May 10, 2016

Good Times at Charlie's Night Club

Courtesy of Justin Hase, great grandson of Charlie Smith

The above article was written by Jarrett Reeves and appeared in the March 3, 1986 edition of the Concordia Sentinel.

Charlie Smith's big night club at the intersection of Highway 15 and 8 in Sicily Island was where the good times were in Northeast Louisiana in the 30s and 40s.
But when the gambling was shut down in Louisiana in the 50s, the good times couldn't afford to hang on.
Charlie left for Natchez and Charlie's Place after several changes in management finally closed in the 50s.
Charlie died in Natchez in the 60s and the club has since burned to the ground.
But, back when times were hard and entertainment was not readily available, Charlie's Night Club was the place to meet friends, get a table, play a little bingo or blackjack and have a good time.
Sicily Islanders recall the bingo games on the weekends, the big name bands that came to town, the good times and Charlie himself.
Mary Smith Rushing, Charlie's niece, worked at the club.  Her father, Jim and Charlie were brothers. 
"Some of the best people in the world came to Charlie's.  That's where everyone met,"  Mary said.  "Charlie had real good bands, Glenn Miller, Otis Smith, Bud Scott.  Why, Tom Griffing who played the piano for years at the Rendezvous in Natchez was with the Bud Scott Band, and wasn't he good?  And old Louis Armstrong, he played there, too."
Mary met and married her husband, the late Homer Rushing, at Charlie's.  Homer came to Sicily Island to call the bingo games and later managed the gambling operation.
"Nobody ever made anyone gamble," Mary continued.  "Those that want to will, law or no law.  Some won't admit it, though.  It's going on today in places."
Most agree that it was John Hall, owner of a cafe in competition with Charlie Smith, that initiated the closing of the club, using the gambling as a reason.  And the church people were against the open gambling going on in town. 
In the 50s, the political climate in Louisiana was also changing with the election of a law and order governor, Robert F. Kennon.
Perry Stubbs, the parish deputy serving Sicily Island in those days, said that other than gambling being illegal, there was very little reason to close Charlie's.
"There wasn't much rough stuff there.  And if I did occasionally have to haul a few fellers to Harrisonburg to the jail, the worst part about it was trying to get them up that three flights of stairs to be jailed.  But most of the time Charlie had good bouncers to take care of anything that went on, and not much ever did."
Charlie Smith was a member of one of the leading families in Sicily Island and was kin to most everybody.  And though the church people were against the gambling operation at Charlie's, Charlie was regarded by most as a lovable character who was doing little harm.
There is also wide speculation that Charlie kept his relations with the community intact for so many years by regularly making sizable contributions to the church.
One story has it that when Charlie approached a new preacher with a wad of bills and asked him if he could accept a contribution, the preacher replied, "I'd be happy to, Charlie.  That money has been in the devil's hands too long already."
Charlie's career started with his taxi service.  When the new school teacher from Mississippi, Katherine, became his wife, Charlie got started on a more serious course -- a service station.
The next step in Charlie's career ladder was serving sandwiches and lunches at the station, which by now was also a bus station.  With each new endeavor came some sort of haphazard addition to the original station until the property at the highway junction was filled and Charlie had a full-blown night club.
Albert Krause dealt craps there as a young man.  He remembers the times well.
"I finished high school when I was just 15.  When I worked for Charlie, I was about 19.  It was during the Depression and jobs were scarce.  I worked there for $18 a week.  Sometimes we were open all night, but Charlie was always there on the job.  There was very little trouble."
"A man could take his wife there and not worry about her being bothered and young people could gather there to dance," said Mary Rushing.
"And the kitchen was good," Mary said.  "We served lunch plates, steaks, hamburgers."
After the end of World War II, Mary and Home Rushing went to Ferriday and Natchez to own and operate clubs.  But like Charlie, they couldn't make it in the night club business without gambling.
Mary and many others have fond memories of the days of Charlie's in Sicily Island.  The town isn't as big or colorful now as it was back then.  There isn't as much money passed around or as many places open to spend what money there is.
But when people in Sicily Island start remembering the 30s and Charlie's good time place, the sparkle in their eyes grows and their faces liven.
"Oh yes, I remember Charlie.  He was a likeable fellow.  Why, we'd get our set together and go there to dance and play bingo on Saturday nights.  Everybody would come from miles around and..."
Menu Cover from Charlie's

Charlie Gordon Smith was the son of James William "Buck" Smith and Mary Amelia Kendrick.  His siblings were:

Lillie Mae (1884-1885)
Kate (1886-1953) m. Charles Ballard
James William, Jr (1889-1954) m. Mary Williamson
Laura (1892-1893)
Henry Newman (1895-1900)
Henrietta "Nettie" (1898-1990) m. Marshall "Marcy" Francis
Augustus Edward "Gus" (1903-1977) m. Lila Hanks
Jack (1907-1996) m. Ella Mae Moon

Charlie with niece, Patsy on the steps of Charlie's Night Club
Patsy was the daughter of Charlie's brother, Gus
Courtesy of Sally Smith Huff

Sally Smith Huff, daughter of Charlie's brother, Jack, provided the following information:
I do remember my Uncle Charlie and his night club.  He would put me up on a stool in front of a slot machine and give me a handful of nickels to play with.  This was in the grill.  The back rooms held the roulette, blackjack and poker tables.  I also remember crawling around under those big roulette tables...this, of course, was in the day time when the gambling was closed down.  
Uncle Charlie opened a place in Natchez called The Smoke House.  Gambling was by then illegal and this establishment was not very successful.
He was a dashing, Clark Gable type man; always dressing impeccably.  His wife, Katherine was a very elegant woman.

Charlie in South Arkansas at the home of his sister, Katie Ballard
Courtesy of Sally Smith Huff

Katherine Benedict Smith with son, Charles Gordon, Jr. "Buddy"
Courtesy of Sally Smith Huff

Sally Smith Huff (daughter of Charlie's brother, Jack)
Patsy Smith Jackson (daughter of Charlie's brother, Gus)
 Buddy Smith (Charlie's son)
Courtesy of Sally Smith Huff

Charlie's brothers, Jack and Gus
Courtesy of Sally Smith Huff

Mary Smith Rushing (daughter of Charlie's brother, Jim)
Henrietta "Nettie" Smith Francis (Charlie's sister)
Jack Smith (Charlie's brother)
Courtesy of Sally Smith Huff

Sally Smith Huff and Mary Smith Rushing (Charlie's nieces)
Courtesy of Sally Smith Huff

Charlie's father, James William "Buck" Smith, was a brother to my great-great grandmother, Virginia "Jennie" Smith Blackman.

A special "Thank you" to Sally Smith Huff and Justin Hase for sharing information and photographs.

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