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The Latin Legend

by Randy Alexander

For nearly two decades, the entertainment world’s biggest names made their way on stage at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, making the famed nightclub the place to be for performers and audience members alike. So how exactly did this South Jersey hot spot rise to such notoriety? We took a trip back in time to find out.

There was nothing Latin about it. And it certainly wasn’t a casino.

But throughout the 1960s and most of the ’70s, the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill was something else, indeed. “It was,” recalls Larry Magid, the region’s legendary concert promoter, “a big f**kin’ deal.”

The Latin Casino—or “The Latin”—as it was commonly known—stood on Route 70 from 1960 to 1978 as the indisputable entertainment Mecca of South Jersey, if not the entire Delaware Valley. Or, if you asked original partner David Dushoff back in the early going, “The Mecca of the entertainment world.”

It was where Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin did a rare run of shows together, and where Diana Ross famously canceled a sold out two-week run with the Supremes because her dogs died backstage from apparently ingesting rat poison on the premises.

It was where James Brown, Richard Pryor, the Spinners, Natalie Cole, and Blue Magic recorded live albums, and where a then-unknown Johnny Carson came to sit in on drums with the band in the lounge.

It was the spot where Louis Prima found a wife, and an on-stage heart attack—or was it really a stroke?—fatefully triggered the end of Jackie Wilson’s life.

Its talent roster was a Who’s Who of big-name acts of the era: Sammy Davis Jr., Rodney Dangerfield, Jimmy Durante, the Temptations, Jerry Lewis, Liberace, Milton Berle, Tom Jones, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Darin and Ray Charles are just a few of the more than 100 stars who played there.

The Latin’s curved, Vegas-style “plush cavern” showroom comfortably accommodated up to 2,200 patrons, many with families in tow, to fill the long banquet tables and drink and dine on the surf, turf, and a few select entrées from the “Chinese Kitchen.” At that capacity, hosting a galaxy of stars rivaling the best of the Las Vegas Strip, the ultimate supper club reigned for nearly two decades as the only live venue of its kind between New York and Miami Beach. And, until the arrival of casino gambling in Atlantic City, the Latin Casino was a seemingly invincible and magnetic setting for showbiz fans of all ages throughout the Delaware Valley and beyond.

“It was more comfortable than any other nightclub I’ve ever been in,” says Magid, who started going there as a teen, a few years before embarking on his extraordinary 50-year career. “It wasn’t overly glitzy, it wasn’t overstated, and it wasn’t understated.”

Performers loved playing the Latin, where they’d be booked for multi-night stands often lasting a week or two, and on rare occasion, three—Eddie Fisher being one of the first to command that many nights in 1962. The immense showroom had a cozy, deep red décor and an impeccable sound system. The dressing room was large and plush, with fresh liquor bottles waiting every night, no matter how much or little had been consumed. The stars were treated like family, on stage and off.

“They treated show business people like they were dealing with family,” notes Kal Rudman, longtime publisher of the influential Cherry Hill-based music industry trade publication Friday Morning Quarterback. Many stars were treated to home cooking across the bridge at the Penn Valley family residence of Charles “Charlie” Gerson, son of Dushoff’s partner, Dallas Gerson. After apprenticing at the Latin most of his life, Charlie received a half interest in the business from his father in the ’70s, and started booking the shows once Dushoff died, bringing along the young ideas and energy that kept the Latin rolling through its second and final decade.

Freddie Prinze came to Charlie’s home for Thanksgiving dinner during a mid-’70s holiday engagement. And when Sammy Davis Jr. had a late night craving for chicken in the pot, he rang up Charlie’s wife, Kate, who hurriedly figured out how to cook it up in time for a midnight feeding.

“Remember, in those days, each act played seven days a week, two shows on Sunday,” notes Jody Gerson, Charlie’s daughter and co-president of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, named this year by Billboard magazine among its top three Women in Music. “So my father really got to know them. His real talent was working with talent, and making them feel comfortable.

“I didn’t know that it wasn’t normal to have Gladys Knight & the Pips at my home. Or to party with Richard Pryor. Or to see my mom playing tennis with Englebert Humperdinck.”

Sinatra once sent a chauffered limo to the Gerson home to deliver a Bar Mitzvah gift from Cartier for Jody’s younger brother, Billy. During at least one ’70s engagement, a helicopter landed at the Gersons’ to pick up Sinatra’s wife, Barbara, along with Barbara Tose (then-wife of former Philadelphia Eagles owner Leonard Tose) and Kate, and deliver them for a tennis rendezvous.

