San Antonio’s forgotten jazz mecca: The lore of the Keyhole Club

The venue was one of the first racially integrated nightclubs in the city

SAN ANTONIO – A West Side building now known for its outdoor lucha libre matches was once home to a jazz mecca in 20th-century San Antonio.

Drawing the likes of Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong, the nightclub was one of San Antonio’s first racially integrated nightclubs.

Nat King Cole (seated second from left), Duke Ellington (standing third from right) and Don Albert (standing second from right) at the Keyhole Club at 1619 W. Poplar Street in November 1955. (UTSA Special Collections)

The Keyhole Club was one of several Black-owned nightclubs where patrons, musicians and entertainers congregated.

But what made the nightclub stand out was more than just the upbeat music — the Keyhole was integrated during the Jim Crow era, at a time when segregation and racism were widespread.

Further, the oeuvre of the club’s owner would reach far into the annals of jazz history.

Despite the pushback from the ruling class that the club would endure during its heyday, it persisted in the Alamo City for decades, thanks in part to the man behind the brand: Don Albert.

Don Albert playing trumpet. (Hogan Jazz Archive, Special Collections, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library. Tulane University Special Collections)

The showman from New Orleans

A sabbatical leave in the spring of 1988 led Dr. Christopher Wilkinson down the rabbit hole of archived New Orleans jazz history.

Wilkinson, a professor emeritus of music history at the University of West Virginia’s School of Music, found himself combing through oral histories at the William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University.

In his digging, Wilkinson found an interview with New Orleans-born trumpeter Alvin Alcorn, who played with a big jazz band in the 1930s.

The band was called Don Albert and His Orchestra. Sometimes, they referred to themselves as “America’s Favorite Swing Band.”

“(The band was made up) primarily of New Orleans-born and educated musicians (and) was based in San Antonio,” Wilkinson said in an interview with KSAT. “Having made its way from New Orleans to Dallas to San Antonio. And the leader of the band was Don Albert.”

A burgeoning interest formed and would lead Wilkinson to write the foremost book on Albert’s life, “Jazz on the Road: Don Albert’s Musical Life.”

Born Albert Anite Dominque on Aug. 5, 1908, in New Orleans, he first learned violin at the encouragement of his father. Then Albert discovered a particular interest in singing, which eventually led him to pick up the trumpet.

Music led Albert to San Antonio.

The trumpet would become Albert’s muse as he soon joined several big bands led by Alphonse Trent and Troy Floyd, the latter of whom was based in San Antonio.

Don Albert holding his trumpet circa 1935. (UTSA Special Collections)

Albert would go on to start his own band, managing and leading the group.

When he wasn’t working in music, Albert lived and worked in San Antonio as a civil servant at Fort Sam Houston.

World War II loomed on the horizon for the United States, and while Black Americans would have had trouble finding work in most southern cities before the start of the war — especially as the economy took a downward turn in 1940 — San Antonio was different.

The Alamo City’s status as a military hub led to an influx of civilian jobs at several bases around town.

For Albert, work would come as a foreman in the engineering department at Duncan Field, later known as Kelly Field, early in 1941.

The civil service job brought Albert an income to support his family, benefits and new opportunities to explore his musical ventures.

According to Wilkinson, most musicians at the time held day jobs to supplement income that could not come from solely working in music.

“His civil service job was the one that carried him up to retirement,” Wilkinson said.

Albert worked as a civil servant for over 25 years.

Eventually, the time would come for Albert to hone his skills as a promoter and manager.

The Keyhole Club on the East Side

The corner of Iowa and Pine Street in the Denver Heights neighborhood would be the first home of Don Albert’s Keyhole Club.

Albert opened the Keyhole Club on Nov. 3, 1944.

“The first Keyhole on the East Side represented an early example of a racially integrated, in terms of clientele, establishment,” Wilkinson said.

The Keyhole joined a growing list of venues on the “Chitlin Circuit.” These included the Shadowland on Blanco Road and the Eastwood Country Club on the far East Side, among others.

