nathalie-a-cadet-james_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times—Growing up in Miami’s “Brown Sub” neighborhood, Lawrence Adams Sr. frequently found himself at the Lyric Theater on Northwest Second Avenue – the “Main Street” of the nearby Overtown community. 

Adams, whose first job was as a chauffeur for Miami Beach City Manager Claude A. Renshaw, had a chance to rekindle memories of his childhood Saturday, Oct. 1 at a special fundraiser for the Lyric Theater held at the Fontainebleau Hotel’s LIV nightclub.

“I’m glad we came,” said Adams, who danced with his wife, Carolyn, to 1940s-era tunes provided by the 18-piece Melton Mustafa Band. “We have lost a lot of our history,” said Adams, who later retired as a Miami-Dade Public Schools administrator.

Adams, Carolyn and their friend, Ralph Johnson learned about the fundraiser from Porta Thompson, a supervisor with the Miami Dade Community Action Agency in Overtown.

Thompson, originally from Virginia Beach, VA, said

Overtown’s reputation was known all over the country – the good and the bad, she said. 

“I had always heard about Overtown,” said Thompson of the historically black community located in a seven-by-14 block area northwest of downtown Miami. “My aunt talked to me about how blacks were not allowed to stay on the beach but came back to Overtown to perform.”

The venues included nightclubs and hotels — the Night Beat, the Island Club, Rockland Palace and the Mary Elizabeth Hotel and others — located on or nearby Northwest Second Avenue, said Bobby Stringer, one of the performers at the Fontainebleau fundraiser. Among his solos were Let the Good Times Roll and When the Saints Go Marching In.

“People don’t know about the history, especially the young people,” said Stringer, who sang as a teenager in some of Overtown’s nightclubs in the ’60s.

Keeping the history alive is part of the goal of the Overtown Music Project, which has sponsored other musical events, including an Afro-Cuban show and a gospel fest.

“There’s this pull when you go to Overtown,” said Amy Rosenberg, who started the project in 2009 to raise money for an artist-in-residency program at the Lyric. “I sense the ghosts of the past — Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie.” The two jazz greats were among a steady flow of black entertainers who performed from the 1940s to the mid-’60s in Overtown.

Rosenberg, a lawyer, said she got to know about Overtown by visiting the community three years ago on a walking tour. She also previously had been a tutor in the community. But on Saturday during the special “Hip Hop Big Band Mash Up” at the Fontainebleau, Rosenberg was lauding the area’s history, thanking the crowd for its patronage. 

The Fontainebleau donated the space. Recording artist Monie Love served as mistress of ceremonies at the $40-per-person event where about 500 guests were provided complimentary cocktails by Status Vodka.

Band leader Melton Mustafa, who is in a desperate battle with cancer, did not attend the event. But his brother, premier sax man Jesse Jones Jr., led the band. Mustafa’s accomplished sons Melton Jr. and Yamin also were in the band. 

Young and old took the dance floor, including 16 dancers from Swing Affair, a local dance group that did the Lindy Hop, a swing dance that originated in Harlem in the 1920s.  Additionally, nationally renowned hip hop recording artist Talib Kweli stirred up the crowd during the 2½-hour program.

“It was spectacular,” said Dorothy Jenkins Fields, founder of The Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. “The music of the era just electrified the whole atmosphere,” added Fields, who serves on the Host Committee of the Overtown Music Project.

The foundation is currently restoring the Lyric Theater, the only building that remains from the district’s heydays. Reconstruction of the 1913 theater includes an expanded stage, offices for the Black Archives, an art gallery and gift shop. Fields said the reconstruction is scheduled to be completed by 2013 in honor of the theater’s 100th anniversary, and that she welcomes the efforts to set up a residency program.

Saturday’s event raised about $5,000 for the program, said Nathalie Cadet-James, chair of the Overtown Music Project board.

“It’s exactly what a Miami event should look like,” Cadet-James said of the Miami Beach bash. “There were young people there, people who were black, people who were white, and people who were Hispanic. They came from Fisher Island and Overtown.”

This event is just the beginning, she said. The group is working on its next event – a gospel brunch to be held in Overtown.

Photo: Khary Bruyning/For South Florida Times

Project Chairwoman: Nathalie A. Cadet-James is helping keep the history alive.