Eddie Bruce remembers his first time.
Many of you will, too.
The first time he set foot in the Latin Casino, the visit was a sixth birthday present from his parents. It was 1959, the last year the Latin was at 1309 Walnut St. The next year it relocated to New Jersey, across Route 70 from the Garden State Park racetrack, in Delaware Township, which was renamed Cherry Hill in 1961.
The Latin quadrupled its seating to 2,000 and became the biggest, bestest nightclub between New York City and Miami Beach. For stargazers, it was a ticket to paradise (even if you had to shmear a maitre d' to get a good seat: "$20 would get you down front, $40 would get your elbow on the stage," says Eddie).
Eddie's first Latin show featured the Three Stooges, who did their comedy schtick for about 75 minutes, and he was in little-boy heaven. "Then there was a timpani roll and the announcer said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, the headline star of our show, Miss Ella Fitzgerald.'"
Eddie laughs at the memory of the Stooges being booked to open for the queen of jazz. "I didn't know what an Ella Fitzgerald was. I was 6. I heard her and developed an instant love for that music, standards and jazz, that lasts to this day."
That show set the stage for the five decades Eddie has spent in show business as a singer and bandleader.
He went to the Latin about 20 times — the biggest star he saw was Frank Sinatra, three times — before it closed in 1978, ironically the victim of actual casinos coming to Atlantic City. The Latin knew it would lose the stars to A.C., so it closed and re-opened as the Emerald City disco.
We are sitting in the living room of Eddie's Port Richmond rowhouse, discussing the dreamy days when Cherry Hill was a hub of the entertainment world thanks to the Latin Casino, which was neither Latin nor a casino. It called itself the Showplace of the Stars and the stars could fill the heavens — from Milton Berle and Mae West to Donna Summer and Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr. and Liza Minnelli.
There were several unhappy incidents:
In 1962, Brenda Lee broke her neck during a performance, but recovered. In 1975, Jackie Wilson suffered a massive heart attack on stage while singing his hit "Lonely Teardrops." He reportedly collapsed after the lyric, "My heart is crying, crying."
In 1969, Diana Ross and the Supremes were booked for two weeks. Ross broke the contract and stalked off at the start of the engagement after her pet dogs, Tiffany and Little Bit, died after eating rat poison pellets that were scattered around the Latin.
Many of these stories were known to Eddie, while others were scavenged from a 2014 retrospective written for South Jersey Magazine by Randy Alexander.
It happens that 2018 is the 40th anniversary of the closing of the fabulous showroom.
Eddie felt it was worth commemorating, so he is producing a nostalgia show: Eddie Bruce Remembering the Latin Casino, Sunday, Oct. 14 (no Eagles that day) at 3 p.m. at the Mandell Theater, 3300 Chestnut St. Reserved seats are $50, general admission $35, and can be ordered at Eddiebruce.com/Latin-casino.
He's carrying a 16-piece band, he'll show video clips of the artists who played the Latin, sing, tell insider stories, plus perform a duet with Paula Johns, who will sing some Ella Fitzgerald.