In another era, 14th Street's nightlife was pretty naughty

By John Kelly
Sunday, June 27, 2010

My now-79-year-old father was a frequent traveler from our home in Southern California to the Washington area during his long career in the defense business. Recently, he told me a story about an encounter he had back in the early 1960s with a "performer" at the Blue Mirror, a place he described as a burlesque club. He claims she propositioned him about being a father for her yet-to-be-conceived children. Since he is a handsome guy, this story is possibly true, although given that his career was in marketing, I'll never really know for sure. Either way, it piqued my curiosity about the Blue Mirror. What can you tell me about it?

-- Janene Kalb, Glenelg

We think of organisms as having life cycles -- from tadpole to frog, say, or caterpillar to butterfly. Civilizations have life cycles, too. Before the Roman empire could fall, it had to rise. And so it is with businesses: They come, they go, the neighborhoods in which they ply their trades metamorphose.

In other words, the Blue Mirror did not start out the way it ended, as a place where out-of-town businessmen were invited by informally dressed ecdysiasts to, ahem, start families. When it opened in the late 1940s at 824 14th St. NW, the Blue Mirror was a classy supper club that owed its azure interior to Charlie Zeller, Washington's "foremost nitery designer." (He also designed the Rainbow Room and Annapolis's Anchor Room.)

You could catch Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong at the Blue Mirror, Nat King Cole, the Ink Spots and such now-forgotten entertainers as Lisa Alonzo and Her Tropicaires, who in 1950 introduced a new dance style to Washington: the mambo. "It's kind of South American bebop with lots of rhythmic ad libbing," wrote The Post's Georganne Williamson.

This was the heyday of a certain kind of Washington nightlife scene, when live music seemed to spill from every other door: jazz, Dixieland, bluegrass. . .

In the late 1950s, however, the tenor of the Blue Mirror changed, as it did for so many of the clubs along 14th Street: Casino Royal, the Merry-Land, Benny's Rebel Room. The management turned to burlesque. A 1961 Post story counted four strip houses and two belly dancer clubs in the neighborhood. The author noted the Blue Mirror's beginnings as a jazz club: "But jazz didn't pay so they turned to the money makers, the girls."

A Blue Mirror ad from the time touted seven featured dancers, including Renee de Milo, "6'4" of Sex, Song and Satire."

The nightclub closed around 1972 to make way for Metro construction, which is probably just as well, since that saved it from becoming a place where patrons didn't want their sex diluted by song and satire. When Answer Man was a callow college student, he was not unfamiliar with these 14th Street establishments, when such spots as Casino Royal, the Gold Rush and This Is It?! offered rawer entertainments than even Renee de Milo. He will not soon forget the night an auburn-haired beauty performed with nothing more than a carpet square and a bottle of Jergens lotion.

What's remarkable is how sanitized 14th Street is now, with nary a trace of its jazz-to-burlesque, burlesque-to-go-go dancing, go-go dancing-to-porno-theater past. Today, music is a mouse click away. So are naked women. Answer Man supposes this qualifies as progress.

Send a Kid to Camp

My sources at Camp Moss Hollow tell me that the heat wave that had us sweltering here last week wasn't so bad out in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. If there's anything cooler than the word "moss," it's the word "moss" followed by the word "hollow."

Would you make a cool contribution to the camp, which for decades has been providing a summer respite for needy kids from the Washington area? Mail a check or money order, payable to "Send a Kid to Camp," to P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237. Or contribute online by going to http://www.washingtonpost.com/camp and clicking on the donation link. To use MasterCard or Visa by phone, call 202-334-5100 and follow the instructions on our taped message.

Have a question about the Washington area? Let the Answer Man team tackle it: answerman@washpost.com.


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