“Sinatra loved my dad so much,” says Jody. “When he booked Sinatra in the mid-’70s, it was his dream, and after Sinatra played the long weekend, he said, ‘What else can I do for you?’ And he came back with Dean Martin, ‘but only if you play golf with him every day.’”

When it came time for Jody’s Bat Mitzvah, where else to hold it but the Latin, the frequent site of private banquet events and community affairs during off hours. And naturally, who should drop into Jody’s affair to perform but David Clayton-Thomas and Mama Cass, both booked that week. Joe Jefferson, best known for writing the Spinners’ No. 1 Philly soul hits “Mighty Love, Part 1,” “One of a Kind (Love Affair),” and “(They Just Can’t Stop It) Games People Play,” chose the Latin stage for his wedding, with all of the Spinners as best men.

Dallas Gerson, a Polish immigrant, was a distinguished-looking man of medium height, with white hair and glasses who wore elegant business suits. He also was known for his practical jokes and his passion for expensive cars, like Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. One night, he drove a new luxury car right onto the stage as a present for Harry Belafonte, in appreciation for a good string of shows that week.

If the stars were really special, the Latin put them up at the private house next door that Dallas owned. When the stars wanted a good cigar, the Latin Casino kept things all in the family by sending them out to Churchill’s Tobacco Shop, located in the Ellisburg Shopping Center at the time and now 100 yards down Kings Highway in Cherry Hill. It’s still owned by Dushoff’s nephew, Joe Orman, who has memories of visits by Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Don Rickles and, most memorably, Milton Berle.

“Berle was in here for an hour and a half,” says Orman. “He was waiting on customers and enjoying himself. A young doctor comes in, Berle comes up from behind and puts his arm around him and says, ‘Let your Uncle Miltie help you.’ The guy must have been 32 years old and didn’t seem to recognize him and pulls away from him.

“And while he’s here, Berle’s looking around and asks why I have a lot of Dunhill supplies and products but none of their actual cigars. I tell him I tried but Dunhill isn’t opening any accounts. He gets right on the phone with the president of Dunhill and gets me an account. Turns out he was a stockholder.”

The Latin Casino Theatre Restaurant was billed as the “Showplace of the Stars,” with no cover charge until Sinatra set the new standard in the mid-’70s, when a ticket for an evening with the Chairman was $16.25. With no cover, the Latin relied on revenue from food and alcohol.

But a quality tip was always needed for the maitre d’ if you wanted a decent seat. A $20 bill got you up front. A 10-spot sent you to the second section. Stiff the maitre d’, Marty Blumberg, and you were almost in the parking lot. The other maitre d’ was Barney Stone, but it was Blumberg, the maitre d’ for all 18 years the Latin was in Cherry Hill, who according to legend could tell from the bill’s texture which denomination was passing through his fingers. Blumberg always took care of his industry friends, making sure they got good seats.

“Nobody had a bad time at the Latin unless you didn’t tip enough,” says Magid. “And if a guy had a date, Marty made sure you had a great seat, from beginning to end. It was a well-run, well-oiled place.”

The Latin Casino Theater Restaurant rose at 2235 Route 70, across from Garden State Park at the end of 1960, after a successful decade in Center City at 13th & Walnut. The old room, founded by Dushoff and Gerson in 1948 and host to the likes of Mae West, Louis Armstrong, Jack Benny, and the Three Stooges, had gotten too small by the late 1950s. Dushoff and Gerson had no more patience for the restrictive Pennsylvania Blue Laws that enabled anyone 18 years and older to hop a bridge to South Jersey and drink alcohol. The great suburban exodus by the children of the Greatest Generation was on. The new expanse was almost four times as large with a staff of 300 and a weekly payroll of $15,000. Designed by Philadelphia architects Sabatino & Fishman and built for $3 million on an 11-acre sprawl where Subaru’s national headquarters now stands, the Latin Casino opened in Cherry Hill with plenty of easy parking and immediately drew thousands a week.

From the start, people just loved going to the new Latin Casino. Who wouldn’t? It was the place to go for couples on a night out. The hippest place to see and be seen. This also was when Bandstand’s teen idols—Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon and Fabian—were exploding out of South Philly and the TV dance-a-thon was still a few years away from departing for Hollywood. President Eisenhower had a month left before John F. Kennedy would be sworn in. Camelot and the Latin Casino arrived almost simultaneously. It was vintage Mad Men at its swankiest in Cherry Hill, and the Latin Casino was the biggest straw to stir the drink. Kids there would drink Shirley Temples while their parents knocked back martinis and chain smoked unfiltered cigarettes.

The new building was bigger than the Copacabana in New York, Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago, and anything comparable in L.A. It was such a large space that many stars were flown by helicopter to the club’s back lot after landing at Philadelphia International Airport.

“The Latin Casino was something to behold,” remembers Jerry Gross of The Dovells, a Cherry Hill resident since the Latin’s opening. “It was my favorite place to go.”

Gross liked to pull up front to the valet in his ’61 Thunderbird Sport roadster in the early years, while the spotlights were swirling out front and more lights were sparkling once inside. The main lobby was done in purple and white vinyl, and decorated with gold-painted statues of topless maidens bearing plastic fruit. In the middle to the right was a beautiful winding staircase with open steps leading to the upstairs level. The Turf Lounge was on the main floor, right hand side, opposite the big staircase.

“It was like Las Vegas, like you were being transported to another place—and I didn’t know that till we wound up playing Las Vegas,” says Gross. “Today when you go to Vegas, you expect that because everybody’s trying to outdo each other. Back then, you had nothing to compare it to. So when that curtain went up and you saw the mirror balls making the room spin and the lights going and the fog machines, it was just an awesome experience.”

Gross was 16 when the Latin moved to New Jersey and he began patronizing the joint with his buddies. It opened the same year his family settled in Cherry Hill. The same year it became Cherry Hill, no longer Delaware Township. And the year before the ribbon was cut on the Cherry Hill Mall, then known as the East Coast’s first shopping mall—a catalyst for the growth boom that made Cherry Hill a seminal suburb of Greater Philadelphia.

Routes 38 and 70 became the hub of entertainment and commercial development. Entertainers and well-heeled patrons from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles would dine at Henry’s or Cinelli’s Country House on Haddonfield Road, the Cherry Hill Inn’s Starlight Room, or under the giant pineapple roof of the kitschy Hawaiian Cottage.

High spirits, high stakes and high hopes flowed freely through South Jersey’s frivolous playground. They’d stay at the Cherry Hill Inn, the towering Hyatt, the modest Country Squire hotel or the glitzy Rickshaw Inn, which topped off its exotic oriental exterior with a 22-carat gold-plated roof. Liberace, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, Roy Clark, Andy Williams, and Frank Gorshin were just some of the stars who either stayed at the Rickshaw or hung at the lobby bar to drink with the orchestra musicians way past the official 2 a.m. curfew, which somehow just didn’t seem to be enforced. Also making the South Jersey club scene boom were the Red Hill Inn, Andy’s Log Cabin, Chubby’s, near Camden, and in Lawnside, Pearl’s and Loretta’s Hi-Hat. The Latin Casino was in the same neighborhood as Cinelli’s, the Rickshaw Inn and the racetrack, and a night at the Latin often completed a day at the races and maybe another meal in-between at one of the other places.

“We’d go out, five or six guys, and hit every club we could,” says Larry Magid. “And then we’d wind up at the Calico Kitchen till 5 or 6 in the morning.”

“When we’d get finished at the Latin, we’d ride over to Lawnside,” adds Kenny Gamble, co-architect with Leon Huff and Thom Bell of the legendary Sound of Philadelphia. “It was almost like a ritual.”

One of the first performers at the Latin was Bobby Darin, who flew in from Los Angeles in December 1960, fresh from his five-day honeymoon with Sandra Dee. A few weeks later, in January ’61, Sammy Davis Jr. was playing the Latin in a snowstorm that had buried much of South Jersey instead of playing for President Kennedy at his inaugural gala. Davis had planned to take leave from his Latin commitment to be in Washington, but given his mid-November 1960 interracial marriage to Swedish actress May Britt, the song-and-dance man was still too hot politically for the Kennedys. Evelyn Lincoln, JFK’s personal secretary, called Davis on behalf of her boss to cancel the inaugural appearance, a decision by the president described as being forced by the politics of the moment.

You wouldn’t have known his disappointment if you were one of the few who braved the storm to see him at the Latin. Never one to cut a show short, Davis went way over the one-hour norm with a 2 ½-hour session, pulling out his entire repertoire—drums, dance, voice, everything.

Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons were similarly victimized at the box office by a snowstorm in the early 1970s, to the advantage of the few who did manage to turn out. Only some 30 people showed up, and when show time approached, Valli walked on stage and said, “Listen, we can see that not many people made it through the snow to see our sold-out show. But we have the group here, and we have the band here, and we have you here, so what I want everyone to do is come right down in front of the stage where you’ll all enjoy a front row seat, and the Four Seasons are going to give you the best damn concert you ever heard.” Like Sammy Davis, Valli also blew curfew for a 2 ½-hour set, and halfway through ditched the playlist for an all-request format.

The shows were emceed by Jack Curtis, a lyric baritone who would come out most nights in a blue-sequined tux. It was his job to warm up the crowd with a couple of songs—usually “You’re My Girl,” his favorite, and maybe “My Funny Valentine” or “Life is a Cabaret”—a joke or two and a polished introduction. Off stage, Curtis was especially involved in local politics as a Pennsauken Democratic leader. He was a holdover from the Philly Latin since 1951, and early on, also could be found emceeing during summers at the famed 500 Club, the Atlantic City nightspot where Martin & Lewis launched their comedy act.

South Philly rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Charlie Gracie, known for his 1957 million-selling chart-topper, “Butterfly,” had a yearlong stint in the lounge from 1961 to ’62, hired to do three 20-minute spots a night, seven nights a week, to fill the lull between sets by top R&B combo Steve Gibson & the Red Caps, jazz vibes player-bandleader Terry Gibbs and jazz trombone great Jack Teagarten.

“If you came there early, you’d have drinks and then go to the main room,” Gracie recalls. “But a lot of people just came into the lounge. It was like a bar. There was no place to dance. You had to sit there and perform.” Gracie remembers the stars coming into the lounge to relax, never performing.

And then there was Johnny Carson.

“I’m working there one night, so who walks in but Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon. I knew Ed from years before because he was from Philadelphia and I used to do this show Sealtest Big Top. He was one of the clowns on the show. So I knew Ed, and one day he stops in and says ‘Charlie can ya do me a favor? I’ve got Johnny Carson here. He plays drums, can he come up?’ They had served in the Army and the Marines together. And Carson played with me in the lounge! I didn’t think anything of it at the time. And within months, he got The Tonight Show.”

To Gracie’s knowledge, the only main stage performer who sat in with any lounge acts to that point was Louis Prima—but not during Gracie’s set: “I probably would have fainted.”

Prima had another motive while he headlined the main room in May 1962—find a new girl singer for his band. That girl eventually became Prima’s fifth and final wife. Gia Maione of Roebling in Burlington County had secured an audition when she learned they were going to be held during “The King of Swing’s” Latin run. Maione won over the two other finalists, actress Michelle Lee and Philly singer Charlotte Duber, at a special Mother’s Day performance for local B’nai B’rith women. Prima and Maione were married the following February.

Screen legend Marlene Dietrich, one of the highest-paid Hollywood actresses of the 1930s, worked almost exclusively as a highly paid cabaret artist from the 1950s to the 1970s, and graced the Latin stage in 1962.

“The spotlight is on her, and she’s already out on the stage when the curtain goes up,” recalls Lois Alexander, then a young suburban mother of two who came with her husband from Lafayette Hill, Pa., to see filmdom’s faded glamour queen in the flesh. “She was in this gold strapless gown, it was skin tight and her body was perfect. Her figure was gorgeous and sexy, and the dress was very tight. She couldn’t do much walking, except for some mincing little steps. Afterward I read that they had to carry her out there, pick her up and set her down on stage in the dress to fit her into it.”

Brenda Lee was just 17 when, on June 12, 1962, she dislocated a vertebra in her neck during a Latin performance. She was forced to cancel the last six days of her engagement and spend the rest of the week at Cooper Hospital in Camden. But Lee recovered in time to graduate high school.

Legendary gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen reported in 1962 that Eddie Fisher turned down “a big offer to do a date for his hometown fans” replacing the Ritz Brothers, who had canceled. But Fisher made good on it many times over, with numerous engagements over the next 15 years. Debbie Begelman, of Voorhees, then Debbie Goldman of Northeast Philly, used to fill several tables with her family every time Fisher played the Latin. Then again, they were second cousins.

“He always came in October, which was my birthday, and he always sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me,” she fondly recalls. “My aunt, my uncle, my grandmother, brother, sister, cousins, we all went. I loved going there when I was a little girl. It was an incredible night out for the family.”

