My grandmother, Eloise Cullum of Dallas, was about as full of life as one could be, I suppose. Her spark reaches down through the generations. What a gal! During her busy life, she found time to raise six children. She was strong-willed, opinionated, and determined that her children would have the best of everything. She and my grandfather Ashley moved their brood to a farm on the outskirts of Dallas so their children could be raised in the country.
Their obviously talented boys included Robert, James (my father), and Charles. As high school approached, each was given some sort of musical instrument. Bob, the oldest, played the saxophone. When time came for Jim to receive his instrument, my grandmother had been influenced by a music teacher or maybe an instrument salesman, and Jim was presented with a new Boehm system clarinet (the old Albert system was becoming obsolete). She had heard the axiom, "If he starts on clarinet, it's easy to double on saxophone, but if he starts on saxophone, doubling will be difficult." So at Christmas 1926, young Jim, age 12, unwrapped a new clarinet and life was never the same. He spent hours facing a corner, practicing. (The corner acted as an acoustic chamber). Oh, he thought, what a sound! For the rest of his life, the woody clarinet sound was the greatest fun life offered.
Jim played his clarinet with a passion through high school and college. Eventually, he began to play professionally.
Meanwhile, his energetic mother began a small-scale land development on the family farm in north Dallas. As her children married in close succession, she gave each a lot on which to build a house. Her one-block street was called Nash Street after son-in-law George Nash, and gradually neighbors began calling the area "Cullumville."
Jim and his bride Conoly (my mother) became part of this happy scene. He began working as his father's apprentice in family wholesale grocery business, and the clarinet got little use for several years.
This is where I came in. I have no recollection of World War II, but by war's end in 1945 I was four years old, and bits and pieces of memory of those years have survived. The Cullumville life was idyllic. My playmates were mostly cousins, and other neighbors often were aunts and uncles. My grandparents lived in the big house at one end of Nash Street. We children played freely up and down Nash, and most spectacular of all was the creek that bounded Cullumville on the north. We dammed it and created small spillways. Life was tree climbing, stickhorse riding, and other similar adventures.
By this time, Jim Sr. had yielded to his lifetime desire to be a full-time professional jazz musician. He had gradually increased his musical activities, then in 1944 he resigned his position with the family business and was off and running. In 1945, he joined the Jack Teagarden band and left Dallas for the life of a traveling musician.
Somewhere interwoven with these years, my memory flicks on as follows: it's deep in the middle of the night and a jam session is underway downstairs in our Cullumville living room. The music has awakened me and I climb out of bed in the pajamas that had the the feet built-in, and pad downstairs to the "party," where I am welcomed, especially by the women present. I snuggle on a comfortable lap as the music is mixed together with the talking, smoking, drinking, and laughing.
This scene, which was played over and over, often disturbed the Cullumville neighbors, particularly in the summer when the music floated out through open windows.
At the end of World War II, my father's good friend Garner Clark, an especially gifted cornetist, returned to Dallas. Garner, who had saved much of his Army pay, wished to invest his "winnings" in a jazz club. A partnership ensued as Dad and Garner established the Hollywood Club on an outlying desolate strip of the Fort Worth Pike. Something had been there before the Hollywood, but I know nothing of the predecessor. The venture seemed doomed to failure almost from the start.
My mother was on hand and spent much of her time mopping up the ladies' room as the club had severe plumbing problems and the toilets regularly overflowed. The place served Cajun-style food and had a full professional jazz band. It was the typical musician's dream. Garner began to almost live there, and had a cot in the liquor storage room. (The fox was really in charge of the chicken coop!).
The club had good music, but nothing else went well. Several months of uncharacteristic rain began and, unbeknownst to our heroes, a large amount of water accumulated on the sunken flat roof. In the night club business, rainy nights always mean poor attendance and the club's location was a severe handicap. As business dropped off, desperate attempts were made to salvage things. The Hollywood was made into a "private club" so that liquor could be served by the drink (at that time prohibited by Texas liquor laws). After a few weeks, the law swooped down, Garner was arrested, and spent a night in jail.
Then a deal was worked out with some professional gamblers who converted a portion of the club into an illegal casino. What a scene! A jazz band and its listeners and dancers occupied approximately one-half of the club, and gambling tables hidden behind a ceiling-to-floor curtain were active in the other half. At this time the water on the roof, trapped for several months, finally worked its way through, and water began to "rain" all over the gambling tables.
