New play highlights Club Riviera — one of the biggest Black nightclubs in the '40s
Club Riviera was one of the biggest Black nightclubs in the nation during the 1940s and '50s. It’s said to have rivaled the Cotton Club in Harlem. Jazz greats including Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington entertained crowds there.
And now, Club Riviera’s storied past — not only of jazz, but also political dealings — is the subject of a new play, “Live at the Riviera,” playing at the Grandel June 23-24. Playwright Freeman Word said the club felt like the center of the universe within the local Black community. It was three stories tall and could seat up to 400 people.
“Everything happened there,” Word said on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “We have whispers of these things having happened that shaped politics for decades to come in St. Louis.”
Prominent politician and civil rights activist Jordan Chambers owned the venue until his death in 1962. He purchased it in 1944 under another buyer — as a Black man in 1944, Chambers wouldn’t have been able to purchase the property directly — and took pride that he wasn't in debt to anyone for the club.
Chambers is often credited as the unofficial “Black mayor of St. Louis.” He used his office as an informal social service agency, connecting people with jobs, paying electric bills and handing out food stamps. Often, he “held court” to resolve community conflicts and helped integrate the Circuit Court and the Housing Authority.
“Jordan Chambers was the type of man that racists were afraid of,” Word said. “He was a powerful man. And he was really the precursor to what we would call ‘Black power’ in the United States.”
Club Riviera — now leveled after catching fire in the '70s — once existed a block from Delmar, in the Central West End. It was down the street from Club Plantation, a popular whites-only club. Black musicians would often play at both clubs.
“Club Plantation used the stereotypical minstrel images, the degrading images of Black folks, as the standard,” Word said. “They wanted Black performers, but they did not want Black audience members.”
Word said he found parallels to his own experience as a Black man while researching the play.
“Even though it's set in that historical setting where the racism was so outward, it was so pronounced, we still see those enduring structures and attempts at eroding Black institutions today,” he said.
Despite Chambers’ reputation as a local powerbroker, there’s little recorded history about his famous club. It was something Word heard about “only in myth” before writing the play. Director Thomasina Clarke and Word collected oral histories from people who remember the club as children to create the play.
“A friend of mine remembers taking his sister's mascara and eyebrow pencil and penciling in a mustache,” Clarke said. “He was under age when he wanted to go in, and he thought that would help him look older.”
Turns out, it did. He got into the club and was one of many elders they talked to.
“Every single elder that we've spoken [with] about Club Riviera, who lived in the neighborhood or in the region, spoke about being a child and peering through the windows and the majesty that was associated with this place,” Word said.
With the help of the A Call to Conscious theater collective, Clarke and Artistic Director Fannie Lebby brought Club Riviera to life onstage by hiring dancers, vocalists and local bands including the Point of View Jazz Ensemble and the North County Big Band. But the two-hour play will also weave in details from Chamber’s life, his political dealings and his legacy.
“There were giants that walked amongst us,” Word said. “There are often misconceptions when talking about American history that there's some sort of period of segregation or enslavement where Black people in America just laid down and took it. This play is to counteract that narrative. It’s to tell a different story: the things that we did, the ingenuity we had, the brilliance of the people of that time.”
What: “Live at the Riviera”
When: 7:30 p.m. June 23-24
Where: The Grandel, 3610 Grandel Square, St. Louis, MO 63103
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.