Even if it was before their time, most Louisvillians have heard about how we once dressed up on weekends and headed for Fourth Street’s first-run movie houses; the Rialto, the Strand, and Loew’s. Those were the days when just walking along Fourth on a Saturday afternoon, you were almost certain to meet at least one friend or acquaintance. “Downtown,” however, held many other attractions as well.
After school, some college freshmen not yet comfortable in the campus hangouts, liked to spend an afternoon at Taylor Drugs between Broadway and Chestnut, laughing and flirting over fountain drinks or coffee. Once they had worn out their welcome at Taylor’s, some would drift down a few doors to Variety Records. There they could squeeze into glass booths to listen to the latest Hit Parade selections, carefully handling the large brittle records.
At York, just a block south of Broadway, the white art deco building of the Fourth Avenue Skating Rink gleamed and a neon couple danced on skates above the double doors. When the doors opened, the sound of organ music pumping a boogie beat flowed out.
Memorial Auditorium at Fourth and Kentucky was the place to enjoy live theater. In 1951-52 you could have seen productions as diverse as The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, featuring the great Alexandra Danilova; or Mae West in Diamond Lil; or a road company of Streetcar Named Desire.
Fourth Street had cocktail lounges like Gordon’s with its glowing neon martini sign and modern interior, including wall sconces for romantic lighting. Couples and ladies sat at tables, since state law then prohibited females at the bar. Sometimes there was a tuxedoed piano player in the dining room, or a disc jockey from WKYW doing a “remote.” He played jazz records and made idle chatter in a silky, intimate baritone. If you were listening at home, he made you wish you were there. Another popular lounge a few doors south was Baron’s, where the upstairs rocked every Sunday afternoon with jam sessions by local musicians.
The best Fourth Street party of the year was Derby Eve when the street was full of happy revelers, and the Brown Hotel hosted its open-to-the-public hospitality suite in what was then called The South Room. Derby visitors and locals mingled there among the overstuffed chairs and couches, sharing the pre-race excitement. Sunburned from a day at the track, Louisville’s “café society” socialized with crisp-uniformed soldiers from Fort Knox. In jackets and ties, U of L students met high-stakes Derby visitors with flashy rings. Women wore sophisticated slim sheaths, three-inch heels and good jewelry, girls wore tiny-waisted crinolines and Capezios. The air crackled with the pursuit of flirtations, betting tips, racing lore, and more flirtations. Many dates were made to meet the next day at the track. Some were even kept.
Two blocks north, another hotel, The Seelbach, had a corner coffee shop on the ground floor with window walls looking onto Fourth and Walnut Streets. Open all night, it was a well-known after-partying spot for coffee, a late snack or early breakfast. Of course, the coffee shop was also one of the places for a lunch break from a day of shopping at Stewart’s or Selman’s. One always made sure to get a window table to watch the shoppers hurrying by.
At the Seelbach also, the basement Rathskellar was a popular place for dancing to a live band. A busy singles spot (before we called them that) it had medieval decor. Many a romance blossomed among the suits of armor, heraldic emblems, and gothic arches of the Rathskeller.
There were other movie houses, restaurants and bars branched out along the intersecting and parallel streets to Fourth Avenue. The Scoop movie house, first opened as a newsreel theater, later became an “art house” and introduced a generation of Louisvillians to foreign and art films like Alex Guiness’ Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Red Shoes, and Tales of Hoffman. For too brief a time, the National Theater presented onstage headliners such as Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan and Blackstone, the Magician. Over on Second Street, the Madrid Ballroom had a mirrored ball over its dance floor, long before disco.
But Fourth Avenue was the center of it all and we didn’t just think of it as where we worked or shopped or saw a movie. To many of us of a certain age, it was where we went to spread our new grown-up wings, to define ourselves, to chase our dreams.
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