Thursday, October 17, 2019

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Panama Club, Hyannis

As nightspots on Cape Cod go there are few which can rival the history or the legendary status that The Panama Club earned it its time. In the days before the Melody Tent, or even before the West End Rotary existed, the Panama Club was drawing in the masses in huge numbers to an area which at the time was not yet an epicenter for after dark fun. It put Hyannis and jazz music on the map on Cape Cod and Southeastern New England.
The story of the Panama Club began shortly before World War II landed on America’s front step. It was a time shortly after the worst of the Great Depression had subsided. In those days there were very few places for young people to get together and have a good time. That would change with the arrival of Antonio Caggiano from Boston in 1937. In 1941 he, along with his son Reynold would open the Panama Club near the end of Main Street. Decorated in red and white velvet this would usher in a new era of nightlife on Cape Cod. It was the first swinging jazz club.
Postcard from the 1950's looking east down Main Street with Panama Club on the right.
Courtesy of Sturgis Library

Though the father and son owners would also operate other businesses, Rennie’s Lounge in Hyannis and Rico’s Restaurant in Centerville, the club on Main Street would forever etch their names in Cape history. Their Panama Club would be a hotbed for the youth of Cape Cod, guys and girls dressed to the nines looking to meet up. Couples and those who had never laid eyes on each other alike would pack together on the small dance floor and get their feet moving to lively swing music.
Not very long after bursting onto the scene the Panama Club became an escape for locals after news hit of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Those who were in the club learned of the news inside, some rushed home while others stayed. The establishment did not close though and it was packed again the next day with some even bringing their own beer with them. The events of Pearl Harbor and the Panama Club would become the subject of a popular fictionalized play written by Larry Marsland of Chatham in 2006.
Looking down Main Street from a similar vantage point as the above postcard.

The Panama Club would become the jumping off point for Cape Cod’s First Lady of Jazz Marie Marcus who first graced their stage in 1943 when she was still billed under her maiden name of Marie Doherty. She teamed up with Alma Gates White to form the ‘Piano Maniacs’ playing the Panama Club as well as the Coonamessett Club in Falmouth. While performing at the Panama Club Marie would meet her future husband, trumpeter Bill Marcus.
The bar at the club was always packed with beer being the drink of choice, selling for seventy-five cents, while shots of whiskey cost sixty cents. For those who did not wish to travel to the busy club there was another way to listen to the live music being performed there. This was thanks to the occasional live radio broadcasts being transmitted from the Panama Club. However so crowded did the club become that during one show in 1943 legendary WOCB DJ Vern Coleman, then only seventeen, had to set up his equipment and broadcast the night’s live music from underneath a table. The radio broadcasts would remain a fixture throughout the 1940’s.
As the decade passed the club became the place to be, World War II did not damped the business. Everyone from celebrities, to soldiers at Camp Edwards, to the average everyday worker made their way to the end of Main Street. Those who worked in the businesses nearby would get off of their shift and walk down to enjoy a drink and a chat. Many local would become well known due to their playing at the Panama Club including pianists Mike Markaverich and Marion Cahoon who would teach piano at the Cape Cod Conservatory of Music for three decades. The joint would be jumping until midnight after which people would pour out of the Panama Club’s several exits. Some would wander down The Byway alley winding behind the club, while others would simply congregate in the streets. The crowds were so large that during its heyday it was said to look like a mini Times Square outside after.
Where Panama Club once stood on Main Street.

The Panama Club would gain perhaps its most famous regular in the form of summer resident and future President of the United States John F. Kennedy. The course of history was changed inside the walls of the club in September of 1944. It was shortly after the Great Atlantic Hurricane had hit the Cape that Kennedy and two female friends paid a visit to the Panama Club as they enjoyed it and also it was one of the first places to reopen after the storm. It was during a break between dancing where Kennedy first mentioned his desire to become a politician, specifically a potential run for Governor despite only being twenty-seven years old at the time.
In the 1950’s the Panama Club would see some changes. In June 1953 the Caggianos would sell the establishment to former Uxbridge Inn owner John Cornelia. There would also be competition in the form of the Catalina Club which opened at 654 Main Street. The club would continue its run for a few more years before closing in the late 1950’s. The building would be torn down in 1972 and as of 2018 the site of the former Panama Club is occupied by a Dunkin’ Donuts. Only memories and scant images remain now of Cape Cod’s original swinging jazz club, luckily Larry Marsland’s play brought some light back to this lost icon.

View my previous blog posts: In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Bassett's Wild Animal Farm
                                                In My Footsteps: Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts

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