The Ball & Chain bar and nightspot and the building it occupies offers a history as colorful and as fascinating as any structure on that portion of Calle Ocho, an area increasingly considered to be the center of Little Havana.
Before there was a Calle Ocho, and even a Tamiami Trail, the mid-1900s name for Southwest Eighth Street, there was a dirt road, corresponding to this right of way, over which carriages and motor vehicles brought produce, including citrus, from west of today’s Ball & Chain location to downtown Miami for sale and shipment. The Tamiami Trail, or the Trail, as it was commonly known, separated Riverside, the early 20th century neighborhood north of it from the ‘twenties boom-era development to the south, known as Shenandoah. The Trail was also important because it represented the southern terminus of a national road, Highway 41, which began in the Midwest; in the era preceding superhighways, Highway 41 was a major entry route, via the Everglades, into Miami.
Not till the fledgling Shenandoah neighborhood experienced its transformation from farmland and undeveloped areas did the blocks bracketing the street between Southwest Twelfth Avenue and points west began to rise as a retail district. By then, Southwest Eighth Street was paved and was lined with commercial businesses, a movie theater, churches, and eateries in a neighborhood offering an intriguing demographic mix: a growing Jewish population standing side by side with a Deep South constituency.
The building hosting the Ball & Chain, at 1513 Southwest Eighth Street, was completed in the early 1930s, a time when construction in most areas of Depression-era America was at a standstill. But Miami fared better than many other cities because of its appeal as a tourist center and as an emerging commercial aviation capital. Miami’s appeal included a robust nightlife with clubs dotting downtown and Biscayne Boulevard, as well as Miami Beach and even other vibrant neighborhoods like Allapattah in the northwest sector of the City of Miami. These clubs often featured live music.
A large masonry structure with an A frame design, the building at 1513 Southwest Eighth Street and the future home of the Ball & Chain Saloon opened in 1935. It stretched from the front to the rear of the lot In 1935, the building hosted its first occupant: the Ball & Chain Saloon. This business remained there through the end of the 1950s, although its name changed slightly from time to time. In 1949, for example, it was Himmel’s Ball & Chain; in 1953, it was called the Ball & Chain Tavern.
The Ball & Chain had more than one owner during its twenty-five year run, and it achieved some notoriety during this time. Gambling was rampant in the 1930s and throughout the 1940s in Miami. And the era was also notable for the closing by local law authorities of nightspots for reasons of gambling and liquor law violations. Even the Ku Klux Klan, by then a diminished force in Miami but still viewing itself as a morals’ arbiter, was responsible for the closing of the notorious La Paloma Club in northwest Miami, after trashing because it viewed the nightspot as a den of iniquity. Closer to the Ball & Chain, bars and nightclubs farther west on Southwest Eighth Street, as well as on busy Northwest Thirty-sixth Street in Allapattah were shut down by law authorities. Interestingly, D. C. Coleman, the Dade County sheriff throughout that era, lived just two blocks from the Ball & Chain on Southwest Tenth Street in Shenandoah.
Gambling was also a part of the offerings of the Ball & Chain in the late 1930s-early 1940s, as noted in a scathing reference in the Miami Herald, c. 1941, which took the club to task for “brazenly” dismissing a guard who had stood at the door of the club and who was expected to warn employees inside that a police raid was coming. For the Herald, the elimination of this security figure meant that the Ball & Chain was now confident that there would be no gambling raids by the police.
Although it is not known when the Ball & Chain began to feature black entertainers, African Americans were already making their mark by the late 1940s-early 1950s on Miami Beach and in nightclubs along Biscayne Boulevard. The Clover Club on the Boulevard, along with the Copa City club on Miami Beach’s Belle Isle offered entertainment by the Ink Spots and Josephine Baker, among others. A flamboyant singer and dancer who had wowed audiences in Paris in the 1920s, and, subsequently, many parts of the U.S., Baker insisted in her contract with Copa City that she would only perform before biracial audiences. Baker and her representatives recognized here the deeply segregated nature of Greater Miami, which differed little from other Deep South cities in terms of race.
The fortunes of the Ball & Chain changed significantly in the 1950s, following its purchase by Ray Miller, Henry Schechtman (In some places, Henry’s surname is spelled (Schectman”), and others (According to Miller, Mrs. Schechtman was the owner of record for the Schechtman portion of the business, which represented a one-third ownership). Ray Miller, who also owned one-third of the Ball & Chain, was a felon and a Teamsters Union, Local 320, organizer, who was attempting to organize on Miami Beach, in 1957, hotel doormen and “car parkers .“ Henry Schechtman was a Jewish entrepreneur who often operated outside of the law. In a period of less than two months in the fall of 1957, Schechtman was arrested for burglary and for “attempting to pry open the deck lid of a jewelry salesman’s car.” Daniel P. Sullivan, executive director of the Greater Miami Crime Commission, characterized Schechtman, in 1957, as “a well known burglar.” Schechtman bought additional nearby properties, including the Tower Hotel, a former hospital dating to the early 1920s, on Southwest Seventh Street. Ray Miller was one of the tenants there in 1957. Miller’s problems with the law included an arrest in that era for public drunkenness, which he branded a “grudge charge” and attributed to a disgruntled employee of a neighboring business.
