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Feature Story: Remembering Dickie Frank and ‘Birdland’

By Cassandra Harris-Lockwood

Richard Frank was born in August 1931 to Marion Moorehand-Frank and Paul Frank in Utica, NY. Dickie Frank was Utica’s first Black celebrity and success story as a star athlete, Utica’s 2nd Black police officer, a dashing ladies’ man, proud father, political candidate, and first Black administrator at Utica College

His mother died when he was a teenager and he was raised by his grandmother, Ida Frank and several aunts and uncles.

He and his brothers, Robert Moorehand and Francis Johnson Frank, attended Utica schools. While at UFA he Richard (Dickie) was a standout athlete and played varsity basketball, baseball, football, and was the captain of the teams through 1948 into 1950. He played semipro football and once tried out for the New York Giants. As an adult he became an avid golfer and motorcycle rider.

Dickie married Nellie Pearl Dorsey and they had five daughters, Jackie, Marion, Karen, Paula, and Felicia. They later divorced. His other daughter was Florence Patterson.

Dickie was the second Black man hired to as a police officer and worked for the Utica Police Department as a patrolman in 1952. He was preceded by William Yearby as the first Black man hired as a patrolman for the UPD.

Once Dickie left the police force in 1962, he opened Birdland, originally as a restaurant, the only Black bar in Utica which featured live music. Birdland was a stop on what was known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” a place that was safe and welcoming for Black artists and musicians.

True to his love of sports, Birdland sponsored a basketball team called Birdland! Later Dickie was a finalist for the position of Director for the  Municipal Housing Authority in Utica. Dickie was a member of the board maybe in late 1980s – 1995. He ran and lost the bid for 8th District council seat.  He was always involved in politics and was consulted with regularity by elected officials for his opinion and position on various matters.

Dickie became Utica College’s first Black administrator when he was appointee Dean of Students sometime in the 1990s from where he retired. He left Utica to reside in Ocala, Florida in 2007

Birdland was Utica’s storied Jazz club in Baggs Square on Genesee St. It was located in the vacant lot next door to what is now Utica Coffee Roasters. Dickie opened Birdland in 1962 after he retired from the UPD.

Birdland the Night Club 

This is a photo of the hand painted mural that was behind the bar at Birdland.

Birdland was a Black night club and bar in Utica with live music and was a stop on the Chittlin’ Circuit. The Chittlin’ Circuit was a collection of performance venues and bars from New York City to Chicago that provided commercial and cultural acceptance of Blacks where musicians, comedians, dancers and entertainers could safely play during America’s severe apartheid era of discrimination and brutality.

Recently, Paula Frank Workman, daughter of Dickie Frank, provided the Utica Phoenix with photos and information about this special place and time in Utica’s history. Many local musicians, including Lynne Mishalanie, Rick Montalbano, cut their teeth, as they say, performing on the stage of this night club.

According to lifelong Utican, Corliss “Corky” Logan, Utica musicians Jimmy Wormworth, Sal Amico, Whitey Ford, Delores Mancuso, my father, Teddy Grimes, Gordon & Sarah Duncan, and Butch Strong were regulars and made up the house band with Butch Strong, who Dickie describes as ‘Mr. Birdland.’

“The older and the younger generation went there. Black people and White people went there,” says Corky. “It was just a nice place to dress up and go. It was a classy place. The NY Knickerbocker’s even stopped into Birdland. I met Willis Reed there.

“It was magnetic; an attraction. It was really friendly. The same people would be at the bar and every everyone was welcome. Before gays were accepted, they were accepted at Birdland. There were female impersonators that people came out to see. Dickie featured dance troupes and the bands would play for the dancers.

“Jazz was just getting going and Birdland had it. College kids, high school kids that were 18 would come downtown, plenty of White people felt comfortable going there.”

The life of Utica native Lynne Mishalanie, well known in the local arts scene, was highly influenced by her experiences as a young woman at Birdland. Her musical careers from Jazz to performance on stage as a singer and musician she attributes to this storied nightclub.

“I was 17. I went there for love of music. My father never would have approved of me going to Birdland. I went for the music; if it hadn’t been for Birdland and listening to the music, the live Jazz and the famous people who came through, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I met Eddie Harris, a very famous sax player there.

“I know I wouldn’t be the musician I am today had I not had the good fortune to be a regular at Birdland. I was nurtured there. I went in there all the time. I wasn’t old enough to drink so they sent me out to do errands and drive people places. They let me sing and be a part of the hippest crowd in the area.

“Birdland was a precious gift of experience for a small time girl who 45 years later who ended with a up being a confident musician and performer because I got to be with the boys.”

Paula Frank Workman has provided the Phoenix photos that are not yet part of the Archive. We look forward to making these available to the Oneida County Black History Archive (OCBHA) and plan on having a panel discussion in the future to flesh out the many memories so many hold dear of this famous but not forgotten gem of a unique local establishment.

Mark Ziobro
Mark Ziobrohttps://uticaphoenixnet.wpcomstaging.com
Mark is the current Managing Editor for The Utica Phoenix, and a Central New York Native.
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