The Gypsy Tea Room, Central Avenue, and The Darensbourg Brothers
by Paula Bosse
by Paula Bosse
I’ve seen this photograph of Deep Ellum for years, and I’ve always loved it. But for some reason, I always thought this showed Elm Street — across from the Knights of Pythias Temple, just west of Good-Latimer (probably because that’s where a recent club with the same name was located). In fact, this scene was captured a couple of blocks west, just north of Elm, on Central Avenue, sometimes referred to as Central Track, along the Houston & Texas Central railroad tracks — a part of Deep Ellum that’s been gone for more than 60 years.
This area — which many have described as being the very heart of Deep Ellum in the 1920s through the 1940s (and which was somewhat ironically referred to as “the gay white way of the Negro in Dallas” by an uncredited WPA writer) — was demolished to make way for the construction of North Central Expressway (which closely followed the H&TC Railway tracks). This photo was taken in the 200 block of North Central Avenue, looking south toward Elm (the building farthest in the background, jutting out to the left, is across Elm, on the south side of the street).
You can see that the Sanborn map from 1921 shows that same building jutting out. (See the full Sanborn map here; it might be more helpful to see this detail rotated to show the same view as the photo, here.)
Information about The Gypsy Tea Room is scant. The proprietor was a man named Irvin Darensbourg, whose family was from the black community of Killona, Louisiana in St. Charles Parish; they appear to have been of French Creole extraction, and the family’s last name was probably correctly spelled as D’Arensbourg.
The Darensbourgs were an interesting family (and not just because their mother’s maiden name was Louise Jupiter!). There were several children, and at least two of them were professional musicians: Percy Darensbourg (1899-1950) and Caffery (often spelled “Caffrey”) Darensbourg (1901-1940). Both played with several jazz bands, and Percy even made a few recordings, playing banjo with various bands. Below are a couple of promotional photos showing them at work in the 1920s, when they still were based in New Orleans, before they settled in Dallas. (These are cropped details — click pictures to see the full photos.)
Percy Darensbourg, with Lee Collins‘ band, 1925 or 1926:
Listen to Percy on banjo, here:
And, below, Caffery Darensbourg, with Manuel Perez’s Garden of Joy Orchestra (click photo to see full band — the other band members are identified here):
The first of the brothers to arrive in Dallas from New Orleans was Percy, in about 1929, and for the next few years he continued to make his living as a professional musician. Caffery followed in 1932 and opened the short-lived Frenchie’s Creole Inn on Boll Street. Their non-musician brother Irvin was here by 1935 and promptly opened the Green Tavern at 217 Central Avenue, just a few doors down from Percy’s drinking establishment, the Central Tavern Inn, at 223 Central. At about this same time, Percy was also running a club at 3120 Thomas called The Gay Paree — which The Dallas Morning News described as a “swanky negro night club” (April 12, 1938) in a short mention of Percy’s being fined for selling alcohol to an already-inebriated customer.
But back to that 200 block of Central Avenue — the one pictured in the photo at the top. Between 1937 and 1939, Irvin also owned/ran a small restaurant or cafe — and later a pool hall — out of 219½ Central. The Darensbourgs had that block locked up.
In 1935, a song called “In a Little Gypsy Tea Room” by Bob Crosby swept the country. It was a huge hit. Suddenly there were scads of places popping up all over calling themselves The Gypsy Tea Room or The Little Gypsy Tea Room. Some might have been actual tearooms, but there were also a lot of clubs and bars with the “tea room” name — the most famous of these was The Gypsy Tea Room in the Tremé district of New Orleans, at Villere & St. Ann, which opened the same year the song was being played incessantly by every dance band in the nation. This famous New Orleans nightclub booked the biggest jazz bands around and was a legendary musician’s hangout.
