by Jeff Costello, July 12, 2017
Palm Beach — this exclusive enclave of the ultra-wealthy has gotten a lot of press lately thanks to Trump and his Mar-A-Lago resort. I'd never have gone there if not for a music gig. My band had been playing at Trude Heller's club in Greenwich Village, close to the "hip" folk clubs where Dylan and others got their start, but culturally a world away. At Trude Heller's, upper-crust New York society types came to see and be seen. Thanks to this booking, the band was mentioned in Suzy Knickerbocker's society gossip column. But the bands, the music, didn't matter. It was all image, with a gaggle of dancers there encouraging the swells to dance.
Trude Heller's Greenwich Village club
It so happened that Ms. Heller was about to open a second club in Palm Beach. This was notable for the fact that Heller was the first Jew, and a holocaust survivor to boot, to open a business in the ultra WASPish town. Our manager, ever the showbiz hustler, convinced her that we should play there for the opening. It would be Joey Dee and the Starlighters, and us. January in New York, a good time to go to Florida.
We set off in the beat-up blue Ford Econoline van, down the mid-Atlantic coast and into the confederate southern states. Somewhere there is a photo of the band posing in front of the capitol building in Washington DC. Our manager's idea, but how this related to music or anything cool, was beyond me. I remember buying untaxed cigarettes in North Carolina, less than half the normal price. Crossing into South Carolina one is confronted with South of the Border, a fireworks superstore and theme park. No liberal-influenced safety laws to inhibit the good ol' boy desire to blow things up. Georgia? Lots of pig themed restaurants, the only thing I really noticed besides segregated bathrooms. Northern Florida, not much to see until you reach the spring break zone. Southern Florida, Jews and Cubans.
But Palm Beach? Another planet between and entirely separate from it all. Nobody, certainly no tourists, on the beach. It was 1967, both Trump and I were 21, before his acquisition of Mar-a-Lago. Best I can guess, it means Sea at the Lake. Make what you will of that, but linguistic brilliance it is not.
We rolled into Palm Beach in the beat-up van and got our reserved hotel rooms. It was a working class place, not for the normal crowd there. We wouldn't have gotten through the door at most of the hotels. The town was very clean with only high-end clothing and jewelry stores that I could see. But at Trude Heller's new club we were somebody, sort of. You were somebody or you were not, and if you were not, you didn't last long. There was by necessity one all-night restaurant, where entertainers could go in the late hours after work.
We went to the club to set up for opening night. Joey Dee, still coasting on his Peppermint Twist fame, had a six-piece band with no remnants of the original Peppermint Lounge band. Eddie Brigati was flying high with the Rascals, and the drummer, Willie Davis, had fallen on hard times and went around to small-town clubs playing on the tables ala Stepin Fetchit with his drumsticks for tips and drinks.
Opening night - The Trude Heller club was pretty big, with a lot of dance floor. The stage was large enough to accommodate two alternating bands. Rumors of big stars and celebrities. The biggest talk was that Jackie Gleason would be there. He never showed, but the table just to the right of the stage was occupied by Lucille Ball and Hugh O'Brian, the TV Wyatt Earp actor. They were joined later by movie actor Kevin McCarthy, and the biggest Palm Beach personage of all, Dina Merrill. Merrill, who did some acting, was the billionaire heir to the Post cereal fortune and daughter of Marjorie Merriweather Post, who used the Post Toasties fortune to build Mar-a-Lago, unwittingly setting the stage for you-know-who. Damn.
Amid all this fabulous wealth, somehow there was no money to pay the hotel bill when we left. So at 4:30 in the morning, we lowered our suitcases out the window and made a run for it.