IT’S SO BECOMING
LET’S ALL GO SLUMMING
IN THE WILD UPTOWN
“Going slumming in Harlem”. This is what rich and middle class swells and flappers, socialites and the elite, white folks from downtown Manhattan, called going uptown to enjoy the “Negro Vogue” flourishing in nightclubs all over Harlem during the late 20’s / early 30’s.
In the song “Harlem”, featured above, the character Roberta White and her entourage of beaux and flappers meet her neighbor Jane Allison in an automat*. They are on their way to the Wonderland club in Harlem and are fortifying themselves with an assortment of “Eat Me” cakes and “Drink Me” juices laced with illegal alcohol from their personal flasks. Jane has been following Roberta to try to make amends after giving her an unexpected kiss. Roberta doesn’t appear to recognize Jane, but still encourages her to join the fun uptown.
This scene and song is from the musical “Speakeasy – The Adventures of John and Jane Allison in the Wonderland”, a Roaring Twenties riff on Lewis Carroll, with Jane as one of two newlywed Alices and Roberta standing in for the White Rabbit, now a flapper carrying flasks of bathtub gin and obsessed with the “Negro Vogue”.
Arguably a product of the Harlem Renaissance, the “Negro Vogue” was a nightclub craze that brought black performers to “mainstream” white audiences. Sometimes this meant Time Square area nightclubs “imported” black acts downtown. To a great extent though the audiences flocked uptown to big new Harlem nightclubs like the famous Cotton Club, where black performers entertained a whites only crowd.
Yet there were also Harlem nightclubs like the Ubangi Club that permitted a mixed audience. Gladys Bentley, an infamously openly lesbian singer, performed at the Ubangi Club. Her Speakeasy counterpart Duchess Bentley will cross paths with both Roberta White and Jane Allison, with dramatic consequences, but that is grist for another post.
There were also smaller, for-those-in-the-know Harlem speakeasies where interracial couples could safely mix, including same sex interracial couples. Downtown these kind of interactions were just not possible. An interracial couple (of any gender configuration) simply dining together might not have gotten served in a midtown restaurant in those days.
Not that Roberta White is thinking about racial inequities and inequalities. She and her friends are focusing on the thrill of the exotic and transgressive in going slumming in Harlem. And as such Roberta seems to have at least heard about if not yet participated in some of the erotically extreme examples of Prohibition era Harlem culture:
THE SECRET THRILL LIES AT
BASEMENT DIVES AND BUFFET FLATS
WHERE BLACK AND WHITE GO GLANCING
OOO BABY WHAT YA THINK OF THAT!
In addition to the “basement dives” providing a public safe haven for interracial couples of all sexual persuasions, Harlem was also known for hosting “Buffet Flats” or rent parties. Rent parties were thrown in apartments as a way to raise money to pay the next month’s rent. What may have begun as a kind of party fundraiser amongst friends eventually evolved into events more exotic and elaborate. Called “Buffet Flats”, these parties would turn an apartment into an erotic fun house, with various sexual activities catering to different voyeuristic tastes occurring in separate rooms; prostitution also figured in the mix.
This and much else from Roaring Twenties New York Queer subculture will factor into Jane and John Allison’s “rabbit hole” and “looking glass” adventures in the musical Speakeasy.
To read more, follow the Speakeasy Chronicles.
To hear more song demos, check out the Speakeasy Soundcloud.
The Speakeasy home page will also direct you to more info and music.
*a popular eatery of the day, where you inserted coins into forerunners of vending machines to get food. Remember the lyric “or help you at the automat” from “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”?