Monday, April 01, 2013

Dancing with My Selves: Club Royal, N. Augusta, SC

Back in late 2004, I wrote a post titled “Honky Tonk Hell” about an abandoned Christian mission located on the site of the lost town of Hamburg, South Carolina. The “hell” of the title was in reference to this particular building being the creepiest place I’d explored to that time. All these years later, it has yet to be topped. I’ve been in lots of physically disturbing places, but not many that I’d characterize as psychically disturbing. The “honky tonk” was in reference to a rumor I’d heard that the mission stood where an old club used to be. I still think the pictures and stories accompanying that original post match the title pretty well.

A short time later, the very first comment on that post (left anonymously, naturally) not only re-stated the rumor that a club had once been there, but added that it had been built in the 1950’s for the hundreds of workers being brought in to construct the nearby Savannah River Site, a Cold War-era nuclear facility. As if that wasn’t enough, word was that the woman with multiple personality disorder portrayed by Joanne Woodward in Three Faces of Eve used to dance at this place. Three Faces of Eve, fittingly enough, opened at the Miller Theater, across the river in Augusta, in 1957. Without any way to verify this information, I could only hope it was all true.

Flash forward to last fall and some conversations I had with Ramblin’ Don Rhodes, columnist for the Augusta Chronicle and historian par excellence, who finally confirmed that the cinder block mission had indeed been built on the site of a concrete and wood club, which burned in August 1957, the month before Three Faces of Eve premiered. He reckoned that the existing concrete slab might even be the same one the club had stood on. Even better, he knew the name of the place: Club Royal. It was once among the most popular clubs in the region and considered one of the nicest in the South. As if that wasn’t enough, he’d interviewed Eve, whose real name is Christine Sizemore Costner, and heard a bit firsthand about Club Royal.

In the book on which the movie is based, Eve is said to have three distinct personalities. There’s Jane, her relatively stable personality, Eve White, the “good girl,” and Eve Black, the “party girl.” I’ll let you guess which one danced (and even sang) at Club Royal. In the film, there is a scene that takes place at what would have been Club Royal where Eve is dancing for soldiers from then-Camp Gordon. In Don’s interview with Mrs. Sizemore, she said of Club Royal that, “It was huge, and it was nice. I was surprised they let me sing there. Eve Black, though, had a nice voice. What I find interesting is that I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but she sang so well. And, if she just appeared there as a guest, they would ask her to sing. She loved it, you know.” Interesting, indeed.

This is just the kind of thing we love to get into here at City of Dust. Try Googling “Club Royal” and “North Augusta” or “South Carolina.” You will get no pertinent hits beyond an Augusta Chronicle article written by Don which was expanded to become a chapter in his book, “Mysteries and Legends: Georgia – True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained.” Club Royal has nearly sunk entirely into the mists of time.

Nearly, that is, but not entirely. In the last eight years, nature has reclaimed much of the mission. The dolls and women’s clothes that used to litter the floors have somehow disappeared. The roof has totally caved-in. The moldy piles of magazines, some dated from the mid-1950s, before Club Royal was destroyed, have vanished. The tractor trailers out back, once filled with final donations, have burned completely. In short, the place is no longer creepy at all. But I could at least stand on that concrete slab and imagine Eve Black belting it out for the soldiers.

And I learned something else. Facing the mission while taking the photo above had me standing right in the middle of what had once been Market Street, the main street of Hamburg, and the very place where the Hamburg Massacre of 1876 started.

The spooky mission is returning to nature. Once afraid of being stigmatized for her illness, Christine Sizemore Costner has recovered completely, written a couple books, and is now living happily in Florida. The seven victims of the Hamburg Massacre, emblems of the bloodshed and terror that Reconstruction brought to African-Americans, are long dead and almost forgotten (but, again, not entirely). So, you tell me which of the stories surrounding this little patch of ground by the Savannah River is the creepier.

Many thanks to Don Rhodes for sharing what he knows about Club Royal and for his excellent interview with the former Eve. I highly recommend his book. Thanks also to Peter Hughes for recreating some of old Hamburg for me. If anybody out there has stories from Club Royal, I beg you to please send them in!

I leave you with THIS rather apropos musical outro courtesy of Webb Wilder.

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