The way the tables were set up, you never knew if you’d become part of a show. In 1963, during one of his earliest Latin bookings, Liberace sang, danced and bantered with the audience about his outlandish costume: “My clothes may look funny, but they’re making me money.” Mr. Showmanship returned from a costume change in sequin-studded hot pants and vinyl boots as the band launched into “Hey Libby, Let’s Do the Twist,” his show-stopping take on the Twist craze. After a minute of singing, he pulled a mother, there with her children, on stage to dance. A dozen gyrations later, Liberace reached for the son and daughter, who’d been standing on their chairs, to join in. All four wound up twisting madly in front of a full orchestra, colored fountains, a line of feathered showgirls, and 2,000 spectators.

The Dovells got more dancers than they expected during a 1972 New Year’s Eve gig after they stopped “You Can’t Sit Down” mid-song to start the countdown, wish everyone a Happy New Year, and kick into “Auld Lang Syne.” “The people were dancing on the chairs and tables, and at some of the front tables, the people were actually coming onto the stage,” says Jerry Gross. “They stopped the show. I remember looking up from the stage, seeing everyone dancing and thinking to myself, ‘They really couldn’t sit down.’ But more important, with everyone drinking and that high stage, I was afraid people would fall off. The tables were so close to the stage, you could step down and the people’s heads would be at your feet or knee level. The people finally got back in their seats, and the show continued.”

The stage’s close proximity had an awkward effect on a Johnny Mathis performance Gross witnessed. “He’s performing with the Young Americans youth choir, and at the end of the show, he’s backing them up, backing up, backing up, and steps back off that circular stage and fell right into the people’s arms. We were afraid he was hurt, but he was fine.”

Don Rickles once singled out Magid, then sporting a full beard, from the stage and asked “Which way to Jerusalem?”

Variety, the Hollywood trade paper, trashed Peggy Lee’s February 1963 performance, writing Miss Lee believes in making each word intelligible. She notoriously battled stage fright going back to her days with Benny Goodman’s big band, and Chuck Anderson, the grandson of Jack Curtis and a house band guitarist from 1969-75, relates the curious way he witnessed the sophisticated vocalist handle her dread during a return visit.

“She had bad emphysema,” Anderson explains. “And anyone who smoked a cigar, she had them thrown out. What was bizarre was that she would come out of the wings, where her dressing mirror was for her to put her hair back and have her hairdresser do the final things to fix her up. And because of her emphysema, she would take a big drag of a cigarette, drown it with a big glass of scotch, take another big drag, then suck air out through an oxygen canister. It was her way of coping with her nerves and her emphysema at the same time. I was appalled.”

Private functions also brought out the stars in the early going. Ella Fitzgerald headlined a charity fashion show luncheon on Nov. 17, 1962. No wonder its catering business was able to generate affairs with as many as 1,500 guests in its first year.

By the mid-1960s, the nation was still recovering from the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War was escalating, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement were holding the high moral ground. It was a time of idealism and optimism.

James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, was also a revered civil rights leader at the time, and actually recorded Live at the Garden with the Famous Flames in the midst of a 10-day 1967 engagement at the more intimate Latin Casino, not “The Garden.” An expanded two-CD version with 22 extra tracks was released in 2009. Billed as “James Brown and the Famous Flames Orchestra and Revue,” Mr. Dynamite’s run opened Jan. 10. Two shows daily, 8 and 11:30 p.m.; and Sunday, 5:30 and 9:30 p.m. Minimums ranged from $3 to $6 and “always” included food and liquor. Some 25 years into his legendary career, much of it segregated to the chitlin’ circuit, the Latin marked Brown’s first engagement at an elite-level nightclub. He played there two more times, in 1970 and ’71.

To capitalize on his Latin Casino debut, Brown hired strings and a studio caliber rhythm section to augment his band, with no designs of cutting a live record. But after both opening night shows came off splendidly before a pair of sold out crowds, Brown quickly decided he needed to make a live album at the Cherry Hill super supper club. The recordings were captured during the Jan. 14 and 15 performances. With sax player Pee Wee Ellis elevated those nights to replace Nat Jones as bandleader, the band changed direction to a more focused, kinetic, and jazzier sound. Things went so well that Brown decided also to use the Latin Casino as a makeshift recording studio. After the second show audience cleared out on the 15th, he re-assembled his band on stage and recorded a new song, “Let Yourself Go,” co-written with Ellis. It was originally slated to be the next single, but wound up in the vaults until several versions emerged on the 2009 Garden reissue. Incidentally, the sound of the audience had to be overdubbed for the record to make it sound as if it really was “Live at the Garden.”

