Monday, January 24, 2011

Leon & Eddie's

Last week I posted about old New York City menus, and one of them, featuring a topless lady, came from Leon and Eddie's on 52nd Street back when the block between 5th and 6th was known as Swing Street for its many jazz clubs, and later as Strip Street when the jazz clubs became striptease joints, creating a mecca of burlesque (more on that in a post to come).

Andreas Feininger, via Getty

Most popular during World War II, Leon & Eddie's (said, but not in the club's signage, with an apostrophe S) was beloved by servicemen. Sailors and soldiers, along with civilians, were invited onstage to play "Boomps-A-Daisy" with the chorus girls, butting their hips together for a cheap thrill.

Boomps-A-Daisy, LIFE

In 1939, Time magazine said of the place, "Its ferocious Apache dance is the next thing to murder, but the crowd really goes to hear Proprietor Eddie Davis, whose smutty jokes and songs like Myrtle Isn't Fertile Any More are subtle as a burglar alarm."

LIFE described the place in 1942, "To the average out-of-towner seeking noisy fun, Leon & Eddie's offers sly ditties, fan dancers, smoky jokes, and a general old-style hot spot atmosphere."

Getty Images

To be more specific, a typical night at "L&E" is reviewed in a Billboard of 1943 when the opener was "Strut Flash, a sepia youngster with a nice grin who pounds out some okay but not outstanding taps. Gets by on strength of personality rather than leg work." Next up, Dolores King, "the show's chanteuse" with "pleasantly pitched pipes," followed by a pair of comedy tappers, a joke Sinatra lookalike, a juggling troupe, then "sexy touches" provided by Patsy Anne Biddle "who does a polite and unrevealing strip" while another dancer performed "a novel and intricate half-man half-woman routine with a dummy."

Hockey players enjoying the show, 1948

Jerry Lewis recalls: "Leon and Eddie's was a mecca for nightclub comics. Sunday night was Celebrity Night: The fun would start after hours, when anybody in the business might show up and get on to do a piece of their act. You'd see the likes of Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Danny Kaye. It was magical. I used to go and gawk, like a kid in a candy store."

Noel Toy, LIFE images, via Softfilm

One of the regular regulars in 1942 was Chinese fan dancer Noel Toy. Said LIFE: "Noel Toy provides a traditional dash of nudity to Leon & Eddie's floor show. Miss Toy majored in French in college, never drinks, goes out with New York dramatic critics. She is named Noel because she was born on Christmas."

But Sherry Britton was the burlesque queen of the street. Wrote the Times in her 2008 obituary, "Sometimes Ms. Britton — at 5 feet 3 inches tall with an 18-inch waist — peeled off chiffon evening gowns to the strains of Tchaikovsky; sometimes she balanced glasses of water on her breasts."

Sherry Britton

One of the best, and only, accounts of "Strip Street" is Arnold Shaw's 1971 The Street That Never Slept. He's got an interview in the book with Britton. She recalls her usual night at Leon & Eddie's: "I used to strip down to an itsy-bitsy G-string and nothing else. Not even pasties. I did this even during the dinner hour when lots of children were in the audience. Please remember that this was March 1941. But my body was so perfect and I did it with such good taste that no one ever thought of complaining--quite the opposite!"

The act didn't last forever. After burlesque, Britton tried singing, but the reviews weren't good. Billboard saw her sing at Leon & Eddie's in 1948 and said, "Sherry Britton is apparently serious about dropping her strip act for singing. The gal looks good... Unfortunately she doesn't have a voice."


Leon & Eddie's didn't last forever, either. Owner Eddie Davis (Leon had gone to Florida) closed it in 1953. L&E manager and bouncer Toots Shor moved his own popular restaurant into the space and ran it until 1971.

By 1977, the space was turned into the New York, New York discotheque, featuring the city's first-ever laser light show. New York magazine said, "this is a place for those who can't or won't cope with a heavy disco scene. (Take your brother-in-law from Miami.)" That club lasted until 1981.

