Updated date:

The Beale Street Thursday Night Switch

Robert Odell, Jr. is the senior video editor for the Take Me Back to Beale project, a 100-year chronicle of Beale Street History.

Ella Fitzgerald was one of the entertainers featured in the black, star-studded Midnight Rambles.

Ella Fitzgerald was one of the entertainers featured in the black, star-studded Midnight Rambles.

Thursday Nights Were for Whites Only

From the 1920s through the 1950s, in Memphis, Tennessee, seeing crowds of white folks on Beale Street was an unusual occurrence. On Thursday nights, however, white patrons came out of the woodwork for the black, star-studded Midnight Rambles.

The Midnight Rambles were held at the Palace Theatre on Beale Street and featured some of the world's greatest black entertainers. Because the entertainment was so extraordinary, white patrons were solicited to attend the normally all-black venue on Thursday nights. On those nights, the theater switched from black to whites only.

The all-white crowds, mostly male, were often outrageously wild and woolly and drunk.

Some of the big names that performed included:

  • Louis Armstrong
  • Count Basie
  • Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald's performance to white only audiences at the Midnight Rambles is reenacted.

Ella Fitzgerald's performance to white only audiences at the Midnight Rambles is reenacted.

The Palace Was Normally for Blacks

Beginning in the 1920s, the Palace Theatre was the largest theater in the South that catered specifically to black patrons. In any other theater, blacks had to sit in the balcony only.

At the Palace Theatre, blacks enjoyed front row and floor seating in a premiere theatrical environment.

As stated in Memphis archive records, the Palace Theatre was:

  • Located at 324 Beale Street in Memphis,
  • opened in 1920,
  • closed in 1955,
  • could seat 1,080 patrons, and
  • was demolished in 1972.

At the Midnight Rambles on Beale Street, the all-white crowds, mostly male, were often outrageously wild and woolly and drunk.

Whites-Only Night

Hosted at the Palace Theatre by the home-grown and talented radio announcer and entertainer Rufus Thomas, the Midnight Rambles would sometimes get pretty wild and woolly.

The Palace Theatre was famous for its outstanding and world-renowned stage entertainment. The acts were so popular that white patrons were enlisted to venture to the normally all-black venue on a "whites only" Thursday night time that was specifically reserved for white people.

White people used to come on Beale Street to the Palace Theatre on a special night for white attendance at the Midnight Ramble(s). At a given night at the Midnight Ramble(s), the black theater switched to whites only

— Ernest Withers, "Memphis Flyer"

The Midnight Rambles Were Wild

On Thursday nights, droves of whites thronged the streets of Beale to see the star-studded Midnight Rambles.

The all-white audiences would hoot, holler, scream, and applaud, often in drunken stupors, as they became engrossed with some of the greatest black entertainers ever.

The Brown-Skin Models were a group of young, beautiful, African-American girls, who danced at the Palace Theatre on historic Beale Street.

The Brown-Skin Models were a group of young, beautiful, African-American girls, who danced at the Palace Theatre on historic Beale Street.

The Palace's Chorus Girls

As the night drew on and the crowd grew more inebriated, white males would begin to scream and holler for the Brown-Skin Models.

The Brown-Skin Models were a group of young, beautiful, African-American girls who danced at the Palace Theatre on historic Beale Street.

The brown-skin beauties wore scanty show-girl attire. With sensual movements on stage, the beautiful brown girls raised the ire of the white women in the audience, who became irate as their boyfriends and husbands fixated on the models.

The alcohol, entertainment, and excitement would often lead many of the white males to lose control and approach the stage while the models were dancing.

To the chagrin of their female companions, the white fellows would actually try to awkwardly climb onto the stage while flirting with and beckoning to the girls as they performed.

The Brown-Skin Models danced at the Palace Theater on historic Beale Street during the popular and well-attended Midnight Rambles, where they were joined on stage by celebrities such as Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, and other famous acts.

The Brown-Skin Models danced at the Palace Theater on historic Beale Street during the popular and well-attended Midnight Rambles, where they were joined on stage by celebrities such as Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, and other famous acts.

The Thursday Night Switch

World-famous photographer Ernest Withers, who had a photography studio at 333 Beale Street in Memphis for many years, was well-acquainted with the history of Memphis and Beale Street. His photographs of entertainers, the Civil Rights movement, and the stellar occurrences of U.S. history are internationally known.

Concerning the Midnight Rambles, Mr. Withers was quoted in an Oct. 25, 2007 article in the Memphis Flyer as saying:

"White people used to come on Beale Street to the Palace Theatre on a special night for white attendance at the Midnight Ramble(s). At a given night at the Midnight Ramble(s), the black theater switched to whites only."

Resources

  • Take Me Back To Beale, Book II (After The Red Ball). Dir. Carolyn Yancy-Gunn. Edited by Robert Odell, Jr. Perfs. Arthur Smith, Tony Patterson, CFA Graduates. DVD. CFA Productions, Inc. Archives

© 2015 Robert Odell Jr

Comments

Robert Odell Jr (author) from Memphis, Tennessee on July 18, 2015:

Glad you were interested in the Midnight Rambles. The Midnight Rambles on Beale Street in Memphis could be thought of as the Southern counterpart to the performances that took place in Harlem in New York.

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 21, 2015:

I can't quite make up my mind what I think about the Midnight Rambles. By today's standards the whole thing was demeaning. But at the time I'm sure it represented a much needed financial opportunity for black performers and business owners in the area. I guess, bottom line, it was what it was. Anyway, it's an interesting tidbit of history I wasn't aware of before.

Related Articles