In his dissertation titled “Talk To Me: The Story of San Antonio’s West Side Sound,” Alex LaRotta cites Alan Govenar’s definition of the Chitlin’ Circuit.

“The Chitlin’ Circuit was a loosely-knit network of Black-friendly, and often Black-owned, music venues that stretched across the racially-segregated South and Southwest during the Jim Crow era,” LaRotta states.

Wilkinson noted that the dances at the Keyhole were revolutionary for the time period. While the bands that played at the club were predominately Black, the audiences grew more integrated.

“In many cases, these are dances by an ostensibly Black band for a Black audience,” Wilkinson said. “And that’s what made his nightclubs in San Antonio so revolutionary, as they were intended to serve a racially integrated audience.”

In his book, Wilkinson further describes that the club’s proximity to large military bases contributed to the diverse clientele.

“Although it was situated in a Black neighborhood, the club became well known in white civilian and military circles,” Wilkinson says.

Given that San Antonio, at the time, allowed white-owned businesses to implement racial segregation, that same treatment would not be extended to Black business owners.

Yet, the intermingling of races led to a unique environment in the nightclubs of the day and a true sense of unity.

Albert closed the Keyhole on the East Side in 1948 and took the idea — unsuccessfully — back to New Orleans.

A West Side resurgence

An exterior view of the Keyhole Club in the West Side. Taken in 1950, the building is still standing today. (UTSA Special Collections)

After returning to San Antonio, Albert re-opened the Keyhole Club to a shifting racial landscape in April 1950. He also returned to a civil service job, this time working at Fort Sam Houston.

Two years prior, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, formally banning segregation in the military.

The Keyhole had already been drawing in a mix of patrons, including military personnel, on the East Side; a cultural convergence was taking place.

A packed house at the Keyhole Club in the 1950s. (UTSA Special Collections)

Trouble looms

According to Wilkinson, the club likely held its doors open to all people.

“My impression is that Don Albert would welcome anybody that came through the door,” Wilkinson said.

This unity drew the unfortunate ire of racists seeking to stop the club’s operation.

Trouble would come with the election of George M. Roper as the Commissioner of Fire and Police in San Antonio.

Roper — a World War II veteran and a staunch segregationist, according to Wilkinson — and the San Antonio police were keen on disrupting the club.

“Nobody complained except the (Police Commissioner) George Roper,” Wilkinson said. “That set in motion the succession of harassing raids (and) claims there were violations of local ordinances.”

Roper’s attempts to quell the club began soon after his appointment to the job. Attempts to cite violations of city ordinances came with Roper often sending plainclothes officers into the club.

Roper himself joined the vice police squad on a visit to the club. The officers entered, demanded the entertainment to stop and counted all of the patrons to ensure the building was not over capacity, Wilkinson states in his book.

A mixture of Roper’s complaints and police raids would plague the Keyhole through much of its time on the West Side. Small violations of local ordinances were sighted, but Roper had a larger goal.

“The whole effort was to attempt to destroy the business simply by having people realize, ‘Hey, the cops are always coming; there must be something wrong with this place,’” Wilkinson said.

Roper’s opposition would be the catalyst for the court case that briefly halted the Keyhole’s operation in the 1950s.

“It was a very personal agenda; this man (was) using his office to advance his own racist agenda,” Wilkinson said.

The Keyhole goes to court...and wins

The 1951 court case, Roper v. Winner, was brought to the 37th District Court of San Antonio. Roper’s reasoning for ordering the club to close was a defective roof.

Willie “Red” Winner was Don Albert’s business partner. While the case was officially Roper v. Winner, Albert was very much a part of the legal process.

The case was active for nearly four months, and an eventual ruling was made in the Court of Civil Appeals, Fourth Supreme Judicial District of Texas in San Antonio.

Keyhole co-owner, Willie "Red" Winner" pictured with Don Albert and his wife Hazel with musicians at the Keyhole Club on the East Side. (UTSA Special Collections)

Associate Judge Jack Pope declared that Roper’s closing of the club lacked clear evidence from police. Therefore, Roper, the fire marshal, police chief and building inspectors were made to pay all of the court costs.

