1950s San Antonio Clubs

In 1956, San Antonio’s population was some 400,000 souls. There were no shopping malls in San Antonio…Yet. Garden apartments were years away. So what is a young DJ supposed to do after work, especially when “after work” starts at midnight? Go on a date, you say? The girls I wanted to date had to be home by midnight, not leave the house then. Drink alone? No way!

Fortunately, during the mid-to-late 1950s, San Antonio hosted several “bottle clubs.” State liquor laws prohibited the sale of mixed drinks in public establishments. Ever creative, many restaurants and beer bars turned themselves into private clubs whose laws were more lenient. The general term for these establishments was “bottle clubs” or “key clubs.”

Among the more memorable clubs I remember in the San Antonio area were “The Dragon Lady, The Navy Club, The Rickshaw, The San Jacinto Club” and the coolest of them all: “The King of Clubs.” More about the “King” later.

Membership dues were usually no more than five dollars a year, often as little as one dollar. I don’t recall ever having been asked to pay to re-new my membership. For your dues you got a nifty membership card for your wallet and a small key, which, when placed in a lock by the door, would ring a chime inside the club. This alerted management that there was a thirsty member desiring entrance.

Club members were “assigned” a small locker (generally about one cubic foot in volume) which was used to keep the member’s bottles of “liquid” on premises for usage, as needed. Management would sell setups and pour the member’s liquor from a bottle in his or her own locker into the setup. Yeah, right! The law was more often observed in the breach than in the observance…probably 95% of the time.

If you wanted a drink with dinner at a nice restaurant, you brought your own bottle (in a brown bag), ordered setups from the server (then called “waitress”) and drank to your heart’s content. Laws against DWI were very loosely enforced, unless you had a wreck.

So, instead of having one or two drinks purchased from a server, one tended to drink until his bottle was empty. This apparent contradiction was the biggest argument for the legislature’s changing of liquor laws in the early 70s. Are you with me so far?

How does this fit into San Antonio Radio Memories? Many DJs (most probably most) never saw a drink they didn’t like and became members of one or more key clubs with their membership dues in many cases complementary. All the clubs served food. Most clubs also had music. Many times it was a small band, but there was almost always a juke box and most also had small dance floors.

Back to the King of Clubs, may its memory survive in perpetuity. The King was located in a small, one-story, free-standing building half-a-block off Broadway behind The Paul Anderson Company, one of San Antonio’s biggest office supply stores.

The King’s uniqueness was it’s booking of name acts. The 50s was an era of success for small jazz groups. At The King, patrons sat at linen-covered tables, ate excellent food, and were entertained by the likes of “The Four Freshmen,” “The Hi-Lo’s” and a struggling, little-known comedy act consisting of two young guys insulting each other. They called themselves “The Smothers Brothers.” There were other names you’d recognize but, at the moment, my memory fails me.

The 4-piece house band, led by Chet McIntyre (a quite talented musician and comic) played for dancing. I can still remember Chet’s intro to a short band break. “Scotch and soda hits the spot. Take time out for a double shot. Think that we will have one, too. We’ll be back before you’re through!” It was played to the old Pepsi-Cola jingle.

Clubs had to quit serving alcohol at midnight: break out the coffee cups! The “coffee” was usually 101-proof. No worry about the law. Half the customers were off-duty detectives. Sad to say, The King was torn down to make a parking lot, which is still there as of today.

DJs at different stations usually had their own favorite clubs, but if the action was slow at your club, you went somewhere else that night. Many of the club members were downtown workers stopping in for a toddy after work. A lot of good friendships resulted.

I guess it must have been a lot like the prohibition era, but that’s only a guess. I ain’t THAT old! When the liquor laws changed, so did the atmosphere and patronage of the bottle clubs.

Am I missing the bottle clubs or…my youth? Most likely both!

Frank Bell

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