*About the Savoy Ballroom.*

See the historical timeline

Owned by Moe Gale, a Jewish man, and managed by Charles Buchanan, a black man, the Savoy Ballroom opened its doors on March 12, 1926 right in the middle of Harlem, between 140th and 141st Streets on Lenox Avenue. The vision of the two young men created one of the first racially integrated public places in the country, which proved to be a wise business decision as well, attracting a wide range of clientele. The ballroom was on the second floor of a two-story building stretching the entire block. The ground floor of the building housed the entrance to the ballroom at the center of the block signified by the marquee extending out over the sidewalk and various stores. The spacious basement checkrooms could serve up to 5,000 patrons with swift and efficient ease. Billed as the "World's finest ballroom," the Savoy was complete with large luxurious carpeted lounges and mirrored walls. The block long ballroom had two bandstands, colored spotlights and a spring-loaded wooden dance floor. Approximately 700,000 patrons visited the ballroom annually; and, consequently, the floor had to be completely replaced every three years. The Savoy was appropriately nicknamed, "The home of happy feet," and it was also known among the regular patrons as "the Track" for the elongated shape of the dance floor.

The staff of 90 permanent employees at the Savoy included musicians, waiters, cashiers, floor attendants, porters and administrative assistants. There were also hostesses with whom a visitor, mostly from downtown, could dance for a dime or be tutored on the latest steps, as well as a team of bouncers clad in black tuxedos and bow ties. The bouncers were ex-boxers, basketball players etc., who would rush in on a moment's notice and put out any person.

Over 250 name and semi-name bands were featured at the Savoy. The house bands included those of Fess Williams, Chick Webb, Erskin Hawkins and Al Cooper's Savoy Sultans, just to name a few. The two bandstands allowed continuous live music all night, and provided the stage for the famous battles of bands. The most famous, and one of the most highly publicized, was the battle of Chick Webb vs. Benny Goodman, when both bands were at the crest of their popularity. Future Be-bop stars like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk played there too. As a matter of fact, Teddy Hill, who later became a manager at Minton's Playhouse, also led a house band at the Savoy at one point.

A long succession of dance fads were launched from the Savoy that swept the nation and overseas in response to ever changing music trends from dixieland, ragtime, jazz, blues, swing, stomp, boogie-woogie, bop to countless peabody, waltz, one-step, two-step and rhumba variations. Among the countless dance styles originated and developed at the Savoy were: The Flying Charleston, The Lindy Hop, The Stomp, The Big Apple, Jitterbug Jive, Peckin', Snakehips, Rhumboogie and intricate variations of the Peabody, the Shimmy, Mambo, etc..

Herbert White, a.k.a. Whitey, an ex-boxer and bouncer at the Savoy, organized and cultivated a group of young Lindy Hoppers and had them appear in theaters around the world as well as in films. The Lindy Hop, purportedly named after Charles Lindbergh's solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, signifies the entire historical period known as the Swing Era, and was the staple dance at the Savoy until it closed its doors in 1958. Although the building eventually gave way to a much needed housing complex, the Lindy Hoppers from the Savoy and their heirs dominated the annual Harvest Moon Ball in Madison Square Garden until the 1980's. The Savoy tradition of the Lindy Hop continues to thrive to this date thanks to films and other documented accounts as well as living legends such as Norma Miller and Frankie Manning.

Selected Readings (incomplete)

  • Swingin' at the Savoy: the memoir of a jazz dancer, Norma Miller and Evette Jensen (1996) Temple University Press

    - A wonderfully told first-person account by one of the greatest innovators of the Lindy Hop

  • Jazz Dance: the story of American vernacular dance, Marshall Stearns and Jean Stearns (1994) Da Capo Press (originally published in 1968 by Macmillan)

    - The influential first book on the dances created by African Americans, their cultural impact, history and anecdotes, from buck dancing, tap dancing, snakehip, Fred Astair to lindy hop and the Savoy Ballroom

  • Waltzing in the Dark: African American vaudeville and race politics in the swing era, Brenda Dixon Gottschild (2000) Palgrave Macmillan

    - A case study of an African American professional dance team during the Swing Era and excellent discussion of the cultural background including the Savoy Ballroom

  • This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950 , Jervis Anderson (1982) Farrar, Straus and Giroux

    - A broad overview of the history of Harlem covered from many angles, including a chapter on the Savoy Ballroom

  • Harlem: the making of a ghetto: Negro New York, 1890-1930 , Gilbert Osofsky (1996) Ivan R Dee, Inc (originally published in 1966 by Harper & Row)

    - Exploration on how an upper-middle class suburb turned into a poor black neighborhood in mere forty years. Although the account stops at 1930 and there is no mention of the Savoy Ballroom, the book provides a partial answer to why the Savoy had to be torn down

  • Authentic Jazz Dance: a retrospective, Pepsi Bethel (1990) The American Authentic Jazz Dance Theatre, Inc

    - A personal history by one of the last generations of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers from the Savoy Ballroom

  • Savoy Ballroom 25th anniversay brochure (1951)

    - A section of this booklet can be found at www.savoyballroom.com

  • The Strangest Places, Leonard Q. Ross (1939) Harcourt Brace

    - A lively account of a night out at the Savoy ca 1938

    For historical photographs...

  • Life Magazine (Dec 14, 1936; Dec 28, 1936; Jul 8, 1940; Jun 16, 1941; Aug 23, 1943)

    - Issues including photos featuring dancers at the Savoy (or from the Savoy).

  • Harlem: The Vision of Morgan and Marvin Smith, Morgan Smith and Marvin Smith (1997) University Press of Kentucky

    - A chronicle of Harlem life in the 1930s and 1940s, including scenes from the Savoy

  • Black Beauty, White Heat: a pictorial history of jazz 1920-1950, Frank Driggs and Harris Lewine (1996) Da Capo Press (originally published in 1989 by Morrow, William Co)

    - A nice collection of photographs of musicians, record labels and promotional materials including an ad for the battle at the Savoy between Chick Webb and Count Basie in 1938

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