Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Dick Cami and Convulsion at Miami's Peppermint Lounge: the Twist, HullyGully, Mashed Potato and ...

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By Jane Feehan

One of Miami’s hottest night spots in the early 1960s was the Peppermint Lounge, a place where old and young, rich and famous danced their nights away to the latest gyrating crazes, including the one that launched the club, the Twist.

Ernest Evans, known forever after as Chubby Checker, recorded Hank Ballard’s rhythm and blues tune, The Twist, in 1959. The record did not sell well so Checker went on tour across the nation to sing the tune and demonstrate a dance that went with it. Some say he lost 30 pounds in just three weeks of performing. The tune – and the dance—finally caught on 14 months later as a fad that swept the world.

It proved to be a draw at the Peppermint Lounge on West 45th Street in New York where people waited in line to get through its doors. The popularity of the club spawned a few others, including the Peppermint Lounge on the 79th Street Causeway in Miami.

The Miami club opened Dec. 1, 1961 at the former site of Colonel Jim's. The Miami News reported Lee Ratner and Morris Levy of Roulette Records were its backers but Dick Cami, in his mid 20s at the time, was owner.  Cami was married to the daughter of New York mobster Johnny “Futto” Biello.

An impressive roster of big name entertainers played at the Miami club.

"Major rock and roll acts worked at the Peppermint Lounge like the Coasters, Jerry Lee Lewis, Conway Twitty ... and more," said Cami.

Miami’s Peppermint Lounge, with its mirrored ceilings and fenced-in dance floor attracted locals, tourists—and the famous. Nat King Cole asked Cami  if he could play the piano there a few nights to get the feel of the rock ‘n roll thing his daughter Natalie liked so much. He was at the piano when singer Sam Cooke, who recorded his own top-of-the-chart tune, Twistin' the Night Away, came in one evening. The Beatles visited Cami's place to pay homage to rock n' roll—the inspiration for their musicthree times when they
Lenny Bruce, frequent visitor.
Domita Jo on his left 
were in the area to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Politicos ventured fearlessly into the club to be part of the action. Gov. Grant Sawyer of Nevada was at a Governors Conference in Miami when he found the Peppermint Lounge. He visited the club each night with his wife; a large crowd gathered as the governor climbed the dance floor fence and twisted the night away.

And the Twist kept raging “round and round” Miami, Miami Beach and the rest of the country. “How long will the Twist epidemic last?” asked columnist Herb Kelly as he listed all the Miami Beach hotel ylounges bowing to the fad. “It’s spreading so fast nobody knows.”  Gray-haired matrons were shaking their hips on the same dance floor with green-haired girls and bearded young men, “all shaking like there was no one else in the world, not even their partner,” mused Cami.

The Twist was invented by chiropractors, quipped comedian Bob Hope.  “The whole world’s sacroiliac is going to be out in about three days.”

Actually it took a bit longer than three days.

Things began to slow down about a year later. That’s why the Peppermint Lounge started featuring a dance revue, the “Crazy Crazes,” a history of dance fads. Four dancers—two male, two female—and singer Regina Rae highlighted the show presenting dance crazes from the 1920s to the Twist.

Other dances caught on at the Peppermint Lounge as they had elsewhere in the U.S.: the Hully Gully, the Mashed Potato, the Fly, Bird, Dog, Frug, Slop, and the Continental. The Legends provided the music at the Miami lounge for all the crazes and so did a band from Jamaica, Freddie Scott’s Blues Busters. Their claim to fame was blending calypso and rock ‘n roll, known then by another name.

"We were the first to bring Ska, the precursor of Reggae, to America, " reminisced Cami.

Lights went out on the dance floor by 1964 or early 1965. In late ’64, Cami sold the lounge to Joe Camperlengo of Fort Lauderdale; Camperlengo owned the 4 o’Clock Club in that city. The Peppermint Lounge reopened shortly after the sale and soon became the Inner Circle. By 1965, the place was razed to make way for a new steak house.

Lucky for South Florida, Dick Cami remained but moved on to other endeavors in the area. He opened Applause, a nightclub at the Omni Center in Miami. Some reported that he wanted to go into construction but he (and later with his two sons) became the driving force behind several restaurants: Cami’s Seashells in Dade and Broward counties; Grumpy Dick’s in Plantation, Crabby Dick’s in Key West, and Islamorada Fish House in Dania. 

The restaurant closest to Cami's heart was his Top of the Home in Hollywood, FL. For 26 years  it stood acclaimed for its fine Continental dining, outstanding wine selection, and stunning panoramic vista of Broward County. His popular lounge featured two singing bartenders and piano player Sonny Gambino. 

Today, Cami no longer owns a restaurant but with a wealth of experience accumulated over the years he serves as chief operating officer of food and beverage for  Excelsior Hospitality Management International, a consulting and asset management company. 

There is more to Cami's past —and present—than the restaurant biz.

He stepped into the boxing world for a time, managing a few fighters who the late, great Angelo Dundee trained at his Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach.

Cami also manages affairs for his friend, Sandi Lansky*, daughter of reputed mobster, gambling kingpin and former Miami resident, Meyer Lansky. Cami has served as advisor during the compilation of her memoirs by William Stadium. The book, Daughter of the King, was released March, 2014.

The former restaurateur is currently in discussions with Fox about a TV pilot series, The Twist, and has teamed up with a former colleague to produce an animated musical feature, The Dog Show, a story about a mutt who wins the Westminster Dog Show.   

Cami lives in Oregon today but memories of those sizzling Miami Beach days and the twisting Peppermint Lounge nights loom large. I'll have to ask the next time I speak with him if he ever hums the Chubby Checker song:                         
                              Come on, baby, let’s do the twist.
                              Take me by my little hand and go like this.
                              We’re gonna twisty …

*  Sandra Lansky, daughter of Meyer Lansky wrote a memoir, Daughter of the King, in 2014.

In 2012 Dick Cami collaborated on a book about the Peppermint Lounge days in New York and Miami:

Miami News, Dec. 5, 1961
Miami News, Nov. 29, 1961
Miami News, Aug. 17, 1962
Miami News, Nov. 27, 1962
Miami News, Aug. 7, 1963
Miami News, Oct. 8, 1964
Miami News, Sept. 19, 1965
Beaver County Times, Aug. 19, 1964
Lakeland Ledger, Feb. 29,1988
Reading Eagle, May 20, 1965
Rome News-Tribune, Mar. 14, 1972

Tags: Miami history, Miami dance clubs, Peppermint Lounge, the Twist, Chubby Checker, Sandi Lansky, Meyer Lansky,Fort Lauderdale historian, Miami historian

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