South Jersey Had Its Day As Performance Hot Spot The Action Today Is On The Waterfront. Before Mtv, The Latin Casino Was The Place To Be.

Posted: June 20, 1995

A bit flummoxed at the idea of driving to Camden, of all places, for an evening of live music and fun at the new Waterfront Entertainment Centre?

Not to worry. You're not the first generation of Philadelphians to drive to South Jersey for a good time.

If you're under, say, 35, you may not remember, but there was a time when South Jersey was home to several hot nightspots. There was Camden Convention Hall, a century-old National Guard Armory turned R&B joint, and there was Camden County Music Fair, a sister venue to Valley Forge Music Fair.

And then, from 1960 to 1978, in what is now the headquarters for Subaru of America on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, there was the fanciest, hippest nightclub of all, the 1,500-seat, Vegas-style Latin Casino.

For the under-30 set, it may be hard to remember, but there was a time before MTV and before rock bands began selling out 15,000-seat arenas. It was an age when even the biggest-name performers went from city to city, town to town, playing nightclubs to hundreds, not thousands or millions, of fans.

And the Latin Casino, built for $3 million when $3 million was serious money, was as sumptuous as the best nightclubs in New York or Los Angeles.

"Nothing could compete with the Latin Casino," recalls longtime radio personality Hy Lit, who spent many a night there watching performances by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Jackie Wilson, James Brown and Diana Ross.

"The Latin was a giant, a monster. And it was classy. This was the in- crowd, the glitter, the glitz, the creme de la creme."

Indeed, it was. During its heyday, first at 1309 Walnut St. in Center City, and later in Cherry Hill, the Latin was the place to see and be seen, seven nights a week.

Mike Goffredo, a Philadelphia entertainment promoter and onetime denizen of the Latin who died last week, also recently recalled those days with a smile.

"It wasn't like today when everybody wears sneakers and jeans," he said. ''This was a showplace. The women wore nice dresses, cocktail dresses, high heels. The guys dressed like they stepped out of GQ magazine - everybody tried to outdo each other."

And it wasn't just a great experience for the audience. Owners Dallas Gerson and Dave Dushoff, both of whom are deceased, made sure the performers loved the place, as well. A star's every wish was somebody's command.

"It was a wonderful room to play," says Bobby Rydell, the onetime teen heartthrob who recently played Atlantic City with pals Frankie Avalon and Fabian. "The club itself was beautiful, and the sound system was impeccable.

"Dave Dushoff loved entertainers, and he did everything right. The dressing room was big, and it was plush. There were fresh liquor bottles in the dressing room every night. If you opened a bottle and a little bit was gone, the next night there was a fresh bottle.

"I remember when Harry Belafonte played the Latin; at the end of the week, they brought a new Lincoln or Cadillac for him on stage, just to say thanks for a good week."

The Latin had opened in 1950 at the corner of 13th and Walnut. Belafonte, Jimmy Durante, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Milton Berle, Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Joey Bishop - they all played there, and they kept Center City hopping for a decade.

But in 1960, Gerson and Dushoff built "a great, plush cavern" in Cherry Hill, as Philadelphia Magazine once described it, a place where "mink-clad ladies and cashmere-coated escorts cascaded out of Cadillacs."

The reason for the move was two-fold: Parking was a problem in Center City, and, more important at the time, nightclubs that served alcohol were required to close at midnight on Saturdays. In Jersey, nightclubs could stay open until 3 a.m. Sunday.

So in Cherry Hill, Gerson and Dushoff made sure there was plenty of parking, they hired a first-class house band, and they made sure there was plenty of staff to handle the crowd, which sat before a huge stage in the large, curved Vegas-style showroom at small tables positioned on 10 concentric tiers.

At the time, there was no cover charge. Gerson and Dushoff made their money by packing in customers and then packing those customers with food (a filet mignon was $7.95) and drinks ($1). As in Vegas, or Atlantic City showrooms of today, however, your table often was only as good as your tip to the maitre d'.

"They had one guy, a maitre d', who couldn't see too well, but he could tell from the texture of the money what you were handing," Goffredo said with a laugh. "The guy could feel a $20."

In time, however, the Latin began to lose its luster. The media, once in love with the place, began to complain about the food, the service, the important reservations that the Latin staff didn't seem to remember.

Then, as TV became more influential, the top performers stopped flocking to nightclubs. And in 1975, the Latin's owners ran into tax problems.

Finally, by the late '70s, as Atlantic City casinos were locking up artists with exclusive deals, the Latin's fate seemed sealed. After a glorious run of almost two decades, it closed in the summer of 1978.

Five months later, at the height of the disco craze, the Latin reopened as a disco club, Emerald City.

A year later, it was transformed once again, this time into a venue for progressive rock bands, before finally folding altogether in December 1982.

The Camden County Music Fair, which staged shows in a carnival-style tent, didn't have the cachet of the Latin Casino, but it did provide plenty of entertainment to plenty of people.

It was opened by a small group of investors in 1956 as the Camden County Music Circus, but after only one summer season it was sold to Lee Guber, Shelly Gross and Frank Ford, who owned Valley Forge Music Fair and Westbury Music Fair on Long Island.

"We did all the Broadway musicals, with name talent," says Ford, who eventually quit the partnership and returned to his first love, radio. "We

drew some from Philadelphia, but most from South Jersey."

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