Out from the shadows, Johnny Staggs hit the spotlight in a full-on show-biz trot, and he looked like a million dollars.
He had a goatee and a trim moustache and a perfect pompadour. He had a tight black suit and waistcoat straight from the Righteous Brothers’ wardrobe. And he had a regular gig at the Quonset Supper Club.
Staggs’s job as house singer was to rouse the crowd with Otis Redding covers in between sets by the headlining act, on this night a band called the Saxtons. Snatching the mike from the stand, Staggs bounded onto a ramp that would take him to a plank inside the club’s Circular Bar. It was from this perch that he could work his Staggs Magic. He’d begin with “Respect” and climax with the Box Tops’ 1967 hit “Neon Rainbow.” And there was always some lucky lady’s hand to be kissed in the audience.
Only this time, the ramp gave way. Staggs reached for the nearest thing he could find to break his fall. It turned out to be a couple getting cozy at the bar. Along with their drinks and their barstools—and Staggs—they crashed to the floor. There were no serious injuries, other than maybe the bruised pride of Johnny Staggs. But he was a trouper with a family to support. By the second intermission, he was back onstage.
As it happened, the mishap was no accident. Saxtons bandleader Joe Stanley, self-proclaimed King of the Honky Tonk Sax, had a rivalry with the flashy singer who supposedly stole the limelight. Fed up, Stanley had rigged the ramp as a prank. “Johnny wasn’t hurt, but it was very embarrassing,” recalls Billy Hancock, Staggs’s bassist. “He was mad as hell, ’cause he knew Joe had done it. ’Course, Joe played innocent, and he was having the time of his life.”
Just another night at the Quonset, where anything could happen and usually did.
Over the two decades after World War II, the Quonset was the highlight of a nightlife district where Southeast DC hit the Maryland line, near what today is the Naylor Road Metro station. In those days, the neighborhood housed a Southern-accented white working class that had ballooned as Americans migrated north in search of wartime jobs. Washington being Washington, the strip’s bawdy charms also beckoned tomcatting members of Congress and other upmarket notables.
They came to Strick’s, a raucous, butt-ugly roadhouse where country music blasted and fistfights spilled out into the gravel parking lot. They came to the Cross Roads or the Dixie Pig, a ways farther out. But locals in search of something fancier came to the Quonset. Capitol Hill types may have been slumming, but for folks who lived nearby, the club represented a step up—a joint on the outskirts of town that offered downtown thrills, a low-budget take on the high life.
The club eventually outlasted eight Presidents and countless pop-culture trends, rising and falling with the neighborhood while showcasing a dizzying variety of pop crooners and dance orchestras and vaudevillians and jazz combos and jugglers and acrobats and mimics and R&B vocal quartets and accordionists and comedians and strippers and psychedelic-rock groups and girl-drummer garage bands. About the only entertainment it shied away from was dwarf tossing and mud wrestling.
These days, there’s no shortage of handwringing about the changes sweeping the city. Formerly minority neighborhoods are being reinvented by a mostly young and white cast of newcomers. But it’s worth remembering that today’s old DC—the one they call Chocolate City—was itself new once upon a time. And that it, in turn, had eclipsed an even older, Southern-inflected place of brash young hillbilly singers and boardinghouses and corner beer joints where farm-to-table dining meant a jar of pickled eggs on the bar next to the cash register. A look back at the Quonset is, in a way, the story of that forgotten town.
Only a few stoplights over the Sousa Bridge and just across the DC line into Prince George’s County and you were there.
From the outside, it wasn’t much. The name and no-frills design evoked those prefab facilities known as Quonset huts that were built fast and cheap for military personnel when Hitler and Tojo were on the loose. Yet the club had dressed up that GI drabness into an inviting example of ersatz midcentury modernism, a whimsical salute to Uncle Sam’s can-do ingenuity.
The crucial adornment was its canopied entranceway above a red carpet rolled out like a welcome mat for patrons who wanted to dream big on “pre-war prices,” as the ads pledged. It gave the Quonset a touch of Sunset Boulevard glamour, which the surrounding neighborhood was sorely in need of. Spiffed up thus, the Quonset was billed as a refuge and an alternative to rubbing shoulders with the uncouth hayseeds of nearby Anacostia, then one of DC’s most Dixie-fried neighborhoods.
