Profile: Paul and Geneva Knauls

Published, Eliot News, Summer 2003

Sammy Davis Jr., Geneva & Paul Knauls at the Cotton Club. Photo via Boise Voices

Sammy Davis Jr., Geneva & Paul Knauls at the Cotton Club. Photo via Boise Voices

He can be found every weekday morning at 6:00 a.m. in the weight room at Dishman Community Center. Lithe and trim at 72, Paul Knauls starts his day with “light weights and a whole lot of talking,” mostly to longtime friends who work out with him on the early shift.

After a shower and breakfast at home, by 9:00 a.m. he’s at Geneva’s Shear Perfection, the business he owns with his wife, Geneva, at 5601 NE Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. With 14 stalls, Geneva’s is one of the largest unisex barbershops in town. And that will be Paul’s headquarters for the next twelve hours (the barbershop may stay open as late as 10:00 p.m.), unless he’s called away to one or another event – a retirement party for Charles Jordan, the dedication ceremony for the Vanport Bridge, or to help out with the Inner City Blues Festival, the annual fundraiser for the Rainbow Coalition where Paul has served as Master of Ceremonies for 14 years.

Paul Knauls is a well-known figure in the African American community, and has been for forty years. It was 1963 when he first arrived in Portland and, within months, transformed the Cotton Club into one of the most popular nightclubs in town.

You wouldn’t know it today, driving south along North Vancouver Avenue, to see the grey one-story building at 2125, forlorn behind a chain link fence. But from 1963-1970, when Paul ran it, the Cotton Club was jumping. With a lunch counter in front and a bar, showroom and dance floor in the rear, it was the place for jazz and for soul, seven nights a week. Big Mama Thornton. The Whisperers. Etta James. Bobby Bradford. Cleve Williams. Mel Brown, who would travel with the big name Motown groups.

“We always had two acts,” Paul says. “We had a stripper and then a singer or a singing group. Of course the musicians were top quality. We had a group from Portland called The Three Little Souls. They wound up on the big TV shows–Ed Sullivan, Sammy Davis, Jr.– after changing their name to Sunday’s Child.

Legendary Portland drummer Ron Steen got his start at the Cotton Club. Photo courtesy of Ron Steen.

Legendary Portland drummer Ron Steen got his start at the Cotton Club. Photo courtesy of Ron Steen.

“We lived just across the street, at 2118 North Vancouver Avenue,” says Ron Steen. “They’d have jam sessions in the afternoon on Sundays, and this saxophone player told me I could go over there.”  He was 15 at the time, and had been learning the drums since he was eleven. “It was exciting to be in a smoky club. I had wondered what people did there. I remember the bartender, Ruby. I had a little schoolboy crush on her. She was way older than me, like 15 years older. She’d give me cokes and put a cherry in, and give me a little kiss on the cheek.”

If Ron was charmed by Ruby Patterson, he was stunned by the music.

“The first band I heard was with Mel Brown, and he was playing really, really great. I remember the bass notes coming through those huge Leslie speakers. There’s nothing like that when you hear it live.”

Paul Knauls gave Ron Steen his first opportunity to play. “One night my drummer didn’t show, so I went across the street. ‘Ronnie, you ever did a show?’  He says, ‘No.’ ‘You going to do one tonight ‘cause I’m stuck...’  Came over, played his first show, he was 17 years old. And the rest is history. He’s been playing every since, one of the top drummers.”

Of course, this was pretty new to Paul, too. “It was my first nightclub experience,” he says. He was learning as he went.

Born in Huntington, Arkansas, in 1931, Paul attended Lincoln High School in Fort Smith, 37 miles away (Huntington, pop. 451, didn’t have a high school). He graduated in 1949 and 17 days later joined the Air Force, where he learned to repair typewriters. He got his honorable discharge in 1953, at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, and decided to stay on in the Northwest. Immediately, he got two jobs: he went to work for Royal Typewriter Company, doing repairs, and he got a job dishwashing at the lavish Davenport Hotel, where he worked his way up to wine steward.

“That was one of two hotels where they polished their money every night,” Paul says, “the Davenport in Spokane and St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. The silver all looked new every day. If you ever got any change back--it might be a 1942 dime--the money was polished.”

The Davenport, with its elegant Spanish Renaissance lobby, Italian marble fountain and green opalescent skylight, would seem an ideal place for a man of Paul’s natural refinement, but he had other plans: he wanted a place of his own.

