Celebrity Club — founded by Paul Filippi — rememberedOne little nightclub paved the way
The city of Providence has always lived somewhat in the shadow of its neighbor to the north, Boston, but for a brief, shining moment more than 60 years ago, this small New England city was the hub.
That was because of a place called The Celebrity Club, which was by all accounts the first integrated jazz club in New England. Opened by Paul Filippi — known on the island as the founder of Ballard’s — in 1949, it closed just a scant five years later.
Even so, its impact was enormous. The Celebrity Club is being honored with a jazz performance and the unveiling of a plaque that commemorates the club.
Closing The Celebrity Club, which was located in Randall Square, was partly due to fatigue, according to Filippi’s son, Blake. The joint was raided, as they would have said in the day, because of the interracial mix at the bar. “There were raids, violent raids, but people kept coming,” said Blake.
And anyone who loves music can see why. The lineup included the most famous names in music at the time. As Louis Armstrong ended a gig, Ella Fitzgerald started another. If Duke Ellington wasn’t your thing, then maybe Sammy Davis Jr. was.
But as the ’50s wore on, TV became more and more popular. Sophisticated sound systems were developed and allowed musicians to play larger, and more profitable, venues. In 1954, Filippi simply closed down the club and opened Ballard’s on Block Island a couple of years later.
Paul Filippi’s story may be familiar to many first-generation Americans looking to make their way in a new country. He was born in North Providence and had to drop out of school at the age of 13 to help his family out financially. He had eight siblings and he worked in the federal works projects that were created during the Depression, and ended up building roads in Maine.
“He worked as a cabbie and a doorman at the Crown Hotel,” said Blake Filippi. “He also had a lot of black friends who said there was nowhere to go, no nightclubs, no bars, no live music for them.” Filippi “took all his life savings — maybe $10,000 – and put it in the club. The first night he didn’t even have any money to make change and there was a line around the corner,” said Blake Filippi.
In the area of “firsts,” it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint who did what when, but The Celebrity Club is generally regarded as the first integrated nightclub in New England ,which is also why it got into so much trouble. Blake Filippi said 85 people were detained at the club in 1955 alone.
“He was a guy defying the social order of the time. He faced a lot of discrimination himself and it was anathema to him. The club was congruent with his social belief,” Blake Filippi said. “He did it to make money but he also created this enormous social change.”
That social change is being remembered in Providence with a performance at the Downtown Marriot located at 1 Orms St. on Aug. 9.
The show, which has been organized by the R.I. Black Heritage Society, begins at 4 p.m. and is free and open to the public.
After the performance, a plaque unveiling ceremony will take place on the traffic island at the intersection of Randall and Charles Streets, a few yards from the former site of the Celebrity Club. It permanently enshrines this historic Rhode Island institution that was the location of barrier-breaking integration. The plaque unveiling ceremony takes place at 5:30 p.m.
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For photos of the Celebrity Club and the plaque, go here.