January 29, 2013 by Corey Atkins in 2012-13 Season
The Devil’s Music takes place in a “Buffet Flat,” a unique institution born out of necessity in a time when anyone who didn’t belong to the white—and heterosexual—majority couldn’t fully express themselves in most traditional clubs. Ruby Walker, Bessie’s niece-by-marriage who also toured with her, said, “They called them ‘buffet flats’ because buffet means ‘everything’… Everything that was in the life.”
The following examination of the Buffet Flat is excerpted from music historian Chris Albertson’s blog, Stomp-off.
Buffet Flats, sometimes called Goodtime Flats, were small, privately owned, unlicensed clubs where customers could engage in such mundane illegal pastimes as drinking and gambling—for starters. These fun flats also offered erotic shows that featured sex acts of every conceivable kind and were only too happy to accommodate customer participation—for a fee, of course.
Usually owned by women, these establishments were run with admirable efficiency, catering to the occasional thrill-seeker as well as to regular clients whose personal preferences they knew in detail. Often the hostess also served as a bank, entrusted with valuables and sizable amounts of cash. Withdrawals could be made at any time in the course of the evening or morning. This probably ties in to the fact that buffet flats were originally set up to cater to Pullman porters Pullman porters (African-American men hired to serve whites on the railroads’ sleeping cars), whose extensive travels, contacts with the white upper class, gentlemanly manners, and good income earned them considerable respect in black communities. Porters had layovers, and what better place to let it all hang out than a neighborhood buffet flat? These establishments had existed for years, but Prohibition gave loose living a boost and made the flats even more popular.
Whenever Bessie Smith appeared at the Koppin Theater in Detroit, she paid a visit to a buffet flat owned by a friend of hers. This lady even sent to pick up Bessie and her entourage of chorines, “girls who knew how to keep their mouths shut”. From various descriptions [including interviews with Ruby Walker], I pieced together a composite picture of what a typical night with Bessie at this buffet flat might have been like:
"Drinks in hand, an eclectic crowd of pleasure-seekers packed the house. While some leisurely ascended and descended the linoleum-covered steps, others lined the staircases that connected the three floors. The air was thick with smoke, giggles, and clashing perfumes; two pianists, on separate floors, pounded the ivory competitively, and oooh’s and ahh’s emanated from activity rooms on each floor. Puffed up by their furs, Bessie and her young ladies negotiate their way down one of the corridors, to a room reserved for coats. 'There were so many fur coats that it looked like a zoo,' recalled Ruby.
As usual, Bessie more or less restricted her participation to voyeurism. She could ill afford to actively exhibit her prurient interest publicly lest word of it got back to [her husband] Jack. 'Jack knew she wasn’t being no angel,' observed Ruby, 'but Bessie was kinda careful—well, let’s say she would only go so far when strangers were around—but not always. Bessie was well known in that place.'
‘Bessie took her favorite girls and, of course, me. We was all dressed up, she had five fur coats. Each one of us would wear one of the coats. I would always wear the mink. The coat was so big on me, I could wrap it around me three times. I didn't care, I just liked to wear the mink. Bessie would have me carry the bad liquor and anything else we wanted to sneak around with, under the mink. By being so big, no one noticed. As usual, when we went into a joint with Bessie it would start jumping; she was like a magnet, she attracted everyone.’”
Chris Albertson is author of Bessie, generally considered the definitive biography of Bessie Smith. For more on Bessie and other African American musical greats visit www.stomp-off.blogspot.com.
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