Downstairs at the Showboat

The legendary Showboat was located in the basement of the Douglass Hotel. The historical marker out front notes that Billie Holiday “often lived here.”

Billie Holiday Marker

A while back, I visited what used to be the Showboat with Yasuhiro “Fuji” Fujioka, founder of the Coltrane House of Osaka and co-author of “The John Coltrane Reference”; Lenora Early, founder of the Philadelphia John Coltrane House; and Dr. George E. Allen, author of “I Was Not Asked.”

Until that visit, I assumed the Showboat was in the basement space with the two windows facing Lombard Street. As we descended the stairs, Dr. Allen said something was wrong. Back then, there was no landing between the steps. Instead, the club was down a steep set of stairs. And sure enough, after a bit of snooping, we found what remains of the original steps that led down to the Showboat.

Stairs 1

Stairs 2

Stairs 3.jpg

So imagine the likes of Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley, Bootsie Barnes, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Heath, Thelonious Monk, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles and Ramsey Lewis descending those steps to take their place on the small bandstand behind the bar.

Showboat - John Coltrane - Live at the Showboat

15 thoughts on “Downstairs at the Showboat”

  1. It was a great venue. Saw Mongo Santamaria and on another visit Hugh Masakela & Miriam Makeba. Bother performances were amazing. Had tickets to see Wes Montgomery, who died a few days before he was scheduled to perform there.

    1. My Name is David Watson and I was one of the bartenders there in the 1960s. I worked the back of the bar close to the restrooms. Rudy worked the front, Jimmy Coates the middle or sometime Bernard John. I started there when the Spivack brothers Alan, Jerry and Herb owned it and then Shelly Kaplin brought into it.. I’m now doing what I always wanted and that was to play the music that I love Jazz.

  2. Who owned the Showboat in Phila. in the Late 50’s and early 60’s before Herb Spivack bought it ?
    Thank you

      1. Hey Herb,
        How are you doing man? I’m living in the Portland OR area. I moved out west about a year after the Showboat closed for good. I’m really grateful to you guys for my years of working for you in all of the places you owned, the Speedie bars, the place out on Roosevelt Blvd, Race street places and the Showboat. I was with you guys when you opened the Electric Factory and did your first Jazz Concert.
        When I moved out to CA, I started playing music and eventually I started booking music in clubs and about three Northern CA Festivals and wineries. After living CA I moved to Hawaii and eventually here. I have a couple of bands that play up here and I’ve played in Paris, The Netherlands, Norway and other places. I want you to know that it really started for me with you Spivak brothers you, Jerry, Alan and later on Shelly Kaplin.
        Thanks Herb and Jerry
        David Watson (The Doctor Of Bebop)
        http://www.sonomajazz.com or re-birthingthecool.com

      2. Hey Herb,

        My name is Melissa Simpson. I am a Temple University student doing a bit of research on the Douglas Hotel and the Showboat. Any chance you would be able to chat? You can email me at tug89402@temple.edu.

  3. My name is Jim Cervone my brother-in-law who is four years older than me took me to the Showboat I was under age he was able to get me Manhattan’s every time we went there . He has passed now I am 73 I remember seeing Hubert laws , Mungo Santa Maria , And so many more jazz artists I will never forget those great days .

    1. I was your bartender, I worked the back station. Eleanor was the waitress and Jimmy Coates was the front bartender. I worked there until it closed as The Showboat. Shelly Kaplin turned it to another name for a while and then it closed forever. My friends Jon Dorn and Joyce Williams who I am still in touch with were there, Joyce lives in CA and Jon is outside of Philadelphia. I now live in WA State and I have one of the best bands in the area. We should talk…

    2. Eleanor was the waitress and Jimmy Coates was the front bartender. I worked there until it closed as The Showboat. Shelly Kaplin turned it to another name for a while and then it closed forever. My friends Jon Dorn and Joyce Williams who I am still in touch with were there, Joyce lives in CA and Jon is outside of Philadelphia. I now live in WA State and I have one of the best bands in the area. We should talk…

  4. I was a young English emigrant when lving in Philly from 1965 to 1968 and I spent just about every evening of the week at the club. If I remember rightly, the cost wa $5 and it inclded a drink,I met many of the jazz palyers who signed for me on the back of LPs and Thelonius Monk signed on the back of my handerchief twice as I wanted to give one copy to a friend. His signed Good Luck Always on one and Always Good luck on the other. Herb used to say that TMonk cost him a new carpet every time he played at The Boat, as Monk would pound hard on the carpet placed under the pedals. I recommended Herb Spivak to start the big concerts with people like Miles davis in the mid sixties,after experieincing what was going on in Europe. Herb did well.with those shows-good show Herb!
    Miles told me that he was cutting two albums with Joe Zawinul, which changed the direction of many jazz artists with the introduction of electric music. He also mentioned the he wanted to work with Jimmy Hendricks but Hendricks died before that was finalised.Cannonball Adderly was also a fan of Zawinul, and occasionally brought him wuth the band to the ShowBoat. I had a wonderful time in Philly – and of the countries and cities in the world I have vsited i,have a soft spot for those years in Philadlephia. Jazz, Jazz, Jazz…Thank you Herb for doing such a great job to get The Music of Jazz into Philadelphia in the Sixties.

    Phil Owen

  5. I made many mistakes in spelling on my reply. Could you send me your email, so I can send you a corrected piece. Thanks
    Phil Owen

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