The building was torn down circa 1982, when the Deutsche Bank tower took its place. The glassy tower is known today for its "austere" urban plaza made of granite slabs, a miserably far cry from the "8th wonder of the world" that was Leon & Eddie's.


More 52nd Street to come...


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Jeremiah. What a great way to start the morning. Can't wait for the next posts on this.

BaHa said...

As something of a hockey maven, I'm very interested in the photo. Provenance? Team? I can't identify a single player, which, since this is clearly from the days of the Original Six, is almost beyond the realm of possibility.

Bleet said...

Great Post! Thanks for the memories.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Baha, click the link under the photo for more info. i think they are the Montreal Royals.

BaHa said...

Should have noticed that, Jere, thanks!

Marco said...

More, more. Take it all off. Great stuff.
Word verify: tartmot

Melanie said...

Great piece Jeremiah. There was a great bar back in the early 70's and onward that musicians would hang out in and wait for calls for gigs located on W. 52nd Street. It was a world of its own. I don't remember it's name.

Ken Mac said...

geesh, "show business" women seemed somehow more beautiful back when. From Evelyn Nesbit to Linda Darnell to these lovely ladies...

Crazy Eddie said...

FYI. For a separate tread.


Crazy Eddie

Marty Wombacher said...

A wonderful look back at a real slice of old-school New York. What I'd give to see that glass balancing act in person!

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks. i've been a bit obsessed with 52nd for awhile now, finally got around to putting it into the blog. tomorrow: the stripper years.

BabyDave said...

Fantastic stuff! Please do keep it coming.

Pancho said...

I have a photo of my Dad, and buddies, inside Leon and Eddie's taken in April of '46. One day after they arrived back from the war on the Rennselear Victory

Anonymous said...

Going through my Dad's old slides from a 1943 trip to NYC - found this shot from a sight seeing plane - thought you might enjoy :)

G.R. Miller

Anonymous said...

How can I send you the image?

Jeremiah Moss said...

thank GR, send it to my email: jeremoss (at) yahoo (dot com).

Grammy Chic said...

What a great piece. I researched it tonight because....I was reframing a photo of my mom and dad with my sis in 1949, and when I slipped their photo out of the frame, alas - there is a photo of the lovely Sherry Britton! Now I think I know where the photo of my dad and some of his buddies was taken around 1946! I find myself wondering if mom knew this photo was under the family photo - what fun!

dmbream said...

Been meaning to post this since you first put it up a few years ago.

As I'm getting married this weekend, figured it was an appropriate time to revisit the thread.

Fun story:

My grandparents were married at Leon & Eddie's.


My great-grandfather owned a nightclub in the Bronx in the 1920's and 30's called The Pelham Heath Inn. Dinner, live music, singers, vaudeville acts*, etc. A bunch of famous musicians performed and recorded there. They were one of the first places to broadcast live jazz on the radio. He was also a bootlegger, so the club provided a natural outlet for his wares...

Scrappy fellow. Came over from Russia when he was about 13 with pennies in his pocket and, per the family folklore, "with his 8-year-old sister on his back." Built himself up from nothing. Had a good run in the real estate and club business. My grandmother grew up in a brownstone. They had servants. A driver. Then, The Depression hit. Lost everything. Ended up losing the club because he couldn't pay his tax bill one year. My grandmother recanted how when she was a little older, she went through her father's desk and found all these unpaid receipts from the club. Her mother told her how all these famous people, politicians, and the like, had outstanding "tabs" at the club and when the crash happened, they all stiffed him. 

Such is life.

When he lost the club, these two waiters who worked for him --- named Leon and Eddie --- left to work at some other spots in the city before opening up their own place on 52nd St some years later.

