Nightclub debut didn't suit Funsy

Column by Nick Clooney

If all goes according to schedule, by the time you read this I will be in Philadelphia for an appearance at a big band dance. It is sponsored by Philadelphia radio station WPEN and American Movie Classics.

And it has me thinking about the subject of big bands and nightclubs. If memory serves, Philadelphia was the site of the first genuine nightclub whose threshold I ever crossed. Not ballrooms. Most of us had seen those, from Moonlight Gardens to Topper to Castle Farm. Nightclubs were different. More intense. Drinking was more central to the experience and the entertainment tended more toward adult fare.

At age 14, I was traveling for the summer with my sisters, Rosemary and Betty, who were singing with Tony Pastor's big band. Our uncle, George Guilfoyle, was the girls' guardian and manager.

Most of the one-nighters that summer were at ballrooms, many of them in amusement parks up and down the East Coast. The names that come to mind all these years later are Atlantic City, Asbury Park and Wildwood, all in New Jersey, Revere Beach in Massachusetts, Old Orchard in Maine and a dozen or so others.

Then came Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love was, and is, a big-time music center. Pop music was king. Philly could make or break a record, a band or a singer. Many hits first caught fire in Philadelphia.

And right downtown was the Click Club. This was a nightclub in the grand tradition. Until that time, I had only seen the interiors of nightclubs in the movies. The Click Club did those movie sets justice.

The most remarkable thing to me was the door. Actually, it was two glass doors. Just before the customer reached the doors, he or she walked between two polished metal posts. They hid an electric eye, very fancy stuff in the late 1940s. When you broke the invisible beam, the door automatically swung open. I had never seen that before, not even in the movies.

There was a cigarette girl in a short skirt. Ditto a camera girl. There were exotic-looking drinks served by waiters in tuxes. There was a dance line. There was a revolving stage. All in all, it was quite a satisfying experience for a 14-year-old in a suit that was a little long in the sleeves and a little short in the trousers.

It wasn't my suit. We were to be in Philadelphia for a week instead of one night, so Uncle George took the opportunity to send out my suit for three-hour cleaning. Unfortunately, it didn't come back in time for the show.

One of the saxophone players, our friend Al Francis, whom we all called ''Funsy,'' was kind enough to lend me his suit. He would be wearing his band uniform for the show. Funsy's suit was double-breasted and didn't fit well, but without it I wouldn't have been able to go to the club, so it looked fine to me.

Our hotel was within walking distance of the Click. There had been a heavy rain, but it had stopped just before we started for the club. Uncle George, Funsy, drummer Artie Paretta and I were walking together. I was nearest the curb.

Suddenly, a car sped by, its right wheels slicing into a huge puddle. A five-foot wave of water soaked me from chin to socks. The other three looked at me, dripping and bedraggled, then doubled over with laughter. Louder than the others was Funsy, who couldn't catch his breath for his guffawing.

''Laugh, you fool,'' I said. ''It's your suit!''

Never have I seen a face straighten up so quickly.

''My suit! What did you do? Take it off. Dry it out. It's ruined. My suit!''

Now it was my turn to laugh. We calmed Funsy down enough to go on to work. When my wet suit hit the air-conditioning, it felt as though ice crystals were forming in uncomfortable places, but I didn't care. I was in an honest-to-Fred-Astaire nightclub and nothing as minor as a wrinkled, shrinking suit was going to make me budge.

Visions of the clubs I had heard about most of my life danced in my mind. Did they look like this? Our own Northern Kentucky contingent, the Copacabana in New York, the Riviera over in Jersey?

At that moment, there was no way to know that the nightclub era, what Sinatra called the ''black-tie saloons,'' was coming to an end. It looked healthy enough from where I sat.

Wonder if I'll be able to find the spot where the Click Club was? Wonder if anyone will remember?

Let you know Friday.

Freelance columnist Nick Clooney writes for The Post every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Publication date: 07-15-98

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