Sammy’s South End history
Sammy Davis, Jr., as a child, tap danced outside Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe at night for dimes. Local lore says he lived nearby on Columbus Avenue, but could there be anyone more nomadic than Davis?
"We rarely remained in one place more than a week," Sammy Davis, Jr. told a biographer, referring to his childhood as a dancer in the Will Mastin Trio and hard times during the Depression. Another reported that by the time he was 15, Davis had crossed the country twenty-three times.
Born in Harlem in 1925, Davis was out on the road with his father and Will Mastin at age 3 and soon after was dancing in Mastin’s vaudeville troupe-"Will Mastin’s Gang, Featuring Little Sammy." Davis was the ripe old age of 11 when the Will Mastin Trio-Mastin, Sammy Davis, Sr. and Sammy Davis, Jr.-was formed in 1936. We know the Trio was in and out of Boston in the Thirties and Forties, that Davis performed at local clubs-the Gaiety Theater at age 8, the Little Dixie at 15, the Hi-Hat, maybe the National Theatre.
"The trio would bound into a city and look for the cheapest lodging possible," wrote biographer Wil Haygood. Rooming houses, particularly along Columbus Avenue in the South End, were probably the cheapest lodging in Boston open to blacks at that time.
Haygood places Davis at 510 Columbus Ave., corner of Concord Square, in 1937. Mother’s Lunch, a restaurant and lodging house frequented by musicians, was downstairs. The building with the lion out front was directly across the street. As a kid, did Davis get a kick out of that?
Around 1939, Davis must have stayed at 66 West Rutland Square because, years later, scrapbooks of theatre programs and autographed photos belonging to him were found in the basement. They were donated to the Museum of Afro American History in 1986, which subsequently contacted Davis. The story is, he cried when he saw them.
"Back in Boston for much of 1941, Sammy, now 15, his father, and Mastin moved into yet another rooming house in the South End section of the city," Haygood continued. "Mabel Robinson, a young singer and pianist, lived across the street." City directories show Robinson’s residence as 499 Columbus Avenue, one of the rooming houses owned by Lucille Banks, a colorful landlady of the era. Robinson, now Simms, became a popular performer at South End clubs, such as the Hi-Hat, the Pioneer Club, and Wally’s Paradise.
"There were lean days," she told Haygood, aware that money was a problem. "Sammy would come over and we’d cook. Then he’d go to work with Mastin and his father...Every day we’d feed him...We didn’t mind. We were all show people." She and the neighbors remembered hearing "a pounding sound" coming from Davis’s room when he practiced the drums.
In 1965, Globe reporter William Buchanan spent a week in the South End, renting a room, "declining to shave," and writing two articles about his experience, concluding that, despite the broken glass and cheap wine, the South End was "the most fascinating and appealing slice of life you can find anywhere in this area." He claimed that Davis "lived" at 505 Columbus Ave, from 1938 to 1943, "from the age of 12 to 17." Although Buchanan learned a lot, he misread the South End of the Thirties, assuming it had been a dangerous neighborhood. "I wondered how many others would escape from these same streets in such a colossal way," he wrote.
505 Columbus is a tall brownstone rowhouse mid-block between West Rutland Square and Greenwich Park, which once had a tailor shop on the ground floor. Mother’s Lunch is diagonally across the street. It seems the Trio gravitated to this block and the side streets near it. But, surely, they never lived at 505, or anywhere else, for four or five years. The Trio was always out on the road, staying at rooming houses and hotels across the country where, of course, they had to pay room and board.
A couple of years ago, a credible-sounding man called me out of the blue. He told me that around 1941 Sammy Davis, Jr. lived at 505 Columbus Ave. and performed at a nightspot across the street, which must have been Mother’s Lunch. He said Davis also stayed at the Hotel Lucille on Rutland Square, another of Lucille Banks’ properties. Davis used to go into Braddock Drug, he said, where owner Hyman Krasnoo felt sorry for him and gave him free ice cream. In 1961, when Davis was in town to perform in Golden Boys, he went into Krasnoo’s and paid him back in full.