New Life for Oakland's Continental Club

Posted by The Bay Area Crew, January 5, 2015 06:03pm | Post a Comment

Continental Club, OaklandBy Brent James

Nestled inconspicuously on 12th Street in West Oakland in a neighborhood known as Prescott (or the “Lower Bottoms” to the longtime residents of the area) is a quaint little building that you will probably miss if you blink. A structure of brick and hardwood and matted red carpets that haven’t been touched since the 1960s, the building standing at 1658 12th Street is the Continental Club – a once a mighty Jazz and Blues supper joint that helped Oakland and the East Bay Area garner the reputation of being the “Motown of the West.” Along with Slim Jenkins’ Supper Club, Esther’s Orbit Room, and dozens of other nightclubs that sprawled along 7th Street, the stages in these rooms once hosted the likes of Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls, Etta James, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Ike and Tina Turner, and even Jimi Hendrix. The list goes on and the stories are endless if you’re lucky enough to get some face time with the “old timers” of the area. In this neighborhood, people still say “good morning” and spend many a Summer night on their porches, so that’s pretty easy to do.

Opened in 1947 by Curtis and Ross Christy, the space was originally a gumbo house. Using an old family recipe from their native Louisiana, the Brothers Christy were quite successful and dominated the local food scene until the 1950s when they expanded their kitchen to include a live venue known as Rumboogie, a place that was originally meant to showcase the numerous Jazz and Blues musicians of the area. Legends Johnny Fuller and Jimmy McCracklin got their start at Rumboogie, and by this time the Lower Bottoms had a thriving music scene, attracting national acts galore. Rumboogie was so successful that by 1961 the Christys decided to renovate and expand their club, adding an extended dance floor and mezzanine. The Continental Club was officially christened and her inaugural live showcase was offered by none other than Little Esther! People came from all around to dance, sing, and partake in activities that weren’t always law abiding. According to some of the elderly neighborhood ex- patrons, a few of the more “rowdy” shows at The Continental were the yearly drag queen competitions! At a time when race and sexuality played a key part in American cultural formation, it was a place for everyone to come and not feel threatened or judged.

That was, until the 1970s. By then the neighborhood had fallen onto hard times and the completion of the Orbit Room, OaklandBay Area Rapid Transit (BART) line into West Oakland, as well as the new post office, all but sealed the fate of the once-thriving 7th Street live music and food scene. More and more families were being forced out and crime was rampant. The Lower Bottoms became a magnet for drama and was pretty much indicative of the reason you “don’t go to Oakland.” Esther’s Orbit Room operated until 2010, switching owners several times but always staying true to Esther Mabry’s original vision of good food and great live entertainment.

The “tech” booms that were hitting hard in Silicon Valley and San Francisco starting in the late 1990s had driven SF housing prices through the roof, and people in the City had begun to realize that you could buy property for cheap in West Oakland yet still be close enough to feel like a part of the SF action. Today, once dilapidated Victorians are getting second chances at life in the area. And as more and more money moves into the Lower Bottoms, one can start to see the working class roots start to take hold again. But can you teach an old dog new tricks? Some say yes, and others simply say “get out.”

A block away from The Continental, stands a recently-built fortress-looking condominium community. Oakland Walk of FameSome long-time residents cry “gentrification” as plans for yet more of these types of homes are laid. However, others insist on focusing on the preservation of the vast musical history of the area, attending town hall meetings, and even shows at The Continental. The City of Oakland has recently installed the “Music They Played On 7th Street: Oakland Walk Of Fame” at the West Oakland BART station, which pays homage to local artists, but sadly it may not be enough.

Recently, The Continental was put up for sale. No matter how many open-mic or comedy shows the current owner attempted to host, it just didn’t gel. Even an attempt to re-transform the space into a local eatery didn’t work. Despite the hordes of diverse people moving into West Oakland, nobody has been able to capture the magic that the majestic Continental Club once had. Her marquee is dark now and the scuffed dance floor has been stripped bare. Will she be razed? Will yet another set of condos be built to house someone who could care less about the ghosts they are living with? Or might someone actually have the vision and genuine heart to start from scratch, and help tell the stories that the walls of The Continental Club yearn to scream?

It seems we may get the chance to find out! As of January 2015, The Continental has been sold to an as-of-yet undisclosed NEW owner. Neighborhood buzz is that they plan on bringing back the family vibe to the club, even going as far as procuring the original recipe for the gumbo that first gave life to the Great Lady. I’d like to think that somewhere, the Christy brothers are slapping a Sugar Pie DeSanto album on, celebrating and anticipating the fact that they will soon have the chance to host a whole new generation of love and life in their beloved Continental Club.

We WILL be there opening night. Stay tuned.

Relevant Tags

Oakland (87), Continental Club (1), Jazz (150), Blues (31), Black History Month (134), Jackie Wilson (4), Aretha Franklin (13), Lou Rawls (2), Etta James (10), Brent James (13), Otis Redding (12), Marvin Gaye (10), Ike And Tina Turner (2), Jimi Hendrix (21), Johnny Fuller (1), Jimmy Mccracklin (2), Sugar Pie Desanto (2), Little Esther (1)