Did you ever wonder about that odd-shaped building - the one that looks like an old drive-in food establishment - near the northeast corner of North Main Avenue and West Speedway?
The building opened as Dukes Drive-In in the early 1940s, offering curbside service and an indoor counter and booths. Today the building is home to the Beau Brummel Club, a private social group.
The Beau Brummel Club was established in 1936 by a small group of African-American men "who were refused entrance into Anglo social clubs of that era." The founders included Col. Reuben L. Horner III, one of the most decorated blacks of World War II, and Duke Shaw, who would later build and operate Dukes Drive-In.
The club was named after the iconic Beau Brummell who lived in England in the early 1800s and is famous for introducing modern men's fashions, like the suit worn with a tie. For an unknown reason, the club dropped the second "l" in Brummell.
Initially the group was limited to 15 men, supported education and social services in the African-American community, and provided a sort of welcome for blacks new to Tucson. Club members started out meeting in each other's houses, held a popular annual formal dance at the old Blue Moon ballroom (which burned down in 1947), brought in entertainers such as Louis Armstrong, and held picnics on Mount Lemmon and in Sabino Canyon.
The Beau Brummel Club also helped integrate Major League baseball. In 1947, beginning a 15-year relationship with Tucson, Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians, brought his newly integrated team to Tucson for spring training.
The Pioneer Hotel, the team headquarters, had a strict "whites-only" policy then, so Dukes Drive-In became the place for black professional baseball players to eat and socialize. They included Cleveland Indians stars such as Larry Doby, Satchel Paige and Harry "Suitcase" Simpson.
At first Beau Brummel members hosted black Cleveland Indians in their homes. But Shaw built a 10-unit motel just to the south of the club to accommodate the players and visiting black entertainers.
In 1954 the drive-in was expanded and the Beau Brummel Club moved into a portion of the building with "great fanfare," according to current member and local attorney Rubin Salter. The Beau Brummel Club took over the entire building when the drive-in restaurant was shut down in the 1970s. The motel lasted until 2005 when it was torn down, after being abandoned for several years.
The Beau Brummel Club is still active, but it's changed its all-male, blacks-only policy and now is more racially diverse and includes women.
According to Salter, the membership is mostly professional, including people from IBM and Raytheon, for instance. The club has 20 members on its corporate board but sells "access cards" for $10 to an average of 100 people a year.
Members get together to play cards or dominoes; younger members are attracted more to sports-related activities. Both members and those with access cards make use of the full-service bar in the club.
Occasionally the club sponsors musical events, hosting visiting bands with an emphasis on "down-home blues," according to Salter's son, Kristian, also an attorney.
The club has maintained its community service mission by holding tailgate parties at University of Arizona football games and sponsoring an annual Ghetto Open golfing event for charity at local courses and an annual ball for members and invited guests.
The Beau Brummel Club faces two threats to its future. The first - a sign of the times - is the difficulty of maintaining successful private social clubs in an increasingly impersonal, electronic-messaging society. The second threat - to the building - is the probable future redevelopment of the entire area.
But for an amazing 86 years the Beau Brummel Club has survived, thrived and been a worthwhile community institution.
On StarNet: Read Bob Ring's recent columns at azstarnet.com/bobring
Thanks to Effrim Griffin, who suggested this story and helped in the research. Sources: Arizona Daily Star; Beau Brummel Club Tucson; Historical Facts of Tucson's African American Community (tucsonalumnae.org, January 2010); interviews with Rubin and Kristian Salter; Reuben L. Horner III's "In the Steps of Esteban: Tucson's African American Heritage" (1996). E-mail Bob Ring at firstname.lastname@example.org