The showplace of the South: Plantation Supper Club
Supper clubs were integral to a city’s social life from the 1940s to the 1960s. Especially on the East coast and down South, where ladies lacquered on lipstick and men tightened the knots in their ties to rub elbows and cut-a-rug. They enjoyed fine dining and dancing with world-class entertainment in opulent surroundings.
Fred Koury’s Plantation Supper Club in Greensboro brought to the area musical immortals such as Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Mary Wells, Brenda Lee, the Righteous Brothers, Duke Ellington, The Shirelles, Ray Price, Jerry Lee Lewis, Nelson Eddie, Frank Sinatra Jr., Gene Krupa, even that notorious scoundrel Joe E. (“Ooh! Ooh!”) Ross.
Glamorous and exciting as this period was for some, it came to an abrupt end in a most 1960s-way.
In 1943, Greensboro was bulging at the seams, awash in disposable income from factory workers operating at peak capacity and thousands of United States Army Air Forces trainees temporarily encamped on East Bessemer Avenue awaiting deployment to the European Theater of War.
Young folks and military personnel alike were congregating wherever music was playing, jitterbugging to live bands or jukeboxes at the Silver Moon, Green Lantern, and the city’s main attraction, The Casino Club, located in a former cattle barn on the Fairgrounds where drunken late night fights were an extra added attraction. The Casino was co-owned by a young Fred Koury who recognized the potential for a higher class nightclub experience, something like what you’d find in larger cities. He built a sleek but spacious venue in 1943, a mile outside the city limits on High Point Road, near what would become Holden Road. Koury’s Plantation Supper Club, open nightly for dining on Western steaks, Southern fried chicken, and dancing to the house swing band, was a tremendous success.
Most weeks, the Plantation booked entertainers not well-known then, and even less so today. Regional acts and B-listers like Lou Mosconi and Camille, dancers seen in Warner Bros. musicals who opened for Cab Calloway; “Big Bundle of Joy” Millie Davis performing burlesque Sophie Tucker style; and Wee Bonnie Baker, a one-hit wonder who recorded one of the most infectious tunes of all time, Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh! in 1939. Sunday was family night when, in the early-’50s, a full-course filet mignon dinner cost all of $2. For the early crowd, Uncle Freddie’s Kiddie Revue kept the young ones occupied.
Then there were nights when the brightest stars of a bygone-era shone at the Plantation. Some of the more colorful…
Andy and his wife Barbara had their earliest standup gigs at the Plantation, years before his monologue on Capitol Records, What It Was, Was Football, sold some 300,000 copies in 1953. Thus, launching the future T.V. star’s meteoric rise to the top. That single was recorded in Greensboro at a Jefferson Standard convention, Koury was managing the comedian’s career in those early days. In 1958, Andy Griffith became an honorary citizen of Greensboro in a ceremony before a Carolina Theatre screening of his hit movie No Time For Sergeants.
A demurely coy personality who spoke in halting English, Miyoshi Umeki, the only Asian woman to ever win an Oscar for acting, sang for our supper in 1956. Audiences took an instant liking to her on T.V. that year, only months after immigrating to the United States from Japan. She applied her bluesy vocals to jazz standards for the most part, but the highlight of her show was a rousing rendition of the swing number, My Ichiban Tomodachi.
My parents attended one of Umeki’s performances when my mother was pregnant; the singer signed a card to me that read: “I don’t know you yet but I’d like to be your friend” in two languages.
Shortly after her Plantation run, Umeki returned to her home country to film Sayonara, a box office smash for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Billy “Crash” Craddock
The performer most closely associated with the Plantation, a consistent draw for a decade, hometown boy Bill Craddock (as he was first billed in the mid-1950s) played innumerable dates, either headlining or as an opening act when bigger names were on the bill. As a result, Billy “Crash” Craddock became a legit OG rockabilly star in 1959 when Boom Boom Baby (Please Don’t Stop) unexpectedly shot to No. 1 in Australia.
Down Under youngsters went crackers for Craddock’s guitar-heavy paeans to atomic teenage angst. Songs about sweetie-pie baby dolls turning 17 and yearning for one last kiss, discovering the joy of what the whole school knows after shaking all over, from the bottom to the top, dancing The Chicken on the living room floor. “Back then that’s what everybody was doing, the teenage songs and like that,” Craddock told me in a 2015 interview. “Some of ‘em are real good songs, some were silly, you know, but that’s what they were doing.”
With a run of Top 10 singles, Craddock became to Australians what Elvis was to us in the states. “I don’t even think I’d have been in the business if it wasn’t for Fred Koury.”
Craddock felt at home at the Plantation. “Everyone respected the artists and treated us well,” he said. “On the weekends, when I say they crowds were rowdy and loud, I mean in a good way, you know?”
