Black History Month 2020: The Casino Club I
The Casino Club
The Casino Club dance hall opened at Market Gate in Warrington on December 1938 and the weekly dance band newspaper Melody Maker described it as a venue that could “take its place amongst the swell joints of London’s West End”. The club was decorated in an Art Deco mix of ivory, cream and black and featured a series of murals depicting jazz celebrities such as Duke Ellington, Maxine Sullivan and the Mills Brothers.
The manager, Nathan “Nat” Bookbinder, was a Jewish jazz musician who had previously recorded radio shows with Jazz celebrity Nat Gonella. Accompanied by his dance band called “Six Chapters” Nat’s mission was to inform as well as entertain with specially arranged presentations. These themed evenings included ‘Blue Interlude’ where he told the history of Blues music and popular ‘Harlem Nights’ where he paid tribute to W.C. Handy and other African-American musicians.
Even the outbreak of war in 1939 didn’t give Nat Bookbinder pause. When the ‘Six Chapters’ got drafted into the army he hired the popular radio Jazz celebrity Syd Mack and his band as artistes in residence. He also made a point of offering discounted entry to his club to the armed forces. During air raids Nat would regularly take his band into the Warrington air-raid shelters and entertain the people with renditions of classic jazz tunes, later commenting:
“when’s all said and done, if we can occupy people’s minds, we consider we have made some slight contribution towards helping the people put on a brave front to ‘old nasty’”
Through Nat’s efforts by 1942 the Casino Club was the most popular nightspot in town. It was helping to generate a real taste for American dance, rhythm and style in Warrington and acted as a training ground for local semi-professional musicians. Nat held regular Jam sessions and contests for local jazz bands with the top prize a personal introduction to Jack Hylton, the so-called “British King of Jazz”. Nat Bookbinders’s plan was to create a network of modern dance clubs in Warrington and the surrounding area which would be able to negotiate better pay for the British musicians and singers who performed there, many of them people of colour.
All of this was about to change when, in 1942, the RAF base at Burtonwood near Warrington became one of the biggest American Airbases in Europe. The town of Warrington quickly had to adapt to having a large numbers of American personnel suddenly on their doorstep and this certainly created quite a stir in Warrington’s nightlife, including the Casino Club.
The GIs Are Here!
The Second World War changed British Life dramatically. One of the biggest changes was the brief rise in Britain’s Black population. Between 1918 and 1944 the number of Black people living in Britain had jumped from 20,000 to 150,000. The main reason for this was the arrival of the United States Army as around 10% of the US Army – including the US Air Force – were African American. However the Black and White servicemen were not allowed to mix, in a policy known as ‘segregation’ the Black and white soldiers lived in separate camps, ate in separate canteens and spent their time in separate army clubs.
The British Government were concerned that British people wouldn’t agree with segregation, and felt it would be likely to anger the Black British people, West Indians and Africans who had travelled to Britain to fight or engage in war work. The British Government were therefore faced with a difficult choice: either introduce unpopular racist laws to Britain or upset their American Allies by speaking out against segregation. In the end they settled on a compromise – the US Army would be allowed to segregate its soldiers in Burtonwood and other camps in Britain where they were stationed in less comfortable billets and paid less than their White colleagues, but British authorities would not help the US Army enforce those rules outside.
Conversely the British Government’s advice to British servicemen and women was to be friendly and polite to the Black American GIs, but they were also advised to be careful about mixing with them. The guidelines stated that it was not a good idea for White British women to go out with Black GIs. If a British person wanted to invite US soldiers into their home for a friendly visit the advice was to not invite Black and White American servicemen at the same time.
The US government also tried to prepare its White servicemen for adjusting to living in a country without racial segregation. In 1943 the US Army made a film with the British called ‘Welcome to Britain’ starring Burgess Meredith, later to become famous as ‘The Penguin’ in the 1960s Batman TV series. In one scene an elderly White Englishwoman meets a Black GI, chats with him and then shakes his hand asking him to tea. Burgess explains to the audience that although this would be shocking behaviour in the US, it was quite normal in Britain. “That might not happen at home” he says “but the point is we’re not at home”.
Despite these racial tensions within the Burtonwood camp there were relatively few issues in nearby Warrington. A night out in Warrington would follow a fairly standard pattern for most GIs. Those GIs with dates would often meet them in the town centre and then head to the Pelican or one of the many other Warrington pubs for a few pints. The evening would often conclude with a trip to the cinema and then the GIs and their dates would end up at ‘Casino Club’ where they would jitterbug the night away to the sound of Nat Bookbinder’s dance band.
African-American GIs were not the only Black people who arrived in Britain during the Second World War. Some came to Britain to carry out essential war work while many British men of fighting age were serving in the Armed Forces. 600 men arrived from Belize (then British Honduras) to work as foresters in Scotland and 350 electricians and engineers came from the West Indies to work in Liverpool and the Northwest. Amongst them was a 23 year old Jamaican technician called Herbert Greaves.
One night in 1943 Herbert Greaves arrived at the Casino Club for a night out. Herbert was a skilled technician who had travelled 3,000 miles to live and work in support of the British war effort. By all accounts a “quiet and diffident” man, Herbert had attended the Casino Club before with no issue and didn’t expect anything different that night. Almost immediately however a group of American soldiers complained to Nat insisting that he should throw Herbert out. In their eyes, and despite the number of African-American Jazz musicians who graced its walls, the Casino Club was a “whites only” establishment.
Nat Bookbinder refused the G.I.s request to eject Herbert from his club but the young technician, quite understandably, was upset by the treatment he had received and told Nat he would never return. Nat told Herbert that “as long as he paid his admission money and behaved with his usual good manners the doors would be open to him and he would be welcome”.
Although Nat didn’t realise it at the time this incident was to lead to questions being asked in the British Parliament and, ultimately, the end of the Casino Club and we’ll be covering what happened next in Part Two of this blog.
This is an expanded version of the blog article ‘Herbert Greaves and the Casino Club’ for Black History Month 2019. Details in this blog were taken from the article ‘G.I.s and the Race Bar in Wartime Warrington’ by Janet O’Toole. Warrington Museum and Art Gallery would like to thank the family of Nat Bookbinder for some of the images used.