According to his two sons, Schechtman dealt in stolen liquor and bootleg cigarettes, with clients up and down Southwest Eighth Street. He was part of a Jewish mob and served prison time. By great serendipity, then, the Ball & Chain was an appropriate name for his club. Schechtman was an imaginative businessman who staged bare knuckle fights behind the Tower Apartments for spectators who placed wagers on the boxers.
The times along Southwest Eighth Street were changing in that expansive post World War II era as more businesses filled the thoroughfare. With its rounded contours and RKO tower, the Tower Theater, standing across the street from the Ball & Chain, was a popular draw for moviegoers. The Syrian-Lebanese Club had vacated the building to the immediate east of the Ball & Chain, but the structure remained viable nonetheless as a restaurant operated from its confines. Used car dealers, other restaurants, an ice cream parlor, hardware store, gasoline stations, and even a hobby shop stood nearby the Ball & Chain. But its most important offerings centered on live entertainers who performed in the commodious venue with its stage in center, a long bar off to the west side of the room, tables sprinkled throughout the venue, and an alternative entranceway on the east side of the building. A haunting painting of a prisoner in traditional garb and tethered to a ball and chain announced that entry point. Today that wall represents the western edge of the wildly popular Azucar ice cream parlor.
Schechtman’s sons insisted that Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Louie Armstrong were among the stellar black performers who appeared at the Ball & Chain, but prolonged research into the story of the Ball & Chain has turned up only Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and Chet Baker, a talented white musician, as entertainers who appeared on a somewhat consistent basis in the final half of the 1950s at the Ball & Chain. Billie Holiday was a welcomed figure in the Schechtman household in the Tower Apartments, even babysitting for the family. On one occasion, after the 5 o’clock a.m. closing, Mr. Schechtman returned to the family quarters only to find the great black singer with a needle in her arm. Billie died a few years later. She had had a long standing heroin addiction.
While many black entertainers who appeared in the Greater Miami area during that era of heightened tourism would retreat to clubs on the Miami mainland after performing downtown or on Miami Beach and often jam before an enraptured audience, including those at the Ball & Chain, Basie and Holiday, two of America’s most famous musicians, represented scheduled acts at the bar. Both would stay over for several nights. Count Basie also performed before enthusiastic daytime audiences on weekends in what were billed as jam sessions. (One of the alluring features of the Ball & Chain for black musicians was the understanding that they could reside after their appearances at the Tower Apartments, which they entered through a rear entrance. ) At jam sessions, members of the audience were invited to come up to the stage and “strut their stuff” musically while often accompanied by the great musician. Not everything was euphoric with the “Count” and the ownership of the Ball & Chain, however. In January 1957, Count Basie was paid by the Ball & Chain $5,100.00, which was what it grossed from his multi-day stint there. Yet Basie’s contract called for a payment of $13,000. The Count sued the Ball & Chain for the balance owed and won a judgement of $5,000 in the same year, effectively putting the club out of business. In 1958, the Copa Lounge Tavern was occupying the space that had hosted for more than twenty-two years the Ball & Chain.
The Copa, as some called it, was a distant cry from the Ball & Chain, for it lacked the color and the live entertainment of its predecessor. Yet, those who worked at the Copa were aware of the Ball & Chain and the caliber of its entertainment, often telling bar patrons that Nat King Cole or other black entertainers performed there.
By the end of the 1950s, a large influx of Cubans, fleeing, first, the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, and, later, that of Fidel Castro, poured into a neighborhood, which was also experiencing a flight of long time residents to the new suburbs west of it. By 1967, the strong Cuban presence in the neighborhood, as well as among the businesses on Southwest Eighth Street, prompted many to refer to the area as Little Havana and to its main artery as Calle Ocho (as early as 1960, the Tower Theater was offering Spanish subtitles to first run American movies in recognition of the changing demographics).
In the same year, 1967, the Copa yielded to a new business in the space at 1513 Southwest Eighth Street: the Futurama furniture store. Futurama operated from this address till the mid-1990s, after which the venerable building stood vacant. In the first decade of the new century, the Barlington Group, already heavily invested in Little Havana real estate and with a growing reputation as a firm guided by a determination to bring significant improvements to Little Havana through its vision and investments, added the building to its considerable holdings. The building was later leased for a nightclub, the Kamazoo. After the club’s lease was up, the Barlington Group began an extensive renovation of the building in preparation for its reopening as the Ball & Chain, which will offer food, drinks, and live entertainment, under the guise of a long ago name, to guests from near and afar in a neighborhood now experiencing gentrification and a tourist boom unlike anything that has come before.
Photo by Ralph de la Portilla
Article Credit: Ball & Chain website.