Golden Years: New York Nightlife In The ’50s

During the Eisenhower years, Manhattan was an island of social, economic and cultural equanimity. The legal drinking age was 18, the bars stayed open until four in the morning, and the Biltmore Hotel advertised special student rates for Seven Sisters and Ivy Leaguers.

Here are some memories from those days of my misspent youth.

The hub was Under the Clock at the Biltmore, where everybody poured through the tunnel from Grand Central. The Palm Court was next to the hotel lobby and served convenient cocktails along with Emory Deutch and his violin, who serenaded a conspicuous and well groomed college crowd. On holiday weekends it took on the appearance of a freshman mixer in Northampton.

A couple of blocks away, social climbers patronized the Stork Club. Sherman Billingsley, a former prohibition bootlegger, was saloon keeper and arbiter of Cafe Society. He famously gifted samples of Sortilege, his signature perfume, and winked if your companion stashed a Stork Club ashtray into her handbag. For the price of a drink at the bar you gained entree to the plush Cub Room for a rhumba played by Payson Re’s orchestra. This was the upscale part of the evening. The nitty-gritty was at Jimmy Ryan’s.

Before Elvis or the twist, the popular sound of New York was Dixieland. The uptown headquarters was Jimmy Ryan’s, where Wilbur de Paris and his band turned 52nd Street into Rampart Street.

Ryan’s was a prep United Nations. The room was not restricted to the Ivy League, but was a democracy that also welcomed outliers from far-flung places like Rutgers, Lehigh, RPI or CCNY. The insiders knew when you bought intermission pianist Don Frye a drink; he never forgot and rewarded you at the door or even a trip to the men’s room with a six-step pianistic flourish.

Dixieland in the 1950s was a revival of the earlier Jazz Age chronicled by F. Scott Fitzgerald in “The Great Gatsby”:

All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of The Beale Street Blues while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust.

Dixieland clubs were all over town. Central Plaza Casino and Stuyvescent Casino were seedy second-floor union halls on Second Avenue with sawdust on the floor and spilled pitchers of beer. Bobby Hackett, Conrad Janis, Zutty Singleton and the regulars climaxed the evening strutting around the room while playing “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

Farther downtown, Nick’s specialty was Pee Wee Irwin in jam sessions. Eddie Condon’s provided the wayward horn of Wild Bill Davison, and the sotto voce tableside vocals of legendary trumpeter and proprietor Eddie Condon.

The marriage between Dixieland and Ivy was finally consummated at two sold-out concerts in Carnegie Hall during the 1955 Thanksgiving vacation. Princeton’s Tiger Town Five, led by clarinetist Stan Rubin (pictured above on a 1959 album), had appeared on Steve Allen’s “Tonight Show” and previously gigged at Jimmy Ryan’s. Their Friday-night concert also featured Eli’s Chosen Six, from Yale.

The Saturday-night concert began with Williams College Spring Street Stompers. The Indian Chiefs followed after intermission before a boisterous Dartmouth-loaded audience that prompted security to stop the show with a warning to the students to curb their enthusiasm.

The Broadway Musical was in its heyday during this decade. Orchestra seats on Broadway were reasonable, and we all went to the theatre and belted out the songs from “Damn Yankees,” “The Boy Friend” and “The Pajama Game” at parties. The Waverly Lounge at the Hotel Earle on Christopher Street was a great hangout for fans of the genre. Laurie Brewis, a fey bistro version of Noel Coward, was the featured pianist and lounge singer. He was accurately billed “The London Edition of Showtune Encyclopedia,” and made a specialty getting to know his college devotees on a first-name basis.

There was more on the fast New York track than the sound of music. Cerebral standup comedy was provided at the Blue Angel by Mort Sahl, who preceded Woody Allen in the hearts and minds of Ivy League Adlai Stevenson-type intellectuals.

At the other end of the spectrum, a $7 cover charge with a two-drink minimum was the price at the Copacabana for a bridge-and-tunnel spectacle of buxom chorus girls and comedian Joe E. Lewis in his drunken Damon Runyon act about bookies, barkeeps and broads. I can still remember the punchlines.

Last call and last dance, the morning sun peeking over the Queensboro Bridge, the goings on about town always closed with bagels, lox and eggs at Reuben’s. — RICHARD PRESS

Richard Press is the grandson of J. Press founder Jacobi Press. A graduate of Dartmouth, he worked at the family business from 1959-1991, ultimately serving as president. He also spent four years as president and CEO of FR Tripler. He lives in Connecticut.

