The Checker Café opened in 1934. Located at 2125 Ridge Avenue, it was in the heart of the Ridge Avenue Entertainment District.
The Checker Café was a place to see and be seen. On May 23, 1935, Philadelphia Tribune columnist, “the Negro Councilman,” wrote:
When the show has nearly ended you will then see no other than our own sepia Gloria Swanson, who is direct from the Grand Terrace in Chicago and then you can tell the world that you have seen a real show.
As with many jazz venues, the Checker Café was about “intersectionality” before it became a thing. The “sepia Gloria Swanson” was a female impersonator.
Trumpeter Cullen Knight is the recipient of the 2015 Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts “Living Legend” Award. Knight shared some memories with Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron who wrote:
It’s a bit ironic that the Checker is the only one of those Ridge Avenue joints to survive. It wasn’t the biggest or best known of the venues that lined the avenue during North Philadelphia’s jazz heyday in the mid-20th century. That distinction was probably held by the Pearl Theater on the next block, where Bailey and her sister Jura worked as ushers, and brother Bill tended the candy counter.
Trumpeter Cullen Knight, who grew up a block away, says the Checker was where musicians hung out before and after the shows, partly because the food and the house trio were equally reliable. Its motto was “Good Food. Good Cooks. Good Service.” Among those providing service was Pearl Bailey, who did a stint as a singing waitress and is now immortalized by a mural on the building’s south side. In the ’30s, a gay singer known as the “Sepia Gloria Swanson” was also a regular.
While some clubs, like Ridge Cotton Club and Blue Note, took their inspiration from famous Harlem venues, the Checker got its name from the black-and-white pattern painted on the ground floor. Its horseshoe-shaped bar had just enough space in its curve for a small band. Tables occupied the rest of the room.