An Eastside Story: Don Albert and The Keyhole Club

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Historic photo of the Keyhole Club.

Historic photo of the Keyhole Club.

The story that follows is about the Keyhole Club, an entertainment venue that operated in the 1940s through the 1960s on both the Eastside and Westside of San Antonio. The story is also about Don Albert Dominique, who through his music and inclusive attitudes about people, helped break down racial barriers in San Antonio. It was written before the recent events in Ferguson unfolded, and while it may seem at first pass that the Keyhole and Ferguson stories are unrelated, both share a common theme: The shaping of race relations in this country.

What happened in Ferguson is another painful reminder that race relations in this country are still a work in progress. The decision by the grand jury to no bill the police officer who fatally shot young Michael Brown triggered strong reactions across the country. Some of which has been violent. Here in San Antonio, the reaction has been strong but tempered.

Mayor Ivy Taylor issued an eloquent statement addressing the need for respect, discussion, and not destruction in dealing with events such as Ferguson.

Mike Lowe and his daughter prepare for an interview at the SATX4Ferguson protest. Photo by Scott Ball.

Mike Lowe and his daughter prepare for an interview at the SATX4Ferguson protest. Photo by Scott Ball.

There is no denying that San Antonio has been scarred by race issues. We don’t often talk about it, but our history is filled with examples of segregation and discrimination – housing policies that red-lined neighborhoods as “restricted” and “non-restricted,” effectively denying housing access to minorities in restricted areas.

But our history is also filled with a sense of tolerance and restraint in negotiating race relations. Perhaps those attitudes of tolerance have been fostered by the multi-cultural experience that is San Antonio.

I would venture that the infusion of ideas of inclusion – brought to San Antonio in part by jazz and swing musicians that frequented such establishments such as the Keyhole Club – set the table for the tempered reaction we have seen in our city in the face of recent events in Ferguson.

Telling the story of the Keyhole Club is timely. It provides a window to a time when segregation was firmly in place in our city, but it also informs us that positive change is often the work of individuals willing to fight for what is just in a non-violent manner and work together for a greater good.  In the case of the Keyhole Club and its owner, Don Albert Dominique, it was entertainment and music that brought people together. There is a message of hopefulness, persistence, and resiliency for all of us to learn from the Keyhole story.

Welcome to The Keyhole

Kenneth Dominique lives on Cherry Street on the near Eastside in a modest cottage built in 1915. At age 86, he is a living connection to the heyday of the jazz club era that flourished on San Antonio’s Eastside during the 1930s through the mid 1960s.  You see, he is the son of Don Albert Dominique, famed jazz bandleader and proprietor of Don’s Keyhole nightclub. The Keyhole, now long gone, was on the corner of Pine and Iowa streets. The Dominique story is looped around a jazz musical legacy, living on the city’s Eastside, the early salvos in the fight for civil rights and the Keyhole Club experience.

Kenneth Dominique sorts through photo albums. Photo by Juan Garcia.

Kenneth Dominique sorts through photo albums. Photo by Juan Garcia.

Kenneth Dominique was born in 1928 in New Orleans but grew up on San Antonio’s Eastside. He went to Douglas Elementary School and graduated from St. Peter Claver High School, now known as the Healy-Murphy Center, located on Nolan Street. He was married to his wife, Janie, for close to 50 years until she passed away several years ago. He worked at Kelly AFB until he retired more than 20 years ago. He has lived in the same house on Cherry Street ever since he bought it in 1954. Even though he is the son of a well-known San Antonio jazz musician, he never took up an instrument or played in a jazz band. A large part of his recollections and stories revolve around the huge presence of his father, being surrounded by jazz musicians, his dad’s touring bands, and the Keyhole Club.

To better understand the Dominique and Keyhole story, we have to go back a bit. We need to start with the Seventh Ward of New Orleans around the start of the 20th century. The Seventh Ward is one of the oldest districts in New Orleans and was originally home to the Creole community of New Orleans.  The history of the Creoles, or as they called themselves, “the free people of color,” is a blend of West African ancestry, French, Spanish, and eventually American blood lines. As a community, the Creoles represent a diversity of culture, language, and social values that was a fusion of European and West African traditions. Creoles eventually developed and maintained their own set of social and cultural institutions, including musical traditions that contributed to the birth of jazz. By the early 1900s, the Creole community of the Seventh Ward was economically diverse, supporting a small middle class of professionals and small business owners. It was into this world that Dominique was born into in 1908.

Historic photo of Don Albert.

Historic photo of Don Albert Dominique.

In his book, “Jazz on the Road, Don Albert’s Musical Life,” author Christopher Wilkinson goes into wonderful detail of Don Albert’s life and musical influences that shaped his musical style, career and outlook on life. By all accounts, he received a musical education that was a combination of formal and ethnic traditions that were thriving in New Orleans at the time. In 1926, he decided to leave New Orleans to hit the road on a touring journey. Don Albert traveled with his swing band, known as Don Albert and His Pals. His band became nationally known with Don Albert leading with his trumpet. Eventually the road led him and his style of jazz and swing to San Antonio, where he settled to move from bandleader to businessman, promoter, and nightclub owner.

