There are very few Los Angeles nightclubs that look the same today as they did back in the 1940s. Oddly enough, two of them are located just a few blocks from each other: on Sunset there is the Palladium, and a stone’s throw north, on Hollywood Boulevard, the Florentine Gardens.
While the Palladium was basically a huge “danceateria,” offering big band fare, the Florentine Gardens featured a main room that seated 500 guests for dining and a floor show featuring the likes of Paul Whiteman, Ted Fio Rito, Skinnay Ennis, Sophie Tucker, and Gertrude Niesen. A smaller space, the Zanzibar Room, welcomed more intimate fare. One might find the Mills Brothers performing here, or perhaps the Slim Gaillard Trio. There is a story – perhaps little more than that – suggesting that when booked at the Florentine Gardens, Fats Wallers was seated under an air conditioning unit from which he caught cold and ultimately passed away.
Beginning in 1944 R.C.M. producer Ben Hersh regularly mined the talent at the Florentine Gardens for Soundies, often using the band led by Emil Baffa – this is the orchestra that backed the floorshows – to provide musical support. In our clip, however, we’ll head to the Zanzibar Room to watch the Ali Baba Trio, a combo headed by jazz accordion player Cleveland Nickerson. He is joined by guitarist Mike McKendrick (“Big Mike” for those keeping score), whose playing is miles from his earlier work with Tiny Parham and Louis Armstrong. Filling out the group on string bass is Calvin Ponder, later to worked extensively with his wife, pianist and vocalist Martha Davis. The song will be familiar to most of our viewers, the Fats Waller classic (actually written by Ada Benson and Fred Fisher), “Your Feet’s Too Big.”
Why the Moroccan dress and fez? One can only wonder. In any case, the music swings like crazy, with all three members of the group given the chance to solo. The Ali Baba Trio never recorded, making this an important part of the Soundies oeuvre.