18 Comments on "Golden Years: New York Nightlife In The ’50s"

  1. Mr Press, love the posts, please write a book!

  2. Wonderful essay! Reminds of tales from Fountain’s bio. of George Frazier , late arbiter of style of the Boston Globe.

  3. Loved this! I’m a HUGE fan of Stan Rubin’s Orchestra! Great job!

  4. Thank you so much, Mr. Press, for sharing your memories with us. Older generations like you provide us with an invaluable window into the not-so-distant but rapidly fading past. I hope that you will provide us with many, many more stories, and I second the notion that you should write a book.

  5. 3 button max | October 14, 2011 at 10:30 pm |

    great post-
    eddie condon was a guitarist not tpt player.

  6. Mr Press thank you thank you thank you.

  7. Mr. Press has a great memory and great memories!

  8. Press correction: Eddie Condon was indeed banjoist, guitarist and band leader.

  9. Great post. It is so great to read about the past when it is presented accurately. Thanks Mr. Press!

  10. Carmelo Pugliatti | October 16, 2011 at 9:55 am |

    Great post,please Mr Press we want a book!

  11. Excellent post! Please write a book for us, Mr. Press.

  12. Obviously you Ivy Leaguers missed out on the hip and cool scene of bebop and hard bop jazz, Ginsberg, the Beatniks, and the clubs like the Five Spot, the Cafe Bohemia etc and other Village venues. But then, they were too cool and avant garde for you guys!

  13. Richard:
    You are the Master of Nostalgia! Remind me to tell you the story about my dinner with Pete Kriendler at “21” where he was supposed to pick up the check (but didn’t).

  14. Button-Down Mind Strikes Back | October 17, 2011 at 2:07 pm |


    Your “logic” being that if someone likes one thing, then they can’t simultaneously like, appreciate, or be aware of anything else?

    The genres, people, and places you mentioned were mass pop-culture. There were very few people in America who were UNaware of the beats/”beatniks” and Ginsberg, for example. There was quite the cottage industry in beatnik-exploitation, and Ginsberg’s “Howl” became a national phenomenon due to the obscenity trial.

    Jazz was also quite mainstream at the time. Moreso than today, that’s for sure. Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out” LP, for example, was a platinum selling record. Brubeck also made the cover of Time magazine. I think you have constructed an alternate reality in your head. Are you English by any chance?

  15. “Button-Down”:

    Firstly, my comment was only tongue-in-cheek and more in reaction to the impression given in the Press article.

    I have to disagree that the things mentioned were of mass pop-culture during that era, although they did eventually become more mainstream over time. Certainly a lot of it was ‘alternative’ or ‘underground’ and while I do not doubt that the general public might have been aware of some of it, they may not have partaken of it directly.

    Your mention of Time Out is particularly revealing. It was popular jazz record, yes, but hardly cutting edge. There was so much more innovative jazz going on in the clubs mentioned and on other recordings. In retrospect, Time Out would not compare well with, say, the output of Miles, Mingus or Ornette at the time.

    Finally, I am not English but am of the Ivy League (Princeton, Cornell).

  16. Button-Down Mind Strikes Back | October 18, 2011 at 12:39 am |



    Yes, yes, yes….Brubeck was “popular”. That was precisely my point. Jazz was popular music. And Brubeck wasn’t Dixieland, Swing or Big Band either.

    Miles Davis was also extremely well-known, despite not having a hit on the pop charts. “Kind of Blue” (among others) was a huge success.

    Kerouac and Ginsberg were also well-known names. “On the Road” and “Howl” certainly sold well.

    Playboy magazine routinely had their jazz polls. Point being,
    this stuff wasn’t quite as “underground” as you would like to believe.
    Especially for cosmopolitan New York Ivy Leaguers.

  17. Thank you for bringing back so many wonderful memories. One minor correction — the Hotel Earle/Waverly Lounge was on Waverly Place just off Washington Square. For several years I spent Friday and Saturday nights there listening to and singing along with Laurie and the regulars. We were terribly shocked when Laurie died after minor surgery. It has been rumored that there are some tapes of his songs, but I have never been able to find them. Would you know of any?

  18. Pale Male | July 13, 2013 at 8:06 pm |

    The destruction of the Biltmore — a monumental act of vandalism courtesy of Bank of America. Where was Landmarks Conservancy? A bit before my time, though I remember visits to the clock not long before the death sentence was announced.

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