Gentlemen of the club

THE GUEST OF HONOR ambles through the back-door of the clubhouse, using a walker to help scoot along.

"Hey hey, Harry!" Forty or so of Harry Howard's truest friends welcome him back to his home away from home, the Royal Esquire Club.

Club members are throwing a party for Howard, the board chairman who has bounced back nicely after losing a leg. The men, most retirees and all but one black, are scattered about the cavernous, windowless clubhouse that stretches a half-block along Rainier Avenue South in the heart of Southeast Seattle's Columbia City neighborhood.

Some members play poker around a circular card table. Others chat across tables in booths with vinyl benches. A few lean against the wooden bar, sipping gin-and-tonics and scotch-and-sodas. A contemporary music video plays on a big-screen TV, but it holds as much interest among the men as static. Herbye White, the club president and junior in age to most members, is glad to see everyone having a good time.

"I think we need to do more of this," he says.

For 52 years, the Royal Esquire Club has been the center of social life for a select group of Seattle black men. Chartered during an age when segregation sent blacks searching for a hospitable place to party, friendships forged through the private, not-for-profit social club are eternal, helping bind the black community.

The club perseveres even as many of its 134 members suffer the creaks that weaken men in their golden years. As veterans of several wars, they have stories to tell, including one about the club's triumph over bigotry. The collective life experiences of the eldest members amount to a recitation of Seattle black history.

The club's longevity is imposing, yet unknown to much of Seattle.

"I don't think the general white community knows the Esquire exists," says retired King County Superior Court Judge Charles V. Johnson, a former active member now bestowed honorary status. "Most black people know the Esquire Club, even if they have never been there, because their friends have been there."

Younger generations of blacks know the club best as a busy nightspot where hundreds of Seattleites and out-of-towners flock to dance each Saturday night under the sparkle of revolving disco balls. It's one of the most popular dance clubs in town for African Americans. Seattle SuperSonics star Gary Payton is a regular.

A Saturday night patron is required to join the Royal Esquire Club as an "associate member" and receives a laminated, wallet-sized ID card in the mail. The arrangement promotes a prideful sense of ownership among thousands. Yet most associate members have little clue that the real passion of the club beats a distance away from Saturday night's fever.

Throughout its history, the Royal Esquire Club has been a place for drinking and dancing, making and meeting friends. Over the years, hundreds of Seattle families have used the clubhouse as a reception hall for graduations, weddings, reunions and - too often lately because of an aging membership - wakes.

Count Basie, Dinah Washington, Billy Eckstein and Nat King Cole all visited the club. It remains a destination for blacks from across the country who hear of it through word of mouth.

But the shack doesn't shake like it used to.

Decades ago, when the club operated out of a cozy converted house at 14th Avenue South and South Washington Street in the Central District, it stayed open late every night for the pleasure of members and their guests. A Duke Ellington tune swung from the jukebox. Troy the bartender poured custom cocktails for members before they had a chance to order. Saunders the cook served platters of fried chicken dinners on weekends. On Monday nights, NAACP board members huddled around a corner table and devised civil-rights strategy.

The lighting inside was dim. "You wouldn't go in there to read a newspaper," recalls 91-year-old Frank Fair, the club's oldest living member.

These days, the club's door is usually locked by nightfall.

"We all have gotten older," says Lincoln "Sonny" Grazzette, a 22-year-old amateur prizefighter when he joined the club in its inaugural year of 1948. "I'm in bed when it gets dark."

While Grazzette and his generation sleep on a Saturday night, the Columbia City clubhouse that opened in 1985 radiates like the old days. Most of the people inside are dressed as if attending a ball. Two dance floors keep a safe distance from one another. One draws mid-lifers with classic soul music. The other attracts a younger crowd with hip-hop and rap. It is common for two generations of a single family to be partying at the club on a Saturday night, separate but together.

The Royal Esquire Club is really two clubs. Each needs the other to exist. The disco provides revenue. The aging social club provides purpose.

