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Published: Tuesday, 4/23/2013

One of a kind: Kin Wa Low

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

Back in the day, everybody came to Kin Wa Low — politicians, cops, businessmen, reporters, even high school kids trying to impress their prom dates.

And why not? Where else could you listen to Ella Fitzgerald sing while you ate a plate of moo goo gai pan?

Kin Wa Low was a Chinese restaurant and nightclub back when nightclubs were nightclubs and Chinese restaurants were almost always Cantonese. Located on Cherry Street near downtown Toledo, it brought in some of the top entertainers of the day and served some of the best food, according to Howard Loo, who owned it with his sister and her husband.

Mr. Loo's father, Ha Sun Loo, opened the restaurant in a single storefront in 1913. It became so popular it eventually expanded to three full dining rooms seating as many as 200 people, plus a bandstand and a dance floor that could be raised a few feet to serve as a stage.

It was on that stage that Ella Fitzgerald performed, drawing the biggest crowds of the nightclub's history. Mr. Loo recalled that at her last show of the evening, which started at 1 a.m., the somewhat tipsy crowd failed to notice when she came out onto the stage and began playing the grand piano. She stopped playing, stood up, and shouted, "What do I have to do to get your attention?"

Someone in the back said, "Swing, Ella." So she kicked off her shoes, climbed onto the piano bench, and began playing the piano with her feet. It wasn't melodic, it was just a gag, and it worked: From that moment on, she had the audience's complete attention.

Patti Page, the singing rage, sang at the club, too, and so did the sweet-voiced Helen O'Connell, who was a native of Lima. The McGuire Sisters — also Ohioans, from Miamisburg — were featured performers as well.

Bobby Darin came back to sing three times, Mr. Loo remembered. The first time, he was an 18-year-old unknown. The second time, he was semi-famous, and the third time he was a huge star.

Mr. Loo first saw ragtime pianist Johnny Maddox at the Chicago Theatre in Chicago and, astonished by his virtuosity, booked him to play at the Kin Wa Low. Not yet nationally famous, Maddox drew a paltry crowd and, in Mr. Loo's appraisal, bombed. Maddox felt bad about the performance, and told Mr. Loo that when he hit it big he would come back and play again for the same fee.

Mr. Loo didn't think anything about it, and several months later Maddox released the first of what would be nine gold records (his recordings would eventually sell 11 million copies). The pianist called Mr. Loo, and reminded him of his promise to play for the same feee. The club was packed for that show, and Mr. Loo tried to offer him additional money, but Maddox refused to accept it.

In gratitude, Mr. Loo gave him a watch with "Kin Wa Low" engraved on it.

It wasn't all singers at the club. Dancers were popular, such as The Four Step Brothers, who could tap dance on anything including the restaurant's table tops. Comedians were frequently on the bill, jugglers did their act (one had a problem when he rehearsed with the stage at floor level but performed with the stage raised, making the ceiling closer), and even a contortionist came to entertain.

Though it had better than a four-decade run, the restaurant and nightclub came to a premature end in 1958. One of the culprits was television, which brought the same entertainers to people's homes for free.

The other, more immediate cause for the club to close was a difference in interpretations of the tax code. The problem began when Congress passed an excise tax on live entertainment. Five Toledo businesses were most affected: The Commodore Perry, Secor, and Hillcrest hotels, Ka-See's nightclub, and Kin Wa Low. All five began charging the tax when the entertainment began, but did not charge the people who ate before the show but stayed to watch it.

The authorities were of the mind that anyone who saw the show should be charged the tax, no matter when they arrived. All five businesses were socked with huge tax bills. The hotels were big enough to withstand it. Ka-See's and Kin Wa Low were forced to close.

Contact Daniel Neman at: dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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