ATLANTIC CITY - About 20 people danced in the middle of Kentucky Avenue at about 4 p.m. Saturday, waiting for the next band to take the stage and take them back in time.

A DJ onstage used no disks. Instead, he used a laptop to play a mix of '70s and '80s R&B and some early hip-hop - the last sounds of the glittering and long-vanished black-owned nightclubs and restaurants that once lined the street.

Saturday was the annual Historical Kentucky Avenue Renaissance Festival, held on a blocked-off Kentucky Avenue in Atlantic City, a day to celebrate and recall another corner of the resort's past as an entertainment mecca.

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The several hundred people who attended got a chance to see a street party and vendors, as well as see photos of the history and describe their experience to archivists.

During the resort's mid-century peak, this street in the then-segregated Northside neighborhood offered a wealth of entertainment options for multiracial residents and visitors. The artists who once played in clubs here are a virtual who's who of American popular music.

These days, only a taxicab service and hair salon survives from the golden days, others forced out or closed as tastes and Atlantic City changed. A large parking lot takes up most of the west side of the street, the Renaissance Plaza shopping center takes up the east.

Brass sidewalk plaques commemorate the former venues. Efforts are underway to further commemorate the street's glory days, said Stephen L. Young, managing partner with Polaris Development Group, which organized the event.

Polaris has proposed building an entertainment district with restaurants, retail shops, entertainment venues, a performing arts center and an Entertainers Hall of Fame.

For now, however, Young pointed to a proposed mural of the street the way it once was. Clubs and restaurants again stood, with crowds thronging to the shows. The marquee on the Club Harlem portion featured a mix of Atlantic City-area and national artists.

Nearby, Audrey Hart, 72, sat on a chair that balanced on top of the Club Harlem sidewalk marker. A folding table in front of her displayed old black-and-white photos of the street's halcyon days.

Hart, of Atlantic City, lived and worked on the street. She remembered how it was, which is why she felt the need to point out the proposed mural was not precisely correct and some buildings were out of place.

Pleasantville resident Marie Buford, 75, looked over Hart's photos. She used to live in Atlantic City, working for a while in Gracie's Little Belmonte, a club opposite Club Harlem where Sammy Davis Jr.'s mother, Elvera Sanchez Davis, once tended bar.

Buford looked appreciatively over the proposed mural. "Its lovely, goodness, yes indeed."

Nearby, archivists from the Atlantic City Free Public Library wrote down people's memories of the street, while another display showed the district's growth with maps.

One person, Mike Garrett, wrote about seeing Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Kool and the Gang at the Wonder Garden club.

Meanwhile, the next band was ready to take the stage. Saturday featured a cappella artists, tributes to the former clubs, and local artists, trying to recapture the sound of the vanished era.

The next artist, Hard Act To Follow, came from the Philadelphia area, Young said. The five-piece band took the stage, starting with the 1974 Kool and the Gang hit "Hollywood Swinging."

And with the largely middle-aged crowd of people dancing in the middle of the street, they segued into Kool and the Gang's earlier hit "Jungle Boogie."

It was fun, fast and energetic. For those of us who weren't there, we were left with this thought: This must have been what it sounded like back then.

Contact Derek Harper:


Follow Derek Harper on Twitter @dnharper

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