If you’re a Lindy hopper or a lover of the 1930’s/1940’s, you know the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. You know that it is the hallowed ground of swing dancers everywhere and the ‘Home of the Happy Feet’. All the greats played here AND danced here and anyone who was anyone passed thru it’s doors. It truly was a magical place, where your skin colour did not matter, only the music and the dance did.
The Savoy turned 91 years old this past March 12th and for today’s post I wanted to bring to life this legendary ballroom. Whether you know it’s story already or just discovering it for the first time, reading and watching videos about the Savoy never gets old.
Please grab your dance shoes friends because we are off to 596 Lenox Avenue, between 140th and 141st Streets to visit the famous Savoy Ballroom.
Brief History & Facts about the Savoy:
- Owned by Moe Gale, a Jewish man, and managed by Charles Buchanan, an African-American business man, the Savoy Ballroom opened its doors on March 12, 1926 right in the middle of Harlem
- It was the first racially integrated public place in the country
- The Savoy was modeled after Faggen’s downtown venue, Roseland Ballroom
- 10,000 square feet in size, was on the second floor and a block long. It could hold up to 4,000 people
- The interior was painted pink and the walls were mirrored.Colored lights danced on the sprung layered wood floor and it had 2 bandstands (which allowed continuous music all night long)
- The spacious basement checkrooms could serve up to 5,000 patrons with swift and efficient ease
- Approximately 700,000 patrons visited the ballroom annually; and, consequently, the floor had to be completely replaced every three years
- Nicknames included: “Home of the Happy Feet”, and “The Track” because of the elongated dance floor
- Over 250 name and semi-name bands were featured at the Savoy. Bands like: Chick Webb, Fess Williams, Erskin Hawkins and Al Cooper’s Savoy Sultans (who were just some of the house bands), Benny Goodman Orchestra, Count Basie and Duke Ellington (were some of the guest bands)
- Lindy Hop made its appearance in the ballroom and became its staple dance until it closed it’s doors. Purportedly named after Charles Lindbergh’s solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 it signifies the entire historical period known as the Swing Era
- Herbert White, a.k.a. Whitey, an ex-boxer and bouncer at the Savoy, organized and cultivated a group of the best young Lindy Hoppers (and had them appear in theaters around the world as well as in films. They were called ‘Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers‘.
- Lindy hop legend Frankie Manning noted that patrons were only judged on their dancing skills and not on the color of their skin
- Part of the floor where the professional Lindy dancers ruled was on the 141st street side of the room and was then referred to as “the corner”. Only Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers could dance and work routines there. Dancers today know it as the “Cat’s Corner”.
- It is estimated that the ballroom generated $250,000 in annual profit in its peak years from the late 1920’s to the 1940’s
- “Stompin’ at the Savoy”, a 1934 Big Band classic song and jazz standard recorded by Chick Webb, was named after the ballroom
- The Savoy closed permanently October, 1958 and was turned into a housing complex now called the “Savoy Park”.
- Sources: Savoy Plague.org and Wikipedia
Images of the Ballroom:
The Famous Dance Floor.
These photos were not taken at the Savoy but here is the famous Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers dancing somewhere in NYC in their jackets.
Battle of the Big Bands (this was a regular feature at the Savoy)
Two of the most famous battles involved Chick Webb & The Benny Goodman Orchestra (May 11th, 1937) and Chick Webb vs Count Basie w/ Billie Holiday & Ella Fitzgerald (January 16th, 1938). Chick Webb won both times in the battles making him the ‘King of Swing’!
Chick vs Basie the Breakdown:
Truck on Down for a Battle of the Bands with not 2 but 4 Bands! Who will you pick?
Super Cool Tidbit:
Did you know that in Ian Fleming’s James Bond book ‘Live and Let Die’, Bond visits Harlem and the Savoy?
By the time they left the restaurant it was ten-thirty and the Avenue was almost deserted. They took a cab to the Savoy Ballroom, had a Scotch-and-soda, and watched the dancers.
Most modern dances were invented here,’ said Leiter. ‘That’s how good it is. The Lindy Hop, Truckin’, the Susie Q, the Shag. All started on that floor. Every big American band you’ve ever heard of is proud that it once played here – Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Galloway, Noble Sissle, Fletcher Henderson. It’s the Mecca of jazz and jive.’
They had a table near the rail round the huge floor. Bond was spellbound. He found many of the girls very beautiful. The music hammered its way into his pulse until he almost forgot what he was there for (Source).
Before I close I will leave you with one more amazing short video about the Savoy (great interviews and images) and a photo of my husband and I recreating a famous Lindy Hop move in front of the plaque (this is tradition for all dancers).
I sure hope you enjoyed this visit to the Savoy Ballroom friends and don’t be afraid to visit again and spread the word about the greatest ballroom on the planet!