The Savoy, Clarified
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.”
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.
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:
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.)
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.
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.)