Celestine Harvey's up early, applying makeup and selecting her clothes. "If I'm going to be seen," she says, "I want to be seen looking right."
At noon she and more than 300 other south-siders will start pouring into Taste Entertainment, a nightclub in Englewood near 63rd and Lowe, for the Wednesday-afternoon dance set, an informal gathering of formally dressed senior citizens. "There are other sets in Chicago, but this has become a tradition," says Harvey. "It just took off. You've got people coming Wednesday after Wednesday after Wednesday--they never miss it."
No one knows for sure who started the Wednesday set 15 years ago, but the party, which goes until four, shifts between three south-side clubs: Taste Entertainment, East of the Ryan, and Mr. G's. For $13, the dancers get lunch--usually chicken--an open bar, and a disc jockey playing a mix of swing, big band, blues, R & B, and 60s soul. Most of the regulars are retired and come elegantly dressed in jewels, tuxedos, flamboyant colors, leather, furs, and wide-brimmed hats.
"Folks are more than what they did for a job," says John Wesby, or Frog, who used to work in a spring factory. "I'm a dancer. I learned to dance at a pool hall at 31st and State. We used to hang out there. You'd just be moving your feet. The next thing you know, we're doing the bop."
Another regular, Bill Hyde, made his living as a post office clerk. "Then I retired and really started living," he says. "I do it all--I travel, I dance, I learned to fly a plane. I dived off cliffs in Jamaica--I learned to dive in Hawaii when I was in the service. I run track. I compete in the seniors games--I'm one of the best runners they got."
Harvey is perhaps the most striking of the regulars, a majestic woman in a long, red, silky dress. "I graduated from Wendell Phillips High School," she says. "But don't ask when. A woman shouldn't tell how old she is, and a gentleman shouldn't ask. Put it this way--I'm over 50."
At Phillips she learned to sing, act, model, and dance. "Especially dance," she says. "I loved to dance. I took lessons from Sammy Dyer over at 35th and Michigan. Ask any south-sider, they know Sammy Dyer. After high school I wanted to dance professionally, but my dad didn't want me to. Dancing was a rough life, especially when you traveled. And my dad had old-fashioned ideas--we were brought up strict. So I got into modeling. I posed for all sorts of print ads. I entered local beauty contests. They had them all over the south side--banks, social centers, businesses. You wear a bathing suit, then a formal dress, then you do your talent. I danced. I won so many contests. I was Miss Sepia. I went to Paris, France, for winning that one."
By day she worked at a bank at 47th and Cottage Grove. "While I was working I also did my modeling, and I did dramatics too," she says. "I was with the Sky Loft Players. They were a small theater group at the Park Way Community House, at 5120 S. Park Way. We did a lot of shows, a lot of musicals. I love musicals. I can sing enough to get by--I can fake it, you might say."
Harvey has been single for a while. "I was married for a moment--a fleeting moment," she says. "I love the lifestyle of being nonmarried, always being independent. I bought my own property. My husband was running a lounge near 71st and Woodlawn. They had a five o'clock license, so he stayed pretty busy himself. I guess he liked his independence too.
"Back then it seemed everyone in our community knew everyone else. McKinley Morganfield used to come into my bank. I'd help him with his accounts. He's Muddy Waters, you know, and he was recording for Chess Records. They were right down the street back then. I knew Leonard Chess very well. He used to come in. He used to tell me I should come on his radio show. I'd always tell him, 'Next week, Mr. Chess. Maybe next week.' But I never did go on."
Chess Records of course disappeared. Harvey's bank was sold. The Sky Loft Players broke up. South Park Way became King Drive. Harvey retired from the bank. "Life changes," she says. "If you want to know the history of the south side, just come to a Wednesday dance and talk to people."
Harvey says she spends about an hour getting ready for the dance each week. "I'll get up early, take a shower, have my coffee, and put on my makeup. Then I'll find the right dress. I design my own clothes. I have closets filled with clothes--more than 100 dresses. I can't tell you how many shoes--all of them high heels. I never wear anything but high heels. And I never wear the same dress twice. At least not to this dance. I'll come over with my sisters, Inez Sidney and Christine Williamson. We don't miss it."
A tall man in a top hat stops, takes off his hat, and bows. "Dance?" he asks. "Not right now," she says with a smile. The man walks away. "I've heard a lot of lines," she says. "But no one bothers you here. It's not that sort of scene."
Bill Hyde walks by. Stanley Shareef, a retired garbageman, walks around selling cookies his wife baked. The DJ puts on the electric slide, and Marva Childress, who teaches dancing to seniors at Avalon Park, leads a group of line dancers through the routine. There must be 150 women on the dance floor. "These line dances are mainly a woman thing," John Wesby explains.
Charles Horn circulates, passing out copies of a 58-page ad booklet honoring the Neptune Social & Benevolent Club, a group he and his wife run on the south side. The booklet features testimonials to the club from, among others, Mayor Daley, Jesse Jackson, and a Woodlawn grocery-store owner named Fawzi Zayyad.
The line dance ends. The DJ plays Basie. Barry Bruner, a retired high school art teacher, starts "steppin'" with Lois Cox-Welch, a rail-thin woman in a red lame halter dress. That song is followed by "Oh, What a Night" by the Dells, who were originally from Harvey. People rush across the room, and soon the dance floor is packed.
Harvey watches the crowd, sipping a drink. "After this set, do you know what we're going to do?" she says. "We're going to East of the Ryan. They have an after-set set. We'll be dancing until eight. Then we'll come back next week and do it again. I wouldn't miss it. You've got to get out. You can't just sit around the house getting old."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.