For those of you who lived or visited Georgetown in Washington, DC, from 1977 to 1986 you may have heard about this fantastic night spot called the Chinese Disco. It has become legendary in the annals of having fun. And it all happened by accident.
I was sound asleep when the phone rang. It was a cold Friday night when I would ordinarily have been out bar-hopping with friends in Georgetown. On the phone was my friend Ed Ware. He was with Lucy Channing, Patty Reynolds, and John Marshall who had been turned away at the 21st Amendment on Pennsylvania Ave, another Georgetown favorite because of the crowd. Because it was cold and snowing, they didn’t like the idea of waiting outside just for a chance to get a beer. Ware heard some blaring music emanating from some cheap speakers that hung on the outside of the building across the street. The intrepid four braved the traffic and slippery asphalt to get a closer look. The sign said “Day Lilly Restaurant.” Beneath that was a smaller sign that read “Night Owl Disco.” In was late February 1977. DC was in the middle of the disco craze and the Latin Hustle.
“You won’t believe this place,” said Ware in a rather excited tone. “It’s completely empty. You need to get down here.”
“If it’s empty then why are you calling me?” I demanded.
Ware explained that the Night Owl had a lot of potential as a hangout for our southern crowd of beach music worshipers. We were veterans of many of the Georgetown bars which played beach music at least one night a week. There was Chadwick’s, The Third Edition, Winston’s, The Beowulf, and Jenkin’s Hill down the street from the Capitol. I believe we had more beach music in Washington than Myrtle Beach. “M” street might as well have been paved in sand.
I hung up with Ware after agreeing we should return the following weekend with more of our gang to analyze the future potential of the Night Owl.
The following Friday night we arrived to find the situation identical to what Ed, Lucy, Patty, and John had found the week before. The rest of us looked at Ware and demanded an explanation. There was some offending Disco music blaring into the empty room with the emblematic glass disco ball spinning from the ceiling. I went over to the DJ and asked him to play a beach tune which I now no longer recall the name of. The man looked at me in contempt and refused to play it. To be clear, I asked him if he knew of the song. He assured me he did and then made it certain that he didn’t like beach music. Given his lack of audience, his refusal made no sense. Here was a black guy who refused to play some old soul music at the request of the only customers in the joint.
We huddled and then approached Jim Chen, the Chinese-American proprietor of this wanna-be disco night club who wasn’t able to make enough selling chow mein at lunch. We made him an offer that he couldn’t refuse. Fire the DJ, offer 50 cent draft beer, let us bring our own music and we promised that we would fill the place the following weekend. Chen was skeptical that we could deliver. He looked around the room that was empty except for a DJ who couldn’t bring in one customer. Chen nodded and smiled and said he would give us a shot. Next weekend we were on but we had only a week to get it together.
Lucy went to work on designing a flyer. The following Thursday was March 17th so Lucy’s newsletter headlined “Come celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day the Chinese Way!” Patty Reynolds worked on Capitol Hill in close proximity to other staffers of southern legislators. The word went out by phone to those we knew, Lucy’s flyer was dropped on desks, slid under doors, and passed out in the hallways in the Capitol office buildings.
Peter Van Allen and Nicky Williams assembled their collection of beach music classics. They would be our DJ’s.
That Friday, I think we were all surprised. The place was packed with what appeared to be several hundred people. The crowd was delivered as promised but it was now up to Peter and Nicky to make it work. They launched their first 45 and some of us started dancing. Peter and Nicky studied the crowd. They picked up the pace with In a Moment by the Intrigues. Then came Miss Grace, and other songs by the Ojay’s, Major Lance, Harold Melvin and Jackie Wilson. By now there was no room to dance. Lucy Channing dragged me into the kitchen where we shagged next to the deep fryer. The Chinese help were grinning from ear to ear. The cash register was constantly ringing up beer sales. Some of the waitresses began distributing free egg rolls. It was working!
