Friday, April 19, 2024

Don Albert’s Keyhole: San Antonio’s integrated club in the ’50s

The turquoise facade with big ears suggests “Dumbo,” but the animation inside 1619 West Poplar St. on a recent Thursday evening was decidedly un-Disneylike, as men in Lucha Libre masks bodyslammed each other into submission. Operated by the Cruz Blanca Sociedad Fraternal, the 6,000 square foot building rents out to weddings, bingo nights, quinceaneras and dances, in addition to twice-monthly Mexican wrestling.

But from 1950- 1964 it was Don Albert’s Keyhole Club, San Antonio’s stop on the “Chitlin’ Circuit” of black-owned nightclubs that kept rhythm and blues musicians working during the Jim Crow era of legalized discrimination. What set the Keyhole apart from others in the network of raucous Southern juke joints was that it was integrated- on the bandstand and in the crowd-  and had been since the first location opened in November 1944 at 728 Iowa Street in the Eastside. Owner Albert and his backer Willie “Red” Winner advertised that all races were welcome at the Keyhole, then had to go to the Texas Supreme Court in 1951 to fight a police commissioner intent on closing them down.

A Creole from New Orleans, who moved to San Antonio in 1926 to play trumpet for Troy Floyd’s Orchestra at the Shadowland speakeasy on Blanco Road, Albert Dominique, as he was born, used his connections and charisma to book acts such as Duke Ellington, Erskine Hawkins, Big Joe Turner, Billy Eckstine and Louis Jordan, who didn’t normally play 300-capacity joints. Before Johnny Phillips opened the Eastwood Country Club in 1954, the Keyhole was THE afterparty spot for hip San Antonio, with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and boxer Joe Louis dropping in after their paid engagements. Albert also had an eye for young talent, with both guitarist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and blues pianist Amos Milburn discovered at the original Keyhole, which closed in February 1948.

Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole hanging out at the Keyhole.

Later that year, President Harry Truman ordered the U.S. military desegregated, which had a rippling effect on G.I.-heavy San Antonio, already the most diverse big city in Texas. Blacks were still kept separate from whites in department stores, movie theaters, restaurants and city buses, but the music knew no racial boundaries.

The Keyhole reopened on the Westside in 1950 and found a growing clientele of white soldiers and airmen crazy for R&B, who found out about the place from their black base-mates. While only a smattering of whites, including sax player Zoot Sims, went to the original Keyhole, which was in a black neighborhood, the second location would sometimes have as many whites inside as blacks.

Not everyone was in favor of such race-mixing, especially when the cause of congregation was the frenzied beat of African American “devil music.” The thought of white women dancing with black men infuriated those who wanted to maintain white supremacy.

The Keyhole stage today.

Newly-elected fire and police commissioner George M. Roper made it his mission to shut down the sinful Keyhole after he took his post in May 1951. A former inspector for the Civilian Conservation Corps, Roper was a war hero who spent 1942-45 in a Japanese POW camp. He was also a rabid segregationist, who aimed S.A.’s vice squad at the Keyhole. Just a month into Roper’s term the Keyhole was raided after midnight and more than 300 patrons were arrested on curfew and liquor violations. More than 100 of those were servicemen, who were handed over to military police. The rest went to jail, where they were released after paying a $5 fine.

Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there were laws that allowed white-owned businesses to deny service and access to blacks, but there was nothing authorities could do to prevent whites from entering black-owned businesses. So Roper and his men turned to harassment. One night the cops burst in during the Keyhole’s floor show, which often included one-legged tap dancer Peg Leg Bates and “Iron Jaws,” whose act was dancing with a table between his teeth, and ordered the crowd to stand and be counted. Another night, officers seized 30 cases of beer when it was discovered that Winner owned a liquor store. Texas law prohibited an individual who owned a package store to also have a beer and wine permit.

Citing a faulty roof, without any input from city code inspectors, Roper ordered the Keyhole closed on June 22, 1951. But Albert and Winner had hired attorney Van Henry Archer, Sr., who filed a temporary restraining order so the Keyhole could stay open until the case went to court. One of the stipulations of the order was that police couldn’t enter the Keyhole without cause unless they paid the admission charge ($1.50 each). The book “Jazz On the Road: Don Albert’s Musical Life” by Christopher Wilkinson (University of California Press, 2001) covers the court case.

In October 1951, Associate Justice Jack Pope of the Texas Supreme Court ruled in the Keyhole’s favor, blasting Roper’s action as “not due process of law. It is no process at all.” The restraining order became permanent, plus Pope ordered the police commissioner and other city officials to pay all court costs. Don Albert’s Keyhole Club, which would be the far-western point of the Chitlin’ Circuit, until Johnny Holmes opened The Cobra in Midland, was officially recognized as the first integrated nightclub in the south.

The Keyhole hosted weekly “barn dances”

Albert sold the club in 1964 and it closed soon after. The end of segregation wiped out the Chitlin’ Circuit. The bigger acts could play larger capacity venues previously denied. And music fans could now go to any venue in town.

Keyhole #2 is one of the few old juke joint buildings in Texas still standing, along with the Victory Grill in Austin and Smithville’s West End Park. The floor of dark brown wood, which such bands as Boots and His Buddies once filled with dancers, is wonderfully preserved at 1619 W. Poplar. And there stands the bar of glass bricks, where Nat King Cole bought a pack of cigarettes in 1955. But the kitchen where a homesick Della Reese once cooked her favorite spaghetti recipe for the Keyhole staff is no longer in operation.

The original Keyhole, in the Denver Heights neighborhood, was torn down in the late ‘90s and remains an empty lot. Before and after the Keyhole’s three and a half year run, 728 Iowa St. was home to the Ritz Theater. In the late ‘50s it became the Leon Theater, then the Leonard in the ‘60s.

In 1969, the Langston Hughes Afro-American Theatre took over, sharing the space with  the local chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), according to a 2017 article on “The Corner” of Iowa and Pine Streets by activist Mario Marcel Salas, then a member of SNCC. Fitting that the 728 address would once again be a venue in the struggle for human and civil rights.

The Leon Theater was the original Keyhole location. This is where Gatemouth Brown and Amos Milburn were discovered.

Don Albert, who recorded eight sides for Vocalion Records with his Ten Pals swing band in November 1936 (same sessions as Robert Johnson, though Albert said it was at the Bluebonnet Hotel, not the Gunter), went back to playing music after he sold the second and final Keyhole. The respected elder of the San Antonio jazz scene died at age 72 in 1980, just a couple months after doing the interview with Sterlin Holmesly for the Institute of Texas Cultures Oral History Collection that provided much of the information for this story. Businessman Willie “Red” Winner, who brought Albert back to San Antonio in 1950 to re-open the Keyhole, passed away in 1985 at age 84.

In March 2013, the city zoned 1619 W. Poplar Street as a historical landmark. The building can’t be used for any purpose other than as a place where people gather, with the official designation as “meeting facility/reception hall.”

The glory years of R&B are long, long gone, but it’s good to know that this building’s ghosts will never have to relocate.

The floorshow at 1619 Poplar circa 1952.

An excerpt from “Ghost Notes: Pioneering Spirits of Texas Music” by Michael Corcoran

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