The Florentine Gardens in Hollywood
Located at 5951 Hollywood Blvd, and still standing today, the Florentine Gardens had neither the cache nor reputation of other famed Hollywood nightspots such as The Mocambo, Trocodero, and Ciros. While those upscale clubs catered to celebrities and more affluent party-goes, the Florentine Gardens set its sites on servicemen, war industry workers and others who were budget-conscious and just out for a good, inexpensive time. If the talent showcased at the Florentine Gardens was not at the level of that in more exclusive clubs, the floorshows were nevertheless carefully thought out and well produced. A combination of music, comedy and dance, along with a large dose of burlesque for good measure, insured the success of the club, and the Florentine Gardens stage productions entertained patrons for a full decade.
The Florentine Gardens opened in 1938 as a venue that offered dinner and entertainment to affluent Hollywood denizens. Owned and operated by businessman Frank Bruni, and designed by famed architect Gordon Kaufmann, the club was at first only moderately successful. A review in Variety (February 1, 1939) was quite possibly prompted by the fact that Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler had invested $30,000 in the club. Dance music by Emil Baffa’s orchestra was reported to be somewhat sedate, and “when the band broke from a slow waltz to a brisker tempo, half of the terpers shuffled back to their tables….” The performers in the revue were “nothing to exite talent scouts.” The revue included Baffa’s dance orchestra, Patricia Lee (“just another singer”) and Betty Atkinson, “cute drum majorette who taps while she juggles the stick.” Cearly something had to be done!
The Florentine Gardens, 1943
In 1940 club owner Bruni hired Nils Thor Granlund to supervise the entertainment, a decision that radically changed both the focus and popularity of the nightclub. Although not a well known name today, Granlund (usually know by his initial, N.T.G.) would be familiar to anyone who was into “popular entertainment” in the 1940s. N.T.G. had been a radio station manager and announcer in New York City, and his voice was instantly recognizable to those who listened to such radio stars as Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson. After a stint at NBC, N.T.G moved to the West Coast where he was soon hired at the Florentine Gardens.
The Florentine Gardens seated up to 500 guests, and under N.T.G.’s leadership the room was filled during the war years. At first the celebrities continued to enjoy the show: In May 1940 Jimmy Fidler reported, “Charlie Chaplin, ringsiding at N.T.G.’s, with Marlene Dietrich … ducked to the floor as an acrobatic dancer somersaulted less than a foot away.” But the clientele changed over the next few years. The show began to feature scantily-clad showgirls, comedians with an occasionally “blue” vocabulary, along with better known musical combos and bands. Servicemen were often admitted for free, and the cost of admittance and dinner for others was reportedly $1.50. The main room featured the floorshow, dinner and dancing, while the Zanzibar Room, a smaller and more intimate space, hosted small groups like The Mills Brothers, Fats Waller and The Ali Baba.
Variety reviewed the club once more in 1941: “Nils T. Granlund landed in Hollywood to see what he could do about having the natives and tourists beat a path to the Hollywood grotto, far enough off the beaten path to obscure any thought of successful operation, He looked over the estab and decided to build a better mousetrap so they’d break down the doors. And brother, he didn’t miss by much.”
“How did he do it,” asks Variety? “I found out quick they like corn, and that’s what they’re getting. I wouldn’t last a week on Broadway with this setup,” boasted Granlund. The January 1941 revue was called “Hollywood Revels,” which included not only musical entertainment but also “audience participation games played on the floors with the gals. That’s where the corn is piled on high, but they eat it up, cob and all.” Emil Baffa served as musical director, with Dave Gould staging the show. With Dave Marshall and his Orchestra also playing for dancing, the other talent included Sugar Guise, vocalist Fred Scott, and “all-around entertainer” Elinor Troy. “The Rio Bros. are not as funny as they would have you believe,” stated Variety, “and most of the other acts are doubles from the chorus, which incidentally has looks and symmetry.” Granlund apparently had more work to do.
While some have characterized the club as a “second tier” venue, the entertainment policy during the war years did not skimp in terms of talent. Paul Whiteman’s orchestra was booked at the club in January 1942, followed by the bands of Ozzie Nelson, Rudolph Friml, Jr. and finally Ted Fio Rito. Sophie Tucker headlined in May 1943, and in November of that year the Florentine Gardens hosted the amazing Fats Waller. Fats opened in November 8, 1943, playing the floorshow in the main room, then appearing afterwards as a soloist the Zanzibar Room. He became sick the second week of the engagement and was confined to his bed for 10 days, although he returned to finish the engagement. (Some have claimed that his illness was caused by the piano’s placement under one of the highly-touted air conditioning systems at the club.) Sadly, Waller passed away the following month.
