On Sunday, Feb. 27, The Washington Post reported a statement by Berk Motley that he was the owner of the Arrow Refrigeration Company of Hyattsville. The correr owner and operator is Winfred Mister.
"I'm the only man in Colmar Manor who plays three clarinets at one time," said Berk Motley. "All it takes to play three clarinets at one time is big mouth."
Motley and his three clarinets played "Anchors Away," and then Motley stood on his head and proceeded to play "Roll Out the Barrel." All you could see from the back of Motley's Sirloin Room on Bladensburg Road, on the banks of the Anacostia, were his two feet sticking up.
"You know," he said, "it's a better show down here."
The Saturday night audience roared approval. It was vintage hoke, interspersed with Big Band music, from a slightly gaunt-looking 63-year-old man whose musical talents are not widely recognized by jazz historians but whose antics won him immortality of sorts in Ripley's Believe It Or Not.
They come from as far away as Baltimore and Frederick to see and hear this entertaining, ridiculous man whose log cabin nightclub is the sole survivor of the once notorious Bladensburg Road Strip.
It's not the Cellar Door in Georgetown or Mark Russell at the Shoreham. It's not discotheque. There's no "Hustle" or "Bump." Out on the small dance floor, it's strictly "The Lindy" for fast numbers and, yes, the fox trot for slower ones. The average age of the patrons appears to be around 40. They're not exactly your mod swinging-single set.
They get a lot of wife and mother-in-law, jokes, most of them dirty, many blatantly sexist, but it's humor with roots in vaudeville and burlesque. It makes you laugh:
"My wife is so dumb she thinks Johnny Cash is a pay toilet . . . I spent three hours with my wife at the beauty parlor. She was getting an estimate . . . My great grandmother was the first bag they tossed overboard at the Boston Tea Party . . ."
In between are the band leader imitations - Tommy Dorsey with a slide trombone, Benny Goodman with clarinet, Harry James on trumpet - and there are the skits the regulars request with their reservations. The Preacher Gravel Gertie.
The Saturday night audience includes three hapless Prince George's policemen. "You a policeman?" asked Berk Motley. "Have a little respect for me. I might be your father."
"All comedians have two personalities," Motley said in an interview," when they're on the show and off the show. You can be in a mad mood and everything, but when the band hits the fanfare and the lights go on, it's a business with you. You got to make them laugh.
He's a country boy from Rocky Mount, N.C., who settled in the county 30 years ago after years of playing and arranging with a succession of name bands. He lives in University Park in Prince George's, drives a Cadillac and owns, in addition to his nightclub-restaurant, Kenilworth Automotive Services next door and Arrow Refrigeration in Hyattsville.
"In Prince George's County, I'm a big fish in a little pool," he said. "When I leave here, I ain't nothing."
He began playing trombone at 12 and ran away from home with a tent show at 14. "I was on the road in '28 and '29 and you never got paid. We didn't expect any money. My first salary was $8 a week. There were 30 to 40 people in a show, and sometimes the show would skip town with the money.The boss left us stranded in Missoula, Mont., in 1928, and it took me six weeks to hitchhike home . . . In the 30s, nobody had nothing . . . I'd rather be broke and back in the 30s. It was terrific music, the big band, the big sound."
When Glen Gray's Casa Loma Orchestra played the Wilson, N.C., tobacco warehouse in 1933, Motley joined up, learning from such jazz greats as Jack Teagarden and Kenny Sargent. Then he spent two years on the road with Hal Kemp, a fellow student at the University of North Carolina.
Musicians were a dime a dozen in those days, but Berk Motley was also an arranger. It was a time when band leaders were experimenting with different harmonies and instruments in search of their own distinctive styles.
"I made a fortune jumping from band to band transposing a sight. They'd say, 'Get Motley,'" said Motley. He "styled" sammie Kaye's band, he said, and he worked for shorter periods with Kay Kyser, Glen Miller and the Dorsey Brothers.
In 1939, he formed his own band, booked, alternately, under his name and that of his singer wife, Agnes Hudson, whom he met while playing in Boxton The World War II draft broke up his big band. He led a small group then, and, after the 1942 Ripley's write-up, did a night club act and took master of ceremonies jobs around the country.
He played Loew's Place on F Street NW in 1942 "when D.C. was a big time." After the show, he would relax at the Rustic Cabin in Colmar Manor. When it went on the market in 1948, Motley grabbed it.
Except for five years on the road in the 1950s, Motley's been there ever since, playing the big band sound and standing on his head.
His ultimate stunt was inspired by a carnival musician who played a clarinet bent over backwards with his head touching the floor. Motley's horns are fitted with rings, to keep them from falling off his fingers.
"If you take my horns away from me at my age, I'm dead," he said. "You can take all my money and possessions away from me, but don't take my instruments." Last fall, someone did just that, along with expensive sound equipment. He's got new horns now, but he says it's not the same.
The humor has changed along with the times. In 1934, he was fired for saying "hell" in a Cincinnati Hotel, and "now the people want that laid right in their laps. I can do a show in a church.I can do a real clean show, but they don't want it anymore. I give them what they want. You feel the mood of the crowd."
The crowd was in a bawdy mood this Saturday night. Sheila, in a low-cut black dress, had somehow become a prop for one of Berk Motley's raunchier routines. She was perfect for it. She blushed a little, smile a lot, a everybody loved it except her boy-friend.
"Maybe next time I might punch him out," the boyfriend said as the couple left after the show. "Don't you dare," said Sheila. Berk Motley had missed the last laugh line of the night.