Email Vladimir Alexandrov
This form does not yet contain any fields.

    WELCOME TO THE BLACK RUSSIAN BLOG--DEDICATED TO TOPICS CONNECTED WITH, AND CIRCLING AROUND, MY BIOGRAPHY OF FREDERICK BRUCE THOMAS, THE SON OF MISSISSIPPI SLAVES WHO BECAME A MILLIONAIRE IMPRESARIO IN PRE-REVOLUTIONARY MOSCOW AND 'THE SULTAN OF JAZZ' IN CONSTANTINOPLE To subscribe to this blog's RSS feed, please click on the icon above

    Entries in Anglo-American Villa (3)

    A Young Turk’s Disdain for Western Popular Culture, or Not Everyone Loved Frederick’s Jazz

    One warm summer evening in 1921, a well-born and sharp-eyed young Turk visited Frederick Thomas’s nightclub in Constantinople and noted his impressions of the place.  These are jolting because they hint at some of the nationalistic forces that were already at work in the country, and that would transform it, and everyone’s lives in it, in just a few years. 

     

     

    Mufty-Zade K. Zia Bey had lived in the United States for a decade before he and his American wife returned to Constantinople during the Allied occupation.  Together with a Greek friend, they decided to sample the town’s nightlife and began with a Russian restaurant in Pera, which they followed with a performance by dancers from the Imperial Russian Ballet in Petrograd.  Then, at the Greek’s suggestion, they continued the evening at a “café chantant” that was widely thought to be the “best” in the city. 

    Frederick’s “Anglo-American Villa” was crowded when the three arrived, and Zia Bey, who was very proud of his conservative and traditional Turkish values, was immediately put off by the libertine atmosphere he witnessed:

     

    Every one seems to be intoxicated and the weird music of a regular jazz band composed of genu­ine American Negroes fires the blood of the rollick­ing crowd to demonstrations unknown even to the Bowery in its most flourishing days before the Volstead Act. Much bejeweled and rouged “noble” waitresses sit, drink and smoke at the tables of their own clients. The proprietor of the place, an American colored man who was established in Russia before the Bolshevik revolu­tion and who—it seems—protected and helped most efficiently some British and American officers and relief workers at the time of the Revolution, is watching the crowd in a rather aloof manner. Frankly he seems to me more human than his clients; at least he is sober and acts with con­sideration and politeness, which is not the case with most of the people who are here.

     

    Despite his sophistication and familiarity with the United States, Zia Bey disapproved of the drinking, the unbridled exuberance, and the women on gaudy display.  By contrast, his sketch of Frederick is very un-American—and quite Turkish—in its respectful acceptance. 

    Zia Bey also bristles at the way everything about the Villa reflects the Allied presence in Constantinople and the secondary role that has been forced on the city’s Muslim natives:

     

    Not one real Turk is in sight. Many foreigners, but mostly Greeks, Armenians and Levantines—with dissipated puffed-up faces, greedy of pleasure and materialism. We have a liqueur. The show is a vaudeville which is not very interesting. Every minute that passes makes the crowd more and more demonstrative.  Carayanni [the Greek friend] is enjoying it immensely, but I realize that our presence puts a damper on his good time and although he de­fends himself in the most exquisite manner when I tease him about it and accuse him of being evidently an “habitué” of the place, the glances that he exchanges surreptitiously with one of the waitresses—a real Russian beauty with pale skin, fire-red lips and languid black eyes—confirm my suspicions.  

     

    After a short while, Zia Bey decides that the Villa’s alien atmosphere has gotten “decidedly too tense” for him and his wife, and starts to think about leaving, when, suddenly, a party of two couples enters a private box near the stage and “immediately pulls the curtain, thus cut­ting itself entirely from the view of the public.”  Zia Bey’s wife looks at him with genuine surprise, as if she has imagined that the four are about to launch into some sort of incredible debauch behind the curtain.  “We really must go,” he quickly concludes, and after leaving the Greek friend to his Russian beauty, they hurry to take one of the automobiles waiting outside in a long line by the curb. 

    Before long, Zia Bey and his wife are safely out of Pera, across the Galata Bridge, and back home in “our Stamboul, the beautiful Turkish city, sleeping in the night the sleep of the just; poor Stamboul, ruined by fires and by wars, sad in her misery, but decent and noble; a dethroned queen dreaming of her past splendour and trusting in her future.” 

    Zia Bey’s attitude represented manifold concealed threats to the world of which Frederick was a part, although few could have foreseen at the time how these would develop.    

    Frederick Thomas and First Jazz in Constantinople

     

    On August 31, 1919, or two months after the Anglo-American Villa opened, and only four months after Frederick arrived in Constantinople, he made history.  An ad in Orient News, the authoritative newspaper of the “Army of the Black Sea,” as the British occupiers of Constantinople pompously called themselves, announced the first performance of a new kind of music, one that would become a key to Frederick’s future success:  “For the first time in Constantinople a Jazz-Band executed by Mr. F. Miller and Mr. Tom, the latest sensation all over Europe.”  

     

    A Russian émigré journal’s illustration suggesting what Frederick Thomas’s “Anglo-American Villa” looked like—with a dancer in a skimpy outfit on stage, a band to the left, and civilian and Allied military customers at tables.