The case did not go far in the courts, and the Keyhole was able to continue its operation.

The club remained progressive in its clientele and music; however, as the music and venues began to evolve, Albert found that things just weren’t the same.

Smaller, more intimate nightclubs likely drew potential patrons away, and as desegregation began to take shape, more clubs opened up.

In his book, Wilkinson notes that more and more homes began to have television sets, which would prompt people to stay home more for their entertainment.

Albert operated the Keyhole until the mid-1960s, eventually ceasing operations. Albert would return to work at Fort Sam Houston. He retired from his civil service job in 1976.

He died on March 4, 1980.

Don Albert is buried next to his wife, Hazel, at MeadowLawn Memorial Park in San Antonio, Texas. (KSAT/Mason Hickok)

While the lore of the Keyhole fell to the annals of Jazz esoterica, the building on the West Side would stay standing.

The Poplar St. Building today

The old Keyhole building is still standing and under the care of the Sociedad Fraternal Cruz Blanca

Oscar Casiano, a president of the fraternal order, occupies the space with lucha libre shows, community gatherings and fundraisers.

Casiano’s father, who himself was a member of Cruz Blanca when the group purchased the building from Albert and Winner in 1974.

“My mom and my dad took care of (the building) to where nobody could take it over,” Casiano said in an interview over the phone.

Cristal Mendez is the historian of the San Antonio African American Archive and Community Museum (SAAACAM). Her work in public history has allowed her to chart a future for the building, its rich history and Casiano’s vision.

While SAAACAM has been a strong proponent for the building’s preservation, Mendez is quick to acknowledge the collaboration with Cruz Blanca.

“The preservation of this building wouldn’t happen if it weren’t for the Cruz Blanca Sociedad,” Mendez told KSAT.

A side-by-side view of the Keyhole building in 1950 and today. (UTSA Special Collections/KSAT)

With the preservation and the building’s larger significance to San Anotion’s music and civil rights history, Mendez and SAACAM are hoping the building can receive a state historical marker.

“There definitely needs to be a historical marker,” Mendez said in a prior interview with KSAT.

That wish will soon be a reality.

SAAACAM applied for a marker through the Texas Historical Commission earlier this year. Shortly after, the building was approved.

Mendez said that the process for receiving the marker can take up to a year. While delays have lengthened the wait for a final marker, Mendez said the excitement is palpable.

“We definitely want to turn it into an event, have a party and a dedication,” Mendez said. “To gather the community out there and really celebrate the history of that building and continue the partnership with Mr. Casiano; there is just so much interest there with the story of the Keyhole.”

For Casiano, he is eager that SAAACAM was invested in the property and its history.

“It’s good that they got interested in it,” he said.

The building is listed on the city’s Office of Historic Preservation page. The listing denotes the review of an individual landmark.

Casiano kept the building’s aesthetic virtually the same as Albert had when he closed the Keyhole in the 1960s.

Under Casiano’s care, the building is operated as a mutual aid society that supports the community, and today, it represents the same thing it did in its prime: a cornerstone of the West Side community.

“I just love that this place has just always been in the hands and the care of the West Side, which I think speaks to its ability to maintain itself and how it’s looked,” Mendez told KSAT. “It hasn’t been gentrified, and it looks very much the way it did when it originally opened, which I think is beautiful.”

The Keyhole was more than a jazz nightclub; long before segregation was dissolved, the club paved the way for a sense of unity through music. For many, it was a safe space.

With a history rooted in San Antonio and permanently on the West Side, the building is a landmark for some and a legend for others.

It helped to define a city in the South during intense racial tensions and continues its service to the community, even after the music has stopped.

About the Authors

Mason Hickok is a digital journalist at KSAT. He graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio with a communication degree and a minor in film studies. He also spent two years working at The Paisano, the independent student newspaper at UTSA. Outside of the newsroom, he enjoys the outdoors, reading and watching movies.

Andrew Wilson is a digital journalist and social media producer at KSAT.

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