Craddock hit No. 1 on the American Country charts in 1971 with Knock Three Times. A string of hits followed, including a provocative crossover smash that ruled the airwaves in 1974, Rub It In.
This dynamic pop tenor’s career was just taking off when he appeared here in 1961, one year later The Andy Williams Show debuted to big ratings on NBC amid a string of gold records like Moon River and Days of Wine and Roses. Growing up, I was repeatedly reminded of a momentary connection to Williams, who bounced me on his knee at the Plantation when I was a toddler.
‘Sin-sational’ Rusty Warren bubbled up from smoky dives in the deep South to become a Las Vegas-lounge legend. Warren was a pioneering female comic because never before had anyone joked about sex from a female perspective, especially in such a risqué manner. Recorded live, Warren’s best-selling LP, Knockers Up, was released in 1960, two years later she belted out her bawdy one-woman musical revue for the Plantation crowd. Bounce Your Boobies (A Patriotic Song) was her big number which inevitably left audiences in stitches. Rusty Warren turns 88 this year.
Brother Dave Gardner
Talk about complicated individuals; Brother Dave Gardner was a Southern (Tennesseean to be precise) comedian with a beatnik sensibility. You can listen to Brother Dave LPs like Rejoice Dear Hearts and never quite hear the same thing twice. Twisted, warped, but damn funny at times, like this typical one-liner: “Let them that don’t want none, have mem’ries of not gettin’ any… let that not be their punishment, but their reward.”
Craddock recalls meeting the mad monologuist first at the Plantation, “Then a year or two later we went down, me and my group, to Atlanta Georgia to do the Domino Lounge and Dave was down there. Boy, he’s a weird guy but funny. He told me one day; he said, ‘Crash, I believe there are certain people doing it right here in front of you, but you can’t see ‘em.’ And I thought, ‘Good God, what are you taking now, Dave?’ That’s a cat who was way ahead of his time.”
After Gardner was arrested for marijuana possession in 1962, his career began to falter.
Emerging from the shadow of Louis Prima, this Vegas chanteuse had just been signed to Frank Sinatra’s label Reprise in 1963 when her smoky vocals backed by a tight jazz combo were first heard at the Plantation, the essence of which is captured on her seminal album, The Intimate Keely Smith. She returned in 1964.
Long before mainstream success on Sanford & Son, this foul-mouthed comedian offended so many audience members at the Plantation they left in droves, within minutes. Somehow I doubt Foxx cared much, especially at such an unfortunately named club.
Hal Driggers and the 6 Key Brothers
Bars and restaurants couldn’t sell liquor outright in the 1960s, so an archaic practice known as ‘brown bagging’ was instituted. Customers brought their bottle of booze (in a brown paper bag) to an establishment that would measure out the cocktails then charge for mixers. There was a regional hit recorded in Greensboro called Brown Baggin’ by Hal Driggers and the 6 Key Brothers that mentions the Plantation and ‘Mr. Fred’ in the lyrics.
Nat King Cole
It was Cole that Jayne Mansfield called after being offered a week’s engagement at the Plantation for May of 1963, knowing he’d performed there. The crooner recommended she do it, that he’d fallen in love with the crowd there.
Mention the Plantation to old-timers, and one name is bound to come up, the sultry Jayne Mansfield, by far the biggest star to have spent more than a night or two in Greensboro
She’s been dismissed as the poor man’s Marilyn Monroe, but filmmaker John Waters referred to Mansfield as, “The ultimate movie star.” One of Playboy’s first playmates who rocketed to fame as the result of a poolside wardrobe malfunction that reverberated around the world. In her signature film, The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), Mansfield shimmy-shook down the avenue in a low cut outfit that accentuated her prominent headlamps and curvy caboose, a spectacle causing the iceman’s glacier to liquify, the milkman’s bottle to spontaneously lactate, and an apartment dweller’s eyeglasses to shatter as he leers at her sashaying up the steps.
What possessed Koury to book this out-of-work movie star (considered washed-up in Hollywood) in 1963? She’d headlined in Las Vegas in 1958 and 1960 but didn’t really have a nightclub act, per se. Still, they worked out a deal where Mansfield would take 100 percent of the door receipts and Koury the concessions.
Mansfield and her husband, bodybuilder and former Mr. America, Mickey Hargitay, cobbled together routines based on numbers from her motion pictures, capped off by what she referred to as a satire of the striptease, where Mansfield stripped down to not much more than whatever irony she imagined it represented.
How this would go over in a conservative community such as Greensboro apparently hadn’t occurred to anyone.
Shortly after landing at Greensboro-High Point Airport, Mansfield impulsively ventured out to the Greensboro Country Club to flirt with Governor Terry Sanford who was gathering with real estate developers and young business leaders. Resplendent in a scandalously low-cut, skin-tight black gown with elbow length leather gloves, her cinemascope décolletage tastefully swathed in Blackglama when photographed for Friday morning’s edition of the Greensboro Daily News.
