The Deuces St. Petersburg Times Interactive Special Report
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photo   Listen to Ira Harding Wilson talk about the bands of all types that played at the Manhattan Casino:

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On hot summer nights before air conditioning, no one shut the Manhattan Casino's windows. Searing blues notes or bouncing big band rhythms spilled out. Across the street at the Sno-Peak Drive Inn, people sat in cars parked hub to hub. "We'd eat our sandwiches and drink our drinks and listen to the music," said Henrietta Roberts, 63. B.B. King's Sweet 16 was her favorite song.

The Manhattan’s bandstand, wedged in the second floor’s southwest corner, wasn’t fancy. But the orchestras, singers and horn men who used it made musical history. They represented an era’s best, building their fan base along what was known as the chitlin circuit, an informal route twisting through the South. Performers hit big markets like Atlanta or Miami on weekends. During the week, they played smaller clubs in between.

[Times photo: Bob Moreland]
Louis Armstrong at the Manhattan Casino on March 3, 1957. Hear: You Rascal You

In the Manhattan ballroom, partiers in tuxedos and evening gowns danced. Ella Fitzgerald sang A-Tisket, A-Tasket. At gospel hours, Mahalia Jackson praised the power of the Lord. Sometimes it was too packed to hold everyone who wanted to see. Neighborhood children climbed the balconies, hoping to glimpse Louis Armstrong or Count Basie. Grownups shooed them, threatening to tell their mothers and probably their grandmas and aunties. Everyone knew everyone else in the community.

The Manhattan was a segregated neighborhood's anchor. Yet at times it became one of the few St. Petersburg venues where blacks and whites met socially. Some performers enjoyed a popularity that dissolved barriers. John Breen was a delivery driver for a pharmacy in March 1957 when he learned Armstrong was in town. He bought tickets on sale at Mercy Hospital, and he and his wife, Marion, attended. So did a number of other white couples. "There was absolutely no problem. All of us were talking back and forth. It was fine," said Breen, 81. Rosalie Peck recalls such times, too. "People mixed and they mingled, and for that moment, all the foolishness (of racial antipathy) was forgotten," Peck said.

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