“I knew I wanted to do something. I’d been working two jobs for about 12 years to get enough money. I came down to Portland one night and visited the clubs.

“Van’s Olympic Room was packed, the Porter’s Club was packed. There was one on Russell Avenue called the Flamingo, and it was packed.” 

Why Portland?  “It had to be near a ski area. That was one reason.”  He had learned to ski in 1957 and was working Sundays (a third job) at Mt. Spokane as a ski instructor.

“The other was my mom and four of my six sisters lived in Seattle by this time. They were very religious, very proper. It wouldn’t do to own a nightclub in a city where they lived.”

The only Portland club that didn’t have a crowd was the Cotton Club. “Basically, the place wasn’t very clean,” Paul says. “Holes in the carpet. The restrooms weren’t very nice. And then the owner, Mr. T., was just an angry old man. Just grouchy and grumpy.

“I knew him from Spokane because he used to come up and play the races. I remember seeing him at our hotel. I’d go to the table, say something to him, he just kind of grumbled. And what he reminded me of a rich old white man – but he was African American. He just acted like he was rich; he had it down perfect. People kind of resented that. He had great musicians, good show, but they wouldn’t go to the Cotton Club because of him.

“I asked Mr. Thompson – everyone called him Mr. T. – if he’d ever thought about selling it.

“He said, Well, he’d been thinking about it but didn’t nobody have no money.

“And so we worked out an agreement where I could come down on weekends and work in the club to see if that’s really what I wanted to do.

“So I’d work Saturday night and Sunday, and then fly back to Spokane on Monday, get off the airplane and go straight to my job.

“The first couple weeks I’d just sit on the door and talk to people. I told them that I was planning on buying the club. And, believe it or not, the place changed overnight. They just started having crowds, from the first weekend that I worked, because they knew a new owner was coming. Later on, after about three weeks, I started learning how to tend bar. After I knew a little bit about the bar business, I informed him that I was ready.

“I had $17 thousand dollars, which was a lot of money in those days, but I needed more so I could pay him off completely. The Liquor Commission said the only way this gentleman will allow you to buy the license is if you can pay him off. Pay off all of his debts, ‘cause he owed so many people.”

A construction contractor in Spokane had always told Paul if he ever wanted to go into business, he would back him. “And so he sent me to see Mr. Way Lee, in Portland, and we were able to put that together. Interest rates were 3% then; I had to pay 12%. But three years to the day, we paid off that $50 grand. And we had a mortgage-burning party.”  Paul laughs to tell this. “We burned that mortgage right there onstage at the Cotton Club.” 

He paid off Mr. T’s debts fifty cents on the dollar. “Mr. Lee, he taught me how to do that stuff. So that’s how I got the rest of my financing. I used some of the money to remodel the club. We did the showroom, did the bar. New bar stools, new carpet, everything.”

Enter the beautiful Geneva Carter (nee Frazier). Raised in Vancouver, Washington, she’d been in Portland since 1952. Geneva had graduated from Moler Barber College in 1962 and was cutting hair at Cash and Maxey’s Barbershop, 4603 North Williams Avenue. Since her divorce, she was also raising three young kids on her own.

“Mr. T told me there was a guy buying the Cotton Club, and he was a real nice guy and I should meet him,” she says. “And I did, I met him. But he was getting too many women around him. They were eating him up.”

But she kept on going to the club. “He’d invite me to breakfast. And once we went to breakfast, we just started.... And I went on a ski trip with him, and I think that kind of sealed it.”

They were married in 1965.

Geneva never got involved in the day-to-day operations of the Cotton Club – nor either of the two other clubs they ended up owning: Paul’s Cocktails, which he bought in 1967, nor Geneva’s, in 1968.

“Everybody resented that,” Paul laughs to recall. “The place would be full of people and Geneva’d be sitting up to the bar. ‘She never works,’ people would say. ‘She just comes down here, and there’s Paul, running here, running there.’  But Geneva had already worked ten hours before she got there. They never realized that.” 

The same year they were married, Geneva bought the house in Woodlawn where they continue to live today.

When the Cotton Club was in full swing, it was a magnet for celebrities. “Joe Louis came by one night,” Paul says. “Kingston Trio. Mama Cass. When people came to Portland to entertain, they would come to the Cotton Club. It was a spot to go when they got finished.”

“When Sammy Davis, Jr. was in town,” Geneva remembers, “I went to the after-party that he was at and invited him over. And he came and stayed til about five o’clock in the morning. But that was because he was there,” she adds, pointing out that the Cotton Club was not an after-hours club.