Before the recording ban went into effect on July 31, 1942, the beloved Monogram Pictures produced a feature film spotlighting the club, its talent, and charismatic producer Nils T. Granlund. While it is not a particularly good film, the performers appearing at the club were featured prominently, and there are appearances by The Mills Brothers, Ted Fio Rito and his Orchestra, Candy Candido and Yvonne DeCarlo. RHYTHM PARADE was directed by Poverty Row stalwart Howard Bretheron, although the musical numbers were directed by Dave Gould, who was also helming the floorshows at the Florentine Gardens. Gould would move to R.C.M. Productions in 1944 and would direct 115 SOUNDIES over the next year, including many with talent pulled from the Florentine Gardens.
The tastes of wartime audiences affected other Hollywood clubs as well, and in a Billboard review (September 4, 1943) Milton Benny snarkily reported, “Spots like Earl Carroll’s, Florentine Gardens, Mocambo, Trocadero and the Clover Club are for the unhipped, low-laced gentry who are neither connoisseurs nor careful in their selection of music. Only the squares go there. The music is atrocious, the floor shows veddy, veddy smart and boring, the tariffs outlandish.” During this period N.T.G. booked such talent at the Slim Gaillard Trio, dancer Yvonne DeCarlo, comedian Billy Gilbert, singer Harry Richmond, Gene Rogers, Leo Watson and The Three Peppers.
Although Ted Fio Rito was featured at the club quite often in the early 1940s, the house band was directed by Emil Baffa. Baffa was born in 1905 in Pennsylvania and was working on California radio some 30 years later. In 1935 he was at KNX in Los Angeles, dubbed by announcer Jack Carter as “the humming maestro.” He moved from station to station in the Los Angeles market, serving such varied roles as studio organist and leader of house bands. His Sunday Exhibition Park concerts were a popular favorite. Baffa was playing at the Florentine Gardens by 1939 and remained there for close to a decade.
The club finally folded in 1948, was reopened as the Cotton Club, featuring black talent. Bandleader Emil Baffa no longer worked at the club, but was invested in the new venue, serving as corporate secretary. The club has had many incantations since then, including a dental school, but in 2019 it is once again The Florentine Gardens, featuring musical entertainment, often geared toward Hispanic audiences.
The relationship between Ben Hersh, who produced SOUNDIES in Los Angeles after the recording ban, and the Florentine Gardens is somewhat unclear. More than likely Dave Gould, who produced the floorshows at the nightclub, then later directed SOUNDIES for Hersh, is the connection here. What is known, however, is that a large amount of talent booked at the Florentine Gardens also worked for R.C.M. Productions. Among the many Florentine Gardens performers who also appear in SOUNDIES are Emil Baffa and his Orchestra, Ted Fio Rito’s big band (along with Candy Candido), Sugar Guise, Fred Scott, the Rio Brothers, The Three Peppers, the Mills Brothers, Gene Rogers, Lady Will Carr, Yvonne DeCarlo, and others.
The Ali Baba Trio
The Ali Baba Trio was headed by Cleveland Nickerson, a jazz accordion player born in Illinois, ca. 1917 or 1918. By 1940 Nickerson was leading a trio billed as The Music Masters. In addition to Nickerson’s accordion the group included Clarence “Scotty” Brown on guitar and William Raby on string bass. In April 1943 they were booked at the Show Bar in Detroit, followed by a gig in Chicago at the Brass Rail where they were reviewed by Billboard:
“Entertaining colored trio, particularly suitable for the more informal cocktail spots with a good market for jive tunes. The boys…are young and make a clean appearance…. All sing, with solos sold by Nickerson, who concentrates on rhythm and scat numbers, and by Brown, who handles ballads and novelties. Trio punches out all the way and in every number. Their sets are nicely balanced.”
Over the next two years the group was booked at The Hillside Club (Hillside, Illinois), Beritz (Chicago), and The Last Word on Central Avenue in Los Angeles. In December 1945 the Music Masters was hired to appear in the Zanzibar Room of the Florentine Gardens.
