Speakeasies and Snake Dancers: Timultuous times at Bardo’s Inn

elmgrove and lyell

You wouldn’t know by looking at it today, but the northeast corner of Lyell and Elmgrove Road in Gates was once home to one of the area’s liveliest–if somewhat notorious–entertainment venues.

Longtime residents of the neighborhood likely associate the intersection with the since demolished Elmgrove Inn, but the building’s original incarnation was a unique establishment called Bardo’s Inn.

Opened in the 1920s by August J. “Gus” Bardo, the venue was alternately advertised as an inn, a restaurant, and a supper club, but its interior activities belied these billings.

The club was the subject of several raids during the Prohibition Era. One such raid in May, 1928 made the front page of the Democrat and Chronicle, which informed readers that authorities had seized gin, wine and whiskey from the property. Bardo suffered a temporary injunction, and reopened only to be subjected to another bust a few years later.

A 1933 raid uncovered that Bardo was peddling not only gin, but gambling as well. State troopers seized a slot machine on the site and emptied its contents into the Gates welfare fund.

Bardo sought other forms of entertainment for his patrons in the years following Prohibition’s repeal.

He advertised in regional African-American newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier and the New York Age, offering auditions to a range of “first-class entertainers” including “blues singers, flat foots, snake, hip or hula dancers,” promising them room and board for year-round work.

Bardo hired black entertainers for exclusively white audiences, borrowing a business model popularized by the Cotton Club in New York City (though the Cotton Club changed this policy in 1932).

The club owner would eventually entrust artist recruitment to Maxie Maxwell, a dancer and singer from New York City who would go on to become the emcee and producer of all Bardo’s Inn performances.

bardos_group with maxie

Maxie Maxwell at bottom left

Maxwell, pictured above, featured a variety of entertainers in his shows, including Sweetie Pie, who performed a novelty number while dancing on her toes, Spoons Brown, who made music with wooden utensils, and Chiquita, a “shake artist.”

bardos-duo

Though the Inn’s performances proved popular, relations between performers were not always cordial. In April 1938, a heated dispute sparked by “professional jealousy” arose between dancer Helen Bookman and Doris Reeves, known at Bardo’s for her snake dance routine.

The D&C reported that Reeves had suffered bites and lacerations “when Miss Bookman employed both teeth and a roadhouse kitchen meat cleaver in the course of the fracas.” Bookman was arrested following the altercation and “wore her floor show finery to jail.”

The show at Bardo’s carried on that night minus two of its principals, and the venue itself carried on till 1945, four years after Gus Bardo’s passing.

bardos_ladies

A Bavarian-style supper club called the Alpine Inn temporarily occupied the building before the Elmgrove Inn established itself on the site in 1949.

-Emily Morry

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Published in: on June 21, 2016 at 10:00 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Great photos!


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