When you stepped inside, there was no question: The Quonset had class. For locals—and performers, too—the Quonset was where you could live out a version of the American dream. You went to Strick’s, across the street, for a bracing reminder of where you came from. You went to the Quonset, especially in those hopeful first decades after the war, to reinvent yourself. With its dance floor and Bamboo Room for private parties, it was high on the pecking order of nice joints.
Which isn’t to say the Quonset crowd was always interested in harmonies over hubba-hubba. In 1948, Arnold Fine, the Tips on Tables columnist for the Washington Daily News, reported “the sudden popularity of near-nakedness on the job by the gals who warble.” It wasn’t just a downtown trend, he wrote. “I hiked out to the Quonset Inn, a tavern located beyond the District line. What did I see? A garment with no shoulder straps held up somehow by the form of Lee Carroll, a singer.”
It didn’t take long for the garments to come off altogether. By 1951, the Quonset featured burlesque dancers like Wiggles Grayson and Sheila “the Peeler” Ryan. No matter how much wiggling, though, Lee Maxfield’s house orchestra lent an air of elegant sophistication. Meanwhile, a mysterious, white-turbaned pianist known as the Deacon played at intermission, helping guarantee the club’s promise of “continuous entertainment.”
In September that year, you could have found yourself at the Quonset, your date by your side—part Russ Meyer, part Hee Haw, part Congressional Record. The club that month witnessed history in the making: the Washington debut of Blaze Starr—the former Fannie Belle Fleming of Twelve Pole Creek in West Virginia, soon to be known to the public and the powerful as the Queen of Burlesque.
The night began with a bang when Johnny Wise fired a round of blanks from a pistol into the smoky haze. Wise was a singing rodeo star who was second fiddle to the “world’s only guitar-playing horse,” called Bob White. A dancer named Tiny Lou warmed up the crowd by slipping out of her gown. After a comedy act, the voluptuous, red-headed “beautiful song-and-dance stylist” made her stage debut.
Years later, after her career had taken Blaze from the pages of Esquire magazine into the arms of, first, John F. Kennedy (in private) and, finally, Louisiana governor Earl Long (in public), she never forgot that first night at the Quonset, when the howls of delight rattled the nerves of the teenage runaway who’d come to Washington for work and somehow ended up here in the spotlight with hardly a stitch on.
“As I left the stage and ran to my dressing room, I could still hear the audience yelling and applauding,” she recalled in her memoir, the basis for a 1989 movie starring Paul Newman as Long. “It was a good feeling. I knew they had liked me.”
The appreciative wolf whistles spurred her decision to quit her day job at the Mayflower Donut Shop downtown and follow her destiny.
Behind the scenes, the Quonset had its seamy side. Washington Confidential, a muckraking exposé published in 1951, stated that the club was “run by the Chinese syndicate of the District, which has established perfect harmony with the white bosses.” In fact, Quonset owner Sam Wong, who also ran the Dragon and the China Clipper nightspots, was a notorious DC gambler.
Gangsters and strippers and philandering politicians:
The action in the neighborhoods around the Quonset sums up the wild scrum that ruled Washington nightlife in the decades after World War II. The scene was chronicled in rags like the Daily News, which delivered a steady diet of Red-scare stories and flying-saucer fodder in addition to crime-blotter material. HILLBILLY SINGER RESISTING HOLDUP KNIFES 3 YOUTHS, read the headline on a 1951 story that detailed the switchblade exploits of Herschal “Curley” Irvin, jumped by a gang of youths outside the Kit Mar club. “I was cutting anything I could,” Irvin said.
The gravy was in the Daily News’s advertising pages, whose eye-popping promotions told you where to find the sizzle on any given night, such as tassel dancer Baby Dumpling at the Hilltop Nite Spot on Marlboro Pike or Al Capp, creator of the Li’l Abner comic strip, judging the Daisy Mae contest at the Giant Dogpatch Hoedown at Uline Arena.
It wasn’t all titillation. In the spring of 1955, if you didn’t mind ducking the beer bottles, you could have gone to Strick’s to hear a 22-year-old from the wrong side of the tracks in Winchester, Virginia: Patsy Cline.
