In its heyday, Printers Alley was a place of passions. It was there one could find sweethearts sharing a night on the town at the Captain's Table, with perhaps an engagement ring in the young man's pocket. Clandestine lovers hiding out in a back corner booth of the Brass Rail Stables restaurant. Timid men who loved and lusted from afar, watching magnificent displays of female pulchritude parade in The Black Poodle Lounge or The Rainbow Room.
In upstairs rooms, dice skittered across green felt as men and women pursued that most fickle of lovers, Lady Luck. Others found solace in the arms of bottles, or lost themselves in the allure of hot music played loud at the Carousel Club. Beyond the bright lights, connections were made in the Alley's darker recesses for quick simulations of passion in nearby hotels, in exchange for cold, hard cash.
But most of all, love could be found in the hearts of the men who ran the Alley in its heyday. Certainly love for the cash they made by catering to Nashvillians' peccadilloes, yes, but also love and pride in ruling their own fiefdom of sin and the pleasure. They flouted the conservative and prudish facade of Nashville and provided a colorful, sometimes seamy underbelly that operated by its own laws.
Printers Alley did not begin its life as a destination for those seeking amour. George Michael Deaderick, a former Virginia planter and businessman, donated land to the city of Nashville in the late 1780s that would become Printers Alley. According to Louis Littleton Davis' Nashville Tales, his intention was to provide a service entrance for the buildings being constructed along College and Cherry Streets (now known as Third and Fourth avenues) while fostering goodwill in his adopted hometown.
While Deaderick was successful in securing civic immortality — through the downtown street that still bears his name — he seems to have been less successful in affairs of the heart. He reportedly had to seek advice from his friend Andrew Jackson on how to curb Mrs. Deaderick's propensity for flirting with other gentlemen. There are no reports as to how successful Old Hickory's advice might have been.
During the 19th century, Cherry Street became the center of Nashville's printing and publishing industry. While the business offices faced out onto those main thoroughfares, its ink-soaked typesetters and printer's devils took to hanging out on the alley, conveying upon it its famous name.
By the 1890s, two Nashville newspapers were headquartered on Cherry Street, along with publishers, printers, saloons, men's clubs and hotels. These were the days of Nashville's notorious "Men's Quarter," where whiskey and beer flowed freely along the avenue. Here Printers Alley functioned quite literally as the ass-end of palaces of human debauchery.
The continuous revels of swilling and whoring were supposed to come to a crashing end when the forces of morality passed the Tennessee Prohibition Act of 1909. Although the act did clean up Cherry Street — a change that was symbolized by the Prohibition-supporting paper, The Tennessean, relocating to the heart of the former Quarter — the real effect was to just close the front entrances of many grand bars. These reopened through their back doors as lower-profile speakeasies in Printers Alley.
For the next 30 years, as Michael Long wrote in a 1994 Scene profile, Printers Alley's gin mills hummed along nicely, offering libations for thirsty Nashvillians, illegal gambling and easy access to pleasures of the flesh — all protected by the political machine of Nashville Mayor Hilary Howse. After Howse's death in 1938, the Tennessee legislature enacted repeal for the state the next year, making liquor sales once again legal.
But with legality came competition. Liquor by the drink was still outlawed in Nashville, and this gave rise to "mixer bars" and clubs. Technically, patrons were supposed to bring their own bottle on each visit, or have an "on hold" bottle behind the bar with their name on it. In practice, almost any patron could easily buy a drink at the many "member's bars" and supper clubs that began to operate. Illegal gambling also spread to the exclusive supper clubs built outside the city limits. With these new businesses cutting into Printers Alley's share of the vice pie, a new recipe had to be found.
In the late 1940s, the business operators in the Alley — legendary larger-than-life figures like Jimmy Washer, James "Slow" Barnes, Bob Carny, former Chicago Cubs major-leaguer Mickey Kreitner and a youngster named David "Skull" Schulman — found that formula in a combination of fine dining, live music and artful appreciation of female flesh. Booze, gambling and prostitution were still easy to be had in Printers Alley, to be sure. Added to that trio were big-name burlesque acts and clubs that provided an outlet for live country and jazz music.
For more than three decades, this would be the recipe for success in Printers Alley. This was the era when such legendary showcases as The Black Poodle Lounge, The Rainbow Room and The Voo Doo Lounge provided bump and grind from nationally famous burlesque performers — Dixie Evans, Shannon Doah, even Russ Meyer starlet Kitten Natividad. Perhaps most famous was the siren of the Alley, the renowned Heaven Lee, who made headlines in the 1970s when she re-created Lady Godiva's nude ride on horseback down James Robertson Parkway to protest "environmental pollution."
Live music from the best of touring musicians and local homegrown talent could be heard in venues like The Carousel Club, The Western Room and The Sundowner. Even fine dining could be found in the Alley, at upscale eateries like The Captain's Table, The Brass Rail Stables and The Embers.
Holding court over much of the Alley's nightlife, and providing legal representation as well as occasional loans to many of the business owners, was legendary Nashville attorney Jack Norman Sr. He lived in an apartment over the Alley with his family, their home marked by lacy wrought ironwork that invoked the decor of New Orleans' French Quarter.
Their residency led to one of the all-time great verbal smackdowns of Nashville snobbery, as chronicled in James D. Squires' raucous history of Nashville politics, The Secrets of the Hopewell Box. As Squires tells it, the main event was precipitated when Mrs. Jack Norman invited several Nashville society ladies to her home for a luncheon.
"How do the whores act in Printers Alley?" one of the ladies is reported to have asked. The sharp-witted Mrs. Norman wasn't fazed. "Just like they do in Belle Meade," she replied.
In 1968, the good citizens of Nashville decided they'd had enough of the legal fan dance in regard to enjoying good whiskey with a good meal. The legalization of liquor by the drink would be the first of many blows Printers Alley would suffer in the next two decades as it slowly lost its position as Nashville's gilded palace of sin. The downward spiral of downtown Nashville thanks to suburban flight during the 1970s sucked life from the surrounding area, and the appearance of explicit strip clubs put the death grip on classic burlesque. But the biggest blow was the gradual loss of control by the wheelers and dealers who had ruled the Alley's nightlife since the 1940s.
By the late 1980s, Skull Schulman was the last direct link to the glory days of Printers Alley. The burlesque was gone from The Rainbow Room, leaving only the live music in its place. A few doors down, déclassé strip joints had moved in, thumbing their noses at the days of elaborate costumes, teasing striptease and cornball comedy. Skull held out until 1998, when a robber slit his throat in his club in broad daylight — a final sacrifice to the gods of chaos and urban blight.
Today, a swank metal sign stretches over Church Street marking the entrance to Printer's Alley, directing tourists onto the strip of lighted signs and seemingly always wet cobblestones. The Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar and The Fiddle and Steel Guitar Bar still feature live music and serve as new anchors for the Alley. Fleet Street Pub, owned by two former Nashville Banner reporters, offers beer and British-inspired fare. A solitary strip joint, The Brass Stables, has appropriated the name and location of what was once white tablecloth dining, and several karaoke bars flourish, providing all new avenues of exploration for would-be exhibitionists.
As Nashville prepares to open its massive Music City Center — see the article on p. 17 that examines the confluence, real or imagined, between strip clubs and the convention business — let's hope some wayward conventioneers find their way downtown to that narrow alley, those glistening cobblestones, those doorways that beckon. Here, in a world seemingly without taboos, the ghost of clandestine sinning still warbles its siren song. True, the glory days of Nashville's showplace of iniquity may have receded behind the veil of the past.
But on Printers Alley, veils were made to be lifted.
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