32 North Kentucky was the center of night life in Atlantic City. It was the home of Club Harlem, a bar and performance space that was a showcase for African American talent in the city for more than 50 years. In 1935, Leroy “Pop” Williams and Cliff Williams purchased Fitzgerald’s Auditorium, a dance hall. The father-son duo transformed the hall, re-opening it as Club Harlem – its name referring to the vibrant black community in New York City.
Club Harlem could sit 900 customers. Its front bar alone sat nearly 100, and the space boasted two bandstands on which alternating acts would perform for an always packed house. The summer months were the most exciting season at Club Harlem. During the summer, music began on Saturdays at 10 pm and wouldn’t stop until 6 am on Monday morning. Four shows played on Saturday and Sunday nights: 10 pm, 12 am, 2:30 am, and the famous 6 am breakfast show. Oftentimes, headlining acts from Steel Pier or the 500 Club would finish their sets and head over to Club Harlem to play impromptu gigs. Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle, Duke Ellington, and Lenny Bruce all played unscheduled performances at Club Harlem.
The acts at Club Harlem were hard to beat. Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs, Sepia Revue, and Beige Beauties featured “fabulous Club Harlem girls” performing dance numbers and show girl routines. Headlining acts included famous performers such as: Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls, Cab Calloway, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Sam Cooke, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Stylistics, and Ella Fitzgerald.
1972 proved to be a difficult year for Club Harlem. Owner Leroy Williams died at the age of 75. Early Easter Sunday morning, a shootout occurred between warring Philadelphia gangs leaving 5 dead and the club in a state of disarray. It truly never recovered. The club shuttered its doors in the late 1980s and the building stood vacant for several years.
On December 11, 1992, a Northeaster storm damaged the already dilapidated building, hastening its ultimate demolition by its property managers. By the end of December 1992, the Club Harlem was no more.
Resources in the Atlantic City Free Public Library Atlantic City Heritage Collections:
Nelson Johnson. The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City. Medford, New Jersey: Plexus, 2010.
Local History Subject File: Nightclubs – Club Harlem
H039 Club Harlem Photograph Collection