Berk Motley, who died July 23 at the age of 85, was one for the books. The record books.
In 1942, he made it into the annals of "Ripley's Believe It or Not" with a remarkable if ridiculous feat. He played three clarinets at one time standing on his head.
Motley--who ran away from his North Carolina home at 14 to join a carnival, played with a succession of big bands and became an arranger for Sammy Kaye, Kay Kyser, Glenn Miller and the Dorsey Brothers--had his own unique shtick.
He briefly had his own band, with his singer wife Agnes, did a nightclub act, took master of ceremonies jobs across the country and played Loew's Palace on F Street NW, after which he would relax at the Rustic Cabin in Colmar Manor. When it went up for sale in 1948, he bought the joint, renaming it Berk Motley's Sirloin Room.
Except for five years on the road in the 1950s, Motley held forth there, playing big band music, telling raunchy jokes and standing on his head.
When I first heard of this in 1977, it seemed a story too good to pass up. So I drove down to the club on what had once been known as the "notorious Bladensburg strip." This was a collection of nine raucous bars and roadhouses that lined the road from Fort Lincoln Cemetery just across the District line to the Anacostia River, until urban renewal took its toll on them.
Motley's was the last on the strip heading out from Washington, the only survivor, and the specialties of the house were prime ribs and hoke. "All it takes to play three clarinets at one time," he would say, "is a big mouth."
Motley told me he liked being "a big fish in a little pool," by which he meant Prince George's County. "When I leave here, I ain't nothing."
On my first trip to the Sirloin Room, Motley and his three clarinets played "Anchors Aweigh," and then he stood on his head and proceeded to play, "Roll Out the Barrel." All you could see from the back of Motley's Sirloin Room were his two feet sticking up. "You know," he said, "it's a better show down here."
So it went throughout the evening, a cascade of silly, sexist, risque one-liners. "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. . . . "
Like any good comic, he played off his audience, which this night included three Prince George's police officers. "Have a little respect for me," he told them. "I might be your father."
Enthralled with Berk Motley, the phenomenon, I invited some friends to come along one night for his show. They marveled at the agility, humor and absurdity of the man and his act.
Then came a shock. Motley let loose with a string of "coon jokes," as they used to be called on the white vaudeville circuit.
These were outrageously racist, patently offensive, crude leftovers from another place, another time. I could hardly believe my ears. As I looked around, I saw one black couple at a table, stone-faced. My friends sat, simply stunned and speechless. I knew Motley was a throw-back, but this?
I felt let down, disappointed, disillusioned.
I remember telling Motley how his lines hadn't set well. I don't recall his response, if any. But I made up my mind after that appalling performance to quietly boycott Berk Motley's Sirloin Room. I kept that promise to myself for many years.
During that time, Motley's son Bucky opened Jasper's, a popular gathering spot in Greenbelt that catered to both blacks and whites. Integrated as it was, Bucky's restaurant prospered, and soon there was a Jaspers II in Crofton.
Later, Bucky was brought in to handle the food operations for BET SoundStage in Largo. So the world goes.
At some point--I can't remember exactly when--I returned to Motley's place for lunch. Even felons get paroled, even pardoned, I figured. My Feb. 27, 1977, story in The Washington Post was still posted, as was the entry from Ripley's, inside the vestibule.
Motley called me in 1993 to tout his newest act. It wasn't his act, he explained, it was his warm-up, 93-year-old Rolfe E. Kennard, a widower who lunched at Motley's on weekdays and on Friday and Saturday nights sang standards from his table in a high baritone voice.
Kennard, a retired federal worker, owed his twilight career to Motley. Kennard's niece called the two of them "the Sunshine Boys." "We're the stars of the show," Motley said. "We're the only two in it."
Motley lived, as always, in Hyattsville, and drove a big old Cadillac, as did Kennard, who lived in Cheverly. The two old Caddies often were parked side by side outside Motley's old log cabin restaurant.
I met Kennard for lunch there, where he had his usual scotch on the rocks before his meal and insisted on buying my lunch. Returning on a Saturday night, I listened as Motley introduced the old crooner. Kennard sang several songs, starting with "When you are in love, it's the loveliest night of the year." When he was done, Motley announced, with mock astonishment, "Rolfe Kennard is 93 years old."
Motley, who was himself now a mere 80, then played a saxophone and then two clarinets at once. He had given up standing on his head when he turned 75, he said. Mercifully, there were no racist jokes.
Sometime after that, I heard again from Motley. It was, this time, not the blustery promoter but the sad mourner. His beloved wife had just passed away. There was no lightness in his voice, only grief. Eventually, I learned from his former night manager, Motley sank into the swamp of Alzheimer's.
Not long ago, I drove by Motley's roadhouse, still there but shut down. Somehow, I had missed the closing, an end of an era. And now Motley, buried last week in Fort Lincoln Cemetery not far from his old place, is also gone, an inverted musical footnote to history. One for the books.