Purpose matters most to the men of the Royal Esquire Club. Yet as the members grow old, the club's future rests increasingly with the people who bring vitality to the place on Saturday nights.

They appreciate having a place to dance. But do they appreciate the past, the pride, the war stories?

HARRY HOWARD beams as speeches are about to commence in his honor.

"Whatever you do, don't sing that song! I don't want to hear that song!" he says.

All the men laugh at the inside joke. The song is "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" and the joke is that the men of the Royal Esquire Club carry a tune about as well as a chorus of 12-year-olds entering puberty.

Bertram Williams, the 80-year-old gentlemanly emperor of the club, takes the floor.

"One true friend during a lifetime and you are thrice blessed," he says. "Two true friends and you are 1,000-times blessed. The last time I looked at our roster, there were 134 members in good standing and they are all true friends of Harry Howard."

The Royal Esquire Club is a fraternity of old friends connected by their histories. Williams, for example, was Grazzette's first sergeant in the Army during World War II. His daughter's best friend in college is the ex-wife of another member, Ammon McWashington. The first person club member Cliff Donley met when he moved to Seattle in 1955 was Grazzette, who lived in an apartment on 22nd Avenue and East Union Street run by Donley's Aunt Rosie.

The associations aren't by accident. Each prospective new member must be nominated by at least two existing members who have known him for a long time.

The majesty of the Royal Esquire Club is its blend of professional and working-class members. The professionals sometimes opt to not renew their memberships. But the cause of attrition among members with working-class backgrounds is almost always death.

Most members are unassuming guys who have quietly lived interesting lives. Grazzette, for example, boxed in the Olympic trials in 1948 and was the first black corrections officer hired in Washington state.

"The professionals who prevail are the ones humble enough to appreciate the legacy established by our older members," says White, a division director for Seattle's parks department.

Club members include a retired line splicer for the phone company, a restaurant-and-nightclub owner, a college basketball coach, a music promoter, a retired public defender, a fellow touted as the best Cadillac mechanic in town and several retired longshoremen and Boeing workers.

"The integrity of the janitor who is a member is just as pure and good as the integrity of the lawyer," Williams says.

Williams, soft-spoken but armed with a literary repertoire, retired in 1985 after 38 years at Boeing, leaving as director of urban affairs and equal-opportunity programs. Born in Tulsa, he was surrounded by race riots while an infant. He has been in Seattle since the Army discharged him at Fort Lawton in 1946.

"I've held every office in this club more than one time and chaired every committee of this club more than one time," he says. "That's the penalty for living a long time."

Williams was president in the early 1960s when the club took a stand against the state's repeated denials of its application for a liquor license. Williams is as certain today as he was then that racism led to the denials. After several police raids, one ending in Williams' arrest, club members decided to protest.

They gathered at the clubhouse one morning to eat a huge breakfast before caravaning to Olympia to demonstrate on the front steps of the Capitol, asking for a meeting with Gov. Albert Rosellini.

"Can you imagine back in those days, all these black men showing up on the campus in Olympia demanding to see the governor?" Williams says.

At the governor's behest, the chairman of the Liquor Control Board arrived from Centralia, met with club officers over lunch (he bought) and convened a special board meeting.

"By the time we got back to Seattle from Olympia, there was a notice on the clubhouse door and on utility poles in the vicinity that the Liquor Control Board was considering the Royal Esquire Club for a liquor license," Williams recalls.

In its heyday, the club's social calendar was packed. The club used to rent a state ferry each year for a twilight cruise on Puget Sound. The cruise was limited to 800 revelers and people were turned away. The tradition ended when the state increased fees as a way to ease out of the rental business.

The biggest bash of the year was the Black & White gala, an annual formal where men dressed in black-tie and women wore evening gowns. Usually held at a swanky downtown hotel, it was the consummate night on the town. The club canceled last year's gala for the first time that anyone can remember.

