Honoring the past at historic Wellsbilt Hotel

Afrian-American Heritage Festival, Wellsbilt hotel, February 28, 1997 Standing in front of the old Wellsbilt Hotel, in the hours just past midnight, it seems nearly possible to hear the smoky laughter and rightous rhythm and blues from the long-gone South Street Casino next door. The the Wellsbilt was one of the few area hotels that served African-Americans. From the twilight of the 1920s until the desegregation of the '60s, its rooms housed black entertainers and athletes who came to perform and play in Orlando. Now, with boarded up windows and scabs of old Eye-of-the-Tiger record flyers on the façade, the Wellsbilt stands empty - but expectant: on Feb. 28, its savior, The Association to Preserve African-American Society, History & Tradition (PAST), with co-sponsors Valencia Community College and the Walt Disney World Co., will host a street festival at the site as part of a two-day celebration honoring Florida's Jazz pioneers and the hotel's builder and social activist, Dr. William Monroe Wells. The Wellsbilt was finally acquired through the Trust for Public Land, says Geraldine Thompson, a PAST founder. "Now we're projecting to open the hotel as a historical African-American museum, complete with gift shop, in the fall of 1998," she says. The Wellsbilt happenings will include a youth rally, performances by the African-Caribbean dance troupe, gospel singers, healthy lifestyle seminars and food. Spotlighted, though, will be musicians whose notable careers span 90 years of music history. They played it all, from boogie to Big Band, and they play it still: the Pioneers Jazz Jam at the Wellsbilt will feature the likes ot Nat Adderly, C.S. Belton, Ernie Calhoun, George "Buster" Cooper, Al Downing, Stafford "Tiny" Ferguson, David "Panama" Francis, Billy "Scorpio" Horn, Manzic Harris, Bobby Johnson, John Lamb, Robert "Cookie" Mason, Calvin "Eagle Eye" Shields, Idress Sulleman, Jim Taylor, Noble "Thin Man" Watts and Al Williams. All are Florida born, most played the South Street Casino and patronized the Wellsbilt, and many recorded with legends - Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and Billie Holiday. "Florida was one of the best states to play in. Every town of any size had an orchestra `and` people were crazy about dancing," says drummer Panama Francis, a twice nominated Grammy contender and National Museum of American History inductee. Behind his easy chair, amid hundreds of signed celebrity photographs blanketing his walls, one reads: "With admiration, gratefully yours, Sally." As in Rand. Panama remembers the "chit'lin circuit" like it eas last week, how the miles were nothing because the music was everything. "Out of Miami, I played with Charlie Brantley and the Florida Collegiates: Fort Lauderdale on Saturday, the Sunset Ballroom In West Palm on Sunday, then came Fort Pierce, on up to Melbourne, Cocoa, Titusville, over to Orlando and Kissimmee, across to Bartow and back down as far as Naples. We played the South Street Casino about once a year. Francis and friends will follow their Friday jam session with a jazz symposium (9 am Saturday at the Physical Education Center Valencia's West Campus); the talk will be frank - about their lives, the business of music and barriers they've faced as black musicians. "We just called ourselves musicians. The white intellectuals used that word 'jazz' as a put-down," says Panama Francis of the etymology of the term. "Basically, true black 'jazz' in this country - music for dancing and listening - has about been eliminated. But we'll be playing it at the Wellsbilt." The days of memorable music and straight talk will be followed by a grand-finale private reception and silent auction, where the price of admission will translate into tax-deductible donations for the restoration of the remarkable Wellsbilt, echoes and all.
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