In the 1930s, it was called the Old Heidelberg Supper Club, offering superb food and dancing in an iconic mountainside venue that was originally Oliver Cromwell Hamilton’s mansion. It was purchased by Gus and Emma Adler as chronicled by the esteemed Rob Neufeld, who has so brilliantly brought Western North Carolina’s history to life.
The porch offered breathtaking views of downtown Asheville and the magnificent mountains beyond.
Gus was an extremely talented chef, and his tall, stately, affable wife was the quintessential hostess, greeting everyone with a gracious smile and a big hug while she quietly and efficiently managed the place with an iron fist.
This was the place to see and be seen, frequented by the business community, politicians, judges and law enforcement. Even the carriage trade would slip out of the country club to go slumming at this Gatsby-esque sepia speak-easy.
Emma was both beloved and well-connected, hence the club was never busted despite the almost wide-open sale of alcohol.
But sometimes, when you ordered a drink, you’d be politely informed that the club only sold setups (a bucket of ice and mixers such as Coke and 7-Up) — a sure sign that undercover agents were in the building.
My parents were frequent customers, enjoying the fine dining and dancing to the band on weekends. As a youngster, I remember them taking me to several parties and weddings held there.
After I returned to Asheville from the Navy in the mid-’50s, my wife and I shared many wonderful evenings at the Sky Club (the name had been changed in 1942, when things German were understandably unpopular).
Perhaps the most exciting event ever to take place at the Sky Club was when Robert Mitchum came to town to star in Thunder Road. The whole town was star-struck, and one scene in the movie was shot in the restaurant. A couple of my friends took the entire week off from work just to be extras in the nightclub scene.
Mitchum cut a wide swath here. He and his wife stayed at the Battery Park Hotel, and it was widely rumored that his mistress was staying down the street at the Vanderbilt.
Mitchum spent most evenings at the Sky Club, though, drinking, dining and dancing with the ladies who absolutely threw themselves at this tall, handsome movie star. I witnessed more than one violent confrontation precipitated by a husband’s or boyfriend’s jealous rage, but Mitchum was big enough to take care of himself — and, after all, all he was doing was dancing.
In the ’60s, Don Boss took over the club and ran it for a few years. He somehow got involved with a promoter who was running a pyramid scheme called Dare to be Great, and they’d hired Jackie Mason (who had recently been ostracized from the entertainment circuit for giving Ed Sullivan the finger during his performance) to put on his borscht belt stand-up act at the City Auditorium, with Regis Philbin as master of ceremonies. The show sold only a handful of tickets, however, so they moved it to the Sky Club to satisfy the few paying customers.
I was already in the club when they came in that night, and Don asked me if Jackie and Regis could sit at my table. The two vivid memories I took away from that occasion were that Jackie might as well have been speaking Yiddish, as he totally bombed trying to entertain a bunch of us redneck mountaineers — and that Regis drank my entire bottle of scotch.
I ran into him in Vegas a couple of years ago, and he remembered the occasion, not too fondly, and didn’t even offer to buy me a drink. Go figure.
It was about this time that I came up with one of my less-than-brilliant business decisions.
Many women dream of having their own boutique, because it seems oh, so creative and exciting; many men dream of running some sort of bar or club, I guess to experience the macho mystique that comes with being a bona fide “club owner.”
I was in the club one night with Odell Harris, a very popular and experienced bar manager, and we heard that Don Boss was giving it up. Odell and I decided that this was a golden opportunity for the both of us.
So we opened the club, and between the old customers and the new ones who followed Odell, we did a very good business.
We hadn’t done our homework, however, and it quickly became apparent that there wasn’t much profit in selling food and a few dollars’ worth of mixers and ice to all the brown-baggers. There was some money in beer and wine, but it didn’t come close to what Emma must have made illegally selling liquor by the drink.
I was already involved with other local businesses and couldn’t risk jeopardizing my reputation by being busted for illegal alcohol sales.
In addition, the physical setup was very unwieldy: a three-story building with the dining room up top, accessed only by a set of very steep, narrow steps. Food was delivered by means of a very cranky little elevator called a dumbwaiter, and communication with the kitchen was by order slips or yelling up and down through the dumbwaiter.
Still, the customers loved the place, and Odell brought in some really good bands. Some of his followers, however, were engaged in less-than-savory occupations: Drug dealers, professional shoplifters, bookies, gamblers and probably a couple of hit men would come and sit at their own table, accompanied by assorted pimps and hookers. Odell, though, was known as a man not to be trifled with, so those folks were always dressed properly, behaved discreetly, spent a lot of money and treated both Odell and me very respectfully.
I would occasionally sit at their table for a few minutes, listening to their conversation and feeling like Damon Runyon in Lindy’s in New York City.
Odell and I tried a lot of schemes. We got the head chef at A-B Tech to teach us how to serve a buffet, but most of our patrons wanted table service. We opened an after-hours club called The Elbow Room, with a topless waitress (who wore pasties, of course).
Trouble was, the only girl we could get to take the job was so topless that we practically had to stencil “front” and “back” on her. This brought in a few dollars, but the lateness of the hour gave us too many problems with drunks. I marveled at how any of them managed to safely drive down that winding mountain road.
Odell opened a poker game downstairs, but again, I was concerned about the illegality and the seedy characters it brought in, so this, too, was short-lived.
Alas, we finally closed, and the Sky Club was no more. The old mansion was subsequently converted into condos.
Aiming to create a positive legacy from this experience, however, I’ve started an organization called Restaurants and Bar Owners Anonymous. If you’ve lost your ass in this business and get the notion of opening another one, we promise to come and sit with you all night to talk you out of it.
Jerry Sternberg is a an Asheville native who enjoys sharing his memories of local history and is still active in business and local politics.