Although changes in personnel are not noted in the press, it is probable that Brown and Raby had left the group by this time. Their replacements were Rubin (also Reuben) (Mike) “Big Mike” McKendrick and Calvin Ponder. Guitarist McKendrick (cousin of Mike “Little Mike” Mckendrick) had been an important part of the Chicago jazz scene in the late 1920s, recording with Tiny Parham, then spending two years with the Louis Armstrong band organized and “led” by Zilner Randolph. Mississippi-born Calvin Ponder joined the group on string bass. He would later marry and perform with pianist Martha Davis.
The combo, now billed the Ali Baba Trio, was booked at the Florentine Gardens in December 1945. In early April 1945 the group moved to the Hotel Hayward’s Rhythm Room in downtown Los Angeles were they served as the room’s “intermisssionists.” That month Billboard reported that the “Ali Baba Trio has made its first test for soundies in Hollywood….” The writer obviously got the details wrong since the series had been made in February, and were being released starting March 25. Toward the end of the year the group moved to Keith Jones, also in downtown Los Angeles, where they shared the stage with the strangely named Three Bearded Men.
The Ali Baba Trio continued to work throughout the 1940s, although Ponder had left the group by September 1948 to work with wife Martha Davis, and was replaced by William Raby, who had been in the Music Masters. The trio could be found at such locations as Saddle & Sirloin (San Bernardino and Bakersfield locations, late 1947); Club Combo (Salem, Oregon, 1948 and 1949), Spur Lounge (Missoula, Montana, late 1948); The Ranch (Missoula, Montana, early 1949); The Y-Club (Medford, Oregon, October 1949); and The Brown Derby (Honolulu, Hawaii, January 1950).
In the early 1950s guitarist Mike McKendrick left the group and was replaced by Welton Barnett. In 1953 the name of the group was changed to the Cleve Nickerson Trio, later Cleve Nickerson “Ali Baba Quartette.” Nickerson joined the “Jump” Jackson band in 1959, but was back leading the Ali Baba Quartet (a female vocalist was added) the following year. Throughout the early 1960s the group toured as The Cleve Nickerson Organ Trio or Quartet, featuring Nora (also Norma) Jenkins; advertisements suggest that the band had modernized its sound and was featuring the “twist music” of the period. By 1969 the group had moved on again and was noted as an “outstanding ‘Soul Group,’’ billed as Cleve Nickerson and his Soul Satisfiers. The last press located to date places the group at the Dudley Motor Hotel in Salamanca, New York (March 1972). Nothing is known of Nickerson’s activities past this point, and Nickerson died in the early 1980s.
Calvin Ponder had a successful run with wife Martha Davis throughout the 1950s, passing away in December 1970. Mike McKendrick continued to be active in music, returning to Chicago in the 1960s and performing with local jazz and blues artists. He was a house guitarist at Jazz Ltd. in Chicago until shortly before his death in 1965.
Considering the group’s tenure on the entertainment scene, they made surprisingly few recordings. In 1947 they recorded two sides for Aladdin Records, backing vocalist Bert Woods. Nickerson’s organ combo recorded for Savoy Records in 1964.
I have admittedly not read Mark Miller’s biography about Valaida Snow, High Hat, Trumpet and Rhythm. The main dramatic controversy of Snow’s life — was she imprisoned in Europe by the Nazi’s or by the Swedish police? — is not germane to our discussion here. That tragic part of her life notwithstanding, Valaida Snow was a talented trumpet player and vocalist who entertained for many decades, her trumpet strongly influenced by Louis Armstrong.
Valaida Snow was born in 1904 and she appears to have been a musical prodigy of sorts. Snow made her show business debut at age three, and had learned to play at least ten musical instruments before she was 16 years old; add singing and dancing to the mix and you have a very unique young performer. Louis Armstrong was Snow’s main influence, and she was often referred to as “Little Louis.” Armstrong hyperbolically referred to her as the world’s “second best” trumpet player.
As early as 1924 Snow appeared on Broadway, performing in an early Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake musical called THE CHOCOLATE DANDIES. This was followed by a tour with a revue headlined by Will Mastin. Snow continued to be active both in the States and abroad, traveling throughout the Far East during the second half of the 1920s with a band led by drummer Jack Carter. Returning to the United States, Valaida played a variety of black theaters on both coasts, followed by a Broadway musical produced by Lew Leslie starring Ethel Waters titled RHAPSODY IN BLACK. By this time trumpet was her primary instrument, although Snow’s 1933 debut on record is as a vocalist with Earl “Fatha” Hines.
