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The Savoy, Clarified

January 7, 2016

Savoy floor plan

Fellow dance history buff Mike Thibault recently unearthed a digital scan of the floor plan of the Savoy Ballroom from the New York Public Library Digital Collection, as well as a post card showing the interior. The result was a renewed discussion (and research call-to-arms) regarding our favorite ballroom, which until now might have existed very differently in many dancer’s heads.

So, let’s take a look around the place, shall we?

From the floor plan (available here) the most striking thing is how small the dance floor was. I had always heard “The Savoy was the size of a city block” but never thought to question how big the dance floor was in comparison. As dancer Keith Moore pointed out in the discussion, this reminds us how much the Savoy was a Social Club more than just a ballroom.

Also, dancer Kayre Morrison asked, why is the “Men’s” room so much bigger than the “Ladies” room?

Frankie Manning often mentioned what it was like walking into the Savoy, and mentioned the feeling of walking up the stairs, turning around, and seeing the bandstand and all the dancers. As you can see on the floor plan, this is exactly what would have happened.

Speaking of bandstand, a lot of people had questions about the famous battle of the bands that took place there. Over the years, there has formed in many people’s minds the idea of one band stand on each end of the ballroom. In reality, all research points to the bandstands actually being side-by-side. And, deviously, the guest bands battling Chick played on the smaller, intermission bandstand. Take a look at this visual from Christian Batchelor’s book “This Thing Called Swing.”

From "This Thing Called Swing" by Christian Batchelor. Note the note at top right.

From “This Thing Called Swing” by Christian Batchelor. Note the note at top right.

From "This Thing Called Swing" by Christian Batchelor.

From “This Thing Called Swing” by Christian Batchelor.

In the visual, Batchelor notes that of the two side-by-side bandstands, the main one was on the north side. He also notes that the Cat’s Corner was on the north side of the ballroom next to the main bandstand (which makes sense, it’s a spot near the band but also easily accessible to the sidelines). He mentions the dance floor as being 200′ X 50′, though jazz scholar Alexandre Abdoulaev stresses the ballroom’s size was constantly exaggerated to build up its reputation as grand, and indeed, it looks smaller than that in pictures.

Batchelor also mentions it being cleaned everyday with special care to chewing gum. (We have this image of 1930s ballrooms being very suave places of old-school etiquette; this is one place we might have a leg up on the pre-war era. I can’t remember ever having to remove bubble gum from a dance floor after a dance.)

Michael Ghidiu offered this interior picture from The Savoy King documentary’s catalog: (The Savoy King is a great documentary about Chick Webb). The ballroom was modeled differently than the other pictures. Mike Thibault attributes the photo to a newspaper article just before the Savoy closed in the late 50s.
Interior

Based on the measurements of the dance floor, and supported by this picture, it makes more sense to me now why it was nicknamed “The Track” — just imagine Peabody dancers moving in a never-ending loop around around this long, tight space.

To get an idea of some of the colors involved (forcing me to constantly remember the past wasn’t all brown, grey, and white), Mike Thibault also found this postcard drawing of the interior:
postcard

Finally, there is actual footage of Frankie Manning dancing at the Savoy when he was younger. (For a few split seconds. I was studying all the small stock-footage clips in Ken Burn’s documentary (like you do) when I suddenly realized the dancer I was looking at had a very familiar smile.)

Frankie at Savoy

And there you have it: The Savoy, in case you were never quite sure what it was like. Huge thanks to Mike Thibault for all his hard work and research, which unearthed the floor plan and post card.

*This article has *NOT* been edited by my editor yet. Therefore she is not to blame.*

Footnote: The Digital Library also had pictures from some sort of exhibition where the dancers were wearing the “Whitey’s” Jackets so beautifully reproduced by Chloe Hong.

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I’m almost positive that is Al Minns on the left. I can’t make out the words on his jacket, which could easily have been a nickname. (Most of the Whitey’s had nicknames. One of Al’s was “Rubberlegs” and/or “Legomania,” if I recall correctly, but he might have had others.)