Bob Bean, who was the manager of the local act the Bluegrass Champs, recalls that Cline already had the star quality that made her a legend for the ages after she died in a plane crash in 1963. “When Patsy sang, you could see the soul she had,” he says. “She would reach down inside and bring it all out.” But Cline also had a ribald sense of humor and a salty tongue—she could hang tough with the bad boys of Washington’s country scene, including future sausage king Jimmy Dean.
They paid their dues in rough beer joints like the Dixie Pig, described in Washington Confidential as a “barbecue bazaar” and “a hangout for prostitutes and gamblers.”
Who wouldn’t want to step up to the Quonset? Future Hee Haw host Roy Clark grew up in the white, working-class bastion of DC’s Washington Highlands and had played the bars since he was 14. He was an aspiring prizefighter as well, nonetheless made queasy by witnessing “nasty, terrible, mind-boggling brawls” at places like the Pig, Club Hillbilly, and Strick’s. “I saw eyeballs laid out on a guy’s cheek,” he recalled in his autobiography. “I saw people hit in the face with a full beer bottle. . . . So I backed down from fights.”
By the mid-’50s, Starr—billed as Blaze “Miss Spontaneous Combustion” Starr—had been making return appearances in DC, headlining at bigger venues like the Cross Roads, where comedian Lenny Bruce made his Washington-area debut. A 1989 Washington Post article and other sources reported that while performing there, Blaze began her secret trysts with a loyal patron of the club, then-congressman John F. Kennedy.
Around the same time, though, the Quonset decided to give the dancers a rest and go more upscale.
It was renamed the Quonset Supper Club, featuring steak dinners along with its Chinese cuisine. Management booked crowd-pleasing acts fresh from the downtown cabarets, like the zany showman Jack “Jive” Schafer. There was black talent, too: pianist Tommy Chase, the Bill Jackson Combo, and drummer/bandleader Al “It’s Gotta Be” Dunn with his wife, VeRonnee, who mixed gutbucket R&B and frothy pop into a highly danceable concoction. In an era of segregation, this was no small thing.
But the times they were a-changing—and fast. The rock ’n’ roll revolution was coming to Washington. “Back then, rock ’n’ roll was our enemy,” says Bob Bean. “It was giving all the country acts trouble.”
When Charlie Daniels hit town in 1958 with his electric guitar and his band, the Rockets, the Wilmington, North Carolina, native sported a crewcut, a short-sleeve collared shirt, and big black specs—unrecognizable from the Southern-rock beardo from the ’70s. He may have looked strictly Squaresville, but his band packed a solid rockabilly punch that found a following.
“I was 21 years old,” Daniels says. “We were a bunch of kids just going for it. For a while, we were kind of a novelty and we were very energetic onstage. We were cookin’ and DC was kickin’ it.”
Roy Clark recalled that Daniels’s later band, the Jaguars, often competed in a kind of battle of the bands at Strick’s, facing Clark and his band in epic Sunday showdowns that lasted from early afternoon until last call. Strick’s may have been one of the last old-school honky-tonks, but now it, too, offered rock bands. In the late ’60s, Link Wray played there, his signature song, “Rumble,” providing the perfect soundtrack for biker-gang brawls that spilled out into the parking lot, now paved.
In the face of this revolution, the Quonset adopted its own feisty “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” strategy, peddling an eclectic mix that skirted the boundaries of pop, rock, and comedy. The club brought in local rock groups like Jimmie Vee & the Scamps and the Naturals, featuring the McDuffie brothers, who hailed from Anacostia High School.
Local rock ’n’ rollers Tommy Cole and the Belvederes were the house band at the Quonset often in the mid-’60s. Member Gino Dercola recalls a venue more spacious and elegant than the clubs he was used to. “I always enjoyed playing the Quonset,” he says. “It was a big, comfortable place. They had that beautiful oblong-type bar and a nice dance floor. We never had any trouble getting everybody up and dancing.”
The Belvederes covered jukebox perennials like “Kansas City” and “Monkey Time.” Their rendition of Bill Doggett’s monster R&B hit “Honky Tonk” was a favorite of DC hand-dancing aficionados who frequented the club.
