The Gospel According to Jerry: High times at the Sky Club

LIVING LARGE: In this photo, thought to be from the mid-1940s, Emma Adler stands outside the storied Sky Club she owned with her husband, Gus Adler. Photo courtesy of Jewish Life in Western North Carolina Collections, Special Collections, Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville

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.

Commentary by Jerry Sternberg.
Commentary by Jerry Sternberg.

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.


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13 thoughts on “The Gospel According to Jerry: High times at the Sky Club

  1. Doug Edwards

    Something most people probably don’t know about Odell Harris was he coached youth football in the North Buncombe area. He was the head coach of my 8th grade football team at North Buncombe. Odell was a really good athlete himself…a very good coach…and a really great guy.

    • Dana Harris

      And my Dad!! Thank you so much for your kind words about O’Dell Harris and I actually didn’t know he did this!!

  2. Dana Harris

    Jerry…I have a lot of the old whiskey bottles that my Dad collected from the patrons leaving their brown bags. Makes a nice collection I have displayed in a bar in my house fondly named “O’Dells”. Thank you for writing this article Jerry!! Dana Harris-O’Dell’s youngest.

    • Ms. Lee Hardin

      Dana, Back in 1976, I brought the rock group KIDS into your dad’s place, The Night Gallery. They wanted to see some nightlife and during those days, your dad’s place was the only decent place I could take them. I sure loved your dad. One of the smartest men and nicest.

  3. H. Nachman

    This is great stuff. Suggest you bundle-up all of your “Gospels” and ship tghem over to the UNC Press to be published as a “Book According to Jerry”
    Herb Nachman of Townsend TN

    • Joan

      That’ a great idea. I always look forward to Jerry’s postings/stories.

      BTW, I knew Odell from high school and for several years afterward. I even covered a few waitressing shifts as a favor when he was desperate for help at the very beginning of his involvement with the Sky Club. I was the world’s worst server but I tried and in those circumstances a warm body was better than nobody at all.

      I am so glad Odell’s daughter commented on the Sky Club story. I hope she knows that her father was held in great affection by many, many people. He and I had a kind of brother-sister relationship and I’ve thought of him many times.

  4. Lindig Harris

    I remember the Sky Club well from the 1960s. I was teaching ballroom dance at the Fred Astaire studio and after we closed about 10pm, all the teachers would gang up and go to the Sky Club, where we could dance for fun. It had a great floor and we always had a good time. Stagger home about 2am, go back to the studio about noon, and do it all over again.

    • David Kemp

      I think mom (Mary Kemp) lost some of her divorce money from Arnold Kemp after investing in Odells’ Sky Club. Did you know George Cothran? My real dad was also a dance instructor from Marshall – Morris Finkle. I noticed the Sternberg family in Costa Rica crashed yesterday and hope Jerry Sternberg isn’t related to Bruce Sternberg of Scarsdale, NY. There is a Jerry Sternberg from Scarsdale, NY if I read it correctly. Did you know the Seely’s that owned the castle nearby?

    • David Kemp

      Did you know Arnold or Mary Kemp? I just read this article and it sounds like the restaurant mom (Mary Kemp) lost a lot of money invested after her divorce from Arnold. You mention you taught dancing as Fred Astaire. Did you know Morris Finkle? He was a dance instructor back then in Asheville as well as my real dad. He died in 2006 around the same time my step-dad Arnold (Ace) did. I remember my parents would go to the Skyclub sometimes in the 60s. They’d get really decked out. Ace owned Diamond Brand in Naples, NC a worldwide Boy Scout tent manufacturer at the time. Did you ever go to Seely Castle? Friend me on Facebook and read about my experiences growing up in Asheville. Unfortunately some were very bad, but many were great.

  5. TheMojoMan

    When I was at WISE radio in 1970 I cashed my pay checks at The Sky Club as I got paid in the evening, Many memories of Asheville. See my wepage

  6. Arlene Winkler

    I would like to interview you! I am working on a book about Asheville during the 1980’s and you are a treasure-trove for this research-deprived writer. In memory of Nancy Reagan, “Just say yes”

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