Community Stories

May 16th, 2014

By John Marks, Curator of Collections and Exhibits

People sitting at tables and in booths at a club. The wall is decorated with the drawings of performers like the Four Aces and the Mills Brothers.

Club 86 in the 1950s. Photograph loaned by Bill Legott.

Last fall we became involved in a film project about the history of Club 86 in Torrey Park. Jim Augustine, a Rochester native whose roots are in the north end of Geneva, asked for background information about the restaurant and Geneva. We made several posters about the club and Torrey Park for an old-fashioned gig at Club 86 with their famous food and a live band. Community members were invited, free of charge; the event and interviews with those who remembered the place in the 1940s and 1950s became the centerpiece of a short documentary.

Last month we co-hosted, with the Smith Opera House, a pre-release screening of Club 86. Like any creation, choices were made about what to put in or leave out (a planned DVD will include much more footage and interviews) but overall the audience was pleased with it.

Much of what I’ve written so far was reported in the Finger Lakes Times or is known to those of you who were there. The larger story that doesn’t fit neatly into a daily news article is about what happens when you invite a community to tell its stories. By and large, people show up and are happy to be asked. (Jim was a genius, offering free lunch and access to a cash bar – who can say no? Sadly, the historical society can’t offer incentives like that.)

As an outsider, not growing up in Geneva in the 1940s, I’m fascinated by the internationally-famous musicians that played the club – not one-night stands but five nights. The list includes Tony Bennett, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Louis Prima, and many more whose fame has faded over time. I listen to their music and am amazed that Genevans (and people from further away) got to see them perform in a room where the furthest seat is still a short stone’s throw from the stage.

The stories I’ve heard from “insiders” are very different: each one focuses on family. “My grandmother worked there”, “I used to visit my Aunt Lena at work”, “my dad knew the Legotts and got me a job when I was 14”. The stories start with family, then usually move into working at the club – cleaning radishes, peeling potatoes, folding napkins, prepping the bar – and finally get to a human perspective of the stars. One man’s mother laundered and ironed Louis Armstrong’s famous white handkerchiefs. Another person remembered cleaning the main room while Nat King Cole practiced piano for hours in the afternoon.

I heard my new favorite story after the pre-release screening. A man came up to me with photographs of an upright piano lid. (I’ll be vague until I have permission to use names.) His grandparents were local musicians; when they went to shows at Club 86, they would invite performers back to their house for a drink. Many of the guests carved their names into the piano – the first photo I saw was Nat and Maria Cole, the next was Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton.  I had to Google names like Johnny Board and Irving Ashby, but found they were well-known sidemen in bands that came to the club.

Many of the signers dated their scratchings and were there in the late 1940s and early 1950s. One aspect of the story is that the host couple was white and most of their guests were African Americans who couldn’t stay in Geneva hotels. What was that like? Did anyone say anything? Again as an outsider, even more amazing to me is walking up to Louis Armstrong and saying, “Hi, want to come out to the house for a drink?”

The eternal challenge for local history organizations is gathering these stories. People take the stories for granted because their friends had the same experience. They may share the stories with children or grandchildren who are unresponsive, and they stop telling the stories. Or they believe their lives were ordinary, and they never did anything “historical” that a museum would want to hear about it.

Well, you probably did, and we want to hear about it. We can’t offer baked ziti and a live band, but call us or stop by and share your stories, photographs, and objects.