Friday, November 27, 2020

West Palm Beach Sunset Lounge Rises Again

View from the Harvey - Weekly column by Sandra Schulman, arts writer, music and film producer.

The historic jazz venue Sunset Lounge that saw the likes of Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and even Ike and Tina Turner grace its stages, is set to be purchased and renovated as City Commissioners recently approved the $2.4 million purchase of the Sunset Lounge and adjacent parcels in West Palm’s Historic Northwest neighborhood. This sets in motion a 1930’s-style renovation of the club and the creation of a music-oriented park in the surrounding lots to reinvigorate the northwest neighborhood and attract African-American tourism.

The site is framed by Henrietta Avenue on one side and North Rosemary Avenue on the other and includes the 1933 lounge as well as some apartment buildings that would be vacated and demolished before the city completed the purchase, possibly as soon as late this year.

The ambitious plans call for renovating the lounge in a 1930s theme, and creating a park around it with outdoor performance space, a gazebo and a Entertainer Walk of Fame celebrating the many performers who played the Sunset’s stage.

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The price was $2.4 million. Most of the tenants who live in apartments on the site will be relocated. The Sunset Cocktail Lounge in West Palm Beach was the “Cotton Club of the South” in the 1950s. Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Duke Ellington were among the performers at the Sunset, owned by Dennis and Thelma Starks. Dennis Starks died in 1987, Mrs. Starks who spent most of her life working with the American Red Cross, died in 2008 at 91.

The club drew top bands and hundreds of patrons in the 1940s and 1950s. The resorts of Palm Beach and the white sections of West Palm Beach wouldn’t allow black performers. But in 1978, owners Dennis and Thelma Starks turned the cavernous second floor into apartments and rented out the first floor to a social fraternity. The downstairs lounge changed with the times and graduated from big band sounds to more funk and soul music as it continued to draw musicians like James Brown and Ike and Tina Turner and eventually went disco in the 1970s. It still operates as a bar. Integration killed the once vibrant Sunset. Once performers could play where they wanted in bigger, more varied venues and people of all races could go where they wanted, the club’s fame dwindled. As decades passed, the neighborhood deteriorated. The 75-plus-year-old lime-green and fuchsia building now stands like a faded Deco dinosaur a few blocks northwest of the Palm Beach County Courthouse.

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Back in 2003, consultants for the city suggested creating a jazz district, with the Sunset as its keystone. Three years later, the city included the idea in a planned $16.2 million renovation of the neighborhood, but the recession in the late 2000s stopped the momentum. The city’s preservation philosophy is a marked departure from the mind-set of the past 50 years that demolitions are the remedy to blight. Since 1953, about 300 residential structures have been demolished in the neighborhood.

Existing buildings “are the only historic link, with the exception of the church structures, between the African-American community that once lived there and the Northwest Neighborhood today,” the City Commission report states.

“If many more structures are lost, that link may be broken and the area will lose its historic designation as well as much of its scale, charm and uniqueness and its sense of place.” Mayor Joel Daves said in 2002.

Daves likened the Sunset’s potential to that of the 1926 First Methodist Church, which was restored and is now called the Harriet Himmel Theater, the centerpiece of CityPlace.

In February 2006 Thelma Starks recalled the club she and husband Dennis ran in its heyday. “When Louis Armstrong performed, more whites than anyone else turned out to attend. We were at the center of things. Everyone dressed up to go there, it was so glamorous. It meant everything to us. Integration was good, but what we have now is not what I fought for,” Starks said of the blight and poverty that overtook the neighborhood in the 1970s and beyond. “We lost all our businesses and a sense of who we are.””

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The Sunset, built in 1925 at Eighth and Henrietta streets in West Palm Beach, opened in 1926 on the roof of an auto repair shop and soon took over the entire building, it drew as many as 1,000 people a night, both black and white. Early photos show the gas pumps outside the automotive shop. On Saturday nights, neon lights atop the two-story, 14,000-square-foot building glowed in the cool air of a winter’s night. Down on the street, men in white dinner jackets and tuxedos and women in sparkly full-length gowns stepped from idling black limousines. They mixed and mingled with day workers who’d walked from neighboring homes or parked their late-model sedans a few blocks away. Many of the maids and chauffeurs who worked in Palm Beach came for a night out. Sometimes they’d mention to their employers that some big name performer such as Basie or Ellington was playing on the mainland, and the Rolls Royces and limos would soon be crossing the bridge.

The Sunset’s second-floor auditorium possibly was the largest dance hall of any black club in Florida. Thelma decked the hall with huge floral arrangements that rose almost to the balcony. More tables lined the balcony and looked down onto the dance floor.

“They filled the place. It was elbow to elbow,” Thelma Starks, then 89, said in 2006 in an interview.

Patrons dressed to impress and dressed appropriately. Clean pressed clothes for downstairs, a jacket for upstairs. Swearing and drunkenness was not tolerated. White or black, rich or not so rich, if someone acted up, Starks refunded their money and said they were welcome when they were worthy.

Former patron Preston Tillman recalled going there on Saturday nights to the Palm Beach Post, dressed in his “Sunday’s best” and watching everyone in town try to show off their latest dance moves.

“It was the only place we could go for our evening’s entertainment. It was a beautiful place. They heard about us up in Harlem, we were so big. It was our thing.”

With the new plans in motion, it may be a beautiful thing again.

West Palm Beach Sunset Lounge Rises Again. Historic Jazz Venue Sunset Lounge will be Renovated into a Music-oriented Center Preserving our Culture & Arts in West Palm Beach

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