You could see Jimmy Durante and Peter Lawford on the same bill at the Latin in the mid-1960s, too. An unusual pairing but it worked, with Lawford, awkwardly pulling off song-and-dance schtick while “The Schnozzola,” also joined by his old vaudeville mate Eddie Jackson, did the heavy lifting. Durante, of course, would interrupt his partners’ segments with his usual, “Stop da Music, Stop da Music!” Or he’d sit at the piano and play every note from the bottom up, then look into the audience and mug, “I’d go a little higher, but dere ain’t enough keys!” And finally, on a darkened stage, while singing “Goodnight,” just before disappearing from sight, he’d softly close with his signature “Goodnight Mrs. Calabash wherever you are.” And the stage would go dark.

The 1960s ended abruptly at the Latin in June 1969, with Diana Ross throwing an industrial-strength hissy-fit when she discovered her lap dogs, Tiffany and Little Bit, had fatally ingested rat poison in the dressing room during the encore of the second gig—a Friday midnight show—of a sold-out two-week run. Author J. Randy Taraborelli detailed the scene in his biography, Call Me Ms. Ross:

As soon as Diana was offstage, she let out an ear-piercing scream. The audience, of course, heard her and immediately thought one of the girls had been injured, especially when they heard an announcement asking for a doctor in the house.

It was not one of The Supremes. Diana had found Tiffany and Little Bit staggering in the wings, shaking and vomiting.

“What’s wrong with them? What’s wrong? This is your fault, Joe Shaffner,” Diana shouted at the group’s road manager. “You should have kept an eye on those damn animals!”

Ross called for an ambulance as one dog was dying in her arms. She threatened to sue the club. Berry Gordy tried calming her down. Ross ordered her stuff packed and said she was leaving. It was Dushoff’s turn to step in: “Listen,” Dushoff is quoted as saying, “we had a very famous singer here recently whose mother died. And he continued. These are only dogs.” The gig was done. The Supremes would have been paid $55,000. The Latin lost a lot more, considering there were 10 shows—or some 23,000 tickets—that needed refunding, not to mention the bar receipts and food that had spoiled, as this was the last engagement of the season.

Taraborelli writes: Dushoff held a press conference. She left without calling the management, without saying goodbye, without our knowledge. She tore her contract to shreds, did everything to it in the whole world. There was nothing to do but close down.

The Latin Casino sued and eventually settled with Motown years later. Ross would never appear there again.

By the 1970s, people all over the world were grooving to the sweet symphonic soul of Gamble & Huff’s legendary Sound of Philadelphia. The Latin, having long figured out it could draw people on Good Friday or Yom Kippur by playing black acts, became a requisite stop for not only the Philadelphia International Records artists and the “Sound of Philly” acts guided by Thom Bell, but a sizable sampling of those who dominated Saturday afternoon TV viewing on Soul Train. Billy Paul enlisted all 32 major members of MFSB, the Sound of Philly house band, for a weeklong 1974 engagement, two years after scoring his smash hit “Me & Mrs. Jones.” Lou Rawls, Teddy Pendergrass, the Three Degrees, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Patti LaBelle, the Spinners, the O’Jays, the Stylistics, and many more all played the Latin under the “Sound of Philly” banner.

“Harold Melvin, Billy Paul, and the O’Jays performed there quite a few times,” Kenny Gamble points out. “Charlie Gerson always booked our acts, and always took care of us. The owners really knew what the people wanted. Whenever they had artists I was interested in, whoever it was, we’d head over there and they used to put us right up in front. They had a great orchestra and a great sound system. The Latin was top shelf.”

Gamble & Huff first saw the Three Degrees (“When Will I See You Again”) at the Latin, and eventually signed them to Philly International. They recruited many of the violin players from the Latin’s orchestra as part of MFSB. But Gamble didn’t always want music when he patronized the Latin, and the show that stands out for him was Richard Pryor, while he was recording his 1975 comedy live album, … Is It Something I Said? With his singular understanding and wit, Pryor poked fun at his cocaine addiction and discussed the problems of racism in America to the crowd, while also probing the differences between the sexes and races.

