The Historic Hippodrome

... and Clubs Handy, Ebony, Paradise, Tropicana

 
 

From the early 1950s Memphis had become a "hot spot" for Black Music.  There was the all-black WDIA radio station and new studios which recorded black musicians. Plus there was talk of a "new kind of music".  Talented black musicians began moving into the city, and famous black entertainers were eager to perform or record here.  With segregation in force, there were few places where they could perform, and even fewer hotels where they could stay.  This opened the door to new clubs in the city, several of which became historically important on the "Chitlin' Circuit".   *   

  The Hippodrome dancers   

 

 

 

Click on small photos to enlarge them. 



 
 
 
 
The HIPPODROME  ... 500 Beale

 

The Hippodrome was an old skating rink run by Mary and "Big Foot" Johnson.  It was located at the east end of Beale, between the Hunt-Phelan home and First Baptist Church.  When the skating rink began to decline, the owners turned the space into a one-night stand facility - open for blacks only.  The capacity was 5,000 to 6,000.. and it was always packed.  And the history began...  although it seems that the performers at the theatre were photographed but everyone forgot to take a photo of the building?

The Hippodrome                   
 

Ruth Brown 1953 Gay Paree Formal 1959 Fashion Show Lionel Hampton

500 Beale Street

 

Johnny Ace Poster

Johnny Ace article Hippodrome ad 1952 Poster 1953 Skating
 

By 1952 Memphis was established as a black music hotspot and Black musicians were recording major hits here.  The Hippodrome, originally a roller skating rink, had begun having rhythm and blues shows in the late 1940s.  Famous artists were eager to visit Memphis and perform.  Among those who performed at the Hippodrome were Johnny Ace, Billie Eckstine, Ruth Brown, Count Bassie, B. B. King, Louis Jordan, Lionel Hampton, Fats Domino, Howlin' Wolfe, Lionel Hampton,  and the Ink Spots.  The Hippodrome figures prominently into The Chitlin' Circuit tours * and was the launch pad for Rock 'n' Roll. 

 

Johnny Ace

 

Lionel Hampton

Billy Eckstine Count Bassie Ruth Brown B. B. King Howlin' Wolf Ink Spots
 
 

 

 
CLUB EBONY  ... 500 Beale
 


In 1955, the Hippodrome was purchased by Andrew "Sunbeam" Mitchell and he changed the name to Club Ebony.    Later, under new owners it became the "Hippodrome" again, and around 1961 Johnnie Currie ran the club for several years.  The demise of this club is not recorded.  It just seems to have faded away.   The building has now been demolished.

King - Mitchell

  Ebony Poster Ebony Ad
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 

* The Chitlin' Circuit ?   During the years before the Civil Rights movement, segregated American cities helped give birth to a touring circuit that provided employment for hundreds of black musicians.  This movement eventually brought about rock 'n' roll music.  The "Chitlin Circuit" is the collective name given to performance venues throughout the eastern, southern, and upper midwest areas of the United States that were safe and acceptable for African American musicians, comedians, and other entertainers to perform in during the era of racial segregation in the United States.

 

 

For those who don't know, chitlins (chitterlings) are the innards—the intestines—of pigs; distinguishable from tripe, which is the stomach lining of pigs or cows. During the ante-bellum period the leftovers of slaughtered pigs, including the intestines, were given to slaves on plantations throughout the American South. It was, in part, a survival mechanism and pure improvisational genius, that centuries later chitlins are the epitome of Soul Food, appearing on the menus of highbrow gastro-pubs and available in grocery stores, cleaned and de-odorized.

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 
CLUB HANDY  ... 195 Hernando at Beale
 

In 1944 Andrew "Sunbeam" Mitchell opened the Mitchell Hotel in a famous building on the corner of Beale and Hernando.  Originally built in 1896, it had been the Battier's Drug building and for many years afterward the Pantaze Drug building.  Mitchell's hotel became known as the "Leading Colored Hotel of Memphis".  The hotel was located on the 3rd floor.  The 2nd floor was occupied by the Domino Club with an entrance at 195 Hernando.  In the late 1940s, Mitchell changed that name to Club Handy and it became the last club on Beale to book headline acts. 

