ATLANTIC CITY - It was K.Y. and the Curb. That's what they used to call the great Club Harlem on Kentucky Avenue between Arctic and Atlantic, now no more.

And the greatest time to be there was 5 a.m., for the legendary breakfast show. Those, truly, were glory days.

"If you went to K.Y. and the Curb, you just knew you were going to have a good time," said Nancy Martin, 54, a cocktail server and bartender there in the early '70s, now a substitute teacher in town.

"Gladys Knight and the Pips, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass. I was there when he did his debut. I have the paper that Teddy Pendergrass signed with the teddy bear on the inside that he left on all the tables for all the guests. I still have that."

But like so much that once was great in this vexing town, the classy jazz and R&B legacy of Club Harlem that dates from 1935 is now just dust and memories, and, thanks to some quick-handed neighbors on a surprise demolition day in 1992, a few actual concrete reminders.

These mementos - an old neon sign, the red stuffed leather swinging doors with drawings of Sammy Davis Jr. and club owner Leroy "Pops" Williams - are now on display at the Atlantic City Free Public Library in an exhibit called "A Pictorial of Club Harlem and the Way We Were."

The exhibit was organized by Ralph Hunter, founder of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey in Newtonville, in Buena Vista Township, a town with its own distinguished African American and abolitionist legacy.

Hunter hopes to expand the exhibit - which features 110 photos, 80 from Hunter's collection and 30 from the library's own extensive archives dating from 1944 - and bring it to Philadelphia, D.C., and Baltimore. It runs through the end of the month.

Hunter said he had received a request for the Club Harlem sign from the new National Museum of African American History and Culture being built on the mall in Washington. He said he was "not willing to give it up so easily," but he'd be willing to loan it, especially if it could get repaired (it's cracked).

"A lot of people ask me, 'Will the Club Harlem come back?' '' Hunter said. "It's an emphatic no. But we can still relive what took place then and there."

The club closed for good by the late 1980s. It was Gregory Wood, owner of the Fishheads restaurant across the street, who darted in and rescued the doors and some other mementos in 1992. He eventually gave the doors to Hunter to exhibit at his museum. "He wanted them to be in safe hands," Hunter said.

The doors fantastically evoke the mood of the old club, with their fanciful drawings of Sammy Davis Jr., his left arm bent upward with an oversized left hand in a wave by his face, and Pops Williams with his plaid pants and signature two canes. They were originally at the end of a long hallway (usually lined with waiting patrons), and led into the main event.

"People would touch those hands for good luck," Martin recalled.

Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Dick Gregory, Dinah Washington, Dionne Warwick, Sarah Vaughan, Moms Mabley, and comedian Slappy White made Club Harlem an A-list stop on the African American entertainment circuit. Local legend Chris Columbo led the orchestra. Sammy Davis Jr. would bring his Rat Pack friends over for the breakfast show.

"It was very exciting because it was like the heyday in Atlantic City," said Patti Harris, who in the '50s was one of the original showgirl dancers for Larry Steele's Smart Affairs, a high-style Las Vegas revue that had a long run at the club. "It's like a piece of Americana, actually. I thought I was very lucky to be in that."

Martin stopped by the exhibit recently on her way to do her taxes and bumped into Ralph Hunter.

"I'll tell you what," she said, "it was a fantastic place to work. It was a great time to be had by all. It just fizzled out."

Done in by changing trends, the overall downslide of the town, and, eventually, casinos that had their own entertainment venues, which fed their employees for free, the club was one of hundreds of nightspots in town that have disappeared, including, notably, the old 500 Club, which hosted Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack.

"There was no need to go to Kentucky Avenue or Arctic Avenue to get soul food; they could get free food," Hunter said. "The casinos got bigger and bigger."

Hunter has a list of about 100 black nightclubs that once flourished in Atlantic City. There are none left.

Still, the memories are vivid. There were many people in town who went on to become teachers and professionals, and even a mayor, who got their start working at Club Harlem. Former Mayor James Usry worked as a doorman. His daughter, the late Soundra Usry-Hollingsworth, was a local icon who sang at the club. The exhibit features an exquisite photo of Soundra Usry in a long white gown stepping off a jitney. It radiates glamour.

Hunter said his own first impression of the scene outside Club Harlem was: "I couldn't believe this many black people were walking around with suits and ties."

Martin, the former server, said the breakfast show was where the club's true personality shone.

"It was mostly the slicksters, the fast people in the fast lane," she said. "They bounced from Timbuktu to Little Belmont," local clubs. "They would wait, and go to this early-morning show. They would be just decked out. Everybody who thought they were hip would be there."

A Pictorial of Club Harlem and the Way We Were

Through Sunday at the Atlantic City Free Public Library, Atlantic and Tennessee Avenues. Information: 609-345-2269 or


Harris, now a dance teacher in Atlantic City, laments that the club was torn down with nothing to replace it.

"That's what's so sad about it," she said. "The people who wanted to tear the club down were very shortsighted in their vision of Atlantic City. There were things that could have been done. A museum. A school of performing arts. It could have been preserved."