    Freddy Miller was an Englishman who did parodies of musical acts and sang humorous songs—his most popular was the stuttering hit “K-K-K-Katie”; while “Mr. Tom,” a black American, was an “eccentric” dancer with an amusing routine.  They were not professional jazz musicians and probably put on a comedy act that included some jazz interludes.  Nevertheless, their performance was a hit, and together with Frederick they get credit for introducing this quintessentially black American music to Turkey just as it was beginning to conquer London, Paris, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, and everywhere in between. 

    As he had in Moscow, Frederick clearly continued to follow new trends in entertainment that were developing in Europe and the United States, and he would import much more real jazz to Constantinople in the years ahead.  Even with his nose for successful innovations, however, he could not have foreseen the way that this jaunty, raucous music would contribute to the revolutionary transformation of Turkish society, or the extent to which he would himself become an unwitting player in the process.

    By the end of the first summer season, the Anglo-American Villa was pronounced a resounding success by the Orient News:

    Far the best evening entertainment in town is to be found at the Villa Anglo Americain, Chichli.  Mme. Bertha and M. Thomas have succeeded in engaging the finest talent for their stage and attracting the most elegant monde to their tables. This enterprising summer effort which has established their reputation is now drawing to an end with this season of outdoor entertainments and we understand that the indoor premises of the Villa are about to be enlarged to meet the needs in winter. There is no doubt that the Chichli Villa will continue to give the best vaudeville in Constantinople. That fine hunting ground for artistes, Bucharest, is to be searched by M. Thomas for new talent for the winter season.

    (To be continued)   

    Frederick’s First Risky Step in Constantinople

    In comparison to the vibrant world of popular, Western-style entertainment that Frederick Thomas had known in Moscow and even in Odessa, Constantinople was a backwater.  This was another aspect of the conspiracy of circumstances into which he fell that seemed tailored specifically for his skills and experience. 

    When he arrived, there were a few restaurants with music in Pera, the city’s European quarter, one or two places with variety acts on stage, and quite a few bars and other drinking establishments patronized mostly by Levantines (Ottoman citizens of foreign extraction) and the growing numbers of foreigners, especially military officers. 

    Down the hill near the Galata port, the narrow, foul-smelling streets, which quickly turned to mud whenever it rained, were filled with beer joints and cheap bordellos that catered to sailors and enlisted men; drugs, and especially cocaine, were also readily available.  Some of these places were so vile that they were put off limits by the military authorities. 

    Rare in Constantinople were precisely the kinds of places that Frederick had owned in Moscow—elegant, sophisticated whirls of Western music, entertainment, dancing, drink, and enticing cuisine.

    But to start something like this required money and Frederick did not have any.  He turned to moneylenders, several of whom offered him short-term loans at usurious rates—more than one hundred percent interest for six months.  It would be difficult to earn enough to pay them back, but he had to take the risk because he had no other choice: he had landed in Constantinople shortly before the beginning of the summer season and could not afford to miss it. 

    Frederick was also used to working with partners.  By May 15, or less than a month after he had arrived in Constantinople, he had settled on two likely prospects—Arthur Reyser, Jr., and Bertha Proctor (about whom more later). 

    Bertha’s popularity with British officers—her prices and "waitresses" were out of reach for the rank and file—would prove a boon to Frederick.  He also did his best to exploit his old American connection, and the name the partners gave their joint venture covered both sides of the Atlantic—it was the “Anglo-American Garden Villa,” also known as the “Stella Club.”  The dual name reflected the symbiotic relationship between the two parts of the enterprise, with Bertha presiding over her bar while Frederick handled everything else. 

    “Bertha and Thomas,” as the partners styled themselves, found a large parcel of land on the northern edge of Pera in an area known as Chichli.  It was across the street from the last stop of the Number 10 tramway line, which made it readily accessible by public transportation from the center of the European quarter.

     

    Antique map from 1923 showing the Chichli section of Pera, Constantinople, much as Frederick Thomas saw it in 1919.  His first venture was the property just below and to the left of the "235" reference mark on the map.  The oval in the wide street further to the left is the last tramway stop.

     

    But the location was also risky, because in 1919 it hardly looked like part of the city.  Only about half of it was built up, mostly with rather shabby, two and three-story houses of brick and weather-beaten wood, while the rest consisted of large fruit and vegetable gardens and empty lots that merged into the countryside a short distance away. 

    However, the parcel was relatively cheap to rent and had a scattering of old shade trees as well as a nice view of the Bosporus (the area is now completely built up with apartment buildings that block all street-level views).  There was also a roomy house in the corner of the property, which is where Frederick and his family probably moved after the Pera Palace.

    By the end of June, or just two months after Frederick landed in Galata, the empty lot had been transformed into a mini Aquarium:  several simple, wooden structures were built; there were pavilions and kiosks, neat gravel paths, and strings of electric lights that made the entire place glow at night.  Staff were hired and purveyors of food and drink lined up. An open air dance floor occupied a central spot, with a stage behind it, and tables for customers facing it.  The “Stella Club” was on the second floor of one of the buildings.  Advertisements had been appearing in local French and English-language newspapers for several weeks and on Tuesday, June 24, 1919, the Villa Anglo-American finally opened. 

    A new era in Constantinople’s night life had begun. (To be continued)