New Orleans’ Gypsy Tea Room, 1942 (via Tulane University)
New Orleans’ Gypsy Tea Room, 1930s (via MyNewOrleans.com)
The Darensbourgs most likely knew the club, its owner, its patrons, and the musicians who played there. Perhaps Irvin Darensbourg decided to name his own little Gypsy Tea Room in Dallas in honor of the New Orleans landmark. Whatever the case, Deep Ellum’s Gypsy Tea Room appears to have come and gone fairly quickly (and one assumes there was more than tea being sipped inside).
The life of a tavern and club operator could be a hard one, especially in those days, especially in the black neighborhoods of Deep Ellum and North Dallas. Irvin seemed to forever be sleeping on a relative’s couch, with a different address every few months. By 1940 he had moved to Fort Worth to open another bar, and after that … I’m not sure what became of him — but one hopes that he met a less violent end than his brothers did here in Dallas. According to Caffery’s death certificate, he died in 1940 after having been shot in the abdomen while “in a public place.” His death was ruled a homicide. Percy, who by all indications was the most stable and successful of the brothers, was also killed — in 1950 he was stabbed in the neck (!) while out on the street at 4:20 AM.
As for the original photograph, I’ve pored over it and looked through directories, but I can’t pinpoint the exact year this photo was taken or determine what the actual address of the Gypsy Tea Room was. Since it was mentioned in the WPA Dallas Guide and History, which was written and compiled between 1936 and 1940 and contains the only contemporary mention of the Tea Room, my guess is that this was taken about 1937, as this was the last year that Old Tom’s Tavern (209 ½ Central) seems to have been in business (although the bar that replaced it was owned by the same person, and the sign seen in this photograph could well have remained up for a while).
Craig’s Cafe, at 213 Central, was in business between 1929 and at least 1946 when property began to be demolished in order to begin construction on the expressway. The Gypsy Tea Room looks to be either two or three doors down from Craig’s place. My guess is that it’s 219 Central. The 1937 street directory has Irvin Darensbourg (whose name is constantly mangled and misspelled everywhere) listed as being the proprietor of both the Green Tavern (at 217 Central) as well as an unnamed restaurant at 219-A (sometimes written as 219 ½) Central. The 1938 and 1939 directories specify Darensbourg’s business at this address in those years is a pool hall, not a restaurant. So I’m going to venture that Irvin Darensbourg ran the Gypsy Tea Room at 219 Central Avenue in 1937.
That was exhausting!
Sources & Notes
Photo of the Gypsy Tea Room at the top of this post is from the Texas/Dallas History & Archives Division of the Dallas Public Library. The photo here (scroll to the bottom) identifies it as being from the WPA Dallas Guide & History Collection.
Thanks to Bob Dunn of the Lone Star Library Annex for deciphering “Darensbourg” from this badly garbled printed name on the Gypsy Tea Room sign.
Here are a few of the numerous ways this Darensbourg’s family’s name is misspelled across the internet:
And I’m still not actually sure whether it’s “Irvin” or “Irving,” or “Caffery” or “Caffrey.”
When clicked, the photo of Percy Darensbourg above opens up to show the full band — the personnel is identified in a caption from the book Oh, Didn’t He Ramble: The Life Story of Lee Collins: “Lee’s band in Dallas, 1925 or 1926. From the left: Coke Eye Bob (Arthur Joseph?), Mary Brown, Freddie ‘Boo-Boo’ Miller, Octave Crosby, Henry Julien, ‘Professor’ Sherman Cook, Lee, and Percy Darensburg [sic].”
A couple of other versions of “In a Little Gypsy Tea Room,” if you must:
- The version by The Light Crust Doughboys (no strangers to Deep Ellum), recorded in 1935 in Dallas at 508 Park, is here.
- The at-least-peppier version by Louis Prima and His New Orleans Gang, also recorded in 1935, is here.
See what the area once occupied by the vibrant street life of Central Track looks like now, here. The expressway overpass is now planted about where the photo was taken. It’s a shame this important part of town — in a way it was Dallas’ second downtown — was bulldozed into oblivion.
Click pictures for larger images.
Copyright © 2015 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.