Skip to comments.Sammy’s South End History (Davis Jr.)
Posted on 06/15/2012 7:04:28 PM PDT by nickcarraway
Sammy Davis, Jr., as a child, tap danced outside Charlies Sandwich Shoppe at night for dimes. Local lore says he lived nearby on Columbus Avenue, but could there be anyone more nomadic than Davis?
"We rarely remained in one place more than a week," Sammy Davis, Jr. told a biographer, referring to his childhood as a dancer in the Will Mastin Trio and hard times during the Depression. Another reported that by the time he was 15, Davis had crossed the country twenty-three times.
Born in Harlem in 1925, Davis was out on the road with his father and Will Mastin at age 3 and soon after was dancing in Mastins vaudeville troupe-"Will Mastins Gang, Featuring Little Sammy." Davis was the ripe old age of 11 when the Will Mastin Trio-Mastin, Sammy Davis, Sr. and Sammy Davis, Jr.-was formed in 1936. We know the Trio was in and out of Boston in the Thirties and Forties, that Davis performed at local clubs-the Gaiety Theater at age 8, the Little Dixie at 15, the Hi-Hat, maybe the National Theatre.
"The trio would bound into a city and look for the cheapest lodging possible," wrote biographer Wil Haygood. Rooming houses, particularly along Columbus Avenue in the South End, were probably the cheapest lodging in Boston open to blacks at that time.
Haygood places Davis at 510 Columbus Ave., corner of Concord Square, in 1937. Mothers Lunch, a restaurant and lodging house frequented by musicians, was downstairs. The building with the lion out front was directly across the street. As a kid, did Davis get a kick out of that?
Around 1939, Davis must have stayed at 66 West Rutland Square because, years later, scrapbooks of theatre programs and autographed photos belonging to him were found in the basement. They were donated to the Museum of Afro American History in 1986, which subsequently contacted Davis. The story is, he cried when he saw them.
"Back in Boston for much of 1941, Sammy, now 15, his father, and Mastin moved into yet another rooming house in the South End section of the city," Haygood continued. "Mabel Robinson, a young singer and pianist, lived across the street." City directories show Robinsons residence as 499 Columbus Avenue, one of the rooming houses owned by Lucille Banks, a colorful landlady of the era. Robinson, now Simms, became a popular performer at South End clubs, such as the Hi-Hat, the Pioneer Club, and Wallys Paradise.
"There were lean days," she told Haygood, aware that money was a problem. "Sammy would come over and wed cook. Then hed go to work with Mastin and his father...Every day wed feed him...We didnt mind. We were all show people." She and the neighbors remembered hearing "a pounding sound" coming from Daviss room when he practiced the drums.
In 1965, Globe reporter William Buchanan spent a week in the South End, renting a room, "declining to shave," and writing two articles about his experience, concluding that, despite the broken glass and cheap wine, the South End was "the most fascinating and appealing slice of life you can find anywhere in this area." He claimed that Davis "lived" at 505 Columbus Ave, from 1938 to 1943, "from the age of 12 to 17." Although Buchanan learned a lot, he misread the South End of the Thirties, assuming it had been a dangerous neighborhood. "I wondered how many others would escape from these same streets in such a colossal way," he wrote.
505 Columbus is a tall brownstone rowhouse mid-block between West Rutland Square and Greenwich Park, which once had a tailor shop on the ground floor. Mothers Lunch is diagonally across the street. It seems the Trio gravitated to this block and the side streets near it. But, surely, they never lived at 505, or anywhere else, for four or five years. The Trio was always out on the road, staying at rooming houses and hotels across the country where, of course, they had to pay room and board.
A couple of years ago, a credible-sounding man called me out of the blue. He told me that around 1941 Sammy Davis, Jr. lived at 505 Columbus Ave. and performed at a nightspot across the street, which must have been Mothers Lunch. He said Davis also stayed at the Hotel Lucille on Rutland Square, another of Lucille Banks properties. Davis used to go into Braddock Drug, he said, where owner Hyman Krasnoo felt sorry for him and gave him free ice cream. In 1961, when Davis was in town to perform in Golden Boys, he went into Krasnoos and paid him back in full.
Alison Barnet is the author of Extravaganza King: Robert Barnet and Boston Musical Theater. She has lived in the South End since 1964 and has been writing about it for almost as long.
Read “Yes I Can” (Sammy’s autobiography?) many many years ago. Amazing story, amazing man.
His long experience paying his dues paid off later in life. Sammy was the last major Vaudeville entertainer. There was one episode I read about a few years ago where his band got wrong directions and he showed up for a show alone. The promoter wanted to cancel the show, but Sammy told him, “If I can’t entertain these people alone then I’m not half the entertainer I think I am.” He went on stage and did a two hour, nearly ad libbed performance with a comb harmonia. The audience loved it, and no one asked for their money back.
I can’t think of a single artist who could do that today.
“I cant think of a single artist who could do that today.”
Oh, come on! Axel Rose could! BWAAAA!
We saw him do a fund raiser for a local college in 1979 in Chicago. Frank Sinatra was supposed to be with him, but was a no show. It also happened to be on the same day the Pope was doing a big mass downtown.
But that isn’t my interesting story about him. In the earlier ‘70s Mr G worked in a screening room in Cleveland.... where there was a screening for Deep Throat for a trial to determine if it was pornographic or not. While it was in the possession of this studio, a brand new color video recorder with a film chain was delivered from Japan, and a copy was made. It was then driven by the Ohio Highway patrol to the border of the state, where it was transferred to the next state patrol, etc, etc, until it was finally delivered to Mr Davis in California.
Apparently he had quite a collection.
I recommend treading carefully, but if anyone has the hutzpah, Google “Sammy Davis, Jr.” and “Linda Lovelace” for the story of how he acted on his obsession of that film.