The place had an unpaved parking lot which was turned into a churned mud-hole during the heavy rains. Customers' cars regularly sank to the axles. The porter/janitor often attempted to drive stuck cars out of the muck, and was very skilled in these maneuvers, often succeeding. A couple of times he lost his shoes in the sticky mud. Once, keys were accidentally dropped in the mud in the dark, and the earnest porter (whose name is lost to posterity) dove for them, returning to the light of the Hollywood Club entrance completely covered with mud. For a while, the club resorted to keeping a full-time wrecker on hand to pull cars out of the parking lot.
Ah, memories! I can remember leaving our comfortable home to accompany my father for a Sunday afternoon session at the Hollywood Club. Our route took us across several old rickety wooden bridges across the Trinity River. I was allowed to steer the car down these back roads and over a couple of the bridges. Once at the club, I would hit up the musicians for quarters which I would use to play the gamblers' slot machines. Nothing was more fun. I sometimes think of this when my children come to me for quarters to sink into the ever-present video games of today.
The Hollywood Club's plumbing problems were crudely corrected by running a new sewer line out in the back of the building for about two hundred yards. (The club was situated in open space and was the one lonely inhabitant on a deserted strip of a two-lane highway). A bull dozer was hired to dig a large open pit into which the club's raw sewage was emptied. Even in those years, these methods of sewage disposal were strictly against the law, but no one was watching and Cullum and Clark heartily congratulated themselves.
Then the plot thickened as Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra were appearing for a good long run at the Adolphus Hotel in downtown Dallas. Many nights, after his job ended, Jimmy would journey out to the Hollywood club, sometimes to sit in, as he was an admirer of the band. He had ideas of creating a "band within a band" in his orchestra, and he often brought one or two of his musicians along to hear what the Hollywood Club band was doing. Everybody in both bands became very friendly, and as the Hollywood Club was struggling, Jimmy Dorsey agreed to make a special Sunday afternoon appearance there.
Now one of the Hollywood regulars was an ardent Jimmy Dorsey fan and had equipped his young son (who was about my age--about five years old) with a shiny curved soprano saxophone. Jimmy Dorsey, of course, was famous for his alto saxophone playing, and a soprano looks very much like a miniature or toy alto. Said regular, upon hearing of the approaching appearance of Jimmy Dorsey at the Hollywood Club, hired a photographer to be on hand to snap a picture of Jimmy Dorsey and his famous alto, together with young son and soprano. The little boy was very dressed up for the picture and the sax hung from his neck on a saxophone strap.
Unfortunately, Jimmy Dorsey was late and as boys will be boys, saxophone-bedecked son and I began playing in the open space behind the club. Eventually, we worked our way out to the secret sewage pit where young son fell in, complete with saxophone. He crawled out as we began to realize that something was terribly wrong, and we began making our way back to the club, where in the meantime Jimmy Dorsey had arrived, the photographer was ready, and the father was searching frantically for young son. Autograph-seekers were upon Jimmy Dorsey, and the photo opportunity was about to slip away when we got back to the club's back door. Father confronted son, tears were shed, and son being thoroughly soaked with raw sewage, the entire photo plan was blown.
The Hollywood Club met its doom after about six months of operation. Somehow it caught fire and was gutted. Everyone suspected the landlord, who collected handsomely from the fire insurance carrier.
Garner left to become the house cornetist at the famed Jazz Limited Club in Chicago, but he soon returned to Dallas. The Hollywood Club band had dissolved, but was regrouped over and over for unlikely Dallas playing jobs.
My family picked up and moved for two years to Venezuela, where my father accepted an executive position with Nelson Rockefeller interests. But that's another story!
Memories of the Hollywood Club survived, along with a set of shrimp forks with H.C. embossed in the handles. They followed our family for years, gradually being lost one by one until, like the Hollywood Club participants, they have completely disappeared.
But in 1946, these same participants were in full bloom. They demonstrated to, and thoroughly convinced an innocent young five-year-old boy (that's me) that nothing could be more fun or more laughs or more "kicks" than a jazz night club.
Here are some of the players from those days: