Posted by Janie Gust
If photos could speak, this one would have quite a story to tell:
The year was 1952. Marilyn Monroe, a rising star along with clothing designer William Travilla were seated at a table in a South Central Los Angeles nightclub (as reported by one of the news sources) along with what I would have to call an extremely handsome black man looking square into the camera. According to the brief news clip I heard, Marilyn's handlers were determined to keep her visit and the photo from public view and reportedly were 'furious' that she ended up at the club. The photo did not see the light of day for years until recently. On the rare occasions when the photo was published…surprise…the black man was cropped from the photo. Only until the unadulterated version was found in the archives of Travilla's old photo collection presumably to help promote a new tour of his designs from his estate (Travilla died in 1990) did the question arise in a few evening newscasts that ran the other evening here in LA:
Just who is the mystery man in the photo?
I wonder that myself, however, contrary to the obvious race/sex curiosities that might tantalize some, I find myself wanting to know about the life of the mystery man himself. Instead of merely identifying him and looking at him from the context of Marilyn's life, I would like some authentic context surrounding this man, for starters:
What is his name and the name of the club? Is he still alive? Was he a jazz musician or a singer? If not, was he just visiting that evening? Did Marilyn and William Travilla sit at the man's table or was it the other way around? Did he hook up with Marilyn later on? Were there repercussions to the man's life or career arising from the photo and/or encounter with Marilyn?
If I were to guess, I would guess that it was a Black club along Central Avenue in Los Angeles and that is why the man seemed confident in the photo. That perhaps one of those roaming club photographers took an impromptu photo of the the three and that Travilla paid for it, thus it became his property. Maybe it is because of his secure manner, but I don't believe the mystery man was just another patron…so he possibly was an entertainer, musician, or just darn good friends with the management of the club. He is dressed well and was probably well known to the other customers.
So, can we solve this mystery? It would be so great if this man was still alive. I think about what I would say to him if I could. I wouldn't want to know about Marilyn per se, I'd want to know about Central Avenue during the 1950s. Central Avenue is just a shell of what it was back then and I'd ask him how he feels about that.
And I would have other questions like: What was his life like? What other famous white people besides Marilyn went 'slumming' to South LA to hear some quality music? Why does he believe that we no longer have our own entertainment venues in our own neighborhoods? Wasn't it true that the police and the City of Los Angeles used strong-armed vice squad tactics to discourage and frighten whites away from visiting these clubs and shut down these clubs to the delight of white competitors? Does he think integration helped kill these businesses as well?
Inquiring minds want to know. Oh, if only photos could talk.
Update: The venue was the Five-four Ballroom, sometimes written as the 5/4 Ballroom, a popular venue in Los Angeles which is no longer open. Many famous jazz and R&B artists played there from the 1940s through the 1960s, can anyone provide any information or history on this club? Anyhow, here is how it looked in 1965 when it was the place for a live recording for a Stax album:
The mystery man remains unidentified.