Snow returned to Europe in 1936. She toured extensively and recorded frequently over the next six years. It is on these recordings that her Armstrong-influenced trumpet can be heard to full advantage. She was also captured on film, appearing in a British production, TAKE IT FROM ME (Warner Bros., 1937) and in two French features L’ALIBI (1937) and PIEGES (1939). Snow was jailed in 1941, then freed and repatriated in 1942.
Valaida returned to America in poor physical and emotional health, and the New York Amsterdam suggested that she was “on the verge of an emotional collapse.” Still, Snow fought hard to resurrect her professional life. She spent a great deal of time on the road during the 1940s — the Apollo Theater in April 1943 and July 1946, Texas, Seattle and Omaha sometime in the middle of the decade, and Chicago’s Latin Quarter in early 1947. Snow moved to Los Angeles in 1945 where she continued to work on stage and in nightclubs. However, there is nothing in either the trades or SOUNDIES production papers to suggest that she encountered the Ali Baba Trio before the recording session in February 1946. It is probable that Snow was playing a local club at the time, was noticed by producer Ben Hersh or one of his assistants, then teamed with the Ali Baba Trio as an easy way to fill out and add variety to a SOUNDIES series.
Snow continued to perform throughout the latter part of the 1940s, most often in the New York City area. She was reportedly performing at the Palace Theater in New York City in May 1956 when she suffered a stroke and passed away soon after.
Mining the talent working at the Florentine Gardens in Hollywood, SOUNDIES producer Ben Hersh brought the Ali Baba Trio to the studios in February 1946 for a quartet of shorts. Two would be features for the trio, numbers that they were performing onstage in the Zanzibar Room at the Florentine Gardens; the other two would spotlight trumpet soloist/vocalist Valaida Snow, accompanied by the trio.
The series was recorded at an unknown location in Los Angeles on February 5, 1946. The band and Ms. Snow returned for sideline photography, again at an unknown location, on February 11. Each member of the Ali Baba Trio would have received “scale” (that is, $30.00) for the recording session; Snow was paid $50, slightly higher because she doubled as vocalist and instrumentalist. All four received $33.33 for their sideline work on the 11th.
Considering the experience that director Dave Gould brought to this production — he had been directing and choreographing musical performances on film since 1932 — the racist imagery in this SOUNDIE is indeed shocking. A large caricature of an African American clown in top hat is seen throughout the short, directly behind the performers. Whether Gould was responsible, or if the fault lies with producer Ben Hersh or someone else in the R.C.M. Productions crew, the fact remains that the image is prominent, and that it removes us from the performance, constantly reminding us that this type of racism was common during the 1940s.
“E-Bob-O-Lee-Bop” — there are many variations in the spelling of this composition by Tina Dixon — was an important record in the mid-1940s, one that pointed the way from jump blues toward rhythm-and-blues. It had been waxed by the bands of Woody Herman, Jimmy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet and Harry James, but the important recordings were by African-Americans, in particular Helen Humes and Lionel Hampton. In all of this fast company the Ali Baba Trio has nothing to be ashamed of!
Musically we have a swinging, energetic and happy recording typical of small combo jazz from the mid 1940s. Nickerson’s chorded accordion solo breaks no new ground, but certainly fits in well with the arrangement. Mike McKendrick solos in a manner based largely on Charlie Christian’s single note style, although it also reflects the Chicago blues that was being played as McKendrick learned his craft in the 1920s. The group’s unison vocal, along with their instrumental “authority,” results in a highly successful three minutes of music on film.
Patience and Fortitude
Composed by Billy Moore and Blackie Warren, this song was a popular one with the public, and in 1946, the year following its composition, the tune was recorded by the Andrews Sisters, Benny Carter, Count Basie, Ray McKinley, Wingy Manone and others.
Patience and Fortitude has an unusual structure. A standard 32-bar AABA chorus is followed by two independent 8 bars segments, then a return to the A section of the tune. Valaida is in splendid voice, singing in an easy and lilting manner; her stage presence demonstrates how she communicated so well with audiences, even those abroad who probably did not understand many of the English lyrics. A brief interlude by Mike McKendrick leads to 16 bars of trumpet by Ms. Snow. The first half is quite inventive. The second, however, includes a clam that seems to throw Valaida off balance for the rest of the solo. Her inventiveness notwithstanding, it is clear that she is not the same musician who recorded with such a strong, bell-like tone just ten years earlier. Armstrong’s influence is still there, but the chops (or perhaps the person behind them) are just not the same.