Williams and Grazzette are among a handful of members whose service spans at least 30 years and thus are exempt from paying annual membership dues of $240. A recent ceremony honoring "life members" exposed the extent to which the men consider the club momentous in their lives. Club officers unveiled a wall plaque bearing names of life members and each honoree received a gift of a modest lapel pin and a certificate in a $1.50 frame bought at Fred Meyer.

"These guys cried, man," White says.

AS THE PARTY for Howard winds down, Bertram Williams reclines in a swivel chair comparing colon surgeries with his friends, Claude Forward and Cliff Donley. The three have just finished a meal of ribs, chicken and hot links swimming in a tub of barbecue sauce, with potato salad, rolls and Ruby Red Squirt soda pop.

Donley, a retired principal in the Renton School District, has loosened the top buckle of his gray Sans-A-Belts to let his belly stretch a bit. You can do that among friends.

Forward worked at Boeing and ran a TV dealership and repair shop on Rainier and South Genesee Street for 37 years, earning the title "Mayor of Genesee" for his civic activism that remains vigorous at age 81. Wearing his signature outfit of suspenders, dress shirt and slacks, Forward eggs on Williams to retell the story of how he got duped during his recent surprise 80th birthday party. The story makes Forward laugh every time he hears it.

The three segue into war stories - real war stories about Donley on the front lines in Korea, Williams on foreign soil during World War II and Forward on a Navy ship sent to Okinawa. Donley recreates the whizzing sound that mortar fire makes when it is uncomfortably close.

He brings up the scores of black soldiers he knew 50 years ago who were denied promotions in rank because of race discrimination. And he remembers the thanks he got after fighting for his country. The Seattle School District wouldn't grant him a job interview. Later, after he had become successful in Renton, Seattle tried to recruit him. He told the district he wasn't interested. He couldn't forget.

The three friends are joined by Bill Rogers, a retired deputy director of the former U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He aches to wax philosophic about the Royal Esquire Club.

"There is a statement here," he says. "We went through all the trauma, all the prejudices and still, after all of that, we have put together something in this club that gives our kids and grandkids a direction to follow. For most of us, our grandparents were born into slavery. As youngsters, we went through the Great Depression. We served in World War II or Korea. And we are the first generation of black men who can think about doing something better for our young folks."

YOUNG FOLKS who patronize the Royal Esquire Club on Saturday nights call it "The Old Folks Home."

The club plays overprotective parent with its dress code. Jeans, sneakers, shorts, jog suits and T-shirts are prohibited. Guys intent on showing off their muscles by wearing sleeveless vests have been turned away. All men must remove their hats, no small thing in this day of baseball-cap fashion.

Members who volunteer as doormen and security say problems are rare, in part because of the strict dress code. A patron who causes trouble at the Royal Esquire Club is barred for life.

"Getting kicked out of the club is like a stigma," Williams says. "Word travels fast. You've disgraced yourself in the eyes of the community."

The club depends on Saturday night's liquor-sale proceeds and cover charge - imposed in addition to the $10 associate-membership fee - to balance its books. It's a dangerous way to survive financially, however. The tastes of club-goers are fickle and the club has flailed in the past when it wasn't the flavor of the month.

Saturday nights pack them in these days. At 10 p.m. cars are cruising slowly along Rainier, looking for parking. Men in suits and women in dresses walk arm and arm down the avenue. Inside, a photographer shoots pictures for playful couples in front of a painted backdrop of champagne flutes. It's like a prom for grown-ups.

Across the street on some Saturday nights, packs of mostly suburban kids wearing jeans with leg openings wider than their waists migrate to the Columbia City Theatre to attend a hypnotic all-night dance called a rave. The Royal Esquire Club erected a fence around its parking lot to keep the ravers out.

Here, white kids are the subculture, black people dancing to R & B and hip-hop music the mainstream.

Role reversal in the Rainier Valley. Alert the mayor.

