Ghosts of hotspots past
Reliving legendary times at Atlanta’s long gone nightspots
It makes sense that in our city “too busy to hate,” filled with transients and few who stay put, we’ve largely forgotten our history.
Take our nightlife. These days you’d better not blink or you’ll miss the current It Bar, that one watering hole that’ll flourish for a few months then suddenly dry up. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule, but Atlanta’s club crowd isn’t known for nesting.
It wasn’t always this way. Stories of the city’s bygone venues still get passed down, tales of clock-stopping musical performances and ultra-hip cultural scenes. Unfortunately, most of these clubs have fallen by the wayside.
The big question is this: As Atlantans, what did we actually miss? A great deal, it turns out. And for the remaining few who were able to experience these establishments, the memories provide a colorful illustration of the variety of nightlife our city hosted through the years. CL could devote a whole issue to now-defunct nightspots, but here are a few too consequential to be forgotten.
THE ROYAL PEACOCK
In its heyday, The Royal Peacock on Auburn Avenue stood firm as the crown jewel of Atlanta’s rhythm and blues scene. The club originally opened in 1937 as The Top Hat, which hosted the major black acts of the day, including Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong.
The club was purchased in 1949 by former circus performer Carrie Cunningham, a local hotel and restaurant operator whose love for peacocks inspired her to rename the venue.
It’s difficult to find a legendary blues or soul artist who didn’t grace the Peacock’s stage at one time or another: Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Etta James.
“It had so much prestige,” says Atlanta blues great Louis “Lotsa Poppa” High, who played there regularly in the ’50s. “It was the place where every entertainer wanted to be.”
In late 1960, promoter Henry Wynne, owner of the Supersonic Attractions booking agency, bought the club and brought in headliners such as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, The Supremes and Ike and Tina Turner, among others.
“If you were an R&B performer and you hadn’t played The Apollo or The Peacock, then you hadn’t made it yet,” says High.
The audience was primarily African-Americans in their mid-30s. In the ’60s, a younger white audience rediscovered the blues and was eventually drawn to the club. Before making his own mark on the Atlanta music scene with The Hampton Grease Band, an underage Col. Bruce Hampton recalls sneaking into The Peacock after sound check and hiding under the stage where the sounds of B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland and others would seep down through the floorboards.
“The quality and tonality of the music was unbelievable,” Hampton says. “It was an amazing time.”
Although the stars on stage often outshone those in the audience, The Peacock attracted many African-American celebrities visiting Atlanta. Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali were known to stop by.Memorable Night
On Feb. 24, 1964, the night before he defeated Sonny Liston in Miami for the World Heavyweight Title, Muhammad Ali celebrated a day early at The Peacock during a Lotsa Poppa performance.
In the ’70s, the Sweet Auburn district went into economic decline, which put a damper on business at The Peacock. It closed for a while, then passed through the hands of several different operators, including a social club of local cab drivers known as The Men of Style in the late ’70s and Willie Virden in the early ’80s. Local musician/restaurant owner Clay Harper attempted a short-lived, mid-’80s revival and brought in old-school Peacock acts including Hank Ballard & The Midnighters and Bo Diddley backed by The Georgia Satellites. Although it had a promising start, it failed to catch on, closing in 1987 after it was damaged by fire. The Peacock is now managed by Moongate Inc. and features reggae and hip-hop performers.
THE PLAYBOY CLUB
Atlanta’s Playboy Club opened in March 1965, becoming the 15th location of the international chain. It was located in the Dinkler Hotel on Luckie Street, now the site of a Quality Inn. The club was drenched in suave ’60s chic and served as a living, breathing version of all things hailed by the notorious men’s magazine.
Membership was required for entry, and each member had his own key, which was shown to gain entrance. A winding staircase led from the lobby of the hotel up to the club’s main floor. At the top of the stairs, keyholders were greeted by a woman dressed in the trademark Bunny suit — bunny ears, stockings, four-inch heels, white cuff links and a form-fitting corset uniform.
In the Playmate Bar, framed centerfolds of Playmates adorned the walls, which was the only hint of nudity in the club. Next to the bar was a bumper pool table where guests lined up for the opportunity to chalk up a cue with a Bunny for $1 a game.