Fast forward to 1945 and the end of WWII. My grandfather was aboard a ship to the Pacific after a tour in Europe, when the Captain got on the loudspeaker to announce that the Japanese had surrendered and they were turning around to go home.

When he eventually returned to the city and showed up at my grandmother's house, she didn't recognize him at first. It had been two and a half years. He was very thin. He had been stricken with a bout of Yellow Fever on the ship. 

Yellow-faced and all, he proposed, and my grandmother said yes. 

Shortly after, my great-grandfather stopped into his friends' place, Leon & Eddie's, for a drink one night after work. He sat at a table with them, told them how his daughter had recently got engaged, and then made a crack about having to now pay for a wedding.

Without a moment's pause, his former employees said "You'll have the wedding here. No charge."

And that's how it happened. They had it on a Saturday afternoon. They had showgirls. All the men wore their Navy dress whites. The urinals had pictures of HItler's face on them for aim.

I spent an afternoon at my grandmother's not long after we got engaged and fished through some boxes of old pictures in her attic in search for at least one shot from the wedding. Crazy to think how cameras weren't so ubiquitous like they are today! I couldn't find a single picture! My great-uncle, the photographer of the family, passed away recently and I had my parents put all of his photo albums aside for me when they cleaned out his place. I'll get through them at some point in the hopes that, if anyone did, he might have a shot or two of the happy couple, the men in uniform, the girls in...uniform, or some combination of the three!

Definitely cool to say you were married at one of NYC's more storied hot spots!

dmbream said...

* - cont'd (Blogger has character limits for comments)

Bob Hope was one of the vaudeville performers who auditioned to perform at the club. He was just starting out and was dating the sister of one the waiters at the time. My great-grandfather turned him down. Said he was too much of a "ham." 

Years later, a friend of his had tickets to see Bob Hope at The (old) Paramount. They went backstage before the show, and when his friend started to introduce my great-grandfather, Hope cut him off and said "I know exactly who you are. You're Dave. I auditioned for you once and you called me a ham. So, what do you think of me now???"

My great-grandfather replied, "Well, you were a ham then, and you're still a ham now!"

They all laughed.

Anonymous said...

This was my great grandfathers club, my grandfather-Leon Enken- was the original Leon's son. He told me some great storys before he passed away a few years ago. Fantastic article, very cool learning a little about my family's history.

Anonymous said...

My Dad, Jerry Roberts, was a popular DJ on WAAT. Dad did remote broadcasts of his "Celebrity Corner" from Leon and Eddie's in the late 1940's. He interviewed all the jazz luminaries including Mel Torme, Nat Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Frankie Lane etc. etc. from that location.

John said...

thanks for the history of Leon and Eddie's. I just found a photo of my father Roger Reeder there one night on Nov. 19, 1943 with the other Army officers from his artillery regiment just before they shipped out to England for D-Day and Normandy invasion. They had a great time from the looks of it like so many other GIs during WWII. I can share the photo if you are interested. My Dad passed away ten years ago and I am just now looking through his photos of his WWII years so that I can post them on the National WWII Memorial in Washington, DC.

bart said...

I was just going through some old "stuff" in a drawer and I found a post card exactly like the one you post in your Leon and Eddie's article. It was sent to my parents when they lived in W. Va. and is postmarked April 8, 1942. I guess I should keep it? My email has changed and it is now:
Tom Baker

dcarey said...

I have two photos taken inside of Leon and Eddies of my parents. I believe it was taken in late 1941. I had the covers of the photos with leon and Eddies pictures on them Their photos were round and black and white With an orange back ground and i think white music notes. My sister has the covers and I'm not sure she knows where they are. Are there any available to buy?

Unknown said...

I have a picture of my mom and dad in naval officer uniform in Leon and Eddie's during the war. She is 101 and the pic is a reminder to all who visit her that she was really hip!

talis4 said...

Please not that Leon and Eddies is notorious for another reason. They refused to let Louis Prima perform because they though this was black.