On a recent Saturday night at the Royal Esquire Club, Dianne Ashley is decked out devilishly in a blue dress. The owner of a beauty salon, she looks 15 years younger than her actual age.

She sits at a table illuminated by a candle shining through red glass. Under the disco ball on the dance floor, bodies move to the thump of the 1980 song "Funkin' for Jamaica."

Club members know Ashley as "Mr. J.'s daughter." Mr. J. is Fred Jeffries, a longtime club member in failing health. He is bedridden on this night, but there was a time he and his daughter went out to the Royal Esquire Club on the same night.

She would give him a kiss and hug and he would send her a drink at some point during the evening.

In another part of the club, where the music is more modern and hard-core, Hakim Finch and his twin brother survey the dance floor. Finch lives less than two blocks from the club and works as a social-service liaison at an elementary school that rests on the same spot where the old clubhouse at 14th and Washington once stood. It's as if he is meant for this place.

He has gone out regularly to the Royal Esquire Club since he turned 21. He is 37 now and wants to be a member someday.

"If I had a problem, I could go to the club and talk to gentlemen who are about the age my father would be now," says Finch, whose father died in 1982, one month after Finch graduated from Garfield High School. "To me, the Esquire represents a group of gentlemen who have dedicated their lives to this community."

The Royal Esquire Club awards typically $15,000 a year in partial college scholarships to a dozen high-school seniors. Its benevolence also includes an annual Easter egg hunt for children of a Southeast Seattle housing project. The club is the original sponsor of a baseball league that blossomed into a vital youth athletics organization in the Central District. Possibly its greatest gift to the community is its clubhouse, which it offers for free as a meeting place to civic organizations with goals consistent with its own.

"There are those of us out there in my age group who want to keep this legacy going," Finch says. "But we don't know how to bridge the gap."

THE GAP IS GENERATIONAL. Ammon McWashington, a past club president, says the club needs to recruit young people as members more aggressively. An expanded membership could make the club less reliant financially on Saturday night's take.

"We can't stay the same for the next 50 years and survive because members are dying off," says McWashington, a former principal of Garfield and Ingraham high schools and now coordinator of interschool athletics for the Seattle School District.

Membership also could be expanded to include women. The club currently has a women's auxiliary made up mostly of members' wives and widows.

"If a member would have suggested that membership should be open to women 40 years ago or 30 years ago - even 20 years ago - he may have needed safe passage out of the house," says Williams, who figures female members are an inevitability even though the idea makes him uneasy.

Age is taking its toll on the club in several ways. Some are social. A monthly membership dinner has been cut back to a less grueling once every three months. An annual softball game with a similar club in Tacoma ended in 1993 for lack of good knees. An annual picnic on Lake Sammamish petered out.

The biggest blow came last year when the Black & White gala had to be scrapped because of a relentless rash of deaths and Williams' colon illness. Seven club members, about 5 percent of the membership, died in 1999.

The Royal Esquire Club was coined as a retreat for active, young black men. They joined because they had no other hospitable place to socialize. They would play cards, smoke cigars and sip cocktails. That's what men did back then.

Now the young men are old men and their children and grandchildren have other notions of fun. They join health clubs, not social clubs. But in the end, they search for the same thing as the gentle, old men of the Royal Esquire Club: a place to belong where they can be among good friends.

"I wouldn't expect the generation after my generation to do the same things we did," says retired Judge Johnson, the honorary club member. "Social opportunities for them are all over the place. Seattle changed. The city opened up. Jobs opened up. Public places opened up. And a few of the white social clubs opened up to blacks. A few even actively sought minorities as members.

"The young generation can congregate in places where we didn't feel welcome but they do."

But in the never-ending quest to find a place to belong, future generations of African American men may never find a place as welcoming as the Royal Esquire Club.

"It still provides what it has always provided," Johnson says. "It's a safe place where you can expect to find friends socializing in a warm atmosphere."

Stuart Eskenazi is a Seattle Times staff reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is staff photographer for Pacific Northwest magazine.