Only a few women in entertainment catered to the needs of people like Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith. Until her sleep death in her Manhattan apartment in 1984, aged 89, she remained active into her old age even talking to friends on the phone hours before her death.
The vaudevillian dancer, saloonkeeper, actress, singer, nightclub owner, and international celebrity host once noted about why her establishments attracted heavyweights, “I’m a personality. Nobody ever came to hear me. They came to see me.”
As a saloon-keeper and hostess, ‘Bricktop’ as Smith was popularly known because of her bright red hair and freckles which was unusual for an African-American explained how she spent her evenings. “My job was to make my clients feel at home. I’m not really social. I like people, but I like them at Bricktop’s.”
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Bricktop was born on August 14, 1894 in Alderson, West Virginia, to Thomas and Hattie Thompson Smith, an Irish father and a black mother. With her father who ran a whites-only barbershop dying in 1898 when Bricktop was four, Mrs. Smith moved Ada and her three older siblings to Chicago, where she managed rooming houses and worked as a maid, perhaps igniting something in the young girl, which later served her well.
Smith began performing at the age of five, playing Harry in Uncle Tom’s Cabin at Haymarket Theater in Chicago. By age 14, she earned a permanent chorus role at the Pekin Theatre. At age 16, she began touring with the Theater Owners’ Booking Association (TOBA) and Pantages vaudeville circuits. Smith performed in Chicago, San Francisco, Vancouver, and New York honing her skills, eventually performing at the Baron’s Exclusive Club in Harlem where she became a regular.
To her calling as a “doyenne of café society,” Bricktop opened a club in Paris called the Music Box, which was soon succeeded by another club called Chez Bricktop’s in 1926. She first performed in Paris, France in 1924 at the Le Grand Duc nightclub.
It was at this time she began hosting and entertaining at charity events and parties for celebrities, where she befriended influential artists such as the authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck, and the composer and musician Cole Porter.
Chez Bricktop’s regularly featured notables such as Jascha Heifetz, Noel Coward, Duke Ellington, the Prince of Wales, Paul Robeson, and Josephine Baker with whom she became good friends.
The cigar loving Bricktop married New Orleans musician Peter Conge in 1929 and moved her nightclub to 66 Rue Pigalle, where singer Mabel Mercer became the main attraction. The nightclub thrived through most of the 1930s.
“Bricktop broadcast a radio program in Paris from 1938–39, for the French government. During WWII, she closed “Chez Bricktop” and moved to Mexico City where she opened a new nightclub in 1944. In 1949, she returned to Europe and started a club in Rome. Bricktop closed her club and retired in 1961 at the age of 67, saying “I’m tired, honey. Tired of staying up all night.” Afterwards, she moved back to the United States.”
As a dancer or performer, Bricktop helped teach the latest dance craze such as the Charleston and the Black Bottom to guests. “I knew my way around a floor and could hold a table’s attention,” she wrote in “Bricktop.” “That was the trick of saloon singing—you weren’t trying to get the whole audience, just one table.”
The lady who considered herself “100 percent American Negro,” and not black continued to perform as a Cabaret Entertainer well into her 80s, including some engagements in London at the age of 84. Little wonder then she is regarded as “…one of the most legendary and enduring figures of twentieth-century American cultural history.”
In 1972, Bricktop made her only recording, “So Long Baby,” with Cy Coleman. She appeared in the 1974 film Honeybaby, Honeybaby, in which she played herself, operating a “Bricktop’s” in Beirut, Lebanon.
She wrote her autobiography, Bricktop by Bricktop, with the help of James Haskins, the prolific author who wrote biographies of Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks.
Ada “Bricktop” Smith died on January 31, 1984, in New York City having explored the world as much as she could.