Dusty Relics of Arkansas History
November 6-12, 2017
The Vapors and Tony Bennett
By Bob Denman
315 Park Avenue in Hot Springs was the spot to be for fun in the Spa City in the 60’s and 70’s. It was where distilled spirits flowed freely, the nation’s entertainment elite performed in the Monte Carlo Showroom, and fortunes were won and lost at the casino tables. Owned by Dane Harris, who also owned the Belvedere Country Club in Hot Springs, and legendary gangster Owney Madden who owned the Cotton Club in New York, the Vapors was the preeminent entertainment venue in Arkansas. The Vapors had 200 employees and old timers say it wasn’t unusual to see 100 grand on the crap table for a single roll of the dice.
Rosemary Clooney, Dinah Shore, Phyllis Diller, Liberace, Tiny Tim, the Smothers Brothers, Les Paul, the Andrews Sisters and Tony Bennett were regulars at the Vapors, most performing two shows per night.
Tony Bennett’s most famous and signature song is I Left My Heart in San Francisco. It became a Pop Single sensation in 1962 and of course is the unofficial anthem of the city of San Francisco. Bennett and his famous tune won two Grammy’s that same year, one for the Best Male Vocal Solo, and the top prize of Record of the Year. The National Endowment for the Arts ranks I Left My Heart in San Francisco as the 23rd most historically significant song of the 20th Century.
Bennett is credited with first performing the song publicly at the famed Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco back in 1961. Fact check that statement and you will find it’s wrong. Just a day before the famous performance at the Fairmont, Bennett was performing in Hot Springs and late in the afternoon, rehearsed the song at the Vapors. Nobody was around except for the bartender who was setting up for the night. After hearing the song, the bartender told Bennett and his accompanist, “hey guys, if you record that song I’ll buy a copy.” Later that night, and after his Vapors show, Bennett sang the song again ... this time in front of the bar crowd at the Black Orchid Club, once famous during the heyday of spring training for their beautiful hostesses, but in ’61 just a fun place for the younger and less affluent crowd to drink. Based on the crowd’s reaction at the Black Orchid, Bennett added the song to his play list for the show at the Fairmont the next night and the rest is history.
The old Vapor’s club is history too. While it operated in various remakes of its former self, it finally closed in the late 90’s and now serves as the home of a local church ministry.
Ironically, it continues to serve up spirits...Holy, not distilled.
The Vapors Night Club, a dusty relic of AR history.
Bob Denman is Emeritus Vice Chancellor for University Advancement at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Vapors Dinner Theater, Hot Springs. (Photo provided)