THE VANISHED ERA OF LAWNSIDE'S DREAMLAND|
When Evesham Road Was an East Coast Musical Mecca
By Sandy Levins ... | ...December, 2007
LAWNSIDE, N.J. -- For most Camden County residents, East Evesham Road, just off the White Horse Pike and Charleston Avenue in Lawnside, is nothing more than a way to get to Lion's Head Plaza shopping center, the Ashland PATCO station or the Echelon Mall. But for locals of a certain age, that stretch of road
is rich with memories. Summer nights redolent with sweet-tangy barbeque smelling of home; swimming, boating, lazy picnics in the park. And music -- memorable music by some of the greatest black entertainers of the day in a place called the Dreamland Cafe.
|From the 1930s into the early 1970s, Lawnside's Evesham Road nightclub strip regularly hosted some of America's top musical talent. |
From the 1930s to the early 1970s, the strip of clubs along East Evesham Road was a weekend party mecca. Philadelphians crossed the river to enjoy New Jersey's more liberal liquor laws, while Lawnside's location, within driving distance of New York City, attracted entertainers who drew busloads of tourists from as far away as Virginia and the Carolinas. Many nights, there were more professional musicians in the audience than there were on stage.
Half a century
For almost half a century Dreamland and its neighbors -- the Cotton Club, Wilcox's Cafe, the Whippoorwill Club and Loretta's Hi-Hat -- were places where African-Americans could dress up, enjoy fine dining, kick up their heels, and kick back in style. But the genesis of this black entertainment center located in New Jersey's oldest incorporated African-American township, wasn't as lighthearted.
As the 21st century opened, segregation was still the law of the land. African-Americans had few choices when it came to public entertainment venues like nightclubs -- this even as black artists were pioneering the new forms of music that would come to dominate the modern age.
|Dreamland Cafe, opened in the early 1930s, was the area's first nightclub. |
A small group of Lawnside enrepreneurs ultimately saw a business opportunity in all of this. In the 1930s, they commercialized the dusty, unpaved strip of land along Evesham Road. The area became known as Lawnside Park, boasting a lake and a boathouse; two swimming pools; an amusement park complete with its own Ferris wheel, as well as caterers, hotels and restaurants.
Jack Brady's Dreamland
At the heart of it all sat the area's first nightclub -- the Dreamland Cafe, founded by Mr. Jack Brady, and known for its food, drink and, above all, its music. It gave African-American audiences the best of both worlds: barbeque pits and food reminiscent of their rural homes in the south, offset with cutting-edge jazz music equal to that found in the country's most upscale metropolitan settings.
Although Dreamland hit its stride in the 1930s and 1940s, it remained the place to see and be seen into the early 1970s. Nat King Cole is said to have performed there, as well as Ella Fitzgerald; "Sassy" Sarah Vaughn; Sara Dean, who sang with the Louis Armstrong Orchestra; and actress/comedienne LaWanda Page, perhaps best-known for her portrayal of feisty "Aunt Esther" in Redd Foxx's Sanford & Son. Heavyweight boxers Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott were frequent visitors. And some of the icons of Philadelphia's jazz scene made it their regular hangout.
|Among those said to have performed at Dreamland were Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Sara Vaughn.|
Eventually, as segregation gave way to the Civil Rights Movement and the Jim Crow "whites-only" laws receded into history, local entertainment meccas like Dreamland began to suffer. Lawnside's hot spots cooled and eventually fell victim to the glamour, glitz and world-class talent offered in mainstream entertainment theaters in Cherry Hill, Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
The Dreamland Cafe, like its neighbors, slid into decline. Its first owners, Jack and Emily Brady, sold the club in the 1960s. Its final owner was Mr. Liberty Hodges, one-time owner of the Whippoorwill Club. But his plans to reopen Dreamland, bring back the entertainment, and rekindle the memories foundered when he was unable to secure funding. The Dreamland Cafe was demolished in the summer of 1995.
By the summer of 1999 Evesham Road's last barbeque joint, Hilly's Place, had closed its doors for good. The little shanty with the sign reading "Willie Wilder, the Little Boy from Alabama," touting frog legs as its specialty, was long gone. Even the dining room and open-pit
cooking area of Gerry's Family Barbeque -- once famous for greeting diners with its pig's head painted on the cement porch -- had become a thing of the past.
|Ironically, the success of the Civil Rights Movement and the opening of all public entertainment venues to non-whites was the downfall of Dreamland and the era for which it is now an icon. |
But if you drive down that little stretch of road today, you'll find evidence of the entrepreneurial spirit that gave rise to Lawnside Park and hot spots like the Dreamland Cafe. For where they once stood -- where, for almost half a century, African-American people came from miles around to forget their troubles and relax for an evening -- land has been cleared and signs promising new housing at "Somerdale Condominiums" and "The Woods at River Run ... Starting in the $400,000s" have popped up. The only hint of the fabled past when home-grown barbeque had mouths watering for miles around? A weather-worn sign for the Snow Hill Lounge, serving "Jamaican-Style Soul Food."
Sandy Levins is a trustee and director of programming at the Camden County Historical Society