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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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Russo's Roma Hall

by Kim Rush, John Russo, and Martin Starr

published: October 28th, 2012

The G.B. Russo family resided in apartments above his grocery store, some of which had windows that faced west, overlooking bustling South Division Avenue. All of G.B.’s children were born in these apartments. In the late 1920s, a fire severely damaged the family apartments. Reportedly, there were large wooden boxes stored in the open lot next to their building, and once these boxes began to burn, the flames spread to the Russo building. Unfortunately, his property was not insured. Rarely lacking innovative concepts for creating income, Russo decided to remodel a portion of the second floor area to create a rental hall, which he called Roma Hall. There was a need for a community rental hall for Italian weddings, dances and other events. In the earliest days it was located in close proximity to the remaining Russo family apartments. The first Grand Rapids city directory listing for Roma Hall was in 1930. (Find more information to your right in Related Items)

G.B.’s daughter Rose, a dancer, was so enamored with her father’s new business venture that she quit school to work at Roma Hall in the 1930s. Eventually, Rose helped run the rental hall and grocery business. While attending college, G.B.’s son Frank also worked at Roma Hall during breaks and in the summer. (continue reading)

G.B. made his own wine during the prohibition years. He didn’t sell it, but he would share it with his friends, the priest, and other acquaintances, just to please them. When he made it in the basement one “could smell it all over the place,” according to his daughter Jennie. When someone wanted a drink, (continue reading)

The street-widening project on S. Division, between Fulton and Wealthy Ave., began during 1927. At that time Division was the city’s most traveled roadway, but it was impassable between Wealthy and Hall S.E. during 1933. The plan was intended to create more space for the increasing presence of buses and cars that were gradually replacing streetcars. (continue reading)

Instead of renting Roma Hall to clients, Russo had created his own nightclub or beer “garden,” modeling his business after a number of similar current nightspots in the Grand Rapids area. There were at least three on South Division, namely The Chicken Coop at 4138 S. Division, the Brown Derby, located south of 4000 S. Division and The Southern Barbeque at 4157 S. Division. (continue reading)

Dances and floorshows held at Roma Hall commonly featured African-American entertainers. Herman Curtis was probably the first African-American musician to reside in and perform jazz music in Grand Rapids, as early as 1920. Curtis was a South Bend conservatory trained musician, playing both violin and upright bass. (continue reading)

Curiously, during the last month that Russo Café advertisements appear in the Grand Rapids Press, G.B. posted a battery of advertisements spanning fourteen days. Five months later, his youngest brother Joe opened a nightclub, Indian Village, near Bigelow Field at Loraine and Division. (continue reading)

In addition to having served at one time as the Club Indigo house band leader and performing there regularly from 1936 to 1938, Bennie Carew played regularly at various clubs in Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids with his territorial band during the 30s and 40s. (continue reading)

From 1936 until the 1980s Roma Hall was rented regularly by Grand Rapids’ African American community for a wide variety of events that included weekend public dances, featuring high profile musicians, jam sessions, weddings, black cotillion debutante balls, political rallies, (continue reading)


Items available at the History & Special Collections Dept., Grand Rapids Public Library

  • Collection #249, African American History Collection
  • Collection #290, African American Clippings Collection
  • Grand Rapids Press, Grand Rapids Herald, Grand Rapids Times on microfilm
  • Noto, Scott. Escaping La Miseria: the Story of Grand Rapids First Italian Residents. Grand River Valley History, Vol. XVI, 1999.


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