The Ali Baba Trio pretty much takes a supporting role here, although as a rhythm section they really do keep the music moving forward. Thankfully the set avoids anything remotely racist: The background pictures a garden with an oversized, smiling tortoise winning the race with the equally oversized hare. Patience and fortitude have paid off.
This SOUNDIE can be seen here.
Your Feet’s Too Big
This song is a novelty piece, pure and simple, and if it never entered the exalted realm of the Great American Songbook, it is a tune that many fans of classic jazz will recognize. The composition by Ada Benson and Fred Fisher was not one that was recorded by many top-tier jazz performers, “Fats” Waller being the major exception; he also performed the piece as a SOUNDIE in 1941. It is through the Waller recordings and film that the tune is best known. Strangely enough, it was part of The Beatles book in their early Hanover days. This version by The Ali Baba Trio is a welcome addition to the recorded performances of the song.
The easy, propulsive swing in this SOUNDIE is infectious and it is hard to listen without tapping your feet or moving your body. Each member of the group has the chance to solo — Nickerson in a chorded manner, McKendrick again a single note guitar improvisation. String bass player Calvin Ponder has heard the music of both Walter Page and Oscar Pettiford, and he acquits himself well. The group vocal is again well rehearsed, with some spoken interplay between the group members, and solo vocal work by Nickerson.
Like the other SOUNDIE in this series by the trio, there are a large number of cuts which help maintain the viewers attention. While not choreographed, per se, the movement of the musicians flows from the music, and thankfully the racist backdrop image has been replace by a more generic stage setting.
This SOUNDIE can be seen here.
If You Only Knew
Written by Floyd Hunt — his “Fool That I Am” was waxed by many rhythm-and-blues crooners — this attractive title is sung by Valaida in a hip and convincing manner. She owes a debt to Ethel Waters, although both voice and phrasing are definitely “her own.” Once again her stage presence works in the SOUNDIES’ favor. A short instrumental segment with electric guitar and chorded accordion breaks up the two parts of Valaida’s vocal presentation. Valaida gets into a bit of trouble at the end of the song, apparently not sure if she wants to finish on the major 7th or tonic, but that is a minor problem. The sincerity of the vocal makes it quite acceptable that we don’t hear her trumpet in this short.
This series of SOUNDIES was staged in a simple manner that puts the emphasis on the music, with little to distract us save for the terribly racist image in the first short. The members of the Ali Baba Trio, true to the group’s name, wear Arabian fezzes, something that would be discarded in the following decade by Nickerson. The camera moves quickly between band members as they perform; there are at least twenty-five cuts in the first SOUNDIE, most based on the four bar segments that make up the blues format. The rapid cutting throughout the series, coupled with the animated nature of the band — they appear to be having a great time — makes all four films pass quickly.
It is not surprising that, with a renewed interest in the contribution of females in jazz, Valaida Snow’s two SOUNDIES have received a fair amount of attention. Certainly celebrating one of the trailblazing female performers in the music is noteworthy, although it is regrettable that Valaida was not allowed extended film exposure when she was at the top of her musical abilities. As it is, however, her trumpet work, if diminished in terms of power and tone, is still well worth our attention. Her voice is in much better shape and she carries the lyrics in the two SOUNDIES in a splendid manner.
The two SOUNDIES featuring the Ali Baba Trio work in so many ways that I am surprised they are not better known. From an historical perspective they present an obscure jazz group that was, in one form or another, on the scene for many years. They also point to a popular Hollywood venue, The Florentine Gardens, one of the few clubs that featured an integrated stage show. And last, the films prove once again that the wealth of black talent in Los Angeles was incredibly deep, and that a fine group like the Ali Baba Trio could be on the scene for years, yet go virtually unnoticed by contemporary jazz fans.
Working against the series is the racist image in the back-ground of E-Bob-O-Lee-Bop. Racial sensitivity was definitely a blind spot for Ben Hersh and Dave Gould — similar images can be seen in other SOUNDIES that they worked on — and one must try to focus on the musicians and their performance, not the surroundings. Musically and visually this series proves that one does not need dancers, a story, cutaways or anything else to make a successful SOUNDIES short. Granted, something with this structure and style would not work if presented in all eight films on a Panoram reel. But for these four shorts we are drawn into a nightclub setting, enjoying a trio and guest vocalist perform with the energy, elan and swing that defines the best in jazz.