For more than 50 years, the Moonlight Grill stood as a landmark in north Milford on the site where Milford Headstart stands today. One of the few places in Milford where African-Americans could go for a night out, the grill was a popular stop off for world-renowned musicians in the 1940s and 1950s.
Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie played at the Moonlight Grill as did a local jazz pianist and singer Lawrence James “Scotty” Scott, who got his start at the Moonlight Grill. In an article published just before the establishment closed in 1992, Scott explained that he got his start at the grill with a band called Aces of Rhythm. He also recalled Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford and other big names playing there. Other famous musicians who made stops at the grill were Ray Charles, Jimmy McGriff, Earl “Fatha” Hines and Lionel Hampton.
Franklin P. Fountain, who owned the grill and the package store that stood in the front of the building, recalled that everything was segregated during the hey-day of the Moonlight Grill, remembered that the bands would come through town while “barnstorming,” traveling by bus and making one-night stops at local jazz clubs. Sometimes they arrived without a piano player so a local musician would fill in.
According to Fountain, the musicians often had to sleep on the bus as there were no hotels or motels available for blacks during that time. Milford was usually an unscheduled stop between two larger cities, and the musicians enjoyed stopping there because families took them into their homes so they could have a place to sleep.
“The Moonlight Grill was one of the most popular spots on the East Coast,” Hayes Fountain, the brother of Franklin, said in an interview in the early 1990s. “There wasn’t anywhere for blacks to go tat that time. The bands all played in all the black places because if they went ot a white place, they wouldn’t let them stay in white hotels.”
Because so many big names stopped there, the nightclub drew patrons from Philadelphia, Baltimore and areas of Virginia. Every time a big name was announced, the grill sold out, selling as many as 300 tickets for an evening performance. There was really no advertising, but word of mouth spread when a big name was coming to town. Although the town was segregated, whites would also purchase tickets and come to the Moonlight Grill to see the performances.
Georgie Hicks, who lived just one block from the Moonlight Grill, recalled in an interview in the late 1980s that she recalled when people would get all dressed up to go to hear the music. She also recalled banquets that were held there.
When racial integration began, the bigger bands stopped going to the Moonlight Grill. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, African American bands were accepted into white establishments and eventually the Moonlight Grill’s attraction began to fade. In the late 1980s, the Moonlight Grill’s clientele declined and it eventually fell into disrepair. It was torn down in the early 1990s for the Headstart building. Although it is long gone physically, many in Milford still remember the little nightclub with the big music.
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