Historic Manhattan Casino to reopen in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — It has the potential of becoming the crown jewel of Midtown — the catalyst that could transform 22nd Street S into a thriving, bustling business district.

Those were the sentiments of city officials. But that was six years and a mayoral administration ago, in 2005.

Since spending about $2.8 million on the Manhattan Casino's renovation in 2005, a post office, grocery store and bank have opened in the neighborhood. But the entertainment venue has remained closed. And hopes of a successful restaurant opening on the first floor appear to be a pipe dream.

In the meantime, Midtown residents have waited patiently for the reopening of the historic facility.

Come Friday night, the wait will be over as Mayor Bill Foster officially reopens the doors of the iconic venue with some of the musicians who played there during its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s.

"If you think about it, we were discussing this in 2005," said Foster, who was on the City Council at the time.

"I can't be any more excited about the weekend," said Foster. "I'm checking the weather every day. Honestly, this is the highlight of my term."

In recent weeks, there has been confusion about the Manhattan Casino after the city turned down a proposal by a local developer who wanted to put a restaurant on the first floor. But, according to Foster, that has little to do with the grand reopening of the venue.

"I know there's a lot of misinformation" about the rejected proposal, "but I'm confident that we will deliver on an outstanding banquet facility with public access in mind," said Foster.

"We only have a few historic structures in the city where it's story is significant," he said. The story of the Manhattan Casino "needs to be told and learned by everyone."

The 1920s building at 642 22nd St. S was known for big dances featuring big names in jazz and blues, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and B.B. King.

Back then, the corridor was a thriving business and entertainment district in the heart of an African-American neighborhood.

Its significance lies in its role for more than 40 years as a social hub for the community.

No one knows that more than local jazz legend Buster Cooper.

"It served a big purpose for the neighborhood," he said. "It was fantastic."

"It is impossible to forget the importance of that place," said Cooper, who played drums, then trombone in the band of his cousin, George Cooper. He says the Manhattan is where his music career began.

Besides the big band shows, the facility provided a venue for school and fraternal events, and gospel stars made it a regular stop.

The Manhattan also provided one of the few segregation era venues where black and white residents mingled during performances by musicians like Armstrong and Count Basie, who always drew large, mixed crowds.

Some are hoping the reopening weekend series will help jump start an economic revival in the community.

To be clear, this is the mayor's event. During his campaign, the reopening of the Manhattan Casino was part of his Foster Forty plan.

In addition to hosting concerts and dance events, the city intends to make the space available for residents to rent for receptions and reunions.

Lauren E. Kleinfeld, manager for the Coliseum and Sunken Gardens, will add the 12,000-square-foot Manhattan Casino to the list of city-owned properties that she will run.

"We have set it up as a rental facility," said Kleinfeld. "We're hoping to get the word out during Saturday's open house and street festival."

Rental fees for the venue, in four-hour slots, will range from $1,300 Monday through Thursday to $1,500 Friday through Sunday.

But unlike other city-run venues, renters have the choice of using the city's pre-approved list of caterers or they can bring in their own food. Liquor must go through the pre-approved catering list. "That's a safety precaution," said Kleinfeld.

A Manhattan Casino all stars tribute band, featuring local jazz musicians, John Lamb, Ernie Calhoun, Ron Gregg and Al Williams, will be honored during the evening. Headlining the evening will be the Dizzy Gillespie All Stars quintet, featuring two-time Grammy Award winner Roy Hargrove.

Sandra J. Gadsden is an assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at sgadsden@sptimes.com or at (727) 893-8874.

Shanna Gillette of Sasha Rae Photo, right, captures musicians, from left, LeRoy Flemmings, Henry Ashwood Jr., Al Williams and Joe Davis giving an impromptu performance at the Manhattan Casino.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Shanna Gillette of Sasha Rae Photo, right, captures musicians, from left, LeRoy Flemmings, Henry Ashwood Jr., Al Williams and Joe Davis giving an impromptu performance at the Manhattan Casino.

MANHATTAN CASINO'S REOPENING

The Manhattan Casino is reopening in grand style with a three-day celebration. It begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday with a jazz concert topped off with the Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars, featuring Grammy winner Roy Hargrove and Cyrus Chestnut. Beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday, it's an all-day party, with an open house and street festival followed by a soul/R&B revue double header featuring TAABU and New Orleans Shamarr Allen & the Underdawgs at 8:30 p.m. The weekend ends with a gospel brunch on Sunday, featuring a local chorus. Prices vary by event, so call (727) 487-1209 or visit www.manhattancasinolive.com.

Historic Manhattan Casino to reopen in St. Petersburg 10/25/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 27, 2011 3:57pm]

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