“We were out of there at 2:30,” Paul says. “You know, really, after hours is just more trouble. The longer you stay open, the more trouble you going to have. ‘Cause all the people that been put out of other clubs, they wind up at your club.”  

Terry Schrunk, mayor from 1957 to 1972, was a familiar face at the club, as was the newspaperman who wrote the popular “Baker’s Dozen” column for the Oregon Journal. “Doug Baker would write about our show,” Paul says, “and the place would be full of white people the next night. They liked our music and dancing and they liked our soul food.”

Joe Long, who was one of those white people, remembers it as a friendly atmosphere. Back in those days, he was working as assistant manager at the restaurant in the Multnomah Hotel, and used to go to the Cotton Club after they closed the Golden Knight dining room at 11:00 p.m. “We always got there late at night for the jazz,” Long recalls, “and there were always people there.”  Later, Long worked as dining room manager at Timberline Lodge and would see Paul Knauls when he came up to Mt. Hood to ski.

Those were the days, and Paul enjoys reminiscing. “Our jam session on Sunday afternoon was just unbelievable. They’d start at five o’clock, go through to about nine; then at ten o’clock the regular show would start. So it was good. It was very good.”

Yet in 1970 he sold the club.

“Seven years for a club is a long time,” he contends. “What happens is the crowd gets older and older, they stop coming, then the new crowd has got a new attitude about everything. Whereas you used to walk in the club and you’d know everyone there, now the new faces start. You’d even have a regular barstool. We had people that had a barstool that when someone would walk in, they’d just get up and move ‘cause they knew that’s where that person sits. But the new people, they didn’t care.

Photo courtesy Paul Knauls

Photo courtesy Paul Knauls

“We sold it. The new owners didn’t last very long; they were there less than a year. But by then we had Paul’s going, and Geneva’s.”

Paul’s Cocktails was his second club. Located at 19 North Russell, near the corner of Williams Avenue, it had been Paul’s Paradise, back in the fifties. Then Harry Rehder bought it and turned it into The Flamingo. But in 1967, Rehder was convicted of selling drugs.

“So Harry was going to jail. He says, ‘Paul, I got a deal for you. I’m going to walk out of here, all you got to do is pay the rent. You give me three thousand dollars and the club is yours.’  So I went to my wife: ‘Honey, you got $3,000?’  And she did, so we bought the club.

“It was where everything’s torn down, right across from the Urban League. 1970 is when everything stopped in that neighborhood.” 

[Parenthetical note for newcomers:   After the 1948 Vanport Flood made almost 17,000 people homeless, many of the African American families relocated to the area now known as Eliot. According to the 1950 census, nearly half of Portland’s black population lived in a concentrated area of inner northeast.

Williams Avenue and Russell Street had been developed commercially back in the late 19th century, before the City of Albina was annexed to Portland. In the forties and fifties, blacks established businesses in these buildings, including the attractive 1890 Hill Building, on the northwest corner of Williams and Russell, with its Taj-Majal-style dome.

Then, in the late sixties, Emanuel Hospital announced plans to expand, with the help of federal grants. The Hospital’s proposed 19-acre health campus required clearing several blocks: 188 homes and many businesses were torn down. However, with federal budget cuts, the grants never came through, and the cleared area sat – and sits – vacant.]

“You see that was our area. We had a pharmacy. A black man owned the pharmacy. There was a dry cleaner, a restaurant, a pool hall, clothing store – Lew’s Man Shop – down on the corner. There was a Chinese place across the street. It was just where everybody met. There’s not a location like that now. That’s where everybody was, right there. You were two blocks from the Cotton Club. The Elks was around the corner. The Texas Playhouse was up there, where Unthank Plaza is now. Man, people just coming and going all night long. You’d have two drinks here and go have a drink there, come back and have one here, come back in it’s the next show, you know you had it going on.

“They tore it all down and it’s still empty. 1970!”

[Today, the only architectural remnant is the tin-covered dome of the old Hill Building, which caps the Dawson Park gazebo, across the street from Immaculate Heart Church. At the time the Hill Building was demolished, it housed the drugstore to which Paul refers on the main floor and apartments above. Historical photos of that famous corner hang on the wall of Addi’s Coffee House,]

“In those days, if you had another business in another location, they didn’t give you any relocation money,” Paul muses. He was not compensated for the loss of Paul’s Cocktails.

Paul’s other business was Geneva’s. Like Paul’s Cocktails, he had not set out to buy it, but was approached by the owner.

