club bali

Club Bali at the corner of 14th and T (courtesy of the book, Greater U Street DC)

This is the first post of a new feature in which I look back at the history of a building in the U street area. I’ve always been interested in the history of buildings, and after a few posts Prince of Petworth had of pictures of the area, showing how completely it had changed in just a few years, my curiosity just grew. Thanks to some Internet research, I present to you my first Looking Back post.

The first building we’re looking at is at 1901 14th street, which was formerly Club Bali, a popular place where jazz greats like Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Cab Calloway performed. Now the building is home to the Arena Stage’s Community Engagement Studio.

Benjamin Caldwell opened Club Bali in 1943 as mainly a venue for live music. The club also featured tap dancers and chorus girls. Club Bali supposedly held 200 or 300 patrons, one of the largest clubs in the area. Club Bali was one of the first clubs to successfully charge a cover to get in. In the 1940s it was five dollars (which was a lot of money in the 1940s!). And, in contrast to the name, they also served a not-often found cuisine in the time: Korean food prepared by George Kim.

The building that housed Club Bali was built in 1907 as a billiards and bowling alley (PDF). In 1937, the building featured the exhibit “National Memorial to the Progress of the Negro Race in America.”

Arena stage now

Arena stage building, now

“It was a magic place, its rear garden lit with strings of lights in the summertime…the magic often continued late into the night, as name entertainers, winding down after formal engagements, played to intimate gatherings into the wee hours of the morning in the many tucked-away, after-hours clubs located throughout the neighborhood.” (from U Street Heritage trail).

In 1950, owner Benjamin Caldwell was convicted of jury tampering in a gambling case. After his conviction, the former Club Bali housed numerous restaurants and clubs in the 1950s and 1960s, including Cafe Trinidad. It eventually became Jack Wiseman’s Lounge. In 1975, Jack Wiseman was murdered in his office in the building. Police attributed his murder to participation in a heroin drug ring, but his murder was never solved.

After Jack Wiseman’s murder, the building remained vacant until a string of theater companies, starting in the 1980s, used it as their home.

A feature in which I look back at the history of buildings in the U street area.

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