“We became so good at it, we could just run the table, and nobody had a chance to beat us,” says Sunny Green, a former Bunny who now works as a crime scene investigator for Rockdale County. “You could finish a game in two minutes and just say ‘next.’”
Another flight of stairs ascended to the Penthouse showroom where live performances were featured. On any iven night, the crooning of Tony Bennett or Mel Torme might be heard wafting down from the Penthouse. Classic comedians such as Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Steve Allen appeared often, as well as edgier up-and-comers like George Carlin and Steve Martin.
Life as a Bunny wasn’t necessarily a hop in the park. Strict guidelines including weekly weigh-ins, fingernail inspections, grooming requirements and behavior etiquette were strongly enforced. Failure to comply could lead to suspension. Bunnies were also forbidden to date customers.
Weeknight crowds consisted primarily of conventioneers and businessmen. A dress code was also enforced: suit and tie required. Acts in the showroom helped draw in more women on weekends.
Local celebrities often frequented the club, especially athletes. Former Braves player and TV yuckster Bob Uecker was a fixture, and Rankin Smith and Pete Rozell shared a toast at the club the day Smith purchased the Falcons. Others guest performers included Dean Martin, Frankie Avalon and Roy Orbison.
With stogie in hand, the incomparable George Burns once performed in the club’s intimate Penthouse setting. “He couldn’t see very well, and he had to have a Bunny lead him to the stage,” says Green.
The Atlanta Playboy Club, along with the rest of the chain, swung hard in the ’60s. But by the end of the decade, the era of upscale lounge nightclubs featuring vocalists and comedians was being ushered out the door. In the ’70s, discos, rock clubs and singles bars took their place, and strip clubs began revealing more than Bunnies ever would. The Atlanta club closed after it was damaged by fire in 1975.
After his Miami Limelight disco burned to the ground in the late ’70s, enigmatic club king Peter Gatien set his sights on Atlanta. Located in the “disco Kroger” complex on Piedmont Road in Buckhead, the Atlanta Limelight opened its doors in February 1980 in the former home of the Harlequin Dinner Theatre.
The Limelight lived up to its billing as the Studio 54 of the South. A large staircase in the lobby led downstairs to the infamous glass dance floor. Beneath the dance floor was a massive fish tank, which was home to two sand sharks. The club featured a 100,000-watt sound system blasting Euro disco, and thousands of mobile lights on the ceiling flipped and turned throughout the night. Confetti and snow would periodically fall from the ceiling. If this wasn’t enough to get the crowd going, Gatien hired “exciters,” scantily clad beauties who’d shake their groove things, urging patrons to do the same. A caged dancer would be lowered from the ceiling and land at the foot of the stage. This is how diva Pia Zadora made her entrance for a live appearance.
The V.I.P. room on the back wall provided privacy for visiting celebrities, and the curtained booths were notorious spots for cocaine use and sex. There was also a restaurant, a jumbo Jacuzzi with changing rooms and a small movie theater filled with pillows in place of seats.
On weekends, lines sometimes stretched down Piedmont Road. The wait could be as long as four hours. Dress and attitude codes were enforced, and some wannabe guests were denied entry to the club altogether, sometimes just for the sake of sensationalism. The crowd was a mixed bag of straights and gays decked out in the tight, shiny disco style of the era.
The club’s wild reputation lured in visiting celebrities. Rod Stewart, Andy Warhol, Farrah Fawcett, Burt Reynolds, Tina Turner, Isaac Hayes, Neil Simon and Grace Jones were among the familiar faces spotted. According to house photographer and publicist Guy D’Alema, it was a chore to get the elusive Gatien to pose with celebrity guests for photo ops. Gatien usually sequestered himself in the executive offices with a novel and a glass of wine. “He was very conservative,” D’Alema recalls. “Sometimes he’d bring some of the bigger celebrities back to his house to party, but he’d end up excusing himself and going to bed while the party kept going.”
In June of 1981, orange juice pitchman and former beauty queen Anita Bryant, known for her vocal anti-gay stance, stopped in. She spent the evening dancing with the unlikeliest partner, gay evangelist Russ McGraw, and D’Alema photographed them on the dance floor. The notorious photo made it on the cover of the Atlanta Journal, in the pages of Time, Newsweek, Playboy and more than 200 American newspapers. Bryant was furious, but Gatien relished the publicity.
