POSTED ON JULY 20, 2011:
Welcome, New Members
A look at the history of evolution of Tulsa's downtown social clubs
Decades ago, Archie and Gladys stood in the Tulsa Club cloakroom, ready to take wraps from the porcelain shoulders of its well-heeled members.
Now, the Bruce Goff-designed building is sound but tarnished, boarded up, covered in graffiti and slumped on the corner of Fifth Street and Cincinnati Avenue.
Though the club only exists as a relic of a bygone era, other downtown social clubs have evolved, changed with the times, and even succeeded.
The Petroleum Club, where oil and gas industry insiders once made deals over delicate lunches, stayed afloat until a few weeks ago. The club made headlines when it was forced to close its doors after hemorrhaging money and members.
The Tulsa Press Club, which began over 100 years ago as a watering hole for weary newspapermen, has moved many times, but has a healthy membership and newly renovated digs in the Atlas Life Building.
The Summit Club, a dining and supper club opened in 1967, has remained in the top three floors of the Bank of America Center. And business is booming. The club recently overhauled two of their three floors, and membership has doubled in the past 18 months.
The Tulsa Club: A Friendly Chat With Our New Members
A collection of ephemera from the Tulsa Historical Society shows the Tulsa and Petroleum Clubs were once bustling with members who enjoyed top-of-the-line service and amenities.
In an undated (but with the look and feel of the early '60s) welcome pamphlet to new members of the Tulsa Club, a proprietary membership -- entitling that person to one share of stock -- came with a hefty $1,250 price tag, plus tax.
The 11-story Tulsa Club Building offered six floors to its members (the first five were home to the Chamber of Commerce) of leisurely and luxe offerings, including an athletic department, separate men's and ladies' lounges, a barber shop, rooftop "sky terrace," and private dining rooms.
Numerous chefs in crisp white toques and double-breasted jackets were on hand to cook elaborate luncheons and candlelit dinners, in addition to preparing members' hunting catches or wild game.
The pamphlet, in flowery prose, enticed members with its specialties: "Our Trout and Red Snapper Duglere, Wild Duck Bigarade, Quail, Pheasant or Venison preparations with wild rice and spiced peaches are something you have to taste to believe it."
The athletic department was one of the first and most complete gymnasiums in Tulsa. Only for men, the gym offered "handball and squash racquet courts, golf practice court, Turkish bath, steam room, dry hot room, electric cabinets, Swedish body massage, diathermy, whirlpool bath, ultra-violet treatment, infra-red treatment, physical therapy, informal dining room and slumber room."
After a description of extensive services for men, the yellowed brochure explained that "the Tulsa Club as a City Club is primarily a men's Club."
But of course.
Sunday night buffets and Friday night dances were set up to entertain the fairer sex, while the Ladies' Lounge was outfitted with "excellent card playing facilities for the after-lunch bridge game."
By the mid-1960s, the Tulsa Club was rapidly renovating and remodeling its fashionable dining areas and sky terrace, which offered views of the "Oil Capital of the World."
Due to frequent and extensive renovations, finances were a common topic in letters to members. In June 1967, the board raised the dues $5 a month, and wrote, "It is needed to service the greater debt resulting from the improvement program and to meet the rising costs of current operations."
By 1994, the Tulsa Club was defunct and the building vacated.
Now, homeless people start small fires where Johnny Casanova & His Orchestra once played to Tulsa's smiling elite. The city of Tulsa went forward with foreclosure proceedings in 2009, though the building's current owner is fighting for possible revitalization.
The Petroleum Club: "It'll make the day pleasanter"
While the Tulsa Club suffered perhaps from frenetic remodeling, the Petroleum Club was done in by diminished food quality and service, plus a complacent board.
Over the past 10 years, "we began slowly losing our base" of members, said Chuck Sullivan, president of the club's board and also a member.
"We weren't paying attention to fluttering red flags in the wind."
When the club closed its doors a few weeks ago, around 400 members were on the rolls, said Sullivan. But back in 1979, a newsletter showed a robust membership of 1,671 with more on the waiting list.
In 1950, a group of Tulsa oil workers form the club as a place for people in the industry to hobnob with one another.
The 16-floor Petroleum Club Building, 601 S. Boulder Ave., was completed in 1963. A monthly newsletter from the same year showed a full calendar of Dine & Dances, parties and buffets.
A 1964 bright-green holiday letter invited ladies to lunch in the Top O' Tulsa Lounge. "Nothing like a little snack to fortify you for that assault on the Christmas merchandise!
"It'll make the day pleasanter," the letter read.
A menu from January 1980 described a Wild Game Night with offerings like "Stuffed Nova Scotia Salmon with Crabmeat Stuffing in Dill Egg Sauce" and "English Broiled Elk Patties, Canterbury Sauce, Parsley Dumplings."
The club's heyday was in the early 1980s, said Sullivan.
Sexism abounds in a little blurb about "National Secretaries Week" in a 1992 (yes, 1992 not 1952) newsletter. "Gentlemen, it is that time of the year, once again, when you have the opportunity to recognize that young lady on whom you rely so very much each and every day of the year," the letter announced. "The one who makes sure you get to the meeting on time, catch the right flight, makes all the reservations, and brings you the coffee. Well, maybe not the coffee!!"