There was rarely a slow song. Everyone was hot, happy. Some went out to the front steps for fresh air or for another beer at the bar upfront. But there was always another song that dragged you back to the dance floor. The frenzy continued. Ed Ware, standing taller than anyone else, cupped his hands megaphone-style and began emitting his patented “war whoops.” He sounded like a wounded jungle beast but they made everyone laugh. The DJ launched Disco Inferno by the Trammps. The whole room was moving.
We had passed the threshold of midnight and the hysteria continued. There was “last call” an hour or so later but it was ignored. Jim Chen threw the overhead lights on but he was again ignored. Our out of control DJs dropped yet another 45 onto the turntable. It was The Horse by Cliff Nobles. This would become the crowd’s future call to action: everyone hit the floor and started gatoring. It would be another year before Animal House was released and John Belushi made gatoring a more recognizable phenomenon. The resultant “flesh pile,” in some places two and three bodies deep, wriggled as one contiguous mass. An unidentified male hand could be seen groping an unidentified female thigh. Jim Chen wanted to go home but we didn’t. He brought out the brooms and vacuum cleaner and his crew began cleaning the floor right up to the pile of revelers. Jim Chen shook his head in amazement but he said with a grin “You people really know how to have fun.” It was an understatement.
The following weekend was nearly an exact replay of the first night, only it was open for both Friday and Saturday nights. The word travelled fast around the nation’s capitol about the new hotspot called the “Chinese Disco.”
The college kids were the first to catch to on and then we would see cars full of high school kids driving in from the suburbs looking for the sign that said “Chinese Disco.” But there wasn’t one.
Several months later I took a friend to lunch to try out Jim Chen’s Moo Goo Gai Pan. I never realized that he never put away our props from the weekend. Feet away from where I was sitting were the cardboard palm trees and the cork board with black and white glossies of the Four Tops and Temptations. Peter and Nicky had cut out the heads and inserted their own pictures. Overhead was the hole in the ceiling caused the weekend before by some female’s head going through a ceiling tile while riding up on some guy’s shoulders.
The Disco continued on. It became immortalized in the Preppy Handbook which was published in 1980. By then, our group, the founders of the Chinese Disco, began to go our separate ways. Some married, some moved on, but no one forgot the incredible times we had. And it all happened by accident.
Other individuals who were there at the great St. Patrick’s launch of the Chinese Disco: Buff McDonald, Susan Hussey, Boodie Wiltshire, Denny Hill, Candy Spiers, T. Brown, Barbour Rixey, Lou Eshelman, Barbara Martz, Harry Gurkin, Katrina McGurn, and others beyond memory.
Besides the individuals who made the Chinese Disco a success, credit must be given to the music:
Miss Grace-The Tymes The Greatest Beach Tune of all time. Disco Inferno-The Trammps In a Moment-The Intrigues The Matador-Major Lance Monkey Time-Major Lance My Girl-The Temptations, The Love I Lost-Harold Melvin, The Horse-Cliff Nobles I Dig Your Act-The Ojay’s Hey Baby Medley-Buddy Causey, Whispers (Getting’ Louder)-Jackie Wilson Sixty Minute Man-The Dominoes, It Will Stand-The Showmen, With this Ring-The Platters, Hold Back the Night-The Trammps, Washed Ashore-The Platters, I’ve Got The Fever-Georgia Prophets Walkin' Up a One Way Street-Willie T. Candy-The Astors . And the list goes on.
In the first years of the Disco, this author had begun historical research at the Library of Congress and the National Archives into the grounding of a Spanish Galleon on Assateague Island. I left Washington in 1980 to pursue the treasure hunt. The ship was located buried in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in 1983. It is the legendary galleon in the children’s classic, Misty of Chincoteague. In 2011, I published Treasure Island: The Untold Story. It is the story of the real Treasue Island immortalized by Robert Louis Stevenson. You can read more about the author at outerbanksnc.comSurvivor of the Chinese Disco
John Amrhein, Jr.
John Amrhein, Jr.