Born in 1913 and raised in Chicago, Larry Steele changed the entertainment world,  giving a stage to black musicians and dancers, supporting their careers and mentoring their craft. Mr. Steele’s family did not want him to enter the world of show business. His father, a barber, wanted Larry to become a lawyer. Larry promised his father he would study law at Northwestern University; however, in 1934, he walked into the Panama Café – a venue on Chicago’s South Side – and was given a $3 a night job as a singing master of ceremonies and bandleader. 

Steele abandoned all thoughts of becoming a lawyer and dedicated himself to entertainment. He left Chicago in the mid-1940s, helped organize entertainers on the Chitlin Circuit, and found himself in Atlantic City at Club Harlem – the vanguard of entertainment on the Eastern Seaboard at the time. In the summer of 1946, Larry Steele opened his first Smart Affairs production at Club Harlem. Smart Affairs was a revue show featuring the best in African American music and the most talented and beautiful African American showgirls. 

Smart Affairs and its associated acts – Beige Beauties and the Sepia Revue – spent the summer months entertaining the residents and tourists of Atlantic City. In its off season, Smart Affairs traveled the country. It is said that Steele and Smart Affairs famously broke the color barrier of Miami Beach’s Cotton Club.  Upon booking a show at the Cotton Club, Steele and his acts were forced to stay in an African American hotel many miles away from the venue, and they were not allowed to enter the club’s front doors. In response to these racist policies, Steele invited the famed columnist Walter Winchell to the show. Winchell wrote a glowing review of the Smart Affairs performance and denounced the Miami Beach Cotton Club’s bigotry. Upon Winchell’s approval, audiences poured into the club en masse to watch Smart Affairs and the Cotton Club changed its policies.
In 1960, the Smart Affairs grossed between $400,000 and $500,000 annually and featured 40-50 performers who worked 40-45 hours per week. In commemoration of Steele’s success, Howard University’s Alumni Association presented him with the “Racial Dignity and Human Relations Award” in 1961. By 1969, Smart Affairs offered two simultaneous shows, one at Club Harlem and one at the Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach.

Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs ran for 18 consecutive seasons at Club Harlem. Many famous African American performers had their start with, or appeared in, Steele’s productions. These performers included the likes of: Sammy Davis Jr., Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Peg Leg Bates, Cab Calloway, Damita Jo, Slappy White, Sarah Vaughn, and Nat King Cole. 

Steele died in Chicago on June 19, 1980.

Resources in the Atlantic City Free Public Library Atlantic City Heritage Collections:

Nelson Johnson. The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City. Medford, New Jersey: Plexus, 2010.

Local History Biography File: Larry Steele

Local History Subject File: Nightclubs – Club Harlem

H039 Club Harlem Photograph Collection

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The Atlantic City Free Public Library held the opening for its "Atlantic City Experience: Magic of Kentucky Avenue" exhibit on Feb. 6, 2013, in celebration of Black History Month. The photos are from the library's Atlantic City Heritage Collections. The photos highlight the entertainment, people and places that made Kentucky Avenue such an iconic hot spot in the early-to-mid 1900s. African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey founder Ralph E. Hunter, Sr., was the guest speaker. In this clip, Hunter discusses opportunities presented to African-Americans in the city during that time.




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The Magic of Kentucky Avenue

Atlantic City was a major center for entertainment long before casinos came to town. The area around Kentucky and Arctic Avenues, “KY and the Curb” as it was known, was the place for visitors and locals to frequent nightclubs that attracted top performers along the East Coast. The clubs were filled with celebrities, including those who performed at other venues, politicians and people looking for a good time. It was a huge draw for big stars in the entertainment industry and for those looking for a big break. People would drive from Philadelphia, New York, Washington D.C. and even Boston to enjoy a weekend of entertainment from the 1930s to the 1960s.

The popular nightclubs near KY and the Curb - Club Harlem, Little Belmont, Paradise Club, Wonder Garden and Wonder Bar - attracted such stars as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Ethel Waters, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Frank Sinatra, and Dinah Washington. Crowds from all walks of life filled the streets and clubs, for the programs on Saturday nights and the “breakfast shows” on Sunday mornings. It was difficult to even walk down Kentucky Avenue at times because of all the people waiting to get into the various clubs and the restaurants.

By the late 1960s the area was changing. Most of the clubs were gone by the time Resorts, the first Atlantic City casino, opened in 1978. But the excitement, the fun, the great names in entertainment, the mingling of people and the Magic of Kentucky Avenue will always be a part of The Atlantic City Experience.


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