In 1944, Don Albert opened the Keyhole Club on Iowa and Pine in what used be the old Ritz movie house. By this time, Kenneth was 16 years old and attending St. Peter Claver High School. Kenneth recalled helping convert the old movie house into a nightclub, working after school and on weekends. When the Keyhole opened for business, the venue sported enough tables to seat 350 people, had its own air conditioning and heating system, and served a variety of foods and liquor. It was the first club in San Antonio with a cover charge, and for 85 cents patrons could reserve a table. In those days, you bought a set up and brought in your own liquor. Kenneth remembers working behind the bar while still in high school. He had a front row seat to such acts as the dance team of Winn and Winn, torch singer Dorothy Collins from Chicago, and tap dance artists Orr and Galloway. The Keyhole flourished because of the music and Don Albert’s ability to bring in quality acts. In 1946, a newspaper article touted Don’s Keyhole as the finest nightspot for entertainment featuring one of the best floor shows in San Antonio. 

Kenneth remembered watching those floor shows from behind the bar and seeing his dad perform with the house band. His dad played the trumpet much in the style of Louis Armstrong, he said. Kenneth also remembered the Keyhole orchestra including some well-known musicians of that era, including alto saxophonist Michael Griffith and former Benny Goodman band member Jack “Zoot” Simms. Billie Eckstine, whose band included two of the early innovators of modern jazz, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, introduced San Antonians to modern jazz at the Keyhole. Kenneth recalled black jazz bands coming into town for gigs and then having to stay with local families on the Eastside during their stay in San Antonio.

The Keyhole flourished for another reason. The club was situated in the black community of San Antonio’s Eastside, which provided its major source of customers. However, in the mid-1940s, San Antonio was surrounded with military installations as a result of World War II, so a large portion of the patrons at the Keyhole were white soldiers and airmen looking for a great place to be entertained. Even though the Keyhole was in a black neighborhood, the club became known in white and military circles as a hotspot for the latest in big band jazz. Segregation was still in force throughout much of the south during this time, but there was a degree of acceptable tolerance in race relations in San Antonio at the time. The common practice during this era was that white establishments could ban black customers, but black-owned business could not refuse white customers from patronizing their businesses. Don’s Keyhole was integrated from the start and would eventually lead to Don Albert’s role as an early San Antonio civil rights activist.

In 1948, Don Albert closed the Keyhole to move to New Orleans to open up a nightspot similar to the Keyhole. Unfortunately, New Orleans at the time was not San Antonio when it came to racial integration attitudes and practices. The city was segregated, and white patrons were not allowed to enter black-owned establishments. In 1949, Don’s friend Red Winner enticed Don Albert back to San Antonio with a proposition to bankroll another Keyhole club, this time on the near Westside of San Antonio. In 1950, a second Keyhole club located on Poplar Street opened to all, regardless of race. Again the club prospered. However, attitudes toward racial integration took a turn in 1951 as a newly-elected city commissioner of Police and Fire named George Roper took office. According to news accounts, Roper took exception to the practice of open integration in an establishment such as the Keyhole and made efforts to shut the club down on alleged construction permit discrepancies. The real issue was integration. Don Albert fought to keep his club integrated and took the matter to court. In Winn vs. Roper, the court found in favor of the Keyhole, and an early civil rights victory was won. After the court victory, the Keyhole Club on the Westside operated until the mid-1960s, when the club was sold and shut down forever.

The legacy of Don Albert Dominique and the Keyhole Club is intertwined with the history of San Antonio’s Eastside and Westside nightclub scene and the fight for civil rights. What is overlooked at times is the fact that San Antonio has had a relatively tolerant attitude toward race relations throughout its history. Don Albert grew up in a Creole community that taught him to negotiate early on with cultural, ethnic, and racial diversity. He brought attitudes of inclusiveness to San Antonio, a multi-cultural city with relatively accepting attitudes about race relations. The Keyhole as an integrated entertainment venue was ahead of its time in breaking down racial segregation barriers, due largely in part to Don Albert’s inclusive attitude. Don Albert passed away in 1980. For Kenneth, his dad’s legacy lives on not just through photographs and memorabilia from an era in which jazz brought people together regardless of race, but as the Eastside continues to revitalize. For Kenneth, it’s the music that will always bring people together. 

Note: The material for this article was obtained through conversations with Kenneth Dominique and from the book “Jazz on the Road, Don Albert’s Musical Life” by Christopher Wilkinson, published in 2001.

*Featured/top image: Historic photo of the Keyhole Club.

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11 thoughts on “An Eastside Story: Don Albert and The Keyhole Club

  1. The author mentions that Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie played in San Antonio with a famous bandleader by the name of Billie Epstein. His name was actually Billy Eckstine.

  2. My Mom grew up in San Antonio and performed at the Keyhole Club in the 1950’s. I have some old B&W photos of her there….

  3. My Dad and Mother use to go to the key Hole way before my time, I remember she telling us her and my dad went when Ike and Tina Turner performed there.

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