The Sunset Lounge in West Palm Beach is trying to bring back its glory days
West Palm Beach was the Jim Crow South — Black folks tried everything they could to thrive under those conditions. If you speak to Black elders in the Historic Northwest District, they’ll tell you about one premier venue that felt like a safe haven for their excellence. And it just so happened to attract jazz greats, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, to name a few.
You turn to WLRN for reporting you can trust and stories that move our South Florida community forward. Your support makes it possible. Please donate now. Thank you.
The Sunset Cocktail Lounge, on the corner of Eighth Street and Henrietta Avenue, just west of Rosemary and north of downtown West Palm Beach, attracted some of the most influential jazz and soul singers from the 1930s through the '70s. On some nights, the two-story lounge drew as many as a thousand people adorned in evening gowns and tuxedos.
“It was upscale for us. The Sunset to me — everybody talks about who was there and who played — but to me, the Sunset was the cultural equator for the City of West Palm Beach,“ says Isaac “Ike” Robinson Jr., a retired teacher and former city commissioner.
“The church had its role, education had its role, the family," he added. "But to make sure that we understood the folkways and mores of the society and how you practiced and how you behave, it was practiced right at the Sunset.”
Robinson was a Social Studies teacher and administrator at the formerly segregated Roosevelt High School from 1962-1992. The school eventually became Roosevelt Middle School after court-ordered racial integration came into effect.
“We were surrounded by ‘you’re not welcome.' And this is why during that era, we provided within our community."
“When you came on third street, there was not a thing you needed business wise, medically, lawyer, entertainment ... we had our own theater over there, Grand Theater,” said Robinson. “Everything that this community needed ... was here, between 1st street and 11th street, between the two railroad tracks.”
“You contained us, but we maintain our own lifestyle.”
Robinson, the longest-tenured city commissioner, saw the Sunset during its glory days. He began advocating for the revitalization of the Sunset as a commissioner in 1999. He ended his term in 2015 after serving 16 years on the dais. By then, the Sunset had been declining for years. There was still the occasional event, but it was no longer the cultural equator.
Back then, owners Dennis and Thelma Starks had set high standards for the venue, from dress code to conduct. That also meant entertainers had to bring quality music to match the energy and the expectations from the community.
“Every entertainer wanted to come to the Sunset and then go south down in Fort Lauderdale and Miami," said Robinson. “It is because of those two people that that place became the head place on the Chitlin' Circuit.”
The Cotton Club was the legendary performance venue up in Harlem that for years featured prominent Black entertainers, many of whom were on the Chitlin' Circuit, a collection of venues that attracted Black artists from across the country. The Sunset Lounge was considered “The Cotton Club of the South.”
During Jim Crow, Black people would have to leave white-only neighborhoods in Palm Beach County by nightfall.
For soul singer George McCrae, music was the soundtrack of the times — it captured the rhythm of a place, the energy of its people and the reality of their lives.
McCrae was born in a house on 13th street in 1944 and moved to Fifth street in 1948, until he joined the US Navy in January, 1963. He attended Roosevelt High School, back when it was all Black kids.
“If you’re a Black man, they had a curfew, you couldn’t be in a certain area. Even in Palm Beach, at a certain time. And if you’re Jewish, Black, and Dogs,” said McCrae.“If you’re born into that, at the time, you adjust to that. That’s the way it was — drinking out of a color water fountain, color bathroom. It’s another water fountain right next to it. If they see you drinking out of that water fountain, you know, you're going to jail or get your behind beat by the police.”
McCrae was known for his chart-topping disco song “Rock Your Baby.” He performed his international hit at the lounge in the early 1970s. He also performed at the lounge as a teenager with the “The Jiving Jets,” a band he formed with his high school classmates.
“We were good. We had to be, you know. We had to get there and really do a show,” said McCrae. “Because one thing about Black people, they will let you know if you are good or bad. They will let you know — and quickly.”
McCrae said despite segregation, he'd still see a few white residents and musicians patronize the lounge. His most fondest memory at the lounge was between 1958 and 1959 — when, as a teen, he had a brief interaction with the singer Sam Cooke, the "King of Soul."
“He came and he walked by me and I stuck my hand out and he shook my hand. That’s something I will never forget,” McCrae said.
When legal segregation ended in 1964, children were often sent to different schools and Black middle and upper class families had more options — they began moving to other parts of the county. Applied Cultural Anthropologist Dr. Alisha Winn, a West Palm Beach native, said the move had a disruptive impact on the community. For the last few decades, it has been reeling from a lack of generational wealth and homeownership.
Winn pointed out one of the great ironies of living under Jim Crow racial segregation laws. Her parents, who lived in the neighborhood, always began their stories with “we had everything we needed.”
Dry Cleaners. Lawyers. Dentists. Despite limited access to goods and services outside of their confined space, many of the Black businesses thrived up and down Rosemary and Tamarind Avenue — and within the center of the northwest, near Sapodilla Avenue.