"Let your secretary 'be the boss' during lunch at the Petroleum Club." Indeed.
Even after a fire damaged the building 1994, there was enough vitality in the club to rebuild in the same location.
In the past 18 months, the club lost half of its membership and spiraled downward, Sullivan said.
He and the board are now figuring out their next move. Sullivan is hopeful that local investors will revive this Tulsa icon soon.
Tulsa Press Club: "Never been a better time and place than now"
Started up by newspaper workers in 1906, the Tulsa Press Club has been around longer than Oklahoma's statehood. The club has has managed to survive over 100 years of venue changes, fires, incarnations and even a bombing.
The Tulsa Press Club was chartered in 1932, mainly to bring the Oklahoma City Gridiron show to Tulsa, according to a well-researched history on the club's website.
In 1954, Tulsa started up its own Gridiron shows. The annual performances were a must-see, attended by governors, state and national representatives and of course, Tulsa's journalists.
Steve Turnbo, chairman emeritus of Schnake Turnbo Frank PR, has fond memories of singing in the Gridiron shows 30 years ago.
One year, Turnbo stood on stage singing and performing as Jim Jones, now-retired Oklahoma congressman, when he realized "the audience was laughing far beyond what was expected."
"They had snuck (Jones) onstage behind me and he was mimicking my actions," Turnbo chuckled.
The Gridiron shows "have waned in recent years, though I think (club members) are trying to create a resurgence," Turnbo said.
In 1950, the Tulsa Press Club moved to its first home base in the Adams Hotel at Fourth Street and Cheyenne Avenue. Also in 1950, Julie Blakeley, the women's editor of the Tulsa Tribune became the first female president of the Press Club, according to its website.
By 1956, the club had become a benevolent association and moved to the Enterprise Building at Sixth Street and Boston Avenue. At this location, the Club had a kitchen and a cook, a donated television and space for dancing. The club weathered a fire, floods, robbery and a bombing aimed at the ground level of the Enterprise.
In 1970, the Club moved to the Mayo Hotel, and then moved again 10 years later when it stayed briefly at the Court of Three Sisters Tavern on Fourth Street near the Adams Hotel, Turnbo said.
After another switch-around, the Press Club moved to its current location in the Atlas Life Building.
"The club's been historically nomadic," Turnbo explained. "But the one thing that's never changed is that people who report the news can comingle over a meal and a drink."
The Press Club has remained flexible through the years, changing locations when necessary and expanding membership. Its membership rolls include newspaper, radio and television station employees, plus advertising and public relations workers at agencies and corporations, the club's site said.
Last year, the club (on the ground floor) was renovated at the same time the rest of the Atlas Life Building was overhauled for the move-in of a Courtyard by Marriott hotel.
Since that time, Mercedes Millberry, a member of the board, said she's seen "the club change significantly. Last year's make-over was physical evidence of the internal changes that have been happening behind the scenes."
"I would say the club has matured," she said.
Millberry also extended an invitation to those outside the journalism field. She said, "We hope that oil and gas industry leaders will see the Tulsa Press Club as a new option for their members with the recent closing of the Petroleum Club."
Turnbo said, "By far, there has never been a better time and place for the Tulsa Press Club than now." And with that, Turnbo left his office and went to lunch at the Press Club that afternoon.
The Summit Club: "We pour a good drink"
The Tulsa Press Club has succeeded by remaining flexible through the decades, while the Summit Club has boosted membership by offering the continental cuisine in the same fine dining atmosphere from the same location it's had since 1967.
And what a location it is: the top three floors of the Bank of America Building showcase scenic views of downtown from glassed-in balconies.
In 1967, the dining club began as the idea of Jack Kelly and a group of friends who had offices in the building and wanted a good lunch, said Eric Grimshaw, Summit Club board president.
Through the years, many of the Petroleum Club's members were also members of the Summit.
The two top floors the Summit have undergone $2 million in recent renovations and updates, Grimshaw said. The 30th floor will undergo remodeling in the next 18 months.
According to the club's website, the Summit's decor appears to echo that of the Tulsa Club: "A classic 17th century Venetian mural is the grand focal point in the Renaissance Room. Exotic Prussian black tapestries flank the Empire and Scenic Rooms. In the Grill, our chairs are copies of 18th century French baron's chairs, and art pieces grace every wall."
The Summit has added breakfast offerings and a staff barista who "pours a fine cup of coffee," Grimshaw said.
Susan Devonshire, the club's membership director, said their membership is "dramatically increasing." Over 1,600 people are on their rolls, and Petroleum Club members are joining already, she said.
When asked for the reason behind a boost in membership, Devonshire laughed, "Well, we pour a good drink, I can say that much."
By maintaining a vibrant board of directors and keeping an eye on the best food and service, Grimshaw said the Summit is looking good and getting better. "We can go toe-to-toe with any fine dining establishment in town," he said.
You've Come a Long Way, Baby
Tulsa's downtown social clubs have changed dramatically since the days when Jimmy the porter held out fluffy towels for freshly-showered fellows at the Tulsa Club.
Women are no longer stuck without a say in club goings-on and in separate "women's lounges."
Some clubs have ebbed and flowed while others crashed and burned.
No matter their status, downtown social clubs recall a fun and flamboyant Tulsa history, when the well-heeled and the weary wanted a drink or a night out in the Oil Capital of the World.
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