Born in 1913 and raised in Chicago, Larry Steele changed the entertainment world, giving a stage to black musicians and dancers, supporting their careers and mentoring their craft. Mr. Steele’s family did not want him to enter the world of show business. His father, a barber, wanted Larry to become a lawyer. Larry promised his father he would study law at Northwestern University; however, in 1934, he walked into the Panama Café – a venue on Chicago’s South Side – and was given a $3 a night job as a singing master of ceremonies and bandleader.
Steele abandoned all thoughts of becoming a lawyer and dedicated himself to entertainment. He left Chicago in the mid-1940s, helped organize entertainers on the Chitlin Circuit, and found himself in Atlantic City at Club Harlem – the vanguard of entertainment on the Eastern Seaboard at the time. In the summer of 1946, Larry Steele opened his first Smart Affairs production at Club Harlem. Smart Affairs was a revue show featuring the best in African American music and the most talented and beautiful African American showgirls.
Smart Affairs and its associated acts – Beige Beauties and the Sepia Revue – spent the summer months entertaining the residents and tourists of Atlantic City. In its off season, Smart Affairs traveled the country. It is said that Steele and Smart Affairs famously broke the color barrier of Miami Beach’s Cotton Club. Upon booking a show at the Cotton Club, Steele and his acts were forced to stay in an African American hotel many miles away from the venue, and they were not allowed to enter the club’s front doors. In response to these racist policies, Steele invited the famed columnist Walter Winchell to the show. Winchell wrote a glowing review of the Smart Affairs performance and denounced the Miami Beach Cotton Club’s bigotry. Upon Winchell’s approval, audiences poured into the club en masse to watch Smart Affairs and the Cotton Club changed its policies.
In 1960, the Smart Affairs grossed between $400,000 and $500,000 annually and featured 40-50 performers who worked 40-45 hours per week. In commemoration of Steele’s success, Howard University’s Alumni Association presented him with the “Racial Dignity and Human Relations Award” in 1961. By 1969, Smart Affairs offered two simultaneous shows, one at Club Harlem and one at the Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach.
Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs ran for 18 consecutive seasons at Club Harlem. Many famous African American performers had their start with, or appeared in, Steele’s productions. These performers included the likes of: Sammy Davis Jr., Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Peg Leg Bates, Cab Calloway, Damita Jo, Slappy White, Sarah Vaughn, and Nat King Cole.
Steele died in Chicago on June 19, 1980.
Resources in the Atlantic City Free Public Library Atlantic City Heritage Collections:
Nelson Johnson. The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City. Medford, New Jersey: Plexus, 2010.
Local History Biography File: Larry Steele
Local History Subject File: Nightclubs – Club Harlem
H039 Club Harlem Photograph Collection