“Bessie [Blank] had the best tavern going. I mean her tavern was cookin’. She had those hamburgers in there, and her chicken. And it was busy all the time. But everybody wanted to compete with the Cotton Club because they could see the success we were having. So Bessie tried to get a liquor license; she had to have a liquor license. But she didn’t realize what a liquor license brings: it brings a different clientele. She was in there probably eight, nine months and she came with this, ‘I can’t handle this. I need to get out of here.’  ‘Cause there’s nothing you can do.”

Way Lee, who was still mentoring him, insisted he buy not just the business this time, but also the property. So when he bought from Bess, Paul bought the building at 4228 North Williams Avenue and renamed it Geneva’s.

“We had an excellent buffet luncheon set up, and we had the first DJ in the city. We had been to New York, and you know they had Club 54. So I got the idea I might put a disc jockey on, spinning records. Everybody’s going, ‘What’s happening?’  ‘It’s a DJ,’ I told them. Tony Silby. He was our first DJ.

“We didn’t feature the live music entertainment; it became a neighborhood bar. It was Geneva’s – Where Friends Meet.

“It was the kind of place, you know, somebody’d drive up and see someone’s car and automatically come in. And then when the other guys got off, they’d see their cars. And then the next guy’d see their car, and then the next guy’d see their car. And pretty soon the street’s lined: no parking. Street’s lined all the way down the street on both sides.

“At 3:00 all my fellows from OHSU would get off work and by the time they’d get the bus and get down there it was 3:30. They were known as Chairmen of the Board. Everybody knew which were their barstools and everybody’d move out of the way. They’d stay there til 11:00, 11:30 at night and go home. Billy Washington, Adrian “Hamp” Hampton, Kirby Ford. They did that for years: as long as we owned the club, that was their spot.”

Finally, in 1982, Paul sold Geneva’s. It was to be his last nightclub.

“I decided I wanted out. It was 19 years. Nineteen years!  Nineteen years of getting home at 2:30 a.m. And then the police would call and say, ‘You have an entry, somebody broke in the place and you gotta get up and go back down.’  About that time the insurances came in, where you had to have that huge insurance in case somebody’d leave and injure someone. Everything just changed, you know. It just got to be Oh-my-gee, this is just too much.”

Paul had been a charter member of the Albina Lion’s Club, back in the sixties, and he always remained civically active. After they sold Geneva’s, in 1982, Paul had more time to serve the community. Over the years, he’s worked with the Junior Achievement Program at both Humboldt and Jefferson schools; tutored in the HOSTS (Help One Student to Succeed) program at King School; and served for six years on the board of the Urban League. “The second Tuesday of every month, 7:30,” Paul recalls with a laugh.

Paul turned his attention to the barber shop, where Geneva had worked for so long. In 1990, they bought Cash & Maxey, and Paul began thinking about moving the business. “After they renamed Union Avenue, I thought we should be on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.”  And so they bought the former Winchell’s Donut property in 1990, then worked on it a year, getting ready to open.

Geneva, who won many business awards over 38 years as a barber, retired in January of 2001. She continues to be active in community organizations, including Bubbling Brown Sugar, a philanthropic and service project and at New Hope Baptist Church. But Paul continues to go to the shop every day, where he enjoys training young barbers in customer service, and greeting half of Northeast Portland, as they come through the door. This year, he was amused and proud to receive a “Mayor of Northeast Portland” award from Self Enhancement, Inc.

Paul has a new project: three days a week he picks up two granddaughters, ages five and eight, from school. He drops the eight-year-old off at the babysitter, and takes the five-year-old to the shop, where he helps with her homework. “In pre-K they learn to write on a straight line, count to 100, count backwards.”  Paul loves this part of the day.

Apart from a little glaucoma, he describes himself as “very blessed in health.”  He’s been skiing now for 46 years, and has already taken two major ski trips in 2003. He started working out at age 32, and has been a runner for four decades. “I always ran two miles after I closed the club,” he says.

Nor did the bar business take its toll on him. “I was never one to drink much,” Paul confesses. “You can get trapped in that when you own a bar, because everyone wants to buy you a drink. I cannot drink. Never have enjoyed it. No beer, no coffee. Once in awhile, half white wine and half Seven-Up. Never smoked.

He insists he doesn’t miss the club business at all.

But the community does. Every day, Paul acknowledges, someone says to him, “We need you to open a club.”

“Oh, my Lord, I think, it would be hard now. That was part of your history. Maybe you should put that under history.”

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