“You have this forced segregation where you could not live anywhere you want to live," Winn said. "So within that segregated space, it was a means of survival and thriving. You had to have what you needed to do well."
“You had your own schools, you had your own doctors, you had your own everything. It was a safe space, a protected, thriving space.”
And when the Chitlin' Circuit and the lounge’s popularity began to dwindle, it also hurt neighborhood businesses that relied on the Sunset to bring in customers. In 2016, Winn helped lead a community input campaign for the Sunset Lounge called the Historic Northwest Rising project. It included feedback from nearly 500 residents on how to turn the area into a cross-cultural destination that would support existing businesses and residents.
Genia Baker, project manager for the West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency, said bringing Sunset back is about preserving history. The West Palm Beach native is overseeing a $12.5 million dollar expansion and renovation to the 12,308 sq. ft. building.
"So naturally, our agency would be remiss if we did not reinvent and revive that heritage," Baker said. "The building itself started out as a garage, if you will, on the first floor. And the second floor, which was incomplete, was opened to the stars."
Back then, Baker said, the lounge was just an open air venue where folks would come and enjoy the fresh air and hear live music. It wasn't until the late thirties, early forties that the second floor was actually enclosed.
Built in 1926, the Sunset building was originally an auto service station, with gas pumps and an auto storage. The second floor had a rooftop garden and grill.
Fire damage may have changed the use of the building. The original owners, Robert Sanders and his family, enclosed the building with an arched roof. The first floor had a lounge and a bar, but no kitchen. The second floor had a ballroom with a mezzanine and elevated stage, where the Sunset Royal Orchestra, the house band, would play in between bookings.
Patrons would either buy food from the nearby Silver Grill restaurant or bring food from home. The Sunset building went through several changes and names, from The Sunset Roof Garden, Sunset Auditorium to the Sunset Royale NightClub. The Saunders were the original owners, until Dennis Starks inherited the building from his uncle, Robert, in 1948.
The West Palm Beach CRA, the new owner, is connecting the old with the new. For the project, the agency commissioned Cooper Construction Management & Consulting, one of the county's largest Black-owned general contractors.
The CRA is redesigning the Sunset with a full service restaurant, kitchen and bar to add to the new ballroom and elevated stage.
“We’re also adding elevators to go from the first floor up to the ballroom mezzanine area," said Baker.
"We’re also adding a rooftop, bar garden area, on the new portion of the building, which harkens back to when the Sunset was initially was built back in the early late 20s, late 30s.”
On the east side of the Sunset, the project features a new two-story 7,200 sq. ft multi-purpose building with a rooftop bar and garden. Spaces within the extended building include the box office, lobby, bathrooms and dressing rooms.
Children are already playing with the musical instruments that are installed throughout the completed Heart & Soul Park, a music-themed park and playground across the street from the Sunset.
Near the history trails and shade seating, mosaic style portraits highlight music legends and notable local figures, such as Alice F. Mickens, a civil rights activist and humanitarian whose home became a safe haven for Black intellectuals and entertainers.
Heart & Soul Park also serves as a serene, public space for outdoor events. And just south of it, the newly constructed Styx Promenade, a collection of mix-use properties, will house small businesses—from retail to health and wellness. The architecture is reminiscent of the shotgun-style homes, "The Styx" seen in the area at the turn of the 20th century. .
The Sunset Lounge is scheduled to open in late 2022.
Frederike Mittner is a historic preservation planner for the City of West Palm Beach. She said renovating and expanding the existing building maintains the integrity of the Sunset, including the “great stories ... its rise and its decline and now its rebirth.”
“And I just think that makes for just that much more of an authentic story than new construction,” Mittner said.
Christopher Roog, executive director of the West Palm Beach CRA, says the Sunset is “a cultural asset” that he wants to “reinvigorate” as an entryway into its rich history and the vibrant, commercial corridors that surround it.
“But I think it goes much, much deeper than that because this building has experiences with the community, with the African-American community, that really sort of tells the story of that place and it tells the story of these folks,” Roog said.
Roog wants to “make sure that they [locals] are part of the economic prosperity that starts with the Sunset Lounge, but doesn't end there by any stretch.”
Melton Mustafa Jr., a Miami native who performed at the Sunset in the '90s, said the Sunset reminded him of the Hampton House or Lyric Theater in Miami. His father, the legendary Melton Mustafa, also performed at the Sunset with his 18-piece big band.
“Most of the music was music that he actually wrote when he was on tour with the Count Basie Orchestra. And so, so most of the songs that he played there were big band in the style of Duke Ellington and style of Count Basie.”
West Palm Beach native Jimmy "Bo" Horne, known for his disco hits “Dance Across the Floor" and "Gimme Some,” also returned to the lounge to perform later in his career.
Soul singer George McCrae, who’s still an active performer touring overseas, says the new Sunset Lounge should serve as a cultural anchor in the community for the next generation.
“It’s a heritage spot for us to remember,” McCrae said. “It’s one of the best ideas, I think, for West Palm Beach to preserve that.”