Stompin’ at the Savoy
The Savoy Ballroom was a medium sized ballroom for music and public dancing in located between 140th and 141st Streets on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, New York City. It was in operation from March 12, 1926 to July 10, 1958. It was owned by a Jewish gangster, Moe Gale, who some say was a front for Al Capone. It was managed by Charles Buchanon. It is estimated that the ballroom generated $250,000 in annual profit in its peak years. The normal entrance fee was 30 to 85 cents per person.
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, and 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,” although the term was not used at the time.
A famous “Battle of the Bands” or “cutting contest” happened when the Benny Goodman Orchestra challenged Chick Webb in 1937. Webb and his band were declared the winners of that contest. And in 1938 Count Basie Band did the same (earlier evening it had performed with Goodman at his famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert). While Webb was officially declared the winner, there was a lack of consensus on who actually won that night.
The ballroom, which was 10,000 square feet in size, was on the second floor and a block long. It could hold up to 4,000 people. Generally, the clientele was 85% black and 15% white. The ballroom 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 intereior was painted pink and the walls were mirrored. The bouncers wore tuxedos and made $100/night The floor had to be replaced every 3 years due to its constant use. 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.
“Stompin’ at the Savoy”, a 1934 Big Band classic song and jazz standard, was named after the ballroom.
Chick Webb was the leader of the best known Savoy house band during the mid-1930s. A teenage Ella Fitzgerald, fresh from a talent show win at the Apollo Theater in 1934, became its vocalist.
The Savoy participated in the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, presenting “The Evolution of Negro Dance”. The Ballroom closed its doors in 1958, and the building in which it was housed was torn down and replaced with a housing complex named Delano Village.
Despite efforts by Borough President Hulan Jack and others to save it, the Savoy and the nearby Cotton Club were demolished for the construction of a housing complex, Bethune Towers/Delano Village. On 26 May 2002, Frankie Manning and Norma Miller, surviving members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, unveiled a commemorative plaque for the Savoy Ballroom on Lenox Ave between 140th and 141st Streets.