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Sean Michaels on NYC Nightlife in the 1920s–30s

In this guest post for 49th Shelf, Sean Michaels, author of Us Conductors, makes us nostalgic for 1920s–30s New York City—and for bars and clubs that took the idea of "entertaining" to a level rarely witnessed today.

In this guest post for 49th Shelf, Sean Michaels, author of Us Conductors—which Anthony Marra calls "an immigrant tale, an epic, a spy intrigue, a prison confession, an inventor's manual, a creation myth, an obituary ... and an achingly resonant love story," makes us nostalgic for 1920s–30s New York City—and for bars and clubs that took the idea of "entertaining" to a level rarely witnessed today.


Us Conductors

Us Conductors is a book about science and spies, Soviet Russia and its desolate Siberian taiga. It's a book about that strange musical instrument, the theremin, singing through the air. But it's also a book about New York in one of its most exciting eras: the five boroughs in the Roaring 1920s, when the jazz age filled the clubs and speakeasies with splendid, eclectic thrill.

The protagonist is Lev Sergeyvich Termen, a Russian scientist. He is brilliant but reserved. Yet at night he goes dancing, swinging through the dancehalls with his beautiful sweetheart, a violinist called Clara.

inside cotton

Researching Us Conductors, one of my biggest revelations was the landscape of New York's early 20th century nightlife. We're accustomed to certain models of bar and discothèque—a spectrum ranging from Warhol's Factory to Studio 54 to the tavern in "Cheers," but no further. The more I discovered about the nightspots of 20s and 30s NYC, the more our contemporary clubs seemed dull as dirt.

There was the Pirates' Den, which was like a glitzy Red Lobster: a room full of netting and seashells, marine paraphernalia, with servers dressed as brigands. Five times a night, the waiters staged cutlass fights; three times each evening, the whole place rocked with an imaginary gale—replete with crashing thundersheets and rain in spritzing spray bottles.

20s NYC woman dancing

Texas Guinan, New York's queen of the night, owned the 300 Club. This was a dancehall with 20 to 30 tables, space between for dancing, and soft, radiant lighting. People didn't particularly come to dance—they checked their coats and hats and sat with friends for three or four hours of chatting, buying elaborate sandwiches from passing waitstaff. The tented ceiling and walls were covered in rose-red, green and golden yellow cloth, with swinging Chinese lanterns and bright balloons. A revue of near-nude girls sang and pranced; kids sold fresh magnolias to pin to your collar; the waiters fired toy pistols at the balloons, and distributed felt snowballs for faux snowball-fights. There were wooden "click-clacks" on every table—like extra-loud clapping machines—and if anyone fell asleep, say after the 5 a.m. revue, a barkeep would sneak up with one of the bandmembers' trumpets to sound a fanfare in their ear.

At the 300 Club, a night didn't end until the streamers had come out—rainbow ribbons thrown crisscrossed across the room, everyone ankle-deep in coloured crêpe-paper.
Then there was the Sugar Cane, with its plank flooring and fresh BBQ; the Make-Believe, the "largest dancehall in the world," where they played swing records on multiple overlapping gramophones; the Country Club, with ping-pong and minigolf; Russky Medvied, a Russian pub with a balalaika/violin orchestra, birch trees painted on the walls, feasts of tea and lemon, and whole watermelons.


During Prohibition, you brought your own booze: flasks stuffed into tuxedo pockets, mixer for sale at the bar. You danced the Charleston and Blackbottom to bands like Duke Ellington's and Guy Lombardo's. You got stinking, or "a little binged," on gin that was labelled, "For medicinal purposes only."

If you didn't feel like dancing, or chatting amid snowball fights, there were games bars. Forebears to the Snakes & Lattés of today, these Bowery dives offered chess for 25 cents, checkers for 10; and you'd only pay if you lost.

Finally, at the end of the night, as the characters in Us Conductors do, everyone went for some chow. Maybe chop-suey, from a café on the corner, maybe a grilled frank from the drugstore, but often to an Automat.

The Automat. Today these banks of drawers and windows evoke institutional cafeterias— single-serving pickles, glassed-in pie. They were essentially over-elaborate vending machines. But pre-WWII, the gleaming mechanical Automats seemed like the definition of modernity. Automatic, hygienic, fast, and delicious—full of promise for the science fiction of the 20th century.

In his wonderful 1927 book New York Nights, the English writer Stephen Graham described an Automat as follows:

A large, rectangular hall, filled with shiny, lacquered tables surrounding a glass booth, where the nimblest fingers on earth dispense change for a quarter or a dollar in nickels ...

Endless nickels, shiny nickels, magical nickels that are slipped into slots on the wall, and before your very eyes, an Open Sesame roll comes around the bend of a glass cubicle.

"Crème brûlée ... is two nickels," Mr Stern said. "Delicious. With the tastiest crust, the smoothest thing you ever ate."

There is much in the story of Us Conductors’ Lev Termen that I would never wish to endure. But what I wouldn't give for a night with Duke Ellington's orchestra, a felt snowball in my paw, thunderstorms crashing above the dance-floor, and two nickels waiting, humbly, in my jacket pocket.

Sean Michaels
Montreal, Quebec
March 27, 2014

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