In 1939, Club Brownie’s paid a large advance to a New York promoter to get the Chick Webb Band to appear.
Formerly called The Trianon, the dance venue had been purchased four years earlier by a 27-year-old ex-chicken farmer, race hound breeder and band manager named Brownloe Robertson. He came down from Tennessee with his father, a construction worker, and later attended high school in West Palm Beach.
Those are the roots of the longest-running tavern in Fort Lauderdale history, a place that endured hurricanes, the Depression, World War II and 9/11. “Brownie,” as they called him, retired in his 70s and died in 2004 at the age of 96. The bar closed five years later, and was eventually demolished to make way for Tap 42.
But back to the concert. Bad news came in a phone call from New York: Webb wouldn’t be able to perform. Brownie had sunk $500 into the event, big money in those days, and had put posters all over town.
“Don’t worry,” the New York promoter told Brownie, “one of his singers will sit in for him and you won’t be disappointed.” Anxious, but without much of a choice, Brownie agreed. The night of the concert, the young singer raised the roof. When it was over, Brownie told Ella Fitzgerald, “You can come back anytime!”
The glory days of Brownie’s were filled with black bands and entertainers that other places in South Florida wouldn’t book. As white Miami clubs remained segregated, stars like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Count Basie came to play Fort Lauderdale on Saturday nights.
Brownie eventually opened a bar and package store in front of the dance club. He was there every day, tilling his philosophy that the owner runs the bar, not the patrons. He boasted that police had never been called in to break up a brawl. The only time he asked for them was to protect Cab Calloway during a time of heightened racial tension.
A decade before Ella came to town, up the road apiece, Mrs. Lola Knight was regularly hauling sacks of illegal liquor that had been dropped on the beach in the middle of the night. The bottles were for customers at her husband’s restaurant, where in the evenings she greeted patrons on the old fishing barge that came to be known as “Cap’s Place.” It was docked at a peninsula off the Intracoastal, and customers would flash a light from the shore for a boatman to row them over.
Lola was famous for wearing diamond jewelry with fine dresses and going barefoot. She was 23 when she married a 43-year-old seaman named Captain Eugene Theodore Knight and yes, it was his boat making the beach drops after a rum-run to Bimini during the years of Prohibition. Lola spent much of the rest of her 96 years helping run a place famed as much for its fresh pompano and turtle-egg pancakes as for its once-illegal rum and backroom casino. (Cap himself passed on in 1964 at the age of 93.)
In the early years, Al Capone was a customer; later diners included Joe DiMaggio and then George Harrison. But the most famous patrons were President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who, in 1942, were holding secret war talks at the Hillsboro Beach home of FDR’s secretary of state. Most nights they ate in, ordering from Cap’s, but one evening they decided to make an appearance and were boated over, wheelchair and all. Cap served them wearing his typical denim shirt and bib overalls.
In the ’30s and ’40s there were plenty of other, lesser-known places to imbibe: The Deck, Zanzibar, Seahorse, Tuna Bar and Rooneys. In the black neighborhood in and around NW Fifth Street there were The Windsor, The Happy End and the 66 Bar, which also had billiards. At the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center you can see a photograph of Cannonball Adderley performing at a place called Porky’s on Federal Highway.
And then there was an unassuming watering hole on the beach called the Elbo Room. It opened in 1939 with a bare-bones look that hasn’t changed much over the decades. Situated at the corner of Las Olas Boulevard and A1A, it ran in obscurity until 1960 when it was featured in the movie Where the Boys Are. A small legend was born, along with a big phenomenon: Spring Break.
In the 1940s, the government instituted a new liquor tax that had tavern owners in an uproar. A news story from the time quoted the owner of Kaufman’s on the Beach saying, “We can’t charge 11 cents a beer.” The tax was a penny.
The heydays of places like Cap’s and Club Brownie’s came and went. After Prohibition ended in 1933, Cap’s Place became less the clandestine drinking place and more the respectable restaurant. (Hence the appearance of Roosevelt and Churchill.) Brownie’s went in the opposite direction. With white Miami welcoming black entertainers, and new clubs opening on the beach, the dance hall business faded. Club Brownie’s became simply Brownie’s Bar, the friendly saloon that opened at 7 a.m. every day, its floors strewn with popcorn or peanut shells. As late as 1985, it was serving 60-cent drafts and 70-cent cocktails.
Not all history vanishes, as Cap’s Place and the Elbo Room colorfully attest. Brownie’s isn’t totally lost either: Paul Newman liked it so much he put it in his film Harry and Son.