The Heartbeat of Harlem: The Savoy Ballroom

08/07/2017 07:44 am ET Updated Aug 07, 2017
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Few buildings in New York City encapsulate the soul of the city better than the Savoy Ballroom. Hailed the “World’s Finest Ballroom”, its walls housed a dynamite Swing-Era venue, known for giving birth to the Lindy Hoppers and standing strongly against racial discrimination. Langston Hughes once called it the Heartbeat of Harlem in Juke Box Love Song.

But what is it about the Savoy that made it so iconic? What helped it transcend other nightlife venues of the time? While the Ballroom itself was a spectacle, it was ultimately about the people (both real and fictional) who graced the halls of this classic institution.

The Founders (and Race in 1920’s America)

The Savoy Ballroom first opened in March of 1926. Race relations in America were tense in the 1920s; only a few years prior, a black child in Chicago walked onto a “whites only” beach, causing a race riot. Lynching was a reality, and the Klan boasted membership numbers in the millions.

But that didn’t stop Moe Gale from opening up the Savoy Ballroom in the heart of North Harlem. Moe, who would later be known as “Harlem’s Great White Founder”, built the property with Roseland Ballroom and Golden Gate architect Jay Faggen and partner Charles Galewski.

To manage the property, Moe chose businessman (and future civil rights leader) Charles Buchanan, a Barbados-born black man. Forty years before Jim Crow Laws were abolished, Buchanan was a bold choice.

Together, this black and white team brought in clients from all walks of life. They were the impetus for what made this beautiful ballroom the legend it is today.

Team and Popularity

The Savoy had the capacity to house 5,000 people at any given time, meaning it saw upwards of 700,000 visitors annually. With all the dancing, it quickly earned the name “the home of happy feet” and “the track,” and had to replace its floor every three years from over-dancing.

The Savoy set itself apart with its no-discrimination policy, too. Unlike other venues around the city, its clients came from a range of backgrounds, both ethnic and socio-economic. Often times, the clientele was split 85 percent black and 15 percent white, but everyone came for the music. It was one of the few places where you could see mixed-race couples swing dancing together in public.

With such a diversity of patrons, the Savoy needed a team equipped for the task. A mix of hostesses, waiters, and bouncers kept the crowds happy and in check. The bouncers were an eclectic mix of former athletes, ranging from basketball players to boxers. One former prize fighter, Herbert White, used his experience as a bouncer at Savoy to organize a professional dance troupe known as the Lindy Hoppers, one of the most iconic swing dancing groups of the day.

The Music

The Savoy was known in particular for swing, but a wide range of new sounds, from jazz to blues to boogie-woogie, played in its storied halls. Many famous dances originated from the Savoy, including The Flying Charleston, The Lindy Hop, The Stomp, The Big Apple, Jitterbug Jive, Peckin’, Snakehips, Rhumboogie, varieties of Peabody, the Shimmy, and Mambo.

The entertainers who graced the ballroom floors were heroes of the 1920’s. Ella Fitzgerald with Dizzy Gillespie performed on the same stage as Art Blakey, Louis Armstrong, William "Chick" Webb, and Thelonious Monk. In fact, the Savoy is credited with launching the careers of many Harlem legends, including Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker.

Most notably, the Savoy was home to the two contender Kings of Swing, Benny Goodman and Chick Webb. Chick Webb came out the victor, but the night they both performed together lives on in memory.

The Savoy Now

Nothing good lasts forever, but sometimes it sees a new beginning. While the Savoy Ballroom was demolished in 1958 to make way for in-demand housing in Harlem, it exists today as the Savoy Park, on the same grounds it once held.

And although the Ballroom is gone, its memory endures. An on-site plaque commemorates the great Savoy and remind us how much this ballroom did for music, dance, and race relations in America.

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