringe-worthy franglais names like Chez Paree and Casino de Paree. As Waggoner notes, it was closer to Paris, Texas, than Paris, France.

Before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, New York had some 70 nightclubs. By 1933 the few that survived had become the focus of city nightlife. They were big and brassy, offering good value food and lots of leggy lovelies.

Almost all the posters that appear in the book, some of them graphically striking, feature shapely and alluring females in various states of undress. Though Waggoner evokes this dizzy world of nocturnal extravagance vividly enough, I could have done with a bit more scene-setting social history.

Only when it comes to The Cotton Club, probably New York’s best known club from the era between World Wars I and II, does she become engaged by issues of hypocrisy, racism and social inequality. The club was notorious for employing black staff to serve a whites-only clientele.

Apart from an occasional nod to the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergere, Waggoner only ventures abroad to visit the Tropicana in Cuba’s capital city, Havana, birthplace of the rumba and the mambo. The long-running stand-off between the US and Cuba doesn’t seem to have deterred the Tropicana from remaining a favourite destination for Hollywood stars and the mega-rich.

Unlike Las Vegas, which merely simulates exotica, I guess Havana offers the real thing.

Nightclub Nights: Art, Legend and Style 1920-1960 is published by Rizzoli International at the end of July, priced £20

Latest articles