“Charlie’s Place” documentary nominated for an Emmy

“Who would think we might have a chance of winning an Emmy?” Herbert Riley said of the documentary “Charlie’s Place” being nominated as the Best Historical/Cultural Program for the 45th annual Southeast Emmy Awards. The ceremony will be Saturday in Atlanta, Georgia. The film was produced by South Carolina ETV. The film is about the nightclub Charlie’s Place on Carver Street that was owned and operated by Charles and Sarah Fitzgerald. It focuses on the nightclub that brought the races together and the August night in 1950 when the KKK shot up the club. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

An Emmy would be nice, but Herbert Riley sees the nomination as something more.

“When a child feels good about himself, he’s more likely to act good,” he said. “That’s what this is really about. We want to wake up Carver Street. Get it moving again and give these kids some hope.”

Hope spreads across Riley’s face as he holds his hands up, crossing his fingers, and talks about the Emmy nomination.

“Who would think we might have a chance of winning an Emmy?” Riley said. “Who would think that? I want everybody to cross their fingers.”

The documentary “Charlie’s Place” has been nominated as the Best Historical/Cultural Program for the 45th annual Southeast Emmy Awards. The ceremony will be Saturday in Atlanta, Georgia.

The film was produced by South Carolina ETV, which received another nomination in the health and science category for “S.C. Impacting Global Health.”

“Charlie’s Place” is about the nightclub Charlie’s Place on Carver Street that was owned and operated by Charles and Sarah Fitzgerald.

It opened in 1937 and was a stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit for African American performers such as Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Little Richard and Duke Ellington.

While segregation ruled, Charlie’s Place was an anomaly as whites and blacks danced together.

The club’s manager was Cynthia “Shag” Williams. Many credit her with teaching the club goers how to blend rhythm and blues swing dance steps into a unique dance. Riley said it makes sense that so many people, white and black, talked about learning from Shag that her name finally became the name of the dance.

But it wasn’t utopia.

Racial tensions simmered and bubbled over on Aug 26, 1950, at the club tucked beside the Fitzgerald home and Fitzgerald Tourist Court motel in what is now known as the Booker T. Washington neighborhood of Myrtle Beach.

The documentary shows vintage cars cruising slowly at night interchanged with shots of people dancing to juke box music.

The Ku Klux Klan had cruised thorough the neighborhood with the Myrtle Beach Police chief and the Klan’s grand dragon in the lead car.

Fitzgerald called the police station warning if the Klan returned there would be trouble.

The Klan returned.

Shots were fired and there were injuries, but the only death was a Klansman and Conway Police officer James D. Johnson.

“The truth of the matter is a lot of people in Myrtle Beach don’t know about Charlie’s Place,” Riley said. “An Emmy? That means it’s going to be out there and people are going to know it. It’s not good for some people to know more about what’s in your house than you do.”

Fitzgerald was taken from the club the night of the shootings.

“They beat him and marked him. They cut off his ear lobes,” Dino Thompson said of that August 1950 night.

The shooting at the club resulted in several Klansmen, including the grand dragon, being arrested. But the charges were all dropped. A Federal Bureau of Investigation was initiated, but nothing came of it.

Before sit-ins and Civil Rights marches, Thompson grew up in Myrtle Beach as the son of a restaurateur. He said Fitzgerald would sit in his father’s restaurant and eat lunch.

At night, Thompson said, he would go to Charlie’s Place.

“My first dance was there,” he smiled as a large screen television showed “Charlie’s Place” at the Black Thai Restaurant off Main Street in Myrtle Beach on Thursday. “My second dance was with Shag, she taught me some steps.”

Fitzgerald died of cancer five years after the shooting and his wife Sarah continued to operate the club, motel and several other businesses until she closed the club in 1965.

In the years since, the only remnant of Charlie’s Place is a slab of concrete in the middle of weeds and pine trees. The Fitzgerald home remained but the low-slung motel rooms on the side of the home decayed.

Myrtle Beach bought the property several years ago and Riley began the Carver Street Renaissance Group focusing on bringing businesses back to the neighborhood by reviving interest in Charlie’s Place.

The home is being remodeled and most of the motel has been torn down save a handful of rooms Riley hopes to make into a museum-type site.

“Little Richard lived here, in one of these rooms,” he said.

The city-sponsored Jazz Fest started in 2016 at the site and has continued to grow each year. The city has also budgeted $60,000 this coming fiscal year for a full time coordinator of Charlie’s Place.

Riley’s vision of the site includes a museum, a performance venue and a community center.

“We want to use it as a springboard to bring Carver Street back to life,” he said Thursday in a room filled with supporters and city council members Mike Chestnut and Mary Jeffcoat. “Carver Street was jumping. That was the hippest street in town back in the 40s. It was jumping from one end to the other even when I was a kid in the 50s.”

And it will be again, Riley said, drawing on the history of the community.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that Carver Street in the early days produced the culinary industry in Myrtle Beach,” he said. “Ocean Forest was the first million dollar hotel in the south and it was staffed at 99% by African Americans.

“The African American community was the founders of the hospitality industry.”

Janet Morgan is the editor of the Myrtle Beach Herald. Contact her at 843-488-7258 or at janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com.

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