“He was so funny that I fell out of my seat,” says Gamble, whose label stars The O’Jay’s opened. “I was on the floor. Everybody was just dying laughing.”

Spinners Live!, the double album also cut at the Latin in ’75, featured a rare performance by fabled Philly songwriter Linda Creed (“The Greatest Love of All,” “Betcha by Golly, Wow,” “Rubberband Man,” “You Make Me Feel Brand New”), half of the Thom Bell/Linda Creed songwriting machine. Creed, the Songwriters Hall of Fame member whose death a decade later at just 37 spawned the Linda Creed Breast Cancer Foundation, made her live performance debut when she was lured to the stage to spell Dionne Warwick and sing her part on “Then Came You.”

Blue Magic (“Sideshow”), Major Harris (“Love Won’t Let Me Wait”), and Margie Joseph shared a bill to cut Live!, another 1975 double album. And half of Natalie Cole’s double album, Natalie Live!, originated from the Latin showroom in March 1978, not long after her career exploded with hits like “This Will Be,” “I’ve Got Love on My Mind,” and “Inseparable,” all of which are included.

Stars appearing at the Latin Casino in the ’70s often synchronized their bookings with producers of The Mike Douglas Show, taping at KYW-TV on Independence Mall, so they could be Douglas’ weeklong guest host on his nationally syndicated talk show and play the Latin the same week.

“People would come from all over the world to do The Mike Douglas Show,” notes Gamble. “And it kind of correlated.”

The Latin Casino had become one of Frank Sinatra’s favorite performance spots by the mid-’70s. And whenever he came, the club was transformed into a shrine packed with throngs of fans who gave standing ovations before a note was sung. Sinatra played 15 shows at the Latin from April 29 to May 8, 1977, with Russ Miller conducting the orchestra and comedian Pat Henry opening. Most of Sinatra’s days in Cherry Hill were spent with his entourage at Garden State Park.

Magid remembers getting a call at the Bijou Café, at Broad & Lombard in Center City, from Sinatra’s agent, Jerry Weintraub, on a Friday night: “‘Frank’s here at the Latin, come on over.’ I say, ‘I’m tired, how about tomorrow?’ He says, ‘If you don’t come over here, it’s the last Sinatra date you’ll get to promote. Frank wants to see you.’ I’m there in 15 minutes.

“I knock on the back door and there’s Weintraub, happy to see me. ‘Frank’s excited you’re here.’ So I’m waiting backstage and there’s a TV monitor hanging from the ceiling showing the Humphrey Bogart film fest that I’d been following. Sinatra comes out. ‘Hi, kid. How are ya? Whaddya watching?’ I say I’ve been watching this Bogart film festival, and that he’s my favorite, and that the previous night, they’d shown my favorite, The Treasure of Sierra Madre. So now we’re talking about movies, and all of a sudden, Sinatra’s raising his voice trying to make a point. Then I feel everyone’s eyes on the back of my neck. And Sinatra says, ‘I just realized, you’re right.’ Then he looks me in the face. ‘After all, I used to make movies.’ I felt two inches tall. And the next night we went back and sat with (Sinatra’s wife) Barbara.”

Magid brought Bette Midler to the Latin in the late ’70s to see Aretha Franklin while the Divine Miss M was appearing in Philly. It was not one of the Queen of Soul’s better nights. “She was wearing a pink tutu and a top hat,” says Magid. “It was dreadful. She wasn’t good. Everybody was so upset, we just left.”

The Latin Casino made the history books on Sept. 29, 1975, for a horrifically tragic evening. On that night, 41-year-old Jackie Wilson was a featured act in “Dick Clark’s Good Ol’ Rock and Roll Revue” with Cornell Gunter of the Coasters and Dion. Wilson, in the midst of a hyper-charged set singing “Lonely Teardrops,” toppled backward onstage just as he was singing the line, My heart is crying, crying, by most accounts.

“All of a sudden, he balled both fists and drew them to his chest,” says Philadelphia Daily News entertainment and features writer Chuck Darrow, then writing for the Temple (University) News and there for a scheduled post-show interview with Dick Clark, also the show’s emcee. “Then he totally extended his arms out to the sides and fell backward. I heard a sickening thump. I’ll never know whether it was the microphone or Wilson’s skull hitting the floor. But it haunts me to this day.”

“I ran out on stage and he was biting down on his tongue,” Dion told Atlantic City Weekly in 2007. “His body froze up.”

