Swing ballrooms: The Savoy, The Palomar & The Harvest Moon Ball

An extract from the Wikipedia article on The Savoy Ballroom (New York):

The Savoy Ballroom located in Harlem, New York City, was a medium sized ballroom for music and public dancing that was in operation from March 12, 1926 to 1958. It was located between 140th and 141st Streets on Lenox Avenue.[1] The Savoy was a popular dance venue from the late 1920s to the 1950s and many dances such as Lindy Hop became famous here. It was known downtown as the “Home of Happy Feet” but uptown, in Harlem, as “the Track”. Unlike the ‘whites only’ policy of the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom was integrated where white and black Americans danced together. Virtuosic dancers, however, excluded others from the northeast corner of the dance floor, now referred to as the “Cat’s Corner,” a term not used at the time.[2]

The ballroom was on the second floor and a block long. It had a double bandstand that held one large and one medium sized band running against its east wall. Music was continuous as the alternative band was always in position and ready to pick up the beat when the previous one had completed its set. The Savoy was unique in having the constant presence of a skilled elite of the best Lindy Hoppers. Usually known as “Savoy Lindy Hoppers” occasionally they turned professional, such as Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and performed in Broadway and Hollywood productions.[4]

“Stompin’ at the Savoy”, a 1934 Big Band classic song and jazz standard, was named after the ballroom.

(above) Famous dancer, dance instructor and choreographer Frankie Manning with a partner

(above) Dancers engaged in a “Big Apple” Lindy Hop routine, with Manning at center. Photo from a memorial tribute to Frankie Manning at Lindyhopping.com (The Southern California Lindy Society website).

(below) Whitey’s Hopping Maniacs (“Hopper” in the inscription), a group of Frankie Manning’s top dancers from Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, led by Manning at far left. The dancers are identified at one site as (left to right) Frankie Manning, Naomi Waller, Jerome Williams, Lucille Middleton, Al Minns, and Norma Miller. The site Swing Patrol says, “In late 1936 Whitey’s top dancers worked a 6 month gig at the Cotton Club under the name of “Whitey’s Hopping Maniacs” officially making the big time.”

(above) Frankie Manning with partners Naomi Waller (left) and Freida Washington (right)

(above) One of Manning’s elite groups of dancers from Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in a signed, undated photo

(below) Film footage from The Harvest Moon Ball finals at Madison Square Gardens. Read more on this annual event (1935-1974) here: Harvest Moon Ball, in an article by “dancer and instructor in dance styles from the jazz era” Sharon Davis, of Australia.

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From the Wikipedia article on The Palomar Ballroom, adapted:

The Palomar Ballroom, built in 1925, was a famous ballroom in Los Angeles, California. Originally named the El Patio Ballroom, it was located on Vermont Avenue between 2nd and 3rd Street. The Palomar was advertised as “the largest and most famous dance hall on the West Coast.”

The building featured a large mezzanine, a balcony and a seventy-five hundred square foot patio. The dance floor could accommodate four thousand couples. Admission was 40 cents for gentlemen and 25 cents for ladies. Opening night was attended by 20,000, including many of Hollywood’s silent screen stars. Klieg lights illuminated minaret structures on the roof.[2]

The dance hall was renamed Rainbow Gardens by real estate developer Raymond Lewis, who purchased the property, added an indoor miniature golf course and changed the name to the Palomar Ballroom. It soon became a prime venue for the well-known bands that were rapidly gaining popularity.

The Palomar was destroyed by a fire in late 1939.[1]

Benny Goodman’s first engagement at the Palomar on August 21, 1935 is often cited as the beginning of the swing era.

Palomar Ballroom-2

Here’s one for those who pine for the good old days of factual, unbiased, and insightful reporting.

A March of Time “newsreel” from 19 February 1937 on the phenomenon of swing. The report takes as a premise a quite skeptical view of swing music and of jazz, especially noting the cheapening of the terms “jazz” and “swing” by overuse and improper application. In it’s conclusion it finds that swing is nothing but the old jazz originating in New Orleans 20 years earlier. But they haven’t put forth anything in the previous 6 and a half minutes to support such a statement. Some of the major early swing bands and venues are mentioned and pictured in the short, but a reunion of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band — who return to reclaim their crown from the swing upstarts — is the feature story. A short news film, or a topical short such as this, would be shown prior to a feature at cinemas.

According to this report, jazz, which had thrived for awhile after The Original Dixieland Band were “discovered” in 1916 playing at a café in New Orleans and brought to New York, had eventually been sunk by the shoddy practices of bands adding “swing” to the title of every other “ordinary song,” and “jazz” to a band’s name whether or not it was merited. This had resulted in jazz being “synonymous with cheap music.”

But the “scholarly thesis” of a famous French music critic, Hugues Panassié, with some help from a group of jazz enthusiast Oxford scholars out to determine whether the music was originally Indian (?) or African, rescued jazz, anointing it, and leaving it with the cachet of true art!

When in doubt, blame the French
But since it is swing that Paris approves of and xwing is nothing but a sham recycling of the ODJB stuff of 20 years earlier, then Paris must be to blame for the present swing epidemic. Do I misinterpret the message of this piece? Possibly. But notice the ominous music just prior to the mentioning of Panassie’s thesis and the Parisian push.

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Frankie Manning close-up

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