In ‘83, Gatien moved to New York to open a Limelight club there and his brother Maurice was given the reins of the Atlanta club. This marked the beginning of the end. “Peter was the brains behind the operation,” says D’Alema. “Maurice ... didn’t want to spend a dime and didn’t have a creative bone in his body.”
Soon Women’s Auxiliary groups were renting the club for afternoon teas, and the gay community turned its back on the club. The club closed in 1985. Gatien went on to open Limelight clubs in London and Chicago, then returned to Atlanta to open Petrus in Midtown in 1989, which closed a few years later and now is the site of eleven50. Gatien later received notoriety for his 1996 arrest and acquittal on racketeering and drug charges involving his NYC club, the Tunnel, and his conviction for tax evasion, which got him a stint at Riker’s Island in 1999.
In the early ’80s, former Athens music promoter Paul Cornwell envisioned a sanctuary for the spike-haired punk rockers and hardcore enthusiasts who scoured Atlanta’s indie record bins. In 1983, without a license, he opened The Metroplex in the old blood bank at 300 Luckie St. After pressure from the city to comply with fire and club codes, Cornwell moved shop a year-and-a-half later to 388 Marietta St., now the site of a parking lot. He and cohort Jim Fleter did some remodeling and created a club that became synonymous with punk rock in Atlanta.
Cornwell went for an indestructible look, anticipating the venue would see its share of bumps and bruises as the crowd slamdanced the night away. The front doors opened up to a brick-walled room with hardwood floors and several booths. A collection of 45 records hung from the ceiling.
The all-ages venue was able to find a way to work alcohol into the picture in ‘86. While one side of the club offered up soda and standard ballpark fare to teenagers, the other half, appropriately named The Other Side, featured a bar separated from the rest of the club by chicken wire. Facing both rooms was the stage and an open floor. A corner staircase led up to a balcony area where overexcited patrons would often dive off and onto the crowd below.
Suburban punks, skinheads and alternative music lovers found a haven at The Metroplex. Local and regional punk, OI and hardcore bands, including Moon Stomp, Anti-Heros, Rotten Gimmick and The Tombstones, regularly performed. National acts such as GBH, Suicidal Tendencies and Bad Brains played there too, as did aging rock acts like Iron Butterfly and Nazareth.
Crowds would line up in front of the club, in all their studded, spiked, leathered and dyed glory. Many club regulars lived directly across the street in a warehouse that resembled something out of the cult film Suburbia.
“During the summer, it was the same routine every day,” recalls photographer Russell King, a Metroplex regular. “If you were too drunk to drive home, you’d just stumble across the street and crash on the warehouse floor. You’d wake up in the afternoon the next day and that night’s band would be arriving. You’d go over and meet them, and it would start all over again.”
In the days when punk rock was still dangerous and accessories weren’t readily available at the local mall, violence regularly reared its head. Whether instigated by unruly skinheads, drive-by rednecks, frat boy hecklers or drunken patrons, fights at or around The Metroplex were common. “You could probably count on a fight at least every other night,” says Eric Snoddy, a former Metroplex security guard and doorman.
Most celebrities spotted at The Metroplex were on stage, and they ran the gamut of counterculture notoriety. Motorhead, Timothy Leary, Johnny Thunders and former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor all appeared. Before they hit the pop charts, the Red Hot Chili Peppers played with opening acts Fishbone and Thelonious Monster. The Butthole Surfers actually lived at the club for a week in 1988 before migrating to Athens.
In November 1987, legendary Plasmatic Wendy O Williams performed with opening act Scream, which included drummer Dave Grohl, later of Nirvana/Foo Fighters fame. The crowd included the overly drunk Izzy Stradlin and Slash of Guns & Roses, who stopped by after opening up for Motley Crüe at the Omni.
A seemingly endless battle over the club ensued between Cornwell and city officials. Squabbles over a liquor license and an ordinance requiring performers and employees to be fingerprinted caused an uproar. When Cornwell held his Alternative ‘88 festival at the club, the city had the surrounding streets closed for blocks to avoid interference with the Democratic National Convention. The event was a financial bust, and the club was hit hard. A few shows later, it was closed for good. Cornwell fought hard to reopen, but a 1990 fire gutted the structure, killing four homeless inhabitants, marking the end of The Metroplex.