History and Heritage: ‘Bent horn,’ and drama at the Sterington House
The Sterington House, in a picture taken for the 1982 Junior League Preservation Survey.
By MIKE FARRELLY
For Montclair Local
“History & Heritage” is a series on Montclair history, written by representatives of the Montclair History Center and the Montclair Public Library. Mike Farrelly is a trustee of the Montclair History Center and has been the official township historian, a volunteer position, since 2004.
Montclair is famous for being home to many jazz musicians and venues. This is the story of a place that for a shining moment was one of the greatest. It is also a story that includes loan sharks, arson and witness protection.
For a short time the biggest names in jazz appeared at the Sterington House on Bloomfield Avenue. Dizzy Gillespie, the great horn player who was known for his trumpet with the bent bell, played there in 1972.
The building, 290-292 Bloomfield Ave., was built in 1884 to serve as Mullen’s Livery, just across the street from the train station. Liveries were places where carriage drivers brought people and things to and from the train station. Citizens could also board their horse-drawn carriages while they commuted to their offices in Newark, or New York City. Liveries often served as places where furniture could be stored while new families built their houses in Montclair.
In 1956 Oliver Baker, an African American photographer, leased the second floor of the old livery. He built a photo studio and banquet hall. Baker was a theater buff who wanted to produce interracial plays. He built a stage to perform theater in the round.
On June 1, 1956, the grand opening, he produced a performance of the comedy “Separate Rooms.” The play, by Josephe Carole, Alan Dinehart, Alex Gottlieb and Edmund Joseph, had had a run on Broadway between 1939 and 1941. (Incidentally, Montclair’s Studio Players produced it in 1955.) The first performance did not go over well. The owner of the building had decided to sandblast the building’s exterior, and when customers saw tarps hanging over the front, they assumed that the performance was cancelled.
The next performance, in September 1956, was “Melody Express,” with music by jazz saxophonist and composer Benny Carter. It featured a 14-voice ensemble known as “The Troupe,” and was a great success. The Sterington House became a well-known restaurant, catering house, and music venue. Oliver Baker ran the restaurant and stage, Claude Brown ran the catering operations. Claude remained an executive but Oliver eventually became president of both companies. Among the regular performers was the Jeff Kincaid Orchestra, a 17-piece jazz big band. In 1964, Baker and Brown took over the whole building.
That year, Baker and Brown hired Parsippany architect Peter Carlson to update the entire building. The work was finished about 1966. Baker and Brown expanded their facility to hold three dining rooms, two kitchens and a nightclub. In 1967, they purchased a liquor license from Harold Schait, the owner of an Upper Montclair dry-cleaning plant. Schait had tried to set up a bar on Valley Road, but couldn’t arrange for ample parking, and never used the license. With the license in place, Sterington House enjoyed a golden age. Greats such as Count Basie, Gillespie, Cannonball Adderly, Mongo Santamaria and even the fabulous Duke Ellington appeared there.
In 1972 Oliver Baker wanted to update the facility again. He tried to get funding from conventional sources, but fell short and borrowed money from Robert and John Waderman, who turned out to be loan sharks. Baker paid back $1,000 but borrowed more money until he owed about $12,000. He couldn’t keep up with the weekly interest payments. In 1973, Baker signed over the deed to a house he owned on Greenwood Avenue, and the liquor license to the Wadermans. According to an article in The Montclair Times in 1977, the Wadermans threatened to kill Baker, who understandably disappeared from the scene. Robert Waderman took over the business and ran it unsuccessfully for several months.
Later that year, Robert Waderman sold the liquor license to the owners of the Marlboro Inn. That sale was held up for years for various reasons, not the least of which was the legal trouble that the Wadermans ran into. The Wadermans were arrested; there were tax liens and many people who objected to the sale. The Marlboro wasn’t allowed to use the license until 1976. The Waderman brothers were convicted of loan-sharking in 1978. Oliver Baker, in protective custody, was the principal witness for the prosecution during the grand jury hearing in April of 1977. The house on Greenwood Avenue burned down in 1975. The Montclair police suspected arson. Arson charges were dropped against John Waderman, but not against Robert.
The Sterington House struggled on as a restaurant until 1979, but the glory days were gone and it was closed. In 1986, Spring Street Associates bought the building. It was restored to its 19th-century appearance. Several businesses have leased the building and it’s now home to Greek Taverna.
There are other jazz venues in Montclair: Trumpets (now closed, however), the DLV Lounge, and while not exactly a venue, there is the annual Montclair Jazz Festival. They have lasted longer than the Sterington House. Jazz royalty has appeared locally in other places. Sponsored by Union Baptist Church, Duke Ellington brought his “Sacred Music” to Montclair High School in 1967. Dizzy Gillespie also appeared at the High School in 1980 as the first jazz act in the Unity Concert Series (now defunct). Cannonball Adderly has appeared both at Montclair State and Trumpets. Jazz musicians will always find a place to play in Montclair, but for a glorious burst of time the Sterington House was the epicenter.