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2016 5:50 pm

    WOW! What amazing photos. Its great to have such a visual as well. I love the color pic. I have the same habit of picturing everything in black and white, but the colors were bright and fun! What inspiration!

    ~ Tam Francis ~
    http://www.girlinthejitterbugdress.com

  2. January 7, 2016 8:47 pm

    Wow, very interesting and clarifying, thank you very much for the usual documentation plus knowledge and photos.
    :-)

  3. January 7, 2016 9:24 pm

    Thanks for sharing this, great to have a visual idea of what it was like. Would love to have a chance to look into the New York Public Library archives

  4. January 7, 2016 9:55 pm

    Norma Miller on the left side of the last picture, besides Whitey…

    • Bobby permalink*
      January 8, 2016 3:20 am

      Woah! Good eye.

      • February 16, 2016 4:39 pm

        Hi Bobby and all the cats outta there.
        I’m here sitting with “Queen of Swing” Norma Miller.
        I asked her about Booths, Boxes and Ceiling…
        Booths were the seats at the back of the Savoys, 12 on the left side and 12 on the right side, nearby #21….
        Boxes were for VIP’s and surrounded the dance floor.
        The 3 rows of seats on the left side from #1 to #5; 11 to 15; 21 to 25 were reserved for hostesses.
        On the ceiling there was something to improve the acoustic of the big bands, but it was not a fabric.

        Take care and keep on swingin’!

        Big Daddy

        Hep hep!!

  5. January 8, 2016 11:22 am

    I’m trying to work out what it says in the plan underneath the title “Boxes – 22, ** *** 24, Tables – 30”. They’re the booths at the back of the room in the postcard. Do you know what these were called? Also, I noticed the ceiling in the picture Michael G found – it looks like fabric hung below the ceiling. I saw this once when I was a kid, and remember someone telling me that doing this improves acoustic in big rooms. Can anyone corroborate this? I’ve never seen anywhere do it since, which is a shame since I hear plenty of big, boomy ballrooms. Excellent article! Great to see these pictures unearthed.

    • January 12, 2016 1:05 am

      The word you starred out is ‘Loges’, which is what those booths were called, a term also used to refer to theatre boxes. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Box_(theatre) I would love to see or hear from someone what the loges at the Savoy were like or how they were used. I’m guessing that they were raised so that the small groups of people using them would have a view of the band over the heads of the crowd.

  6. January 8, 2016 9:16 pm

    For comparison, the Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park is 110×70 and is a pretty large facility. If the Savoy was 200×50, it would have had an even larger dance floor (7700 square feet vs. 10,000 square feet. I’m pretty sure that as a second story ballroom with all that seating, the actual dance floor space would be small. Also, interesting to note that the number of tables/chairs + bar indicates that the money that floated this place was most probably from food and alcohol sales and not from those non-spending dancers. Great article.

  7. Alice Burr permalink
    January 8, 2016 9:45 pm

    of course dancers chewed gum! it was considered radical back then and pretty jive!!!

  8. Rickard Johansson permalink
    January 9, 2016 1:24 pm

    Going by the pictures from “That Thing Called Swing” showing the outside the Savoy was placed between 140th and 141st, and the distance between them hasn’t changed (or at least not by a lot) that would make the Savoy about 70m or close to 230′ wide.

    Using that as a guide line and going back to the floor plan that would make the dace floor 45.5 x 12m or roughly 150x40ft according to the floor plan. Could very well be off as we have no way of knowing how well the floor plan actually mapped to reality, but 150×40 is still a bit short of 200×50

  9. January 10, 2016 1:29 am

    Rickard, we had about the same idea. I placed the floorplan on the streets and did some measurements, and the dance floor was about 5000 square feet:

    http://lindy.saintvitus.com/Articles/Savoy-Ballroom-Dance-Floor/

  10. January 11, 2016 4:09 pm

    Great article. Thanks Bobby!!

  11. Rickard Johansson permalink
    January 28, 2016 7:26 am

    @Daveola: Great article!

    I’m also amazed that you managed to decipher my last post. Even I have trouble to make sense of it, and I wrote it! (I blame lack of sleep for the state of that post, and I’m sticking to it)

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