“Jackie wasn’t moving,” recalls Lou Gaul, the recently retired Burlington County Times entertainment editor, then a Latin regular on the paper’s entertainment beat.

The band kept playing as they, like everyone else, figured this was part of the act. But after a minute or two it was evident Wilson wasn’t getting up again. Clark ordered the musicians to stop the music. The maroon curtain was dropped and a few seconds after it had fully descended, Clark emerged holding a mic.

“And Dick said, ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’” says Gaul, who wound up reporting the story for Rolling Stone. “I believe there was a nurse, and she came up on stage, and that was the end of the show. Just so sad.”

“The paramedics ultimately showed up and the audience was asked to exit the premises,” adds Darrow. “I definitely remember one guy in the audience screaming he wanted his money back.”

Backstage, Gunter noticed Wilson wasn’t breathing, and was able to resuscitate him before he was rushed to Cherry Hill Hospital (now Kennedy University Hospital). Medical personnel worked nearly 30 minutes to stabilize his vitals, but the lack of oxygen to his brain caused him to slip into a coma from which he never recovered. It was commonly reported Wilson had suffered a heart attack on the Latin stage. He briefly emerged from the coma in early 1976, and was even able to take a few wobbly steps, but slipped back into a semi-comatose state. He was a resident of the Medford Leas Retirement Center when he was admitted into Memorial Hospital of Burlington County. Wilson died Jan. 21, 1984, from complications of pneumonia. He was 49.

The Latin Casino’s troubles began in the mid-’70s when Dallas Gerson ran into problems with the New Jersey Alcoholic Beverage Control board and the IRS. State liquor board officials first became upset when a lineup of chorus girls went topless in the Folies de Paris. The IRS ended a long battle with Gerson by filing a judgment in default against the New Latin Casino Inc. for $2.5 million. The IRS eventually seized the casino’s liquor supply and license, and in 1975, federal agents auctioned off $7,700 worth of liquor and the license for $125,000. Gerson’s solution was to dissolve the company named in the judgment and create a new firm, the Latin Casino Corp., which bought a new liquor license.

Cherry Hill’s reputation as a glorious hot spot for high rollers and entertainers started declining with the massive 1977 fire that destroyed Garden State Park. Within a year, fire also claimed the Hawaiian Cottage, and the arrival of casino gaming in Atlantic City signaled the Latin Casino’s final curtain. Not only could the casinos pay the stars better, but their contracts all had standard stipulations forbidding the stars from performing within a certain radius that encompassed Cherry Hill. Constantly rising costs for labor, musicians, shows and food also were cited as contributing to the Latin Casino’s demise.

Magid thought the Gersons would make a deal with one of the casinos to open a room in an Atlantic City casino. Instead, the Gersons decided to close altogether in 1978 without fanfare. They didn’t want to exploit the end— rather, just end it. Everything from napkins to silverware to a 1967 Rolls-Royce limo that once transported Sinatra were auctioned off.

“It kind of ran its course like most nightclubs and businesses,” notes Magid. “They all have a certain shelf life.”

Comedian Totie Fields was the last performer, despite numerous health issues that had caused her to lose a leg and, two months after the Latin was shuttered, her life. On June 28, she entered the stage in a wheelchair and the first words out of her mouth were, as usual, hilariously self-deprecating: “Jesus Christ, they had to cut off my goddamn leg to get me to lose weight. If they could just wack my other leg and both of my arms I think I could reach my goal weight.”

Disco was hitting stride when the Latin closed and Charlie Gerson stuck around to reinvent the building as Emerald City, the Delaware Valley’s version of Studio 54. The topless statues and cavernous dining room were replaced by a giant ebony dance floor with inlaid glass, decorated with stainless-steel mirrors and lit by spotlights and neon lights. Disco moved out and rock moved in by 1980, with live shows once again by the likes of Prince, the Go-Go’s, Talking Heads, R.E.M., Joe Jackson, Alice Cooper, the Cure, XTC, and the Hooters through the early part of the decade. By the mid-’80s, fire had gutted Emerald City and the building’s remains were torn down. In its place rose Subaru of America’s corporate headquarters.

“I really thought it would last forever,” says Jody Gerson. “It was a real time. This was an era.”

Randy Alexander is president and CEO of Randex Communications, a South Jersey boutique entertainment, lifestyle, consumer and music publicity firm. He was too young to go to the Latin Casino on his own and his parents never took him, but man, did he have a blast at Emerald City.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 4 July, 2014).
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