 

1906 Battier Drugs

 

Many Blues Musicians called the Mitchell "Home".  Sunbeam and Ernestine's place on Beale became the place for musicians to hone their skills.  The club was on the 2nd floor of their restaurant-hotel at 195 Hernando.  They named it Club Handy and it became a major stop on the "Chitlin' Circuit" and attracted big names.  It's no secret that a lot of musicians who were not well off, would entertain the crowds here for their room and board.

1970 Pantaze - Mitchell

 
 

Mitchell 1957 Listing Club ticket Club Poster 1964 Poster 1958 Poster 1959 Poster
 

The big names that played Club Handy were Nat "King" Cole, Count Basie, Muddy Waters, Little Richard, B. B. King, Bobby Bland, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Johnny Ace.  Even Elvis Presley performed here during his early years.  Today the Pantaze-Mitchell building on Beale has been renovated and was the home of the Center for Southern Folklore, but is now the home of "Wet Willie's".   A story continues to circulate that Abe Phough who owned the Pantaze Drug Store on the first floor of the building, had backed Sunbeam Mitchell in the Club Handy, Mitchell Hotel, and later, Club Paradise.

Pantaze - Mitchell today

 
 

 King      Williamson Basie Ace Cole Waters Bland Gillespie Presley
 

Another well known story involves Little Richard staying at the Mitchell hotel for weeks when he didn't have any money.  Sunbeam and his wife Ernestine, were famous for sustaining starving artists on their chili.   It appears that artists everywhere knew they could come to Memphis and be taken care of at the Handy.

The house band for Club Handy was led by Bill Harvey - an accomplished musician with a passion for teaching.  So the club became a kind of Academy of Rhythm and Blues as Harvey schooled them in basic musicianship .

  Little Richard
 

 

 

CLUB PARADISE  ... 645 Georgia Avenue

 

Club Paradise was opened by Sunbeam Mitchell in 1962, after he was forced out when the bulldozers hit historic Beale Street.  He relocated to Georgia Avenue and built the largest nightclub in Memphis.  Along with Detroit, this is where soul music got its start.  Some of the biggest names in soul music performed here including Ike and Tina Turner, B. B. King, and Aretha Franklin.  When the club was really "happening" folks would come here for a night of "greatness".   Essentially, if you played the Paradise, that was like Carnegie Hall.  You had "made it".  This was the ultimate club for African Americans at the time.

  Club Paradise
 

Club Paradise Club Paradise Paradise Poster 1964 Poster Paradise Poster Poster
     

Parking lot today Club Paradise - today Mitchell Ike-Tina Aretha B. B.
    

Paul Jordan bought the club from Mitchell in 1985.  Club Paradise closed in 1999. 

In 2016 the building reopened as the Paradise Event Center, an entertainment and educational community center.

  2016 Poster Paradise Center 2016 Paradise today Paradise today
    

An early preview, before the building formally opened:  "... It started with the parking attendants directing you to park. Security inside the building. Hot food can be bought and the waiters and waitresses come to take your order. They have attendants in the restrooms, clean and dry floors. You must go there to see for yourself, You will be amazed at the upgrades, I was. Waiting on the next performance there.

 
 
 
 
 
CLUB TROPICANA... 1331 Thomas
 




The Tropicana brick building dates from 1951 although an earlier frame building held the club prior to that.  Johnnie Currie owned the club from 1946 to the 1970s, with the exception of those five years when he ran the Hippodrome on Beale.  The Tropicana building still exists, but is not currently in use.

Tropicana  
 
 

Tropicana

Ttropicana

 

Poster

Interior

   

 

          


 
 

Credits

 

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