Craddock opened for Mansfield and recalled an opening night faux pas. “Mickey Hargitay lifted her up with one hand and when he put her down her zipper came all the way open, from the top to her rear end,” he said. “Fred thought she planned that. She’d go around the stage, flirt with the men, rub their bald head or wink at them. She was a sex symbol; she didn’t have to do a whole lot more.”
Whether she realized it or not, Mansfield had won over the toughest audience she’d ever faced.
The next day, to demonstrate her family was like any other, Mansfield and her young son Mickey Jr. ’coptered into High Point for lunch at Schraftt’s, dining in the evening with her husband at Cellar Anton’s in Greensboro. Craddock recalled her offstage demeanor,
“She was sweet as she could be, down to earth, that’s all there is to it. After the show, she’d always come sit at the table with me and Fred. That kinda surprised me, here’s a big star like Jayne Mansfield and she’s sittin’ at the table talkin’ and havin’ a good time.”
On the last night of her run, Mansfield presented Junior Johnson with the NASCAR trophy after his ’63 Chevy Impala SS roared into the Hillsborough Orange Speedway Winners’ Circle.
Working for the gate proceeds turned out to be highly advantageous for Mansfield, she was held over for two nights for a total of 18 sold-out performances, raking in $23,000, nearly a quarter of a million dollars in today’s money. That was unheard of, Vegas-sized box office that put the star back on top. Briefly.
In a disastrous misstep, the night before leaving Hollywood for her Greensboro engagement Mansfield had filmed a drunken nude scene for Promises, Promises, a low-budget exploitation movie released in 1964. It was scandalous enough that Playboy’s June issue in 1963, headlined “The Nudest Jayne Mansfield,” was deemed to be pornographic, resulting in publisher Hugh Hefner being arrested and tried on indecency charges. (And folks didn’t even know about her alleged affair with President Kennedy that ended with her allegedly screaming over the phone, “Look, you’ll only be President for eight years at the most. I’ll be a movie star forever!”) What the previous year was perceived as kittenish and comically naughty, no longer seemed so innocent. She was virtually shunned after arriving for her second Greensboro week-long run in October of 1964.
Her return to the Plantation was a resounding flop. One night, wickedly intoxicated, Mansfield walked out on stage wearing nothing but her mink, and that only momentarily.
Local lore concerning Mansfield’s tragic death has her leaving Greensboro for a gig further down South when her car drove into the back of a trash truck, decapitating her. Not at all true.
Thanks to her initial success at the Plantation, performing in Southern supper clubs became the movie star’s bread-and-butter. After wowing a capacity crowd in Biloxi, Mississippi, on June 29, 1967, Mansfield, her children and her lawyer were driving to an early morning television interview in New Orleans, to be followed by a performance for troops at Gulfport’s Seabee Base.
Rounding the curve on an unlit highway in the early morning hours, their car plowed under a truck spraying insecticide fog, the hard top of that ’66 Buick Electra was sheared away, corrugating all the way to the trunk. Three adults in the front, including Mansfield, died instantly but no one was decapitated. Youngsters in the back seat miraculously survived, among them was Mariska Hargitay, of Law & Order SVU.
That mangled Buick became a carnival-like attraction traveling across the backwater burgs of North Carolina before finding a more permanent home in a Florida museum devoted to macabre events. Due to this accident, transport vehicles now come equipped with what’s known as a Mansfield Bar, a metal barrier underneath rear bumpers that prevents cars from penetrating a truck’s undercarriage.
The Plantation a Go-Go!
I’m not sure if anyone can pinpoint exactly when supper clubs with live entertainment, indeed nightclubs in general, fell out of favor but the Plantation ditched booking touring acts in 1965 in favor of scantily clad Go-Go Girls in oversized bird cages suspended from the ceiling, like something out of a James Bond — no, Matt Helm — movie.
In an attempt at relevance in 1976, the Plantation was rebranded as Seven Seas Seafood and Dadi-O’s Disco but, three weeks later, a fire gutted the facility. After remodeling, Dadi-O’s became immensely popular with the date night crowd for a decade or so but didn’t quite have the impact its predecessor had on the generation preceding them.
“We don’t have a place to go like Fred Koury’s today,” Craddock lamented. “He did have the best-looking club on the whole East Coast. Back then, people from 21 years old up to 85 had a place to dance to music, have good food and a great time.”
The author of 5 books and creator of TVparty.com, Billy Ingram is, in the words of the LA Times, “one of the nation’s top pop culture gurus.” He finds it odd that sex symbol rivals Jayne Mansfield and Mae West both have crucial life-saving devices named after them.