Henderson County, Kentucky


For a decade, this area was a nightlife capital

For young Henderson County residents or relative newcomers to the community, Henderson might seem like a quiet, sometimes even sleepy, little river town.

It might be hard to believe that just 40 years ago, this model city was far from model or quiet - and it never slept.

From the early '40s through the early '50s, Henderson was known far and wide as - depending on your point of view:

· A rollicking entertainment capital where the best in live, nationally known musicians could be enjoyed along with fine food and sporting fun in dozens of local nightspots.

· Or a mecca for vice of the worst kid, where the sins of drunkenness, prostitution and gambling were openly practiced under the nose of uncaring law enforcement.

With Union County's sprawling Camp Breckinridge home to thousands of soldiers and the city of Evansville nearby, Henderson was a diamond mine for entertainment entrepreneurs. GIs came north looking for fun, Hoosiers came south with plenty of money to spend and Henderson businessmen welcomed them all.

Accounts of the era indicate the Henderson area at one time had more than 65 nightclubs, taverns and liquor stores. Many of the most notorious were located on the U.S. 41 "strip" between its intersection with U.S. 60 and the Indiana line.

The names of some of the clubs still echo in local lore. The Dells, the Kentucky Tavern, the 101 Club, the Commando Club, Pearsons, the Kasey Klub, the Edgewood, the Happy Hour, the Midway, the Cloverdale.

But far and away the most stylish, the most remembered, the jewel along Henderson's "Great White Way," was the Club Trocadero. The "Troc" was located on the west side of 41 just past the bridge, in the "no man's land" that was north of the Ohio River but still under the jurisdiction of Kentucky authorities.

Opened in August of 1939 by Hendersonian Clarence WOOD, the 14,000-square-foot building which cost $120,000 to construct had a dance floor that could accommodate 220 couples. And dance they did, to the biggest of the big entertainment names of the day.

Among the performers were many who are still household names: Cab CALLOWAY, Duke ELLINGTON, Harry JAMES, Gene KRUPA, The MILLS Brothers, The Ink Spots.

Jazz clarinetist Woody HERMAN, famous for his theme son "Woodchopper's Ball," was contracted at $4,500 for a one-week performance, according to the engagement listings WOOD shared with The Gleaner during a 1980 interview.

"The bands I booked for $2,000 to $3,000 a week would cost $15,000 today," WOOD said during that interview.

In addition to bands and vocalists, elaborate floor shows, Sunday afternoon "tea dances" for children and even an ice revue were presented at the Troc. A 20-ounce New York strip sirloin sold for $3, beer was 25 cents a bottle and mixed drinks were 35 cents.

A then 74-year-old WOOD maintained in that 1980 interview (conducted less than six months before his death) that his flagship nightclub was a legitimate and first-class operation.

"Couples only" was a familiar term to his customers. "We wanted married people," he said. "We didn't cater to the youngsters and we didn't want any trouble."

That desire even reflected on dance steps. The fast-paced and acrobatic jitterbug was not permitted. "That jitterbugging caused the dancers to kick and stomp around - it just didn't look good and it (the Troc) just wasn't that kind of place," WOOD said.

But in addition to all its other attractions, the Trocadero also had its "game room."

That "game room" and the proliferation of other nightclubs and taverns, many far from high-class but also using gambling as a draw, lit the fuse that would eventually ignite a community reaction that shut down the glittering Trocadero and its not-so-shing- neighbors.

Throughout the '40s, those Henderson citizens unhappy with their town's growing reputation as "Little Chicago" felt powerless. Grand juries were convened to deal with the gambling "problem," but amazingly a situation that was so apparent to many local citizens went unnoticed by grand jurors and law enforcement officials.

Then in the early '50s, various forces came together. State politics came to bear when a gubernatorial campaign focused the state's attention on what was going on in Henderson, and not so coincidently the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board cast a much closer eye on the Little Chicago in Kentucky's northwest corner. When the state's largest newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, started running eyewitness accounts of some of the goings-on, no one - politicians, police or nightclub operators - could ignore the gathering storm.

Although much of the practical enforcement power came from external forces, the real heart and soul of the cleanup effort came from within the community. Henderson was about to clean itself up.

Another grand jury was called to consider more detailed evidence of illegal gambling. (This one would indict 38 individuals and two corporations, the Trocadero and the Dells.) And the sheriff's record in the enforcement of gambling and liquor laws was questioned in the bluntest of terms.

But the watershed event started small. A group of citizens banded together in the hope that this time things would turn out differently. This time the law would mean what it said. The Henderson County Good Government League was born.

Its first officers, elected October 1, 1951, were President Lee WILLIAMS, a prominent farm manager and unsuccessful candidate for sheriff, and vice presidents Bill BRANAMAN, a young attorney, Bennett ALEXANDER, a respected farmer, and Belle SNYDER, a civic leader active in the local League of Women Voters. The Rev. Charles DIETZE was elected secretary-treasurer.

(DIETZE, at the forefront of the Good Government League from its inception. Wrote the definitive history of the anti-vice campaign. Aptly titled "The Henderson Crusade," his lively account served as the basis for much of this article.)

Before the crusade was over, the federal government had played its hand in shutting down Henderson's "game rooms." The Internal Revenue Service started asking about taxes owed. Military authorities at Camp Breckinridge publicly supported the clean-up-Henderson campaign. On January 18, 1952, the FBI confiscated more than 400 slot machines in Henderson County. Those machines - and many more - would eventually be destroyed by federal marshals.

As all this was going on - and despite relentless threats and at least two suspicious fires - the Good Government League kept the pressure on.

In a January 21 report to Governor Lawrence WETHERBY, his investigator, former appellate Judge William REES of Maysville, painted the Henderson picture with a broad brush:

"The evidence discloses a deplorable condition in Henderson County with reference to the violation of laws against gambling. Law enforcement in this respect is completely nonexistent. This condition has existed for several years and has steadily grown worse.

"The violations are flagrant, open, widespread and notorious …

"Various kinds of gambling devices are operated, such as slot machines, dice tables, chuck-a-luck, blackjack, poker and roulette and in several places bets on horses are taken …

"Everyone, regardless of age or sex, was permitted to enter and engage in gambling."
But REES' stinging report seemingly came after the fact. The Good Government League and the good people of Henderson had made their point: Open disregard for the law would not be tolerated. Good government was not for sale.

When Clarence WOOD looked back on his beloved Trocadero in 1980, his words might also have referred to the wide-open Henderson County of the 1940s: "There will never be another like it around here."

Reprinted with permission.
Bicentennial Edition, The Gleaner, March 28, 1992
Written by David Dixon

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2002 HCH&GS