At the start of the 1960s, the city outside the club was also in upheaval. Once lily-white neighborhoods nearby were now a salt-and-pepper mix as white flight made a hash of the demographics that had been in place since before Pearl Harbor.
Late in the decade, the Quonset was dishing up equal portions of rock, soul, and pop with a heavy dose of Vegas-style showmanship. House singers Johnny Staggs and Richie Kay made the Quonset a destination, especially for the female patrons. Kay was a pop-crooner counterpart to Staggs’s blue-eyed-soul-man act. He wore a cobalt-blue silk pinstriped suit with wraparound cuff links, and he sang romantic ballads by Sinatra and Tony Bennett.
With his Rat Pack cool, Kay kept the club’s classy quotient high, satisfying the GQ-caliber sartorial standards and Frank & Tony & Dino song requests from a contingent of local Italians who were loyal regulars. Go-go dancers in fringed miniskirts and bikinis shimmied in between sets. But the real action was out at the tables, where couples could get better acquainted while Kay took the stage to an upbeat rendition of Count Basie’s “Shiny Stockings,” then serenaded the ladies with his signature opening tune, Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
Even with the nation in chaos and the city ravaged by the ’68 riots, the Quonset was still a debonair shelter from the storm. At 24, Kay would drive to work in a marina-blue Corvette convertible. His framed publicity photo used to hang above the coat check, sharing the foyer with a life-size cardboard cutout figure of Staggs. “In those years, it had a reputation as a swinging club, with beautiful women always in abundance,” says Kay, whose real name is Rich Kibler. “And it still had that elegance that gave it some credibility.”
The Saxtons backed up both singers. Former Saxton Billy Hancock says the Quonset—with its “no jacket, no admittance” dress code still intact—was a coveted, well-paying gig for area bands. “It was still very gentrified,” he recalls. “A fancy supper club with valet parking where you got a dinner and two floor shows a night. It was that time period when a lot of people were dressing casual to go out at night, but at the Quonset the ladies used to come in with evening gowns and wraps.”
Still, Kay had a sense that it was the end of an era on Naylor Road: “It was a last hurrah for that kind of show at the Quonset. In the ’70s, everything went downtown.”
Toward the end of its run, the Quonset also featured a downstairs lounge for acts too edgy for the main stage. It was a refuge for long-haired psychedelic groups as well as oddballs like Sun Country, a local garage act led by a female drummer. “She was beating the shit out of the drums, and it turned out she was a really good singer too,” former Lovin’ Spoonful bassist Steve Boone wrote in his memoir. She “was this cute little thing of maybe five-foot-two with short blonde hair. She wasn’t much taller than the ride cymbals.” All this two decades before the riot-grrrl movement.
But even the new incarnation with rock acts couldn’t hold on.
Across the street at Strick’s, the party came to an abrupt end in 1973 when the owner was shot and killed during a robbery and live music was discontinued two years later. The building is now a liquor store.
The Quonset’s crowds faded, too. It was more than just the music fads—the entire culture had changed. The brand of titillation that made the Quonset famous had been rendered into stale nostalgia. Blaze Starr seemed a quaint relic in a negligee next to the hardcore nudie shows. Instead of back-street affairs that stayed back-street, political sex scandals now erupted in the public eye on hallowed ground, such as the late-night run-in in 1974 at the Tidal Basin that uncovered the affair of Arkansas congressman Wilbur Mills and stripper Fanne Foxe.
In the early ’90s, the Quonset morphed into an R&B dance club called the Legend. It finally closed in 2013. The building has become one of those haunting places that you drive past and wonder how it could have survived the wrecking ball. A tree has grown up the side and looms over the rusting, corrugated metal roof. The canopy entrance where the valets stood ready to park your 1957 Plymouth Belvedere sport coupe in the club’s heyday is still there, but the red carpet is long gone. In the empty parking lot is a for-lease sign, but so far, there are no takers for this forlorn Washington monument to happy hours long past.
A regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Eddie Dean ([email protected]) is the author of several books, including “Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times,” cowritten with mountain-music legend Ralph Stanley.
This article appears in the February 2015 issue of Washingtonian.