With ‘Oliver’s Tavern,’ Allen County Museum re-creates Lima nightlife of 1950s

LIMA — Before YouTube and Hulu, before VCRs and CDs, before there was a television in every home, there were nightclubs, places where people would go to eat, drink, and listen to live music. And Lima used to have a lot of them.

“There were 40 different establishments in the early to mid-1950s,” said Patricia Smith, director of the Allen County Museum. “To put this in perspective, how big this was, 450 performers [came through Lima] between 1947 and 1960.”

They played at the Rathskeller, in the old Waldo Hotel in the Square. They played at the Alpha, and at Louie’s, at Baker’s Bar and the Century Club. They thrilled mostly black clentele at Palm Gardens, on Wayne Street, and mostly white patrons at Sarno’s, which later burned down. And there was Oliver’s Tavern, at 132 S. Central, the current home of Club Utopia. Opened by Judge Oliver, a black man, in 1945, it welcomed, in those pre-civil rights days, both blacks and whites.

“Oliver’s Tavern Re-Visited,” at the Allen County Museum Sunday, offers a flavor of that lively time in Lima’s nightlife. The afternoon event includes a slide show of photographs of various clubs and performers, a discussion of what the scene was like, and music from pianist Dick Patterson, vocalist Tesa Jordan and vocalist/trumpeter Eric Megin. Patterson’s eponymous combo was Oliver’s house band for most of the 1950s.

The focus on Oliver’s Tavern is deliberate.

“That’s where the information is,” said Smith.

Very few historical documentation of Lima’s clubs and nightlife survive. Much of what historians know is from word of mouth. Smith said the material for “Oliver’s Tavern Re-Visited” is primarily from Stuart Bayne, who came to the museum several months ago with a stash of old photographs he’d found at a house he had recently purchased on W. Spring St. The house was the former home of Mary Dawson, a waitress at Oliver’s. Many of the photos were 8×10 glossy black and white promotional stills of the performers.

“There were tap dancing waiters, there were snake performers. Some of them were signed to [Dawson],” said Bayne. “I should have been working on the house and instead, I spent hours and hours and hours researching these pictures.”

“I’m glad they’re doing something with the photos,” he said. “That’s pretty cool.”

Smith said the demise of Lima’s vibrant nightclub scene came with the widespread adoption of television and the advent of rock ‘n roll.

“People didn’t see the point of going out and spending money on a cover charge when they chould sit home in their own living room and watch Duke Ellington on television,” she said. And then “this explosion that takes place in rock ‘n roll, and garage bands start emerging….The whole atmosphere of orchestras or bands fades by the wayside, except in big cities.”

For one Sunday afternoon, at the Allen County Museum, that sultry, swank, swaggering mood will return to Lima.

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A photo of Oliver’s Tavern from an unknown year. The club was at 132 S. Central Ave., the current home of Club Utopia.
http://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2015/09/web1_oliverstavern.jpegA photo of Oliver’s Tavern from an unknown year. The club was at 132 S. Central Ave., the current home of Club Utopia. Courtesy of Allen County Museum

By Amy Eddings

[email protected]

IF YOU GO

What: “Oliver’s Tavern Re-Visited” with guest performers Richard Patterson, Tesa Jordan and Eric Megin

Where: Allen County Museum, 620 Market St., Lima; 419-222-9426

Time: 1:30 p.m. Sunday

Cost: Free

Reach Amy Eddings at 567-292-0379 or Twitter, @lima_eddings.