Reopening of legendary St. Petersburg music venue the Manhattan Casino stirs memories

ST. PETERSBURG

Gwendolyn Reese was too young to go to the Manhattan Casino before it closed four decades ago. Back then she could only listen to the buzz.

"We saw the excitement in the community because somebody was coming. B.B. King was coming," she said, "Sarah Vaughan was coming."

She remembers that adults put on their finest clothes or went out and bought new outfits entirely.

"This was like the focal point," she said.

On Saturday, Reese, now 62, planned to go to the newly reopened casino that once brought in so many musical legends and stood as the social hub for the community.

A celebration of the casino's reopening began Friday when a host of musicians, including many who had played during its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, once again delighted a packed dance hall.

"Can you imagine a musical family reunion? That's kind of what it was," said LeRoy Flemmings. The 68-year-old saxophonist said he started going to the casino as a teenager and played there back in the day. "It's a good feeling playing for the home crowd."

Festivities continued Saturday with an all-day party, featuring live music, food stands and an open house. The weekend ends with a gospel brunch today, featuring a local chorus.

Throngs of people filled a grass lot Saturday, across the street from the historic building, listening to music. Many toured around the newly reopened venue.

The city spent $1.4 million to renovate it in 2005.

The Manhattan Casino, 642 22nd St. S, was open from 1925 to 1968, bringing some of the biggest names in music to St. Petersburg.

"This was the heart of where the entertainment took place," Flemmings said. "Gospel, rock, blues, jazz. I mean, just anything that was music took place in this building."

The venue was located in a thriving business and entertainment district in the heart of an African-American neighborhood. It served as a facility for school and fraternal events, and provided one of the few segregation-era venues where black and white residents mingled.

Some hope that reopening the Manhattan Casino will help reboot the community's economy.

For many, the opening of the iconic dance hall was a long time coming — especially for those who grew up around the casino but were too young to get in.

Like Reese, Minson R. Rubin wasn't old enough to take part in the excitement. He would sit across the street and listen to a few minutes of the music when he could.

"It filled the community," said Rubin, now 66.

Mayor Bill Foster made the reopening of the Manhattan Casino one of his top priorities during his campaign and was there during Saturday's street festival and open house.

He called this weekend's reopening "special."

"It was kind of like stepping into a time machine because it's been closed for 40 years," he said. "When I think about the people who played the Manhattan — Dizzy, Louis, Duke, Ike and Tina, the greatest musicians in our history — and yet they weren't allowed to play anywhere else in St. Petersburg.

"It's a story of a past that we're not proud of, but it's a story of a future that celebrates music and diversity."

Reopening of legendary St. Petersburg music venue the Manhattan Casino stirs memories 10/29/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 29, 2011 11:44pm]

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