The Toadstool Inn
Early jazz club once managed by Daisy Simms Merchant
In 1920, an African American woman named Daisy Simms Merchant opened a restaurant and dance hall in Avondale, called the Toadstool Inn. Soon, Merchant hired a jazz band to play there. The white neighbors were not pleased.
The Toadstool Inn was on the ground floor of a three-story brick building, now gone, at the southeast corner of Reading Road and Hutchins Avenue. Behind the building was an open-air platform that could be used as a bandstand and dance floor.
Daisy Simms Merchant was a caterer. Beginning in 1920 she leased this space from the building’s owner. She sold food and soft drinks at the Toadstool Inn, but no beer, since this was during Prohibition.
In early July, Merchant hired Katz’s Century Novelty Orchestra to play at the Toadstool. Katz’s orchestra advertised that they played jazz, or, as they styled it, “Jazz-A-Ma-Razz-Tazz-Bizz-Bam-Baum.” Jazz concerts had occasionally been held in Cincinnati at least since 1917, but in 1921, the music was still new enough that Cincinnati newspapers still occasionally put quotation marks around “jazz.”
Cincinnati music venues, at this time, were typically segregated by race. It isn’t clear who the Toadstool’s patrons were, but all the members of Katz’s orchestra were white, which may suggest that the patrons were white as well. Still, even white-owned venues would sometimes designate a particular evening of the week for African American audiences.
Only a few days after Katz’s orchestra started playing at the Toadstool, a neighbor named Henrietta Hellwitz filed suit in Common Pleas Court, alleging that “jazz music going on, as it does to midnight, is ruinous to the sleep of herself, her family, and her neighbors.”
At trial, Hellwitz’s attorney called an expert witness: Modeste Alloo, an associate conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Alloo stated that jazz “has an appeal to primitive instinct.” He defined jazz as “primitive music, such as was provided by tomtoms in the wilds of Africa, and such as was played centuries ago.”
Daisy Merchant countered that jazz “is what people demand, and we are there to cater to the public.” She went on: “I want to be happy. I don’t look for things that will make me unhappy. Happiness is my birthright.”
The judge ruled that dancing and jazz music would have to be moved indoors after 10:30 p.m. Daisy Merchant cancelled her lease. “Young folks don’t begin dancing until 9:30 p.m. nowadays,” she said. “It would be useless and a loss to try to continue business.”
The Toadstool Inn re-opened only a few weeks later under the management of Albert H. Marshall, who was white. Marshall re-hired the same orchestra, Katz’s, but there is no apparent record of further complaints by the neighbors. It isn’t clear whether Marshall changed the musical selections and hours of operation, or whether the neighbors simply felt more comfortable with a white manager, or perhaps there was a combination of factors.
Daisy Simms Merchant had a long and lucrative career as a caterer. In 1927, she married a real estate agent named George E. Hall, and the two of them moved to Franklin, Ohio. In Franklin, Daisy Merchant Hall gave parties elegant enough that they were covered in the society pages of the Pittsburgh Courier.
When Daisy Merchant Hall died in 1951, there was a large estate auction of her household goods, which included a grand piano, antique furniture, Wedgewood and Limoges China, rugs, silver, and many other items. She was described after her death as a “universally admired hostess and philanthropist."