Stop most any African American with a few silver strands laced through his hair. Mention the words "Wilmer's Park," and see what happens.
Sixty-four-year-old Henry Plater, of Temple Hills, beamed. "They did the Cha-Cha-Cha, the Hucklebuck, the Birdland and, naturally, the slow dance," the retired federal worker said of patrons of the 80-acre park and ballroom in Brandywine. "They were doing the Fly, the Funky Chicken, the Swim, the Fish."
Plater laughed at the 40-year-old memory of Sundays spent with his wife, Shirley, at the rural stop on the famed chitlin circuit. "Oh, and the Slop," he added.
"All the country girls were out there," recalled James "Baby" Martin, a 65-year-old Hyattsville man who played baseball in an all-black community sandlot team at the park on his weekends and evenings off from his job as a D.C. police officer. "That's why all the fellas went."
"There was all kind of action happening out there," agreed WPFW radio personality Nap Turner, 68, who played bass in a local band at the park. "It was a hip place to be."
The park stayed hip for half a century, featuring rhythm and blues and hard rock, hosting hippies and hip-hoppers. But that soon may change.
Since the February death of park owner Arthur Wilmer, 86, the venue's future has been in doubt. Wilmer's will stipulates that the property be sold, and the estate probably will be in probate through the end of the year.
Wilmer was an entrepreneur who prospered during an era when opportunities for blacks were limited. In the 1940s, the Clifton Forge, Va., native owned the downtown Washington club Little Harlem. He also owned jukeboxes and cigarette machines at clubs all over the city.
In 1947, Wilmer paid $6,500 for the Brandywine tobacco farm and transformed it into a thriving entertainment center where African American athletes and musicians could play and perform during a time when segregation barred them from many other venues.
To accompany the large field where bands played on an outdoor stage, Wilmer built a ballroom that held 600 people and an indoor lounge with a bar, pool tables and a jukebox. Those structures still are used at the park today.
Wilmer's Park soon became a widely known stop on the chitlin circuit (the term coined by soul singer Lou Rawls to describe the network of black entertainment venues across the South and Midwest). Ritzy Washington nightclubs such as the Blue Mirror and Olivia's Patio Lounge were happy to feature popular black artists such as singer Billie Holiday but refused to admit blacks as patrons. Meanwhile, black venues such as the Apollo in New York, the Royal in Baltimore and the Howard in Washington flourished.
It was a situation that Wilmer exploited. He invited black baseball and football leagues to play during the day. At night, musicians such as James Brown, Otis Redding, Gladys Knight and the Pips and Count Basie performed.
The popularity of Wilmer's Park peaked during the 1950s and 1960s. But with the decline of segregation, the park lost its monopoly on black talent, and it became more difficult to draw acts to the rural venue.
Despite such troubles, Wilmer refused to let his park fade away. After a lull in activities during the late 1970s, he revived the park's fortunes in the early 1980s by bringing in performers that appealed to a new and different audience. He staged hippie-style festivals, such as the annual Jerry Garcia birthday festival and Woodstock anniversary celebrations, and showcased such hard-rock bands as Metallica, Jello and the Immigrants. He also occasionally featured go-go acts.
In the early 1990s, when raves caught on among young audiences, Wilmer's Park hosted that scene, too. Wilmer also promoted the careers of heavy metal and thrash bands such as Arson, Violent Night, Nasty Habits and Desecration.
Leonard Mallory, Wilmer's cousin, who has worked at the park since the '70s, remembers the transition distinctly. "We couldn't pronounce the names of half of those bands," Mallory said. "I'm surprised I can still hear, it was so loud."
But their money was green. "He had to change with the times," Mallory said.
Through the years, Wilmer's five children helped him run the park. Four years ago, his daughter, Leslie Parks, moved from Massachusetts to help her aging father run the business. No one is more upset at the prospect of losing the family's land and the park's place in history than Parks.
Now in her early fifties, Parks has seen her share of tragedy. In the 1970s, Parks, a former New York model and actress, married Gordon Parks Jr., the son of the famed black photographer. But after almost five years of marriage, her husband died in a plane crash when she was seven months pregnant with their son, Gordon Parks III. This year, both her parents died within two months of each other.
Although her tenure running the park may be brief, Parks has high hopes for the place. She would like to see it designated a historic landmark and envisions people flocking back for events that recapture the spirit of the old days, when folks were doing the Funky Chicken and the Hucklebuck.
"I want someone to help it grow as opposed to someone coming in here and doing it for the wrong reasons--to make a quick buck," she says. "The right reason would be in the memory of my dad."
The following events are scheduled to take place at Wilmer's Park, 15710 Brandywine Rd., Brandywine. Times and ticket prices to be announced. Call 301-888-1600 for more information.
* Camp DC-101: Sept. 18 and 19.
* Autumn Equinox Music Festival: Sept. 24 and 25.
* In the Spirit International Cultural Arts Festival: Oct. 2 and 3.
* Halloween Blowout Masquerade: Oct. 31.
CAPTION: A.J. Battaglia gives his ticket to Leslie Parks as he and his friends enter Wilmer's Park for the Jerry Garcia party.
CAPTION: Donna Jean Godchaux of the Donna Jean Band performs during the Jerry Garcia birthday celebration. Godchaux was a member of the Grateful Dead from 1971 to 1976.
CAPTION: In 1988, Wilmer's Park manager Anthony Watson, left, and Arthur Wilmer in front of the entrance to the ballroom. Wilmer refused to let the park fade away, and since his death, others have taken up the cause.
CAPTION: Kristi Wanton, left, Steve Matusz, Brian Buck and Leah Boccanfuso, all of New Jersey, dance to the music of the Donna Jean Band at July's Jerry Garcia birthday bash at Wilmer's Park in Brandywine.